The timing of the new League of Nations faction in the WWE makes sense. With terror overseas and at home coupled with anti-immigrant fever boiling hot as shown in the rising poll numbers of WWE Hall of Famer Donald Trump (yes, for real), it is safe to say that Americans feel unsafe. Scared, angry, and looking for a scapegoat: enter the immigrant. One man’s xenophobia is another man’s box office attraction, albeit with a catch in the modern and global WWE. As Dave Meltzer, editor of the Wrestling Observer, noted, “one of the problems with the foreign menace thing is that you really don't want a Middle Eastern foreign menace when you're running shows in the Middle East,” So while the League of Nations might be a short term heel solution, there’s a long time history of bad guys from outside the U.S. borders.
As professional wrestling offers people a cathartic release for that anger, the “foreign menace” character gives fans somebody on their screen to hate. Even in the early days when pro wrestling was pitched as sports there were still foreign menaces such as “The Terrible Turk” Ali Baba. Part of the appeal of the epic Frank Gotch v George Hackenschmidt matches no doubt spun off the America vs Europe angle. After World War II and the explosion of wrestling on TV, came the onslaughts of foreign menaces, namely past enemies The German Hans Schmidt (really a Canadian) and the Japanese Mr. Moto (a Hawaiian). And lots and lots of Russians.
The book The Heels by Greg Oliver and Steven Johnson lists the top twenty heel wrestlers. That select group consists of six foreign menaces: The Sheik (#3), Mad Dog Vachon (#4), Killer Kowalski (#9), Abdullah the Butcher (#12), Boris Malenko (#15) and Hans Schmidt (#16). Roddy Piper lands at #20 but the foreign menace never was his main heel sthtick. There’s a whole chapter labeled “The Foreigners” filled with three heels who really should have made that top twenty: Ivan Koloff, Fritz Von Erich, and Baron Von Raschke. A staple of the old WWWF promotion pitted “good” immigrant Bruno Sammartino against “foreign menace.” Bruno drew huge gates against the likes of Waldo Von Erich, Toru Tanaka, Spiros Arion, Hans Mortier, and Gorilla Monsoon (then from Mongolia not New Jersey). So what makes a good foreign menace? It is not enough to be "foreign" but to be actively Anti-American. Edge, Chris Jericho, and even Christian never had that as a major part of their heel heat most of the time. That’s the key: does the “foreign-ness” draw heat and maybe with that, ratings / box office.
Of the heels listed by Oliver and Johnson, only two worked in the “modern” WWE era (The Iron Sheik and Nikolai Volkoff) so who are the other top heels in WWE history?
14 The Great Khali
Khali doesn’t belong on any list with the word “greatest” involved unless linked with the word “disappointment.” That’s why he’s listed, to represent all the foreign menaces who also looked like frightening monsters: Vladimir Kozlov, Ludwig Borge, and Kurrgan. All of these guys were huge, couldn’t speak English, and despite some athletic backgrounds, couldn’t get out of their own way in the ring. Yet, Andre the Giant suffered from the same deficits, but overcame them with hard work, learning his craft, and smart booking. Khali debuted in April and lost his first main event by August, a six month run. He’d be near the top of the cards for the next year, but without a dime of box office because even at seven foot one he was no menace or monster.
13 Fit Finlay
After working hard in WCW getting over his “Belfast Bruiser character” Finlay came to WWE as a trainer after WCW folded. He earned rave reviews working with the women’s division before they became divas. Once pushed into the ring, Finlay’s gimmick was steeped in Irish symbols. He carried his trusty shillelagh to the ring and had his own leprechaun in Hornswoggle. While never a main event player or raving mad foreign menace, he did enough to qualify. He won the US Title, headlined in ECW, put on solid matches, and had true serious heel heat. A far darker menace that the pale imitation Sheamus, but then again, Finlay didn’t work out with the boss, he just worked.
12 Jacques Rougeau
While the son of one of great babyfaces in Montreal wrestling history, Jacques Rougeau was born to be a heel. Coming in with his brother Raymond as a face team, their turn to heels was hilarious. From their sarcastic waving of tiny American flags to singing along in French to their theme song of “All American Boys” the once loved Rougeaus soon became hated. After Raymond retired, Jacque took time off before returning as The Mountie, a great mid-card heel. After that run ended, he came back in another anti-American tag team The Quebecers. While hated in the US, Jacques was so over in Canada that his (first) retirement match against his former Quebecer tag time partner Pierre drew a sell-out crowd to the Montreal Forum. One wonders if that heel away / face at home dynamic fueled Bret Hart’s success a few years later.
Although his run in the WWE didn’t last long (1994-1996) Kensuke Shinzaki’s scary heavily tattooed Japanese “white angel” character fit the foreign menace mold. Never doing interviews, looking dangerous and feuding with then babyface Bret Hart during the summer of 1995 put him on top of the card and the heat meter. Like the Great Muta in WCW in 1989, his wrestling moves, filled with martial arts strikes and high flying, Hakushi almost always had great matches. He represented a real departure from the slow moving salt throwers like Mr. Fuji from previous generations. Yet, after his run with Hart and jobbing to mid-card babyfaces, Hakushi turned good guy but soon said “good bye” all too soon.
10 Antonio Cesaro
The internet’s best boy suffers as a heel the same thing that tripped up Muta and Hakushi: he’s too good of a wrestler / worker. His moves look so cool, he’s so smooth, and his near-fall drama elicit “this is awesome” chants rather than “USA USA” or “Switzerland sucks!” Maybe that’s the brass ring Vince wants him to grab: emrbace the foreign menace heel. He’s a face now, but like Big Show and Cody Rhodes, he’s been flipped so many times that another heel turn might not make a difference. The Swiss Superman rolls, but doesn’t rock his role as a foreign menace.
10. Steven Regal
On the other hand there is Lord Steven Regal, who as a heel inspired hate. His gimmick wasn’t so much embracing Anti-Americanism but showing / telling US fans how England was a superior country. He was a natural fit in various “league of nations” groups in both WCW and WWE. Regal could turn up his nose, tip his tea cup, and clamp down a hold better than most anyone. With his precise interviews, rarely raising his voice, Regal was a king at speaking the Queen’s English. From showing disgust as the first member of the Vince McMahon Kiss My Club to serving as the Town Crier for King Booker’s Court, even Regal’s face worked stiff.
9 T8. Lance Storm
One of Regal’s stablemates in the 2002 UnAmericans faction, Storm’s best “foreign menace” work occurred in WCW. Entering with a huge push in summer 2000, Storm captured the US Heavyweight, Cruiserweight, and Hardcore titles. He then promptly renamed them the Canadian Heavyweight Championship, 100 kg and Under Championship, and Saskatchewan Hardcore International Title. He’d lose all the titles since title changed more frequently in WCW than a...well, you know the joke. Storm formed Team Canada but like most everything else in WCW, it was too little too late. Hopefully Storm teaches the fine art of foreign menacing at his wrestling school along with headlocks and dropkicks.
8 T8. Eddie Guerrero
Eddie was so loved that it’s difficult to recall his “foreign menace” days in WWE. The Latino World Order, one of 54 NWO spinoffs, was his first bite at the overseas apple, but his car wreck cut his part in the angle short. By the time he returned 1999, he formed another group (Filthy Animals) with fellow Mexican wrestlers, it wasn’t the same. Once in the WWE, like Regal, it wasn’t so much Anti-American as in your face about his Mexican heritage. With his nephew Chavo, he formed the Los Guerreros team. Using "We lie, we cheat, we steal” motto coupled with their characters displaying every (negative) Hispanic stereotype, they were on fire as heels. But like others on this list, Eddie was too good to be hated for acting bad.
The wild savage character from the South Sea islands wasn’t new. A family line of Samoans with a few wrestlers from the Fiji islands almost always got over in the modern WWE. Except, of course, American Samoa is part of the US and the chant “Continental 48” or “USA but no territories” never slipped easily from fans’ lips. Jimmy Snuka played a great heel but only for a short time, so Haku best represents the Pacific Islander “foreign menace.” Starting as a babyface, that didn’t last long as Haku, also known as Meng (real name Tonga 'Uli'uli Fifita) reeks of heel-dom. He looked scary, rarely spoke English, and wrestled / acted like a savage beast. Even though he jobbed most of his career, many fans knew of his out of ring tough guy exploits that he kept his bad ass aura long after it should have washed away.
6 Nikolai Volkoff
If coming to ring decked out in full U.S.S.R didn’t draw enough heat, there was also “singing” the Russian national anthem. Ranting on interviews in broken English about the weaknesses of America, Nikolai’s character hit all the evil empire archetypes notes. That is until the bell rang, and then things broke down. Older by the time the WWE went national, Volkoff’s main event days were far behind him, even if he would get thrust into them because that’s where big bad Russians belong. His tag-team with The Iron Sheik (he’s here too) no doubt one of the better dual diabolical pairing, while his team with Boris Zhukov, but less so. A B+ player from the U.S.S.R.
The pro-typical foreign menace with two main event runs, first again Hogan then later against Undertaker. Kamala earlier killed elsewhere by taking the Abdullah the Butcher character (who ripped his shtick off mostly from The Sheik) and adding in lots of negative African stereotypes. A character so stereotypical probably wouldn’t (and shouldn’t) get over today, but at one time, Kamala headlined major cards. He had a manager AND a handler, that’s how menacing the one time James Harris was a heel.
Rusev builds from all the Russians before him, so it’s good he’s good that he has a huge back. Unlike most of those Russians, Rusev can work. While the WWE botched him big time losing to Cena and Lana hasn’t helped his career, Rusev’s the classic foreign menace character. Already over as the Bulgarian Brute, suddenly he became Russian when tensions between US and Russia spiked in summer 2014. The hero of the Russian Federation waved the Russian flag, and went one better, unrolling a huge flag hanging from the rafters after big wins. It’s hard to imagine his as a face – few of these guys ever got over again as a face once going full foreign menace – so the WWE will need to play his heel card with care and patience. Will they? Nyet!
3 The Iron Sheik
This guy was on fire as the WWE expanded, feuding with Slaughter, Backlund, and then Hogan. Like his partner Volkoff, the best part of Sheik’s act happened before the bell rang. He was fair inside the ring with his loaded boot and camel clutch drewing heat. He often sent his foes to the Iranian version of suplex city. His regrettable run in WCW and WWE return as Colonel Mustafa in 1991 remain best forgotten. Most fans now know The Iron Sheik not as a prototype foreign menace but for his wild tweets, deranged public appearances, and outrageous shoot interviews. His command of the English language remains limited, but that’s okay, since most of the words he uses are only four letters. Sheik is not number one, but he’s close.
After mainly pushing jacked up heels as his main eventers, Vince McMahon needed to go in another direction in the early 1990s as WWE began steroid testing. No longer able to use talent with big muscles, Vince decided to he liked bit butts, he could not lie. Enter through extra-wide doors one Rodney Anoaʻi of the American Samoa wrestling clan. Putting the “squash” in squash matches, Yoko plowed through everybody with no one even able to take him off his feet. He treated Randy Savage like a rag doll at the 1993 Royal Rumble. He’d win the title from Bret Hart at WMIX, lose it seconds later to Hogan (don’t ask so I don’t need to tell), but win it back again. A great heel run against the Undertaker served as the highlight of his career, as did his 1995 tag team with Owen Hart. Unable to control his weight, the WWE wouldn’t book him and he hit the indy scene. Like many WWE stars, Yoko died young. A death related to the biz as the size that made him star lead to his downfall, then death
1 Bret Hart
What Bret Hart lacked in size, he made up for in a big mouth during his memorable 1997 heel run leading the New Hart Foundation. With almost shoot like interviews ripping on Americans Hart, once the most popular wrestler turned the US crowd against him, in particular those in in the Steel City. That’s where he famously said, “If you were going to give the United States of America an enema, you’d stick the hose right here in Pittsburgh.” But as hated as Bret was in the US, he was loved in Canada in one of the stranger (and more successful) angles in history. Greet heel in ring work coupled with a monster mouth made Bret Hart, if only for six months, the best foreign menace there was, and maybe ever will be.