The rise of the woke wrestler

The sport has a bad rep but these guys are tackling the stereotype

23rd August 2018

Wrestling doesn’t have an illustrious history of being progressive, fair, or honest. Cast your mind back to the ‘70s and scenes were grim. The entire industry was misogynistic, whole companies were corrupt and many storylines were racist. But don’t worry, times have changed! Apparently.

Last month saw Hulk Hogan reinstated into the WWE Hall of Fame after being excommunicated three years prior for saying the n-word backstage. Apparently a three year ban makes you Not Racist Any More. And although the days of D-Generation X donning blackface are gone, the majority of black wrestlers in WWE are still written off as “comedy” characters, rather than title challengers (seriously, it’s an alarming trend).

Women’s wrestling has come a long way since the ’90s when mud wrestling matches were commonplace, and so-called “Divas” were seemingly there to adorn the arms of their male counterparts, and occasionally hit each other while wearing skimpy outfits. But there are still problems with objectification of the female superstars, such as when Paige was recently attacked by a fan for being “too fat”.

WWE Chairman Vince McMahon is an outspoken Trump supporter, and apparently pitched storylines that would see cisgender male superstar James Ellsworth enter the Women’s Division as a transgender wrestler, but these were thankfully shut down.

Wrestlers who sell more t-shirts get more and better matches

WWE makes much of its revenue through branding and merchandising, and it is common knowledge that wrestlers who sell more t-shirts get more, and better matches. I mean, did you seriously think John Cena was the man at the top for so long because of his wrestling or his degree in thuganomics? No, it was because every kid watching wanted to buy his t-shirts and his action figures.

As such, WWE management encourages the wrestlers to enhance their own personal brands on the side, away from the ring. This helps them to merchandise themselves and hopefully get more t-shirt sales as well as potential viewers for the show. Whether the wrestlers do this by being the frontman in a band or having a gaming YouTube channel, the WWE doesn’t care, as long as they’re selling merch.

Finn Balor

Irish wrestler Finn Balor is signed to WWE 📸 Miguel Discart

Some wrestlers use this as an opportunity to do some good, such as Irish WWE superstar Finn Balor.

Balor recently launched a clothing line called PE&K, which stands for Peace, Equality & Kindness (more on that later). The clothes are as environmentally friendly as possible, as well as the packaging they come in. Every bit of packaging is biodegradable, and used frugally, minimising even recycled waste.

It is worth noting that Balor undoubtedly flies across countries and continents to wrestle in shows for the WWE, but he’s trying to do his bit for the environment with PE&K.

The clothes themselves all look very fashionable, but Balor himself is very vocal in his support for minorities, and that’s where the Peace, Equality & Kindness comes in. Balor often wears Pride flag-emblazoned ring gear, his Instagram is full of Pride marches, and all in all he is a very vocal supporter of LGBT rights. He also released a version of his “Balor Club” t-shirt on the WWE Store which used the rainbow colours, with 20% of proceeds going to LGBT rights charity GLAAD.

Sami Zayn

Sami Zayn raises money for injured Syrian civilians 📸 Miguel Discart

Balor is by no means the only wrestler to support charities, however. Canadian-born Syrian wrestler Sami Zayn, who also wrestles for the WWE, set up his own charity “Sami for Syria”, to help injured civilians in the war-torn country.

Sami for Syria is partnered with the Syrian American Medical Society, a trusted NGO that works to provide healthcare on the ground in Syria. Last year Zayn raised $105,000, and helped to set up over 8,000 mobile clinics, which help provide urgent medical care to those who can’t access it.

And now he is fundraising, through the same charity, to provide aid for families displaced due to escalations of violence in Daraa. Many have been left without homes, food, or beds. Zayn has donated $10,000 of his own money to the cause, but has raised so much more using his high-profile position. To speak out in order to help civilians in a country that America has been actively bombing for four years is certainly a brave move, not least when the fickle fans that hold the strings of your career by and large support American intervention in the Middle East.

WWE, and wrestling as a whole, is well known for perpetuating stereotypes, especially racial stereotypes. Most famously of all was Hossein Khosrow Ali Vaziri , better known as “The Iron Sheikh”, who, dressed in stereotypical Middle Eastern garb, would be greeted by boos from American audiences, before the American hero, usually Hulk Hogan, vanquished him in the ring, and the West metaphorically vanquished the East.

However, Zayn challenges the stereotypes of Middle Eastern characters in wrestling. He wears standard wrestling attire, and can wrestle face or heel as he pleases. It probably helps that he is Canadian-born, and speaks fluently in English to the fans (he is also fluent in Arabic and French, but American fans may look less kindly on promos they can’t understand). Comparatively, the Iron Sheikh spoke in broken English, had a darker complexion, and wrestled in the 80s, all of which served to alienate him from a very pro-America crowd.

How much influence Zayn had in his own aesthetic can be debated, but he enters the ring to a ska tune, due to his love of the music, which suggests some level of control. Of course he benefits from wrestling 40 years after Sheikh, but time seems to move slower in the WWE, as they still seem years behind the real world in many regards, not least in terms of equality.

Kota Ibushi and Kenny Omega, the Golden Lovers

Kota Ibushi and his partner Kenny Omega tackle toxic masculinity 📸  ゾーヒョー

Moving stylistically and geographically to pretty much the exact opposite of the WWE, Kota Ibushi has also been challenging the stereotypes of wrestlers in the rings of Japan, for New Japan Pro Wrestling.

Ibushi and his wrestling partner Kenny Omega make up the Golden Lovers tag team, which sees them embrace their love for each other and break down boundaries.

Traditionally, men are more distant from their friends and often find it difficult to talk openly about how they feel to each other, let alone give each other a hug when they see each other.  

Wrestling is full of this toxic masculinity, and it comes from everywhere, from wrestlers to fans to managers, it’s pretty bad. Whether it’s talking about being a “real man” or refusing to engage in important conversations about men’s mental health despite many warnings in a male-dominated industry, it’s rife.

Ibushi and Omega are beginning to break this down, and while neither of the straight men play openly gay characters, they occasionally kiss each other when tagging in, give each other hugs, and generally show that male friendships don’t have to just be handshakes and calling each other dickheads.

Admittedly it started as a bit of a gimmick playing comedy kisses in tag moves and the like, but it has evolved into something completely different. Now the pair help each other out, and their genuine and loving friendship is so nice to see in an industry so dominated by aggression and competition.

This may also encourage male viewers to engage in closer relationships with their friends, not necessarily kissing one another, but at least talking about more than just The Wrestling. Suicide remains the biggest killer of men under 45 in the UK, and teaching us to look out for each other more, and talk to each other more, could help save lives.

Unfortunately, social justice issues, especially those to do with racism and sexism, seem to plague wrestling in the modern day as much as they did in the past, although nowadays the problems are covered by a thin veil with the word “equality” faintly embroidered onto it. There is a long way to go, but at least the wrestling train is crawling forwards.

But we hope these wrestlers are speartipping a woke revolution in the ring and that they inspire the next generation of wrestlers to be indiscriminately fair, honest, and kind — and are happy to clothesline anyone who disagrees.

23rd August 2018