One of the cultural themes that dominates the news and social media these days is political correctness. Some think that it has gone too far and destroys free expression, whereas others think that political correctness promotes more openness and acceptance among different beliefs and attitudes to one’s own. The election of President Donald Trump (who is of course a WWE Hall of Famer), has ignited the debate even further. What’s true is that the world has changed. In normal society our sensitivity to race and gender issues have certainly shifted. Things that didn’t seem a big deal 30 or 20 years ago can now be very uncomfortable to watch.
Wrestling has usually been about pushing boundaries, and many of the moments on this list were designed to be shocking, and provoke outrage from the viewer. Other moments are more innocent, a sign of shifting taste. It is undeniable that wrestling has always been full of broad stereotypes, using a wrestler’s race or nationality as a gimmick. Many who would prove to be wrestling legends would go through unsavory gimmicks, such as the “Lying, cheating, and stealing” Los Guerrero’s who also rode to the ring in hydraulics-boosted cars. Women, particularly during the Attitude Era, were objectified in order to appeal to a salivating, mostly male, adolescent audience. All this is breeding ground for material that was always going to have the potential to offend. Whether there was intent to offend or not, all the moments on this list make us cringe in 2017.
15 Vince McMahon Says The N-Word
In the summer of 2015 the name of Hulk Hogan and all that is connected to his legacy was removed from the WWE website, when the National Enquirer published a rant which included repeated usage of the N-word, which resulted in the icon having his contract terminated by Vince McMahon.
What made it weird for some was 10 years earlier McMahon had used that very word in promo with John Cena at Survivor Series 2005. McMahon passes by Cena backstage, and in an awkward jive-like manner calls Cena “my n***a” and gives him a high-five. He then just happens to walk past a gob-smacked Booker T and his wife Sharmell.
Of course there is a huge difference in context between McMahon and Hogan in these scenarios. Hogan’s was a bitter, hate-filled tirade, whereas McMahon was a (very) unsuccessful attempt to be funny. McMahon was probably just trying to be shocking, but you can tell from his manner that he’s not wholly comfortable with the it, and awkwardly the announce team doesn’t even acknowledge what the billionaire owner just said. It was awkward to watch 12 years ago, today it must surely rank as one of Mr. McMahon’s most embarrassing on camera moments.
14 Rowdy Roddy Piper Wears Half Black Face
Unless you’re playing Othello in Elizabethan times, “Blackface” is pretty much always going to be a bad idea. If you told Roddy Piper something was a bad idea, there’s a chance it might make him more likely to do it. In an interview with “Mean” Gene Okerland ahead of a bout with Bad News Brown at WrestleMania VI Piper, inexplicably, painted half his face black. The point he seemed to want to make was that it doesn’t matter if you’re black or white, but what is “inside” that counts. He kind of ruined it in another promo where he referred to Bad News Brown “Wide nose.” In their match at the Skydome Hot Rod wrestled with half his body painted black.
Vince McMahon reportedly loved the idea. Bad News Brown hated it, and would depart the company that summer, his main grievance being McMahon failed to live up to his promise of making Brown the first WWE Black Heavyweight Champion.
Watching it back now is a very strange experience, because it seems so unnecessary. In an interview five years ago Piper said he did it because Brown wasn’t a very “Pzazzy pro-wrestler,” and Piper had to do something extraordinary to gain attention.
Piper was loved by millions for the controversial attacks on political correctness, and was often hilarious, but on this occasion he took it way too far.
13 Eric Bischoff Creates HLA (Hot Lesbian Action)
In a September episode of RAW In 2002, thanks to Eric Bischoff, a whole episode was spent with the promise of Hot Lesbian Action (HLA) occurring in the ring. It was an awful publicity stunt to bring in ratings. As Eric Bischoff introduced ‘the lesbians,’ Jerry Lawler yelped with delight at the imminent “puppies” to be displayed. Biscoff and the Lesbians got the crowd to chant ‘HLA’ repeatedly. Much to the disappointment of many a loser/virgin watching, however, the WWE, of course, didn’t deliver with “HLA.”
Bischoff stopped the lesbians while they were in their underwear and tells them that the only thing that sells as well as sex, is violence. The tag-team duo Three Minute Warning then beat the hell out of the lesbians.
I suppose the intention was for the angle to be ironic, but for the girls involved it was exploitative and embarrassing. For everyone involved it was vile. In contrast to Jerry Lawler’s delight early in the segment, JR’s commentary is particularly weary throughout this segment. You can tell he can’t wait for it to end.
12 Harley Race Tells Ron Simmons He'd Be Carrying His Bag In His Day
When it comes to breaking down race barriers there are few more important names than Ron Simmons who became the first black World Heavyweight Champion in August 1992. It was highlighted how difficult this would be in a promo Simmons cut earlier that year, where he told Big Van Vader, the current Champion, that he intended to win his belt. Vader’s manager, Harley Race, interrupted him and basically said there was no chance.
Race basically implied that people like Simmons don’t get to be heavyweight Champion. Race then takes a pause, presumably as he debates for a second whether to actually go through and say what he’s about to say, before telling Simmons, guys like him would be “carrying his bag” in his day. This is too much for Simmons who then beats down on Race before Vader stops him.
In a way Race’s words added to the drama of the moment. Clearly Race is placing himself as the heel, and by referencing how backward times were previously, it highlights how monumental Simmons eventual title win will be. Still, it’s pretty cringe-worthy to watch today.
11 JBL Hunts Illegals
In these post-2016 election days, John Bradshaw Layfield’s persona could be seen as an SNL style parody of the anti-immigrant Trump supporter. One of his first promos in his new characterization was cut on the Texas border where he complained of illegal aliens and that he personally would kick them out the country. The promo generated real heat and resulted in being awarded the “Great American Award” by commissioner Kurt Angle and a shot against Eddie Guerrero (JBL won by DQ, so didn’t get the belt, but won the rematch in a Texas Bull Rope match).
In today’s political climate the promo is a little raw to watch. JBL sneaks along the border before confronting a Mexican family trying to hop the border. JBL screams at them until they run away back into Mexico. “You better stay in Mexico! Because this side of the border John Bradshaw Layfield will be waiting.”
In reality Bradshaw and Guerrero were close friends, and Bradshaw was devastated by his death. And Bradshaw can hardly be considered a racist as he had a memorable tag team duo with Ron “Farooq” Simmons.
Today’s polarized political culture makes Bradshaw’s promo a difficult watch.
10 Vince Forces Trish To Crawl Around The Ring Like A Dog And Undress
On an episode of Raw in early 2001 Vince took Trish to the ring to “teach her a lesson.” He forced her to crawl around the ring on all-fours and bark like a dog. Vince then has Trish strip down to her “Bra and Panties.” This was only two years after Sable had sued the WWE for sexual harassment. Watching Trish quake in the middle ring in hardly any clothes comes across as abusive. This was before Trish’s stellar career as an in-ring fighter really took off (she won her first Women’s Championship of November that year). Knowing now what she was capable of in the ring, it doesn’t seem right for her character to be used in this way.
In recent interviews Trish said that she had no problem doing the angle, and that it helped turn her character from face to heel by getting the audience on her side. The whole point of the angle was to make Vince look creepy. It was humiliating for Trish, but on the flip side Vince has done countless humiliating things for the good of a storyline. But this was just creepy. Women’s Rights groups actually brought it up during Linda McMahon’s failed Senate run in 2015.
9 Don Muraco Calls Tito Santana An Ignorant Garbage Picker
During Vince McMahon’s WrestleMania revolution of the 1980s, the WWE was very much family friendly viewing. Along with Hulk Hogan’s cartoon Rock ‘n’ Wrestling, the WWE was something kids would wake up and watch on a Saturday morning. Apparently racial slurs were ok for young viewers.
One of many examples shows a young clean-cut announcer powder blue suit called Vince McMahon introducing the legendary Don Muraco ahead of a fight with Tito Santana. In the promo Muraco refers to Santana as a “wetback” and an “ignorant garbage picker.” McMahon shakes his head in a disapproving manner, but it is clear this is hardly unacceptable language. It is remarkable how normal Muraco’s language seems at the time, that this was deemed acceptable for younger viewers. If a wrestler were ever to say anything close to this on TV today, there’s a good chance that would be the last you would see of them.
8 Piper's Pit With Tony Atlas
Roddy Piper has a host of infamous moments from his Piper’s Pit segment. He once hit Snuka with a coconut, and threw a rag at Rocky Johnson to clean his shoes. One segment that is particularly harsh on modern eyes and ears is a segment with Tony Atlas. Piper asks if Atlas got his muscles from eating “soul food.” He asks if he eats fried chicken, and pigs feet. Atlas responds by calling out Piper for being racist. Atlas then makes fun of Piper for needing Bob Orton as a bodyguard. Piper says “I don’t need a body guard. Hey let me put it in your language. I don’t let the seeds stop me from enjoying my watermelon,” before a brawl breaks out.
People who watch these clips rightly find the racist language offensive and naturally get angry at Piper, but it is important to view the clip through contemporary eyes. This was a family friendly show in the mid-80s America, and amazingly, making fun of racial stereotypes was deemed acceptable. And don’t forget Piper was saying these things to get heat. Atlas actually calls out Piper for being racist when he says, “Are you trying to be funny or somethin’?”
Our stomach for what we find acceptable has shifted considerably, which is of course a good thing. But it is wrong to demonize Piper too much on these segments. Unlike the Half-Black Face incident with Bad News Brown at WrestleMania VI, which was far more shameful, Atlas is clearly committed to this angle. The fact he has the crowd on his side proves what an important wrestler Atlas was in destroying down racial barriers in professional wrestling and becoming one of the first genuine black superstars. Along with his tag-team partner Rocky Johnson, they paved the way for Johnson’s son Dwayne, to go onto be one of the greatest champions of all time (and ultimately the highest paid entertainer in the world today).
Tony Atlas had no ill feeling towards Hot Rod. When Piper died in 2015 Atlas tweeted, “May my good friend Roddy Piper rest in peace and my condolences go out to his family. #crushed #RIPRoddy.”
7 Tommy Dreamer Says He's Hardcore And Can Handle Two Lesbians
Raven and Tommy Dreamer’s rivalry was one of the most epic in ECW’s history. Much of the rivalry was based around a love triangle involving Beulah McGillicutty, which then turned into a love-quadrangle when Kimona Wanalaya got involved.
It got complicated, but it eventually turned out that Beulah was cheating on Raven with Tommy, and at the same time she was cheating on Tommy with Kimona. Beulah and Kimona made out passionately in the middle of the ring. This was the first time a lesbian kiss had ever appeared on wrestling television, and sent shockwaves through the industry as several networks dropped their coverage, and the ECW encountered protests. Rather than being an empowering moment for the LGBT movement, it was degrading. To top it off Dreamer announced to the crowd that he wasn’t bothered saying by Beulah’s actions, grabbing the girls and shouting “I’m hardcore, I’ll take them both.” It was a demeaning to the women involved.
6 Muhammed Hussan Attacks The Undertaker
Muhammed Hassan was an Arabic wrestler, played by an Italian-American, Marc Copani. He wanted America to stop ridiculing stereotypes of Islamic people in the wake of the 9/11 attacks (even though the Hussan character was very much a stereotype). He wasn’t billed from any Arab specific country, and he gave praise to Allah, until Muslim-Americans complained and asked him to stop.
This gimmick took place while the USA was at war in Afghanistan and Iraq and Hussan was often met with boos and chants of “USA” from the crowd. The idea was that Hussan would be in the same mold as The Iron Sheik, one of the greatest heels of all time. But the difference was, while The Iron Shiek wrestled against Hogan in the '80s Iran was an undisputed foe of the US. In 2005, Hussan was portraying a generic Arabian man, and President George Bush repeatedly told the American people that Islam was not the enemy.
Then a promo involving The Undertaker being attacked by men in masks in what resembled a terrorist attack. Later that week London was struck with multiple bomb attacks killing 52 (including the four bombers responsible). It was a coincidence that both took place so soon, but the backlash was enough for Hussan to be released. The gimmick was never appropriate, and Hussan’s did a shoot on the reporters who criticized him, which only made things worse really.
5 The Nation Confront Vince Over Racism
Perhaps there has never been a clearer indication of how racism was seeped deep in the fabric of wrestling industry, and American culture as a whole, than when the Nation of Domination confronted Vince McMahon in the ring on an episode of Raw.
The week previously the Nation’s dressing room had been covered in graffiti with the words, “KFC” and “Go Home” and of course the obligatory reference to fried chicken, with a cross cut through the letters “KFC.” It was never confirmed whether it was the Hart Foundation or DX who did it, although it was almost definitely DX. DX had previously done a whole promo impersonating the Nation including X-Pax wearing blackface in an attempt to depict Mark Henry.
Throughout this promo Vince is defensive, and dismisses the Nation’s allegations that WWE is racist. The angle casts the Nation as the bad guys, almost as if they deserved the abuse because of the way they act. When the Rock grabs the mic, the crowd break out into “Rocky Sucks”. The camera often cuts to fans booing and throwing their thumbs down at Farooq as he remonstrates to Vince. The whole storyline was a disgrace, and the WWE’s attempt at handling it totally failed, and only shined a light on the industries issues with discrimination.
4 Mickie James Is Mocked And Called "Piggy James"
Dealing with issues of sex and race are so difficult because everyone has a different level of tolerance. Often the WWE have, with good intentions, explored themes of race and gender hoping to shed a light on the larger issues in society. Sometimes they get it right, sometimes they get it wrong. But when it actually starts to affect those involved is when it can get quite serious.
Mickie James and LayCool (Layla El and Michelle McCool) feud was one of the first female division feuds in WWE to generate real heat after Trish Stratus and Lita retired. In one infamous promo McCool dressed up as a farm girl and called out “Piggy! Piggy! Hey Piggy James.”
Of course the intention was to cast LayCool as the villains, and to show that they, as bullies, are in the wrong. The problem is that the angle was incredibly humiliating for James. She has said in interviews since that she “found it difficult to take my personal feelings and emotions out of it.” Things weren’t helped when James was let go by the company shortly after.
The angle was supposed to generate sympathy for James, but it generated just as much disgust and outrage, and the whole thing then, as now, is incredibly difficult to watch.
3 Triple H to Booker T In Lead up to WrestleMania XIX
The storyline between Booker T and Triple in the lead-up to their match for the World Heavyweight Championship at WrestleMania XIX shows just how far we have come in less than 15 years. Booker T was rising up the ranks and was gaining huge popularity going into the match.
On the March 3, 2003 episode of Raw, less than a month before WrestleMania, Triple H interrupted at Booker T promo to join him in the ring. If Triple H did everything except wear Blackface in an incredible racist promo. Triple H sized up Booker with a smirk, before saying, “somebody like…you. Doesn’t get to be a World Champion. People like you don’t deserve it.” Triple H said Booker was only an entertainer, even asking him to dance for him. It was a dark call-back almost to an 19th century when belief in white supremacy was strong among Americans, and black people were viewed as lesser humans. (In another segment Triple H gave Booker the option of either being his limo driver or carrying his bags into the building).
The promo is outright racist, and extremely ugly to watch today. Even at the time it left a bitter taste in many fans mouths. It did help the crowd being on Booker’s side, which was admittedly the point, but then at WrestleMania, after both putting on a great match, Triple H won the match cleanly. It would actually have been an incredible moment if Booker had won the match, rising up above the racism to prove his worth, like Jack Johnson became the boxing’s first black World Heavyweight Champion in 1908. Instead, the fact Triple H won after saying all those demeaning things makes the whole rivalry something you really want to forget about his legacy.
2 Virgil Shines Ted Dibiase Shoes
The whole character of Virgil was basically racist. He was billed as a sidekick or bodyguard, but he was clearly reminiscent of an indentured slave. With a stone-like face Virgil would not utter a word other than Yessir!”In one particularly hard-to-watch promo, Dibiase taunts Dusty and Dustin Rhodes ahead of their tag-team match at the 1991 Royal Rumble. DiBiase mocks Texans before throwing a cowboy on the floor and treading on it with his boot. He then orders Virgil to clean his shoes. Virgil gives a weary look to the camera before bending over to clean DiBiase’s shoes. Appropriating slaves culture is something the WWE would never get away with today, and it’s weird how nobody seems to see Virgil acting and talking like a slave as a big deal. The issue of slavery is as tense today as it ever has been with plans protests and debate nationwide over whether to remove statues of Confederate soldiers and generals.
It would be at the 1991 Royal Rumble that Virgil would finally turn on Dibiase, before defeating him at SummersSam to win the Million Dollar Belt. Virgil, real name Mike Jones, career floundered after he disassociated himself from Dibiase.
Perhaps bitter with the whole episode, it seems that Jones decided he was owed a little more for the humiliation he endured at the WWE. DiBiase, now a Minister, revealed last year that Jones was calling promoters asking if they wanted to book him and Ted. When he turned up at the arena alone he would tell the promoter that something came up and Ted couldn’t make it. Eventually DiBiase found out and confronted Jones asking him to stop. DiBiase was forgiving and perhaps contains some remorse for the humiliating things he made Jones do as his “sidekick.”
1 John Cena Accues Lana Of Performing Sexual Favors To Get Matches
While the role of women in professional wrestling has improved immeasurably since the Attitude Era, a recent promo involving John Cena shows that WWE still has a long way to go to eradicate chauvinism from its storylines.
Lana was the tenacious manager and spokesperson for Rusev, the “Bulgarian Brute.” Rusev lost in two consecutive pay-per-view matches to Cena in 2015, and demanded that Lana go to The Authority to demand a rematch, which Lana achieved.
Cena then took to the mic to accuse Lana of performing sexual favors to get Rusev matches, saying of Rusev, “Folks, the man keeps his pimp hand strong.” It was a poorly written, considering Cena is supposed to be the Face in this rivalry, and led to a Michael Cole interview where he asked Lana of her sexual history. It’s astonishing that the WWE writers still think this type of degrading humor is appropriate.