Professional wrestling has a long history of jingoistic and xenophobic undertones. The most basic, and oftentimes cheapest way to garner heat comes from pairing a foreign stereotype heel against a domestic babyface.
Real-life international tensions can help stoke the flames of that heat. The Cold War produced an endless run of “Soviet” baddies across virtually every territory, all reveling in the lustful boos of an American audience conditioned to despise the U.S.S.R.
Likewise, the Iranian hostage crisis and subsequent hostilities gave rise to one of the genre’s most infamous heels, Iron Sheik.
Today’s wrestling audiences tend to bristle at the use of headlines for cheap heat — though it’s not difficult with content as cringe-worthy as Scott Steiner’s Iraq war debate with Chris Nowinski, or the subsequent anti-France gimmick La Resistance, which portrayed Canadians Sylvain Grenier and Renee Dupree as French nationals.
One of the subtle touches Darren Aronofsky added to his masterpiece The Wrestler that demonstrated his research into the business beforehand was casting former WCW star Ernest Miller, a black man, as the Iranian heel character Ayatollah.
Rekindling of the hot 1980s feud between Randy “The Ram” and Ayatollah at the film’s climax invokes thoughts of the Madison Square Garden between Hulk Hogan and Iron Sheik. Despite Hogan’s claims, that’s as close as the face of 1980s WWF came to being in the Academy Award-nominated film.
— darren aronofsky (@DarrenAronofsky) October 9, 2012
Beside, the Ayatollah character can function just as effectively when viewed as a nod to the Muhammad Hassan gimmick that debuted just four years before The Wrestler was released. One of the most loathsome characters and angles booked in 21st Century wrestling, Italian-American wrestler Marc Copani had his career essentially torpedoed as a result of his booking regressing from uncomfortable and problematic, to outright offensive.
We live in a much different world in the 2000s than we did in the 1980s. Promoters still attempt to use xenophobia as a heat-generating device for heels, but the dud of a World Championship run Canadian wrestler Jinder Mahal endured while portraying an Indian aristocrat suggests audiences won’t bite any time soon.
The failure of such gimmicks in this era can also be attributed, in part, to the lack of a suitable counter. Wrestlers today typically don’t have a jingoistic bend inherent to their character — and if they did, fans would boo them mercilessly, because such characters are corny relics of a bygone era.
Hulk Hogan main-evented in an age when cutting a promo about “cutting down the cherry tree” like George Washington — next to a fellow face, Big Boss Man, donning a shirt with the old Georgia state flag that depicted the Confederate stars-and-bars — ingratiated him to audiences.
Now, revelations about Hogan in the years since he left the ring taint those years of spouting American idealism. Or, his union-busting and racist tirade make him an even more fitting avatar for 1980s culture, opinions may vary. Either way, a similar shtick today would be received especially poorly in light of the current political environment.
As a heel gimmick outside of the United States, however, it works with the same intensity that Soviet gimmicks incited American crowds in the 1980s and earlier.
Both of Mexico’s top promotions, AAA and CMLL, built main-event angles around American wrestlers with jingoistic personas. Though it turns a classic American wrestling trope on its head, it’s a throwback to an old formula for foreign wrestling promotions.
In Mexico, Eddie Guerrero and Art Barr were the most despised tandem of the 1990s, perpetrating dastardly deeds while donning the stars and stripes.
The Japanese wrestling scene rose from the popularity of Rikidozan, who achieved legendary status vanquishing American foes less than a decade after atomic bombs were dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki.
Rikidozan’s conquests set the template for a common storytelling arc in Japan that persists even today: that of the monster gaijin. Tall, hulking Americans like Bruiser Brody, Stan Hansen, Big Van Vader, Bam Bam Bigelow and, yes, Hulk Hogan, functioned in Japan the same way “Russians” Ivan and Nikita Koloff, or “German” villains a generation earlier.
A bit of irony to close this edition of Wrestle Review Wednesday: One of the most hated of the post-World War II “German” heels, Fritz Von Erich, later oversaw World Class Championship Wrestling in North Texas. Headlined by his All-American sons, WCCW was one of the few promotions to run major cards on July 4.