Stone Cold Steve Austin was waiting calmly in the bowels of Detroit’s Ford Field when a frantic Vince McMahon turned the corner.
WrestleMania 23’s signature event was just minutes away. Austin and McMahon would soon bound into the stadium, where they’d be greeted by fireworks, their respective theme songs and 80,000 people pumped for “The Battle of the Billionaires,” a match between two wrestlers fighting on behalf of McMahon and real estate mogul Donald Trump.
McMahon, the founder and most prominent face of World Wrestling Entertainment, had spent months before the April 1, 2007, event putting the storyline in place. Trump, then known primarily as the bombastic host of “The Apprentice,” had appeared on a handful of WWE broadcasts to sell the idea that his two-decade friendship with McMahon had collapsed into a bitter “feud.” They had spent hours rehearsing a match with many moving parts: two professional wrestlers in the ring, two camera-thirsty characters outside it, and in the middle, former champ Stone Cold serving as the referee.
The selling point of The Battle of the Billionaires was the wager that Trump and McMahon had placed on its outcome a month earlier during “Monday Night Raw,” WWE’s signature prime time show. Both Trump and McMahon took great pride in their precious coifs, and so the winner of the match, they decided, would shave the loser’s head bald right there in the middle of the ring.
But now, at the last possible moment, McMahon wanted to add another wrinkle.
“Hey, Steve,” McMahon said, just out of Trump’s earshot. “I’m gonna see if I can get Donald to take the Stone Cold stunner.”
Austin’s signature move, a headlock takedown fueled by Stone Cold’s habit of chugging cheap American beer in the ring, was already part of the plan for the match. But Trump wasn’t the intended target.
Austin and McMahon approached Trump and pitched the idea.
“I briefly explained how the stunner works,” Austin said. “I’m gonna kick him in the stomach ― not very hard ― then I’m gonna put his head on my shoulder, and we’re gonna drop down. That’s the move. No rehearsal, [decided] right in the dressing room, 15 minutes before we’re gonna go out in front of 80,000 people.”
Trump’s handler was appalled, Austin said. Trump wasn’t a performer or even a natural athlete. Now, the baddest dude in wrestling, a former Division I college football defensive end with tree trunks for biceps, wanted to drop him with his signature move? With no time to even rehearse it? That seemed … dangerous.
“He tried to talk Donald out of it a million ways,” Austin said.
But Trump, without hesitation, agreed to do it.
The man who became the 45th president of the United States in January has a history with Vince McMahon and WWE that dates back more than two decades, to when his Trump Plaza hotel in Atlantic City hosted WrestleManias IV and V in 1988 and 1989. The relationship has continued into Trump’s presidency. On Tuesday, the Senate confirmed the nomination of Linda McMahon ― Vince’s wife, who helped co-found WWE and served as its president and chief executive for 12 years ― to head the Small Business Administration.
After Trump launched his presidential campaign with an escalator entrance straight out of the wrestling playbook, journalists began pointing to his two-decade WWE career to help explain his political appeal. WWE, in one telling, was where Trump first discovered populism. According to another theory, wrestling was where he learned to be a heel ― a villainous performer loved by just enough people to rise to the top, despite antics that make many people hate him.
To those who were present, though, The Battle of the Billionaires is more an outrageous moment in wrestling history than an explanation of anything that happened next. No one in the ring that night thought Trump would one day be president. But now that he is, they look back and laugh about the time the future commander-in-chief ended up on the wrong side of a Stone Cold stunner.
‘To Get To The Crescendo, You’ve Got To Go On A Journey’
Professional wrestling is, at its core, a soap opera and a reality TV spectacle, and its best storylines follow the contours of both: A hero squares off with a heel as the masses hang on their fates.
The Battle of the Billionaires was the same tale, played out on wrestling’s biggest stage. WrestleMania is WWE’s annual mega-event. It commands the company’s largest pay-per-view audiences and biggest crowds. At WrestleMania, WWE’s stars compete in high-stakes matches ― including the WWE Championship ― and wrap up loose ends on stories developed during weekly broadcasts of “Monday Night Raw” and special events over the previous year. Even before Trump, WrestleMania had played host to a number of celebrity interlopers, including boxer Mike Tyson and NFL linebacker Lawrence Taylor.
Building a story ― and, for Trump, a character ― fit for that stage required months of work that started with Trump’s initial appearance on “Monday Night Raw” in January 2007. He would show up on “Raw” at least two more times over the next two months, with each appearance raising the stakes of his feud with McMahon and setting up their battle at WrestleMania on April 1.
“The Battle of the Billionaires, and all the hyperbole, was the crescendo,” said Jim Ross, the longtime voice of WWE television commentary. “But to get to the crescendo, you’ve got to go on a journey and tell an episodic story. That’s what we did with Donald.”
Creating a feud between Trump and McMahon, and getting wrestling fans to take Trump’s side, wasn’t actually a huge challenge. McMahon “was the big-shot boss lording over everybody,” said Jerry “The King” Lawler, a former wrestler and Ross’ sidekick in commentary. It was a role McMahon had long embraced: He was the dictator wrestling fans loved to hate.
Every week, HuffPost Must Reads features a behind-the-scenes look at how longform journalism is made. We go under the hood. Why did the writer take that unexpected angle? How hard was it to get that source on the record? We're here to tell that story. Learn more
Trump was never going to pull off the sort of character that McMahon’s most popular foes had developed. He wasn’t Austin’s beer-chugging, south Texas everyman. And vain and cocky as he might be, he never possessed the sexy swagger that made Shawn Michaels one of the greatest in-ring performers in pro wrestling history.
But rain money on people’s heads, and they’ll probably love you no matter who you are. So that’s what Trump did.
Trump’s first appearance on “Monday Night Raw” came during an episode that centered on McMahon, who was throwing himself the sort of self-celebratory event that even The Donald might find overly brash. As McMahon showered the crowd with insults and they serenaded him with boos, Trump’s face appeared on the jumbotron and money began to fall from the sky.
“Look up at the ceiling, Vince,” Trump said as fans grasped at the falling cash. “Now that’s the way you show appreciation. Learn from it.”
In true Trump fashion, the money wasn’t actually his. It was McMahon’s. But the fans didn’t know that.
The folks with slightly fatter wallets than they’d had moments before loved the contrast between the two rich guys. One was the pompous tyrant. The other might have been even wealthier and just as prone to outlandish behavior, but Trump was positioned as the magnanimous billionaire, the one who understood what they wanted.
“That went over pretty well, as you can imagine, dropping money from the sky,” said Scott Beekman, a wrestling historian and author. “Trump was the good guy, and he got over because of how hated McMahon was. Vince McMahon played a fantastic evil boss and was absolutely hated by everyone. So anyone who stood up to McMahon at that point was going to get over well.”
The wrestlers that each billionaire chose to fight for them also bolstered the narrative. Umaga, McMahon’s representative, was an emerging heel who had gone undefeated for most of 2006. “A 400-pound carnivore,” as Ross described him on TV, he was a mountainous Samoan whose face bore war paint and who barely spoke except to scream at the crowd.
Trump’s guy, on the other hand, was Bobby Lashley, a former Army sergeant who might have been cut straight from a granite slab. Lashley was the good-looking, classically trained college wrestler, the reigning champion of ECW (a lower-level WWE property). Even his cue-ball head seemed to have muscles.
Another selling point for the match: the wrestler who won would likely emerge as a top contender to challenge for the WWE title.
Then McMahon added another twist ― as if the match needed it. He enlisted Austin, a multi-time champion who had retired in 2003, as a guest referee.
“It sounded like an easy gig, sounded like a fun gig,” Austin said. “It didn’t take a whole lot of convincing. The scope of Donald Trump … would bring a lot of eyeballs. A chance to do business with a high-profile guy like that sounded like a real fun deal.”
The minute Austin signed up, Trump should have known that despite his “good guy” posture, he, too, was in trouble. When Stone Cold entered the ring at “Raw” to promote the match, he introduced himself to The Donald with a stern warning.
“You piss me off,” Austin said, “I’ll open up an $8 billion can of whoop ass and serve it to ya, and that’s all I got to say about that.”
‘We Thought We Were Shittin’ The Bed’
The opening lines of the O’Jays’ 1973 hit “For the Love of Money” ― also the theme song for Trump’s “Celebrity Apprentice” ― rang out of Ford Field’s loudspeakers a few minutes after Trump and Austin’s impromptu meeting backstage. It was time for Trump to make his way to the ring.
“Money, money, money, money, money,” the speakers blared. Trump emerged. The crowd erupted, and cash, even more than had fallen during his previous appearances, cascaded from the ceiling like victory confetti.
“There was a ton of money that had been dropped during Donald Trump’s entrance,” said Haz Ali, who, under the name Armando Estrada, served as Umaga’s handler. “There was about $20, $25,000 that they’d dropped. … Every denomination ― 1s, 5s, 10s, 20s.”
Lashley appeared next, bounding into the ring without the help of the stairs the others had needed.
For months, McMahon and Trump had sold the story of this match. Now, as Umaga and Lashley stood face to face in the ring, it was time to deliver.
The match started fairly routinely, perhaps even a bit slowly.
“I’m seeing it the same as anyone else who’s watching it,” said Ross, the commentator, who regularly skipped rehearsals to ensure matches would surprise him. “The entire arena was emotionally invested in the storyline. Once they got hooked in it months earlier, now they want the payout.”
On the TV broadcast, it’s obvious that the crowd was hanging on every twist, eager to see which of the two billionaires would lose his hair and how Austin ― famous for intervening in matches and now at the dead center of this one ― might shape it.
But Ford Field, an NFL stadium, is massive compared to the arenas that had hosted previous WrestleManias. Even with 80,000 people packed in, it was difficult to read the crowd from inside the ring.
“Me and Vince keep looking back and forth at each other like, ‘Man, this match is not successful because the crowd is not reacting,’” Austin recalled. “We thought we were shittin’ the bed.”
Trump, for all his usual braggadocio, wasn’t helping.
From outside the ring, McMahon ― a professional performer if there ever was one ― was selling even the most minor details of the match. He was haranguing Austin, instructing Umaga and engaging the crowd all at once. Trump was stiff. His repeated cries of “Kick his ass, Bobby!” and “Come on, Bobby!” came across as stale and unconvincing.
“It’s very robotic, it’s very forced, and there’s no genuine emotion behind it,” said Ali, who had been power-slammed by Lashley early in the match and was watching from the dressing room. “He was just doing it to do it. Hearing him say, ‘Come on, Bobby!’ over and over again ― it didn’t seem like he cared whether Bobby won or lost. That’s the perspective of a former wrestler and entertainer.”
‘He Punched Me As Hard As He Could’
The match turned when Vince’s son, Shane McMahon, entered the fray. Shane and Umaga ganged up on Austin, knocking the guest ref from the ring. Then they turned their attention to Lashley, slamming his head with a metal trash can as he lay on the ground opposite Trump ― whose golden mane, it seemed, might soon be lying on the floor next to his wrestler.
But just as Umaga prepared to finish Lashley off, Austin rebounded, dragging Shane McMahon from the ring and slamming him into a set of metal stairs. Trump ― who moments before had offered only a wooden “What’s going on here?” ― sprang into action.
Out of nowhere, Trump clotheslined Vince McMahon to the ground and then sat on top of him, wailing away at his skull.
“[Ross] and I were sitting right there about four feet from where Vince landed,” Lawler said. “The back of Vince’s head hit the corner of the ring so hard that I thought he was gonna be knocked out for a week.”
Professional wrestling is fake. Trump’s punches weren’t.
Hours before the match, WWE officials had roped the participants into one final walk-through. Vince McMahon was busy handling the production preparations and didn’t attend. So when it came time to rehearse Trump’s attack on WWE’s top man, Ali stood in for McMahon.
Ali gave Trump instructions on how to hit him on the head to avoid actual injury. Because it was just a rehearsal, he figured Trump would go easy. He figured wrong.
“He proceeds to punch me in the top of the head as if he was hammering a nail in the wall. He punched me as hard as he could,” Ali said. “His knuckle caught me on the top of my head, and the next thing I know, I’ve got an egg-sized welt on the top of my head. He hit me as hard as he could, one, two, three. I was like, ‘Holy shit, this guy.’”
“He actually hit Vince, too,” Ali said. “Which made it even funnier. That’s how Vince would want it.”
Back in the ring, Austin ducked under a punch from Umaga and then made him the match’s first victim of a Stone Cold stunner. Umaga stumbled toward the center of the ring, where Lashley floored him with a move called a running spear. Lashley pinned Umaga, Austin counted him out, Trump declared victory, and McMahon began to cry as he ran his fingers through hair that would soon be gone.
“I don’t think Donald’s hair was ever truly in jeopardy,” Lawler said.
‘It May Be One Of The Uglier Stone Cold Stunners In History’
Moments after the match ended, before he raised Trump and Lashley’s arms in victory, Austin handed out his second stunner of the night to Shane McMahon. Vince McMahon tried to escape the same fate. But Lashley chased him down, threw him over his shoulder and hauled McMahon back to the ring, where he, too, faced the stunner.
Trump’s reaction in this moment was a little disappointing. He offered only the most rigid of celebrations, his feet nailed to the floor as his knees flexed and his arms flailed in excitement. It’s as if he knew his joy would be short-lived. He, too, would end up the one thing he never wants to be: a loser.
“Woo!” Trump yelled, before clapping in McMahon’s face while Austin and Lashley strapped their boss into a barber’s chair. “How ya doin’, man, how ya doin’?” he asked, taunting McMahon with a pair of clippers. Then he and Lashley shaved the WWE chairman bald.
As a suitably humiliated McMahon left the ring, Austin launched his typical celebration, raising his outstretched hands in a call for beers that someone ringside was supposed to toss his way. Trump is a famous teetotaler, but Austin shoved a beer can into his hand anyway.
“I didn’t know that Donald Trump didn’t drink,” Austin said. “I didn’t know that back then.”
It didn’t matter. For veteran wrestling fans, the beers were a sign that Stone Cold had a final treat to deliver.
“I threw beer to everybody I got in the ring with,” he said. “Here’s the bait, and it’s the hook as well. Long as I get him holding those beers, everybody knows that anybody who … takes one of my beers is gonna get stunned.”
As McMahon trudged away, Austin climbed to the top rope, saluted the crowd and dumped the full contents of a can into his mouth. Then he hopped down ― and blew the roof off Ford Field.
He turned, kicked Trump in the stomach and stunned him to the floor.
“Austin stunned The Donald!” Ross screamed.
Trump failed to fully execute the move. He didn’t quite get his chin all the way to Austin’s shoulder; then he halfway pulled out of the move before falling to his knees and lying flat on his back.
“It may be one of the uglier Stone Cold stunners in history,” Ross said.
“He’s not a natural-born athlete,” Austin said. “I just remember the stunner didn’t come off as smooth as it would have had he been one of the guys. But we never rehearsed it. He didn’t even know what it was. Vince botched half the ones I gave him [and] Vince is a great athlete. So that’s no knock on Donald Trump.”
And despite Trump’s less-than-stellar wrestling and acting in the ring, those who were close to the action at WrestleMania 23 were impressed by his willingness to even take the stunner.
“We put him in some very unique positions that a lot of people ― big-name actors in Hollywood ― wouldn’t do because they didn’t want to risk looking bad,” Ross said. “He had the balls to do it.”
‘You Could Argue That Nothing In Wrestling Has Any Meaning’
For almost a decade, the stunning of Donald Trump remained a relic of WWE lore, a moment rehashed occasionally by diehard wrestling fans but forgotten otherwise.
WWE’s ratings tumbled later in 2007, amid congressional scrutiny of steroid use and wrestler deaths. That June, wrestler Chris Benoit murdered his wife and son and then killed himself. He was 40 years old.
Edward Smith Fatu, the wrestler known as Umaga, died from a heart attack in 2009. He was 36.
Lashley, who did not respond to interview requests, left WWE in 2008 after a failed pursuit of the WWE title and an injury that sidelined him for months. He is now a mixed martial arts fighter and the champion of Total Nonstop Action Wrestling.
In 2009, Trump returned to “Monday Night Raw” with a proposal to buy it from McMahon, promising fans that he would run the first Trump-owned episode without commercials. WWE and the USA Network, which broadcast “Raw,” even sent out a press release announcing the sale. When WWE’s stock price plummeted, it was forced to admit that the whole thing was a publicity ploy. The faux sale raised questions about whether everyone involved had violated federal law, but the Securities and Exchange Commission apparently had better things to investigate.
Trump was inducted into the WWE Hall of Fame in 2013, over a chorus of boos from the fans at Madison Square Garden. The Battle of the Billionaires was, at the time, WWE’s highest-grossing pay-per-view broadcast, drawing 1.2 million pay-per-view buys and $24.3 million in global revenue, according to WWE’s estimates. It’s also the most notorious of Trump’s interactions with the company. But that’s about all the significance it really holds.
“You could argue that nothing in wrestling has any meaning,” said Beekman, the historian. The feud between Trump and McMahon “was an angle, and it was a successful angle, and then they moved on to the next one.”
Vince and Linda McMahon together donated $7.5 million to super PACs that backed Trump’s winning presidential campaign. Linda McMahon had earlier spent nearly $100 million on two failed efforts, in 2010 and 2012, to get herself elected to the U.S. Senate. In December, Trump nominated her to head the Small Business Administration, a Cabinet-level job potentially at odds with the methods she and her husband had used to build WWE into a wrestling empire ― but one to which she was easily confirmed. (Neither the McMahons nor the president chose to comment on the president’s WWE career.)
Linda McMahon once took a Stone Cold stunner, too, so Steve Austin is responsible for stunning at least two top Trump administration officials. But he has doled out thousands of those in his career, and until he was reminded, he didn’t even remember what year he had laid Trump out.
“I’ve stunned a couple members of the Cabinet,” Austin said. “But I don’t think about it like that. It was so long ago. I don’t know Donald Trump. We did business together, we shook hands, and I appreciated him taking that. But I don’t sit here in my house, rubbing my hands together thinking, ‘Aw, man, I was the only guy that ever stunned a United States president.’”
“Yeah, it’s pretty cool,” Stone Cold said. “But it was part of what I did. To me, hey, man, it’s just another day at the office.”
CORRECTION: This article previously misstated that Chris Benoit was retired at the time of his death.