From its earliest days through today’s WWE, professional wrestling has provided fans with fun, excitement, high drama, low comedy and hundreds of colorful and memorable heroes and heels to cheer and jeer.
That wild ‘n crazy, anything goes atmosphere is exactly what we love about wrestling. Legendary rivalries, feuds and tag team grudge matches featuring larger than life personalities supposedly representing foreign countries or exotic cultures have been a part of wrestling since the beginning.
Many of the stereotypes and symbols are totally harmless and not much different from the mascots or icons of college and pro teams. Everyone’s familiar with Notre Dame’s bowler-wearing leprechaun who’s ready to box. Go fightin’ Irish! The Boston Celtics also use a leprechaun to represent the team’s Irish roots.
Although now controversial, Native American team names, logos and mascots have been around a long time, and in most cases were chosen as symbols of strength, power and character.
Name an ethnicity, and somewhere along the line it’s been turned into a caricature. Same thing in wrestling. It helps brand a character and makes him instantly identifiable and easy to remember.
The outrageous costumes, props and gags that exaggerate national or ethnic traits are usually harmless, and often clever and pretty damn funny. But on several occasions, racial and cultural stereotypes have crossed the line from fun and entertaining to mean and tasteless.
Here are 10 of the worst examples.
10. Black Face Roddy Piper
Yeah, ‘Rowdy’ Roddy Piper was always known for dancing to his own tune, but this gimmick was exceptionally tasteless. For his Wrestlemania VI match against Bad News Brown, Piper not only painted half his face, but the entire half of his body black as well.
It happened, appropriately enough, on April 1st- April Fool’s Day- in 1991. Rumors swirled before the match that Roddy was planning something that would grab attention and get people talking. Instead, it left them with their mouths hanging open in disbelief.
Several other wrestlers heard about the half-black gimmick but didn’t think he’d actually go through with it. Andre the Giant was one who believed Piper was serious, and unbeknownst to Roddy, Andre mixed the black water-based paint with a thicker permanent base.
The paint wouldn’t wash off in the shower and for his tasteless gimmick, Roddy received stares for days afterward. It took a week of scrubbing before all the paint finally came off.
9. Cryme Tyme
JTG and Shad Gaspard comprised the ghetto-themed tag team Cryme Time. To fully sell the badass image, their matches were preceded with scenes of the pair committing minor crimes that were referred to as ‘training videos.’ Cryme Tyme’s women would enter the ring for some bumping, grinding and simulated oral magic to get the men all worked up to take on their opponents.
To further the cliché, between and even during matches they’d ‘steal’ laptop computers, mobile phones and other valuables from ringside, as well as TV monitors and electronic items from the backstage area. JTG and Gaspard were great performers and engaging personalities, but unfortunately Cryme Time reinforced every negative image of urban black men as stereotypical thieves and thugs.
8. Chief Jay Strongbow
War paint, feathers, tomahawks and headdresses have been standard issue for Native American wrestlers since Day One. Nothing wrong with that when the wrestlers actually were Native Americans, but not when wrestling’s biggest “Indian” star came from a background that had more in common with Rocky Balboa than Sitting Bull.
Chief Jay Strongbow was portrayed by a guy of Italian descent from Philadelphia named Luke Scarpa. He held several titles and was very popular on the northeast wrestling circuit decades ago, but wielding a tomahawk while hopping around in his ‘hey-ya hey-ya’ war dance shtick would make people cringe these days.
7. Muhammad Hassan
The ‘Evil Arab’ cliché is another oldie but goody from wrestling’s long list of stereotypes. But after 9/11 and other atrocities occurred that were linked to middle eastern countries, Muhammad Hassan’s boasts of Arab domination and sneering denunciations of American dogs didn’t go over too well.
Hassan would genuflect toward Mecca, praise Allah and beseech him for victory in his holy battle against infidel opponents.
In a classic case of bad timing, Muhammad Hassan and his masked accomplices took on the Undertaker in a match that aired on Smackdown just hours after the London terrorist bombings that killed scores of people in 2005. Muhammad Hassan’s crescent star began to wane, and he was gone soon afterward.
6. Harlem Heat
This ‘street thug’ tag team was tremendously popular in the 90s, and Booker T also became a star on his own. But the original concept for Harlem Heat deserves a place in the Wrestling Stereotype Hall of Shame. It’s one of those ideas that may seem funny while having a beer or 12, but after the hangover you realize just how dumb and ridiculous it was.
Unfortunately, they really did go through with it. Get a load of this idea: Shackled in chains and handcuffs and wearing prison jumpsuits, the two men were led by their ‘Plantation Owner’ manager who looked like a younger, thinner, meaner Colonel Sanders. When they were all but booed out of the ring during an exhibition arena show, matches that had been taped for broadcast never saw the light of day.
It’s not known if the tapes were saved and stored somewhere, but if the promoters had any sense they burned the reels and buried the remains in a landfill with the rest of the garbage.
5. Alexander Rusev and Lana
Russian villains enjoyed a long and popular run during the Cold War years, but disappeared along with the Soviet Union until renewed tensions spawned the America-bashing Alexander Rusev and his sexy blonde ‘social ambassador’ Lana.
Sporting the thickest and most exaggerated accents since Boris Badenov and Natasha, and looking like a dark-haired version of Ivan Drago from Rocky 4, Rusev and Lana whip crowds into a frenzy by waving Russian flags, declaring the superiority of the Motherland and dedicating victories to ‘world’s greatest leader’ Vladimir Putin.
4. William Regal
Regal had a long and successful career on the UK wrestling circuit before he crossed the pond to compete in the USA. He was a well-spoken gentleman heel, and the prototypical English snob.
William Regal looked down his nose in disdain at the rabble who filled the arena and showed contempt for competitors who were so far below his royal stature.
He bowed and kissed the hands of ladies, drank tea daintily before and after matches, and had the vocabulary and demeanor of an aristocrat. But once he got in the ring, Regal was a nasty cheap shot artist. After winning a match he carried a scepter and ascended to his throne clad in his royal robe with a crown atop his head.
3. Kai En Tai
While often genuinely funny, these guys were the standard-bearers for clichéd Japanese stereotypes such as bowing, shouting in nonsense Japanese and speaking clipped English with the r’s and l’s reversed.
A classic moment occurred when a grudge developed over a supposed affair involving Val Venis and Taka Michinoku wife. Their manager held a samurai sword over a cucumber before turning to Venis (rhymes with…!) and shouted, “I choppy-choppy your pee-pee!”
When the sword came down it looked so real that the horrified crowd thought Venis actually had been dismembered. To their relief, they had been treated to a classic, if tasteless, moment in wrestling history.
2. The MexiCools
Dressing as gardeners and driving to the ring on lawn mowers while insulting ‘green-go’ fans in the crowd, the MexiCools were heavy-handed executors of Latino clichés.
They were promoted as virtuous defenders of Mexican culture, but the MexiCools never seem to have gotten the memo. Instead, they came off as angry, mean-spirited and humorless.
People will give you the benefit of the doubt if you’re having a good time and clowning with the stereotypes, but these guys never made it seem fun and couldn’t connect with fans. After a short stay in the big time, the lawn mowers fell silent.
Kamala sits high atop the Mount Rushmore of Terrible Wrestling Characters. Offensive African stereotypes are one thing, but Jim Harris’s Kamala character lowered the bar to subterranean levels. Kamala was promoted as a grunting, mindless savage from the deep, dark jungles of Africa. He would slap his painted face and stomach and howl in distress or anger throughout matches.
Kamala was brought to the ring by a masked ‘handler’ named Kinchee and a white manager who berated, whipped, beat him with a stick and treated him like a sub-human animal. Going a little overboard with a tasteless stereotype is one thing, but Kamala’s shtick was absolutely appalling.