Courtroom cage match!

Ever since wrestler Owen Hart fell to his death on pay-per-view, WWF impresario Vince McMahon has been down. Is he out?

Published June 28, 1999 4:00PM (EDT)

It was an inside joke, a throwaway gag. A sharp elbow in the ribs from flamboyant World Wrestling Federation owner Vince McMahon Jr., to media mogul Ted Turner, owner of WWF's hated rival, World Championship Wrestling.

That's why Owen Hart was up on the catwalk of Kemper Arena in Kansas City during the "Over the Edge" pay-per-view telecast May 23. The 34-year-old journeyman WWF wrestler was going to be attached to a harness and lowered from the ceiling, nine stories up, just the way Turner's WCW superstar Sting descends into the ring for a bout. Only instead of swooping into the ring like Sting, Hart would gently flop, face down, and play it for laughs.

Perhaps the 16,200 fans at the sold-out arena, or the 250,000 watching at home on pay-per-view, wouldn't even get the mocking reference. But McMahon and his boys at WWF would get it, and they'd laugh and slap backs. Because not only does McMahon's WWF routinely trounce Turner's WCW in the lucrative Monday-night cable ratings game, but the WWF knows how to enjoy a good rout.

But something went wrong up on the catwalk.

Hart's character was "the Blue Blazer"; the arena was darkened and a pretaped interview was shown on a big video screen as Hart, suspended horizontally Superman-style 78 feet above the arena, gazed down on a ring that must have looked like a postage stamp. He was hanging from a single cable, attached to it only by an easily triggered release mechanism; the plan was that once he was lowered and hovering directly over the ring, he would release himself to accomplish his anticlimactic flop. Waiting for his cue, the wrestler reached back to secure his elaborate feathered cape. A stage rigger hired by the WWF heard a pop. Hart's release trigger had snapped, and the wrestler went into an unplanned free fall. He was moving at 50 miles an hour when he slammed head first onto the ring's corner turnbuckle. He was killed almost instantly from a ruptured aorta and massive internal bleeding. (Since the arena was all but dark, and the TVs were showing the intro tape, few of those present, and no one watching pay-per-view at home, actually witnessed Hart's deadly fall.)

Life for the 53-year-old McMahon and the WWF (not to mention the Hart family) has not been the same since that night in Kansas City. Thanks to his botched handling of the crisis in the hours and days that followed the fall, McMahon is now in the fight of his life. Two weeks ago, the Hart family filed a wrongful-death lawsuit against him and the WWF. The suit could conceivably shut down the company. Meanwhile, the Kansas City police, which found no signs of foul play and initially treated the fall as an accident, have gone back and opened a criminal investigation. They're now trying to determine if the WWF took proper precautions in setting up the stunt, and whether Hart, who had no professional stunt experience, should have been up on the catwalk to begin with. If not, WWF execs could face involuntary manslaughter charges and seven years in prison.

Wrestling's been around forever, but since Vince McMahon turned it into "sports entertainment," it's become a hell of a lot more popular.

Brought to America by Irish and German immigrants, wrestling as theater thrived on the carny circuit for decades. Eventually, local promoters began carving out their territories. In New England, it was Capital Wrestling, run by Vince McMahon Sr., which over the years played home to stars like Gorgeous George and Bruno Sammartino. There were a few large-scale shows and occasional evidence as well that the faux sport was flirting with mainstream awareness; Bob Hope might crack a jape at Gorgeous George's expense. But for the most part, the wrestlers would wrapped their hands around their opponents' necks and roam around small-town armory rings for what seemed like hours at a time. The style was dubbed "scientific" in hopes of persuading fans they were watching contests of skill instead of scripted entertainment. Even up to the early 1980s, wrestling remained overwhelmingly low-rent and slightly pathetic, ripe for the devastating parody wreaked upon it by Andy Kaufman during his feud with Memphis' king of the ring, Jerry Lawler.

Then along came Vince Jr. Court-martialed from the Fishburne Military School in Waynesboro, Va., as a kid, McMahon eventually went to work with his father. Built like a wrestler himself, the younger McMahon bought the company in the early '80s, infused it with a rock 'n' roll style and took it mainstream. The "story lines" -- shifting feuds and alliances among the characters -- were ratcheted up; explosions erupted like at Kiss concerts and anthems marked the stars' staged entrances. He even admitted the matches were rigged. It didn't matter, though. In 1987, 93,000 fans packed the Pontiac Silverdome for "Wrestlemania III," starring a classic face-off between "baby-face" Hulk Hogan and a "heel," Andre the Giant. By building an empire around cable television McMahon shattered what for decades had been a regional business operated by scores of old-time promoters. Now he owned the sport. Celebrities like Cyndi Lauper, who symbolized the rock-wrestling connection, and later Mike Tyson were brought onboard to spice up story lines, while Pamela Anderson and others were paid to make head-turning ringside appearances. The press loved the cheesy glitz; McMahon loved the wrestling-watching parties springing up on college campuses and blue-chip advertisers coming aboard to court a surprisingly elevated demographic. (In one survey, as many as one in four fans had an income of more than $50,000 a year.) It was all light-years away from the homely wrestling crowds his dad used to court. (Full disclosure: A few months back I was asked to help write a WWF wrestler's biography. A deal was never struck, though, and I never met or spoke with Vince McMahon.)

But like any great wrestling story line, McMahon's reign at the top was cut unexpectedly short. The problem for McMahon was that this story wasn't scripted. In 1994 the WWF chief was dragged before a New York judge to answer allegations about steroid use among the WWF's obviously pumped-up wrestlers. Following some tawdry testimony, McMahon, who had previously admitted taking steroids before possession became illegal, was acquitted on charges that he'd distributed the drugs.

But Ted Turner was watching. He saw that the WWF was vulnerable, and decided it was time to beef up his own league, the WCW. He raided the WWF's locker room (including, most humiliatingly, Hulk Hogan), boosted salaries and scheduled his own prime-time wrestling show directly opposite WWF's.

For a year and a half Turner and the WCW owned Monday-night wrestling. WWF's arena shows no longer sold out. McMahon got desperate, and tried to play the victim. He filed suit with the Federal Trade Commission, alleging that Turner, using his TBS Superstation, was trying to create a monopoly (this after McMahon had spent most of the '80s snuffing out every competitor in sight). Most amusingly, McMahon even took a shot at cultural sanctimony: During a '95 sports talk show appearance, he said that the WCW was too raunchy, and that Turner's wrestlers "give our business a bad name. It's so important for us to be able to uphold this standard of ethics we do."

Finally, McMahon got a glimpse of the future: Its name was Stone Cold Steve Austin. A profanity-spewing tough guy, Austin ushered in a new era of ring superstar. A baby-face like Hogan might tell kids to eat their vitamins; Austin told fans to shove it up their ass, and they loved him for it. And with McMahon casting himself as Austin's on-screen nemesis, the evil, overbearing boss who wasn't afraid to mix it up in the ring, the WWF launched one of its most successful promotions. Simple good and bad was out, and murky gray areas were in, along with hookers, pimps, crucifixions, the occult, porn stars and butt shots. (During one infamous between-bout sketch, WWF wrestler Sexual Chocolate was seen getting simulated head backstage from a transvestite.) Parents protested that WWF programming was no longer suitable for kids. A wide-eyed McMahon assured them that it wasn't intended for kids in the first place, and then signed a pay-per-view sponsorship with a squirt-gun manufacturer.

Besides adding the skin and the carnage, McMahon and his team of script writers did a masterful job hatching elaborate on-screen rivalries, concocting a new slate of marketable characters (Austin, The Godfather, The Rock), and coining their catch phrases ("Austin 3:16," "Pimpin' ain't easy!" and "Do you smell what the Rock is cookin'?"). The WWF not only won back wrestling fans from the more tepid WCW, it cornered the mainstream 18-to-35 male demographic as well. More of them watch WWF's "Raw Is War" on the USA Network than watch "Monday Night Football."

And can you blame them? In all of television, find a more electrifying intro than the 30-second opening to Monday night's "Raw is War" -- a raging, quick-edit combustion of heavy-metal music and wounded warriors.

Just a few years after the company's 1994 nadir, live WWF arena shows now sell out weeks in advance. The company takes in nearly $400 million a year from pay-per-view shows, home video and syndicated programming alone, not to mention the millions more from T-shirts, action figures and, yes, even WWF ice cream on a stick, one of 150 products licensed by the WWF. The league's parent company, Titan Sports, also controlled by McMahon and valued at $750 million, is reportedly at work renovating a recently purchased Manhattan property, turning it into a new sports and television production studio.

Finally, there's Wall Street. There's word McMahon will team up with Bear Stearns investors for an IPO. He reportedly wants to raise $150 million in order to build a new WWF-themed hotel in Las Vegas.

Could all this be derailed over a humorless in-joke that went deadly wrong?

From the moment Hart's head hit the turnbuckle, McMahon, a proven showman with natural instincts, began making wrong decision after wrong decision. The first was to continue with the "Over the Edge" show right after medics had hauled the limp Hart off in a stretcher. A WWF spokesman later explained the call by saying the company was hoping for the best and that Hart's condition wasn't apparent. But ringside reports later indicated that it was clear Hart had died upon impact. A hour after the fall, WWF announcer Jim Ross broke the news to pay-per-view customers that Hart had died, but the same announcement was never made to the bewildered fans inside the Kemper Arena, who had watched as Hart lay lifeless on the canvas for 10 minutes. They had to hear the news driving home from the show.

When "Over the Edge" concluded, McMahon insisted, "Out of respect for Owen, knowing the consummate performer he was, I'm sure members of the Hart family would concur with me that he would want the show to go on." It turned out that the Hart family did not concur. Indeed, they suspected that the headaches, logistical and financial, of refunding a pay-per-view match might have had more to do with the WWF's decision.

The night after the pay-per-view, WWF's weekly "Raw is War" telecast was touted as a "tribute" to Hart. The show opened with a silent 10-bell count in the wrestler's memory, though viewers were never told how Hart died. The rest of the two hours were filled up with nondescript bouts, with some taped personal messages from wrestlers about Hart. At the show's conclusion, WWF meal ticket Steve Austin prowled around the ring, smashed two cans of beer together and raised a "toast" to Hart. But as some wrestling fans -- and certainly Hart's family -- knew, outside the ring Austin, who once suffered a serious injury at the hands of Owen, had no use for him. Austin may have even lobbied to keep the wrestler down as a mid-card draw. (McMahon and other WWF execs call all the shots for wrestlers, but some as popular as Austin have a say in their opponents and their character's story line.) But since Austin is WWF's number one baby-face, he got top billing for Hart's "tribute."

"I suspect [WWF management] was high-fiving each other after the show and saying they got the job done," Hart's brother Bruce, a former professional wrestler, told a reporter. "They came out smelling like a rose. That's the way we all saw it. It was damage control and a bunch of crap where they say they were celebrating the life of Owen Hart. Nobody alluded to how needless and senseless the whole [ceiling stunt] was."

(Another of Owen's brothers, Bret "The Hitman" Hart, a former member of the WWF, is the only wrestler who's ever smacked McMahon down in real life. It happened in Montreal in 1997, at the Hitman's final appearance with the WWF before he jumped ship for Turner's WCW. Despite agreeing beforehand to end the match in a staged disqualification, Hart was double-crossed by McMahon, who ordered the ringside referee to "ring the fucking bell" when Hart was temporarily pinned on his back. Backstage after the match, the Hitman decked McMahon during a locker room melee. It was no joke; McMahon wore a shiner to prove it.)

Following "Over the Edge," the WWF announced that it had canceled the next week's live arena shows out of respect for the dead Canadian wrestler. Actually, right after the tragedy, WWF wrestlers were ordered to show up in St. Louis and then Moline, Ill., to tape two money-making television shows. Then they were allowed to go home and reflect. Online fans launched a campaign to have Hart named an honorary WWF champ; the notion was met with indifference at WWF's Stanford, Conn., headquarters.

By the time the funeral arrived a week later in Calgary, Alberta, the wrestler's widow, Martha, had had enough. Sobbing from the altar, she promised "a day of reckoning" for those responsible. Sitting in the church's back pew, McMahon stewed quietly -- but not for long. Unable to pass up a confrontation, or unwilling to admit his mistakes, and no doubt convinced a lawsuit was in the making, McMahon fired off a letter to the Calgary Sun. He challenged Martha Hart on all sorts of details surrounding the funeral, from whether or not WWF had had the right to air footage of it on TV (Martha had specifically asked the WWF not to) to who had paid the bills. McMahon even bragged about how much money the WWF spent flying company employees up to Calgary to attend the burial service -- $152,200. "It is unfortunate that Mrs. Hart feels violated in any way, although her grief, which we share, is understandable," wrote McMahon. It was a textbook example of how not to treat the widow of a former employee who died on your watch just days earlier.

Such high-level bungling, along with the general criticism that Hart was sacrificed in the name of ratings, opened the WWF up to other challenges. On June 10, WWF eye candy turned women's champion Sable (aka Rena Mero) filed a $110 million breach of contract and sexual harassment lawsuit against the WWF. She claimed the company had tried to intimidate her into participating in a lesbian story line and had humiliated her by trying to get her to expose her breasts in front of a raucous crowd -- and said the company took away her title when she refused. (Sable has posed for Playboy, but says there's a difference between working with a professional photographer and prancing around naked in front of an arena full of drunken men and small children.) Sable has her own agenda: she clearly wants to leave the company and keep her money-making name, which the WWF owns. But even if the suit goes nowhere, by publicly complaining about "staged stunts that are inherently dangerous" and how "wrestlers are forced to perform under dangerous and vulgar conditions controlled by the WWF," Sable was all but warming up a Kansas City jury for the Harts.

The family's 118-page suit, filed on behalf of Hart's widow and two small children on June 15, names 46 offenses, but boils down to several key allegations: that Hart, not properly trained as a stuntman, was attached to a "a makeshift contraption" designed to rig sailboats, not transport men; that the quick-release mechanism that caused his fall needed only six pounds of pressure to open, making it susceptible to human error; and that no precautions, such as a safety net, safety harness, backup cables or a safety lock on the release mechanism, were used.

Under Missouri law, the Hart family is not allowed to ask for a specific dollar amount in damages. That's up to a jury. The papers have been quoting experts who say they don't think nine figures is out of the question. (The Harts' attorney, Gary Robb, has among other things won a $350 million verdict in a helicopter crash case.) McMahon could settle, of course. But that would mean a very public apology -- something he's not particularly well practiced in. Meanwhile, Kansas City investigators continue their work to determine if there was criminal negligence involved in Hart's death.

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Coincidentally or not, in an interview with Bloomberg News the day after the Hart suit was filed, USA Network president and COO Barry Baker said the company was "monitoring all of the wrestling carefully," to make certain the shows "conform to what we think are good practices."

McMahon can deal with the bad publicity and critics who say his WWF has taken a tacky but harmless sideshow and inserted an R-rated circus in its place. He takes those shots with a sly grin, shrugs his stocky shoulders, counts the receipts, and privately wonders if it's possible to package a product for Americans that's too violent or too sexy.

What McMahon can't handle is any defection of the money men. The entertainment it offers aside, the WWF is not a fine-tuned fighting machine -- it's an efficient money machine, fueled by a cast of interchangeable ring stars. It's a machine McMahon built himself, and one that Wall Street may soon get a piece of. That's why over the last four weeks -- as the lawsuits have mounted, a criminal investigation has proceeded and the sour headlines have piled up -- if McMahon has been kept awake at nights, it's probably only with one nagging thought: "Wonder what the boys at Bear Stearns make of all this?"

By Eric Boehlert

Eric Boehlert, a former senior writer for Salon, is the author of "Lapdogs: How the Press Rolled Over for Bush."

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