December 24, 1999 at 05:00 AM EST

We can’t say they didn’t warn us. Way back in January, the World Wrestling Federation aired its first Super Bowl commercial: A cheeky, 30-second plug-cum-manifesto, it showed various WWF headbangers walking the halls of the firm’s Stamford, Conn., headquarters, dryly extolling its integrity and wholesomeness as scenes of wanton carnage unfolded in the background. The final shot: A body blasts through a window as bemused WWF chairman Vince McMahon turns to the camera and asks, ”Get it?”

Apparently, a lot of us did. If wrestling was seemingly everywhere in ’99, it’s largely thanks to the WWF. McMahon’s baby not only scaled new heights in grappling’s all-important Monday-night ratings battles (USA’s Raw Is War took back the lead from World Championship Wrestling’s Monday Nitro on TNT) but expanded its reach to network TV, doubling our weekly pleasure with UPN’s extravaganza WWF Smackdown! (a show credited with literally saving said network).

More opera than soap opera, the WWF’s productions have evolved into not just unabashed celebrations of id but some of the year’s funniest and freshest (in both senses of the word) TV. And that’s thanks in no small part to its fearless leader. Husband, father, businessman, carny, auteur, and evil genius when necessary, the 54-year-old McMahon has, thanks to 20-plus years in front of the camera, become a bona fide TV star, the John Forsythe of this multimedia dynasty. He’s regularly at the center of his shows’ raucous plotlines, happy to take a beating, be doused with beer, even get arrested if it’ll help garner viewer ”heat.” Says McMahon of his lifelong mission, ”Other than being a scientist who finds a cure for some dreaded disease, the next best thing in life is entertaining the public.” This October, as if to cap the federation’s stunning success — as well as to finance some new ones — McMahon decided to play Who Wants to Be a Billionaire and take the family business (worth an estimated $1.4 billion) public.

He wasn’t the only one cashing in, though. Among the WWF’s stable of superstars (don’t you dare call them wrestlers), The Rock reigned supreme. In a world where loudmouthed hyperbole is the norm, 27-year-old Duane Johnson actually lived up to his self-bestowed title as ”the most electrifying man in sports entertainment” and now stands poised to inherit the mantle of WWF golden boy from ”Stone Cold” Steve Austin if he retires from ring action (he’s currently battling a chronic neck injury). A swaggering, intolerant antihero with an ego to match his formidable biceps, The Rock (described by his creator as ”Duane Johnson with the volume turned up to its highest level, and then some”) laid the smackdown on his opponents both in the ring and on the mike. As devastating with a withering rank-out as he is with his signature finishing move, the People’s Elbow, he left a trail of jabronis, roody-poo candy asses, and crowd-pleasing catchphrases (”Do you smell what The Rock is cookin’?”) in his wake.

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