It’s not pretty but it has to be said: Racism exists. We don’t like to admit it but it does. Maybe it’s not as terrible as it was decades ago with blacks banned from public events and voting but all you have to do is click on the news and you’ll see slews of stuff that proves it’s still around. From the controversy regarding the Confederate Flag to issues with police officers, it’s clear we still have a long ways to go before we can truly say racism is no longer a huge problem in human society. It’s only become more notable with the news breaking of Hulk Hogan going on racist and homophobic tirades that’s gotten him fired from WWE and brought up more of the issues in wrestling itself.
Fans have loved to mock WWE and Vince McMahon for giving us some truly idiotic gimmicks regarding race and it’s easy to see why. But to be fair to Vince, this sort of thing has existed since the business began. Wrestling has always gone for stereotypes (see the slews of “evil Russians” that filled the ranks long before Vince came along) and thus it’s sadly natural it would go to race as an easy way to get some heat. It’s not fair perhaps but that’s how it is and while WWE leads the way in dumb stuff, WCW and other organizations could offer their fair share of ideas that made you just shake your head. Here are 20 characters or gimmicks that set racial relations way back and were way too wild even by wrestling standards. Note this is on racial/national stuff as gimmicks using homosexuality and other sensitive issues would be its own list. Just watch and marvel how any of this was conceived as a good idea.
20 Chief Jay Strongbow
A lot of Native American wrestlers have had to handle Indian clichés and stereotypes over the years from coming out in headdresses to war paint to doing “war dances” in the ring. But at least the vast majority of them can claim to be actual Native Americans. Such was not the case with Luke Joseph Scarpa, an Italian born in Philadelphia without an ounce of Native blood in him. But that didn’t stop him from slapping on a headdress and going around as this “Indian hero” for the Northeastern crowds of WWE at the time.
Folks overlook that this was meant to be rather uncomfortable. Ted DiBiase was pushed hard when he entered WWE in 1987 as “The Million Dollar Man” with his mantra of “everyone has a price!” So it made sense that he would have his own servant with Mike Jones as the beefy bodyguard/butler in a sequined suit following DiBiase around. It really did work with Virgil taking lumps for his boss and interfering to help him win but never appreciated for it, constantly put down and his never talking made him more imposing.
18 Tiger Ali Singh
Singh made a big splash in WWE with a large signing conference in 1997 and seemed ready to make an impact. But it never quite worked as his character was “the Punjabi Playboy” who acted like a rich foreigner who’d pay these “stupid Americans” to compete in embarrassing stunts for his own amusement. It was badly done and short lived as he followed it up by becoming manager to D’Lo Brown and Chaz who would come down to the ring in turbans and robes as Ali Singh turned into the cliché “evil foreign manager” to lead them to bad matches and forgettable angles.
17 Kai En Tai
It all began in 1998 as Val Venis began a feud with a stable consisting of Sasuke, Hamada and Gran Naniwa with Funaki soon added. This led to the now famous moment of manager Yamaguchi-San wielding a samurai sword over a cucumber and yelling “I choppy-choppy your pee-pee!” Taka Michinoku suddenly turned on Venis with the idea that Val was sleeping with Taka’s sister, Yamaguchi-San's wife, and it appeared the group did indeed chop off Val’s manhood but it was revealed he escaped.
16 The Iron Sheik
The thing to remember about the Sheik is that it’s pretty obvious the man is absolutely nuts. He’d already been setting up his act as an “evil Persian” when he began in the 1970s but when the Iranian Revolution occurred in 1979, he went whole hog into it. Curly toed boots, wearing turbans and robes, doing feats of strength with clubs, he played it all to the hilt and didn’t mind ranting on the evils of America and such to get heat. It would lead him to win the WWE title but only hold a month before losing it to Hulk Hogan to kick off Hulkamania.
15 Mr. Fuji
To his credit, the Devious One took the idea of the “evil Japanese mastermind” and played it to the hilt. It began in his wrestling days as he would use salt as a weapon and wrestling barefoot, talking in broken English constantly and sinister in his attacks. As a manager, he dressed in a tuxedo and bowler hat with a cane, still using salt and laughing in his broken tongue at fans. When he managed Demolition, he took to wearing face paint on top of all else, giving him an odder appearance as he switched to the Powers of Pain. He played into the stereotype more when he took to managing Yokozuna, coming out in a kimono and carrying the Japanese flag constantly.
With LAX, TNA showed they could do a terribly racist team as badly as WWE could. The Latin American Exchange was formed by Konan, Apolo and Homicide, the latter wrestling and Konan managing them as they would go on brutal attacks and make entrances with Mexican flags flying and doing promos in only Spanish. Apolo left TNA and was replaced by Machete. They would soon be on things like claiming to be “illegal” and creating a “border zone” inside the arena. After winning the tag titles, they would do a brutal attack that involved threatening to burn the American flag and were ordered to give up the belts. They refused on the idea of First Amendment rights and the angle was so unpopular that TNA dropped it as it threatened to turn LAX face.
13 Papa Shango
12 The Godfather
Returning to WWE in 1995, Wright first came out as “street fighter” Kama, then shifted to join the Nation of Domination. As their popularity grew, he took on the name of the Godfather with a cigar in his lips and talking badly about women. Soon, he would be surrounded by local strippers as his “hos” and embark on his singles run, offering his opponents the chance to have fun with his girls rather than wrestle a match.
11 The Mexi-Cools
It may have sounded good on paper. Juventud Guerrera, Supercool and Psicosis working together to break out from the WWE Cruiserweights and fight against the stereotypes whites had about their culture. Sadly, WWE decided to have them live up to every single one of those stereotypes such as driving to the ring on lawn mowers and their promos talking about how “the Mexicans will have the gringos working for them” which was hardly the way to win fans over.
10 Piñata on a Pole
A major warning sign about Vince Russo’s WCW tenure should have been an interview he did talking about how “I don’t want to sound racist but I’m an American guy, I’m not going to give a s—t” about a Mexican or Japanese guy.” That attitude played into his tenure right off as the cruiserweights, who had elevated “Nitro” broadcasts nicely over the years, were soon pushed into incredibly dumb stuff.
9 The Nation of Domination
From the start, Ron Simmons’ run in WWE was marred as Farooq was set up as a gladiator in a dumb outfit. After an injury, he remade himself to lead a group obviously based on the Nation of Islam, several beefy black men in suits, Farooq himself in leather coat and pants with a cap as they did promos with fists raised in a “black power” sign. They would add Crush, Savio Vega, shyster lawyer Clarence Mason and rappers PG-13 as they feuded with Ahmed Johnson and the Legion of Doom.
8 The Gang Wars
Jim Harris is forever linked to one of the most amazing characters in all of wrestling. Billed as a savage barely able to think, let alone speak, he came out with a bald head, painted face and crescents and suns painted on his chest and large stomach, which he would regularly slap during a mask. He also had Kimchee, a masked “handler” and usually a manager that treated him like an animal instead of a man. World Class, Memphis, Mid-South, WWE, WCW, Kamala was there for it all, playing up his foolish character in battles with other big men, his talent overwhelmed by this insulting appearance.
6 Muhammad Hassan
Again, to cut WWE some slack, the idea of the “evil Arab” had been a staple in wrestling for years (see General Skandor Akbar in World Class) so it’s not like Hassan was something new. But, of course, WWE had to take it too far as Hassan would actually praise Allah at the start of early matches and the clever concept of an Arab trying to rise above the prejudice of the post-9/11 public was undone as Hassan just played into every stereotype you could imagine, constantly speaking of Arab superiority and being held back by haters. His manager Davari would add things by “translating” every one of his promos into Persian as their antics included attacking Eugene at WrestleMania 21 and being beaten by Hulk Hogan.
5 Saba Simba
Tony Atlas was a major star for WWE in the late ‘70s and early ‘90s, a powerhouse who connected well with fans and he and Rocky Johnson becoming the first black tag team champions for a long run that was quite popular. So when he made his return to the company in 1990, you would think they’d do a nice bit for him but word was Vince was still upset about Atlas having to leave over a drug problem years before. So whether it was punishment or just idiocy, WWE gave him the horrible gimmick of Saba Simba, coming out in African tribal gear with shield, spear and massive headdress.
4 Harlem Heat (Original Gimmick)
There’s no denying that Harlem Heat was one of the best tag teams WCW had ever seen in the ‘90s, constantly holding the titles and Booker T would be breaking out soon as a huge singles star. It’s more impressive when you realize the horrible original idea for them: the two set to be convicts, coming to the ring in chains and orange jumpsuits, led by their manager “Colonel” Robert Parker who dressed and talked like a 19th century Southern plantation owner.
2 The Gangstas
Jim Cornette is a pretty old-school type of guy. While that can work out well in many regards, it also means Cornette can be a little behind the times in terms of how a modern audience might react to some of his ideas. When he was running Smokey Mountain Wrestling in Tennessee in the early ‘90s, Cornette deliberately created the Gangstas to be every single cliché of black urban life imaginable, knowing that such a thing would rile up a Southern crowd.
1 Roddy Piper Goes Half-Black
This is one you really can’t blame on Vince McMahon. Piper has always been known for playing by his own set of rules but this was pushing it even for him. For his WrestleMania VI battle against Bad News Brown, Piper had talked of painting half his face black as a way to rile Brown up and did promos for it. But for the actual match, he went the next step by painting half his entire body black with the idea of his “black half” doing some wild “soul dancing” for the crowd.
On his DVD, a lot of guys talk of how they thought Roddy was just talking about it and no idea he’d actually do it until the day of the show. Piper himself just brushes it off as part of the show but others saw it as him taking things way too far especially for the more family-friendly WWE of the time. As it turned out, Piper was taught a lesson as Andre the Giant switched the wash-off paint he had planned to use with a more permanent base so Piper had to fly back with half his body still painted. A moment that just came off so terribly bad by anyone’s standards and one of Roddy’s biggest mistakes.
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