You Gonna Get Ready to Rumble?

Illustration by Antony Hare

In September 1994, Ted Kennedy was in the toughest race of his Senate career. His opponent was a millionaire businessman and political neophyte named Mitt Romney (what ever happened to that guy, anyway?) who was campaigning on the claim that he’d created 10,000 jobs at 60 companies. Trailing in the polls, Kennedy sent his adman, Tad Devine, to Indiana to film interviews with workers at a stationery company called Ampad. A few months earlier, Ampad, owned by the investment company Romney founded, had bought a factory there and promptly instituted layoffs and wage cuts. Now the Ampad workers unburdened themselves to Devine’s cameras—“I don’t like Romney talking about creating jobs,” said one, “he took all ours away”—and the Kennedy campaign turned the interviews into what the Boston Globe called “a virtual mini-series of ads” that obliterated Romney’s greatest selling point. In the end, Kennedy was reelected by nearly twenty points.

What should Richard Blumenthal do against pro-wrestling mogul Linda McMahon in Connecticut? Once considered a shoo-in to replace Chris Dodd in the Senate, Blumenthal, who theoretically has been preparing for this moment during his twenty years as that state’s attorney general, has run such a disastrous campaign that some of his fellow Democrats are calling him “Martha Coakley in pants.” And his greatest misstep (maybe even more than exaggerating his claims of being a Vietnam veteran) has been not making a bigger issue out of how McMahon made her millions.

Not because World Wrestling Entertainment is tacky—that may or may not bother voters—but because it’s deadly. It’s hard to come up with a firm figure for the number of pro wrestlers who have died prematurely, but Irv Muchnick, author of the book Wrestling Babylon, puts it at over 100. Only one, Owen Hart—who fell 78 feet after a harness lowering him into the ring malfunctioned—has died on the job. Others have later died young from the physical toll from wrestling’s staged but not necessarily fake combat, or succumbed to what Muchnick calls “the cocktail of death”—the steroids, painkillers, and prescription drugs pro wrestlers have felt compelled (and, owing to the WWE’s once nonexistent and now scandalously lax drug-testing polices, been allowed) to take in order for their bodies to meet the “cartoon look” demanded for success. And since the WWE treats its wrestlers as independent contractors, they receive no health insurance; their contracts also contain a “death clause” absolving the WWE of any responsibility should the wrestler suffer an injury or meet an untimely end from the job.

None of this has endeared McMahon to the families of dead wrestlers. Michael Benoit, the father of three-time WWE champion Chris Benoit, who murdered his wife and child before killing himself three years ago, blames his son’s actions on head injuries he suffered in the ring. “I do not understand how in this day and age promoters like the McMahons can get away with the toll of death and shattered bodies,” he recently told a Connecticut paper. Meanwhile, Harley McNaught, whose son, the wrestler Lance Cade, battled an addiction to painkillers before dying of heart failure at the age of 29, recently addressed McMahon via New London’s The Day: “Don’t tell me that you care about these people.”

Their words are a deadly sleeper hold on McMahon’s portrayal of her WWE experience—that of a female executive who, as one of her ads put it, “tamed the traveling show world of professional wrestling, turned it into a global company, and created 500 jobs here in Connecticut.” Indeed, Blumenthal ads featuring Benoit, McNaught, and others hammering away at McMahon for what the WWE did to their family would seem to write themselves. But just in case, I checked with Devine, the mastermind behind the Ampad spots. “When you have someone like Linda McMahon, who is stepping into the political arena after a long career in business, I think voters are very interested in their business background,” he says. And yet, while McMahon is in the process of spending $50 million to help fund a constant stream of attack ads, Blumenthal hasn’t returned any of her fire, much less brought up the WWE in a serious way. His ever-dwindling lead in the polls is now just six points. Pro Wrestling Veterans for Truth, anyone?

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You Gonna Get Ready to Rumble?