Wrestling on Donahue, ’92!

I thought I’d have a look at this as it’s a definite historical curiosity and quite controversial at the time.

The setting: The Phil Donahue Show, talk show with an increasing interest on tabloid stories.

The agenda: Discuss the issues regarding possible gay sex abuse/harassment and steroid usage in the WWF with a number of different players from both sides.

The players:

  • Phil Donahue – host
  • Murray Hodgson – would-be WWF lead announcer
  • Vince McMahon – owner of the WWF
  • Barry Orton – semi-active pro wrestler
  • Tom Hankins – retired pro wrestler
  • Dave Meltzer – premier wrestling journalist
  • John Arezzi – wrestling radio show host
  • Superstar Billy Graham – former WWWF champion, wrestling icon
  • Bruno Sammartino – Living Legend, longest-reigning WWWF champion ever

Let’s get to it!

Phil opens the show with wide eyes and shouting down the camera about the world of wrestling being home to homosexual harassment as the audience laughs. Does the WWF have a casting couch? Is it trivial? Not when kids are involved, which is what is claimed. Also, it’s big business too, allegedly more revenue than was generated by the NFL in 1990.

First up, Murray Hodgson, signed to be a WWF announcer, fired two months later. The reason? He refused to sleep with vice president of the WWF, who he won’t name, but is Pat Patterson. Hodgson is very smooth and well rehearsed with his responses.

Next, Barry O, who clarifies that is issue is not with the WWF, but he has had occasions of being sexually teased in 1978 by two men involved in the issues going on (Patterson and Terry Garvin). Orton was sat between them in a car and they grabbed his body, including his crotch. He tried to see the humour in it at first, but it wasn’t funny. Donahue comments on him being a big guy, not a likely target for sexual harassment, but he was 19 at the time and a lot smaller and not wanting to make waves as he tried to make it.

Then, Tom Hankins, former wrestler. He recalls very specific details about an incident where he was drinking with Patterson, Andre the Giant, Dr. Jerry Graham and Mike LeBell in a bar in LA. He knew Patterson was gay, but it wasn’t a big deal for him. He asked if he could get a tryout as a jobber, which Patterson said he could only get if he let him have oral sex with him. He refused, and the door was closed to him. He only spoke up publicly as moral support for Barry, who people had said was not telling the truth and wasn’t taken seriously.

Donahue references a NY Post story by, who else, Phil Muchnick. Over to Vince, who Phil describes as a successful big shot. Did he look the other way because it would’ve hurt the success of his company? Vince, speaking in a low tone, says absolutely not, and that he has authorised an investigation which he hopes the other guests will assist with. Barry is doubtful about that and says there is no way that Vince didn’t already know about it. Vince doesn’t call him a liar, but words it as something he “doesn’t believe to be the case”. Hankins talks about being blown off by Vince despite multiple calls. Vince says he doesn’t recall the calls from seven years prior in a comic moment.

Hodgson then comes out on the offensive and asks if he believes there is sexual harassment in the WWF. Vince gives a non-committal answer about there being the possibility of sexual harassment of it ANYWHERE. Vince then tries to shut down Murray by saying he was let go because he wasn’t any good and did a horrible job, not because of the Patterson thing. Hodgson then comes back with saying then Vince must not be a very good judge of talent because his employment was the result of an extensive talent search and gets a round of applause after saying he doesn’t buy what Vince is saying. “Said very well, but I believe untrue”, responds Vince. Take it to the police if Pat did anything, Vince challenges. In fact, why hasn’t he done it sooner? They continue battling back and forth, basically different sides of the same coin. Vince says it’s three people who are the target of allegations in a company that employs over 300 people, to try and downplay it a bit.

Phil tries to redirect the show a bit to talking about steroids, referencing Hulk Hogan’s infamous interview on Arsenio Hall’s show and the outcry after that. The relevance of this? Hulk’s face is on every kind of toy for kids. “He’s not quite Mickey Mouse yet!”, says Phil, but he could be getting there. To a break.

Back from the break, Phil welcome Dave Meltzer to the stage, who he claims writes the equivalent of the New York Times of wrestling, which Dave downplays. Terrible mullet and suit on Dave. Also, John Arezzi, in shades as a bad look too. Dave feels wrestling hasn’t had the credit it deserves, but as part of that it means these kinds of things haven’t come up until this point. Phil asks Dave to explain why it’s not a case of ha-ha, and Dave says everyone just wants the truth. Arezzi thinks the allegations of steroid abuse triggered everything else (the famous imprisonment of Dr. George Zahorian). Arezzi was responsible for highlighting things to Phil Muchnick.

Now, Superstar Billy Graham, to a big round of applause, and Phil jokes with him. Superstar talks about how he saw Pat Patterson grabbing an underage by the crotch in New Haven. He also talks about being around when Mel Phillips was caught in a car fellating a boy aged ten. Vince claims to have no knowledge of this or that he was aware of it from talking to his late father. Phil politely accuses Billy of spreading stories that he doesn’t actually have proof of and didn’t see himself. Vince is less diplomatic and says if he’d seen that he would have called the police, not gone round talking about it, which gets him a round of applause. The bad feeling between McMahon and Graham is palpable. Graham ends up bringing up Rick McGraw and his own change in character and his wife’s fury with McMahon for letting him get there. Phil kinda makes fun of him saying he must’ve been REALLY cranky when he was on all the shit he used to be on!

After another break, here’s Bruno, who was previously on Larry King with Vince (I may review that). Bruno says he feels sorry for the people who believe Vince. Between retiring in 1981 and coming back in 1984 the world of wrestling was warped from what he knew. He refers to Vince’s guys as a bunch of “druggies” and says he would only drive with Chief Jay Strongbow when he had to substitute for someone who was on coke because he didn’t want to get pulled over in a car with guys with their bags packed full of shit.

“Why hasn’t this come up before?”, asks Phil. Dave says it’s because there’s never been a forum for it before and wrestling is like the mafia. He brings up the death of Bruiser Brody as an example of “Don’t snitch!”. Phil suggests this isn’t too different from the New York Mets lawsuit brought by Cindy Powell. He then says nobody is gonna drop dead of shock that pot, coke and steroids were used in wrestling, but what needs answering is whether executives looked the other way. He tries to tie the drugs issue to the sexual abuse issue, but it’s a loose fit.

Arezzi brings up having two midget wrestlers on his radio show the night before. Karate Kid alleged that Pat Patterson made advances to him. He went to “the leader of the midget group”, Lord Littlebrook, who told Pat to leave him. They weren’t used again after that beyond one time. He kinda loses his point because his phrasing and retelling of the story sounds so bizarre.

Back to Vince. Two executives and one announcer gone. Was it fair to ask him to let them go? Is Dave Meltzer impressed with his candidness? Dave is glad he’s admitted the possibility of a problem. Dave believes Barry for sure, and Tom and Murray too. Barry admits he’s committed career suicide by coming out with these stories. He says the story he told earlier wasn’t the only bad experience with Garvin and clarifies he’s not homophobic. Vince tries to distance himself from it by saying it was nothing to do with the WWF. Phil paraphrases Barry by saying he must be thinking that if he tried it on with him then he must’ve tried it on with others, but he doesn’t want to get the posse and the rope and the tree limb for Vince, does he? Barry says no, but he can’t believe Vince doesn’t know. Bruno talks about the blackballing that goes on in wrestling that means people don’t speak out.

Phil puts it to Vince that he must’ve known. Vince smiles it out and denies looking the other way because it was such a big risk and that he didn’t know anything about it. The audience groans. He won’t say that yes, he does believe it, but goes back to the “It’s a possibility” response. Phil wonders aloud how threatened wrestling is by all of this.

Back from a break, did Billy Graham introduce wrestling to steroids? Billy says he certainly talked to Hulk Hogan about them in 1977. He takes offence to Hulk lying about it, having injected him a number of times and that Dave Schultz, who was removed from the show, had injected him even more. He starts ranting about it being child abuse to lie to kids about drugs.

A funny bit happens when John Arezzi asks Vince if it’s true he said he was “devastated” by what Hulk said on Arsenio…

Vince: “I wasn’t devastated…”

Dave: “That was the word you used to me, devastated.”

Vince: “Alright then…”

Vince smiles and tilts his head as the audience applaud Dave for catching him in a lie, but he says he doesn’t recall using the word devastated. He thinks Hulk told the truth, but it’s whether he told the whole truth. He tries to turn steroid abuse on Billy Graham and then says it was legal in some states, which Dave disputes with facts.

To the audience, a lady asks Murray, Barry and Tom how many people in the WWF today are performing sexual favours to keep their jobs. They can’t answer that because they don’t know, plus Patterson and Garvin are now gone.

To the phone lines, a lady asks why Vince accepted the resignations if there wasn’t clear proof of them having done anything and wasn’t Mel Phillips suspended? Vince doesn’t really answer the question and said Phillips was a day-to-day worker for them.

A woman in the audience points fingers and says that if they saw something going on they should’ve done something about it. Graham quietly nods, not seeming to know it’s him she’s pointing the finger at, and Barry talks about how he’s done for speaking out and it was a big risk to speak out. Graham then wakes up and goes back to his “child molestation of the mind” ramblings about lying to children. Bruno says they were reported and it was brushed off.

A kid in a Lex Luger t-shirt says it’s a shame that the six people bar Meltzer are accusing Vince when they all have an axe to grind and their own dirty laundry, like Barry being in jail for having killed his girlfriend in a car crash, David Sammartino having been fired for attacking a fan, etc. Bruno laughs him off and says he’s just a kid and doesn’t know what he’s talking about.

A lady asks why people go into wrestling because it’s tacky and they know what they’re getting into when they get into it. For the money, says Phil.

Closing the show, a guy asks what percentage is gay in wrestling. Phil shuts him down: “What percentage is gay in your neighbourhood? Report back to us!”

A lady asks isn’t wrestling fixed anyway. Meltzer says it’s not relevant as the credits run out.

The Bottom Line: Barry Orton was probably telling the truth, but was a lone voice in the wilderness. So was Tom Hankins, supporting him, but it was one story and wasn’t being said loud enough. Hodgkins had the loudest voice of the accusers and the most confidence, but just seemed too prepared and too coached. Things would come out about him later that he might’ve been trying to extort the WWF, which damages his case.

Vince was very non-committal and evasive, probably under legal advice, but was doing some damage control by not going into full denial. Meltzer was probably the most credible speaker on the panel and the one that Vince looked to respect the most. Arezzi got lost in the shuffle. Billy Graham was all bluster and no substance. Bruno was there as well just to gang up on Vince, but at least told the truth or didn’t tell obvious porkies when others (Graham) were.

Where did it end up going? Hodgson, Orton, Hankins and Arezzi all faded into different degrees of obscurity. Vince navigated the steroid trial successfully two years later. Meltzer carried on just fine and is still around, although it’s a very different Dave today. Superstar returned to the good graces of WWE as a Hall of Famer, then got sacked and fell out with them, then made up, then fell out, then made up… Bruno took the longest to appease, but finally accepted the plaudits of WWE on his own terms before dying a few years ago.

Garvin and Phillips, two of the accused, never came back and died years later. Pat Patterson returned to his position a year or so later and stayed as long as he wanted to, through renewed success in his winter years as a stooge.

That’s wrestling!