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Tuesday, July 30, 2002
Sex, Lies, and Headlocks

By Shaun Assael
ESPN The Magazine

Why would anyone in his right mind do what I did, which is spend more than two years delving into the world of wrestling and its most flamboyant promoter, Vince McMahon? Simple. Because nothing Hollywood could make up is as fascinating as the secret story of wrestling. And no one who has come into our living rooms over the last 20 years is as fascinating as Vince.

Vince McMahon
 
Over the past two decades, he has nurtured nearly as many pop culture icons as MTV -- from Hulk Hogan to The Rock. He changed the landscape of his shadowy world by admitting his product was fake. (Oh, the Humanity!) And as a Hollywood outsider, he pioneered Shock TV while the networks were fighting over who had the most family values. But most of all, he has struggled with his own demons in front of us every week, live and in living color.

Hollywood has tried to marginalize him, ignore him, even throw him off the air. But he has kept his hold as the king of the ring by fighting everyone from the government to Ted Turner. And with each battle that he has won, he has added another chapter to one of the strangest success stories in TV history.

Unfortunately, you can't trust a professional prevaricator to tell his own tale. So longtime wrestling columnist Mike Mooneyham and I conducted more than 300 interviews and unearthed never-before-seen documents to tell the real story -- "Sex, Lies & Headlocks" -- of how wrestling came to dominate the cable airwaves, and how McMahon came to dominate wrestling.

Here is the first excerpt from our book, centering on the 1991 drug scandal that nearly brought McMahon to his knees. -- Shaun Assael


Theodore Smith III had been a federal prosecutor for just eight months when Bill Dunn's case file was dropped on his desk. A stout 35-year-old with a gut that showed his love for Philly cheese steaks and the pinot noir that he made from the grapes he grew in his backyard, Smith had spent most of his career doing drug cases for the local district attorney's office in Harrisburg, Pa. When Congress started toughening the federal drug laws and more narcotics cases began flowing into the federal courts, U.S. attorney offices nationwide hired additional staff. Ted Smith was swept into his federal job with that tide. One of the new laws that he was charged with enforcing was the 1988 measure that criminalized the distribution of anabolic steroids. It also moved dozens of drugs -- including Tylenol 4 and Valium -- onto the Food and Drug Administration's list of controlled substances.

In October 1989, Smith finished listening to the tapes that Dunn had made during his drug buy in George Zahorian's medical office and concluded it was one of the stronger hands he'd been dealt. As he'd say later, "It was an unremarkable case with the most remarkable characters I've ever seen." But Smith wasn't about to get cocky, especially when dealing with a doctor. So he waited for investigators from the FBI to slowly build a case.

Hulk Hogan
Hogan went on late-night TV and swore he was clean.
One of the things the feds did was subpoena the complete records of Zahorian's Federal Express account, and in so doing discovered a regular pattern of shipments to Vince McMahon, Terry Bollea [Hulk Hogan], Roddy Piper, and dozens of other wrestlers on Vince's payroll. Many of the packages were shipped to hotels in cities where the WWF was touring. A dozen more were brazenly sent directly to Titan Tower, the WWF's headquarters in Stamford, Conn. What was in those packages? Smith subpoenaed a parade of wrestlers, including Piper and Hogan, to answer that question before a federal grand jury. On March 27, 1990, the grand jurors had heard enough to indict Zahorian on 15 counts of distributing controlled substances, the main one being steroids.

Fortunately for McMahon, the indictment of a pill-pushing doctor in Harrisburg was minor news, and the identities of patients he was accused of supplying were cloaked with John Doe references. The connection between Zahorian and the WWF went entirely unnoticed. It might have stayed that way had Zahorian's attorney not tipped reporters off to the fact that two of those John Does were Hogan and Piper. "The use of steroids isn't limited to these wrestlers," the attorney said on the eve of his client's June 1991 trial. "They're used throughout the WWF. Wrestlers either use them or they don't participate."

That quote, intended to show that Zahorian was simply helping famous athletes get through their taxing work, turned the unassuming little prosecution into a national story overnight. When Zahorian was first indicted, a wave of concern swept through Titan Tower. Vince took the supply of steroids and needles he kept in his office and threw them away. But there was nowhere near the panic that ensued when, on the eve of Zahorian's trial, USA Today ran a headline on its front page asking, "Hulk: Bulk from a Bottle?"

Vince told his lawyer, a bulldog ex-U.S. attorney name Jerry McDevitt, to get Hogan out of testifying. McDevitt appeared before a federal judge named William Caldwell and argued that Smith didn't need Hogan to make his case. He was only listed six times on the FedEx logs, McDevitt argued, far less than Piper. The collateral damage that would be done to the company by unnecessarily singling out Hogan would be immense. Caldwell bought the argument, and McDevitt rushed to his office to dictate a press release that was sent to any reporter who called. "Hulk Hogan did nothing illegal and is not charged with any illegality," it said. "He has no place in this trial, and will not appear there. Instead the focal point of the trial will now return to its proper place, the alleged illegal activities of a physician."

On Monday, June 24, the trial of Dr. George Zahorian began in a small Harrisburg courtroom overrun by reporters. Smith called just nine witnesses, among them Piper, who seemed to have stayed up late the night before because, much to Smith's aggravation, he had a hard time focusing. Fortunately, Smith only needed him on the stand for fifteen minutes, just long enough for this exchange:

"Did you have occasion to call Dr. Zahorian on March 23 of 1990 and ask him for anabolic steroids?"

"Yes," Piper replied. "I did."

"And what did you ask him for?"

"I asked him for some Winstrol, and I believe some Deca-Durabolin, and I'm not sure, maybe an anti-inflammatory, too."

"Did you receive the anabolic steroids you ordered from Dr. Zahorian in California?"

In a low voice, Piper answered. "Yes, sir."

The verdict

After lunch, Smith rested, confident that it hadn't blown up in his face and his jury had been handed enough evidence to convict. Then, as he sat through a parade of character witnesses who took that stand for Zahorian, he prepared for the doctor to face the jury himself. If Smith had one worry, it was that Physicians were skilled persuaders who jurors intuitively wanted to trust. If Zahorian did a good job portraying himself as a physician who felt compelled to help wrestlers in pain, that could hurt Smith's case.

"I knew these individuals," the bow-tied doctor began calmly. "I treated these individuals. I had carried out physicals and histories on them. They were taking minimal amounts of medication that was given to them in minimal doses. I knew it wasn't going to harm them. Over the ten years that I knew most of the individuals, not one was sick, not one developed anything that stopped them from wrestling."

Smith worried about the last point. It was the doctor's one reasonable claim. He prayed the jury would not get sidetracked on it. It was a legal blind alley.

The jurors got the case at 1:30 in the afternoon on June 25. Three hours later they told the judge they had a verdict. Smith felt a pit opening in his stomach. Quick verdicts were usually acquittals. Juries that were about to send someone to jail generally took longer, if only out of guilt.

So Smith let out a long breath when the foreman announced that the jury had found Zahorian guilty of the first count of illegally dispensing steroids, and them said guilty to eleven more.

The next day, every major newspaper in the country covered the conviction and the trial's damning disclosures about steroid use in the WWF. As he read the stories, McMahon winced. He was addicted all right, but not to steroids. He was addicted to pay-per-views. And he could imagine what Zahorian's allegations were going to do to his business.

Since 1985, the WWF had slowly been weaning itself off closed circuit and onto pay-per-view. The $350 it cost to get a satellite feed to a television cable provider was considerably cheaper than the $5,000 it cost to rent a closed-circuit theater, not to mention an arena. Because the profit margins were enormous -- the WWF could charge $15 to $25 per airing and keep roughly half after paying off its cable partners -- McMahon decided to produce a trinity of new pay-per-views to add to Wrestlemania: Royal Rumble would air in January, Summer Slam in August, and Survivor Series in November.

That decision would earn him the label of visionary in the still nascent world of alternative distribution. By quadrupling his pay-per-view product, he was creating an industry out of the shards of a few boxing matches and his annual Wrestlemania show. Before too long, Turner would follow suit, and the two companies would be running pay-per-views every month, bringing in hundreds of millions of dollars in revenue. The only thing McMahon's aides would lament was that he wasn't more ambitious. If he was, he could have bought out the cable operators that were providing the linkups and become the owner of the industry, instead of its most sought-after content provider.
Roddy Piper
The feds alleged that a WWF doctor sent illegal steroids to Piper.

However, that discussion was still far off. McMahon had other, more immediate things to worry about. Quarterly pay-per-views created a domino effect. Before, he could spend a whole year leading up to Wrestlemania. Now he needed to have story arcs that peaked every three months, driving his USA cable television viewers to reach into their pockets to see the climax on pay-per-view. It was a relatively simple strategy, but it required two things: well-thought-out story lines and the stars to sell them.

Unfortunately, just as McMahon was mapping all this out, the steroid allegations were peaking and Hogan was deciding to take a sabbatical from wrestling to explore an acting career.

The Anabolic Warrior

Needing a new marquee face, Vince started pushing a newcomer, Jim Hellwig. In the era of Rambo, Hellwig wore jungle-combat face paint and tied tassels around his biceps. On stage, he used the name Ultimate Warrior, but behind his back the Boys called him Anabolic Warrior for all the steroids it took to gain him his superhuman frame.

On April 1, 1990, Vince got Hogan to help with an orderly transition by losing his heavyweight belt to Hellwig at Wrestlemania VI. More than 64,000 fans turned up at the SkyDome in Toronto to see the two giants square off. Although Hellwig was a poor technical wrestler, Hogan gave him the kind of star send-off that made him look positively daunting. Writing in his Wrestling Observer, Dave Meltzer dubbed it Hogan's finest bout.

But over the rest of the year, Hellwig had difficulty stepping up his profile. His Rambo act wore thin, and he couldn't seem to connect with the crowds. Thus Vince decided it was time to restore Hogan to the top of his card for Wrestlemania VII. But this time, his instincts for what the public wanted had been blunted by the drug investigation. The man who'd produced such insouciant sketch comedy on Tuesday Night Titans was in a darker mood. He ordered Hellwig to lose his title to the square jawed Sergeant Slaughter, who was ordered to play an Iraqi sympathizer at the height of the Persian Gulf War, at the Royal Rumble in January 1991. (Their meeting came four days after the U.N. deadline for Iraq to withdraw from Kuwait.)

Slaughter's turnabout act was supposed to give Hogan a pretext to take back the title at Wrestlemania as a superpatriot, much as he had against the Iron Sheik seven years before. But there was none of the earlier innocence of Hogan's debut in the WWF. Quite the opposite. Slaughter was getting death threats that caused him to fear for his life when McMahon asked him to burn an American flag in the ring. Slaughter refused, not that the stunt would have helped much. The story line was so poorly received that Vince had to move the pay-per-view event from outdoor Los Angeles Coliseum, where he thought he could sell more than a hundred thousand tickets, to a nearby arena that was a fifth of the size.

Now that Hogan was being dragged through the mud, accused of being a steroid addict, Vince saw his company under the kind of attack from which it might not recover. If he wanted to save it, he'd need to go on a public relations offensive.

The opening salvo came with an op-ed piece in the sports section of the New York Times on Sunday, July 14, in which he announced that he was going to start testing his wrestlers for steroids. Three days after the media had a chance to mull that over, he walked briskly into the Terrace Room at the Plaza Hotel in Manhattan, dressed sharply in a gray suit and green necktie. Wine-colored velvet curtains hung in the background, lit by eight-foot floor lamps that sprouted golden candelabras from marble base. Marble archways framed the stage with a flowered carpet underfoot. Before twenty reporters, he contritely conceded that yes, he'd used steroids. But it was only once, he insisted, and in the late eighties. As Associated Press writer John Nelson observed, "This was a place for high society and tea parties. Not Haystack Calhouns ... But there was no doubt that Vince was making a serious effort to gain our trust."

McMahon would have preferred to leave things there, but Hogan insisted on making his own appearance later that night on a talk show hosted by the comic Arsenio Hall. Looking dewy-eyed at his host, Hogan also made a concession: He'd taken a synthetic hormone three times, but just to get over a shoulder injury. Incredulous that anyone might question his integrity, he took out a picture of himself as a 12-year-old Little Leaguer. "I trained twenty years, two hours a day to look like I do, Arsenio," he said. "I am not a steroid abuser and I do not use steroids."

Ted Smith happened to be cooking shrimp at home when the show aired. Watching Hogan lie, he shook his head in complete disgust.

Next: How low will Vince go?

Shaun Assael is a senior writer for ESPN The Magazine. Sex, Lies, and Headlocks is published by Crown Books.