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.
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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.
Yes, he was quite popular and held several titles but it still seems more than off how WWE today continues to push Strongbow as one of the biggest Native American stars ever when the guy’s background was more akin to blue-collar than native actions.
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.
It was all meant to end as it did as in 1991, as Virgil finally broke free to attack DiBiase and become a face. Yes, seeing a black man treated as the help was a poor sight but it paid off eventually so it’s not as terrible as some of the others on this list although still poor in its own way.
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.
Yet another case of a promising guy ruined by a strange push and would sue WWE for contributing to a neck injury in a case far more interesting than Singh’s tenure was.
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.
They hung around for a bit to push Japanese stereotypes round before it was cut down to Taka and Funaki. The duo soon won fans over with their funny entrance as Taka would mouth words like a badly dubbed Godzilla movie as a voice echoed on the P.A. declaring the two were “eeeeeeeevilllllll!” He would hand the mic to Funaki who would mouth a long set of words before the PA boomed “Indeed!” While funny, you can see the lack of true care here and how offensive it came off as.
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.
His feud with Sgt. Slaughter pushed the clichés of “evil Arabs” to the forefront with spitting on the American flag and such. He would return as “Colonel Mustafa” in 1991 to help the now-heel Slaughter and to this day pushes himself as a hero to the Arab people. Of course, he’s also known for some amazingly insane rants online and while much of his stuff can be funny today, he had serious heat and a reminder of the hate for Iran in the ‘80s that could border on dangerous.
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.
Actually born in Hawaii, Fuji was the image many a young WWE fan had of the Japanese people and while he was great in the part, you can understand more than a few actual Japanese people not happy about the stereotypes he was pushing.
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.
They would undergo more changes and the additions of Salinas and Rosita who played up their image as “Latina knockouts” to the hilt. Between the poor characters and terrible stuff of promos threatening to “cut” opponents and such, LAX put a bad face on Latino wrestlers and proof TNA could be as tone-deaf as any other wrestling promotion.
13 Papa Shango
It was probably inevitable. The WWE of the late 1980s/early ‘90s was filled to the brim with some ridiculous cartoon characters so a witch doctor was just a matter of time. Charles Wright was the guy picked for the role, coming out with a painted face, a feathered hat, long coat and a staff topped by a skull spewing smoke. He would just stare out in “promos” and would “cast spells” that caused lights to flicker on and off. He got a big bit attacking Hulk Hogan at Wrestlemania VIII and then the infamous feud with the Ultimate Warrior where Shango caused the Warrior’s hair to bleed black and then vomit on camera. The feud would end with Warrior leaving the WWE and Shango soon lost amid the talent and dropped. Wright would eventually make a return, however, for a gimmick even crazier…
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.
It led to major popularity and won him the Intercontinental Championship but looking back, this thing was more than slightly insulting, seeing a cigar-smoking, fur-wearing, cane-wielding black man treating women as objects and while it was fun to ride “The Ho Train!” back then, it’s not as acceptable now.
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.
They interfered in matches and brawled with guys but made little real impact as the whole thing was too overdone to get fans on their side. It was dropped soon after Eddie Guerrero’s tragic death as having Mexicans in that bad a light wasn’t a good thing but an idea that probably should never have happened in the first place.
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.
The biggest of these was all the Mexican wrestlers put into a battle royal where the prize was to grab a piñata hanging from a pole. Yes, you read that right. Juventud Guerrera would win and soon be made an announcer simply so Russo could get cheap laughs of his broken English commentating on matches. A move that instantly rendered the division a bad joke, just the first of many Russo would pull on the company.
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.
It was a lot to take with Farooq finally firing just about everyone but D’Lo Brown, the two soon joined by Ahmed and Kama Mustafa, the group pushing themselves as black thugs taking on “the establishment.” It was pretty rough to take as the Nation would see a transformation by the addition of Rocky Maivia who would remake himself into The Rock and his superstardom. Before that could happen, however, the Nation was soon involved in an idea even worse….
8 The Gang Wars
In 1997, Farooq cleaned house by firing Crush and Savio Vega from the Nation. Crush soon recruited some guys into the Disciples of the Apocalypse, obviously based on a biker club to fight the Nation. Savio would soon counter by getting some other Puerto Rican resident wrestlers to form Los Boricuas. Thus, for several months, WWE was home to these three “gangs” going at it, battling each other and each playing into the biggest stereotypes imaginable. For Los Boricuas, that included dressing in loud clothes, smoking cigars and speaking in their native tongue while gambling backstage. While WWE was rising in that year creatively, this was the darker side of the “Attitude Era” that didn’t go over well at all with fans and not the team play you wanted to see.
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.
Interestingly, Harris has been coming to Hogan’s defense recently, citing a story of overhearing Hogan wanting to let Kamala win by countout in the WWE and Jay Strongbow snapping “he’s just a fat n----r with paint on his face.” Hogan simply told Harris he couldn’t do it, not mentioning the slur which Harris always appreciated. However, it’s amazing how a character with such a stunning stereotype managed to last so long, a testament to how well Harris handled the role.
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.
It all came to a head with Hassan attacking The Undertaker alongside a slew of masked men on a taping of SmackDown that aired the same day as the London terrorist bombings in 2005. Needless to say, the reaction from the public was not positive and so overwhelming that Hassan was dropped from the company immediately. A talented guy but undone by a horrible character that ended as poorly as you can imagine.
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.
His entrance music was a lion’s roar and cliché drums and his first appearance on television had Vince on commentary talking about his “debut” with Roddy Piper apparently going off script to say it was Atlas and Vince quickly covering by claiming Atlas had “discovered his roots” on a trip to Africa. It was so insulting, it got no heat at all, good or bad and Atlas would soon be gone from the company for a long time to put some distance between himself and this terrible character.
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.
That a 1990s company could even think of something like this was insane let alone putting it out there for a Southern-based fanbase. Thankfully, the segments never aired as the first time they tried it at a house show, the crowd erupted in loud booing. So the Heat were shifted to the more “streetwise” bad-asses we know today but amazing how the whole thing was nearly killed from the start thanks to such an idiotic idea.
A fun episode of the web show “Are You Serious” has Josh Matthews and Road Dogg watching the clip of Slick and Gene Okerlund in an alley and remarking “better check your watch because this segment is about to set racial relations back 30 years.” Boasting of a great new talent from “deepest, darkest Africa,” Slick brought out the One Man Gang, now known as Akeem. It was one thing for this guy long pushed as a biker type with tattoos and mohawk to have an “African” motif but wearing a yellow tribal vest and cap was too much. Add in the constant “dancing” and hand movements along with talking like a character from a blacksplotation movie and no wonder most prefer to forget this gimmick ever existed, let alone made it on the air.
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.
So New Jack, Mustafa Saed and D’Lo Brown were sent out to live up to those extremes with foul language, constant slams of whites and doing promos with fried chicken and watermelons as props. It got heat but it was the cheapest you can imagine and stunning how Cornette would go to such extremes to get some guys over fast. The team would leave in controversial fashion for ECW where they just took it to a new level, especially New Jack and embracing the “thug lifestyle” as all too real.
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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