Foreign affairs policies can appear confusing for those that aren’t completely informed on the intricacies of how they work. Personally speaking, I couldn’t begin to explain all the details of who is involved and how they might be affected. Foreign affairs policy as it pertains to wrestling is focused on presenting those from other countries as the enemy, though sometimes it feels like something got lost in translation. Over the course of the history of the WWE, they have typically catered to their core fan base by presenting the USA as dominant, and everyone that isn’t from there as the evil foreigner. This angle is understandable; it resonates with the audience even today when characters from different countries spit on the United States. But in this more enlightened era, there should be some balance when it comes to the booking of characters from different countries, and a heel shouldn’t be a heel just because they are from a different country.
I know I will be dating myself, but it was in and around 1985 when I became a wrestling fan. My first exposure to the evil foreigner gimmick would be the booking of the Iron Sheik and Nikolai Volkoff. Both were talented, and at the time, it made sense. The idea of using the Cold War as part of an in-ring angle generated a lot of jeers by the fans. The constant chanting of ‘Iran #1, Russia #1. USA ptui (spitting sound)’ by the Sheik. Both men were legitimately from a different country, so it wasn’t as though it was a stretch to book them this way. Of course, Volkoff is actually Croatian, but playing the part of a Russian made more sense at the time. When they captured the WWF World Tag Team Championships at the first Wrestlemania against the U.S Express, Mike Rotunda and Barry Windham, it only added to the hate that fans had towards these evil foreigners.
Later, Volkoff joined forces with another ‘Russian,’ Boris Zhukov (who was actually American) as part of The Bolsheviks, a gimmick that was much sillier. The booking was no different from what was happening in the south in, the NWA with Ivan and Nikita Koloff. Koloff. It is not, of course, any promotion’s responsibility to educate their audience, but they do aspire to be reflective of the popular culture of the time. One wonders if, by the late 80s, was there truly a dislike for Russians, even if they immigrated and settled in the United States? When the Cold War ended, so should those storylines; eventually, they did.
Go forward a little bit to the early 90s, and we are introduced to characters such as Ludvig Borva, a Scandinavian wrestler who was a monster reminiscent of, Ivan Drago from Rocky IV. He represented the imposing foreigner who disliked the U.S., but had no problem taking advantage of its perks. The idea fell flat, as it seems this well was quickly being dried by the writers in the WWE. During that same era there was Yokozuna and his waving of the Japanese flag, while accompanied by manager Mr. Fuji. Here, was another case where the intent was for fans to dislike anyone that wasn’t from the U.S. of A. In an attempt to get Lex Luger over in a manner similar to Hulk Hogan, the ‘Great American Hope’ slammed Yokozuna on the deck of the U.S.S. Intrepid. Of course in actuality, Yokozuna was of Samoan decent, part of the legendary Anoa’i dynasty of wrestler, and didn’t speak a word of Japanese. Still, as part of the character he spat on the country that in reality he called home. While his look was imposing and his banzai drop could crush anyone, his agility and mobility for guy that size could have easily got him over without having to lean on the evil foreigner angle. The dastardly throwing salt in someone’s eyes was a standard cliche in the booking of Asian heels at the time.
The idea of the anti-American theme took a rather interesting twist during the Degeneration X run in 1997. They were heels, but were feuding with The Hart Foundation, who had issues with the U.S. So while DX were doing nothing to earn cheers, they became de-facto faces. There was some novelty to this because a pro-Canadian/anti-American feud had never been done. During this angle, the Hart Foundation was being jeered in the United States, but were seen as conquering heroes in Canada for speaking their mind. Speaking your mind is one thing, but spitting on something that someone else values is where the line is unquestionably crossed. What made the feud awkward was that only Bret and Owen Hart were in fact Canadians.
It’s understandable that pride in your country, your heritage, will resonate with its audience. But what is wrong embracing characters that are from different countries? We live in a society that is rich in diversity. The population is filled with people of widely varying ethnic heritage, as so many have immigrated here and made it home. Being of Italian heritage myself, I chuckle at Santino Marella, because some of his mannerisms actually remind me of family members. He entertained fans with his comical antics. Though he was actually born and raised in Canada, he is also of Italian heritage and is advertised as being from Italy.
We would be hard pressed to find a character that is of a different ethnic background, and is allowed to retain pride in their heritage without being considered an anti-American. Bad News Barrett and Sheamus are among the few that could speak of their background and didn’t need to be considered anti-American in the process. Though both are heels, neither has their heel-dom rooted in their nationality. Though it could be that the English accent is instinctively perceived as arrogant, and maybe that’s why it’s easier to book Barrett as a heel.
The time when, in the midst of his feud with John Cena, Kevin Owens walked up the ramp and spoke French was precisely done to create a negative reaction because he spoke a different language. Are we really still in a place as a culture that we can’t be inclusive rather than exclusive? I would think that the United States and Canada could be far more sophisticated in their belief system. They both share a pride for their nation, which is great, but unless I’m naive here, I think that it’s the differences of those within the country that help shape it.
When you consider Rusev now, he has gone from imposing foreigner to a bit of a comedic act with a thick accent. At this point he may be better off to call himself Arnold Schwarzenegger and dress him up as though he was running for the Governor of Connecticut. I understand his accent is authentic, but having him hate on the U.S. because that sort of character proved to be successful before doesn’t really help him. While his previous booking made him a threat, he could have easily been considered a threat just because of his presence and skill in the ring. His look alone does more to threaten the masses then waving the Russian or Bulgarian national flag. He is incredibly talented, with a skill set that allows others to see past the evil foreigner booking. It also allows them to see beyond the bumbling Bulgarian booking as well.
Until recently, Cesaro was booked as a heel because he spoke different languages. He spoke in French, Italian, German and Swiss in his promo, a skill that presented as indicative of his heelishness. It was easier, and lazier, to generate heat towards him by focusing on ethnicity. However, fans saw past his background and his differences and embraced his skill. Whether it was alongside Tyson Kidd or on his own, fans pop for his signature moves. The big swing and consecutive turnbuckle to turnbuckle forearms really get a rise out of the audience.
So while booking foreigners as heels is common, it doesn’t need to be the default. When I say this, I’m not talking about Finn Balor, Neville or Becky Lynch. However, there is little played up about their background or culture. Even Hideo Itami doesn’t have as much focus placed on his background. His music may begin with a sound associated Japanese culture, but ultimately his vest and ring gear doesn’t suggest ‘Hey, look at me, I’m Hakushi.‘
It seems like regardless of the time any anti-American stance will generate a reaction. The question isn’t why this is done, but rather, who really gains from booking like this? And as a company that tours the world, and tries to embrace fans worldwide, they are alienating them in their booking instead of trying to entertain them. As a Canadian, watching guys like Sami Zayn and Kevin Owens before they were in the WWE, I came to realize they didn’t need to generate heat by insulting the American fans in Ring of Honor. Owens was constantly doing things that generated heat, and not by spitting on the United States or its people. Bret Hart and Jim Neidhart were heels when they first came into the WWE because they had a cockiness about them.
If we were to draft up a foreign affairs policy as it applies to the WWE today, we should include something in the fine print that says ‘hate me because I’m bad to you, not because I’m booked to hate your country’.