For better or for worse (and it’s usually worse), the pseudo-sport of professional wrestling has often served as a microcosm for the concerns and ideals of its audience. After all, the business is entirely predicated on heating up the crowd, and what better way than to capitalize on real-world events and trends. Many would say the WWE’s biggest downfall in terms of quality control is Chairman and CEO Vince McMahon’s incessant desire to keep his show “topical,” usually through hamfisted pop-culture references and excruciatingly terrible comedy writing. However, he has often capitalized on some truly dark material. In an effort to blur the lines between sports, entertainment and “reality,” the WWE has crossed just about every line in the book, whether it be displays of homophobia, islamophobia, rampant misogyny, body shaming, or poking fun at disabled people.
As an Egyptian raised in a Muslim family, I should honestly be ashamed of giving $9.99 a month to Vince McMahon. Once upon a time in 1991, during the Gulf War, the villainous team of wrestlers General Adnan and Colonel Mustafa were led by Sergeant Slaughter against the human embodiment of American ideals, Hulk Hogan. America has made leaps and bounds in terms of inclusivity since 1991, but even then, audiences were horrified by the insensitivity they were witnessing.
That wasn’t even the WWE at their worst. In 2004, the federation debuted the wrestler Muhammad Hassan. At first, he just seemed like your average WWE walking cultural stereotype that you could throw in with the likes of Yokozuna, Chief Jae Strongbow, Kai En Tai (“I choppy-choppy your pee-pee!”), Papa Shango, Saba Simba, the Mexi-Cools, the Nation of Domination, Harlem Heat, Akeem, and The Gangstas (holy hell am I getting depressed writing this list. I didn’t even mention all the blackface).
Hassan still takes the cake however, as he was pushed as your typical Arab villain, except his evil manifested in calling for an end to discrimination against Arabs and Muslims. Apparently, this progressive stance was a villainous one.
Also Hassan (real name Marc Copani) is an Italian playing a Middle Eastern man in the ring. Cultural appropriation and pro-wrestling go way back, and sadly isn’t remotely unique to Copani’s character.
On a summer episode of SmackDown!, Hassan summoned a group of masked men in all black attire to the ring by praying to Allah. He then had them do his bidding in front of a crowd that wasn’t exactly comfortable with what they were seeing. This episode happened to air three days before the 2005 London Bombings.
Which is why I’m amazed to tell you that maybe, just maybe, we’re getting to a point where I can watch wrestling on my laptop without slamming it shut in embarrassment anytime someone walks by. I know that might sound like I’m damning the show with faint praise; but trust me, even back in middle school I knew that what I was watching was unacceptable. Yet all of the baby steps taken by the WWE toward something resembling politically correct, quality entertainment have cumulated into some much needed leaps forward.
One of these steps was calling the women’s division what it is: the women’s wrestling division. Compare this to the days of having “Divas” wrestle in bra and panty matches for the infamous butterfly shaped Diva’s championship belt. Although the quality of the actual wrestling hasn’t caught up with local and international standards, an emphasis has been placed on having compelling matches and framing the competitors as actual threats to each other.
Another step forward has come in the form of the absolutely exceptional Cruiserweight Classic tournament. McMahon is known for favoring giant Aryan wrestlers for his main event talent (Hulk Hogan, John Cena). The WWE rarely gives other wrestlers a significant push, especially if they are undersized or non-white. Recognizing that their newly replenished roster still wasn’t enough to fill up 7 hours of weekly entertainment, the tournament was held featuring some of the hottest independent and international talent available. For the first time in decades all of the traditional, melodramatic and drawn out packaging of a WWE product was dropped for a good old-fashioned, 1-hour wrestling show with only shades of a soap opera. The perfect balance.
Using competent commentators (another much-needed step forward), and diverse talent has resulted in not only some of the best wrestling this year, but some of the best television period. Wrestling is not unlike comic books, where fans want a colorful cast of distinct heroes and villains, all memorable for their own reasons. The WWE’s greatest improvement in the last few years has been giving their audience different options when it comes to choosing their favorite wrestlers. To be clear, this wasn’t a change made out of a sense of responsible forward-thinking. It was more of a survival tactic.
The last ten years have for the most part, been one of the WWE’s darkest eras in terms of ratings and quality of content. 2014 and 2015 were an absolute disaster for the company, as the vast majority of their highest-drawing talent sustained serious long-term injuries. Meanwhile, leagues besides the WWE were flourishing for the first time in decades.
US, Mexico and Japan have the biggest wrestling leagues and fanbases. It’s very common for wrestlers of all walks of life to do international work. In Japan, wrestling is presented more as a sport than a combat sport soap opera. Starting around 2014, Japan’s biggest league (New Japan Pro Wrestling) saw a massive influx of elite, mostly western talent. With this influx came a western style, with foreign stars like A.J. Styles and the Young Bucks disrupting matches and antagonizing crowds. Their work was so influential that NJPW is now breaking into the West unlike any international wrestling product ever has.
This brings us to 2015, where the WWE experiences an absolutely cataclysmic number of long-term injuries to their talent. As their ratings suffered, they finally decided to acknowledge the outside wrestling world. The proceeded to bleed every other major league dry of talent by offering contracts at a scale only the WWE can handle.
These roster-replenishing efforts slowly, but surely built the strongest roster the WWE has had in years. The past few years saw the WWE add the likes of A.J. Styles, Shinsuke Nakamura, Kevin Owens (formerly Kevin Steen), Sami Zayn (formerly El Generico), Austin Aries, Asuka, Gran Metalik, Akira Tozawa, and Samoa Joe. That might not sound like anything to the average reader, but to a wrestling fan, that’s a who’s-who list of absolute stars that they never would have been embraced by the WWE.
This “new era” of the WWE has resulted in some of the most critically acclaimed wrasslin’ in the history of the pseudo-sport. Dave Meltzer, journalist, critic, and veritable pro-wrestling encyclopedia, is a titan in the industry; his five star rating system has become the norm in critiquing matches. Meltzer has handed out his highest ratings in decades in recent years. In the past ten years, there have been 15 matches to receive the prestigious five star rating. The past two years alone have had 8 of these matches, with 7 of them coming from NJPW.
One of the things that made me most uncomfortable about watching wrestling was its uncanny ability to sum up all of the prejudices and paranoia of its viewers into one, hideously offensive package. We are now finally getting to the point where instead of slamming the laptop lid shut when someone passes by, I might actually sit them down and show them what I’m watching. I’ve never once been able to say that before.
PHOTO COURTESY: WWE