2022 wasn’t the only year WWE and Vince McMahon were involved in an unsavory scandal. In 1992, the then WWF and Vince McMahon were under fire due to a drug and sex scandal, and it was on television for the world to see.
For 29 years, daytime TV host Phil Donahue thrived on inviting controversial guests and welcoming controversial topics, and on March 16, 1992, the Donahue Show was a wild spectacle.
At the time, the inner turmoil within the WWE (then WWF/Titan Sports) was tailor-made for tabloid television.
As a result, we saw an eclectic group on the panel that included wrestling luminaries Bruno Sammartino and Superstar Billy Graham, and lesser-known grapplers Barry Orton and Tom Hankins. Journalists Dave Meltzer and John Arezzi were also present.
And front and center was Vince McMahon, readily confronting accusations of unwanted sexual abuse and illegal narcotics usage within the WWF.
Where Wrestling Was Before the 1992 WWE Scandal
On March 29, 1987, wrestling hit a peak in popularity not seen in decades when Hulk Hogan and André the Giant squared off at WrestleMania III.
Now nicknamed “The “Slam Heard Round the World,” the historic evening in front of 93,000-plus fans sent Hulkamania to the stratosphere and further cemented professional wrestling as a significant player in the sports and entertainment world.
Later that same year, on November 26, the NWA and Jim Crockett Promotions took a significant risk by running their fifth Starrcade, but this time in Chicago, a city not usually known as a hotbed for the promotion.
Previously, they showed their major events through closed-circuit television. This time it evolved and changed to the pay-per-view format.
The WWF launched the inaugural Survivor Series that same Thanksgiving evening, featuring a five-on-five elimination match.
Most cable providers made this event available to customers instead of Starrcade.
The reason? The WWF shrewdly outmaneuvered their competitor by threatening not to make the forthcoming WrestleMania IV available to cable providers if they decided to go with Starrcade’s Chi-Town Heat instead.
On March 27, 1988, the WWF capped off a 14-man single-elimination tournament held at WrestleMania IV when Randy Savage became the WWF champion.
At the Great American Bash on July 10, 1988, NWA champion Ric Flair retained his title in a bloody encounter with “The Total Package” Lex Luger after the match was halted due to Luger’s excessive bleeding.
Although still being referred to as the NWA for a couple of more years, this would be the final event produced under the JCP banner before being bought by Turner Broadcasting System and rebranded as World Championship Wrestling.
On August 29, 1988, in a pay-per-view designed to stave off WCW further, fans saw the dream team of the Mega Powers (Hulk Hogan and Randy Savage) meet the Mega-Bucks (Ted DiBiase and André the Giant) at the historic inaugural SummerSlam.
The Anti-Drug Abuse Act of 1988 was implemented on November 18 of that same year. It criminalized the possession or distribution of anabolic steroids with intent to distribute for any use in humans other than treatment of a disease based on the order of a physician.
That’s quite a mouthful.
Back on the wrestling front, January 15, 1989, saw the second Royal Rumble, consisting of 30 men, which became the usual format for future events.
In WCW, intense feuds kept Ric Flair busy throughout the year. Ricky Steamboat, Terry Funk, and finally Sting went up against “The Nature Boy” in a series of impressive matches on pay-per-views still talked about today.
Later, the company experimented with the now-infamous “Team Challenge Series.”
However, something loomed over the horizon that cast a dark cloud over the sport that could potentially stop the wrestling business in its tracks.
An Investigation into the WWF and Dr. George Zahorian
In December of 1989, the WWF was tipped off that the Justice Department was investigating the company and mainly Dr. George Zahorian for illegal drug trafficking.
Even with this unsettling news, on April 1, 1990, over 67,000 unsuspecting fans packed the Toronto SkyDome to witness “The Ultimate Challenge,” pitting the Ultimate Warrior and Hulk Hogan in a champion versus champion match at WrestleMania VI.
On October 5, 1990, with the Anabolic Steroids Control Act, Congress determined that steroids are in the same legal class as morphine, opium, amphetamines, and methamphetamines.
In the wake of the Gulf War, business continued with WrestleMania VII.
The much-anticipated yearly event featured American traitor and converted Iraqi sympathizer Sgt. Slaughter, managed by General Adnan (Sheik Adnan Al-Kaissey), bested by Hulk Hogan at the Los Angeles Memorial Sports Arena on March 24, 1991.
“The Hulkster” continued his winning ways and held the WWF Championship for the third time.
In December 1991, the WWF was hit with U.S. District Judge William W. Caldwell sentencing the urologist and former ringside assistant (from 1984 to 1989) Dr. George Zahorian on 12 of 14 counts.
This included 8 for distributing steroids and four for illegally distributing prescription painkillers. He was also fined $12,700.
Prosecutors linked FedEx packages from him to wrestlers Hulk Hogan and Roddy Piper. Profits for selling steroids to wrestlers and other athletes were calculated in the hundreds of thousands of dollars.
But wrestling’s troubles weren’t even nearly over and would soon be presented to the world in the form of a top-rated Tabloid T.V. show, Donahue, on March 16, 1992.
The WWF Exposé on the Donahue Show in 1992
With the wrestling and sports world still reeling from the crackdown on steroids, Phil Donahue arranged for Vince McMahon to appear on his show without his lawyers. He publicly defended his company against sexual harassment and drug abuse accusations.
Donahue set the stage for the audience members who may have considered this a “trivial matter.”
The talk show host stated that the WWF in 1990 had generated $1.7 billion in revenue. At the time, this was more than the NFL.
He also stressed that a couple of these alleged sexual harassment charges involved underage young boys, “14-year-olds, juveniles,” he specified.
A collective gasp could be heard from the audience.
Murry Hodgson, Former WWF Commentator
First to speak was a very determined but short-lived WWF commentator Murry Hodgson, who sat at a round table with wrestlers Barry Orton and Tom Hankins.
Seated in front of him in a brown jacket was Vince McMahon.
Hodgson would soon file a sexual harassment/wrongful termination lawsuit against the WWF/Titan Sports and Pat Patterson.
He also appeared on Geraldo Rivera’s “Now It Can Be Told,” which also told the story of former WWF woman referee Rita Chatterton (Rita Marie), as well as on “A Current Affair.”
On both shows, he further explained getting fired as an announcer for turning down an unwanted sexual advance from Patterson.
The second show is notable for several well-known wrestlers burying the WWF’s questionable business practices behind the sport’s infamous curtain of kayfabe and secrets.
Before Hodgson spoke, Donahue added that McMahon’s WWF had already accepted the resignation of two of its executives.
We later found out that they were long-tenured Vice President in charge of talent Pat Patterson and booking assistant Terry Garvin (real name Terry Joyal). Ring announcer and timekeeper Mel Phillips was mentioned later as well.
Although forthcoming when saying that his job security was threatened because of refusing Patterson’s advances, Hodgson declined to share specifics.
But Irvin Muchnick’s Wrestling Babylon: Piledriving Tales of Drugs, Sex, and Death, delves deep and writes that Patterson approached the newly hired commentator, saying, “So, you’re the new guy?… So, what do you taste like?”
Hodgson replied, “You’ve got the wrong guy.”
Patterson countered, “Not if you want to keep your job, you don’t. Think about it.”
Despite claiming praise for his work from his superiors, Hodgson was soon fired.
In a later meeting with McMahon, he was told that he was fired because he “wasn’t the right person for the job.”
The WWF’s head honcho on Donahue said Hodgson had done “a horrible job,” so he was let go.
The Involvement of Barry Orton and Tom Hankins
Sitting beside the former WWF commentator was long-haired second-generation wrestler Barry Orton (AKA Barry O).
Orton went into detail about how he was continually harassed in a car while sitting between Terry Garvin and Pat Patterson. He “endured it as much as he could until feeling suffocated and couldn’t take it anymore.”
Later in the show, Barry O admits that an even worse incident happened when driving from Amarillo, Texas, to Albuquerque, New Mexico, when in a car only with Terry Garvin.
Forty miles outside of town, Garvin proposed that he perform oral sex on Barry while still driving.
Barry was 19 years old and new to the business. He politely declined and hoped Garvin would leave it at that. Despite this, he then claims Garvin insisted the same every 40 to 50 miles, and it got harder to talk him out of it.
Up next was Tom Hankins, who, at the time in 1992, was four years removed from the wrestling business. He admits to primarily working as a prelim talent in places like Tennessee, Hawaii, Southern California, and Mexico, where he accepted very little pay and was just glad to be part of the business he loved.
He said that back in 1985, after a card promoted by the WWF in Los Angeles, he met several of the wrestlers at a hotel bar, including Pat Patterson. After some conversation, Hankins asked him his chances of getting a tryout with the WWF. And to this, Patterson supposedly answered bluntly,
“Well, you got two chances: slim and none. But there is one way….”
And there, Hankins claims Patterson invited him to a room to “have oral sex with him.”
Hankins told him that he “wasn’t interested.”
The next time the WWF was in Los Angeles, Hankins went to the dressing room at the former L.A. Sports Arena, where he’d always been allowed in with the rest of the wrestlers where some were his friends. However, this time Patterson acted aloof and ordered that Hankins be physically thrown out of the dressing room.
When asked by Donahue why he’d waited so many years to come forward, Hankins replied that it was after hearing McMahon assuring that “Barry Orton’s charges were ridiculous…” because Hankins claims, “that anybody in the business I knew, knew what was going on with Patterson.”
Tom Hankins has a book called, The Mat, the Mob & Music at Crowbar Press.
Donahue then mentions a piece in the New York Post written by journalist Phil Mushnick stating, “the billion-dollar pro wrestling empire is about to be shaken to its foundations by a teenage boy scandal, the Post has learned.”
In later television and news reports, we’d find out that this young man was named Tom Cole, who, at age 50, sadly committed suicide in 2021.
After his passing, his older brother Lee reached out to us, seeking an outlet to be able to tell of this tragic situation and the circumstances surrounding it. We offered him the platform and will share his account here in the future should he feel ready to tell his story.
“We’ve never looked the other way, and I’m very happy to confront everyone today with whatever allegation they have. The three individuals to whom most of these allegations are hurled are no longer with the WWF.
“We have started an independent investigation to get to the bottom of this, and that’s why we’re here today.
“…I want to get to the bottom of it, just like you gentlemen do.”
– Vince McMahon
Barry O then voiced that he finds it hard to believe that McMahon knew nothing of these happenings and that the reason people don’t speak up is that they’d indeed be fired and blackballed.
He also wasn’t buying McMahon’s assurance of not knowing anything of Garvin, Patterson, or Phillips even when having “eyes and ears everywhere,” as Barry describes it.
Hankins then added that he tried speaking with McMahon but was always told that he was busy or in a meeting.
McMahon, of course, said that he didn’t recall.
Murray Hodgson Goes on the Attack Against Vince McMahon
At this point in the show, Murray Hodgson jumped in and sternly asked McMahon if he believed that sexual harassment existed in his workplace.
Vince replied, “I believe that there is a possibility of sexual harassment existing everywhere, and I don’t want it in my organization. I don’t want it.”
Hodgson continued to probe by tweaking the question a bit and asked if McMahon believed that there was sexual harassment amongst the wrestlers or employees in the World Wrestling Federation.
McMahon coolly replied, “There’s a possibility of that. That’s why I have these independent investigators to come in…”
Hodgson continued by saying that McMahon hadn’t done anything about “sexual harassment running rampant” within the WWF because it hadn’t become known to the public until now.
This went on and on like this. Donahue let them go at it because it, of course, made for good television. The back and forth spat between the two escalated and got heated, more so between them than anyone else on the show.
Like a weary wrestler, the WWF boss slowly but surely got worn down and irritated by the questioning. The audience even clapped enthusiastically at a certain point when it appeared McMahon was uneasy while getting his verbal comeuppance from the former announcer.
This was when Hodgson dropped a bombshell, announcing that legal actions were being pursued.
A surprised McMahon seemed to freeze for a couple of seconds.
Now backed into a corner, the only thing McMahon had to grab on to was lambasting Hodgson on why he waited six months before pursuing legal action and denying the allegations that he had tried to buy him off so that he wouldn’t publicly air his grievances on Donahue.
McMahon was getting his “lunch handed to him” until, unfortunately, Hodgson inadvertently slipped and used the phrase, “In six weeks I was on your rear end,” referring to when he was wrongfully let go and later took action. This inadvertently incited a chuckle from the crowd.
Although not revealed on the show, it is now known that his lawyers were Ed Nusbaum and Richard McLean, who also represented “Dr. D” David Shultz after ABC’s John Stossel sued him. Stossel is the tv personality who took the brunt of Schultz’s wrath in the incident now nicknamed “The Slap Heard ‘Round the World.”
The Involvement of Dave Meltzer and John Arezzi
Next, we heard from journalist Dave Meltzer and the multi-faceted radio host John Arezzi. Meltzer stayed neutral and said he just wanted the truth to come out.
Arezzi offered that the mainstream press had ignored this whole situation until the conviction of Doctor Zahorian in December of 1991.
McMahon had not allowed access to the wrestling media for the press conference announcing the WWF’s new wellness policy (named drug policy at the time) to fix the steroid problem.
Arezzi then informed New York Post journalist Phil Mushnick of the situation, and this was when other allegations like the “ring boys sex scandal” started seeping out.
The Involvement of Superstar Graham
Superstar Billy Graham was then introduced and greeted by a round of applause.
He stated that once when arriving early to a New Haven, Connecticut show and before the ring was set up, he saw Pat Patterson groping one of the ring boys. And although he didn’t see it personally, he also recounted another time in Allentown, Pennsylvania, in either ’82 or ’83; he was there when Mel Phillips was caught in the front seat of a car performing oral sex on a boy who was approximately ten years old.
He then transitioned to the ongoing drug (specifically barbiturates) and steroid problem within the company. He claimed that he, too, fell into addiction leading to overdosing three times. According to him, all this was supposedly condoned by Vince McMahon.
McMahon, of course, denied it all and looked flabbergasted. He soon got angry and rebutted Superstar’s story by saying, “If I saw that, I’d call the authorities. That’s what you would do. A 10-year-old-boy?! Call the authorities! Come on, Superstar! You’re not going to let someone like that get away with it!”
While some in the audience applauded Vince McMahon’s fiery response, the camera cut to Superstar Graham, who was nonchalantly scratching the right side of his face with his right hand but using his middle finger. Coincidence? You decide.
Donahue then asked Superstar, “Could you compete and survive and be a top card person in the ’80s in the wrestling game without taking steroids?”
Superstar, without hesitation, answered, “No. You would’ve had to have taken steroids in Vince McMahon’s World Wrestling Federation to be on top.”
Bruno Sammartino Speaks His Mind
Although in-ring rivals for many years, Superstar Graham and Bruno Sammartino were sitting next to each other during the show, and Bruno’s expressions during Superstar’s exchange were priceless.
If McMahon thought that Superstar would be the end of him during the show, he had no idea what Bruno had in store.
“Some of these poor folks there listening to these guys, and then they even applaud him,” Bruno began.
“Poor people, you don’t know this man [sarcastically referring to Vince McMahon]. I wrestled from 1959 to 1981 and then retired.
“When I returned in 1984 as a color commentator, believe you me, the world of wrestling I left and the one I found, it was bizarre. I mean, it was filled with drugs of all kinds. We’re talking about steroids, but there was cocaine….”
He went on to say that he needed to begin traveling with agent Jay Strongbow because he was afraid of being stopped in a car full of drugs with any of the other wrestlers of the time.
He also reminded audiences that there is no union or protection for the wrestlers and that going to the authorities usually meant that you’d be finished in the wrestling business.
Donahue wondered if all this had been going on for so long, why had it surfaced until the late-’80s?
Dave Meltzer explained that there had never been a forum for it because the wrestling business has always been a “closed entity,” comparing it to an elementary school where snitching on your peers is frowned upon.
He then transitioned further by adding the sad story of the murder of his friend Bruiser Brody on July 17, 1988, in a Puerto Rican dressing room before an event and how difficult it was for anybody to come forth and speak to the authorities.
Donahue then found his moment and posed the question which seemed to grab the attention of every audience member in the studio and probably viewers at home:
“Did the WWF, or did the environment, or did people in power not only look the other way but actually condone the loss of jobs, the loss of employment because of bold, unrestrained aggression of a sexual nature by men in power on younger men who wanted to rise within the system?”
Pat Patterson Involved in Another Bizarre Accusation
John Arezzi then revealed that on his previous evening’s radio show, British midget wrestler (a term rarely used anymore, but common in 1992 and before) Lord Littlebrook told a story of another midget by the name of Karate Kid who was in tears because he could no longer endure the unwanted predatory advances of a sexual nature from Pat Patterson.
When Littlebrook asked Patterson to please lay off Karate Kid because he wasn’t homosexual and not interested, the WWF only hired the midgets once more with no explanation.
Superstar Has the Final Say
Towards the end of the show, Superstar Graham wanted to make sure people understood that Hulk Hogan, on his recent appearance on the Arsenio Hall Show, had lied about only having used steroids on two or three occasions and only to recover from an injury he sustained earlier in his career.
Superstar himself attested that he injected Hulk Hogan probably half a dozen times and asserted his close friend David Shultz injected Hogan over 200 times.
He further contends that Hogan took a shot every day during his first year on steroids until he understood how “cycling” with steroids worked. (Cycling means taking multiple doses over a specific time, stopping for a period, and then initiating again.)
Superstar concluded with, “You can’t lie to children in this country about drugs! [referring to Hogan] That’s child abuse.
“When you get on television, you say you’ve never taken steroids, and you’ve done it for the whole ten years. And when you’ve taken steroids for the decade of the ’80s, and cocaine and other drugs and you lie about this to children, that is child molestation of their minds!”
After learning about Hulk Hogan’s statements on Arsenio Hall, John Arezzi asked Vince McMahon if he “was devastated.”
McMahon turned his head away, but looking back at Arezzi, he affirmed, “I wasn’t devastated.”
With McMahon’s mouth still open, Dave Meltzer quickly interjected and said, “That’s the word you used…”
An ashamed look came upon Vince McMahon’s face, who had just been caught in a lie.
McMahon replied, “Well, alright,” and couldn’t avoid giving a half-smile.
The audience was “eating it up” and clapped.
Vince was now grinning a little more and even showing some teeth. But he quickly composed himself and insisted, “I don’t recall using the word ‘devastated.’ Hulk Hogan, I think, told the truth. As far as the media is concerned, the question is whether he told the whole truth.”
Meltzer provided his two cents, saying, “… only three times is not the truth.”
In a tight spot, McMahon quickly tried to deflect the attack and said that Superstar started the “whole steroid phenomenon undoubtedly in professional wrestling” and that steroids were legal at the time….”
Meltzer didn’t allow him to get too far and stated that steroids were not legal in all states and mentioned Florida and California.
Superstar defended himself by again yelling, “You can’t lie to the children!”
The show ended with Donahue taking a couple of comments from the audience. One inquired, “I’m just wondering why people go into wrestling in the first place. I mean, they know it’s not a pure art form. Even just looking at wrestling, you can see that it’s tacky!”
Maybe the woman was right.
Aftermath of Vince McMahon’s Appearance on the Donahue Show
While the WWE at the time was coming under fire for all the above, cases of steroid usage in sports like baseball became headline news and forever tainted “America’s Pastime.” We also have a very revealing public admission of a famous pro football player.
On May 7, 1992, Major League Baseball also began to feel the brunt of the crackdown on steroids after trainer Curtis Wenzlaff was arrested for steroid distribution and later publicly admits helping 20 to 30 major leaguers, including José Canseco, to obtain steroids.
On May 14, 1992, 15-year NFL defensive lineman Lyle Alzado- who played for the Denver Broncos and Cleveland Browns and ended his career with the Los Angeles Raiders- died of brain lymphoma at age 43.
Alzado admitted in a July 1991 Sports Illustrated article and went into great detail that he had lied all his life and had been a heavy steroid user since 1969.
He later also took human growth hormones. Because he never stopped, he was convinced that this ultimately led him to his deadly cancer. He believed that “ninety percent of the athletes he knew were on the stuff.”
Vince McMahon on Trial
On July 23, 1994, after an 18-day trial, Vince McMahon (who wore a neck brace to the criminal trial, as shown above, which some say was to gain sympathy) was acquitted of conspiring to distribute steroids under his employ. He avoided up to 8 years in prison and up to a $1.5 million fine. (Others say $500,000.)
Eleven wrestlers took the stand- including the Ultimate Warrior, Big John Studd (by phone due to delicate health stemming from Hodgkin’s Disease), Tom Zenk, The Warlord, Moondog Rex, Tully Blanchard, and Nailz.
Only the last claimed McMahon made him use steroids. Nailz’s release from the WWF was not a pleasant one for either side, as he was let go for allegedly having an altercation with Vince McMahon in late 1992, where he tried to strangle him.
Terry Bollea, AKA Hulk Hogan, was also brought to the stand and testified under immunity from prosecution.
He diverted very little from his declaration on the Arsenio Hall Show. He maintained that he regularly obtained steroids at WWF headquarters (Titan Towers) and used them only to recover from the wear and tear of his profession. He was clear that McMahon never obligated him.
Thanks to various procedural errors where serious charges against McMahon were dropped even before the trial had started, and later poor witness testimony (namely by Nailz, who contradicted himself and even stated that he hated Vince McMahon), the case against McMahon crumbled.
He and his WWF escaped virtually unscathed. Attorney Jerry McDevitt’s role in defending his client cannot be understated.
WWF wrestlers soon began looking smaller, and wrestlers such as Shawn Michaels and Bret Hart started getting major pushes and carried the promotion before the Attitude Era.
Back in Major League Baseball, in 1996, Baltimore, Seattle and Oakland broke the single-season home run record. Seventeen players hit at least 40 home runs. The previous high for a season had been eight in 1961.
Although, at the time, still not banned in baseball, in 1998, Mark McGwire admitted using androstenedione and went on to hit a record 70 home runs.
Terry Garvin passed away on August 17, 1998.
In 2001, Barry Bonds broke Mark McGuire’s mark by hitting 73 home runs for the season. He had never hit more than 50 in any previous season. In later sworn testimonies, he admitted to having used steroids as early as 1998 but claims his trainer misled him.
WWE instituted its Wellness Program on February 27, 2006.
Mel Phillips has been edited out of WWE’s video archives, especially WrestleMania III, and some sources say he died in 2012.
On April 18, 2018, Bruno Sammartino died at 82 years old.
On December 2, 2020, Pat Patterson passed away due to a blood clot at a Miami, Florida, hospital. He was 79 years old.
On March 19, 2021, Barry O died at age 62. To learn more about the “Other Orton,” please read Jamie Hemmings’ excellent 3-part piece here.
Unfortunately, wrestling had its dirty laundry aired once again in June 2020, earning another black eye from the Speaking Out movement. As a result, many promotions closed, and numerous wrestlers never worked again due to allegations of unsavory behavior in the indies.
Maybe these things will finally fix the sport we love.
“Hollywood has a casting couch. Wrestling, too, has a way of separating the wheat from the shaft.”
– From the book Wrestling Babylon by Irvin Muchnick.
Watch the WWF Scandal Exposé on Donahue from 1992 (in full):
These stories may also interest you:
- Steroid Use in the WWE: Candid Truth by Hulk Hogan, The Rock and More
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- The WWE Controversy Seldom Talked About From 1993
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