Top-Down Smackdown: Putin Your Eggs in One Basket

By Luke Y. Thompson in TV
Monday, July 21, 2014 at 5:01 pm

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I found myself wondering the other day if The Iron Sheik could make it if he started in the wrestling business today.

Wait, wait, wait. Before anybody tries to break my back or fuck my ass en route to making me humble, hear me out. Khosrow Vaziri has the natural charisma and athletic ability to make it in any era of sports-entertainment; hell, he's built an entire post-ring career based on the fact that he writes "Go fuck yourself" multiple times a day on Twitter. It's the gimmick of Iron Sheik that might be troublesome. Wrestling in the '80s relied on what we could call the Rocky IV effect, and our current culture of insta-offense may kill that dead.




Wrestling, by its very nature, relies on broad stereotypes. Although hardcore fans watch for the storylines, the idea is that anybody coming to a wrestling show, whatever their previous knowledge, should be able to instantly tell what kind of characters are in the ring in front of them. A guy in a red jacket singing the Soviet national anthem is an evil Russian, for example. A guy dressed in an amateur wrestling singlet is probably a squeaky-clean babyface. A guy in a black robe with fangs is probably demonic. Et cetera.

The Rocky IV effect is a bit like a metaphorical version of The Purge. You take complex geo-politics (i.e. Russia is doing bad things but we can't directly confront them without it becoming a suicide pact of a war, or Iran has hostages and we can't break them out with simple force) and turn it into a cathartic one-on-one fight, in which the American good guy beats our foreign foe with sheer strength and righteousness. This is easier done when our geopolitical foes are fellow Caucasians - if they're any other race, it runs the risk of turning racist.

But there's a fine line between catharsis and perceived exploitation. WWE found this out at the end of in the early '90s, when the U.S. appeared to be on the road to its first war since Vietnam, as Iraq invaded Kuwait. To give them some credit, they tried to take the racism sting out of their anti-Iraq angle by having South Carolina's own Sergeant Slaughter declare himself an Iraqi sympathizer loyal to Saddam Hussein. They expected to fill the LA Coliseum for a WrestleMania in which all-American Hulk Hogan would inevitably defeat him...and then they didn't come close, and had to move it to the sports arena. The public felt that the company was exploiting Americans in danger, and turned against the company rather than simply booing Slaughter, who did get his fair share of threats.

After 9-11, WWE tried again with a patriotic angle that also tried to mitigate potential racism by featuring two Arab-American characters - Hassan and Daivari - whose gimmick was that they were angry about being associated with terrorists. So angry, in fact, that as the angle progressed, they ended up becoming involved with terrorists. It culminated in UPN insisting that the characters be banned from TV after the July 7th bombings in London, and Mark Copani, the real-life Italian-American who portrayed Hassan, leaving the company to pursue acting.

That's why I thought for sure that after the downing of the Malaysian airliner this past week, through either the fault or neglect of Russian president Vladimir Putin, the company would dial down the character of Rusev, a bad-guy Bulgarian who has embraced Russia and Putin. But no: instead, Vince McMahon doubled-down, with Rusev's manager Lana taking the tack that it was wrong and false to blame any of the week's political problems on Putin. Meanwhile, Rusev's pay-per-view opponent Jack Swagger, who, along with manager Zeb Colter, had been portraying a xenophobic Tea Party gimmick, has transformed into a more general patriot, with formerly coded-racist manager Colter actually expressing support for President Obama despite not liking him personally.

I thought maybe Swagger taking down Rusev could end the gimmick and offer a way out; Rusev could accuse manager Lana of misleading him about Putin and causing him to lose. Instead, Swagger lost by countout...and Lana name-dropped Putin as much as she possibly could. I think I know what Vince is doing here - he loves when mainstream media covers WWE, and is hoping this storyline will be controversial enough to make headlines. I'm just not sure the results of those headlines will be what he wants. Stereotypes may be a hallmark of traditional pro-wrestling, but they're far more likely to lead to boycotts most anywhere else nowadays.

Anyway, here's hoping for Brock Lesnar's return on Raw. Talk Raw, Battleground and whatever else below.

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