In this Oct. 30, 2010 file photo, WWE chairman and CEO Vince McMahon speaks to an audience during a WWE fan appreciation event in Hartford, Connecticut. Credit: Jessica Hill / AP

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We here at Hard Telling Not Knowing were told not too long ago that before the days of The Rock, Ronda Rousey, Stone Cold Steve Austin and Hulk Hogan, Bangor played a big role in turning World Wrestling Entertainment into a truly global phenomenon.

What role did Bangor play in turning pro wrestling into the entertainment juggernaut it is today?

Whether you’re a diehard fan of the drama, the mayhem and the stunts, or you think it’s all pretty silly, there’s no denying that pro wrestling — especially World Wrestling Entertainment — is one of the biggest shows around. It has legions of fans all over the world and routinely draws tens of millions of viewers to its biggest events, like WrestleMania or Survivor Series, the 36th edition of which is set for Nov. 26.  

But few may realize that WWE in the sense that we know it today was birthed, in large part, in Bangor, just over 50 years ago.

That’s because Vince McMahon, the longtime chair of WWE who retired earlier this year, got his start as a wrestling promoter and announcer in Bangor in 1971, where he was sent by his father, Vincent McMahon Sr., cofounder of the company that would become WWE.

There are several supposed reasons the elder McMahon sent his eager son to Bangor. The first is that he simply wanted to give his son a lower-stakes shot at entering the business. Maine had joined the WWE — then known as the WWWF — as part of its circuit in 1966, first in Portland and then in Bangor and Augusta. It was a growing area, but it wasn’t a high-population part of the country: a perfect place for the younger McMahon to get his start.

The second reason may be that the elder McMahon may actually have wanted to discourage his son from the wrestling business. According to Vince Jr., his father always wanted him to “get a real job,” knowing the vicissitudes of the biz. If he sent him to Bangor — a world away from the New York City wrestling scene his family had helped build — he might give up on wrestling entirely.

And the third reason is the most pragmatic: somebody in Bangor was stealing money from the company, and McMahon Jr. was going there to straighten things out.

Regardless of the exact reasons why Vince McMahon came to Bangor, within a year, he’d expanded the Maine wrestling scene to include towns like Waterville and Belfast, and had doubled or even tripled crowds at matches. He also began commentating on matches, something promoters typically did not do. As WWE fans know, McMahon would soon become the face of wrestling, not just as leader of the company but also as an announcer and even in the ring himself.

Having had great success in just a few short years in Maine, by the mid-1970s, McMahon had moved on to putting his stamp on the rest of the Northeast wrestling circuit and revitalizing lagging television ratings. By 1982, he owned the company.

It was in those early years in the 1970s that the look and feel of pro wrestling began to change, away from the more bare bones, underground structure and into the big-budget entertainment juggernaut that it is today. Back then, names like Killer Kowalski and Bruno Sammartino were well known to wrestling fans. Today, however, Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson and John Cena are household names.

Though WWE hasn’t visited Bangor since 2016, wrestling remains incredibly popular in Maine — not just WWE, but also homegrown wrestling organizations like Limitless Wrestling, which routinely draws hundreds of fans to matches all over the state.

Love him or hate him, Vince McMahon not only started building a wrestling empire in Bangor, he also helped lay the foundation for generations of wrestling fans right here in the Queen City.

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Emily Burnham

Emily Burnham is a Maine native and proud Bangorian, covering business, the arts, restaurants and the culture and history of the Bangor region.