The following is an excerpt from David “The Masked Man” Shoemaker’s new book, The Squared Circle: Life, Death, and Professional Wrestling. It has been slightly modified for this publication.
If you tuned in to the WWF on Saturday morning in the late ’80s, or watched an episode of Hulk Hogan’s Rock ‘n’ Wrestling, it was hard not to notice the cultural and ethnic diversity the cast of brawlers represented. But despite the diversity, the characters’ vocabulary wasn’t exactly progressive. Though his English was faltering, Mr. Fuji threw around terms like “yard ape” and “lawn jockey” and “honky” in his prime. His protégé Don Muraco called Pedro Morales “a dirty Mexican pepper belly,” and when it was suggested to him that Morales was actually Puerto Rican, he said, “Who cares? They’re all the same.” (He later attempted a more accurate bit of racism when he called Morales “a Puerto Rican hubcap thief.”) He was one of a few wrestlers for whom “Mexican wetback” was a throwaway descriptor of Tito Santana. (Here he is calling Santana an “ignorant garbage picker.”)
If the acts weren’t always bald-facedly racist, their matches were often peppered with the patently offensive bad-guy shtick of legendary color commentator Jesse “The Body” Ventura. At various times Ventura reacted to a Junkyard Dog interview by saying JYD had “a mouth full of grits,” called his rope-a-dope in-ring routine “a lot of shuckin’ and jivin’.” He commonly referred to fan favorite Santana as “Chico,” dubbed his ﬁnishing move the “flying burrito” ﬁnisher, and, when Santana was getting pummeled at WrestleMania IV, Ventura said, “I betcha Chico wishes he was back selling tacos in Tijuana right now!” He similarly referred to black wrestler “Birdman” Koko B. Ware as “Buckwheat” until eventually Vince McMahon himself put a stop to it.
“Rowdy” Roddy Piper, a Canadian who was billed to be from Glasgow, Scotland, was a one-stop shop for racial insensitivity. He became a top-tier villain in California early in his career by insulting the region’s Latino community. He once insisted on making amends by playing the Mexican national anthem on his bagpipes, but he played “La Cucaracha” instead. In the WWF, Piper exhibited a similar false apology when he invited Jimmy Snuka onto his “Piper’s Pit” interview segment to apologize for Snuka not getting a chance to speak on his previous appearance. Piper decorated the set with pineapples and coconuts and eventually smashed a coconut over Snuka’s head. (Piper’s indiscretion didn’t end there; he once talked soul food with Tony Atlas, said that Mr. T’s lips looked “like a catcher’s mitt,” called T’s fans “monkeys,” mock-fed bananas to a poster of Mr. T, and told him that he would “whip him like a slave.” At WrestleMania VI, he was wrestling Bad News Brown, who was presented as a black street thug but who was actually half black; Piper — who, it should be said, was the good guy in this feud — came to the ring with his body painted half black, down the middle.) Piper’s racist grunts may have been part of a larger heel character, but it’s likewise a part of a broader history of villains gleefully playing up racist tropes to get easy boos from the crowd. There were virulent racist personas like Colonel DeBeers, the AWA heel known for his pro-apartheid politics, and John Bradshaw Layﬁeld, the conservative Texan in the WWE who briefly railed against illegal Mexican immigrants. Michael “P.S.” Hayes, ringleader of the Fabulous Freebirds, often resorted to race-baiting to intensify feuds: The Freebirds’ feud with Junkyard Dog turned on Hayes calling JYD “boy,” and the Freebirds once came to the ring in a major match against the Road Warriors at Comiskey Park with the rebel flag painted on their faces. In 2008, Hayes was suspended from his backstage duties with WWE for supposedly telling African American wrestler Mark Henry, “I’m more of a nigger than you are.” He was said to have used the N-word casually over the years without causing a stir. He is also credited with the notion that black wrestlers don’t need gimmicks because being black is their gimmick.
With the exception of The Junkyard Dog,1 whose dog collar, chains, and postmatch shuck-and-jive routine were almost fully subsumed in the triumphant magnetism of his persona, perhaps no gimmick is as renowned — or as straightforward — as “The Ugandan Headhunter” Kamala, a ridiculous tribal boogeyman from “Deepest, Darkest Africa,” who was created by Jerry “the King” Lawler based on a reductive Frank Frazetta illustration. (So yes, it’s fair to call Kamala a stereotype of a stereotype.) His mannerisms and grunts were inhuman, and his cannibalism was a calling card, and with his face- and chest-paint, his leopard-print loincloth, and his spear, Kamala was such a sensation that he headlined every major promotion during the ’80s and ’90s. He often appeared alongside his “handler,” Kim Chee, who wore a pith helmet and tan wrestlers mask. Any offense tendered by Chee was lost in the voluminous shadow of denigration Kamala cast.
To whom an entire chapter is devoted in the book.
When you consider the recent history of African American wrestlers in pro wrestling, to simplify a performer’s character to his race isn’t as offensive as what’s come when promoters try to give black wrestlers personas with more, shall we say, idiosyncrasy. In 1987, a small-time wrestler once known as “Soul Train” Jones in Memphis was introduced to the world as the “Million Dollar Man” Ted DiBiase’s bodyguard-cum-manservant, Virgil. (In their debut video, he says he owns Virgil, and Virgil responds “Yessuh!”) Over the years, DiBiase bought the services and the souls of numerous wrestlers, but Virgil wasn’t just a sellout; he was a slave, almost unabashedly. His name, purportedly coined by Bobby “The Brain” Heenan, was a subtle jab at NWA showrunner and star Dusty Rhodes, born Virgil Runnels, who was known for “acting black” in speech and mannerism. Similarly, in 1988, a famous villain named the One Man Gang, who sported a mohawk and denim vest and generally looked and acted like a monstrous Hells Angel, was repackaged with minimal explanation as Akeem the African Dream, a white man of African descent who dressed in a dashiki and spoke in jive while sluicing his forearms through the air like a ’70s-movie pimp. This character too was supposed to be a joke aimed at Rhodes, who counts semiforgotten African American Sweet Daddy Siki among his greatest influences (Siki’s bleached-blond hair, “Siki strut,” and verbal style are direct precursors of Rhodes’s affect). Rhodes was raised in poverty in Texas and pegged his accent more on socioeconomics than race, but he was nonetheless the subject of racially charged ribbing, though, as with Virgil, targeting Rhodes was more a general shot across the bow at the Crockett promotion than anything. Anyway, Akeem (whose real name was George Gray) suddenly was announced as being from “Deepest, Darkest Africa” and was speaking in a parody of a parody of a “black accent.” Managed by Slick — who was known as both the “Jive Soul Bro” and the “Doctor of Style,” dressed in polyester suits and pageboy hats, and later became, in real life and exploited on-screen, a reverend — the duo seemed to embody every sketchy African American stereotype in one middling act.
If one perhaps thought that the introduction of a white African nationalist signaled some sort of postracial era of racial insensitivity, one would be wrong. When late–Territorial Era megastar “Black Superman” Tony Atlas came to the WWF in 1991, he was recast as tribal headhunter Saba Simba. (Atlas credited the Saba Simba character for rescuing him from poverty and saving his life, for whatever that’s worth.) The year 1992 saw the WWF debut of Papa Shango (real name: Charles Wright), a voodoo witch doctor who cast diabolical black-magic spells on his opponents. (Wright would later become even more famous as the Godfather, a wrestling pimp who came to the ring with a bevy of hookers and who implored everyone to take a ride on the “ho train.”) When the famous WCW tag team Harlem Heat (made up of brothers Booker T and Stevie Ray), who had previously gone by the moniker the “Ebony Experience” in the GWF, came to WCW in 1993, they were originally presented as a pair of convicts who had been won in a card game by Col. Robert Parker, a Mark Twain villain of a wrestling manager, who came to the ring as if straight off the plantation, in off-white three-piece suits and a cowboy hat, chomping a cigar and demeaning his foes in a syrupy drawl. They tried out the gimmick at a couple of house shows, with Booker and Stevie in jumpsuits and leg shackles before it was determined that this might be slightly offensive. In the end, Harlem Heat was presented sans Parker and sans chains (though in their earliest appearances they were still clad in prison-issue tops), and the team became incredibly popular. Booker T went on to be a world champion in both WCW and WWE, which is a long way from cartoon slavery. Nonetheless, in 2003, while feuding with Booker T, Triple H called out Booker’s (legitimate) criminal past, referenced his “nappy” hair, and said that “people like [him]” couldn’t win championships in WWE and that they were just there to “dance” and “entertain” people.
Even in the modern WWE, where the Rock’s numerous championship reigns were seen as evidence of a postracial wrestling world, there have been plentiful steps backward for every step forward. The first African American champion, Ron Simmons, was feuding with Vader and his manager, the legendary Harley Race, when Race said to him, “When I was World Champion, I had a boy like you to carry my bags!” Simmons would later end up in the WWF, repackaged as a bad-guy black nationalist as the leader of the Nation of Domination. Black gangsta and rapper personalities persist, from R-Truth to the tag team Cryme Tyme. When black wrestlers weren’t broad stereotypes, they were subtle ones, playing ominous thugs with hip-hop entrance music or slam poets with hip-hop entrance music or comic relief with hip-hop entrance music — or, in the case of Mark Henry at various points, all of the above.
There’s enough material for another whole chapter on the Latino experience in the modern wrestling world. The luchadors of those early days of WCW Monday Nitro were simplistic, but their portrayal was only offensive in its oddity. Once the dam opened, though, offensiveness poured out. As the wrestling promotions tried to integrate their Latino hires more fully by giving them characters — and, often, by removing their masks — they followed the rest of the history of racial identity in the wrestling world down the rabbit hole of straightforward racial stereotype. Before long, Konnan, a superstar in his home country, traded in his colorful tights for Dickies, a wifebeater, sunglasses, and a bandanna: the superhero devolving into a common thug. It was a caricature we were unfortunately comfortable with. And that became the norm: A team of unmasked luchadores called the Mexicools were ferried to ringside on a riding lawnmower. Los Guerreros, two scions of a proud wrestling family, garnered their greatest fame by “lying, cheating, and stealing” and riding around in hydraulics-boosted cars.
The Asian contingent followed a similar trajectory, as the line between ethnic slur and Hollywood stereotype became increasingly indecipherable: Mr. Fuji’s bow tie and bowler begat a million deadly karate chops and judo kicks. In the late ’90s, a stable of established Japanese wrestlers called Kai En Tai, led by a flashy caricature named Yamaguchi-San, were embroiled in a feud with a wrestling porn star named Val Venis; their beef culminated in a scene where Yamaguchi attempted a castration via samurai sword while shouting “I choppy-choppy your pee-pee!” If the treatment of Latinos in modern pro wrestling has been driven by the perceptions of fearmongering news reports, the depiction of Asians has followed an out-of-date Hollywood template. It says a lot when you can look at such storylines and say, “At least the black wrestlers aren’t suffering this sort of indignity.”
Reprinted by arrangement with Gotham Books, a member of Penguin Group (USA) LLC, A Penguin Random House Company. Copyright © David Shoemaker, 2013.