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Vince McMahon's Failed Attempt to Take Over The World of Bodybuilding

How the IFBB survived its greatest challenge: the WBF.

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Vince McMahon's attempt to take over bodybuilding
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In the pre-internet age of April 1990, whispers began to circulate that Vince McMahon, head of the World Wrestling Federation (now WWE), was about to launch a bodybuilding magazine. The word was that it would act as a precursor to establishing a bodybuilding federation that would usurp the preeminence then enjoyed by the International Federation of Bodybuilders (IFBB). The WWF refuted claims of a new federation being launched, saying they only had plans to produce a magazine, and as part of their publishing team they hired Tom Platz, just about the most popular bodybuilder of that era. 

The new magazine was to be called Bodybuilding Lifestyles, and to promote its December 1990 release, McMahon hired booth space at that year’s Mr. Olympia contest, which was staged in Chicago. So it was on September 15 at the Windy City’s Arie Crown Theater, just as Lee Haney was awarded his seventh Sandow, a clutch of Bodybuilding Lifestyles personnel in Trojan horse fashion went around the audience handing out a press release announcing the launch of the World Bodybuilding Federation (WBF). The release stated that the WBF would "Revamp professional bodybuilding with dramatic new events and the richest prize money in the history of the sport."

THE WBF TEAM

Throughout the fall and winter of 1990, the WBF went on a recruiting drive flying top-class bodybuilders to their Stamford, CT headquarters to seal their individual deals. The fruits of their labors were finally presented at a lavish press conference staged at New York’s Plaza Hotel on January 13, 1991. There, McMahon introduced his WBF stable of 13 athletes. They were: Aaron Baker, Mike Christian, Vince Comerford, David Dearth, Berry DeMey, Johnnie Morant, Danny Padilla, Tony Pearson, Jim Quinn, Mike Quinn, Eddie Robinson, Gary Strydom, and Troy Zuccolotto.

The depth and quality of the WBF squad caused Joe Weider to sign more athletes at higher rates than had been the norm so as to keep them within the IFBB. McMahon had splurged megabucks to assemble his team, with Gary Strydom reportedly inking a three-year contract worth $400,000 per year. At the press conference, they announced their first World Championships would be held in Atlantic City on June 15, 1991, at the now-defunct Taj Mahal Casino, which was owned by Donald Trump at the time. They promised they would be making further signings but no more were ever made, although there was a highly publicized to-and-fro over obtaining Lou Ferrigno’s services before he decided to stay with the IFBB.

The Atlantic City contest on June 15 was heavily promoted through WWF’s mainstream TV programming, and it was a pay-per-view event. From the get-go, it was clear the WBF's approach to bodybuilding was focused more on showbiz than show-me-the-muscle. Before each competitor came onstage there was a two-minute video of each, highlighting the persona the WBF had attached to them. Thus, we had Troy Zuccolotto appearing as a California beach boy, complete with surfboard and four bikini-clad girls; Berry DeMey re-invented as a Dutch James Bond; Gary Strydom presented as a man-about town complete with top hat and cane. There were no direct muscle-group-to-muscle-group comparisons. The guys just posed, and then the results were announced: Strydom, first; Mike Christian, second; Berry DeMey, third. To seasoned bodybuilding fans, it was a farce. Despite almost universal criticism, the WBF pressed ahead and announced the 1992 World Championships would be held in Long Beach, CA.

THE SMOKING GUN

But even as the 1991 contest concluded, the WWF had become embroiled in an ever-widening drug scandal. It involved Dr. George Zahorian from Hershey, PA, who had been indicted for supplying performance-enhancing drugs to certain individuals. Among them were wrestlers Hulk Hogan, "Rowdy" Roddy Piper, and a succession of other grapplers affiliated with the WWF. When the names of those wrestlers were made public in June 1991, it became mainstream news, with USA Today running a front-page story asking, “Hulk: Bulk from a Bottle?” On June 25, Zahorian was found guilty on multiple counts and sentenced to three years in prison.

Three weeks later, McMahon announced he would be invoking drug testing for his wrestlers. The WBF had avoided mainstream scrutiny but such is the steroid stereotype attached to bodybuilding that the last thing the WWF needed was to be connected with a sport notorious for drug use. It would be like Charlie Sheen claiming sobriety while purchasing a whisky distillery. 

Against that background, the 1992 WBF Championships still took place in Long Beach on June 13. Three months prior to the event, it was announced the WBF competitors would be drug tested. Sad to say, most of those that competed were far from their best as Strydom won again with Jim Quinn second and Aaron Baker third. It was the WBF’s death knell, and a month later, on July 15, McMahon placed a conference call to Joe and Ben Weider calling them the fathers of bodybuilding and informed them he was ceasing production of the bodybuilding magazine and closing down the WBF. It was reported that McMahon had lost $15 million due to his foray into bodybuilding.

In 1990, after the launch of the WBF, the IFBB announced that those joining the new organization would never be allowed to return to the IFBB. By February 1993, that ruling was rescinded but only on the condition that the former renegades pay a fine, which was 10 percent of whatever their WBF salaries were. Of the 13 WBF athletes, Mike Christian and Vince Comerford never competed again. And of those 11 who did renew their IFBB career, only Aaron Baker and Mike Quinn ever qualified for an Olympia.

Postscript: The 1991 Zahorian conviction led to further investigations and escalated to the level of McMahon being charged with conspiring to distribute drugs to WWE wrestlers. On July 23, 1994, after an 18-day trial he was acquitted of all charges.

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