The REAL Reason The WWF Changed Its Name To WWE
The year was 1998, and the World Wrestling Federation was in the midst of one of its most successful runs ever. The popularity of superstars like Stone Cold Steve Austin and The Rock brought cultural relevance to the WWF not seen since the days of Bruno Sammartino.
And yet, this bothered “The Chairman” Vince McMahon. With everyone focused on “The People’s Champion,” The Rock, it meant that nobody was paying attention to him. According to WWF insiders, McMahon became so unsettled that he developed insomnia. He’d stay up all night watching TV, and one evening, he came across a documentary about Abraham Lincoln in which he learned that Honest Abe was a wrestler in his youth—and had once fought a bear.
“So Lincoln thinks he’s better than me?” McMahon was said to have thought.
The next day, McMahon announced the WWF’s next big Pay-Per-View event: He would wrestle a bear. But not just any bear … a panda bear. And he’d charge $69.95 to watch it.
Every zoo and animal preserve in the world immediately turned down McMahon’s attempt to purchase a panda to fight in the ring, despite reportedly offering as much as $10 million. They even turned down his offer to merely rent a panda for $20 million.
At least one organization McMahon sought out contacted the World Wildlife Fund. It’s one of the largest and most respected charities on the planet, devoted to environmental conservation and protecting endangered species. At this point, it was merely an amusing coincidence that it shared the World Wrestling Foundation’s “WWF” initialism.
When the charity WWF learned of the wrestling WWF’s attempts to fight a panda, its board fired off a letter to McMahon, which was published in Mother Earth News, The New York Times, and The Hollywood Reporter. “It is not only illegal, but immoral and vile to procure a panda for the express purpose of making it fight a clearly unhinged individual,” the letter read. “Pandas are an endangered species.”
Undeterred, McMahon responded with an open letter published in Power Slam and the Sierra Club’s newsletter. “A bout between a panda and myself would be the most dynamic spectacle in history! The fact that this panda is a so-called endangered species is fantastic. It’ll be a fair fight, because I’m an endangered species, too: The only REAL MAN left in this namby-pamby era of P.C. pantywaists.”
Fearing McMahon would somehow still get his hands on a panda, the World Wildlife Fund sought the help of its international team of lawyers. Not only were they able to shut down McMahon’s attempts, but they also felt it imperative to distance themselves from both the man and the wrestling org. They sued for exclusive rights to the “WWF” acronym—and won (the wrestling WWF had apparently been using it illegally for decades). In 1999, McMahon filed official paperwork to change the name of the World Wrestling Federation to World Wrestling Entertainment, or, the WWE.
And Vince never did wrestle a panda, at least not publicly.