On a trip to visit his real father -a man long divorced from Vince's vivacious, five-times-married moth-the kid got a look at dad's business: pro wrestling, a "sport" that featured snarling men in leotards who pretended to beat the crap out of each other. It was the same sideshow his grandfather had promoted before Vince's father took over, and that boy was hooked in a heartbeat. But his dad told him to find steadier work. "Get a nice government job" said his father. Only after years of waiting and pestering was Vince McMahon allowed to promote a few cards in the backwaters of his father's wrestling circuit.
The rest is a hell of a storyline: Eager young huckster turns regional circuit into national spectacle, body-slams cable competitors, gets famous, expands empire into action figures and restaurants, makes his first billion, rides 150mph motorcycle into sunset.
Except that in this story, nothing is as simple as it seems. In fact, McMahon's road to the top was full of potholes. There was bankruptcy, federal charges that he distributed steroids to wrestlers, a media war with Ted Turner. There was trouble with his marriage to Linda McMahon, the school sweetheart who became his wife and chief executive of the WWF. There was the death of WWF star Owen Hart in a ring accident, and McMahon's decision to let the show go on after Hart's body was whisked away. There was and is the persistent change that McMahon is a cultural boogeyman, a panderer who owes his wealth to bulked-up lugs and their babes, cartoon pimps and their ho trains, the lowest of lowbrow TV.
McMahon answers with a shrug: "That's what the people want".
Is the McMahon of the hour a hero or a villian-- in wrestling talk a face or a heel? What makes him tick people off? And just how good is he in bed? We sent sports talker Kevin Cook to ask.
PLAYBOY: Are you fearless?
MCMAHON: Like I said, I grew up in a very volatile environment. My view was that if I took a beating and lived, I won. I still have that view. It gives me a tremendous advantage, because I'm not afraid of failure. Don't get ne wrong --I hate failing. But I'm not afraid to take chances and fall on my ass, because if I live through it I'll be better off, and I'll win.
PLAYBOY: You had a rough childhood in Havelock, North Carolina, where you grew up in a trailer.
MCMAHON: [Laughs] A new Moon trailer, eight feet wide. Trailer park isn't poverty. You don't have much privacy, but there are nice things about it. Everything is compact, and it beats some other places. Prior to that I lived in Manly, North Carolina, in a house with no in-door plumbing. That could get a little disconcerting in the wintertime,
PLAYBOY: So you're the manly man from Manly" Are those your first memories?
MCMAHON: Yeah, and the summertime wasn't much better, sitting on the privy with the heat and humidity and stench. Oh man, the flies! So when we moved ot the trailer park, it wasn't so bad.
PLAYBOY: You lived with an older brother, your mother and occasional others right?
MCMAHON: My parents got divorced and I went with my mom, Vickie. She was in the church choir. A real performer, a female Elmer Gantry. Very striking, with an excellent voice. Lived with her and my real asshole of a stepfather, a man who enjoyed kicking people around.
PLAYBOY: Your stepfather beat you?
MCMAHON: [Nodding] Leo Lupton. It's unfortunate he died before I could kill him. I would have enjoyed that. Not that he didn't have some redeeming qualities. He was an athlete, great at any sport, which I admired. And I remember watching The Jackie Gleason Show with him. We used to laugh together at Jackie Gleason.
PLAYBOY: Lupton was an electrician. He hit you with tools didn't he? A pipe wrench?
PLAYBOY: He hit your brother, too?
MCMAHON: No, I was the only one of the kids who would speak up, and that's what provoked the attacks. You would think that after being on the receiving end of several attacks I would wisen up, but I couldn't. I refused to. I felt I should say something, even though I knew what the result would be.
PLAYBOY: You fought him when he hit your mother.
MCMAHON: Absolutely, First time I remember, I was six years old. The slightest provocation would set him off. But I lived through it.
PLAYBOY: That's an awful way to learn how a man behaves.
MCMAHON: I learned how not to be. One thing I loathe is a man who will strike a woman. There's never an excuse for that.
PLAYBOY: Eventually, you escaped from your stepfather.
MCMAHON: By the time I was 14 I was on my own. I was pretty much a man then. Physically at least. In other ways I'm still becoming a man.
PLAYBOY: Was the abuse all physical, or was there sexual abuse, too?
MCMAHON: That's not anything I would like to embellish. Just because it was weird.
PLAYBOY: Did it come from the same man?
MCMAHON: No. It wasn't...it wasn't from a male.
PLAYBOY: That's so mysterious. It sounds like a difficult thing for a kid to deal with.
MCMAHON: You know, I'm not big on excuses. When I hear people from the projects, or anywhere else, blame their actions on the way they grew up, I think it's a crock of shit. You can rise above it. This country gives you the opportunity if you want to take it, so don't blame your environment. I look down on people who use their environment as a crutch.
PLAYBOY: Surely it must shape a person.
MCMAHON: No doubt. I don't think we escape our experiences. Things you may think you've pushed to the recesses of your mind, they'll surface at the most inopportune time, when you least expect it. We can use those things, turn them into positives-- change for the better. But they do tend to resurface.
PLAYBOY: We can leave that topic, but one last thing first. You said that the sexual abuse in your childhood "wasn't from the male". It's well known that you're estranged from your mother. Have we found the reason?
MCMAHON: [Pauses, nods] Without saying that, I'd say that's pretty close.
In Part 2, Vince McMahon discusses stealing cars, transporting moonshine and his unruly teenage years. Look for this soon at The Pro-Wrestling Chronicle.