Dark Side of the Ring – The Steroid Trials

Back once again with the 1994 WWF steroids trials!

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So, the WWF became the biggest promotion in wrestling in the eighties, but a big part of that was with larger-than-life superstars who may not have achieved their proportions through just training, saying their prayers and eating their vitamins. The bubble started bursting at the end of that decade and really took effect in the nineties. This episode provides and abbreviated version of that.

Jerry McDevitt is presented first as the defender of Vince McMahon and the WWF for thirty years, then and now. Jim Ross lauds him as the best lawyer he’s ever met. Wade Keller adds that he’s brash, intimidating and fearless.

Dave Meltzer joins the conversation to say that no matter how successful Vince was, it wouldn’t have been without Hulk Hogan. John Arezzi of the Pro Wrestling Spotlight show adds that the WWF became cartoonish with monstrous characters like the Ultimate Warrior and the Warlord. Warlord, still a monster today, turns up to speak for himself and others on the subject of steroid usage.

The conduit for steroids and pills to wrestler was ringside medic Dr. George Zahorian of Allentown. He was a big wrestling fan and even appeared on TV. After he’d checked blood pressure he opened up his shop in a bag. Brian Blair was someone who was a customer of his and talks about the pressure of keeping up appearances. The producers use a very well selected promo of him and Jim Brunzell with Blair talking about how the Hulkster had encouraged them to muscle up at a time where steroid usage was becoming a hot button issue.

McDevitt discusses how there was no requirement for the steroid manufacturers to advise on usage and dosage and that it was for athletic enhancement. That meant no guidance on the damage it could do as well, so it was reclassified in 1990 and talked about in the same breath as coke and meth.

The government targeted a weightlifting coach called Bill Dunn (not the WWF ring announcer), who pointed them in the direction of Zahorian, his supplier. He met him while wired and the good doctor described himself as a “cash and carry”, which didn’t sit well in a line of work where it’s about people being well, not doctors having their own sidelines.

The Zahorian sting pinged on the radar of Linda McMahon, who instructed Pat Patterson to tell the doctor to go on a long holiday as far as they were concerned. Blair got a knock on the door from the FBI who told him they’d intercepted three of his packages from George with steroids in, so he had to work with them and testify under threat of prosecution otherwise. Federal Express also showed records of stuff being sent to slightly bigger stars too, namely Roddy Piper and Hulk Hogan.

McDevitt was hired to block Hogan from having to testify. They did get Piper, though. The argument for Hogan not testifying was under medical privacy restrictions, as there had been conversations about Hulk and his wife trying to have a baby. Phil Mushnick then enters the conversation as someone who says while the argument was that it might have been injurious to his career that it should have been, as it was a contradiction of his public image and his private behaviour.

McDevitt comes out with a classic about a journalist saying to him that Ronald Reagan having to testify in the Oliver North case, so why didn’t Hulk have to here? McDevitt’s response was “Maybe Reagan should’ve gotten a better lawyer”.

Zahorian was found guilty of selling steroids to wrestlers in an illegitimate manner, with Vince and Hulk getting tarnished by a reference to it in the last day of the trial, so they both entered into damage control, with Vince calling a press conference and talking about the WWF aspiring for drug-free performance. Worse than that, though, was Hulk going onto Arsenio Hall’s show and telling fibs downplaying his own steroid usage, which even Meltzer describes as a no-win even if he’d just told the truth. Keller is far more blunt and says that Hogan weaseled his way down to a lesser impact, which was still disastrous. McDevitt did discuss the appearance with Hulk, but won’t say what was said under the cover of it being privileged information. It really damaged the Vince/Hulk relationship.

Vince then went on Donahue with the likes of Arezzi and Meltzer and got caught in his own lie, when Arezzi asked him if he’d described his reaction as being “devastated” with what Hulk said, which Vince denied and Meltzer jumped straight in with an awesomely timed “That’s what you told me!”. McMahon’s facial expressions are deconstructed, as they should be, and Meltzer justifiably defends himself on calling out the lie. He doesn’t have much more to add, but Arezzi recalls his mother getting a knock on the door and her being told that he lives in a “dangerous neighbourhood”. McDevitt says he has a vivid imagination and asks who cares about John Arezzi enough to do that.

Vince started crying wolf about being ganged up on and the innocent victim of hit pieces, which McDevitt endorses. Mushnick hits back that McDevitt was using tactics straight out of Central Casting and sarcastically admits he’s flattered that they saw him as such a firebrand. McDevitt was present when the WWF got their first subpoena to commence the government investigation. He readied himself for a “witch hunt”.

Witnesses began to be gathered for testimony. McDevitt felt they were under constant scrutiny (no shit), so he began to educate himself on steroids. Vince called Mushnick an FBI informant, which again McDevitt backs, and Mushnick meets them halfway on the allegation: all the FBI had to do was read his columns, as they did, and they acted on it. A group called Fairfax, former FBI agents, trailed him, to the point of him drinking with one of them and knocking his job and just showing a general “couldn’t give a fuck” attitude about it.

James Stewart, Vince’s former driver, popped his head up to add to transporting steroids for McMahon, but McDevitt says he caught him in a lie on the stand and he was dismissed. Stewart declined to respond to that or participate in the show.

Hulk Hogan had to be phased out with how much stink he had on him, so Bret Hart was his replacement under bitter feelings. After he was gone, Vince was indicted. Vince had the support of some in his circle of friends, which is recreated brilliantly in one of the dramatized scenes in the episode, with McDevitt patting him on the back in front of the clients of a restaurant.

Arezzi describes the trial as a circus, with newsletter writers showing up and Vince debuting his chic neck brace for sympathy, plus a scared Shane and Stephanie coming along to support their dad. Vince played it like a babyface and booked his surgery to coincide with the trial so that he wouldn’t appear on TV with it on, says McDevitt. More on that later.

The Ultimate Warrior and Hulk Hogan were called to testify, which would obviously be potentially very damaging. A conflict of interest was cited with McDevitt representing Vince, so Laura Brevetti took over as his personal defence and McDevitt switched to just defending the WWF. Warlord was another one who was called and said that he just told the truth, that McMahon never said to him that if he didn’t use steroids then he wouldn’t have a job. The interviewer questions his comment about never having bought from Zahorian. Warlord’s response: his prices were too high.

Guys like Warrior and a clean shaven Rick Rude testified that they had used steroids before ever having met Zahorian, which damaged the idea that he was McMahon’s personal dealer to the stars. They were also reticent to burn any bridges. Nailz was the opposite, he sang the song that he was told to muscle up, but the case presented against him was that he wrestled in the orange jumpsuit, so why would he need to look muscular? He was written off as an idiot who didn’t know what he was talking about and just had an axe to grind.

Zahorian himself was brought in to testify. He kept on harping about a letter in which he talked about how he was dragged all over the US in heavy restraints and placed around seriously bad dudes in nasty conditions. They were seemingly trying to torture him in to saying that he was in place for providing drugs for wrestlers on Vince’s say-so.

Vince’s former PA Emily Feinberg had records and knowledge on McMahon and his personal steroid usage. Laura Brevetti seemed to rip her apart on the stand, anticipating everything she was about to say. Turned out that her secret husband was ringing around and getting all the info to stack the case. Mushnick even got a call from him, as did Meltzer, digging for more dirt. Mushnick told him to go screw himself and used his own connections to find out that the guy was not legit and was just sniffing around. Feinberg was more gullible, because he’d sold her on the idea of writing a book. McDevitt denies witness tampering occurred. Vince went on a rant on WWF programme, which nobody needed to hear except him, about “yellow journalism”.

Ultimately, the prosecutors couldn’t make the connections based on location. Mushnick questions why they couldn’t have just prosecuted him around Long Island, implying McMahon had an angel on his shoulder to help out with that. McDevitt says Feinberg’s statements weren’t strong enough and they countered them with documentation that disproved her unsure statements.

Hulk came up to testify, with a big rift between him and Vince and an expectation, as Arezzi suggests, that he would be the one to send Vince up the river. He didn’t. The case was at that point hedging on that, so it collapsed. It seemed more like even though they weren’t making up, they were just going their own way and not burning each other, although it didn’t stop Hulk from getting a PPV plug in outside the courthouse.

The prosecutor had gone from calm and reserved to blowing his top by the end of the trial as it all came down around him. McDevitt pours scorn upon him as unprofessional, but at that point not going to do any more harm so they let him get it out of his system. Meltzer puts it down as a great speech, but it didn’t have any real impact other than making Stephanie McMahon cry outside in the hallway. Jerry contrives a tear as he recalls comforting her.

McDevitt pulled out an ace about a dangerous steroid called Anavar, which prompted the jury to ask questions about regulation and it not being removed from the market, shooting the government case further in the foot. He posited it as the government having a hard-on for the McMahons and not wanting to get them. He says he had no considerations about losing, but at the same time says he could hear his heart beating as they got to the conclusion because of how often people were found guilty in federal court.

Vince was found not guilty, prompting a jubilant response. Meltzer talks about while Vince didn’t go down, it was never going to take away the steroids stigma from wrestling. Vince got a bigger chip on his shoulder than ever and threatened payback was coming (it never did). At the end, Jerry talks about them celebrating over cocktails and “joking” that Vince could take the neck brace off now. And off it came, with Vince swinging it around his head like a trophy.

Melting it down: Shouldn’t be hard to read my reaction. Keller and Mushnick were admirable in shooting completely straight and Meltzer was far better than I’d normally give him credit for. Warlord made minimal contributions, not that I think anyone would expect otherwise. And McDevitt is the guy who you’d hire if you’d stabbed the queen and would talk about how terrible it was of her to fall on you and get her blood on your knife. No shock that he and Vince are joined at the hip. Great show.