Note: The views in this article are purely the views of the writer, and do not necessarily represent the views of The Wrestling Mania as a whole.
The entire non-wrestling world lost its mind today when Russian manager of the ‘Bulgarian Brute’, Rusev, referenced the recent flight MH17 that was shot down, allegedly by Russian backed separatists in the Ukraine. Except, she actually didn’t explicitly reference flight MH17, but she did reference ‘recent events’, as part of their ongoing schtick about how Russia is awesome and America is a pitiful shadow of what it once was. The press reaction is not just unfounded, it’s simply ignorant of what’s been going on in the WWE since pretty much its inception, which is to use current international events to drive a storyline. And if anything, this recent storyline is probably one of the most tame.
One of the earliest points at which the WWE used a huge international event as a means for driving a storyline is through Sergeant Slaughter in the early 90s during the Gulf War. Slaughter aligned himself, for the purposes of the storyline, with Iraqi General Adnan and proceeded for a few months to spout anti-American rhetoric while being favourable about the Iraqis. One of the justifications for involvement in Iraq by the Americans was in response to Iraq’s human rights record, such as Saddam Hussein’s use of chemical weapons against his own Kurdish population. Many people died during this conflict, and McMahon used it as a means to drive forward a captivating, yet controversial, storyline. But it worked. People still watched and wanted to see Hogan beat the living snot out of this anti-American traitor.
Let’s consider another, perhaps the most controversial of stories or characters driven by current events: Muhammad Hassan. Personally, he was one of my favourite WWE characters, because he was so real. He was an angry, American-Muslim (who was really an Italian), accompanied by a (I think it was Farsi, he was speaking) translator/manager who would rant and rave about how Muslims in America are unfairly targeted, while at the same time indirectly praising those who were responsible for the attacks on 9/11. The WWE is very often accused of being racist, and this was probably one of those times where I would be inclined to agree. Very much playing on the racial tensions in the post-9/11 era of America, it got the WWE a lot of press, both positive and negative. The character’s WWE career was ended when it was arguably taken too far, by an event during a Smackdown taping during which Hassan was ‘praying’ on the entrance ramp, while Undertaker was attacked by five masked men, dressed in black shirts, ski-masks, and camo pants, armed with clubs and a piano wire. This took place three days before the tragic bombings on July 7th in London and led to the swift end to Hassan’s career, with his final WWE appearance being at the Great American Bash.
It brings us to the modern day. At present, Rusev is engaged in a rivalry with the “Real American”, Jack Swagger. His recent career has, too, been driven by current events, with he and his former partner, Cesaro, led by manager, Zeb Colter, adopting a ‘libertarian’ gimmick. During various promos by their manager, the rhetoric of anti-government and anti-immigration would be spouted, very similar to the Tea Party movement currently gripping the United States. That has been dropped somewhat, to focus on getting Swagger over as the American babyface, putting him against Rusev in what is, at its core, a typical USA vs The World, story, which brought us to the recent controversy. At no point did Lana explicitly reference Flight MH17. Her comments were merely a continuation of promos that have come before, which are pro-Russian and anti-American. The reference to ‘recent events’ could have easily been in reference to what has more broadly been going on in the Ukraine, yet even if it was referencing MH17, it wouldn’t be entirely out of keeping with WWE’s tradition of using current events, albeit controversial, to drive a storyline.
– By Steven Stewart