Sex and Scandal in Pro-Wrestling
On a Monday night in the mid-1980s following a World Wrestling Federation show at Madison Square Garden in New York City, a teenage member of the ring crew -- the guys who set up and tear down the three-roped, four-posted, 12-turnbuckled squared circle -- was given a piece of fatherly advice by a veteran WWF performer.
The ring crew kid, whose name was Tom Cole, had been reviewing assignments for the next stop on the WWF circuit with his supervisor, Mel Phillips. When Phillips walked away, the wrestler standing next to Cole nudged him and said, "Watch yourself around Phillips. He's bad news." Prophetic words.
A few years later, Phillips was a central figure in a pedophilia scandal that came within a federal grand jury of sinking the WWF, and Tom Cole was the chief whistleblower. More on that later. In the institutional memory of the pro wrestling public, where the results of last month's pay-per-view event have already vaporized, the events of the early 90s may as well have taken place in Greco-Roman antiquity.
The wrestler who made the remark to Cole had recently retired from the ring due to blood clots in his lung (a condition that can be caused by abuse of muscle-enhancing anabolic steroids though he claimed it was from Agent Orange). His forced retirement turned out to be a big break, however, for he soon found fame as a heel commentator on WWF television. Now he was about to head to Hollywood for an even bigger break: a role alongside Arnold Schwarzenegger in the movie Predator. The ex-wrestler signed his checks "James Janos." Aided by a state law allowing political candidates to use their noms de guerre on the ballot, he later would be elected mayor of Brooklyn Park, Minnesota, then governor of Minnesota.
He was, is, Jesse "The Body" Ventura.
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You don't have to be a Reform Party renegade, a French semiotician or a board member of the Parents Television Council to know that sex and wrestling go together like a horse and carriage. In an earlier era they used to call this pseudo-sport "grunting and groaning." The pejorative was despised by my uncle, the late Sam Muchnick. "They do grunt and they do groan," he once conceded to me, "but putting it that way sounds so ... undignified." Sam was perhaps the industry's most important promoter before WWF hypemeister Vince McMahon crossed new technology with postmodern perversity to create the strangest marketing juggernaut in pop-culture history.
Part of McMahon's particular genius was to cut out the middleman, end any pretense of dignity and give the people exactly what they want: homophobia locked in mortal combat with homoeroticism. But this is not a disquisition on the sexual content of the wrestling product. It is a report on the companion phenomenon of sex inside wrestling. The question is whether the backstage manipulations of promoters, bookers, performers and hangers-on mirror the displaced fetishes, dominance games and double (and sometimes single) entendres so boldly evident on the sunny side of the proscenium.
And the answer is: Uh, yeah.
Understand, for starters, that wrestling sex is to real sex what wrestling violence is to real violence. Just as the most effective punch is the pulled variety, the best fuck is the mind kind. Consenting adults trespass this blue line at their own risk. For proof, we offer Kevin Sullivan, a booker, or storyline weaver, for Ted Turner's World Championship Wrestling, the WWF's chief rival.
Four years ago Sullivan was casting about for a way to put "heat" on Chris Benoit, a technically virtuosic but relatively colorless Canadian wrestler, when Sullivan hit upon a brilliant idea. It involved Sullivan's wife Nancy Daus, a buxom brunette who appeared on WCW television as a valet known, economically, as "Woman." Sullivan cooked up a subplot (an "angle" in carny patois) whereby Woman left Sullivan for Benoit. Wrestlers tend to take method acting to extremes. In this instance, in order to give the gimmick credibility, Sullivan ordered his wife and Benoit to hang out together 24/7. When Chris went to the gym, Nancy went with him. When he went to his hotel room, she ... well, you get the point. Before long, life was imitating art. On February 23, 2000, Nancy celebrated the birth of her baby boy, Daniel Christopher Benoit. It is not known if Sullivan sent a shower gift. Chris Benoit was by now in the WWF.
"Kevin Sullivan," says Wrestling Observer Newsletter Publisher Dave Meltzer, "booked his own divorce."
Legendary wrestler Bret "The Hit Man" Hart saw his 14-year marriage to his wife Julie (not a TV character) collapse, in part under the strain of sexual innuendo, on a 1997 WWF tour ably captured in the award-winning documentary Wrestling With Shadows. In one memorable scene, Hart and his then-nemesis Shawn Michaels are recording a promotional "shoot" for a series of upcoming matches. The two men were said to truly despise each other and their insults, though elliptical to the uninitiated, added up to more than a contrived "work."
At one point Michaels says to Hart, "You've been having a lot of 'sunny' days lately" -- a reference to Hart's rumored affair with wrestling personality Sunny (Tammy Sytch). Hart, who now wrestles for WCW, denies the rumor. It also must be noted that Hart has had more important things on his mind since the 1999 death of his brother, Owen, during a stunt at a WWF pay-per-view show.
Husband-and-wife combos are no less common among wrestlers than in other professions. Unions of recent vintage include Randy "Macho Man" Savage and Elizabeth (they're now divorced). Also Eddie "Hot Stuff" Gilbert, who would die of a drug overdose, married and divorced both Missy Hyatt and Medusa Micelli. The aforementioned Ms. Sytch is now married to wrestler Chris Candido. And there are many, many others.
The thinking person's wrestling fan, therefore, ponders the future of those volatile lovebirds Hunter Hearst Helmsley (Paul Levesque) and Stephanie McMahon. That Stephanie is billed with a hyphenated surname on Smackdown is about as meaningful as the championship belt her bogus hubby once held and may one day regain.
Still, how many opportunities does a man get to French-kiss the boss's daughter on national TV? Insiders describe the relationship as legitimately on-again, off-again, or at least serious enough to make Triple H forget his former squeeze, Chyna (Joanie Laurer), whose biceps measure somewhere between Stephanie's and his own. And you thought Vince was kidding when he said he wanted his children to follow him in the family business.
Hollywood has the casting couch and wrestling, too, has its ways of separating the wheat from the shaft.
As long ago as the early 80s, dressing-room scuttlebutt ascribed a quickie National Wrestling Alliance title change to a blowjob that a certain promoter was allowed to administer to his short-lived young champion. In the last decade, Barry Orton, a second-generation wrestler who is now out of the business, claimed that his resistance to sexual harassment was the reason he never rose above prelim status. Another disillusioned ex-WWFer, Billy Jack Haynes, used to joke that he had to be careful about bending down for a bar of soap on the shower floor.
Vince McMahon's right-hand man on the talent side is Pat Patterson, a former main eventer. Patterson's boyfriend, a "jobber" (perennial loser) called the Brooklyn Brawler (Steve Lombardi), has precious little else to recommend him, though that's just the start of allegations that Patterson has abused his power. Until recently, WWF wrestlers talking about their moves in interviews would slyly allude to "the Pat Patterson go-behind." In wrestleworld, this passes for sublime wit.
For former ring attendant Tom Cole, it isn't funny and understandably so. When Cole was 15 or 16, he recalls, "Patterson would look at you when he was talking to you. He'd look right at your crotch and he'd lick his lips. He'd put his hand on your ass and squeeze your ass and stuff like that." Cole, now 28 and a married small business owner, was speaking on the record and last year also gave a detailed interview to the newsletter Wrestling Perspective, which can be accessed online at www.wrestlingperspective.com.
Cole got started with the WWF around 1984 at the age of 12, in Yonkers, NY, through Mel Phillips, then a ring announcer and head of the ring crew. Cole says Phillips had a black book with names of kids -- mostly from broken homes -- from all over the country.
"He used to have a thing where he played with your feet," Cole says. "He would wrestle you for five seconds, then he'd pull your shoes off and start playing with your toes. When I was a young kid, I wasn't thinking too much about it. Now I look at it like, 'Wow, that was a foot fetish. There's something wrong here.'"
In 1990, Cole says, Patterson's assistant Terry Garvin secured him a steady job at the WWF parts warehouse and promised him a tryout as a ring announcer. Garvin subsequently maneuvered Cole to his house, near the WWF's Stamford, CT, base, on an evening when Garvin's wife and two kids were away. Garvin popped a porn tape into the VCR and offered to fellate Cole, who declined and spent the night in a van parked outside. Shortly thereafter, Cole was fired.
Cole first told his story to Phil Mushnick of the New York Post (and now TV Guide), the only mainstream journalist who has given the industry any kind of sustained scrutiny. In 1992, evidence of harassment and abuse of underage ring boys synergized with a federal grand jury investigation of McMahon's role in steroid trafficking among WWF talent. Hopelessly in over his head, Cole settled, on the eve of Phil Donahue and Geraldo Rivera shows devoted to the scandals, for $150,000, back pay and the return of his old job. (Cole says his lawyer, Alan Fuchsberg, pocketed $100,000 of the settlement sum for "about four hours' work.")
At the height of the tabloid blitz, Patterson, Phillips and Garvin (who died last year) all left the company. But within a few weeks, Patterson had quietly returned. Barely more than a year later the WWF fired Cole again because, he contends, he stopped sharing information from his grand jury testimony and refused to cooperate in McMahon's ultimately unsuccessful libel suit against Mushnick and the Post.
Not all of wrestling's legal-sexual problems stem from homosexual conduct. In 1999, the WWF's former women's champion Sable (Rena Mero), a Playboy cover girl, filed a $120 million lawsuit claiming she was verbally assaulted and threatened by WWF personnel who had also tried to coerce her into baring her breasts on a pay-per-view show and participating in a lesbian "angle." The suit was later dropped. Meanwhile, WCW has had several parallel pieces of litigation, the best known of which featured former valet Missy Hyatt and was settled in 1996.
And not every incident of male aggression stops at sex. In 1983, the girlfriend of then-WWF headliner Jimmy "Superfly" Snuka died from a blow to the head in a motel room in Allentown, PA. Observers who have studied the case still question the official ruling of accidental death.
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For the feds, naturally the big enchilada was Vince McMahon. And when they smelled blood, accusers of varying degrees of probity came out of the woodwork faster than The Rock can ooze hiphop attitude. One of them, Murray Hodgson, who was briefly employed by the WWF in a minor TV announcing slot, claimed in a civil lawsuit that Pat Patterson had crudely propositioned him. But at the conclusion of Hodgson's videotaped deposition, his attorney, Ed Nusbaum, withdrew from the case.
"The WWF spent what I would estimate at around $100,000 in its private investigation of Hodgson," Nusbaum says. (Tom Cole believes that during certain periods he was tailed by WWF-hired detectives from the Fairfax Group, now DSFX.) "I was absolutely convinced by the evidence that emerged establishing that Hodgson was a lifelong con man."
Around the same time, the WWF's first female referee, Rita Chatterton, came forward with a tale of having been raped by McMahon in the back seat of his limousine. Chauffeur Jim Stuart corroborated Chatterton's account and filed a lawsuit of his own, alleging that, during his WWF employment, he had been forced into witnessing the commission of crimes. Both Chatterton and Stuart have since disappeared into the fog machine. Stuart's lawyer at the time, Frank Riccio, is not returning calls.
For McMahon's part, he relies heavily in such situations on Jerry McDevitt of the Pittsburgh law firm Kirkpatrick & Lockhart, otherwise distinguished by his representation of President Clinton's naughty ex-political consultant, Dick Morris. Ultimately, the grand jury ignored the sex stuff and handed down indictments on charges that McMahon had brokered illegal steroid transactions for WWF wrestlers through a Pennsylvania doctor.
At a sensational 1994 trial in New York, prosecutors thought they were delivering the goods via the testimony of McMahon's former secretary, Emily Feinberg, the wife of a WWF script writer and a one-time Playboy model, and someone assumed to have spent time doing the nasty with Vince. Feinberg's performance under cross-examination withered, however. Some speculate this had something to do with the fact that, outside the courtroom, she had been pumped for information by one Martin Bergman, who may or may not have been a TV producer, but who definitely was the husband of McMahon's lead defense attorney, Laura Brevetti. (Bergman also is the brother of Lowell Bergman, the 60 Minutes producer who took on the tobacco industry and is portrayed by Al Pacino in The Insider.) In any event, a jury acquitted McMahon on all counts.
Now fast-forward four years. McMahon, heretofore a babyface TV announcer, calculates that he is of more value to his company playing the evil corporate boss in a feud with Stone Cold Steve Austin. And so, in one popular magazine interview after another, McMahon becomes the first imminent Wall Street tycoon ever to brag -- falsely -- that he was convicted on one count of conspiracy to distribute steroids. And the magazine writers buy it, giving Virtual Vince even more of an outlaw image than he deserves.
Book that, Kevin Sullivan.
Irvin Muchnick has written about many subjects for many magazines and newspapers.