By Dan Mathewson
Professional wrestling: oh, how I love it!
I love its glitz, its glamor, its over-the-top, in-your-face bluster. I love that it presents itself as a hyper-masculine testosterone-fest, and yet its wrestlers prance around in bedazzling costumes, wear more makeup than Tammy Faye, and play-act in melodramas too outlandish for even the daytime Soaps. Above all, I love the skill, artistry, and even beauty of its violent faux-fighting.
Now, I understand that a declaration of love for professional wrestling is probably not something many would expect from a college professor with a PhD in Religion. It’s sort of like admitting you’re addicted to Mob Wives or The Jerry Springer Show, or that you obsessively troll the Internet for news about Kimye, or that you are, in your true heart of hearts, and despite everything that happened in 2013, a Belieber. In other words, saying you love of pro wrestling is like confessing an affinity for the kind of mindless, morally debased trash culture that is responsible, apparently, for the collapse of Western civilization.
The occasion of the confession of my love of pro wrestling is the very recent DVD release of Ultimate Christian Wrestling, a documentary about an evangelistically oriented Christian professional wrestling promotion. The film, which screened in the Tribeca (2007) and New Orleans (2012) film festivals, follows three Ultimate Christian Wrestling (UCW) wrestlers “and their attempts to balance faith with the overwhelming amount of problems and insecurities that modern living throws at them,” according to the film’s Kickstarter page.
Unfortunately, the Georgia-based wrestling outfit featured in the film is now defunct, as is a different, South Carolina-based Christian wrestling group depicted in an earlier documentary, Wrestling for Jesus. The quirky genre of Christian professional wrestling, however, is actually thriving: there are a handful of independent Christian wrestling organizations scattered throughout the country, but mostly centered in Georgia, Tennessee, and the Carolinas. They all share the same goal of spreading the gospel of Jesus Christ through the medium of professional wrestling—a missionary objective characteristic of the Evangelical community from which these organizations emerge. And with the media buzz generated in each city in which the Christian wrestling documentaries have screened, there is now more awareness than ever of this small but fascinating slice of American Evangelicalism—a place where the seemingly diametrically opposite worlds of religion and pro wrestling collide.
Of course, we who are—or once were—fans of professional wrestling have long been aware of the confluence of religion and wrestling (even if we wish the two would remain separate). We grew up watching wrestlers like The Sheik unroll a prayer mat in the wrestling ring and engage in parodic salat before his matches; we watched Brother Love, the unctuous Jimmy Swaggart wannabe, tell the irate crowds every time he performed, “I looooove you!”; and more recently we watched “The Pope” D’Angelo Dinero, a Creflo-Dollar-esque preacher, big on bling and popular with the ladies, smooth-talk his way through his interviews. None of us, moreover, will forget the most memorable, if not financially lucrative, fusion of religion and mainstream wrestling: the anti-Evangelical wrestler, “Stone Cold” Steve Austin, and his extraordinarily well-marketed “scripture,” Austin 3:16.
These, in fact, are now very heady times for those of us who count ourselves fans of both religion and wrestling, for not only is the documentary Ultimate Christian Wrestling now available on DVD, filming has also recently finished on a new full-length feature film about “a professional wrestler who becomes a small town pastor and moonlights as a masked vigilante fighting injustice.” The film, A Masked Saint, which is based on the real life story of wrestler-turned-pastor Chris Whaley and features Hall of Fame pro wrestler Rowdy Roddy Piper, is slated for an October 2014 release.
Religious professional wrestlers? Professional wrestling caricaturing the religious? Movies about ex-wrestler Baptist pastors? What in the world is going on here? Isn’t religion about myth and ritual, transcendence and the sacred? And isn’t pro wrestling about spinebusters and toe holds, belligerence and bluster? What does the one have to do with the other?
Religion within the World of Professional Wrestling
Assumptions about religion abound in contemporary American society—assumptions about what qualifies as religion and what does not, about what true religious devotion consists of, about religion’s rightful (and wrongful) place within civil society, and so forth. Though these assumptions often remain unspoken and unexamined, they frequently explode to the surface during public discussions of contentious social issues like abortion, gay marriage, immigration, national security—even the so-called War on Christmas.
In what follows, I will make the case that the world of professional wrestling offers a sophisticated—if sometimes troubling—presentation and commentary on many of the predominant assumptions about religion that exist in contemporary society. To help unpack this thesis, let me introduce my all-time favorite religiously themed wrestlers, the female tag-team of Awesome Kong and Raisha Saeed, who, in the following video clip, can be seen making their way to the wrestling ring for their match (watch from 2:00-3:15).
The footage is from a 2008 Total Nonstop Action (TNA) wrestling show, and it is representative of the kind of big time, big money, big crowd wrestling that dominates the television markets in the US and around the world. TNA is a privately owned company based out of Nashville, Tennessee, whose shows air weekly on SpikeTV to a national audience. It is currently the main rival of the much larger World Wrestling Entertainment (WWE), a wrestling promotion that has dominated the scene since the 1980s and whose product is now broadcast in 150 countries in thirty languages reaching 650 million homes worldwide according to the company’s corporate website. WWE is Home Depot to TNA’s Ace Hardware, Bud Lite to TNA’s Sam Adams.
Together, WWE and TNA (along, perhaps, with Ring of Honor Wrestling) comprise what might be called “mainstream” professional wrestling—that is, wrestling promotions that tour around the country, stage live matches in large stadiums and arenas, draw large crowds that can number in the tens of thousands, air shows on national networks in multiple countries, and employ a stable of the most physically gifted, skilled, and visually stunning wrestlers, the best of which sign contracts for millions of dollars.
The contrast to mainstream professional wrestling is independent professional wrestling (not amateur wrestling, which is an entirely different animal). Independent wrestling is professional wrestling on a local level on a much smaller scale with much less glitz and glamor, and certainly with much less money involved. It will be the subject of the second article in this series; I will define it more precisely there. For now, you can think of independent wrestling in this way: if the WWE is Home Depot and TNA is Ace Hardware, then independent wrestling is the locally-owned, mom & pops Main Street hardware store; if the WWE is Bud Lite and TNA is Sam Adams, independent wrestling is the chocolate porter at your local microbrewery, or the stash of funky home brew your Uncle Frank concocts in his garage.
In the above clip of Awesome Kong and Raisha Saeed, you see the entire grand spectacle that is mainstream professional wrestling distilled into one small but very important moment of the wrestling match: when the wrestlers move from backstage to the wrestling ring, what is known as the wrester’s “entrance.” What’s the big deal about the entrance? Well, it all has to do with what wrestlers call the “gimmick,” the character or persona each wrestler adopts as his or her wrestling alter ego.
Writing about professional wrestling back in the 1950s, the great interpreter of culture, Roland Barthes, argues that upon viewing the body of the wrestler, the audience immediately understands the particular role (or “gimmick”) that has been assigned to the wrestler—whether hero or villain, whether brave or a coward, whether worthy of adulation or not—because of the myriad of overlapping signals the wrestler projects. Take, for example, wrestler’s body: how has it been shaped, toned, and decorated in makeup? What about the costume that wraps the wrestler’s body: is it colorful and flamboyant? Dreary and minimal? Ragged and “primitive”? How does the wrestler move his/her body to the ring? Slowly? Pompously? Aggressively? How does the wrestler interact with the crowd? With insult and disdain? With respect and camaraderie?
All of these bodily signals are manifest in the wrestler’s entrance, as are the complementary signals of personalized music, video board graphics, and in many cases, pyrotechnics. (Grantland.com’s Bill Simmons has a great article on the all-time great entrance routines.)
The cumulative effect of these signals is the “gimmick”—the total concept or character that each wrestler embodies. One wrestler plays the All-American Golden Boy; another plays the Latino man of honor; another plays the hard-drinking rebel; another plays the bedazzling drag queen; another plays the xenophobic Tea Party patriot; another plays the arrogant punk.
Not all gimmicks, however, are created equal; some illicit passionate responses from the crowds, whether wild adulation or raucous derision (what wrestlers call “heat”). Gimmicks that touch on some deep-seated cultural nerve or represent some obvious and important cultural trope or stereotype tend to generate tremendous heat (like the arrogant, pretty boy gimmick or the perpetual creepiness of the lord-of-darkness-and-death gimmick). Gimmicks that are out of step with cultural trends or that represent less-than-meaningful tropes and types tend to fade out rather quickly (like the disco-dancer gimmick or the cyborg-from-the-future gimmick).
Awesome Kong and Raisha Saeed
In today’s professional wrestling, little is more crucial in the communication of the wrestler’s gimmick than the wrestler’s entrance, which brings us back to the clip of Awesome Kong and Raisha Saeed. In this entrance, we see a host of signals that tell us who this duo is supposed to be, what kind of cultural trope they represent, and, crucially for this religiously infused wrestling duo, which cultural nerve is hit.
First, we see Awesome Kong, and we are struck by several obvious signals: her leather barbarian armor that blends in to her black skin; the streaks of blond that accentuate her wild black hair; her extraordinarily large and powerfully built frame (6’1,” 272 3/8 pounds). We are struck, instantly, by the overwhelming blackness of her. We see, moreover, her menacing stare as she strides purposefully and forcefully to the ring to the accompaniment of a dark and ominous rendition of Beethoven’s Fifth. We understand immediately that Awesome Kong is a dark and terrifying character whose mystery the commentator enhances by informing us she has trained in the obscure “dojos of Japan.” Kong does not fit into the categories of conventional femininity; she is both the racial and gendered Other to mainstream, white society.
Next, we see Raisha Saeed . . . but we don’t actually see her; we only see the threatening black “burqa” (so-called) that covers her from head to toe, that icon for many Westerners of Islamist repression. We also learn that she is culturally foreign—from Syria, no less, which, in 2008 brought to mind the Bush Administration’s “Axis of Evil,” the specter of 9/11, and the threat of Islamist terrorism. When Saeed gets ringside, the camera zooms in on her, as she bows as though in prayer (Muslim prayer! Gasp!), and then slowly and dramatically begins to remove the “burqa.” “Is she going to unveil?” the commentator asks excitedly. Will she reveal what is underneath? Will she expose the feminine delicacies that she is she hiding from the ravenous gaze of the predominately masculine audience? As the “burqa” slips off, we see that underneath she wears . . . a niqab! She is doubly marked by Islamist peril! (“Oh my!” says the commentator.) This time, however, we also see her accentuated eye makeup that announces an exotic, alluring beauty, but it is beauty that is covered over and erased by this offensive Islamist covering that she willfully and defiantly wears. If Kong is the gendered and racial Other to mainstream, white society, Saeed is the cultural and, above all, religious Other.
From top to bottom, this duo represents the gendered, racial, ethnic, and religious Other of the post–9/11 world. And when the duo first teamed up in 2008, they each had well-defined roles: Kong was the animalistic terror, barely civilized, who communicated mainly in grunts but sometimes in short, sinister sentences. Saeed was the manager who laid the duo’s plans and spoke on behalf of the team—in a heavy Middle Eastern-sounding accent, of course. This was a team straight out of Fox News’s worst nightmare: the Middle Eastern Islamist in charge of the terrifying warrior, bent on the destruction of traditional American models of femininity and religion. The spectators rightfully (in the logic of professional wrestling) jeered this ultimate of “heel” (or bad guy) tag-teams.
Now, in reality, Awesome Kong’s name is Kia Stevens; she is from Carson, California, and is an ex-social worker. Raisha Saeed’s real name is Melissa Anderson, she’s from San Francisco and has wrestled under the “Cheerleader Melissa” gimmick in the past. In the world of professional wrestling, however, such biographies are irrelevant. What matters is the gimmick that is created and how this gimmick connects to prevailing cultural attitudes, norms, and stereotypes.
Islam in the Wrestling Ring
In the post–9/11 world, the Awesome Kong–Raisha Saeed duo hit a tremendously sensitive cultural nerve, a bundle of race, gender, and ethnicity, all overlaid with a big dose of Islamophobia. [Full disclosure: when I ran this interpretation by Melissa Anderson in a recent interview, she looked at me with a blank stare. She was very reluctant to discuss the religious dimensions of her Saeed character, only telling me two things: first, that she tried not to offend anyone; and second, that the Lebanese community in San Francisco supplied her with her Raisha Saeed outfit, thus making it completely legit.]
The theme of the menacing Muslim, however, is easily the longest-standing religious gimmick in the history of professional wrestling, stretching all the way back to the succession of “Terrible Turk” wrestlers in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. In the 1960s, a new “scary Muslim” gimmick emerged with “The Sheik,” a wrestler who played the role of the wealthy, capricious, and bloodthirsty Syrian for the next three decades in various wrestling promotions. One of his signature actions was to unroll a prayer mat in the wrestling ring immediately before his matches and engage in a very badly rendered imitation of the Muslim salat (daily obligatory prayers), something that would elicit tremendous censure from the crowd.
The original Sheik would be followed by a series of Sheik-like characters in the pre–9/11 era, all of whom would play the part of the Middle Eastern terror: Sheik Adnan el-Kaissie, The Iron Sheik, General Adnan and Colonel Mustafa, Sabu, and The Sultan, (Sheik Ayatollah Blackwell and Sheik Ken Patera would briefly play Middle Eastern sympathizers). These characters were all variations of the Orientalist imagination: they dressed like extras from Lawrence of Arabia, they spoke in broken English or in faux-“Arabic,” they were brutal and blood-thirsty fighters, and they hated America and American values.
Interestingly, although an exoticized version of Islam formed part of the gimmick of the original Sheik, obvious and explicit religious markers were mostly absent from these other pre–9/11 Middle Eastern characters. The Iron Sheik, for example, would carry to the ring an oversized Iranian flag, but the stylized Islamic emblem normally found in the center of the flag was replaced with the word “Iran” spelled in block Latin letters (no doubt to further draw the attention of American crowds to his Iranian descent, given the then-recent Iran hostage crisis).
The post-9/11 world would see the re-Islamization of wrestling’s Middle Eastern characters, most famously and disastrously with Muhammad Hassan, a character who played the role of the Arab-American who was fed up with post–9/11 American jingoism and rampant anti-Arab discrimination. The character, along with his sidekick, Khosrow Daivari, whose role it was to “translate” Hassan’s words into “Arabic”, would sometimes end his anti-American tirades by raising his hands to the sky in praise of Allah. The duo represented a kind of nasty parody of the Council on American-Islamic Relations, and they elicited from the crowds wild displays of xenophobic Islamophobia.
The vitriol directed toward the duo climaxed in a wrestling show that aired the same day as the 2005 London bombings by Muslim extremists. Following a match that saw Daivari lose to “The Undertaker,” Muhammad Hassan appeared from backstage and fell to his knees as though in prayer. As he prayed, “Arab” attackers dressed in combat fatigues and black ski masks charged Daivari’s opponent and beat him to the point of unconsciousness. They then bore the fallen body of Daivari aloft as though a martyr in a Muslim funeral procession.
This ill-timed and incredibly insensitive Muslim terrorist angle became a lightning rod of controversy in the days that followed as horrific images of the terrorist bombing in London began to pour in. The WWE’s response to the furor was to permanently remove the Hassan-Daivari duo from its roster. Daivari, however, would resurface in TNA as Sheik Abdul Bashir and would retain the same Arab-American gimmick.
Whether in the declining era of the Ottoman Empire, in the age of the Iran hostage crisis, the first Gulf War, or the post–9/11 world, this history of mainstream wrestling’s Muslim and/or Arab gimmicks demonstrates very consistent portrayals of Islam: when built into a wrestler’s gimmick, Islam stands beside other ethnic or national markers of Otherness in order to elicit passionate jingoistic responses, which at the same time, reveal strong currents of xenophobia and Islamophobia. In the contemporary era, this depiction of Otherness has obvious similarities to the construction of Muslims as cultural and religious outsiders by certain right-wing political movements and media pundits, especially in the post–9/11 world (e.g., ACT! for America, Pamela Geller, Michelle Bachman, Allen West, and so on). Professional wrestling, therefore, taps into a very real and very raw cultural nerve, the same nerve that has given rise, for example, to various anti-mosque movements, including the famous Ground Zero mosque hysteria, and various ongoing attempts at anti-Sharia legislation.
Given the similarity of the portrayal of Muslim characters in mainstream wrestling to their portrayal in certain right-wing circles, one might assume that wrestling’s Christian characters would be cast in a much more favorable light. That is, if, in the dualistic logic of professional wrestling, Muslims are “Them” (foreign, threatening, anti-American worshippers of other gods), surely Christians are “Us” (good, moral, honest, God-fearing Americans).
Interestingly, this is not the case. In the world of mainstream wrestling, wrestlers with Christian gimmicks have fared little better than their Muslim counterparts. Generally, Christian gimmicks have fallen into two camps: the one emphasizes various deficiencies of purportedly upstanding Christian figures, the other emphasizes the weakness or general loathsomeness of stereotypical conservative Evangelicals.
Into the former category falls a handful of some of the more comedic and, in some cases, short-lived gimmicks of mainstream wrestling. Friar Ferguson played a caricature of the jolly and perpetually inebriated friar. Brother Love played a parody of an unctuous, insincere Southern televangelist. The Flying Nuns played on the stereotype of the violent Catholic School Sister.
Into this former category also belongs a series of African American wrestlers who portrayed stereotypes of the smooth-talking black preacher with glaring moral flaws. One example was the WWE’s Reverend D-Von, a heel character, who dressed in clerical garb and came to the ring to organ music, and who would “testify” before his matches, angrily (and hypocritically) castigating the crowds for a variety of sins. Another example was the recent TNA superstar, “The Pope” D’Angelo Dinero, who played a self-absorbed, narcissistic preacher. “The Pope,” whose “congregation” was the assembled audience at the wrestling match, parodied the charismatic mega-church pastor who is motivated by bling and the adulation of his female parishioners.
Preceding both of these black preacher caricatures was “The Reverend Slick,” a wrestling manager who originally broke in as the villainous “Doctor of Style” Slick, but who had repented of his earlier street-savvy life and now played a do-good Christian who would periodically deliver moralizing sermons to the television audience. One deeply troublesome storyline had the compassionate Reverend Slick take “The Ugandan Giant” Kamala off of the hands of his “handler,” Kim Chee, in order to convince the African brute that he was, in fact, a man, and not the animal that his handler had taught him to be. Though this “humanizing of the African savage” storyline was ostensibly to demonstrate the compassion of the good Reverend, the entire angle was performed mainly for comedic effect: just as Kamala was a cartoonish stereotype not to be taken seriously, so also the Reverend’s “conversion” and compassion were not to be taken seriously.
The above-mentioned Christian wrestling gimmicks employed a variety of stereotypes of Christian figures in order to draw attention to their equally stereotypical flaws, whether to emphasize the comedy or hypocrisy of the religious figures. Either way, these Christian characters were not portrayed in the most flattering of terms.
Distinct from these relatively simplistic and one-dimensional Christian gimmicks were two wrestling characters, Jake “The Snake” Roberts and Goldust/Dustin Runnels, whose Christian gimmicks were explored in much greater and surprisingly complex depth. The storylines constructed for the wrestlers saw each one transform from repugnant degeneracy (Roberts, the drug and alcohol abuser, and Goldust, the sexual deviant,) into godly, Bible-believing, born-again moralizers. Each wrestler, therefore, became models of Evangelical conversionism, the very embodiments of the born-again touchstone, “I once was lost, but now am found; was blind, but now I see.”
The first instance of this extended portrayal of Evangelical conversionism came in the mid-1990s with the apparent conversion to Evangelical Christianity of the notoriously evil Jake Roberts, a wrestling legend whose prior gimmick of “The Snake” played up the wrestler’s demonic cunning (further enhanced by wrestler’s pet python, “Damien,” which he would wrap around his vanquished opponent’s neck). After an absence from the WWE for several years, Roberts returned in 1996 as a new convert to Christianity. In his interviews, would repeatedly explain that his religion allowed him to conquer his demons of alcoholism and drug abuse.
There was a sort of double irony to Roberts’ “face turn” (when a wrestling villain transforms into a hero), for it was a fairly well-known fact that the real Jake Roberts did struggle with alcoholism and drug abuse for much of his wrestling career and he also did recently have a sort of religious awakening that helped him “clean up.” This real life religious triumph, however, became the “angle” for a professional wrestling storyline where Jake “The Snake” Roberts, the wrestler, underwent the same transformation as Jake Roberts, the real man (the fusion of real life and wrestling fiction is known in the wrestling business as a “worked-shoot.”)
This Jesus-loving, Bible-quoting wrestling character that Jake Roberts now portrayed would soon be involved in scripted feuds with wrestlers who were less than impressed, to say the least, with his new straight and narrow ways. Jerry “The King” Lawlor, for example, would repeatedly insult Roberts with barbs directed at his prior alcoholism. He also once slapped Roberts across the face and then taunted the stunned man that his duty was now to turn the other cheek, a classic “heel” move that seemed to communicate that Roberts, and by extension all Bible-believing Christians, are just a bunch of pacific sissies.
The most famous storyline for Roberts’s new Christian “angle” involved a feud with “Stone Cold” Steve Austin, a beer-swilling, foul-mouthed character with severe anger management issues, a character who, in many ways, represented Roberts’s old life of sin that his newfound faith allowed him to conquer. This storyline culminated with the two facing off against each other in the final match of the important “King of the Ring” tournament in 1996. Austin emerged triumphant and as he received the championship trophy, he grabbed the microphone and hurled one last dig at his toppled foe, insulting Roberts’s gospel-loving, Bible-quoting ways: “You sit there, and you thump your Bible, and you say your prayers, and it didn’t get you anywhere . . . Talk about your Psalms, talk about your John 3:16 . . . Austin 3:16 says I just whooped your ass!”
The line was so well delivered and captured so well the zeitgeist of the increasingly suburban and Gen-Xer audience, that the crowds responded with enthusiastic acclaim to this ultimate of “heel” speeches. “Austin 3:16” then became the unofficial motto and marketing slogan of the morally complex, increasingly raunchy and X-rated era of wresting that would dominate the WWE for the next several years (what is known as the “Attitude Era”: 1996–2001).
In the end, Roberts’s Evangelical gimmick served mainly as a foil to the wild popularity of the crass vulgarity that was soon to emerge with abandon in mainstream wrestling. The born-again wrestler was a sad and weak version of his prior cunning self; his message of moral rectitude was an unwanted wet blanket on the sophomoric, sexually explicit world of mainstream wrestling. The Attitude Era had no room for the utter sincerity of this Evangelical character and so Jake Roberts, the born-again Christian, soon disappeared from the WWE roster.
The trope of the ill-fitting and somewhat tiresome Evangelical convert would re-emerge a couple of years later in the Goldust/Dustin Runnels gimmick, though this time, the born-again character would not just be tiresome, he would be utterly loathsome and reviled by the wrestling audiences. In contrast to the Jake Roberts conversion storyline, which was written to mirror the wrestler’s real-life religious awakening, this new conversion storyline was written as pure wrestling fiction: Goldust, one of the most despised villains in the last quarter century, cast aside his prior life of uninhibited sexual deviancy, and re-emerged as Dustin Runnels, a prayerful moralizer caught up in the End Times frenzy (although, in the end, his apocalyptic message that “he is coming back” would end up being a reference to the Goldust gimmick, which the wrestler would resurrect).
In a storyline clearly designed to lampoon the Religious Right’s increasingly vocal criticism of wrestling’s morally questionable product, Runnels would air spoof commercials during WWE television broadcasts as spokesman for the fictional “Evangelists Against Television, Movies, and Entertainment” (or: EAT ME). During these ads, Runnels would criticize wrestling’s increasingly X-rated storylines and would encourage the audience to engage in healthy activities like Bible reading.
In short, in the eyes of wrestling’s fans, the Goldust/Dustin Runnels conversion storyline saw the wrestler trade one loathsome wrestling gimmick for another equally repulsive one: the cross-dressing, sexual deviant became the meddlesome Evangelical who criticized everything that made the WWE’s Attitude Era so much fun.
During the Attitude Era and beyond, the explicit parody of prominent aspects of American Christianity became part of the standard fare of mainstream wrestling’s programming. Not only did such stereotypical figures as the Bible-believing convert or the outspoken moralizer of the Religious Right become fodder for wrestling’s ridicule, so also did some of Christianity’s sacred institutions and symbols. One storyline, for example, saw “Stone Cold” Steve Austin undergo mock crucifixion (which was modeled on an extraordinarily controversial earlier mock crucifixion in a rival wrestling organization).
Another storyline saw the creation of a wrestling character seemingly patterned on the vengeful resurrected Jesus of Revelation 19. This wrestler, who went by “Mordecai,” had brilliant white hair and wore a flowing white gown to the ring. He claimed to be seated at the right hand of God and would bow in prayer to his “father” before his matches, vowing to be the vehicle to dispense God’s vengeance not only on his wrestling opponent, but also on the multitude of vile sinners in the crowd. Though he embodied the same kind of Christian theology brought to life in the extraordinarily popular Left Behind series that was charging up the best seller lists at the time, Mordecai was an unambiguous heel reviled by the wrestling crowds.
A final storyline involving the parody of Christianity’s most sacred symbols bears mentioning: a tag-team match in 2006 between Vince McMahon (the CEO of the WWE) and his son Shane, against Shawn Michaels and his tag-team partner, God. The build up to the match involved taped skits that mocked various aspects of Christianity: holy water, offerings, prayer, the Ten Commandments, Psalm 23, and so on. God was even given his own mock entrance music for the match itself.
On the whole, no other religious tradition received as much developed and detailed attention in the world of mainstream wrestling than did Christianity, especially in its Evangelical form. The attention, however, was not at all positive: Evangelicals were portrayed as buffoons or moralizing kill-joys who warranted our derision.
If the portrayal of Muslims and Christians in the world of mainstream wrestling has been less than flattering, the same can also be said for the portrayals of other religious traditions, although, admittedly, non-Muslim and non-Christian religious storylines and gimmicks have been fewer and farther between.
The most common of these other religious gimmicks is no doubt that of the Dark Lord/Master of the Dark Arts: The Undertaker, Kane, Abyss , Judas Mesias (make sure you watch until the 0:35 mark!), The Taskmaster and Dungeon of Doom, Vampiro, The Great Muta, and The KISS Demon, and to a lesser degree, Jake “The Snake” Roberts. These characters basically embodied the sorts of demonic tropes of the horror film genre, and they elicited reactions of fascinated trepidation from the wrestling audiences similar to those elicited from the viewing audiences of that film genre.
Other non-Muslim and non-Christian religious gimmicks depict grossly insensitive caricatures of various indigenous people and their rituals: African tribes, Native Americans and Afro-Caribbean shamans. Rarely do such depictions rise above the comedic, a reinforcement of the stereotype of the simple-minded native that the world of mainstream wrestling so often cultivates.
More recently, several Indian wrestlers have risen to prominence in the WWE (e.g., The Great Khali, Ranjin Singh, Jinder Mahal), no doubt in an effort to make inroads into the potentially lucrative wrestling market in India. Though the wrestlers sometimes dress in traditional-looking garb and can sometimes be heard speaking in Hindi, there is very little about their gimmicks that marks them as explicitly religious, aside from the intentional connection between the name “Great Khali” and the Hindu goddess. None of this, however, has stopped speculation in the online wrestling boards that the wrestling characters are, in fact, Hindu.
Finally, two Jewish-themed wrestling characters bear mentioning. The first and most “developed” (though he only lasted for about a year in the WWE) was Scotty Goldman, an immature, coddled homebody with ADD. The other Jewish-themed character was Barry Horowitz. He wrestled in the WWE for slightly longer than Scotty Goldman, but the Jewish heritage of his character was not “elaborated” to the same extent as Goldman’s was. Mostly, he signaled his Jewishness with his entrance music, an upbeat version of Hava Nagila. Though Horowitz almost never won a match, he always lost with dignity. He was a mensch.
One wildly entertaining fan website dedicated to the most outrageous excesses of professional wrestling (what it calls, “wrestlecrap”) has an archived article on religion and wrestling that begins by repeating twenty-one times the sentence “Wrestling and religion don’t mix” (the article is accessed behind a pay wall; an excerpted version is found here). The author’s main argument, which includes a plea for the “separation of church and wrestling,” is that in the world of mainstream wrestling, religious themes simply don’t work; religious characters are not only not compelling, they are just plain silly. The amusing article is mostly devoted the religiously-infused gimmicks that utterly flopped, characters like Friar Ferguson and the Sisters of Love, discussed above. Certainly others could be added.
While I obviously disagree with the author that religious themes in wrestling are never compelling, I do think that something noteworthy happens when the two mix: religion almost never comes off looking good. It is either depicted as something that is despicable (Muslim gimmicks), comedic (certain Christian gimmicks; “native” gimmicks), loathsome (Evangelical gimmicks), or just plain loser-ish (Jewish gimmicks). The only time religion might be taken seriously (but not too seriously) is when it is coupled with the cartoonish dread associated with the horror genre.
An exception to this argument might be the recently retired mega-superstar “The Heartbreak Kid” Shawn Michaels, whose own real-life conversion to Evangelical Christianity was allowed to impact the crafting of his in-ring persona (e.g., no more cursing, no more gesturing toward his genitals) without the wrestling character turning into a tiresome parody of Evangelical Christianity. Although some wrestling aficionados lamented this new toned-down version of his former self, for the most part Michael’s star continued to burn brightly, despite his real-life religious awakening.
One difference between Shawn Michaels and the other wrestlers mentioned in this article is that Michaels’s religion wasn’t, for the most part, turned into an “angle” explicitly depicted in the wrestling ring. The notable exception to this was the previously discussed tag-team match between Shawn Michaels and God vs. Vince and Shane McMahon (though this storyline was less about parodying Michaels’s faith as it was about demonstrating McMahon’s delusional sense of his own self-importance). From time to time, too, Michaels’s religious convictions would be written into the wrestling storyline as Michaels, the wrestler, would be asked to do something that Michaels, the real man, would find objectionable. The wrestling “angle” involved the drama of the two Michaels, wrestling persona and real man, figuring out what to do. For the most part, however, Michaels’s religion remained a personal matter that merely delimited the boundaries of behavior for his in-ring persona.
This interesting blurring of the line that divides the real man of faith from the fictional wrestling character is also evident, perhaps even more explicitly, in a wrestler who features prominently in an upcoming Sacred Matters article on the intersection of religion and professional wrestling, “Mr. #1” George South. The main difference between “the two Shawn Michaels” and “the two George Souths” is that Michaels wrestled in the world of mainstream professional wrestling, meaning that millions witnessed this tension between the real man of faith and the fictional wrestling persona, whereas it has only been since South transitioned from mainstream wrestling to the much less visible world of independent wrestling that he has been able to display his real-life faith to the wrestling crowds. Along the way, South co-founded, along with “The Million Dollar Man” Ted DiBiase, the genre of Christian professional wrestling and thus created a completely new way for religion and wrestling to mix.
Dan Mathewson is an associate professor in the Department of Religion at Wofford College. He wrestles under the ring name Mr. Canada.