There is a memorable scene in Beyond The Mat - Barry Blaustein's ground-breaking 1999 wrestling documentary - where Vince McMahon, sitting at his desk in WWE's Connecticut headquarters, utters the words "we make movies", before smugly swigging from a water bottle as he revels in the genius of this statement.
To Vince, pro-wrestling is not really about 'wrestling'. It's entertainment. "Movies". Something far more compelling and grandiose than a pseudo-sport involving muscle-men swinging steel chairs. Take all the glitz of Hollywood, combine it with the drama of soap opera and splice all that into the action and adrenaline of the NFL and combat sports, and you're close to what Vince McMahon's vision really is.
It's a vision that has brought him and his company great success over the past 40 years. But for all the drama that he has created on our screens during that time, very little can compare to the drama of what is really happening with McMahon and his board of directors, following the bombshell revelation that he is being investigated over an alleged $3 million dollar settlement with an ex-employee with whom he is reported to have had an affair.
WWE Board Investigation
The story, first broken by the Wall Street Journal, reports that the WWE board are also investigating some other non-disclosure settlements involving McMahon and John Laurinaitis - the Head of Talent Relations and a controversial figure from McMahon's inner circle, known to conduct most of the company's bidding in regard to roster cuts over the years.
Within 48 hours of the news, it was announced that Vince McMahon would be stepping away from his responsibilities as WWE CEO and chairman while the investigation is underway, although he will retain his creative responsibilities in relation to the on-screen product. His daughter Stephanie will step into his role as interim CEO and chairwoman.
Until the conclusion of the investigation into recent allegations, I am honored to assume the role of interim Chairwoman & CEO. I love @WWE and all it continues to do to entertain billions around the world. https://t.co/E2MushpoSG
— Stephanie McMahon (@StephMcMahon) June 17, 2022
The wrestling world has been buzzing with many journalists, commentators and fans speculating over the mechanics of how all of these revelations came to light. It is particularly interesting given the apparent power struggle involving members of the McMahon family and high-ranking executive Nick Khan, who joined WWE in 2020.
For many years, the assumption among most fans was that Vince would ultimately be succeeded by either his son Shane or daughter Stephanie - both of whom have spent most of their adult lives working in on-screen and backstage roles for the company. The McMahon family feuds have been a scripted staple of WWE programming for decades.
Shane's prospects of one day becoming the main-man seemed to have long faded, having previously left the company to pursue other business ventures before returning in a mostly on-screen capacity in 2016. His recent stint came to an abrupt end following the Royal Rumble in January, where he was ruthlessly fired by his 76-year-old father after reports that Shane had clashed with some talents and the creative team over his own positioning in the Rumble match.
It seemed for a long time as though the most likely succession plan would involve Stephanie and her husband Triple H, who had established NXT as the company's third TV brand and was seemingly being groomed for the top job at some point. But it appears that Vince has soured on that entire notion. 'The Game' was sidelined with a serious health-scare in 2021, around the same time that Vince imposed his own vision on NXT by allowing his chief producers to completely overhaul the product and move it in a new direction away from the brand that Triple H had built. This move by Vince was seen by many as a reaction to NXT's failure to defeat the upstart promotion AEW in a head-to-head TV ratings war.
With both Shane McMahon and Triple H out of the picture, next to go was Stephanie, who announced in May of this year that she was taking a leave of absence from the company to devote some time to her family. Her exit was followed by leaked reports of WWE officials speaking negatively about her performance as WWE's Chief Brand Officer, sending the social media rumour-mill into overdrive about the nature of her exit, and what it meant for her family's future with WWE.
Jan 29: Vince & Shane Rumble spat; Shane removed from further plans
March 25: Triple H reveals health details, announces in ring retirement
May 19: Stephanie announces she is taking leave of absence from company
June 15: WSJ drops allegations on Vince of $$ secret hush pact
— WrestleVotes (@WrestleVotes) June 15, 2022
All during this period, Nick Khan has become a prominent figure in the company's operations and is believed to have played a key role in WWE's strong financial performance during the pandemic, thanks in some part to significant roster cuts which saw the release of some major names including Bray Wyatt and Braun Strowman. Prominent wrestling journalist Dave Meltzer recently discussed Khan's growing presence at the top of WWE on his Wrestling Observer Radio show.
As far as Nick Khan goes, obviously there are all kinds of conspiracy theories - a million ones - that he's like, a shark, and taking over and getting rid of all the McMahons and everything like that.
WWE's recent financial strategy and budget cuts has fueled speculation that the company is preparing for a sale in the future - leaving question marks around the long-term involvement of the McMahon family. As for the current investigation against Vince McMahon, this is certainly the biggest threat to his power since he was indicted by the US government over an alleged steroid ring - a trial in which he was acquitted in 1994.
At 76 years of age, Vince McMahon had shown little sign of slowing down or relinquishing his control over WWE prior to this week's revelations. A notorious workaholic, his ubiquitous influence over all aspects of the company means that any potential shift towards new ownership could be the most seismic shift in pro-wrestling since McMahon himself wiped out most of the old territory promotions in the 1980s, when he took the then-WWF national and ultimately, global.
WWE Corporate Trainer, Michael A. Monteforte posted a video earlier today showing Vince McMahon working out.
The 75 year old WWE Chairman & CEO was doing a leg workout using a good amount of weight.
(via @/mkslash1241 on Instagram) pic.twitter.com/Fbq5mk3rZS
— Sports Entmt. News (@SENewsCo_) July 17, 2021
Now, with Stephanie as interim CEO, fans are trying to join the dots to figure out exactly where everyone's loyalties lie. It leaves a picture of a potential power vacuum at the top of a publicly-traded global juggernaut, as various members of a resident royal family and ambitious company executives scramble to steer the ship and influence the narrative.
It's a story that the writers of HBO smash-hit Succession would be proud of. It also happens to be more real and compelling than anything WWE have produced in at least two decades.
"We make movies."