Highlighting ethnicity or nationality to help get certain professional wrestlers “over” is a technique as old as the business itself. The WWWF (later the WWF, now the WWE) used the origins of Bruno Sammartino (Italian), Spiros Arion (Greek), and Pedro Morales (Puerto Rican), among others, to help them connect with the corresponding segments of its New York fanbase. Likewise, an actual Iranian dubbed “The Iron Sheik” could draw major business during a time when that nation held 52 Americans hostage.
The WWE admittedly relied more consistently on this particular trick of the trade when it was a regional promotion that ran nearly all of its major shows out of immigrant-heavy New York City. But promotions all over the world used this tactic. It’s a simple formula that persists to this day. Santino Marella is an entertaining, some-might-say-offensive Italian stereotype. Sheamus was touted repeatedly as the first Irish-born WWE champion in history. Drew McIntyre (remember him?) incorporates the Scottish national flag into his ring attire. Wade Barrett boasts about becoming the first English World Heavyweight Champion sometime in the near future.
Ethnicity or nationality is sometimes used as a not-so-subtle way to play into the prejudices of pro wrestling’s fanbase. In other instances, it’s used in a less-insidious manner to draw positive attention to one aspect of a given character.
Occasionally, though, when a promotion needs a specific flavor of competitor, the racial cupboard is bare. As a result, wrestling has a tradition that runs parallel to its history of ethnic grapplers: Taking creative liberties with a performer’s heritage in order to mold him into whatever “type” is needed for storyline purposes.
Here’s a very incomplete sampling of memorable examples of this strange phenomenon in rough chronological order:
Fritz Von Erich – Arguably the prototype against which all subsequent attempts to fictionalize ethnicity should be measured, Fritz Von Erich capitalized on the anti-German sentiment still present in much of the country in the years following World War II. Jack Adkisson, a Texan ex-football player, got the Von Erich moniker while working as the storyline “brother” of Waldo Von Erich. “Fritz” improbably managed to goose-step his way into America’s collective heart, becoming an overwhelming fan favorite as his own fame grew and the emotions of the Second World War began to fade. Fans remember Adkisson best as the patriarch of the legendary Von Erich wrestling family and the brains behind the very successful World Class promotion in Texas in the 1980′s. He even served as the president of the then-preeminent National Wrestling Alliance in the mid-1970′s.
Ivan Koloff – The Cold War necessitated a new generation of ethnic villains. The Soviet Union, our ally during World War II, replaced Japan and Germany as the propaganda target of promotions across the United States. Procuring actual Soviets proved a difficult proposition for obvious reasons. The WWWF believed it found a reasonable facsimile in Ivan Koloff, a worker earning some renown in the Montreal territory in the late 1960′s. Koloff began wrestling for the WWWF in 1970 and had the great honor of being the man to take the WWWF Title from Bruno Sammartino after the latter’s record seven-year run as champion. Koloff wrestled for over thirty years for high-profile promotions throughout North America. Of course, his real name was Oreal Perras. He was born in Montreal and grew up in Ontario. The fans never seemed to notice (or at least care) that his “Russian” accent had a hint of French-Canadian.
Gorilla Monsoon – Wrestling fans know Monsoon best as the superlative straight man for Bobby “The Brain” Heenan during the WWF’s ascension in the 80′s and early 90′s. Monsoon was himself a very successful wrestler in the 60′s and 70′s. He was billed as Chinese(!), hailing from “Manchuria.” I suppose “Gorilla Monsoon” is what we thought Chinese names sounded like in 1960. Anyway, the pseudo-Manchurian made enough money for Vincent J. McMahon using that gimmick that Monsoon was at one time a shareholder in the company. When Vincent K. McMahon took control of the company from his father, he bought out Monsoon’s shares in exchange for a guarantee of WWF employment for life. Monsoon adopted the Manchurian gimmick after achieving only moderate success under his real last name: Marella. Shockingly, his first name isn’t really “Gorilla,” either. The aforementioned Santino Marella (who has legitimate Italian heritage) was so christened as a tribute to Monsoon.
Chief Jay Strongbow - Born Joe Scarpa, Strongbow was a fan favorite in the 70′s and early 80′s, even winning PWI’s “Most Popular Wrestler” honors in 1973 and eventually earning a spot in the WWE Hall of Fame. In contrast with his contemporary Wahoo McDaniel, Scarpa was not actually of Native American stock. Like many of the wrestlers chosen to represent ethnicities other than their own, Scarpa was an Italian-American. In fact, he and fellow Italian Lou Albano used to joke that Strongbow hailed from the “Wopaho” tribe. It was a simpler time. Personally, I would have dubbed him a “Pretendian” and called it a day.
Nikita Koloff – Now this is dedication. Born Scott Simpson but billed as Ivan Koloff’s “nephew” in the NWA’s Jim Crockett Promotions, this particular non-Russian went to great lengths in the pursuit of authenticity. Simpson not only learned a few Russian phrases and never broke character, he also legally changed his name to “Nikita Koloff” in 1988. Koloff was one of the NWA’s top heels for years until his popularity, thawing relations with the Soviets, and—believe it or not—a devastating car accident to one of his top rivals, made a switch to fan favorite a must. No more Russian than I am, Nikita Koloff somehow still comes closest among this group to being the genuine article.
Akeem, the African Dream – Whoooahhhhh, boy. I wasn’t sure whether to include this one, as overt use of incorrect ethnicity doesn’t precisely fit within the scope of this article (see also White, Kerwin). The One Man Gang’s bizarre transformation into Akeem was too jaw-dropping not to mention. The Doctor of Style, Slick (a racial trainwreck of a different kind) announced on WWF television that undeniably white wrestler One Man Gang actually had African heritage and would henceforth be known as “Akeem, the African Dream.” Akeem immediately began using stereotypical “black” gestures and speech, or at least what racists think are black gestures and speech. The WWF took some heat for this vignette even with the much more relaxed standards of political correctness in 1988. “Akeem” teamed with the Big Bossman to form the Twin Towers, a high-profile tag team with a decent late 80′s run. Akeem turned face in 1990, feuding with his former tag team partner (breaking new ground there, I know) before leaving the company to work in WCW as the One Man Gang.
The Undertaker – This is a bit of a stretch, as zombies may not technically be an ethnic group. Nonetheless, it’s important to remember that the WWF was still outlandish enough in the early 90′s to imply heavily that the Undertaker character was actually deceased. His various supernatural powers became more prevalent in the years that followed. The character changed dramatically late in the storied “Attitude Era,” re-emerging as a very much alive biker. Nicknamed the American Bad Ass, this version of the Undertaker eventually gave way to an incarnation that tracked more closely with a character who had paranormal roots. Or at least a zombie who happened to be a huge MMA fan. Anyway, the point is that Mark Calaway is not actually a reanimated corpse with otherworldly powers. I think.
Johnny B. Badd – This is another tough call, since I’m not certain that WCW technically ever presented Mark Mero as African-American, per se. However, since he was imitating a black man (Little Richard), his character name referenced a black man’s song (Chuck Berry’s “Johnny B. Goode”), and—perhaps the clincher—Theodore Long managed him, I’m erring on the side of inclusion based on the totality of the circumstances. It’s hard to imagine a major pro wrestling organization attempting a gimmick like this today. That’s not because of the potential offensiveness of the character to multiple groups (LOOK AT THIS PICTURE! I MEAN, LOOK AT IT!). Wrestling has never cared much about that. Rather, it seems very unlikely that today’s wrestling industry would build a gimmick around musicians who peaked in popularity three decades before the debut of the wrestler in question. The closest thing I can recall in recent history was the ill-fated KISS Demon gimmick during the final days of WCW. But that’s a tangent. The point here is that “Johnny B. Badd” was probably African-American. Marc Mero is not.
Colonel Mustafa – This might be the ballsiest of the bunch. Khosrow Ali Vaziri had already won the WWF Title in his previous guise, “The Iron Sheik.” Unlike so many others, Sheik was what he claimed to be, ethnically-speaking: An Iranian national. The WWF eventually realized its oversight in assigning the Iron Sheik his actual ethnicity. It corrected this error a few years later by re-dubbing Vaziri “Col. Mustafa,” an Iraqi military leader who aligned himself with the now-heel traitor Sgt. Slaughter. Repackaging a wrestler as someone entirely different is nothing new, but doing so with a past WWF Champion was a bold move even by WWF standards. The WWF presented Mustafa as if he were a heretofore unseen wrestler, despite the fact that he used the same finisher, helpfully still titled the “Camel Clutch.”
Yokozuna - With the emergence of Japan as a possible economic threat to the United States in the early 90′s, the WWF needed a character who could play on America’s xenophobic insecurities. Enter Rodney Anoa’i, an American of Samoan extraction who had the added bonus of being absolutely massive. Yokozuna weighed over 500 pounds for most of his career, and, thus, he was presented as a Japanese sumo wrestler. Anyone familiar with the appearance of (1) actual Japanese people and/or (2) actual Samoan people saw through the gimmick immediately. Yokozuna passing for Japanese was preposterous. Not helping matters was the fact that he was paired with a manager of authentic Japanese ancestry in Mr. Fuji, making the visual contrast in their features all the more striking. Even the WWF realized the absurdity of this to an extent, quietly beginning to bill Yoko from “Polynesia,” although he still came to the ring with Fuji and the flag of Japan in tow. Having said all that, Yokozuna was a strong in-ring performer, particularly for a man of his stature. He enjoyed multiple WWF Championship and WWF Tag Team Championship reigns.
Razor Ramon – If you’re going to create a Cuban immigrant character for your wrestling organization, I can’t think of a more
unflattering piece of source material from which to borrow than Brian DePalma’s Scarface. From the greasy hair and gold chains to the cocaine-referencing nickname that sailed over the heads of most viewers, Razor Ramon “carved” out a place near the top of the card in the mid-1990′s WWF. The famous story of Razor’s origin includes Scott Hall pitching ideas to WWF boss Vince McMahon and booker Pat Patterson, unaware that they had never seen the 1983 film. Exposed to the memorable mannerisms, accent, and catchphrases for the first time, the brass loved it. When Hall left the WWF for WCW, he initially retained the Razor Ramon persona, save for the name, until a lawsuit (oddly not from Brian DePalma) forced him to drop many of the trappings of his old character.
Mohammad Hassan – Because there isn’t much new under the sports entertainment sun, the WWE decided it needed a Muslim heel in the years following the 9/11 terrorist attacks. To its credit, the WWE showed rare restraint by waiting until 2004 to launch such a character. The effort ultimately failed despite the “cooling off period” before Mohammad Hassan’s debut. The death blow to Hassan was an angle on Smackdown in 2005 in which Undertaker defeated Hassan’s manager, Daivari, but was subsequently attacked by several masked men who appeared following what looked an awful lot like a Muslim prayer session by Hassan on the entrance ramp. The London terrorist bombings of ‘05 happened to take place between the time the WWE taped Smackdown and its air date. Long story short, UPN (which aired Smackdown at that time) turned up the heat on the WWE and demanded Hassan be kept off the air indefinitely. The WWE decided to take the path of least resistance and had the Undertaker figuratively destroy Hassan at the next pay-per-view. Naturally, “Hassan” was an Italian-American from Syracuse named Mark Copani. Of course.
Kofi Kingston – A cool theme song with reggae elements, the last name “Kingston,” a billing from Jamaica, and the colors and accent to go with it. This all seemed like a winning combination for an athletic babyface. The WWE promoted Kingston heavily prior to his debut, noting that he would be the first Jamaican-born competitor in WWE history. The only problem? ”Kingston” is a Ghanian with a degree from Boston College. Born to a family of intellectuals, Kingston moved here with his educated parents when he was a toddler. The WWE wisely dropped the Jamaican act and eventually acknowledged Kingston’s true heritage. Even more wisely, they kept the (incongruous) theme song.
These are but a few of the many wrestlers who have had their ethnicity or nationality “altered” through the magic of kayfabe. This is done ostensibly to benefit their careers and the business as a whole, although sometimes with humiliating results. This device is usually—but not always—more subtle in the twenty-first century. Yet, as long as the wrestling business exists, I would wager heavily that promoters will continue to present Italians as Arabs, Samoans as Japanese, or bikers as zombies.