Pro wrestling’s narrative structure is simply a series of escalating feuds. Provoking feuds is an art form Mark Madden turned into a career.
Despite his status as a complete outsider, Madden leveraged his acerbic writing to challenge pro wrestling luminaries. Remarkably, this approach led to a series of escalating and distinctly real feuds that propelled Madden to insiderdom and employment in WCW. But drawing heat is a fickle mistress. The same ability that rewarded Madden would ultimately doom his career.
Mark Madden and His Foray into Pro Wrestling
For many industries, the internet provides the ultimate demarcation line between an epochal before and after; this is shockingly true of journalism. Before the internet’s omnipresence, newspapers provided the surest way to have your written words reach an actual audience. This is precisely the route Mark Madden took; in the late 1970s, Madden began covering sports for the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette (his first story published when he was just 16).
Though the bulk of his output concerned conventional sports, he penned a smattering of pieces about grapplers with hometown ties: Luscious Johnny Valiant (who kayfabed his Pittsburgh roots), Big John Studd, Larry Zybysko, Junior High student-teacher Shane Douglas (detailing Douglas leaving the NWA after refusing to job to Mean Mark/the future Undertaker’s finisher), and local living legend Bruno Sammartino (topics including returning to the WWF to provide commentary and manage his son David, reffing Halloween Havoc’s 1989 Thunderdome match, and working in–haha–Herb Abram’s UWF).
While continuing to write under the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette masthead, Madden began slinging for the dirt sheets. He commenced writing for the Pro Wrestling Torch on April 4th, 1991, and "Mark Madden," the gimmick, was born.
Uninhibited by the stolid practices and procedures of newspaper newsgathering, Madden found in the dirt sheets an arena where he could editorialize, pontificate, and insult. And his ability to straddle the worlds of classic newspaper journalism and dirt sheet controversy is really what ignited his first major feuds, the same feuds that would propel Madden toward pro wrestling insiderdom.
Mark Madden and Bruno Sammartino Feud
Mark Madden’s Post-Gazette article from July 25th, 1991, captured Bruno Sammartino waging a war of words with Hulk Hogan after Hogan’s admitted prolonged use of steroids at the Zahorian trial conflicted with Hogan’s own earlier vehement and public denials about the same topic on the Arsenio Hall show.
In the article, Bruno mostly lambasted Hogan, stating Hogan compulsively told one lie after another. But, after casting his stones, Bruno went on to state: "My son David denies taking steroids, but there was a period of time when I was damn sure he was taking them. I felt very heartbroken, very angry that my son would do something I was so against doing. But looking at David now, I do believe he’s off them."
A month later, Madden would type the words that proved proud Bruno had hypocritically lied as well. On August 29, 1991’s Post-Gazette article entitled "David Sammartino says his steroid use no secret," Madden wrote, "David recently detailed nearly a decade of steroid abuse, adding that his father…knew about it all along."
After reading his son’s words — the very same words that showed the world Bruno had been caught in a lie –, Bruno boiled over with rage. Bruno called Madden on the telephone, and according to the September 6, 1991 edition of the Wrestling Observer Newsletter, shouted invectives and promised physical harm to the journalist. Though Madden’s Post-Gazette newsgathering had started the feud, Madden now had an outlet to fire back — specifically issue 141 of The Torch:
"Bruno, very few buy your bullshit anymore. A lot of people pretend to, but they don’t. And more and more of them are starting to realize it isn’t worth the trouble knowing you or talking to you. Would I have written this column if you hadn’t threatened me, hadn’t called me a ‘scumbag,’ hadn’t hung up on me?
“To be honest, probably not. I was so enamored having a friendship with a childhood hero that I probably would have been willing to swallow your crap indefinitely. So thank you, Bruno Sammartino. Thank you for crumbling our facade of a friendship and for making me open up my eyes and see what you’re all about. I’m a better man…not a bitter man…for it."
By wearing both of his writerly hats, Mark Madden had broken the news and became the news. Madden had drawn heat high on the card, but his next opponent would face more severe consequences, namely a forced retirement match.
"It should be that, by god, if you’re going to open your doors in America, you can discriminate. Why the fuck not? That’s why I went into business so that I could discriminate! I mean, really.
“I want to be able to sell to who I want to and be able to serve who I want to. It’s my business; it’s my investment. So they come in and say no. I can’t tell an f-g to get the fuck out? I should have the right to not associate with an f-g if I don’t want to. I mean, why should I have to hire a fuckin’ f-g if I don’t like f-gs? F-gs discriminate against us, don’t they?
“What is the best thing that ever happened to the Black race? That they were brought to this country… Lester Maddox was right. If I don’t want to sell fried chicken to Blacks, I shouldn’t have to. It’s my restaurant. Hell, at least I respect him for his stand"
— Bill Watts, in the Pro Wrestling Torch Annual IV: Summer 1991.
In 1993, Bill Watts was WCW’s Executive Vice President of Wrestling Operations, which put him in charge of hiring and firing all in-ring WCW talent.
By this time, Watts was already a pro wrestling lifer. As the above quote shows, a racist and homophobic curmudgeon whose controversial three-hour tell-all interview with the Pro Wrestling Torch back in 1991 was an evidentiary ticking time bomb.
The interview, printed over three issues, covered everything floating around Watts’s deranged id (what motivated him to disclose all these opinions publicly?), including Dusty Rhodes ("…his ego got so big he wouldn’t talk to me anymore"), steroid policies ("…if you want to inject yourself with a steroid and take the chance of killing yourself, then I think that’s your own business"), Jim Herd ("…Herd is just a fuckin’ idiot anyway"), and guaranteed contracts ("…if you create a situation where guys can collect their checks when the house is the shits, you have taken the desire and incentive out of them").
Despite the publication of this interview, WCW had hired Watts in the spring of 1992 to be at the top level of the company’s hierarchy.
The story behind the story begins with Cincinnati Reds owner Marge Schott, who, under deposition, acknowledged using racial epithets, including the n-word. Hall of Famer and then all-time home run leader Henry "Hammerin’ Hank" Aaron declared publicly that Schott needed to be suspended by the MLB (she later was suspended for the entire year of 1993, though her views were incorrigible: she’d be suspended again from 1996-98 and then forced to sell the team in 1999 due to continued racist and abhorrent views and statements).
Aaron was a Vice President at TBS; TBS’s parent company owned WCW. Madden’s motivation was to show Aaron that, while Aaron was rightfully and publicly decrying Schott’s racist views, an avowed racist was employed right under Aaron’s nose in the form of Bill Watts. Madden faxed the offending interview article to Aaron, Aaron read it and brought it to other executives’ attention, and Bill Watts was fired one day later.
"I wanted to find out if Hank Aaron was for real. I was not disappointed," Madden wrote in issue 214 of The Torch, again breaking news in the Post-Gazette and editorializing the news in the dirt sheets. Facilitating the removal of one of WCW’s head honchos proved there was more to Madden than just his voluminous bite. Madden’s reputation was now established among the pro wrestling insiders.
As an aside, and apparently undeterred by any of this news, Watts would later be employed by WWF/E in 1995 and inducted into the WWE Hall of Fame in 2009.
"And in the blue corner…" – Other Mark Madden Feuds
Opponent: UWF promoter and cocaine and hooker aficionado Herb Abrams.
Match: Abrams called the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette and threatened to sue for libel unless Mark Madden was fired immediately (Torch, Issue 149).
Result: Madden pointed out Abrams was outraged by a Torch article rather than a Post-Gazette article, so, therefore, he lacked any standing to get Madden fired from his day job. Madden further called Abram’s bluff while publishing a Torch article showing the numerous times Abrams stiffed "buildings, talent, and media outlets." Abrams never carried through on filing the libel suit.
Opponent: WCW Executive Vice President of Wrestling Operations and bard of the term "drizzling shits" Ole Anderson (the man who replaced Watts).
Match: Ole offered 10 grand to any "rag writer" who would step into the ring with him.
Result: Madden accepted the challenge in issue 241 of The Torch: "I’d even get into the ring with him at a WCW house show where there’d be no witnesses." Rather than respond directly, Ole had his attorney send Madden a letter claiming Ole’s challenge — as per the August 30th, 1993 issue of The Observer — "wasn’t given to a specific group and thus wasn’t valid." Madden responded by gloating, "So, Ole, you’re a coward. You challenged us ‘rag writers’ to get in the ring with you. When I accepted, YOU backed down. Not me. YOU."
Opponent: WWF/E attorneys, including Jerry McDevitt
Match: We’ll get to this next…
1-900-909-9900 – A Job on the WCW Hotline
After getting one of WCW’s head honchos fired and calling his replacement a coward, Mark Madden got a job with…WCW. The July 11th, 1994, and July 18th, 1994, issues of The Observer reported Madden began working on WCW’s 1-900 hotline in the summer of 1994 — a move that necessitated Madden leaving The Torch.
Madden, on the back of the feuds detailed above, had arrived inside the castle. Notably, this shift in platform forced a corresponding shift in Madden’s approach to drawing heat and notoriety: he had to move from starting feuds as an outsider to divulging controversial insider news and rumors.
Of course, there was no greater controversy in American wrestling in the mid-1990s than the nWo invasion. And it’s through Madden’s involvement with this angle that Madden would end up in federal courtrooms.
"BIG DADDY COOL joined THE BAD GUY with menacing WCW head honcho Eric Bischoff on Nitro, and it was hinted that those two and another guy might wrestle a WCW threesome at the Bash. I’d love to see it, I hope to see it, but I don’t know if a match of that magnitude can be put together that quick, especially given the legalities of using non-WCW wrestlers.
“On last week’s Raw, Vince McMahon said that BIG DADDY COOL and THE BAD GUY were no longer affiliated with his promotion. But what else would McMahon say?… Espionage is espionage. It’s secret." Madden said on the WCW hotline back in 1996, according to the Dec. 19, 2016 issue of Figure Four Weekly (and the typically great reporting of David Bixenspan).
These remarks would ensnare Madden in trademark litigation between the WWF and WCW’s parent companies (Titan Sports, Inc. v. Turner Broadcasting, et al., Docket No. 3:96-cv-01139 (D. Conn. Jun 21, 1996)).
I’m sure we all know the story, but to recap the legalities: "The Bad Guy" was Scott Hall’s nickname in the WWF, and "Big Daddy Cool" was Kevin Nash’s. Both had been stars in the WWF, and both had recently signed with WCW. Sensing a wonderful opportunity to capitalize on their ties to the WWF and blur the lines between fiction and reality, Hall and Nash were booked in the WCW to appear like they were WWF employees hellbent on invading the WCW.
This ended up in court because WWF owned the intellectual property associated with Scott Hall and Kevin Nash’s WWF gimmicks (Razor Ramon and Diesel, respectively). Using nicknames that originated in the WWF to reference Hall and Nash meant Madden was doing his part to insinuate Hall and Nash were WWF wrestlers attempting to invade WCW.
Madden had sources inside the WCW he used for his 1-900 hotline commentary. Titan Sports’s legal goal was to try and show Madden was being directed by WCW executives to purposefully manipulate fans into thinking Hall and Nash were still WWF wrestlers; given Hall and Nash’s WWF gimmicks were intellectual property owned by Titan Sports, if Titan Sports could show a rival company was purposefully using trademarked property to, ultimately, make money. Titan Sports could credibly make an infringement case and sue for damages.
Mark Madden was deposed during the discovery phase of the Titan Sports v. Turner Broadcasting lawsuit. During his deposition, Madden refused to divulge the identities of the sources he used for the hotline by invoking special protection that journalists have called the "shield law."
In his role of recording commentary for the 1-900 hotline, Titan Sports claimed that Madden was working purely as an entertainer and not a journalist, and therefore not allowed to use journalistic protections.
The district court ruled in favor of Madden, Titan Sports appealed, and the appellate court reversed the lower court’s decision, finding Madden to be an entertainer in his role as hotline commentator (Sports, Inc. v. Turner Broad. Sys., Inc., 151 F.3d 125 (3d Cir. 1998)).
Titan Sports had won this battle, and Madden had to reveal his sources, but the ultimate war was more of a stalemate. In the summer of 2000, the case — as the vast majority of civil cases do — settled out of court.
One of the settlement provisions was that if WCW were ever to file bankruptcy and liquidate its assets, the WWF would have the right to bid on those assets. One year after the settlement, this exact scenario came to pass, and Vince McMahon would appear on WCW Nitro and WWF Raw simultaneously. But before WCW’s bitter end, Mark Madden would rise to the company’s announcer’s desk before getting terminated due to, of all things, a feud.
Mark Madden Moves to the Announcer’s Desk
Bobby "The Brain" Heenan, arguably the best heel commentator in wrestling history, had reached the end of the ride in 2000. According to the Feb. 7th, 2000 issue of The Observer, Heenan called in sick and needed a substitute for an episode of Nitro; Mark Madden was contacted hours before the show was to start and agreed to fill in. Madden’s performance was seen as a "big improvement over the level Heenan [had] been working at" (Feb. 7th, 2000 Observer). The job to be the heel commentator on Nitro was now Madden’s.
As an on-air talent, Mark Madden certainly received a higher level of exposure, but this led to increased confrontations from the wrestlers themselves. A bloody and concussed Sid Vicious, believing Mark Madden had called him a monkey (Madden had actually referenced the kid’s game "monkey in the middle" during an angle where an outnumbered Vicious took a guitar shot to the head), violently confronted and screamed at Madden backstage.
Tank Abbott, during an on-air skit, ripped off Madden’s shirt and bloodied Madden’s nose. Curt Hennig sprayed Madden with water during a match on live television. Madden, of all indignities, was even forced by WCW brass to apologize to his old nemesis Bruno Sammartino live on air (the background: incensed after hearing Madden say David Arquette’s WCW Championship title win made Bruno Sammartino turn over in his grave, the very much alive Sammartino had lawyered up and threatened to sue WCW unless Madden apologized).
But, according to rumor and innuendo, it was heat between Madden and Diamond Dallas Page that led to a suspension and Madden’s ultimate termination from the company.
Heat Between Mark Madden and Diamond Dallas Page
Judging by the reporting, Madden and Page worked themselves into a shoot during December of 2000; at the end of the month, only one man would continue to be employed by the promotion. Madden made disparaging remarks about babyface Page on Dec. 10th’s Nitro, specifically by referring to Page as "Leatherface."
According to issue 286 of Figure Four Weekly, Page called Madden on the telephone, and Page and his wife yelled at Madden about the "Leatherface" comment.
Page felt the insult was personal and not furthering any storyline, while Madden defended the comment by stating his job as a heel announcer is to insult the babyfaces. Madden’s reaction to the heated phone call was to write an article on WCW’s website saying he would shoot on Page on-the-air.
WCW responded to this by suspending Madden for a week to cool the situation. Then, during the production of WCW’s Dec. 18th, 2000, Nitro, Page approached Madden in WCW’s cafeteria and offered to bury the hatchet and shake Madden’s hand (Dec. 25th, 2000, Observer).
With several WCW wrestlers watching, Madden spurned Page and refused to shake. Madden would later state he felt Page’s attempt to apologize was disingenuous and performative, and more designed for Page to look good in front of his fellow wrestlers. Unfortunately, the ramifications of Madden’s refusal to shake hands were career-ending.
On Dec. 27th, WCW informed Mark Madden his employment was being terminated. The reasons for termination given by WCW were Madden had leaked live on the air that WCW was for sale, had made statements about Scott Hall on air he hadn’t received permission to make, and for conducting an unauthorized interview.
The real reason was Madden had engaged in a feud he could not win. Page was well connected to WCW big shots. The background is Diamond Dallas Page was the good friend (and former next-door neighbor) of Eric Bischoff (Bischoff would even later induct Page into the WWE Hall of Fame).
Bischoff was in the process of buying the WCW, even having his purchase agreement accepted by WCW on January 11, 2001, according to issue 291 of Figure Four Weekly.
Though that deal would ultimately fall through, Bischoff was still a true powerbroker; if Page got in Bischoff’s ear, Bischoff — the potential future owner of the company — certainly would have the clout to get Madden canned. Or WCW’s brass — already cognizant of Page and Bischoff’s friendship — may have preemptively fired Madden to potentially appease their predicted future owner.
Page would later deny being involved in Madden’s firing, as per issue 294 of Figure Four Weekly.
Regardless, the whole scenario underscores the dynamics that were in play. If Madden, say, had engaged in this feud in his previous role of a dirt sheet writer/outsider, this situation would’ve mirrored one of the Torch confrontations detailed above: Madden would have had the final word, and any rebuttal or engagement by Page would perpetuate the conflict and enhance Madden’s reputation as a heatseeker.
In that scenario, Madden could not lose. But, as an insider, Madden had to, frankly, play politics. Punching up the politically connected totem pole meant Madden was opening himself up to being punished; his insiderdom had become a vulnerability.
Mark Madden would never again work for a major professional wrestling promotion. Though rumors would link Madden to open positions from time to time, Madden is clearly forever dissuaded by the above. Nipping one such rumor in the bud, Madden bluntly stated to Wrestlezone, "I have no desire to be waist-deep in wrestling politics ever again."
Postscript: The Mouth That Roars
Pittsburghers are prideful and passionate sports fanatics and the ideal market for Mark Madden’s never-waning ability to draw heat. For the last 20 years following his WCW run, Madden has hosted local radio call-in sports shows where he spits vitriol about the local moral, financial, and on-the-field shortcomings of Pittsburgh-based teams.
Emotions run high as Pittsburgh sports fans’ subset equate criticizing local franchises as attacks on the city itself and/or their bottomless hometown pride. Though it requires punching down, Madden has found an evergreen opponent: an army of yinzers who will defend their teams and players to the point of angrily calling local sports radio shows. "Fans" is short for "fanatics," after all.
One of the values of being obsessed with pro wrestling is it trains you to recognize a work. Madden’s radio schtick is clearly such a thing, but works are called works because they work. No doubt, Madden’s career is lucrative, but it requires a strict, public quid pro quo.
Working heel in a local market is a devil’s bargain hearkening directly back to pro wrestling’s days of kayfabe. If you’re in public, you can never break character because your gimmick’s validity is your meal ticket. Psychologically this demands you to recognize the line between real self and gimmick continually. Such is showbusiness. As Keanu Reeves said, "I’m Mickey Mouse. They don’t know who’s inside the suit."
In any event, Madden discovering his heat-generating persona better suited for sports commentary rather than fictional pro wrestling paints a hysterical picture about the squared circle’s absurdity. And therein lies the wisdom. When the whole system is upside-down, the only way to determine the rules is to break them. Insults lead to opportunities, opportunities lead to doom, and the only sane option you have left is to live your gimmick.
These stories may also interest you:
- The Failure of WCW and End of Monday Nitro
- Ric Flair in WWF – Why He Shockingly Left WCW for Arch-Rival in 1991
- Bret Hart and Eric Bischoff | A Bitter Feud of Words
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