Is the WWE finally embracing diversity?
The tradition of having an evil foreign villain and a patriotic American hero in the world of professional wrestling is one as old as time. Who could ever forget Hulk Hogan strutting down the ring to face off against the evil Russian Nikolai Volkoff as “Real American” blared from the stadium speakers? Who could ever forget his other iconic encounters with the likes of The Iron Sheik, Yokozuna, and Kamala? Who could ever forget the shocking revelation that the Hulkster was a bit of a racist?
The narrative in the world of professional wrestling is often, unfortunately, and painfully, simple: the Americans are the good guys and the foreigners are the bad guys. It’s an antiquated formula that’s been helping the company to create numerous rivalries over the past few years based purely on a clash between the Uncle Sam and anyone who opposes him.
This is partly what makes the WWE’s current rivalry between reigning Champion Jinder Mahal and current challenger Shinsuke Nakamara so interesting. It's a feud where there's no traditional American hero in sight. Not only is it a feud between two non-Americans, but this is also the first time that the championship has ever been fought over by two Asians. While the former is technically a Canadian of Indian ancestry, his current character and gimmick is very much in the vein of the evil foreigners that have gone before him. Portrayed as a modern day Maharaja, Jinder’s quick rise to the top of the dog-pile has been seen by many as the wrestling conglomerate’s attempt to break into the relatively untapped Asian market.
That’s not to say that Jinder is a complete caricature, however. Calling out the “jingoistic naysayers” in the most recent August 29 episode of Smackdown Live!, it seems that the supposed bad guy has sort of got the point. The fact that the thousands of fans in North Little Rock, Arkansas boo the very mention of the “great continent of Asia” just goes to show just how deep the WWE’s indoctrination of an “all foreigners are evil” mentality runs. Especially in light of how all three men standing in the ring have fairly blatant Canadian accents.
While Shinsuke opposing Jinder is a move in the right direction, the evil foreigner spiel is still in full-swing within the company. Not only is Jinder getting booed out of buildings all over the country for his anti-American agenda, but the Bulgarian brute Rusev is also currently rocking a similar gimmick.
Having recently competed – and lost – in a flag match against the good-as-gumdrops John Cena at July’s Battleground pay-per-view, the entirety of Rusev’s WWE career since his debut on NXT in 2013 has revolved around him insulting the United States to at least some extent. It also speaks volumes that the aforementioned flag match was Rusev’s second within the company, though the flag he was fighting for did alternate in the mean time. Thankfully for Rusev, changing one’s nationality in the WWE is about as easy as cutting one’s hair; the imposing wrestler has switched his allegiance from Bulgaria to Russia and back again in the space of a few years. Putin would not be pleased.
While most normal humans would never usually boo a national anthem (the Olympics, for the most part, is free from such behaviour), the positioning of wrestlers like Jinder and Rusev as nefarious villains actively encourages the raucous wrestling audience members to boo the national anthems of the latter whenever they are used.
Putting all their evil foreign eggs in one basket, Rusev and Jinder even teamed together in the most recent episode of Smackdown Live! – cementing the fact that the two men can put aside all their differences to bond over their hatred of all things American.
Rather than writing intense and complex villains, the WWE instead chooses to saddle their talented wrestlers with these evil foreigner gimmick to draw cheap heat from the crowd. This tactic might be effective in generating the preferred audience response in the short-term, but it reeks of lazy writing and often runs itself into the ground fairly quickly once viewers get over their initial anger.
The presentation of Shinsuke Nakamura, on the other hand, is a breath of fresh air. An immense talent who joined the company from New Japan Pro Wrestling in 2016, Nakamura has been presented thus far as a genuine threat in spite of the knowledge that he’s an import from overseas. The fact that this remains surprising is part of the problem with the way the WWE operates.
This is, after all, the very same company that had Yamaguchi-San, the Japanese manager of an intimidating professional wrestling stable made up of gifted Japanese wrestlers, utter the phrase “I choppy choppy your pee pee”.
Although this was almost 20 years ago, the WWE hasn’t had the best track record in its handling of foreign stars. In fact, when the company hasn’t been able to source a wrestler from another country to fill this foreign role, they’ve usually worked around it by simply changing the nationality of a wrestler they do happen to have at hand.
Offensive characters such as Akeem the African Dream (American George Gray who hails Spartanburg, South Carolina) and the ill-timed Muhammad Hassan (an Italian American named Marc Copani who was born in Syracuse New York) are but two examples of the WWE’s lenience with the truth regarding the birthplace of its wrestlers. This bending of the truth goes all the way back to the likes of Ivan Koloff, the third ever WWE champion and a man who was known – and detested – as “The Russian Bear” despite being as Canadian as maple syrup.
One of the WWE’s most racially insensitive gaffes occurred as recently as 2012 when wrestler Matt Bloom was reinvented as Lord Tensai: a gimmick that consisted of an overweight white man coming to the ring dressed like this:
It should come as no surprise that Lord Tensai’s tenure was fairly short-lived, with the man they once called A-Train’s push becoming abruptly derailed after he filmed himself making a racist remark to his manager Japanese manager Sakamoto.
On the most positive side of things, those who follow WWE on Twitter will hopefully remember late last year when #BlackExcellence ruled the roster.
With The New Day, Sasha Banks, and Rich Swann all holding major titles in the company, it seemed at the time like the WWE had finally turned a corner in its representation of minority figures.
While the company does still have a long way to go until it can truly be defined as progressive, the WWE has greatly improved its handling of African-American characters over the years. In spite of this improvement, it’s the WWE’s heavy-handed treatment of non-Americans like Mahal and Nakamura that it has so desperately struggled with.
The distinct lack of positive non-American personas is particularly surprising when we consider that Bruno Sammartino, an Italian immigrant, remains to this day the longest reigning WWE Champion in the promotion's history. At a whopping 2,803 days, it’s unlikely that Sammartino’s record will ever be topped in the modern era. What’s all the more sobering about this dearth of international spandex-clad heroes is that the last non-American to have won the title as a face was Rey Mysterio back in 2011. And even then the legendary Latino luchador lost the title on that very night to the All-American John Cena.
Despite this squandering of potential international superstars, the company does manage to get some of its booking rights. Sami Zayn, for one, is a great example of a wrestler whose ethnicity doesn’t define his character. Zayn, a Canadian of Syrian descent, neither masks his nationality nor relies upon it as part of his character. Sami Zayn is not a Syrian wrestler; he’s a wrestler that just happens to be Syrian.
Proud of his Arabic culture, the superstar’s ‘Sami for Syria’ campaign has recently raised over $70,000 (over Dhs250,000) to provide medical assistance to those in Syria without access to regular medical care. Not only does Sami’s positive on-screen persona make him popular with fans all over the globe, but generous acts like this also seem to confirm that he’s a pretty stand-up guy outside of the ring as well.
Although the presence of walking, talking stereotypes like Jinder and Rusev indicate the WWE isn’t ready to let go of its prejudiced cheap heat magnets just yet, the increased popularity of superstars like Sami and Shinsuke proves that you don’t have to be an all-American to be a hero.
We can only hope that both the WWE and the wider world professional wrestling continues to build up a greater range of diverse characters from an array of different cultures in the years to come. Just so Hulk Hogan can come back and squash them, of course.