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From the wrestling ring to the White House: Linda McMahon's fight to enter Washington

Linda McMahon was hardly dressed for a wrestling match that day back in 1999, when she marched into a ring in Anaheim to face wrestling megastar Triple H.

Triple H was a beefy wrestler, McMahon was one of the World Wrestling Federation’s top executives. A YouTube video shows Triple H grabbing McMahon’s jacket. Outrageous! Her husband, Vince McMahon, steps into the ring to intervene. It’s personal! At that point, wrestler Stone Cold Steve Austin storms in. Pandemonium! After the McMahons retreat, Austin nails Triple H in the head with a folding chair.

It’s all acting, scripted by writers, but that doesn’t matter, because the crowd loves it. The profitable mayhem of professional wrestling would eventually pave Linda McMahon’s path to head the Small Business Administration, one of the top business posts in President Trump’s administration.

McMahon’s confirmation hearing is scheduled for Tuesday, when she’ll testify about her suitability to run the SBA, the federal agency tasked with overseeing loans and other support to help small businesses flourish.

McMahon stepped down as chief executive of the company now known as World Wrestling Entertainment in 2009, capping a tenure marked by financial success but also controversies over steroid abuse and wrestler deaths.

She spent almost $100 million of her own money in two unsuccessful runs as a Republican for the U.S. Senate in Connecticut, and occasionally had to answer for the WWE controversies.

But her record as head of the raucous but largely successful wrestling enterprise eventually won praise even from opponents. Both Democrats who defeated her in her Senate campaigns — Richard Blumenthal in 2010 and Chris Murphy in 2012 — have supported her appointment to head the SBA.

“She helped shepherd the WWE from a mere idea into an incredibly successful enterprise,” Murphy said in a recent statement, calling her a “fierce fighter.”

McMahon and her husband bought a small regional wrestling business from Vince McMahon’s father in 1982 and built it into a publicly traded company valued at $1.5 billion. Trump first partnered with the McMahons to host a match in Atlantic City, and has since been inducted into the WWE Hall of Fame.

McMahon has said her strengths at the company were “operations, administration, organization,” while her husband, Vince, a charismatic showman who more regularly appeared on the stage, dealt with “the talent” and was "really the driving entrepreneur, the creative genius behind what happens with WWE.”

In her prepared testimony, McMahon will minimize the glitz and grime of professional wrestling and emphasize her success at growing the company from its modest origins.

“I remember the early days when every month I had to decide whether I should continue to lease a typewriter or if I could finally afford to buy it. Yes, that $12 a month really made a difference in our budget,” McMahon said in her remarks prepared for delivery Tuesday. “Like all small-business owners, I know what it’s like to take a risk on an idea, manage cash flow, navigate regulations and tax laws, and create jobs.”

The company now dominates the world of American wrestling, claims a large foreign audience, and has made performers such as Hulk Hogan, Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson and John Cena into cultural icons.

“They put that thing together out of a back of a station wagon, driving around New England doing these wrestling shows in high school gyms for years,” said Christopher Healy, the former head of the state Republican Party in Connecticut.

In the years that McMahon was at the helm, the WWE was criticized over labor and safety practices, investigated by Congress, and prodded toward reform in the mid-2000s after a series of high-profile controversies and tragedies, including the premature deaths of some of the company’s wrestlers.

One 2004 USA Today investigation examined the deaths of dozens of professional wrestlers across the industry and concluded that wrestlers were about 20 times more likely to die before the age of 45 than pro football players.

Many wrestlers, the newspaper found, became heavy users of steroids, human growth hormone and painkillers in order to entertain at a high level while carrying out grueling performance schedules. As the industry’s largest and most dominant force, much of the scrutiny and criticism fell on WWE.

“You can slice and dice the list — by time, by cause of death, you can argue over whether it was caused by this or that — but certainly there has been a pandemic of death in the pro wrestling industry that I think largely belongs at the feet of Vince and Linda McMahon, who essentially control the American wrestling industry,” said Irvin Muchnick, an investigative sports journalist who has written books critical of the industry.

A WWE spokesman declined to comment, and a spokeswoman for McMahon did not respond to a request for comment.

When Congress investigated drug use in the WWE, McMahon said only a small number of wrestlers who died had wrestled for WWE.

"Any death, one death is too many, and so you don't want to have a cavalier approach to anything,” McMahon told congressional investigators in 2007. “But we didn't feel a responsibility for those talent who had died because we had nothing to do with what had occurred with them, whatever lifestyle they had chosen or how — you know, what had caused their death.”

McMahon’s company launched a wellness program that included drug testing after the 2005 death of 38-year-old WWE star Eddie Guerrero due to heart failure.

"Linda pulled me aside and told me very sternly she expected this program to be a very well-enforced program or policy," David Black, who ran a Tennessee-based drug-testing company hired by the WWE, told congressional investigators.

During the WWE’s first round of drug-testing in 2005, 40% of the company’s wrestlers tested positive for steroids or narcotics even after being warned in advance that they were going to be tested, investigators found.

Black continued to do drug-testing for the WWE until late last year. In an interview, he had only positive things to say about McMahon and the company’s drug-testing program.

“She’s a very good and decisive leader, and I think she’s capable of taking complex problems and finding solutions,” said Black, who is married to U.S. Rep. Diane Black (R-Tenn). 

Black said the WWE was unique for being one of the only business in the entertainment industry to do extensive drug-testing of its talent.

Muchnick, the journalist who criticized WWE’s practices, said premature wrestler deaths appear to have slowed in recent years, and the company’s testing policy, he said, was probably responsible

Among Trump’s cabinet appointees, he said, McMahon is “probably one of the more competent ones.”

matt.pearce@latimes.com

@mattdpearce

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