"Fore!" wouldn't quite have signaled the depth of the impending danger. Midway through the WWE SmackDown event in Raleigh, on May 7, Big E Langston emerged for a heavyweight fight against the malevolent Jack Swagger. Although Langston weighs 290 pounds and has biceps as thick as logs, he was accompanied into the ring—where a separate mischievous wrestler had laid a ladder—by world heavyweight champion Dolph Ziggler, a co-conspirator and sometimes tag-team partner. Ziggler strutted out to lukewarm cheers and bent down, presumably to pick up the prop and use it as a weapon. Seeing this affront, Swagger grimaced, bolted from his corner and charged at the intruder.
As Ziggler knelt next to the ladder's lower rungs and the crowd's roar swelled, Swagger cocked his left leg to—ahem—"kick" his nemesis. It was supposed to be another flash point in a rivalry that would culminate in a bout later this summer. But when Swagger delivered his kick, his boot didn't cleave the air as planned. Nor did it merely clip Ziggler's noggin. It connected squarely, almost divorcing the wrestler's head from his body. Ziggler tumbled under the rope and out of the ring.
Assuming that this was all kayfabe—wrestling-speak for the suspension of disbelief—and that Ziggler was "selling" the kick, the fans barely blinked; business as usual. But from her seat behind the stage, Jane Geddes knew better. She gasped, aware that this wasn't part of the choreography. "I thought, Oh noooo," says Geddes. "That kick landed."
That Geddes, 53, was even in PNC Arena that night ranks as something of a surprise. An LPGA star in the 1980s and '90s, she spent most of her adult life in swanky country cluburbia, breaking par on the finest golf courses in the U.S. Now armed with a law degree with two kids and a wife-to-be at home in Connecticut, she doesn't exactly hit the sweet spot of the WWE core demographic. But the fact is, she may have been more invested in that match than anyone else in the arena.
Geddes is the WWE's senior vice president for talent relations and development, a role she describes as the wrestlers' "internal agent." She's responsible for everything from the 61-year-old promotion's talent roster to travel arrangements to professional development to branding the athletes and (euphemism alert) "purging the developmental roster," i.e., hiring and firing those buff bodies.
Her first concern the night of the stray boot in Raleigh was Ziggler's health, and she made sure that the ringside physician was on the case. When Ziggler was diagnosed with a concussion, Geddes saw to it that he was accompanied on his flight home to Phoenix.
A secondary concern of Geddes's: the impact of Ziggler's concussion on his WWE story line. Nursing a head injury, would he still be game for his much-anticipated Triple Threat Ladder Match (Ziggler, Swagger and Alberto Del Rio competing to retrieve a belt suspended above the ring), part of a pay-per-view event that was scheduled to be held in St. Louis on May 19? And if not, how would the momentum in the Ziggler-Swagger rivalry be sustained? (Since you asked: The ladder match was canceled. Instead, Swagger and Del Rio competed in an I Quit match, wherein the loser actually had to say "I quit" into a ringside microphone. That turned out to be Swagger. As a result, he will no longer face Ziggler for the heavyweight belt.)
Geddes explains all of this in her office at WWE headquarters in Stamford, Conn., her voice rising with excitement. As this otherwise dignified woman betrays not the faintest hint of irony while talking of "smackdowns" and "turnbuckles" and "Hornswoggle, the World's Sexiest Midget," this much becomes clear: Her career switch may be the WWE's most unlikely plot twist of all.
The notion that 10,000 hours of dedicated practice are required for one to become an elite performer in any given field? It didn't really apply to Jane Geddes. Growing up on Long Island as a self-described tomboy, Geddes played an array of sports and threw the tightest spiral on the block. When she was 15, in 1975, her family moved to South Carolina. Mostly to stave off boredom, she tried golf. Within three years she was good enough to walk on to the golf team at Florida State. Within six years she'd earned her LPGA tour card. Less than a decade after picking up a club for the first time, she won the 1986 U.S. Open, her first pro victory.
"I had a great coach [Derek Hardy], so that fast-tracked things," she says. "I always had good hand-eye coordination. But when I think about it, yeah, it's pretty crazy."
Geddes would play for 20 years and have what was, by any measure, a successful career. She banked 15 professional wins (including a second major, the 1987 LPGA Championship), finished in the top 20 on the annual money list nine times, and was voted one of the 50 best players in LPGA history.
That success was all the more remarkable given Geddes's distaste for competition. As she puts it, "I'm competitive with myself—I want to do the best I can—but I'll let anyone win anything. For me golf was about being nice and complimentary and competing against myself and the course. But not against others. You can't control what they're doing anyway, so just do your own thing."
Might this have held her back? "Probably," she says, "but [conflict] is so foreign to me. It's not like I have regrets." Even at the height of her powers, Geddes never felt defined by her day job. "I could never put my finger on it, but I always knew I didn't want to be Jane Geddes, the golfer," she says. In her early 40s, as her skills diminished slightly, she was quick to retire. "It was important that I not be one of those golfers who stops making cuts, and then they have to pull you aside and say, Go away."
It was roughly around the same time that Geddes began dating Gigi Fernàndez. The best doubles player in women's tennis for much of the 1990s, Fernàndez possessed feline reflexes and an exquisite feel for the ball. "With Gigi, you're talking about tons—tons—of talent," says former world singles No. 1 Lindsay Davenport. Partnered mostly with Natasha Zvereva of Belarus, the Puerto Rican--born Fernàndez won 60 events, including 17 majors. Competing for the U.S., she won gold medals in doubles at both the 1992 Barcelona and the '96 Atlanta Olympics. You can see her plaque at the International Tennis Hall of Fame in Newport, R.I.
Fernàndez was also known for eruptions that would shame Vesuvius. One missed shot and she would blast a ball out of the stadium or, as SI put it in a 1995 profile, "treat her racket the way a loan shark treats a deadbeat." That Fernàndez would violate the WTA's code of conduct was so inevitable that she often paid her fines in advance. May as well cut down on the paperwork, she figured.
Geddes and Fernàndez were set up by Rennae Stubbs, another women's tennis player, and friends and colleagues on both the WTA and LPGA tours soon joked that their romance was a classic case of opposites attracting: fire and ice, yin and yang. Geddes and the hyper-competitive Fernàndez acknowledge their different temperaments. "I've always been crazy," says Fernàndez, now 49, "and Jane lets me be me."
Says Geddes, "I'm a New Yorker, that comes with baggage. But yeah, we balance each other out."
Apart from an endearing bluntness and a total lack of pretense, they also had this in common: Retiring around the same time (Fernàndez quit in 1997), together they faced the challenge of transitioning to Career 2.0. "You've done well, but you're not rich rich," Fernàndez says of the shared scenario. "And even if you were, you still want to work. But what are your skills?"
Living in San Diego at the height of the first tech boom in the late 1990s, Geddes and Fernàndez started an e-commerce portal, Planesia. But when the funding ran out in 2000, the business died. So they moved to Florida, where both continued their educations—Fernàndez got an MBA from Rollins, in Winter Park, Geddes a J.D. from Stetson Law School, in DeLand.
Geddes realized that while she didn't want to be a lawyer, "being Jane Geddes with a law degree got me in the door more often than being Jane Geddes who used to be a golfer." And so, after graduating from law school in 2006, she took a full-time job working for the LPGA in Daytona Beach. "I struggled," she admits. "You sit in a meeting, thinking, When do I talk? When do I not talk? Should I do this over e-mail or face-to-face? How do I do an agenda? It's a transition."
Her job as vice president of competition—later she was promoted to junior VP of tournament operations—had plenty to recommend it. And while Fernàndez dealt with post-tennis depression, Geddes felt challenged and imbued with a sense of purpose. She helped persuade the IOC to accept golf as an Olympic sport, starting in 2016, and she was the LPGA's representative on the International Golf Federation board. She had a harder time, however, dealing with the players—her former colleagues—now that she was management. "They'd say, 'You drank the Kool-Aid!' And I'd say, 'I didn't drink the Kool-Aid, I'm trying to help you!' "
At the same time, Geddes and Fernàndez were sharing in the emotionally (and financially) draining challenge of attempting to become parents. As the younger member of the couple, Fernàndez tried to become pregnant but was unable to conceive, even with fertility treatments—the legacy, she believes, of punishing her body all those years as an athlete. Instead, they used donated sperm and the eggs of a friend, and in the summer of 2008 Fernàndez became pregnant with twins. Her various tennis titles no longer were her crowning achievements.
In 2011, another surprise: An executive recruiter contacted Geddes about a job at WWE headquarters. After looking up the initials, she and Fernàndez shared a good laugh. Fake wrestling? The men's soap opera? What?! Geddes, though, decided to go through with the interview. "We watched Monday Night Raw," she recalls. "Then we watched again. By the third show it was like, Wait, what did the Shield say about the Undertaker?"
She met with Paul Michael Levesque, d/b/a Triple H, a 13-time WWE world champ, the organization's COO and the likely heir to its chairman, Vince McMahon. (Levesque is married to McMahon's daughter, Stephanie.) Sitting across from a 255-pound man with a ponytail who had once been nicknamed Terra Ryzing, Geddes made no secret of her rudimentary wrestling knowledge, but she and Levesque jelled. "We went through a lot of candidates, from the NFL and, um, more aggressive sports," Levesque says in a voice that suggests he's just gargled with rocks, "but Jane brought a completely different skill set."
So she, Fernàndez and their then two-year-old twins, Karson and Madison, packed up and moved to Connecticut. Early on Geddes realized that, for all of the surface differences, the fairway between the LPGA and WWE is rather narrow. She'd just jumped from one traveling circus with 150 or so members to another. "There are so many similarities," she says. "I know the challenges of a tour. I know about life on the road. I know about sponsors. I know about coming on and trying to become a star. It's part of who I was. Now I'm managing those people."
Which isn't to say there weren't adjustments. Geddes's heart and larynx are still recovering from the night she watched the Big Show (441 pounds) and Mark Henry (412) fall off the top ropes and break the ring, a move that she didn't know was coming. She still has to adapt to having a boss named Triple H—"I prefer to call him Paul," she says—whom she often sees clad in tight wrestling shorts and boots. And then there was the time that John Cena almost stepped on her table as he fled the ring, leaving her fearing that her shocked reaction had been captured by television cameras.
But, she says, she loves it. Her dislike for competition fits in a sport that's really more entertainment. "They're athletes," Geddes says of her minions, "but ultimately they're actors working together. You make me look good; I'll make you look good. The referees are getting told what to do. We're all in it together."
The affection is mutual. As Levesque puts it, "The transition she's made from the elite golf world to this world is remarkable, and she's done it seamlessly. I hope this doesn't come out wrong, but she brings a motherly component to talent relations."
And Geddes stresses that, for all its coursing testosterone and macho underpinnings, the WWE "has been so unbelievably inclusive of me and my family. I am so comfortable here, and [my sexual orientation] is not even an issue."
Geddes and Fernàndez plan to get married on July 6 in their friends' backyard. Their kids will be present. A week later they'll go back to work. Fernàndez, as competitive as ever—"Geeg is in a minivan with the kids and wants to beat the driver next to her off the red light," says Geddes—is the director of tennis at Chelsea Piers in Stamford. Barely a mile away, at the WWE command post off I-95, Geddes will make sure that Cena's shoes arrive as planned and that the WWE Divas are ready for their reality-show shoot in Tulsa.
Geddes preempts the question. "Would I have predicted this? No. But what can I say? This is our reality."
Fernàndez was the type of tennis player who would "treat her racket the way a loan shark treats a deadbeat." That's fine with Geddes, who says, "We balance each other out."
This otherwise dignified woman betrays not the faintest hint of irony while talking of "smackdowns" and "turnbuckles" and "Hornswoggle, the World's Sexiest Midget."
Five Completely Trivial Things We Learned About Jane Geddes
While Fernàndez plays tennis daily and competes in multiple suburban leagues, Geddes says she has played just one round of golf in the last year.
Geddes has several scene-stealing roles on the WWE reality show, Total Divas, which will air this summer on E!
Among Geddes's duties: overseeing the WWE's drug-testing program. "I would put us up against every single sport," she says. "We are clean as can be. That old perception—everyone is doing steroids—is 100% false. I'm the one who knows. I'm not speculating."
As if anyone was going to push around a former U.S. Open winner, Geddes says that monstrous wrestler Mark Henry approached her early on and promised, "If anybody bothers you, send them my way." "He was joking," says Geddes, "but he plays this really mean guy."
Asked about her favorite performer, Geddes cites her real-life boss, Triple H. "I'm biased," she says, "but it's so cool to watch someone who I know in a completely different capacity."
Photograph by MICHAEL J. LEBRECHT II FOR SPORTS ILLUSTRATED
TRIPLE THREAT Count off Geddes's gigs: pro golfer, mother and, today, senior vice president for talent at WWE, where she has a special kind of supervisor in hulking wrestler Triple H.
PETER DAZELEY/GETTY IMAGES
[See caption above]
MICHAEL J. LEBRECHT II FOR SPORTS ILLUSTRATED
STATE OF PLAY Since retiring from pro sports Geddes (far left) and Fernàndez have welcomed twins Madison and Karson. Later this month the proud parents plan to wed.
BOB THOMAS/GETTY IMAGES
GAGA FOR GIGI In Fernàndez, Geddes found her polar opposite—someone so competitive that she started paying her WTA fines before she accrued them—and life partner.
HE'S SO BOSS As a pro golfer, Geddes reported to no one. But now, at WWE, she hammers out any work-related issues with Triple H—usually when he's wearing pants.