It is March 2023 at the time of this writing, and this book is coming out just as its subject is once again the talk of the wrestling world due to his backstage comeback with a moustache. The subject is Vince McMahon, and “Ringmaster” by Abraham Josephine Reisman is his biography. What a fortuitous time to have access to this book.
More than the man’s story, it is a study of how his vision of pro wrestling affects the United States and the world. There are comparisons to the wrestling world he created and what has mostly been the US political climate of the last few years. This is the story of how Vince Lupton became Vince McMahon, and then his transformation into Mr. McMahon. There are the underlyings of how he created his kingdom by destroying everything on his way and created it to his liking and image. It is the story of how Vince McMahon stopped doing pro wrestling and transformed it to what only people with WWE-speak call sports entertainment. As a pro wrestling fan, I call whatever WWE does “not wrestling”, personally.
Encompassing a man’s life in 350+ pages is hard, especially considering that this is Vince McMahon we are talking about. Here we get a focus that goes from his birth to 1999, with the rest of the years summarized in a final chapter. The goal is to explain how he became the man he is today. This is important since a lot of fans today don’t know how he became what he is due to Vince’s stranglehold on the business and it’s history. You only need to read the way he is covered by a lot of pro wrestling media, that we need something like the Wall Street Journal or this book to get something going.
All of the controversies are covered: the cover up of Nancy Argentino’s murder, the ring boys scandal, Rita Chatterton, and the steroid trial being the ones that have been forgotten to time, are here all with details. The famous ones are also covered, like all of the screwjobs and Owen Hart’s death. His ruthless entrance into the business is covered with the buying of territories and talent. Plus we get a very detailed account on how he created his TV character based on what people thought of him in the business and out of it and how it has worked to his advantage.
The most interesting chapters for me were the beginning of Vince McMahon. I only knew of the famous Playboy interview (which really gave insight into the mind of Vince McMahon, unlike that shitty Pat McAfee one), talking about his rebellious attitude and youth, and I loved that the author had access to old friends and neighbors where she confirmed what was true or not. Besides his childhood, I found it interesting that Vince ran a wrestling promotion at his university, and we get to see how he handled politics and promoting for the first time on Cape Cod. The early years insight is really interesting since it was basically a practice run for what came later.
If you are a longtime wrestling fan, you probably know the story from the 80’s onwards. A lot of the book is this researched story, so if you have studied Vince McMahon before, this will work more as a reminder rather than giving you new information. Vince McMahon’s most infamous moments, his relationships with his top talents, and controversies inside and outside of the ring would be a retread for you. It is a summarized version of the death of the territories, Wrestlemania history, Montreal Screwjob, the death of Owen Hart, plus the aforementioned controversies. The most fun part of this for me was reading about Vince in Memphis wrestling being Mr. McMahon for the first time.
The book is well-researched and excellently written, but outside of the early years, unless you are a new fan, you probably know this. You won’t find any new information, and I think there are moments in the book that went too long. There is a long detailed description of the Greater Power storyline, for example, that while I understand why it’s there (contrasting it with what was really happening and the first time all of the McMahon’s are involved in WWF programming as characters), it could have been shorter. There are also very detailed accounts of the first Wrestlemania and the two shows before it on MTV that I felt the same way. This could have freed up space to talk more about other business ventures and his relationship with other talents. An example is that while there is mention of how Vince played Hogan and Bret, there is barely any mention of how he actually played with Shawn Michaels and Bret Hart, which is part of the reason for that particular Screwjob. He is a master manipulator after all. Vince is the kind of man that in 2019 allegedly had a fight with the Saudi government, left, and left his wrestler stuck in Saudi Arabia for a whole day. This is the type of boss we are dealing with.
One thing I appreciated is how the book stated that a lot of Vince’s creative and business decisions were basically him stealing ideas or just being plain lucky. The way things rub off him is a subject, and I like the theory that this being pro wrestling plus his Mr. McMahon’s character helps to tune things out. It’s a “it’s just pro wrestling and the guy is an asshole, what’s new?” attitude.
There is an underlying theme that was not mentioned in the book, but I felt it, which is that Vince McMahon eventually stopped liking wrestling. I would have liked to read more about his failures and if it affected him. Besides the failure of the World Bodybuilding Federation, there is only one mention of the XFL and no mention of his outside ventures after he owned the WWF/E. His failure of the movie producing company, his failure of the WWE Network since it basically bet on reality TV and comedy instead of pro wrestling, WWF New York in Times Square, his desperate approval of the mainstream by having celebrities and barely wrestling. His post 1999 failures paint a picture of a man that wanted something besides wrestling, and just failing miserably. I think Vince hating the only thing he has been successful at is an interesting idea that would have added even more layers to the biography. Funny enough that while he hates the world he is a part of, the political world is just borrowing from what he created.
I will say that I found some editorial decisions strange. There are small things that bothered me as a reader. For example, Dr. David S. Schultz is written as Schults with an S, yet I only knew him with a Z, and everything I find online about him is with a Z. Another thing is the term for the opposite of mark, which is called smart in this book. I know of the term smark, but smart is completely new to me and I had to go Google to get more information. I never heard of smart fans being referred to as that, which probably would be weird for other readers and the term is used a lot. Then there is the Kliq, which is referred to all the time as the Clique. Everyone writes about the group with the first spelling, that is even on official WWE history and DVDs, on newsletters, so I don’t know why the decision was to go with a different spelling that wrestling fans don’t use.
“Ringmaster” works as a summary of why and how Vince McMahon became the man he is. If you are a younger or newer fan, or don’t know much about the history of Vince, or just want someone outside of the wrestling circle to know about this man, I would recommend it. It is endlessly fascinating for somebody new. But if you are a hardcore fan like me, outside of his younger years, you won’t find new information.
What I like the most about the book is that in a pro wrestling world that seems to forgive and forget Vince McMahon, it is a reminder that there are people out there trying to fight the good fight. Be it the Wall Street Journal or Reisman, at least somebody is trying to hold Vince McMahon accountable for what he has done. This is a man that was ousted temporarily of his position and is coming back after sexual assault allegations and hush payments. I’m hoping this book and the buzz surrounding it helps the wrestling world catch up to this.