I hope all my fellow PCU Wrestling heads had a great holiday yesterday, and, possibly caught some patriotic wrestling as well! This year, I looked back on the numerous moments in wrestling with a patriotic bend. Pride in one’s country has been prevalent for professional wrestling’s entire existence, so finding a moment to look into wasn’t that hard. That said, let’s take a look at a Wrestlemania main event that pitted more than just the competitors against each other, but embodied a current (at the time) real war.
In the early 90’s, the United States found itself embroiled in a war in the Middle East, centered in Kuwait. Without going to much into detail, it was a conflict with the Iraqis, led at the time by Saddam Hussein, and the public perception of the war was significantly more favorable than the current conflict in the Middle East. At the end of 1990, wrestling veteran Sgt. Slaughter was looking to make his return to WWF, after leaving the company a few years earlier, most likely over a dispute regarding his role as a character in the G.I. Joe toy line. While Vince McMahon was receptive to him coming back, he had to come in as a heel, and as that character developed with what was happening in the real world, Slaughter’s character morphed into an Iraqi sympathizer. In a smart move, WWF creatively decided to completely avoid the actual nuances of the war, and just make Slaughter feel the US had gone too “soft” in comparison to the “brutal” Iraqis. The result: a nuclear heel.
Looking at this in today’s world, it’s shocking to think that a wrestling character would even go this far. Slaughter has come out and said that at the time he received numerous death threats, and he never really went out in public without a bulletproof vest. There’s a sense of believability in the characters that was just coming to an end in this time. Now, it should be clear that he wasn’t actually siding with Iraqis in real life. That said, the heat that WWE would get for a move like that today, like if someone came out and declared some allegiance to a terror group, would be astronomical. It’s a PR move that the company would probably not recover. When they had the character Muhammad Hassan in the mid 2000’s, and they skirted that very fine line, which they eventually crossed, they had to more or less wipe his character from history. While WWE could never have predicted the London Bombing attacks that happened the same week the Hassan character had masked men kidnap The Undertaker, it was clear that the storyline and the character had to be squashed. With Slaughter, while in significantly less fearful times socially in America, really pushed the story to the limit, and there was only one man the company to take on the WWF Champion turncoat.
WWE/F, from around 1985-1993 was dominated by Hulk Hogan. Coming out to the song “Real American”, he creatively was meant to embody the American way. As much as John Cena is called Superman today, Hogan was literally Superman (post Golden Age, we can discuss the Socialist hero that was early Superman on another forum). It‘s become fairly well known of his character in wrestling at the time, being the hero that we rarely see nowadays, closest being Daniel Bryan recently. Putting aside the current scandal he’s involved in, he was the embodiment of who we wanted fighting the turncoat in Slaughter. There’s also something to be said for the promo work at the time. Both of these guys were not afraid to completely ham it up, and take these very clearly fictional personas extremely seriously. In the pre-match interview with “Mean Gene” Okerlund, Hogan intertwines lyrics of the Star Spangled Banner into his intimidation of Slaughter, which is effective and hilarious at the same time.
The match itself is much better than it has any right to be. I’ll admit, the start of the match, where nothing seems to affect Hogan at all gave me a bad feeling, but as Slaughter gained an upper hand, and the ability to make some really heelish moves, the match picked up. There were a few questionable moments of the match, however. The biggest two specifically for me were a boston crab applied to Hogan, who only needed to grab the rope to have the hold broken. The rope was a few inches from him, but he stayed locked in without going to grab it for about a minute, which lead even the guest commentator in Regis Philbin to ask why he won’t reach for the rope. While that was weird, the really head scratching moment came in General Adnan, the manager for Slaughter, distracted the ref as SLAUGHTER was going for the pin, effectively ruining his chances. Very odd moment, for seemingly everyone involved. The finish of the match was a truly eye popping moment, which saw Slaughter go for a victory after draping the Iraqi flag on the prone Hogan. The mere touch of the flag sent Hogan into his patented “Hulk Up”, which lead to that flag being ripped, and his finishing series to beat Slaughter and capture the WWF Title from him. As you’d expect, this led to a red white and blue extravaganza, as Hogan paraded around with the title and the US flag, uniting everyone in the crowd together.
In a modern sense, the moments of total patriotism is one of the few moves left that unites almost the entire crowd. We saw it was Rusev, who effectively made an enemy of America over and over with his promos. This is great in the sense of this fake wrestling world, but it’s important to note how guarded, and rightfully so, they can be. I’m not going to make this an exploration into how far they can go, but it’s different for this type of show against movies or books. When the idea is to get a live crowd in a crazed state, and with the way society is right now, it’s safest to avoid making anything hyper politically driven. That said, it’s interesting to look back at moments like these. To cap it off, in a hilarious bit of coincidence, none other than Donald Trump was in the front row of this Wrestlemania event from 1991.