Vince McMahon and Titan Sports launched the World Bodybuilding Federation in 1991, promising to revolutionize the sport and present it “as it was meant to be.” However, scandals and poor decision-making proved too much for the upstart WBF, and it would soon leave McMahon millions of dollars lighter in the pocket. Here’s how it all went wrong.
Vince McMahon and the Failed World Bodybuilding Federation Experiment
When Vince McMahon took the helm of his father Vince Sr.’s former company in 1982, he rebranded it to the World Wrestling Federation. He shaped it into his image by implementing changes that forever altered the course of professional wrestling and transformed the company into the global megabrand we know today.
The forerunners of bodybuilders in wrestling include legendary strongman George Hackenschmidt, the “Golden Greek” Jim Londos, Earl “Mr. Universe” Maynard, and “Sailor” Art Thomas.
Later in the ’70s, when Superstar Billy Graham muscled his way onto the scene, the charismatic bodybuilder turned wrestler broke the mold of how many thought a wrestler should appear.
Years later, Hulk Hogan successfully replicated the same formula. Rocky Johnson and Tony Atlas soon also sported incredible physiques that wowed the fans.
By the mid-’80s and early ’90s, fans figuratively and literally saw their superstars begin to transform into larger-than-life characters seemingly straight out of a comic book, and not only in the then-WWF but in other promotions as well.
Everybody started getting bigger, and if you looked good, you didn’t necessarily need to be a stellar ring technician to get a big push.
Going back to the ’60s, the formerly named World Wide Wrestling Federation (WWWF) had traditionally been a babyface champion territory. Vince McMahon grew up watching this when his father ran the company.
Pro wrestling is as much art and theatrics as it is a sport. Superhuman physiques catch people’s eyes, look great on television, and to some extent, encourage ticket purchasing. And with Vince McMahon in charge, many wrestlers began looking like they lived in the weight room. Some would call this an unhealthy obsession with muscles, and it peaked in 1990 when he formed the ill-fated World Bodybuilding Federation.
The Quest To Conquer The Bodybuilding World
In 1946, brothers Ben and Joe Weider founded the International Federation of Bodybuilding and Fitness (IFBB).
In 1967, in what was to become the gold standard in bodybuilding competitions, the first Mr. Olympia contest was held, with Larry Scott becoming its inaugural winner.
In 1977, the docudrama Pumping Iron, starring a young Arnold Schwarzenegger, helped popularize this niche sport’s growing bodybuilder culture. The film centered primarily on his competition with Lou Ferrigno, who would later play the role of The Incredible Hulk in the 1978 television series with the late Bill Bixby as Doctor Banner.
Soon, the fitness craze of the ‘80s began with people flocking to gyms, and aerobic studios started popping up all over. VHS workout tapes with Richard Simmons’s Sweatin’ to the Oldies and others featuring fitness stars like Jane Fonda and Kathy Smith entered the mainstream and brought forth a whole new industry.
With the press of the "Play" button and whirring of the VCR, anybody could sweat off those excess calories in their home.
In 1990, Vince McMahon tried implementing some of the same strategies with his upstart WBF, making the then-WWF a household name. He’d soon find out the hard way that what is good for the goose isn’t necessarily good for the gander.
“A whole rack of U.S. tested grade A prime beef!” was promised for the first-ever WBF Championship brought to you by ICOPRO (Integrated Conditioning Programs). There was a lot of pomp and circumstance attached.
Promises to “shoot off the big cannons in the battle of the bulging biceps” evidenced the Vince McMahon hype machine was in full force and ready to dominate the sport of bodybuilding as he’d done with pro wrestling.
Indeed, people would pay good money to see speedo-clad, glistening, sweaty musclemen if given an interesting character and provided a compelling backstory, right? And isn’t pro wrestling pretty much that, with the glaring difference being that bodybuilders don’t take the dangerous bumps that wrestlers do?
The WBF started inconspicuously as a magazine called Bodybuilding Lifestyles, which seemed strangely similar to the already established ones produced by the Weiders. McMahon introduced the publication at a booth for the 1990 IFBB Mr. Olympia competition. Along with the magazine, Vince McMahon also spearheaded the creation of the ICOPRO line of supplements.
According to Irvin Muchnick’s book, Wrestling Babylon, the soon-to-be-named World Bodybuilding Federation talent director, Tom Platz, now nicknamed "The Quadfather," took the stage at the IFBB event run by the Weiders.
The brothers, then known as the kings of bodybuilding, were disgusted by Platz’s stunning announcement, whose delivery would’ve made any wrestling promoter proud.
"I have a very important announcement to make. We at Titan Sports and Bodybuilding Lifestyles magazine are pleased to announce the formation of the World Bodybuilding Federation. And we’re going to kick the IFBB’s a**!"
The first shots in the bodybuilding wars were fired, and there was no turning back. A new dawn of bodybuilding was on the horizon, or so McMahon thought.
As the crowd fell silent, sultry models in black evening gowns sporting Bodybuilding Lifestyles sashes began distributing flyers promising “bodybuilding as it was meant to be," confusing many people.
Did this mean the new company would enforce drug testing, or would they let it all hang out?
Rocking the Boat Creates Enemies
Just like Vince McMahon made many enemies when he ignored the established wrestling territories that controlled wrestling for decades, the Weiders would now be gunning for him. Soon, McMahon began offering lavish contracts to lure away top bodybuilding stars, similar in approach when raiding AWA and NWA talent on his way to the top of the wrestling world in the early ‘80s.
Thirty years later, according to WWE.com, "The WBF was formed to create greater awareness for competitive bodybuilding. The concept was simple- mix traditional competitions with the spectacle that made WWE the greatest brand in sports entertainment."
But at the time, it seemed like they aimed to become the top bodybuilding organization by upending the old guard represented by the Weiders and the IFBB.
An event at New York’s Plaza Hotel hosted by Titan Sports officially unveiled the WBF on January 30th, 1991. Thirteen competitors awarded long-term contracts for money unheard of in the bodybuilding industry at that time were revealed.
One of the most notable names was Gary Strydom from South Africa, who would become a key figure in the new organization. Strydom’s pay was between $350-400,000 annually, much more than anyone’s earnings at the IFBB. But even with the substantial salaries promised by the WBF, bodybuilders feared IBFF repercussions which threatened to blackball anybody who made the jump.
Although he’d stated otherwise, it soon became evident that McMahon wanted to present bodybuilding differently by giving it a sports-entertainment touch. By increasing the production values, having beautiful women, and introducing larger-than-life characters ala wrestling, he tried to position his bodybuilders to transcend the sport and become pop culture celebrities.
The Inaugural World Bodybuilding Federation Event
The inaugural World Bodybuilding Federation event was held at the former Trump Taj Mahal (currently the Hard Rock Hotel and Casino) in Atlantic City, New Jersey, on June 15th, 1991.
But according to Kayfabe Commentaries Timeline Series: 1990, as told by Bruce Prichard, the talent became resentful of the newly adopted WBF talent because of the attention they garnered, the guaranteed contracts not afforded to many long-standing wrestlers, and, to top it all, they needn’t take any bumps like the wrestlers.
Also, according to Prichard, nobody other than Vince McMahon believed the WBF was a good idea, and in Bruce’s opinion, the ICOPRO products tasted awful, all except the protein bars.
The inaugural event didn’t disappoint when it came to high production value, filled with plenty of glitz, special effects, pulsating music, and beautiful women.
Other than posing, the bodybuilders showcased gimmicks, and many wore costumes and used props that seemed to alienate fans of the sport and didn’t encourage people to tune in as planned. The promos and vignettes were meant to highlight each competitor’s personality, but they seemed to add less seriousness in the end.
These videos of the Bodystars were relatively tame compared to what was to come.
With Regis Philbin hosting and Randy and Miss Elizabeth appearing, the event had a distinctive WWF flavor.
The Bodystars program rivaled pro wrestling in outlandishness, and it would only get more bizarre in its second and final event.
Gary Strydom won the inaugural contest, which immediately elicited accusations of tampering due to him being the best-paid bodybuilder in the WBF.
The second and third place winners were the second and third highest-paid Bodystars, Mike Christian and Berry de Mey.
McMahon provided some very animated commentary for the event that put Gary Strydom over the moon.
A week before the event, McMahon described Strydom as "better looking than Robert Redford and with a better physique than Superman."
Watch Vince McMahon sounding enamored with Gary Strydom:
The WBF Attempts to Stay Above Water
Despite doing poorly in pay-per-view and video sales, the burgeoning World Bodybuilding Federation showed some promise after its inaugural event. Unfortunately, instead of 1992 being the year the organization took off, it proved to be a train wreck.
The WBF would soon fizzle and disappear.
In the fall of ’91, Lou Ferrigno was offered a WBF contract worth over $1 million. He would have become the highest-paid bodybuilder the sport had ever seen.
A back-and-forth bidding war ensued between the Weiders and the IBFF and McMahon with the WBF.
In the end, the WWF jumped the gun, prematurely announcing the signing of Ferrigno on air during WWF television when, in reality, the two parties hadn’t come to terms yet. Ferrigno even did a couple of photoshoots with Gary Strydom.
The then-WWF used these to heavily promote a Gary Strydom versus Lou Ferrigno showdown for their second pay-per-view. But the deal between Ferrigno and the WBF fell through, doling out the WBF a colossal blow.
Some believe Ferrigno made this decision because he feared that he might be turned into a character. Others speculate he felt very uncomfortable with the crackdown on anabolic steroids within the then-WWF and WBF.
He was rumored to be the guest referee for the WrestleMania VIII Hulk Hogan vs. Sid Vicious match. The other main event on the card was Randy Savage vs. Ric Flair for the WWF Championship.
Vince McMahon Can’t Catch a Break – Lex Luger and the World Bodybuilding Federation
Vince McMahon had what he thought was an ace up his sleeve when targeting Lex Luger to become the next big thing for his WBF. Despite Luger not being a former bodybuilder, he exhibited one of wrestling’s most enviable physiques.
McMahon envisioned him fitting perfectly with the other massive testosterone-filled musclemen. According to Lex Luger’s autobiography, Wrestling With The Devil, he pitched McMahon the idea of being part of the WBF if he could find a way out of his WCW contract.
Unfortunately, it seems like the WBF couldn’t catch a break, as Lex Luger suffered a motorcycle accident that injured his arm, thus rendering him out of the competition.
"The Total Package" instead became a co-host for a short-lived television show called WBF Bodystars, along with Vince McMahon and actress Cameo Kneuer.
McMahon proclaimed in one of the television spots that the show was about “health and fitness, hanging and banging, riding and sliding, food and fun, fashion and passion.”
The show aimed to feature its Bodystars, promote the ICOPRO line of supplements, and launch a lifestyle fitness brand. A very ambitious vision that didn’t pan out in the end.
The show performed so poorly that too few advertisers showed interest in partnering, which prompted Titan Sports to buy the program’s time slot and use it as more of an infomercial for ICOPRO after the WBF closed shop.
Watch the WBF Bodystars TV show promo:
The Second and Final World Bodybuilding Federation Event
Also, some lucky fans were invited for an Ultimate Personal Fitness Weekend at the WBF headquarters on February 1st and 2nd, 1992, which offered fans the opportunity to meet and train with the WBF Bodystars.
Alas, these promotional tactics weren’t nearly enough for them to obtain even acceptable pay-per-view buys.
The second event aired from the Long Beach Convention and Entertainment Center in California on June 13th, 1992, and did even worse than the inaugural pay-per-view. It obtained an anemic 3,000 buys, which equates to a 0.02 buy rate nationwide. That remains, by far, the lowest McMahon- endorsed buy rate of any pay-per-view event to this day. Even worse than the ill-famed one with Girls Gone Wild!
Gone were the relatively tame promos and vignettes from the inaugural event. Instead, they were replaced with over-the-top cartoonish mini-movies more akin to what a sports entertainment product might dish out.
Aside from the above, the competitors didn’t arrive in their best shape due to the self-imposed stringent drug policy for both the then-WWF and WBF in response to the 1991 drug scandal involving Dr. George Zahorian and the dozens of wrestlers on his Federal Express account (including Hulk Hogan and Roddy Piper) to whom he allegedly regularly shipped illegal performance enhancers to.
This trial became a national story that nearly brought McMahon and the entire wrestling industry to its knees and sent shockwaves still felt today.
By the way, Gary Strydom won his second straight WBF event that evening.
One month after their disastrous and final pay-per-view, the WBF ceased operations after publishing the last edition of their magazine.
In one final appearance by some of the Bodystars, an event called the Bodystar Wars Tug of War saw them compete against WWF wrestlers. The best two-out-of-three pulls would win the contest.
In the end, the WWF superstars won, but not before purposely letting go of the rope on the first pull to see the WBF Bodystars’ shocked expressions after they’d toppled onto each other.
ICOPRO enjoyed a slightly longer shelf life but was quietly discontinued by 1995.
The World Bodybuilding Federation – A Failed Venture, But Not The Last
The World Bodybuilding Federation was an epic financial disaster for Vince McMahon and Titan Sports. It is estimated to have cost them a cool $15 million (equivalent to $29 million today). Most would have learned their lesson after hemorrhaging that change, but billionaires can be a stubborn bunch.
In 2001, McMahon looked to dip his toes into the sport of American football with the creation of the Xtreme Football League (XFL) as a joint venture with NBC. They ultimately lost an estimated $35 million on their $100 million investment and folded after only one season.
In 2020, McMahon tried to relaunch the XFL without the sports entertainment elements seen in the previous incarnation. He owned a majority 80% through his management company Alpha Entertainment with the WWE controlling 20%. The league folded five games into the season due mainly to the pandemic, suspending operations in April of 2020.
McMahon invested $100 million in this venture and reportedly planned to put in as much as $500 million in the league.
Teaming with his business partner Dany Garcia, Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson purchased the league from bankruptcy for $15 million. The XFL relaunched Spring of 2023.
You have to give the devil his due, though. Vince McMahon is an entrepreneur who isn’t afraid to take risks. And as a friend who reads this page daily often tells me, “You miss 100% of the shots you don’t take.”
Vinnie Mac may have missed on the WBF and later the XFL (twice), but the very successful WWE universe wasn’t built by conforming and playing by the rules.
These stories may also interest you:
- Lex Express and The Failed Lex Luger Experiment
- Steroid Use in the WWE: Candid Truth by Hulk Hogan, The Rock and More
- Superstar Billy Graham | Peaks and Valleys of his Life and Career
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