The greatest thing I can say about Ringmaster: Vince McMahon and the Unmaking of America, Abraham Josephine Riesman‘s new biography of Vince McMahon, is that it’s normally something of a hacky device for a biography to take the position that “this isn’t really about its subject- it’s actually about America.”
But Ringmaster pulls it off because in this case, it’s actually true.
Riesman, a distinguished journalist whose last book was 2021’s myth-busting Stan Lee biography True Believer, now tackles the subject of longtime WWE head Vince McMahon. The book tells the story of McMahon’s life from his childhood in North Carolina, up until the height of the Attitude Era, around the year 2000.
(The author, last year, came out as a transgender woman, who continues to use “Abraham” as her first name for byline purposes while adding the feminine middle name. She said on a podcast interview that her middle name wouldn’t fit on the book design.)
McMahon, the son of the promoter of the same name who previously owned the company then known as WWWF. The book shows how McMahon grew WWE into an international colossus and near-monopoly, while at the same time showing how McMahon continued bouncing back from a series of events that would be career-ending for the vast majority of people in the world. Cancellation, once again, isn’t real.
There were accusations of rape and sexual harassment against McMahon himself and other WWE higher-ups, a federal indictment for steroid distribution, his likely role in a murder cover-up involving Jimmy “Superfly” Snuka, the failure of the XFL and many other non-wrestling businesses, and a seemingly endless series of tragic wrestler deaths, most notably those of Owen Hart and Chris Benoit. The book explores all of those and many other things that have been subjects of episodes of Dark Side of the Ring.
The book’s narrative ends prior to the most recent events when McMahon was forced out of WWE last year due to a series of disclosures of previously unreported sexual misconduct settlements.
But McMahon, just a few months later, forced his own return to the company, and scuttlebutt says he’s trying to force a sale to the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia. This would both leave nearly the entirety of wrestling history in control of a despotic, murderous foreign regime, but would allow McMahon to walk away with untold billions.
Riesman clearly did great research, and combined it with original reporting. She interviewed a staggering amount of people, from McMahon’s childhood friends to various people victimized by McMahon himself and those close to him. The book paints a much more complete picture of McMahon’s childhood, in the relative squalor of North Carolina, than previous accounts have.
McMahon, needless to say, did not cooperate with the book, nor did anyone in the current leadership or employ of WWE.
There’s a lot of great research material out there about wrestling, which the author clearly utilized. It was one of the first things people ever argued about on the Internet, and Wikipedia entries of wrestlers and wrestling events are among the most intricately detailed of any subject. Almost every pro wrestler of consequence has written at least one autobiography, many have had documentaries made about them (often under WWE auspices, but sometimes not), and many have podcasts.
Introducing Kayfabe and Neo-Kayfabe
The book, though, has a bigger, and even more convincing argument to make: Something called “neo-kayfabe,” which has moved far beyond wrestling into numerous other aspects of American life.
Kayfabe is wrestling’s longtime code of honor, in which wrestlers are sworn to keep up the pretense that wrestling is real, even though everybody in the world knows it’s not. It’s a lot like La Cosa Nostra‘s omertà, in which people in the Mafia are required to pretend that there is no Mafia.
It wasn’t just that the wrestlers weren’t really fighting and didn’t really hate each other. But most of the Russian wrestlers weren’t really Russian, wrestlers billed as brothers weren’t usually related, and wrestlers’ listed heights and weights tended to be bullshit as well. Sure, everyone knew all these things, but it was something of a lie agreed upon.
The traditional form of kayfabe essentially died at the time of WWE’s Attitude era in the late 1990s, with wrestlers breaking character on talk shows, on Internet chats, and sometimes even on wrestling shows themselves. But at the same time, different aspects of American life — politics, most notably — started to look more and more like pro wrestling all the time.
The key inflection point, it’s clear, is in the late 1990s, when — following the “Montreal Screwjob,” in which Bret Hart essentially had the championship stolen out from under him — McMahon decided to lean into that, and make himself WWE’s primary on-screen villain.
This led to what Riesman, in both the book and a recent New York Times op-ed, calls “neo-kayfabe,” the idea that wrestling is trying to make it mysterious whether what people are watching is real or not.
In the Times, she called it “a slippery, ever-wobbling jumble of truths, half-truths, and outright falsehoods, all delivered with the utmost passion and commitment.” That is, of course, a good description of Trumpism, QAnon, and other modern-day political phenomena.
Donald and Vince
No, the book does not set out to draw a 1-to-1 parallel between Vince McMahon and Donald Trump, two men who are both friends and were once on opposing sides in a Wrestlemania main event. Trump “hosted” Wrestlemanias 4 and 5 in Atlantic City, and Linda McMahon was in his cabinet.
There are key differences between the men, but there’s no doubt that McMahon learned a lot from his time adjacent to pro wrestling, which he later applied to politics.
I could see this book appealing equally to longtime wrestling fans and those unfamiliar with McMahon and WWE. I was a diehard fan for most of my life, and while I don’t watch much of the current product, I’m old enough to remember when Vince was known only as an announcer and they didn’t acknowledge him as the boss of the company on TV.
I went into Ringmaster with high expectations, between the reputation of the author and the subject matter, but those expectations were more than met.