This week marks the 21st anniversary of opening arguments in the remarkable federal drug trafficking prosecution of World Wrestling Entertainment chairman Vince McMahon. Tell that to even many well-informed wrestling fans, and they'll think you'd invented it on the spot. This trial is a singular moment in the annals of sports executive history, and yet has somehow disappeared from the popular memory with uncommon speed. Wrestling has a short memory as a general rule, but there's something shocking about how fully, and how quickly, this case has vanished.
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In 1993, McMahon was charged by the U.S. Attorney for the Eastern District of New York with routinely obtaining anabolic steroids for his stable of strongmen, and employing a shady Pennsylvania doctor with an easy hand on the prescription pad to ensure regular shipments of juice to then-WWF headquarters at "Titan Tower" in Stamford, Connecticut. The trial ended in a schmozz, with a mish-mash of sloppy legal errors and underwhelming witness testimony — including that of an uncommonly subdued Hulk Hogan — securing McMahon's acquittal on all charges. The spectacle of a high-profile federal trial hinging on the prima facie evidence of one Rowdy Roddy Piper seems scarcely possible. But it happened.
As in wrestling, perhaps strangest of all was what happened outside the main arena — a strange story of unscrupulous quacks, jittery informants, exploited wrestlers, shredded documents, a high-level tip-off, and, perhaps, a cover-up that may have kept Vince McMahon from serving up to eight years in federal prison.
Today, Dr. George Zahorian practices urology in Hershey, Pennsylvania. If a more mundane sentence could be written, I'm not aware of it. But what a patient of Cocoa Urology Associates might not know is that the man performing their cystoscopy was, at one time, the fulcrum of a criminal probe which threatened to topple Vince McMahon's billion dollar sports empire. It was the unlikely town of Hershey, which, in the late 1980s, "was one of the wrestlers' favorite vacation stops," according to former WWF wrestler Roderick Toombs. Better known as Tartan pseudo-heel Rowdy Roddy Piper, Toombs recounts in his memoirs that it was not the chocolate drawing his pals to Pennsylvania: "The doc was an extremely nice and very popular urologist who would supply various drugs to the wrestlers."
1984 was a good year for trash in America, on balance. Reagan had been reelected, Steve Jobs was already getting unbearable, and the first man ever to escape the Camel Clutch had ushered in "Hulkamania." Pro wrestling, historically a podunk pastime, had by the mid-80s officially captured a chunk of the pop culture terrain, with MTV cross-branding and late-night talk show spots lending the sport unprecedented visibility. Vince McMahon's genius was to see the future of wrestling not as a sport, but as sports entertainment — a grand running spectacle, concatenated by lucrative, periodic pay-per-view specials, and further monetized by endless merchandizing. Whereas the ambitions of previous promoters had barely extended beyond their individual fiefdoms, McMahon saw global potential in the transformation of wrestling into a live-action cartoon.
The cartoonish aesthetic cultivated by McMahon in this era extended to the actual bodies of his employees. Jim "Ultimate Warrior" Hellwig did not simply wake up one morning as the horrific humanoid offspring of the shipping thug from "Steamboat Willie." The use of anabolic steroids and human growth hormones were endemic to the WWF of this era, prizing as it did the supercharged physiques of its stars. That is where the murky subject of Dr. Zahorian's deeper involvement with pro wrestling originates.
From 1984 to 1989, Zahorian, who had first come into contact with the WWF as a state-appointed ringside physician for live wrestling matches in Pennsylvania, supplied loyal patients like Hulk Hogan, Piper, Moondog Rex, Ultimate Warrior, and Vince McMahon himself with a pharmacy's worth of juice, gas, and painkillers; he shipped packages of drugs to coliseums, homes, and even WWF headquarters in Stamford. As the journalist Weldon T. Johnson notes, Justice Department investigators would later uncover documentation indicating Zahorian "sold steroids and drugs to 43 pro wrestlers, 37 of whom were employed by McMahon's WWF when deliveries were made," many of them without even the semblance of a prescription.
The regulation of steroids tightened in 1988, and with their trafficking now criminalized, federal prosecutor Theodore Smith began investigating Zahorian, who, unknown to his WWF clients, had also begun selling drugs to amateur bodybuilders and athletes. After openly hinting at connections to the pro wrestling world, Zahorian had the misfortune to sell $650 worth of drugs to an ex-powerlifter named William Dunn — a confidential informant who had been cooperating with federal investigators following his own arrest on prescription fraud. After being caught on tape bragging that he was "giving [Dunn] better prices than the wrestlers," Zahorian was indicted in 1991; when investigators kicked open his office door, Zahorian was found jamming invoices and shipping records into a paper shredder.
Convicted at trial on 15 charges of trafficking drugs, it was now Zahorian's turn to cooperate. The WWF had been unable to keep four of their wrestlers from testifying at Zahorian's trial, and considered itself lucky. Now, in addition to those same four, the federal government had subpoenaed Hulk Hogan to testify as to his receipt of steroids, while bolstering Zahorian's cooperative testimony with that of WWF secretary Ashley Feinberg, who regularly arranged for drug shipments. Even more potentially damaging was the testimony of former WWF booker Anita Scales, who, after warning WWF executives Pat Patterson and Linda McMahon of Zahorian's drug sales, was told to continue booking the doctor for Pennsylvania shows so that, in Patterson's words, the wrestlers could get their "candy."
The circumstantial evidence for a criminal conspiracy, in which Vince McMahon oversaw the parceling of drugs by underlings, to underlings, for the purpose of supersizing his employees and enacting his dream of an uncommonly violent sports telenovela, seemed strong. And yet, the case rapidly fell apart, with the two most serious charges against McMahon dismissed due to sloppy procedural errors.
Hulk Hogan's testimony drew the most press to the trial, but it was cheap heat; blandly stating he had only used steroids to recover, Hogan said nothing to implicate McMahon. Only one wrestler, Kevin "Nailz" Wacholz, testified that McMahon personally pressured him to use steroids; in the absence of any corroborating evidence, Wacholz was painted by McMahon attorney Jerry McDevitt as a disgruntled revenge seeker. On the remaining count sent to the jury, McMahon was acquitted.
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Perhaps the federal government had overreached. But with the failed senate candidacy of Linda McMahon of 2010 came renewed scrutiny of the failed prosecution — and a revelation. In 1989, WWF attorney Jack Krill had been tipped off by "an unnamed state official" that Zahorian was under federal investigation for drug trafficking, prompting a remarkable memo from Linda McMahon to her fellow executives at Titan Sports, the WWF's parent corporation:
"Although you and I discussed before about continuing to have Zahorian at our events as the doctor on call, I think that is now not a good idea...Vince agreed, and would like for you to call Zahorian and to tell him not to come to any more of our events and to also clue him in on any action that the Justice Department is thinking of taking."
In conjunction with a call from a payphone made to Zahorian by McMahon consigliere Pat Patterson, it is not hard to see what probably happened. Zahorian was tipped off, and, coincidentally, any records which may or may not have existed corroborating the federal government's case against Vince McMahon never surfaced. Journalist Ted Mann described Linda McMahon as "curt" in rejecting his suggestion that perhaps, just maybe, his reporting had proven the then-WWF party to the cover-up of a criminal conspiracy. You wouldn't want to talk about it, either. In a sport that's built on fantastic lies, sometimes the truth is just too good a story.