Over the years, wrestling has seen a number of different characters that vary in size, strength and ability. Some wrestlers take on roles that, while initially appearing harmless, were in fact not reflective of the culture of people that watch wrestling. For instance, WWE as a corporate entity has grown over the years and taken an active role in supporting several hospitals, youth foundations and cancer research foundations. However, in doing so, they blur the line between fantasy and reality with their characters. One problem that stands out is that on a number of occasions, not just in WWE, but in other promotions, a character is portrayed to have qualities of a person who suffer various physical and mental exceptionalities.
While wrestlers such as Zach Gowen or Chris Melendez are heralded for being able to compete with a physical disability, there are a number of able-bodied performers that have portrayed characters that are “dim witted,” or intended to look as though they were slow of mind, but not equally inspirational. In several of these cases, while they may have been considered a commercial success they weren’t necessarily accurate or respectful of those that do have these exceptionalities. Was it appropriate to use this type of character? While some may have thought of them as funny, it was not the most sensitive way to portray them. They may have meant well, but it often didn’t come off as the most thoughtful way to do it. Here are 10 Wrestling Characters That Shockingly Exploited Special Needs:
One of the most popular non-WWE factions today is the Bullet Club. But while the faction is popular, that wasn‘t always the case for one member: Doc Gallows. He competed with the WWE years ago under the name Luke Gallows, and before that as the character Festus. A large athlete that would appear in a comatose state most of the time, when the bell rang Festus became a crazed and uncontrollable competitor. This version of people with exceptions was hardly considerate or sensitive, considering WWE reaches out to hospitals through their philanthropic work. The character was short-lived, and receiving only moderate attention, but it really was a poor way to represent those with mental disabilities.
9. The Missing Link
During his career from the 1960s through the 1990s, Byron Robertson competed under a number of different characters, but was most notable for his time as the crazed lunatic The Missing Link. In the early 1980s, he first became known as Max The Missing Link, looking and acting as unstable as possible. He first appeared in the WWF in 1985, and was managed by Bobby Heenan and later by Jimmy Hart; the character competed in WCW afterward. For those unfamiliar, he was presented as an untamed and unhinged wild man who was more animal, than human. Savage in nature, he lacked the ability to make a decision on his own and would need to lean on the guidance of his managers, who would exploit his animalistic nature in order to achieve success. Sadly, he was often “out-smarted” when facing anyone that achieved even minimal success in the WWE.
8. George “The Animal” Steele
While brilliant off screen, William Myers played the part of a simpleton who meant well and was well liked by the fans. His career spanned over three decades, ending in the late 1980s. The qualities of his character probably wouldn’t be considered politically correct by today’s society. One of his most memorable feuds was against Randy “Macho Man” Savage, as he would pine for and affectionately pursue Elizabeth, offering gifts and generally being quite sweet. But the character ultimately wasn’t meant to succeed, as the “bully” Savage would more often than not get the better of Steele one way or another. Steele would often rip turnbuckles and toss the stuffing from them, pretending to eat it. It was hard not to want to cheer for him or want to see him succeed, but ultimately Steele was a character that didn’t reflect people with exceptionalities in the right light.
One of the most bizarre characters during the WWE’s Attitude era was Dustin Runnels alter ego Goldust. When he first came into the promotion he played an androgynous character that preyed on the insecure nature of other wrestlers. It was certainly intended to get the ire of whomever he faced. As the character evolved. However, he underwent a number of different changes. Since he competed as ‘The Wrestler Formerly Known As Goldust,‘ adding a more comedic quality to his persona, he has seen a number of different changes throughout the years. At one point, Goldust was “electrocuted” as part of a storyline. The effect of the electrocution left the character with the stereotyped qualities of someone with Tourette’s syndrome. It was intended to get a laugh from wrestling fans, and some did. However, for friends and family members of those that have Tourette’s, the character was incredibly offensive.
6. Eric Young
Someone who is talented in the ring and has steadily evolved throughout his career is Eric Young. He first appeared with TNA as a member of Scott D’Amore’s Team Canada, and was not taken very seriously. As time passed, Young continued to scratch and claw for both respect and credibility. He eventually attained both, and was recognized as an underdog that most fans could root for. There was a time, however, when Young took on the persona of someone with special needs, in a comedic role. The storyline presented the idea that a bump he took on his head during a match led to a complete change in cognitive function. They played up his obliviousness to his tag team partner Orlando Jordan’s romantic interest in him; they even sought therapy to work out differences in their relationship, but the character of Young had no idea it was couples counselling.
5. Al Snow
What does everybody want? That was the eternal question Al Snow asked during his time in ECW and then WWE. The resounding answer given by fans was HEAD! Much like the character Tom Hanks played in the film Cast Away, who spent his days talking to a volleyball, Snow talked with his styrofoam mannequin head…Head. The gimmick certainly resonated with fans. But the problem was that it didn’t put mental illness in the right light. The words “help me” were written across his forehead and the forehead of Head, suggesting that the character was struggling with something. And the crazed look in his eye and his conversations with the mannequin head suggested he needed help. While fans enjoyed the character, it wasn’t a fair or considerate representation of someone who struggles with mental illness on a daily basis.
4. Perry Saturn
One of the toughest and most intense performers in ECW, WCW and WWE was Perry Saturn. After his departure from WCW, Saturn debuted as part of the faction The Radicalz, alongside Chris Benoit, Eddie Guerrero and Dean Malenko. As time passed, however, the faction split and Saturn’s character went in a different direction. Some argued that the change in character stemmed from legitimately shooting on enhancement talent Mike Bell. On camera, it was suggested that Saturn had undergone head trauma from matches against the APA. His “you’re welcome” catchphrase was said at any time, with no rhyme nor reason. The gimmick became even more odd when he “fell in love” with a mop named “Moppy”. Much like Al Snow with HEAD, Saturn’s affection for Moppy led to a face turn which fans embraced. This appears to be another example of how suffering from a head injury was played for laughs, showing insensitivity to those with special needs.
3. Dave Sullivan
At one point in WCW, Kevin Sullivan introduced his “brother” Dave. William Danenhauer played Kevin’s on-screen brother, advertised as a dyslexic who would often mispronounce words including his first name. He would often have the word “Evad” scripted on his clothing, Dave spelled backwards. In many ways the character was reminiscent of the Eugene character that appeared on WWE television years later. Dave was often picked on and teased on-screen by characters such as the Nasty Boys, and even Dave’s brother Kevin wasn’t the most sensitive and considerate of him either. Dave also came to the ring with a pet bunny rabbit as part of his feud with Big Bubba Rogers. While the character was intended to be fun in nature that isn’t necessarily the most sensitive or considerate way to reflect this learning disability.
Nick Dinsmore is a talented athlete, and even more importantly a very good person. When the character Eugene first debuted and was placed in the role of Eric Bischoff’s nephew who loved all things wrestling, it could have been cute. The unfortunate thing was Eugene was made to look vulnerable and weak, and Dinsmore was encouraged to use facial and body expressions that suggested that he suffered from a disability. This could have been presented as a feel good story where WWE gave fans someone to cheer, but he was made to appear disheveled, got berated by his uncle, and lost matches on a number of occasions. While it was probably meant to reflect badly on the tyrannical character of Bischoff, it doesn’t mean it was appropriate.
1. Norman The Lunatic
The late Mike Shaw was a man of many characters, competing as Friar Ferguson or Bastian Booger among others. One character he was given was intended to suggest mental illness. Norman the Lunatic was a character that Shaw played after he first joined WCW in the late 1980s. He was managed by Teddy Long, who led him to the ring with a large key, the key representing the padded room that Norman would reside back in if he did not follow Long’s instructions. He carried a teddy bear with him to the ring and represented a child-like innocence. Norman was used as a heel, but had face like qualities about him. It was shameless to manipulate a person for their size and strength, and exploit them because they suffer from a mental illness. The character had a short shelf life, and once he became a face was no longer a “lunatic.”