Fast, loud, violent, and at times intentionally garish, professional wrestling can’t be blamed for lacking in subtlety at times. Wrestlers need to come up with reasons to hate one another and make fans like them, and sometimes using a transparent and simply gimmick can achieve that quality without a single word said or match wrestled, making the person using it a star upon arrival. This is fine if that superficial gimmick implies the wrestler has a unique job or backstory, but far too often, WWE and other major wrestling companies have gone a different route with the concept. The result has gimmicks and characters some fans have called offensive, if not outright racist.
The worst part about racially insulting wrestling gimmicks is that WWE tends to be completely oblivious when they create them. The performers themselves haven’t always loved what they were asked to do, but Vince McMahon and especially his announce team are often guilty of digging in to their worst impulses when building and describing their characters. Of course, quite a few of these wrestlers are equally if not more so complicit in how offensively their work comes off, as well—the most disrespectful gimmicks of all are probably the ones where the performer knew how terrible their behavior was and kept at it for that reason. Keep reading to learn about the 15 most racially insensitive gimmicks in sports entertainment history.
15 JBL Hates Immigrants
The transformation from Bradshaw, tough Texan midcarder, to John Bradshaw Layfield, main event WWE Champion, happened so fast that some fans at the time had trouble buying his entire run with the gold. That said, there’s no denying JBL was born to play the role, and it reinvigorated his career to the extent he still has a huge role in the company today. While there’s nothing wrong with his excessive wealth or egomania, JBL’s character has also portrayed an inexplicable and overwhelming hatred for immigrants, especially Mexicans, started practically from the moment he switched his gimmick. It started during his feud against Eddie Guerrero, eventually growing to him hating absolutely anyone wearing a mask, even now that he’s on the announce booth. The most racist moment of his gimmick still came pretty near the start, when he taped a vignette from the Mexican border showing him literally kick a family of would-be immigrants out of the country.
14 The Mexicools
There’s nothing wrong with putting a group of foreign wrestlers together in a likeminded group that celebrates their nationality, especially if they also have similar styles. Unfortunately, there’s a whole lot wrong when instead of celebrating their culture, the wrestlers represent all the worst and most offensive stereotypes of said culture, as was the implicit purpose of the Mexicools. Juventud Guerrera, Super Crazy, and Psicosis were all very talented cruiserweight luchadors, proving such in WCW and ECW. Having them ride to the ring on lawnmowers while wearing janitor outfits destroyed all of their potential immediately upon their WWE debut, making them insultingly disrespectful jokes rather than uniquely talented athletes who all happened to be from Mexico. Unsurprisingly, none of them could rekindle the success they found in their former places of employment, and were all fired within two or three years.
13 Chief Jay Strongbow
The proud Native American has been a mainstay in pro wrestling for many decades, and whether or not they come off as offensive comes down to one crucial issue. In many cases, actual Native Americans representing their real life tribes played quite a few of these characters. Men like Wahoo McDaniel, Tatanka, and even Chief Jay Strongbow’s “brother” Jules Strongbow all fit this mold, and most people accept their attempts as genuine tributes to their culture . However, not everyone playing a Native American character is actually Native American, with Chief Jay Strongbow the most famous instance of this trend. Strongbow’s second partner, Billy White Wolfe, is another such example. The problem is, fake Native Americans tend not to understand the customs and cultures they’re pretending to portray, and their attempts at doing so tended to be more mocking than respectful. WWE still considers Strongbow a legend due to his great popularity during his era, but it’s questionable if he would’ve been able to lie about his heritage the same way he did back then in the modern era.
12 Muhammad Hassan
Wrestling is similar to all other forms of popular entertainment in that timing can be everything with how a given gimmick gets over. The original idea behind Muhammad Hassan was an Arabic wrestler upset that Americans had become increasingly racist towards his culture in the wake of 9/11. What soon happened was the audience hated him so much they didn’t even bother listening to him, presumably because they were racist towards his culture, thanks to 9/11. Vindicating the response may have been, it forced Hassan to turn into a more blatant stereotype, which became an even bigger issue when you realize he wasn’t really Arabic. Offensive as it may have been, Hassan received such incredible crowd responses he found himself working with Hulk Hogan and The Undertaker within months of his debut, until real life intervened by shining a spotlight on how offensive the idea was. The same day of the 2005 London bombings, Hassan and a group of men dressed like terrorists attacked Undertaker on SmackDown and “martyred” Hassan’s lackey, Daivari. The reaction was so harsh Hassan had to be written off television soon after, and was fired entirely not long after that.
Gimmicks like Virgil test the waters of racial sensitivity, because had a white wrestler played the character, no one would have questioned it. He was the manservant/bodyguard to “The Million Dollar Man” Ted DiBiase, who probably would have a manservant/bodyguard. Unfortunately, DiBiase’s debut vignette included him claiming he “owned” Virgil, which combined with his race made it feel like Virgil was his slave. It doesn’t help that the performer, Mike Jones, has claimed that racism in wrestling is “totally fine,” presumably on the mentality it makes the crowd respond, which to some is the only thing that matters. Certain crowd responses aren’t quite worth it, though, like the one that happens when you have a black man follow around a rich man and say “yes suh” to everything he says, which Virgil did for DiBiase more than a couple times. Luckily, the slavish aspects of the gimmick slowly faded away and he became more of a normal bodyguard once the vignettes ended, albeit not enough that the gimmick wasn’t still perceived as heavily insulting to many who saw it.
10 Cryme Tyme
Introducing new wrestlers with vignettes used to be all the rage, and while WWE still busts it out on rare occasions, the trend isn’t anywhere near as popular as it once was. Part of the problem is how severely WWE jumped the shark when they tried to revive the idea in the mid 2000s, using pre-debut videos to hype the arrival of Shad Gaspard and JTG, collectively known as Cryme Tyme. Their name alone suggested the pair of athletic black athletes weren’t going to be known for anything that happened in the ring, and the videos confirmed everyone’s worst suspicions by showing them gleefully commit a series of robberies. Well after their debut, they continued appearing primarily in videos, visiting locations like comedy clubs and nursing homes in universally panned segments, with the bad racial humor the least of their problems.
9 The Original Von Erich Family
In modern times, most wrestling fans remember the Von Erich Family as All-American boys who befell a seemingly nonstop barrage of personal family tragedies. That’s an accurate enough way to describe Kerry, Kevin, Chris, Mike, and David, but the patriarch Fritz and his kayfabe brother Waldo had an entirely different gimmick – they were Nazis. Evil foreigner gimmicks have existed forever, and the Von Erichs weren’t even the first evil Germans, predated by Hans Schmidt. Schmidt never goose-stepped, wore Iron Crosses, or did the Hitler salute, though, and the Von Erichs did all three, as late as 1975. They devised the gimmick along with Stu Hart in the late 1950s, making them the most hated heels in Canada and soon wherever they went in the US. The strangest part of the Von Erichs time waving the Nazi flag is how it ended, with Fritz basically just admitting he wasn’t really German but in fact loved America, and with everyone just grateful the ordeal was over, Fritz soon became a giant babyface.
8 Mr. Yamaguchi-san
Similar to the Mexicools, on the surface, there was nothing wrong with WWE putting a bunch of new Japanese wrestlers together in a group. The members of Kai En Tai were all uniquely talented and charismatic, if a little small for the average wrestler in Vince McMahon’s company at the time, so banding together gave them a chance against their biggest opponents. That said, their manager, Mr. Yamaguchi-san, was an incredibly racist caricature of Japanese men, emboldened by how normal Jim Ross and Jerry Lawler treated his most bizarre behavior as being in his culture. His lowest point was publicly “shaming” his wife, Mrs. Yamaguchi-san, for appearing in an adult video with Val Venis. He threatened to spank her with a paddle as punishment, and with a straight face, JR acted like this was totally commonplace in Japan when husbands felt their wives disrespected them. While Yamaguchi-san’s more famous moment is probably “choppy choppy”’ing Venis’s “pee pee” over the same incident, that one fell a bit more into the preposterous category than anything racist.
7 Triple H Doesn’t Think People Like Booker T Can Be Champion
Phrases like “you/those people” and/or “that/your kind of people” can be innocuous in certain rare contexts, but the fact of the matter is they typically only get used in extremely racist conversation. Case in point, the unforgettable feud between Triple H and Booker T that culminated at WrestleMania XIX. There were problems with the feud from top to bottom, almost entirely based on Triple H’s notorious ego, but the worst aspect was definitely the racist undertones created by Triple H and especially Jerry Lawler’s horrendous commentary. During one particularly offensive promo, Triple H told Booker that “people like him” could never be champion, leading Lawler to constantly and repeatedly overuse the terminology throughout their match. It would be one thing if the proud minority wrestler overcame the evil privileged racist at WrestleMania, but instead, Triple H very definitively defeated Booker and never received any comeuppance.
6 Akeem The African Dream
Combining two of the lowest qualities shared amongst other several gimmicks on this list, Akeem was an outrageously offensive stereotype, who in turn wasn’t from the culture he was supposed to represent. Granted, that was the joke, at least to Vince McMahon. And let’s be fair, plenty of comedy has been gleaned over time from white people trying to act black. However, in the cases it was actually funny, some sort of awareness is required from all involved parties, and the WWE Universe showed almost none. The former One Man Gang donned a dashiki and started shucking and jiving while pretending that meant he was African, and while it did get fans to boo, the commentary presented it as booing at a villain, not booing at a racist jerk. Even if it was the latter, racist jerks shouldn’t be main event gimmicks, as this list should make clear.
5 Papa Shango
Sometimes there’s a fine line between racist and just plain stupid, and Papa Shango was right on that line, making it a little bit of both. Painting a skull on his face, often accompanied by mysterious smoke, and carrying a big stick (though certainly not speaking softly), Shango was some sort of Voodoo priest, albeit one without any understanding whatsoever about actual Voodoo culture. Until recently, there were never many black wrestlers in WWE to begin with, and to give the highest profile African American at the time this sort of character painted a negative, inaccurate, and often straight up bizarre picture of an entire race of people. Ultimately, however, the racial undertones were the last thing Shango had to worry about, as fans thinking his spells were more stupid than scary killed him off too fast for anyone to seriously complain about the race thing.
4 Kamala The Ugandan Giant
Monster heels have existed since pro wrestling was invented, plenty of them going far more literal with the monster aspect than Kamala. We’re talking about grunting, acting bizarre, weird face paint, implied cannibalism…it all happened in sports entertainment well before Jerry Lawler told James Harris to call himself the Ugandan Giant. The difference is that a monster of unknown origin can’t be offensive, while a monster with a constantly repeated exact place of birth makes everyone from that place seem like a monster as well. In an unexpected turn of events, Kamala managed to get even more offensive when WWE decided to start stripping away his “barbaric” antics and allow him to be “humanized” by Reverend Slick. More racist than anything to happen in the ring, Kamala also claims his payouts during his time working for Vince McMahon were shockingly low, although this has been disputed by wrestling insiders who think he may have been exaggerating.
3 The Wild Samoans
So legendary they still apparently have some influence over WWE booking to this day, The Wild Samoans are the patriarchs of the Anoa’i dynasty. Afa is the father of Samu and LA Smooth, Sika is the father of Rosey and Roman Reigns, and they’re collectively the uncles of Rikishi, Umaga, and The Tonga Kid, plus distant relatives of The Rock and Jimmy Snuka. Many of these family members used gimmicks similar to the Samoans’, acting like uncultured “savages” who couldn’t speak, ate raw food, and had no concept of personal hygiene. Their place of origin was the focal point of the gimmick, giving the impression everyone from the Isle of Samoa was the same way. Given the timeframe, these negative connotations in no way stopped the Samoans from building an incredible legacy of in-ring success, winning three WWE Tag Team Championships amongst dozens of regional titles. That said, it wasn’t anywhere near enough to make up how reductive and offensive their actions were, nor does it make it okay for WWE to keep reviving the gimmick.
2 Saba Simba
One of the most patently offensive gimmicks on this list, the worst element of the Saba Simba gimmick is that there was absolutely nothing wrong with plain old Tony Atlas when he returned to the WWE Universe using the moniker. Atlas had considerable fame as a former WWE Tag Team Champion in Soul Patrol with Rocky Johnson, plus success on the territorial scene as a top babyface with the nickname “Black Superman.” Destroying any good will to his race built up with that first nom de guerre, Saba Simba saw Atlas wear a gigantic feathery headdress and dance around the ring. While it might have been one thing if treated with some level of respect, commentators of the era such as “Rowdy” Roddy Piper laughed at him and said he looked stupid, turning Atlas and the character into a complete joke. For what it’s worth, Atlas himself had no reservations about doing it, crediting Vince McMahon for saving him from homelessness by giving him the job.
1 Kerwin White
Los Guerreros are at times considered one of the most respected names in professional wrestling history. A closer look at the details reveals that might just apply to patriarch Gory and most successful sons Eddie and Chavo, and certainly not the youngest male grappler in the family, Chavo, Jr. Throughout his career, Chavo’s been saddled with a number of questionable comedic gimmicks, although the only one to be outright racist was the one given to him by WWE, Kerwin White. Unlike most gimmicks on this list, the idea was Chavo admitted his true heritage as culturally Mexican, he wanted to be a stereotypical rich white guy, riding around in a golf cart with his caddy (pre-fame Dolph Ziggler). During this time, Kerwin was infamous for having the most offensive catchphrase in wrestling history, “If it’s not White, it’s not right.” Luckily, the gimmick didn’t last long, albeit for the worst reason: after Eddie’s tragic death, Chavo wanted to revert to his real name.
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