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McMahons evolve with business

| Sunday, Nov. 16, 2003

Twenty years ago, professional wrestling wasn't sports entertainment. And, the business certainly wasn't as loose-lipped as it is now.

Wrestlers weren't co-workers; they were sworn enemies, battling for hours in one single match to determine the best, perhaps even the world heavyweight champion. Superstars cultivated personalities but never blurred the lines between their on-screen personas and how they acted when the cameras weren't on.

They didn't hang out with one another like friends, and there certainly weren't wrestlers dating female talent. If such antics happened, they weren't flaunted for wrestling fans to see.

There were no internet or insider Web sites that dished dirt on who's angry with whom and which superstar had planned to leave one federation for another. The few "Dirt Sheets" - a term used to describe wrestling newsletters - weren't mainstream enough to be considered harmful to wrestling - an industry determined to remain anonymous while appealing to the masses.

Wrestling had a code of silence, a pact between wrestlers, agents, bookers and other behind-the-scenes workers: What happened backstage stays backstage, and certainly there would be no speaking of how professional wrestling was, to be politically correct, scripted.

As professional wrestling spread its wings, it became more entertainment than sport. Lavish costumes and outlandish storylines replaced the rough-and-tumble in-ring showmanship that many of the old-school superstars cherished.

Fans grew up. They became smarter and more aware of the performances and athleticism as art. They discovered the World Wide Web and the plethora of Web sites devoted to exposing professional wrestling as a legitimate business that featured contract negations, political maneuvering and calculated planning - just like any other company determined to succeed.

As fans became more intelligent, so did Vince McMahon. He didn't fight the movement of professional wrestling to sports entertainment. He joined it.

Almost overnight, McMahon and his World Wrestling Federation proclaimed that what he and his company provide is entertainment with a twist - a male soap opera that appeals to the masses. Regular people who don't mind escaping for a few hours into a world without consequences - be it "Raw," "Smackdown," pay-per-views or a rudimentary house show.

McMahon, even in the mid-1980s, sold entertainment but still didn't divulge the kind of information available today to any type of wrestling fan - the causal one versus the one who inexplicably memorizes the wrestlers' real names and every title they've ever held.

In 2003, McMahon is a changed man in terms of perception. His company has changed, too. World Wrestling Entertainment has replaced the federation built by grizzled grapplers such as Bruno Sammartino, Bob Backlund and Superstar Billy Graham.

No longer does McMahon or professional wrestling pretend to be something it's not. The business built by four generations of McMahons fully admits that wrestlers are indeed employees, with families, friends, fiancees, book deals, television careers and movie aspirations. They are mothers and fathers, earning a living in the best way they know how.

"Unscripted," the latest WWE book emphatically confirms all of this, through candid pictures and personal tales that seem to combine 80 autobiographies into one 240-page offering.

Where else can one catch a glimpse of Steve Austin shaving his head and telling us the story of how going bald wasn't the end but rather the beginning of his life•

Where else can fans study the wear-and-tear on Vince McMahon's face, having lived a life of a billionaire with all of the benefits and pratfalls, while discussing what's going to happen on "Raw?"

Where else can we see Billy Kidman and Torrie Wilson relaxing at home or Triple H and Stephanie McMahon sharing an amusing backstage moment, no matter how jealous or nauseating it might make us, respectively•

Where else can Eddie Guerrero remind us that sports entertainment isn't just bright lights and loud, blaring music but also a world that carries serious repercussions when the 200-days-per-year schedule is too much to endure•

The book, filled with enough stories to appreciate and pictures to mesmerize, "Unscripted" reads like a final chapter in the long, private life of professional wrestling and the beginning of a new kind of sports entertainment. Wrestlers still are tough, somewhat secretive, grapplers who respect their business. But that's not all they are: They are real people.

And what Chris Jericho, Brock Lesnar, Chris Benoit, Kurt Angle or any other wrestlers do certainly isn't fake.

It's entertainment, it's "Unscripted" and, quite frankly, refreshing.

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