Body Blow: A history of the WBF from the September 2015 issue of Fighting Spirit Magazine
Since they're talking about it on the newest episodes of The Lapsed Fan...
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This week, Jack Encarnacao and J.P. Sarro’s popular wrestling history and nostalgia podcast, The Lapsed Fan, is covering Vince McMahon’s 1992 World Bodybuilding Federation Championship pay-per-view event in two parts. Since Jack cited my September 2015 Fighting Spirit Magazine article about the WBF in the process, you know what that means: It’s time to go into the stacks and reprint that article!
(Please keep in mind that, as always with FSM articles, they were edited to use British English. Also, though I don’t recall why there wasn’t a citation at the time—this kind of thing used to happen way too often for weird reasons, especially in print—all of the reporting about the WBF announcement at the 1990 Mr. Olympia is sourced from Pimping Iron, Irv Muchnick’s feature on the June 1991 issue of Spy.)
With that out of the way, please enjoy the article, and if you want more audio on the topic, Kris Zellner, myself, and covered the same 1992 PPV last year on Between the Sheets.
Having conquered the pro wrestling business, 25 years ago this month Vince McMahon set his sights on another empire: bodybuilding. However, as David Bixenspan writes, success did not come as naturally to the World Bodybuilding Federation.
In 1990, Vince McMahon had been in the publishing business for nigh on seven years. Being that he was a bodybuilding aficionado, it caused no alarm when he launched Bodybuilding Lifestyles, a magazine that was his take on the genre that included Flex, Muscle And Fitness and others. Those two titles were published by the empire of Joe Weider, the man who controlled the sport via his International Federation of Bodybuilding. Throughout the summer of 1990, there were rumours that Bodybuilding Lifestyles was going to lead to a Titan Sports- produced IFBB competitor, which the former denied. That September at Mr Olympia, the IFBB’s biggest competition, booths were sold to fitness-related exhibitors, including rival magazines. Titan secured a spot, guaranteeing a big splash to its target audience.
After the competition itself ended, retired bodybuilder/Bodybuilding Lifestyles spokesman Tom Platz hit the stage, as the $5,000 Titan spent also netted it some prime advertising time. When Platz started speaking, he cut to the chase.
“I have a very important announcement to make. We at Titan Sports are proud to announce the formation of the World Bodybuilding Federation.
“And we are going to kick the IFBB’s ass!”
Women in evening gowns then entered the room and handed out flyers that promised “dramatic new events and the richest prize money in the history of the sport.” The 1990 Mr Olympia was thus the beginning of yet another in a long line of promotional wars for Vince McMahon. This time, though, he was much less concerned with his rival than he was taking over the world... through bodybuilding.
While not quite as ridiculous then as it sounds 25 years later, when bodybuilding barely exists to the general public, it was still a considerably tall order, especially since McMahon had hopes of it out-grossing professional wrestling.
When you consider that the Weiders gave Platz stage time, they had to have been taken by surprise. They shouldn’t have been; the WWF’s parent company had actually been contacting bodybuilders going back well over a year, and some had told the Weiders about it. Shawn Ray, who had placed third behind Lee Labrada and winner Lee Haney minutes earlier, was one of them. Ray was disillusioned with IFBB politics, having been suspended for a year due to a misunderstanding regarding proof of an injury that kept him out of the first Arnold Classic.
“That’s when I heard the rumblings that there would potentially be a new federation, that Vince McMahon was heading it, and that Tom Platz was recruiting athletes. This was all on the down-low,” Ray told FSM. “[The suspension] didn’t sit well with me, which was the time that Vince was constructing this new federation. I was 24 years old. It sounded very good to me at the time, and here, I was being offer a potential opportunity that would give me a guaranteed salary. But, they would get back to me.”
Thankfully for Ray, they did.
“They were planting the seeds in my head that in 1990, some things were gonna happen, and I was at the top of their list. Now, being at the top of the list of a Vince McMahon, who’s well-funded, sounded really good to me.”
At the time, Ray was making about $40,000 annually from Weider Publications, as well
as additional income from prize money and appearances, so he decided that he would jump if the money was right. That feeling got stronger when he was stripped of the 1990 Arnold Classic championship for failing the drug test, though he wasn’t suspended by the IFBB.
“It did solidify to me at that time that if the WBF called me back, I would be all ears,” Ray recalled. When he met with Joe Weider to verify that he could compete in Mr Olympia, he mentioned the WBF talks and agreed to give the IFBB first right of refusal. Weider promised that if he passed his drug test and did well, he’d be “substantially rewarded”, something he could also use as a bargaining chip against the WBF. Ray came in third at Mr Olympia, and knew that he had a bright future. Before long, he was invited to Titan Towers.
“Naturally, I was excited. I had just won $18,000 at Mr Olympia, which wasn’t lost to Vince McMahon.” McMahon and Tom Platz explained their goal of recruiting an all-star team à la expansion era WWF, and presented a solid dollar figure for the first time. As they kept going, though, Ray’s mood soured.
“They explained to me that it was gonna be ‘entertainment bodybuilding’. They only had one show on the calendar, and it sounded like the pecking order was gonna be based on what you were being paid. The highest-paid guy was gonna be the winner, and I wasn’t the highest-paid guy.”
Where the WBF erred in negotiations was taking too much time dealing with a close-knit community. Everyone was comparing both the pay and contract length, and that’s when Ray saw that the money wasn’t based on metrics like IFBB competition placement. His training partner, Troy Zuccolotto, was offered more money in spite of never having competed as a professional.
“To me, that was the dealbreaker, that they would offer a guy that never competed as a pro more than me, and I just got third in the Mr Olympia.”
The 5ft 7in Ray was also the youngest competitor, with theoretically the most years left, yet was offered less than the much larger Gary Strydom, whom Ray had just beaten at Mr Olympia. Ray went back to negotiate, and the WBF wouldn’t budge.
“They liked the big, big guys, and Gary had a strong persona, and was gonna be their flagship [star]. Before Thanksgiving 1990, I decided I had a better opportunity to win the Mr Olympia, and be the number one bodybuilder in the world, [rather] than go on a two-year experiment run with no guarantees of a third or fourth year contractual raise, or even that the Federation would last.”
He went back to Weider, making a deal that had less guaranteed money, but that worked out better: by the time he retired in 2001, he had placed in the top five in every Mr Olympia but his first, and had been on more Flex covers than any bodybuilder.
COULD THIS BE MAGIC?
On January 30, 1991, the WBF held a press conference at the Plaza Hotel in New York. Illustrating the hopes it had at the start, Tom Platz told the assembled media a whopper: “I look forward to the day when a WBF superstar is on an airplane and a tall black man looks over and says, ‘Hey, I saw you on TV last night.’ And that tall black man is Magic Johnson.”
One reporter asked Platz if the WBF would drug test and, if so, what the penalties would be. Platz said yes, they’d be testing, but in lieu of penalties, it would be on an educational basis.
Titan signed 13 “WBF bodystars”: Aaron Baker, Mike Christian (fourth at the 1990 Olympia; the only top five finisher to jump), Vince Comerford, David Dearth, Berry DeMey, Johnnie Morant, Danny Padilla, Tony Pearson, Jim Quinn, Mike Quinn, Eddie Robinson, Gary Strydom, and Troy Zuccolotto. Shawn Ray noted that “Vince got a lot of castaways. There was no-one in there that had the pedigree of the people that chose not to go.” Strydom and Christian were national champions who had done well in Mr Olympia, but the roster also included 40-year-old Danny “The Giant Killer” Padilla, who was effectively retired, and Tony Pearson, who was decorated in the 1970s, but past his prime.
Meanwhile, the inaugural Bodybuilding Lifestyles had hit newsstands a month earlier. With little else to talk about on the sporting side, it was the opposite of the WWF in that it didn’t ignore the competition. However, it used the space to bash the Weiders;
Mr Olympia was covered heavily, but framed as badly run and improperly judged. This first edition somehow had a letters page, including a note from a “reader” who criticised Muscle And Fitness, accusing Joe Weider of self-aggrandisement by shoehorning 224 mentions of his name (they counted) into a recent issue. Unlike Weider’s magazines, steroids were not mentioned at all, but that would change.
The Weider side ignored the WBF publicly until late-February, when it published an article signed by Ben Weider, Joe’s brother and IFBB co-founder, who dissected the rights taken away by a WBF contract.
“If you wish to learn what the World Wrestling/ Bodybuilding Federation is all about, you should read their contract,” began one paragraph. “This contract will expose their desire of total control of the athlete, the removal of all individual professional freedom, and a contract that is so one-sided that any attorney would advise his/her client against signing it.”
Shawn Ray outlined the importance of that, noting, “I didn’t give away my brand. In the WBF contract, they owned the rights to your name, your likeness, your image, anything you were marketing or selling, including videos, clothing, and 8x10s. You couldn’t make any independent appearances, unless it was through the WBF, and they would get the monetary compensation for it, because they owned you.”
LET BATTLE COMMENCE
A few weeks before the first WBF championship event on June 15 in Atlantic City, the war heated up. The IFBB Night Of Champions in New York opened with a graveyard set on the Beacon Theatre’s stage. There were 13 tombstones, each bearing the name of a WBF performer. Cue a group of IFBB bodybuilders, who destroyed the tombstones with sledgehammers. As much as the WBF is remembered for being over
the top, the first WBF Championship was reasonably subdued. Shot for later home video release and recapped on WWF TV, the long-promised pomp and circumstance was limited to Regis Philbin as celebrity host, strong production values, real-life personality profiles, gimmicky nicknames and stage entrances that were influenced by them. While Aaron Baker was “The Dark Angel”, all that really meant was that he wore a wacky costume as he was lowered to the stage on an elevator platform. It was goofy, but it was not a gigantic change for bodybuilding, and rather just modified posing. The only wrestling-style theatrics came from Mike Quinn, who closed his profile with a promo and was put over as the athlete most supportive of the WBF concept.
There was some sleight of hand in promoting the show: while it was claimed that the WBF offered the biggest prize money in bodybuilding history, including a $100,000 first prize, a bodybuilder only got that money if it exceeded his annual salary. Strydom, with his $400,000 annual deal, won the championship (and thus no additional money), while second highest-paid, Mike Christian, was runner-up.
The placements were known within bodybuilding circles before the show, and even if they hadn’t been, Strydom was clearly positioned as the star. Not only did he go on last, but when the top five were introduced, they were arranged so that Strydom stood in the middle. Bodybuilding journalist Peter McGough soon reported that the fix was in, which didn’t surprise anyone in wrestling. McMahon, for his part, denied it, telling wrestling historian Dave Meltzer that “[it] was a complete shoot. I didn’t care who won. All were of equal personality to me. I hadn’t even met any of the judges before the contest, although I knew of Dave Draper and Fred Hatfield by reputation. The Weider organisation is doing everything they can to discredit us.”
With the first show out of the way, a new problem emerged within days, one that Titan should have foreseen: the steroid issue was about to be blown wide open in the mainstream.
THE STEROID SCANDAL
The steroid distribution trial of Dr George Zahorian, a Pennsylvania urologist and former state athletic commission ringside physician, didn’t come out of nowhere. He had been indicted in early-1990, but there was little media interest in the case until his lawyer, William C. Costopoulos, released the list of wrestlers to whom he was charged with distributing drugs. The biggest name on that list was Hulk Hogan.
The WWF went into panic mode, refusing comment to any news organisation, including the broadcast networks’ evening news shows. After a few days, it released a statement, accusing Costopoulos of “utilising the media in a ‘bait and switch’ defence.” The statement closed by saying that “[to] insure the safety and well-being of our performers, fans and employees, in June 1987 the WWF adopted a drug policy prohibiting the use of controlled substances in connection with any of its professional activities.” That wasn’t entirely true, as it tested for just one controlled substance: cocaine. That started after The Iron Sheik and Jim Duggan were arrested together on drug charges while working as bitter rivals on TV.
Hogan didn’t testify in the case. In lawyer Jerry McDevitt’s first collaboration with the WWF, he filed a sealed motion to get Hogan excused because Zahorian had treated him for a legitimate medical condition that would be publicly embarrassing. Since he wasn’t vital to the case, it worked, and that charge against Zahorian was dropped. Still, when it came to the WWF and Hogan being branded as a steroid user, the damage had been done, especially since the wire services didn’t report on his removal from the case.
On July 16, Vince McMahon held another press conference in New York where anyone considered “wrestling media” (including mainstream newspaper writers like Alex Marvez) were either banned or told it wasn’t happening. McMahon opened by dropping a bomb: “Approximately three-and-a-half, four years ago, I personally experimented with deca-durabolin for a short period of time. It was supplied to me by Dr Zahorian.” He then said that Titan would implement a comprehensive steroid testing programme covering both the WWF and WBF.
With almost a year until the next competition, there was time to get to work. Dr Fred Hatfield, a decorated former powerlifter with a doctorate in the social science of sport who served as Weider’s Director of Research and Development, was hired away to fill the same role for Titan Sports. Hatfield outlined his responsibilities when speaking to FSM.
“My principle job was to come in and develop a line of nutritional alternatives that athletes could use in their quest for bigger size and strength, and also so that the wrestlers in the WWF could [do likewise].”
He brought in Canadian physician Dr Mauro Di Pasquale to head the drug testing programme, which raised some eyebrows because Di Pasquale was known as the guy to go to if you wanted to learn how to beat the tests. That said, it also made sense that he’d know how to spot doping.
Hatfield’s duties also included researching how his combined diet and training programme would work for the average person. The end result was a product line called IcoPro (Intergrated Conditioning Programme). Titan produced IcoPro to market on WWF programming, in its magazines, and on a new TV show called WBF Bodystars (a time-buy on USA Network in 1992).
“I was quite proud of IcoPro, and I still am,” Hatfield noted. “Bodybuilders didn’t like it – they like juice (steroids). The athletes in general didn’t like it because they knew that steroids work remarkably well at helping people recover from intense training.”
When the WWF testing started, McMahon explained to Dave Meltzer that not only would they be tested, but the WBF would be more stringent than the WWF testing because the bodybuilders knew how to beat the tests. McMahon mentioned a meeting he had conducted with the bodybuilders, going into specifics about what was discussed, what the bodybuilders had asked, and so on.
There’s just one problem with that: there was no meeting, at least not by this time. It ended up taking place in early-1992, at the height of the WWF’s steroid and sexual harassment scandals, with Gary Strydom asking about everything McMahon had told Meltzer had been discussed months earlier.
The run-up to the 1992 WBF Championship was seemingly about securing crossover hooks. Bodybuilder turned The Incredible Hulk star Lou Ferrigno was signed for a comeback. The WWF’s week on game show Family Feud was the WWF versus WBF, with the bodybuilders as babyfaces against heel wrestlers and managers. And at WrestleMania VIII, a new signee was announced: Lex Luger, fresh off losing the WCW title in a match where he was such a neon sign that WCW Executive Vice President Kip Frey apologised for his superhuman appearance. Luger was able to get out of his WCW contract on the proviso that he didn’t do any wrestling for the remaining year
– time he wanted off anyway – and legally, it stuck.
More effort and money was thrown at the WBF, but the landscape was changing. Drug testing was a reality and led to visible changes on the WWF side, which didn’t necessarily make wrestlers clean: testing records filed as exhibits in The Ultimate Warrior’s final lawsuit against WWE showed that he was never punished for failing a drug test. In 1993, Warrior told a federal grand jury that the wrestlers were frustrated by a perceived double standard.
“I have never seen anyone taking steroids, but I have been working out in gyms for 20 years, and I know when somebody is and is not, and I know the bodybuilders were taking steroids.”
“The athletes finally figured out that they could purposefully get themselves caught, so that they could get themselves suspended, and under suspension, they’d go back on that juice, get themselves back in shape, and beg their way back into favour with Vince,” commented Dr Hatfield. “It worked out that way; it wasn’t planned that way.”
Whatever the case was, Titan looked for a silver lining by turning it into a marketing angle: they trademarked a slogan (with accompanying logos) for the WWF and WBF promising “100% tested prime beef”, seemingly referencing the idea they had the most impressive drug-free athletes in sports.
Around the time it became clear that the bodybuilders would be tested, Ferrigno pulled out due to a flare-up of carpal tunnel syndrome. That left Luger as guest poser for theoretical crossover appeal, but he broke his arm in a motorcycle accident days before the 1992 event. The only direct pro wrestling appeal left on the show, which aired live on pay-per-view, was Gene Okerlund as host with Vince McMahon, and Bobby Heenan joining Tom Platz on commentary. Onstage, the show was tweaked into something akin to a Vince McMahon fever dream.
The personality profiles were gone, replaced by pre-recorded skits dealing with the bodybuilders living out their nicknames/alleged personas, inevitably ending with them stripped down to posing trunks and walking onto the stage, where the entertainment continued. Eddie “Major Guns” Robinson showed up with a machine gun full of blanks, using it to shoot ninjas that attacked from all over the theatre. Danny Padilla had a Jack And The Beanstalk-themed skit, did a normal posing routine, and then battled a giant onstage as McMahon offered a huge belly laugh. Mike Quinn was a mixed bag: on one hand, he was even more committed to the WBF’s vision than before, in his skit entering through the crowd after breaking out of jail, doing an elaborate dance routine, and lip-syncing his own rap song. On the other hand, he was noticeably overweight by pro bodybuilding standards. The result was McMahon, in his excited announcer’s voice, screaming about Quinn’s physique being noticeably inferior to 1991.
Those were the best of the lot, and as Shawn Ray put it, “the fans were looking to see a bodybuilding show, and they got guys who were doing everything but bodybuilding.” Even if a bodybuilding fan was open to it, if they only read Weider’s magazines they would know nothing about it in the first place, in a key factor that had eluded McMahon.
Also on the show, Heenan and Platz repeatedly compared the proceedings favourably to a Broadway play, while Platz and McMahon pushed the competitors as being “drug-free” and “without steroids”. Soon after the show, in a report later confirmed by Muscle Mag International, the Muscle Beach newsletter reported that 10 of the bodybuilders had failed drug tests, with suspensions ending just before the competition.
In the end, Strydom won again. Nobody cared; advance sales were so low that some cable companies dropped the show at the last minute. The pay-per-view was purchased by approximately 3,000 homes, 0.02% of the pay-per-view universe at the time, and 1.2% of the 250,000 buys generated by 1992’s lowest-drawing WWF supercard, Survivor Series. After the first show, McMahon could delude himself into thinking there was potential for success, as there was no pay-per-view and the home video was – like most WWF releases – priced at $59.95, with video rental stores being the primary market.
After the 1992 show, it couldn’t be more clear: wrestling fans and the general public didn’t want the WBF or anything like it.
FLYING THE WHITE FLAG
Quickly, the World Bodybuilding Federation vanished. WBF Bodystars ended after an episode built around a shoot tug of war where the bodybuilders lost to a team of WWF heels. WBF Magazine folded, with Titan issuing a press release claiming that “[with] the absence of WBF Magazine, which has been perceived as a barrier by some,
the WBF is hopeful that there can be a more co- operative relationship among the many organisations within the bodybuilding industry.” IcoPro lasted well into 1993, as did Gary Strydom with his three-year contract, and Eddie Robinson, who became the IcoPro spokesman. Other than a Lex Luger returning to the ring, IcoPro was the one lone remnant of the WBF on WWF television after the summer of 1992.
For most of the WBF bodystars, their outlaw status was the beginning of the end. Anyone who wanted back in the IFBB had to pay a substantial fine; none who did were re-signed by the Weider magazines. Years of guaranteed money for one show a year and not needing to hustle for appearances led to bad habits of all kinds among the WBF talent, and not doing appearances hurt interest in and awareness of them as individuals. Gary Strydom, who Shawn Ray says “created a life for himself from being the two-time WBF champion” still “failed miserably” upon his return to the IFBB.
For guys like Ray and those who followed him, the WBF was great. It was just a bargaining chip, but it kept the Weiders on their toes and led to long-term pay scale improvements.
As for Vince McMahon, his reputation changed forever. No longer was he a marketing genius; he was just “the wrestling guy”, a title he’s spent the last 25 years trying to shake.
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