Wrestlers lob past at Linda
By ERIKA LOVLEY | 12/7/09 8:57 PM EST
Connecticut senatorial candidate Linda McMahon is drawing the fire of her former employees, wrestling superstars of recent decades with a gift for trash talk.
Linda McMahon’s political career is just getting started, but already her Senate campaign is drawing notice for the bruised feelings and even broken bones of her opponents: an angry group of famous pro wrestlers who once worked for her.
Some of the biggest superstars of recent decades are aiming their gift for trash talk directly at McMahon, a Republican who is a co-founder and former CEO of World Wrestling Entertainment.
Several of the former wrestlers say they are nursing injuries from their years in the ring and are hoping to deliver a smackdown of McMahon for WWE’s lack of long-term health benefits and coarse, hype-driven image under her leadership from the 1990s until earlier this year. Now launched on a post-wrestling career, McMahon is seeking the Republican Senate nomination to face veteran Democratic incumbent Sen. Chris Dodd.
Politics, say critics, already bears too much resemblance to professional wrestling, and now Connecticut voters are being treated to a debate about pro wrestling itself. For years, WWE’s shows were marked with blood, violence and female wrestlers who stripped down to their lingerie during matches.
McMahon’s detractors range from Bruno Sammartino, a crowd favorite known as “The Living Legend” for his exploits in the ring in the 1960s and 1970s, to Chyna, a popular late-1990s female wrestler who later appeared on the cover of Playboy and wrote a best-selling memoir.
“If there is a race to Capitol Hill, I hope she gets knocked off before she even starts,” Chyna, whose real name is Joanie Laurer, said in an interview with POLITICO.
“I would not vote for her because I know what she contributed to the wrestling world with her husband,” said Sammartino. “The vulgarity, the nudity, the profanity, all that kind of crap — it bothers me.”
“If the people in Connecticut are stupid enough to elect Linda, that’s their problem,” added Larry Zbyszko, a onetime Sammartino protégé who debuted in the early 1970s but later battled him in a famed “steel cage” match at Shea Stadium in New York. “I wouldn’t want to waste the time or money.”
Marvelous Marc Mero, sometimes known as “Wildman” or “Johnny B. Badd,” also told POLITICO he would never vote for McMahon.
None of McMahon’s detractors, however, are sharper in their criticism than one of the best-known and most influential professional wrestlers of all time, “Superstar” Billy Graham.
“This campaign is the height of hypocrisy,” said Graham, whose real name is Eldridge Wayne Coleman. “I believe the voters and citizens in Connecticut deserve to be told the truth. In no way does she have a rightful place in the U.S. Senate. The fact that we were out there experiencing trauma and drawing in untold millions for the company [means] we should have at least had some sort of health insurance.”
So far, McMahon’s WWE background — and the criticism she’s faced from wrestlers — has not affected her trajectory. Since joining the race in September, she’s climbed in the polls to the second place behind Rob Simmons, the GOP front-runner; McMahon even leads Dodd in a head-to-head matchup, according to a recent Quinnipiac poll. In recent weeks, two GOP hopefuls have dropped out of the Senate contest to pursue other seats.
The WWE and McMahon’s campaign have dismissed Graham as a disgruntled former employee who has been a heavy drug user and is upset about no longer being on the payroll — even after his retirement. Graham was under contract with the company from April 2004 until April 2009, when he was released with severance pay.
“Billy Graham is a source with complete and total lack of credibility,” said Ed Patru, McMahon’s campaign manager.
WWE’s lack of health insurance is at the heart of the wrestlers’ grievances. They allege that McMahon and her husband, WWE Chairman Vince McMahon, ran a billion-dollar company that provided no health insurance for the wrestlers who put their bodies on the line to help turn the WWE into an international phenomenon.
The issue is of no small concern for the former athletes, a number of whom are battling debilitating injuries or ailments related to their careers in the ring. As independent contractors, pro wrestlers are not offered health insurance or pensions from WWE, according to several of the former stars and industry experts.
Even former Minnesota Gov. and retired wrestler Jesse Ventura, during a media appearance this month, said that the WWE was a “joke” and “still in the Stone Age” because the wrestlers lack union protection.
While much of the action in the ring is staged, pro wrestling is nevertheless physically demanding and exacts a heavy toll: Former WWE wrestlers say they are suffering from degenerating joints and back issues and have required hip reconstructions and nose surgeries, among other things. A number have been unable to secure health insurance.
"We’re the guys out there sacrificing ourselves. You’d think they’d throw us a bone. Sometimes you wondered if they saw their employees as humans or farm animals,” said Brian Heffron, who wrestled as “The Blue Meanie.” “It was like being in the circus. You’re shipped here, perform there; it’s almost like you’re disposable.”
All of the wrestlers interviewed for this story said they knew no health insurance was offered when they signed deals with WWE. Many admit they didn’t think of the long-term problems.
The WWE argues it paid the wrestlers plenty of money, which could have purchased insurance.
Heffron, who was seriously injured in a 2005 match, says many of his medical bills were covered by the WWE — which often covers in-ring injuries.
But he later racked up an $80,000 medical bill when part of his lung had to be removed because of infection. Charity helped him cover some of the bills, but the costs were still steep. At 36, he manages a video store and pays health costs out of pocket.
Graham, a longtime champion whose style inspired future stars such as Hulk Hogan, has had six hip replacements, leaving him with a limp and in need of a handicapped-parking sticker. He used to regularly sell out Madison Square Garden.
He readily admits that years of steroid and painkiller abuse very likely compounded his health problems but also helped him prolong his career by hiding injuries.
“I was a pioneer,” Graham said. “I used and abused steroids. It was absolutely part of my regime and my look that skyrocketed my character.”
Graham had to delay an interview with POLITICO while he was in the hospital suffering from a bowel obstruction — a side effect of a liver transplant, which he needed after contracting hepatitis C from another wrestler’s blood. He explained that wrestlers were often urged to cut themselves with razor blades to make their injuries seem more lifelike.
Graham says his goal is to rally a coalition of wrestlers aimed at defeating McMahon’s campaign. He’s vowed to live the summer in Connecticut campaigning for Simmons. A website to attract more wrestlers to his anti-McMahon cause is already in the works.
Graham concedes that the WWE helped him with medical costs from time to time, paying for at least one of his hip replacements, caused by degenerating joints from steroid use.
McMahon’s campaign manager said the Simmons campaign needs to be transparent about Graham’s connection to the campaign.
Graham “has promised to campaign for Rob Simmons. People deserve to know if the campaign is using him as a surrogate or if they’ll decide to disassociate themselves from him,” Patru said.
The Simmons campaign denies rallying Graham or other wrestlers against McMahon.
“He has personal witness to Linda McMahon and the WWE management and he has a First Amendment right to state it,” said Simmons campaign manager Jim Barnett. “This is a wrestling match between those two. But I haven’t seen anything that specifically addresses his charges. They only say he has no credibility. They didn’t address the alleged exploitation of women, the preponderance of steroid abuse or encouraging wrestlers to use razor blades to cut themselves open.”
At least one wrestler is defending McMahon: former “WWE Diva” Dawn Marie Psaltis, who runs a charity called Wrestlers Rescue that raises money to help uninsured wrestlers pay for their medical bills. Psaltis says the WWE has helped her publicize the group’s charity work.
Wrestlers knew about the lack of insurance when they signed their contracts and shouldn’t be upset, she said. Psaltis likes the idea of McMahon as a lawmaker, even though Psaltis filed a lawsuit against WWE after she became pregnant and her contract was terminated.
“I think she’d be awesome,” said Psaltis. “Even through the worst of relationships, I’ve had to respect them. They are great business people who work with all types of people.”
It’s that business acumen — something none of McMahon’s critics deny — that the former WWE CEO hopes to leverage in her Senate bid, without bringing too much attention to the over-the-top theatrics and sex that have marked some WWE events. McMahon even participated in some of the skits. Old videos show her kicking a wrestler in the crotch and getting body slammed.
On her campaign website, McMahon’s radio and television advertisements don’t mention the WWE by name; they only acknowledge her leadership of a “successful business.” Her message is that she’s a fiscal conservative who helped grow a billion-dollar, publicly traded company.
In one campaign video, McMahon details the family-friendly developments WWE programming has made over the years. The rating is now PG, rather than TV-14.
“It’s energetic, it’s entertaining, it’s music, it’s pyro, it’s pomp and it’s circumstance. It’s what keeps people interested in the product,” she said in the video.