Jess McMahon: Boxing Promoter and Sire of the WWE
Before there was the WWE and Vince McMahon, Jr., there was Roderick “Jess” McMahon – the paterfamilias of the McMahon family enterprise who crossed the ‘color-line’ as a legendary boxing matchmaker and promoter in the early 20th century.
"Wrestling is not a sport, it is a spectacle." – Roland Barthes, Mythologies, 1957.
French philosopher Roland Barthes' most seminal work, Mythologies, interrogates the social constructs that are often presented as 'natural.' For Barthes, "myth is a language," which means everything, including trusted signs like tree, dog, pen, as well as cultural artifacts like novels, fashion, and food, or institutions, such as marriage, are constructs that are naturalized, or, mythologized. As part of Mythologies, Barthes explores a number of cultural phenomena, such as film, toys, advertising, and, famously, professional wrestling. This book and the essay on wrestling in particular revolutionized academic inquiry, and in way, birthed pop culture studies. "The virtue of wrestling," Barthes wrote, "is to be a spectacle of excess." In this excess of violence and drama and emotion and story, the result is that the viewer, who knows that this type of wrestling is staged, experiences catharsis at the fulfillment of the expected narrative. Because wrestling is a spectacularly staged story. It is a violent soap opera.
Barthes drew his inspiration from French professional wrestling in the 1950s, but his essay, which continues to delight graduate students across the world, could just as easily have been inspired by the growing professional wrestling community in America in the 1950s. Today, our concept of professional wrestling (as opposed to sport wrestling found in the Olympics and other athletic platforms) is anchored in the monolithic entity of the WWE, World Wrestling Entertainment, Inc. It is entertaining to compare the WWE with the UFC, both of which are the epicenter of their world, and think of smaller promotions as the farm leagues for these bloated citadels. Fighting sports and professional wrestling have always been intertwined and some athletes float between the two iterations of fighting, some with better results than others. The origins of the WWE are deeply entwined with the history of boxing and sport wrestling in the U.S. and in the history of a particular family: the McMahon's. This series profiles the McMahon family and their strange and profound involvement in the history of fighting sports in 20th century America.
The story of the McMahon family's wrestling empire begins May 26, 1882, with the birth of Roderick "Jess" McMahon to Irish immigrants Roderick and Elizabeth McMahon. Jess's career began early when, as a child, he put on kids wrestling matches, charging "pins, marbles, and pennies" for admission. According to Tim Hornbaker's book, National Wrestling Alliance, Jess's parents ran a hotel in New York City and with his middle-class upbringing, Jess graduated from Manhattan College in 1899 with a commercial degree, but he eschewed a white collar career to undertake what would be his true calling, and legacy, as one of the best fight promoters in history.
Jess and his brother, Edward, founded the New York Lincoln Giants in 1911, a black baseball team that had numerous wins in their first three years, including victories over all-white teams. Faced with money trouble, the brothers sold the team in 1914, but managed to travel to Cuba the following year to promote a fight between Jack Johnson and Jess Willard, in which Willard managed to knock out the champion. Jess already had a relationship with Johnson after securing an enormous $25,000 guarantee for the champion in 1912 for his fight with Joe Jeannette in 1912. Jess showed particular aptitude for setting up a fight that would be exciting not only in the U.S., but also in France and England, where Jeannette was a favorite.
Described as "the orbicular oracle of pairing boxers profitably," Jess's true skill as a boxing promoter was his ability to set up matches that would produce the best fights. And at that time, it meant that he willingly and aggressively crossed the implicit color line, setting up matches between fighters of all races.
Jess was an ardent fan of boxing who wanted to showcase real fighters and real fights. He gave fighters of color equal opportunities to fight as the white fighters. He did not tolerate dodging, nor did he set up fights that privileged race over skill. Some detractors may have despised him for his egalitarian policies, but the majority of the press, the fighters, and the fighting fans, especially boxing fans of color, adored Jess and his devotion to promoting 'real fighters.' But before Jess could become the celebrated boxing matchmaker or the scion of professional wrestling, he had to move beyond an early accusation to the Boxing Commission that the McMahon brothers were a threat to the sport of boxing.
January 13, 1915, the New York Times ran a story that the Manhattan Athletic Club intended to sue to the State Athletic Commission for denying them a license to conduct boxing matches and blamed none other than Jess McMahon and his brother Edward for it. Although the Commission had denied Manhattan A.C. before, the most recent decision indicated that the club had too close of ties with Jess and Edward. The McMahon brothers were accused by the Commission of failing to pay state taxes, for not paying rent on the buildings where they held boxing matches, and for not living up to contracts with boxers. The St. Nicholas Athletic Club complained to the commission that "it would be extremely injuries to the sport of boxing to grant a license to any club with which [the McMahon brothers] are connected or associated." Jess and Edward denied any relationship with the Manhattan A.C. just as the club vehemently denied any connection with them. This did not seem like an auspicious start to Jess's matchmaking career.
Yet after this article was published, there does not appear to have been any follow up or any lawsuit particularly concerning the McMahon's. Interestingly, in the coming decades, little is ever mentioned of Edward again. Instead, Jess forged a partnership with George "Tex" Rickard, another famous boxing promoter who would go on to found the National Hockey League. Together with Rickard, Jess burst into the boxing world, leaving the 1915 proposed lawsuit as part of his obscure past, and focusing on setting up fights that would begin to dismantle the deeply entrenched racism in boxing, and sports in general.
From John Sullivan to Bob Fitzsimmons and James Corbett, white champion boxers had a habit of avoiding black contenders. Jim Jeffries finally came out of retirement in 1910 to fight Jack Johnson and lost terrifically. The Great White Hope was defeated, and in the following decades, racism and hatred solidified boxing's color line. Jess McMahon. At a time when it was commonplace to call the flyweight champion Izzy Schwartz, "the little Jew" and for some white boxers to refuse to fight black boxers, Jess McMahon and Tex Rickard started setting up cards that were innovative, but to some people, also offensive.
In his early shows at the Commonwealth Sports Club in Harlem, his mixed race shows received little attention. A 1924 article predicted little hope for "colored fans" because the announced card indicated, to the writer, that the white fighters would inevitably win. Whether it was a true assessment of skill or a racist prediction that the white man would be victoriously simply because of his race, this type of critique disappeared quickly from the record. By 1925, the boxing news community celebrated Jess's mixed race shows as the epitome of quality pugilism.
Jess put on shows in 1925 that earned him glowing praise from the boxing community. An article in the February 4th edition of The New York Amsterdam News exclaimed in the title, "Jess McMahon Continues to Offer the Best Cards While Other Managers Are Floundering Around and Asking What's It All About When They See the Big Crowds." It was all about Jess's match-ups, which he set up according to skill level and style, eschewing pressure from other managers to organize easy fights for their athlete. Many other matchmakers at the time took bribes from managers to provide their fighters with padding for their record. Jess did not tolerate dodging, nor did he privilege white fighters. His events filled arenas to their capacity, creating a raucous and no doubt drunken atmosphere, which resulted in big paydays for the winners and their teams.
At the end of 1925, Jess became the official matchmaker for the new Madison Square Garden club, much to the chagrin of rival matchmakers and managers. The gig was notoriously stressful, with managers constantly assailing the Garden's matchmaker for mismatched bouts that would boost their fighter's record. Previous matchmakers had been booted by the Boxing Commission for setting up their own fighters and taking bribes for matches that padded records and generated gambling income. Jess must have learned from the Manhattan A.C. debacle, because ten years later, he had a reputation of being fair and for setting up bouts that generated interesting, well-matched fights.
Over the next few years, Jess brought in fighters from around the U.S. and the world to fight in his New York City and Harlem shows, including legendary bantamweight Cuban boxer, Kid Chocolate. But Jess did not resign his promoting work to the U.S. alone. In 1929, he went to Cuba to promote a bout between Kid Chocolate and Chick Suggs for the Negro Featherweight Championship of the World. He also landed Kid a number of fights against white boxers in the U.S. and, in Kid's estimation, truly launched his professional fight career.
In 1928, the editor of The New York Amsterdam News wrote disparagingly of fight promoters Boxing who continued to pit young black boxers against much heavier white boxers in an effort, the editor intimated, to increase the success of white fighters. He lamented that Europeans and others who cared about fairness in sport must look at America askance when the Boxing Commission did nothing to protect black fighters from unfair matches. He complained,
The good colored fighters are never permitted to face opponents at the same weight. Within the past few years we find it hard to recall where a good colored fighter has been permitted to enter the ring of a small club with an even chance. It is even being whispered around that even the announced disparity in weights at the ringside is far below what the white boys are carrying in the ring with them when facing a colored fighter.
But while the editor of The New York Amsterdam News did not yet despair because Jess McMahon, "one of the finest men that ever conducted the affairs of a fight club in this city," was back in charge at the Olympia Club.
When McMahon left the Madison Square Garden Club to reopen the Olympia, his protégé and long-time right-hand-man continued Jess's mandate of setting up fights for men of color. In 1928, newspapers declared that non-white boxers were given the opportunity to fight, and were treated well, all because of Jess McMahon's efforts.
If Matchmaker Amos can only induce on of the white boys of the class to trade wallops with Harry Smith, the latter will show his many friends in Harlem how we has been piling up that splendid record which has sent the white boys seeking cover every time his name is mentioned.
Jess did not just promote fights in New York—in 1932, he went to Philadelphia to pull the city out of a boxing slump that was, in part, due to the Depression. Hired by local businessmen to set up the thrilling events which were so particular to him, Jess was praised by sports writer W. Rollo Wilson, who not only called Jess his person friend, but also the friend to black fighters "up and down the world." Wilson guaranteed his readers that Jess would set up mixed race bouts featuring "some of the best men in the country."
Although Jess was praised almost unilaterally for his dynamic shows, he resented the praise because, he figured, "any man in his line can meet with the same success if willing to give the public good matches." That pugilistic paper, The New York Amsterdam Times, claimed that Jess's success was "because he has not color prejudice to overcome when it comes to arranging cards for his club." The paper recognized that Jess was, first and foremost, a businessman who made prudent business decisions when setting up cards. Fans paid to attend his shows because the fights were great. People who were affronted by seeing a white man lose to a black man would not attend. But that was the larger point. For many promoters, even those dedicated to being good businessmen, the idea of a white man being bested by a black man was too uncomfortable. Insidious racism, latent from the loss of The Great White Hope, made some promoters fear alienating white audiences or, on a more personal level, was not something that they could tolerate. Jess did not just set up matches, he sought out good fighters, convincing managers and fighters alike to compete in his events.
Jess frequently moved as the promoter of one arena to another, and in 1932, he promoted his first professional wrestling event at the Municipal Stadium in Freeport. According to Hornbaker, Jess stepped directly into the vicious turf battles that plagued New York's wrestling scene in the 1930s. Jess once again formed a partnership to ensure his promotion's success, this time with Carlos Henriquez, a competitive wrestler who managed to book events at both the Brooklyn Sports Stadium and the Coney Island Stadium. This alliance diminished the raging turf war enough for Jess to sign a number of prominent wrestlers, including, Hornbaker notes, "Gino Garibaldi, Jim Browning, Hans Kampfer, Wee Willie Davis, Alphonse Bisignano, Mike Romano, the Duseks, Everette Marshall, Sandor Szabo, Tor Johnson, and Abe Kashey." But his most successful wrestling contact was with wrestling great Joseph Raymond "Toots" Mondt, with whom Jess would create the Capitol Wrestling Corporation in 1952. By that time, Jess's son, Vincent J. McMahon (who would eventually become Vince McMahon, Sr.), had become an integral part of his father's business endeavors. Jess was getting older, and Vince's passion for wrestling catapulted their business from the Capitol Wrestling Corporation into joining with the National Wrestling Alliance in 1953. Vince's story will be explored further in the next installment, but it is important to know that Jess instilled in his son a tremendous work ethic, a head for business, and the tenacity that would eventually become audacious, to put it mildly, in Vince Jr.
Jess's legacy as a boxing promoter is far more prolific than his career as a wrestling promoter. He was arguably the founder of the future WWE, but he can best be remembered as an early promoter of 'mixed race' fights, an advocate for color blindness in matchmaking, and an astute businessman. In the later years of his life, Jess served as Vice-President for the National Sports Alliance Fund for Indigent Boxers in New York State and in 1954, he died at the age of seventy-two of a cerebral hemorrhage, which struck him while attending a wrestling match in Queens.