Evel Knievel and Vince McMahon | The Story of a Conman and a Carny

Vince McMahon was hopelessly in love. And after just one phone call, McMahon was rendered powerless to his fancied mystery man. Did this figure possess bulging biceps, eye-popping vascularity, or a chemically-enhanced physique? No. But none of that mattered. Our smitten, young McMahon just had to meet the object of his desire in the flesh despite the obstacle of McMahon’s meager funds. Far from being the billionaire we know today, this was 1974, and McMahon was just a 28-year-old fawn scraping to find two pennies to rub together. Purchasing a plane ticket to Big Sky Country required McMahon to max out his last credit card. The heart wants what it wants and what Vince McMahon’s heart wanted was Evel Knievel. What he got was disaster.

Vince McMahon and Evel Knievel: Pride goeth before the fall!
Vince McMahon and Evel Knievel: Pride goeth before the fall!

Evel Knievel, Vince McMahon, and The Doomed Snake River Canyon Jump

Vince McMahon was not alone in his infatuation, and that was the key. By the early 1970s, the entire country had been smitten by Evel Knievel, the Wild Turkey-fueled American stuntmen and bullshitter par excellence. Knievel’s swaggering and defiant motorcycle jumps captured the country’s attention and gave McMahon visions of dancing pocketbooks, a trail of endless Benjamins spewing from the exhaust of Knievel’s flying Harley.

“[Evil Knievel] was a great self-promoter,” McMahon said in Leigh Montville’s wonderful Evel Knievel biography Evel: The High-Flying Life of Evel Knievel: American Showman, Daredevil, and Legend. “His instincts were great. He was one of those larger-than-life guys. He had courage and wasn’t afraid to risk his life. Just the idea of getting in that thing, that rocket, and not knowing what would happen next… not many men would do that.”

Knievel was a publicity maven, landing–pun intended–into the public’s consciousness after ABC’s Wide World of Sports aired his disastrous crash at Caesar’s Palace. Successful jumps had given him notoriety, but the crash gave him true fame. He worked the media after Caesar’s, disappearing into a fabricated 29-day coma to heighten his air of mystery, though the tally of injuries–crushed pelvis and femur, fractured hips, wrist, and ankles, and concussion–was all too real. He learned the threat of mortal failure was his appeal, his draw, and so he needed to continually up the ante, like an Attitude Era worker seeking higher and more dangerous spots.

Related read: Hell in a Cell | The Legendary UNDERTAKER and MICK FOLEY Match

Evel Knievel showing the high price of stuntmanship.
Evel Knievel showing the high price of stuntmanship. [Photo: history.com]
Knievel knew extravagant plans would get the press typewriters clacking. Long he stumped about grand plans to jump the even grander Grand Canyon, but this proved to be a step too far. Was it unexpected lucidity or humility that caused Knievel to scrap this idea? No. It was Uncle Sam. Specifically, the Department of the Interior said there was no way on God’s green earth Knievel could attempt to defy the Grim Reaper by jumping on federal lands.

 

Forced to readjust, Knievel’s huckster gaze eventually landed on Idaho’s Snake River Canyon. Though less heralded, this canyon’s mile-wide gap was certainly imposing enough to credibly paint a jump as death-defying. More importantly, the canyon was a logistically feasible location due to it residing on private land. Knievel had the balls and the scheme, now he just needed to con some promoters and financiers into opening their wallets. And who would answer that bell, but none other than future Carny Overlord: Vincent Kennedy McMahon.

After that singular phone call, McMahon tumbled in with the tumbling tumbleweeds into Knievel’s Butte, Montana stomping grounds. Before long, the carny barker and the stuntman were thick as thieves and had the chalk outlines of a deal. Sure, warning signs appeared that Knievel was not a hero as advertised; McMahon observed Knievel imperiously order his wife around and be salty with his kids. Was he showing off or was he a scoundrel? The answer with Knievel was always both. True to his future self, McMahon always looks past an individual’s grim, personal failings if their actions could be good for business. Would Knievel be good for business?

Watch: Evel Knievel crashes hard at Caesar’s Palace

Vince McMahon at 28 – The Birth of a Carny

Who was Vincent Kennedy McMahon at age 28? A young, hungry man, with a young, hungry family living in a West Hartford, Connecticut trailer park. On the weekends, McMahon promoted the Maine shows of his father’s–Vince McMahon Sr.’s–World Wide Wrestling Federation (WWWF). Maine was the far northern outpost of the WWWF territory, remote and quiet enough to contain any damage caused by McMahon the younger.

McMahon Sr. realized his son’s fierce desire to make something of himself burned intensely. In fact, he learned firsthand his son was not above acting unscrupulously to accomplish his goals. A few years prior, McMahon Sr. had fielded a threatening phone call from a private investigator about all the bad debts McMahon Jr. had run up booking and promoting oldies concerts. The boy clearly wanted to follow in his father’s promotional footsteps, but just needed seasoning and maybe a little moral guidance. When McMahon Sr.’s local Maine promoter either died or was skimming off the top (depending on which account you read), an opportunity opened for McMahon Jr. to prove himself to the father he idolized.

The lineage: Vince McMahon, Sr. and Vince McMahon, Jr.
The lineage: Vince McMahon, Sr. and Vince McMahon, Jr.

“I went to Bangor (Maine), the northernmost outpost of my dad’s territory,” Vince Jr. recounts in his infamous Playboy interview in 2001. “Now I’m hustling, promoting a product I love. People cheer and boo and have a good time and I leave with some money in my pocket. Goddamn, life is good!”

Life was good, but Maine was not enough. In time the world would understand the otherworldly scale of his ambitions, but in 1974 McMahon Jr. yearned for more than just regional notoriety. He just needed that national opening, that first stroke of luck that would propel him toward untold riches and–his holy grail–filial respect. Most of America heard Knievel’s proclamations on ABC’s Wide World of Sports as huckster nonsense and bluster, but to McMahon Jr., it was as though the stuntman was speaking directly to him and reaching out with the golden ticket in hand. This was the eureka moment. Opportunity.

Decry his ruthless ambition and moral ambiguity, but accept McMahon Jr. is an intelligent and driven soul. McMahon Jr. realized he just might be in a better position to make money off of Knievel than any other man alive. How so? Pro wrestling and his last name had given McMahon Jr. a Rolodex of connections to over a hundred theatres and arenas out east, and access to promoters across the whole United States, Shaun Assael and Mike Mooneyham wrote in Sex, Lies and Headlocks: The Real Story of Vince McMahon and World Wrestling Entertainment. If Knievel was really willing to risk his own mortality on camera, McMahon Jr. was perfectly set up to broadcast the feat on closed-circuit television in theatres and arenas nationwide. Charge folks to attend the closed-circuit events and watch the stacks of money climb higher than the fountains at Caesar’s Palace.

The Deal Between Evel Knievel and Vince McMahon

Vince McMahon Sr.’s entire livelihood depended on his ability to spot a mark. When McMahon Jr. burst into his office to rabidly recount the tale of encountering Evel Knievel in the rocky wild, McMahon Sr. sensed his son had already been ensnared in a hustle. Still, McMahon Sr. wouldn’t let his son fail on his lonesome and agreed to bankroll 50% of the cost of the jump. But McMahon Sr. recognized he would need an adult around to keep an eye on the proceedings and ensure Knievel wouldn’t swindle McMahon Jr. out of everything including the clothes on his back. So, McMahon Sr. called in a favor. He called Bob Arum, the grand poobah of boxing promotion company Top Rank, Inc.

Bob Arum, CEO of Top Rank, Inc.
Bob Arum, CEO of Top Rank, Inc. [Photo: vegasnews.com]
Arum proved to be as sharp as a machete. And, as he stated in Sports Illustrated, he didn’t blink during his first meeting with Knievel when Knievel stated, “there are three kinds of people I can’t stand: New Yorkers, lawyers, and Jews.” Arum calmly replied, “I’m all three,” and agreed Top Rank would take on the contractual responsibility of paying Knievel. The public was told the deal would work out thus: Knievel would get whatever was larger: either $6 million or 60% of all receipts, including theater gate and promotional sales and income, minus various unspecified promotional expenses to be paid to Top Rank, as reported by the AP. But that was bunk, cover for a Knievel publicity stunt enabling the stuntman to run around the streets, drunkenly boasting with a $6 million check in hand. His actual guarantee was $225,000, and a portion of the gate after Top Rank got its cut.

 

The promise for a big payday was denoted by two clear revenue streams: the gate for attending the live event at the Snake River Canyon in Twin Falls, Idaho, and the gate for attending one of the closed-circuit broadcasts at arenas across the country. Dreams of the live event pulling in over 50,000 proud Americans and the broadcast an additional 1.8 million folks had Knievel making a battery of outrageous proclamations to the press, where he upped his potential take to $20 million. McMahon Jr.’s role would be to work with Arum and secure all those closed-circuit outlets, and then to trade in his jalopy for a Rolls-Royce and ride out of that Connecticut trailer park, with Linda and baby Shane in tow.

Evel Knievel and The Snake River Canyon Jump

The event’s whole founding premise was flawed, but the promoters and stuntman were in too deep to see. The hook was, really, to watch a man live or die. Add the Hell’s Angels as security men, and the drunken rioting and looting crowd, and it’s a wonder everyone made it out alive on September 8th, 1974, the day of the jump.

After a patience-testing undercard, a presumably inebriated Knievel was hoisted via a crane into his Skycycle X-2 rocket ship, the custom-crafted vehicle that would blast him into the heavens and immortality en route to crossing the mile-wide canyon. But, the reality of confronting death may have gotten to the fearless Knievel.

“The [rocket] ship had a dead-man switch. If he got the rocket to the other side and he blacked out, the switch would give way, the parachute would come out and he would land. But he was so nervous. He kept saying that he was going to get killed. His hands were shaking like crazy. Finally, the engine starts and he panics, lets the switch go, and the parachute comes out right after the ship gets off the ramp. The ship goes 20 feet and drops into the water,” Arum recounted to SI.

Now, only God and Evel Knievel know if he let the dead-man switch go. There was no black box on the Skycycle X-2, of course. The rocket’s designer did see a mechanical error with the rocket’s parachute exacerbated by liftoff. In any event, the parachuting rocket ship glided to a stop near the river at the canyon’s floor. Knievel would escape drowning and the jump with only minor injuries. The live crowd, sensing the hype not matching the event, set fire to the entire place. Those who attended the closed-circuit event described it as a rip-off.

Evel Knievel parachuting towards disgrace.
Evel Knievel parachuting towards disgrace. [Photo: CNN.com]
The jump clearly was a spectacular letdown, but what about the financials?

Vince MarkMahon

“I’m still alive. I have the blue Montana sky. What do I need all that money for?” Evel Knievel stated afterward to the Associated Press.

Remember the promoters had hoped for 50,000 live attendees, and for 1.8 million people to watch on closed-circuit? Hit these numbers and McMahon, Arum, and Knievel would’ve been swimming in pools of gold like Scrooge McDuck. The live event drew 10,000 to 15,000 at most. Closed-circuit brought less than 500,000. So what did this mean for everyone’s bottom line?

Arum had constructed the smartest deal for himself and was able to clear about $150,000.

Knievel, ever the bullshitter, riggled around ever stating his specific take to the press. He did admit to the AP that his earnings would be less than $3 million, an ambiguous amount considering making just $1 would qualify. Though Knievel’s exact payday is uncertain, Montville calculated Knievel’s cut at $600,000, whereas Assael and Mooneyham’s research led them to believe Knievel made about $250,000.

What is undisputed is McMahon was one of the unfortunates left holding the bag. According to Assael and Mooneyham, the promotional expenses for the jump left McMahon $250,000 in the red.

Two years later, in 1976, the McMahons filed for bankruptcy. They were $1 million dollars in debt.

Vince and Linda McMahon in 2010. Their bankruptcy was a murky chapter in their rags-to-riches tale.
Vince and Linda McMahon in 2010. Their bankruptcy was a murky chapter in their rags-to-riches tale. [Photo: Connecticut Post]
Were the expenses from the Knievel jump a contributing factor? According to Linda McMahon’s campaign spokesman for her doomed 2010 U.S. Senate Campaign, Ed Patru, the answer is an undisputed yes.

So, the final tally: Knievel made more money than Vince McMahon lost. The young McMahon, swindled by an under-delivering huckster, was given a hard lesson in the dynamic of risk and reward.

The Aftermath

Vince McMahon has a history of failing and succeeding large. And though the Snake River Canyon jump was a disaster in terms of both payday and event, it held its own silver lining. The debacle gave McMahon experience in running nationwide closed-circuit events. A little more than a decade later, he would strike gold with this specific business model, pulling in over a million closed-circuit pay-per-views for WrestleMania I, helping him net $4 million for his World Wrestling Federation.

“We had been bankrupt in 1976,” said Linda McMahon said in WWE 50 by Kevin Sullivan. “It really hadn’t been that long, and those thoughts stayed in your mind. It was a gamble; we really hocked everything we owned for WrestleMania I because, in those days, it was closed-circuit. So in every area where we offered closed-circuit, we had to rent projectors, landlines for microwave transmission of the event, redundant projectors… We assumed every bit of that risk.” 

That risk paid off and gave birth to an avalanche of continued successes for Vince McMahon, leading to his billion-dollar bank account and prominent role as Chairman and CEO of WWE.

As McMahon’s star rose, Knievel’s–forgive the pun–crashed. For Evel Knievel, the publicity of the Snake River Canyon jump made it a high water moment for him in myriad ways, but its failure certainly tarnished his reputation. He would never attempt another jump broadcast via closed-circuit, that experiment had utterly failed. A few of his jumps in subsequent years continued to be broadcast on ABC’s Wide World of Sports, but the end stridently began in 1977, when he starred in a real Hollywood backlot brawl. Knievel materialized on a Hollywood lot with an aluminum bat and beat Shelly Saltman–one of the Snake River Canyon jump financiers–unconscious. Saltman’s injuries to his arm and wrist later required multiple surgeries. Knievel was promptly arrested and later found guilty on criminal charges.

Knievel began a six-month jail sentence on November 21st, 1977; his career was over. His toy, marketed to children, was soon pulled. He lost all of the money he made in the boom years, proclaiming to be $2 million in the hole by the time he got out of jail. His house and land were sold in foreclosure. In 1981, Saltman was awarded $12.75 million in civil damages, but Saltman couldn’t collect due to Knievel filing for bankruptcy. In 1983, the IRS determined Knievel owed them $4.1 million in back taxes, penalties, and interest. Knievel was arrested for soliciting a prostitute in 1986; his first wife divorced him soon after this. In 1989, he cowardly filed suit against a man in Spokane, Washington after the man had beaten Knievel senseless after finding Knievel sleeping with the man’s girlfriend. In 1994, Knievel was arrested on suspicion of beating his girlfriend. She refused to press charges. They later got married for less than two years before getting divorced. In 1995, he was arrested for carrying a concealed weapon despite being a felon. He drank hard his whole life, contracted Hepatitis C because of one of his surgeries, and got a liver transplant in 1999. He spent the majority of his life estranged from his son Robbie, who would go on to become a stuntman himself. Evel Knievel would die in 2007, from a combination of complications from pulmonary fibrosis, Hepatitis C, and diabetes. After his death, in 2008, the FBI would publically open a file they had on Knievel, displaying their belief he was associated with a crime syndicate in the 1970s due to a string of assaults Knievel was involved in. Knievel spent a lifetime making heroic proclamations about himself, but his actions proved he was a conman and a crook with an outsized legacy.

Time fully revealed the makeup of both men but fascinatingly they shared an inhuman fearlessness towards risk. And while one was able to lasso this quality and ride it to nonpareil success, the very same trait spelled doom for the other. Yet when fate brought them together in 1974, it was the doomed man and his wits that prevailed. In the following years, it was almost like McMahon was able to steal whatever magic or good luck totem Knievel had been wielding, which underscores how surprising it is to see the embryonic McMahon do the job. In the soap opera of real-life winners lose and losers win, but legacy is how you sell the drama of all that good stuff in between. And sure McMahon is talking specifically about pro wrestling when he says the following, but isn’t this the moral of our particular story writ large?: “It’s all a soap opera about how you achieve stardom, and then what you do after to remain a star.”

Evel Knievel and Vince McMahon | The Story of a Conman and a Carny
[Photo: CNN.com]

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Stosh Jonjak
Stosh Jonjak is a contributor for Pro Wrestling Stories and a lifelong mark who proudly jobs to his three kiddos. A researcher by day who bends guitar strings at night, Stosh has never been afraid to wear Zubaz in public. He can be reached by e-mail at stoshy@gmail.com.