History & Culture / Asia Wide

From Chump to Champ: The Rise of Asian and Arab Wrestlers

by Naomi Clark-Shen
Length 6 min

In 2005 on WWE’s weekly television show Smackdown, loathed Arab Superstar Muhammad Hassan kneeled in prayer and set five masked men on The Undertaker, in a terror-themed attack. It aired on the same night as the London terrorist bombings which killed over 50 people.

In response to the ensuing controversy, WWE issued a statement that “there’s got to be protagonists and antagonists on our TV shows…We just happen to reflect the politics of the world sometimes – especially with these Arab-American characters.”

A gif of Muhammad Hassan, a wrestler who portrays an Arab American person as his wrestler persona laughing menacingly before sending five 'terrorists' to the ring
Muhammad Hassan smirks before sending masked men to the ring. Source: YouTube. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=-zHux1N6FUw&feature=youtu.be&t=100

Muhammad Hassan was written off the show due to the controversy – but the use of overt racial stereotypes has been an integral part of WWE’s popular storylines for decades.

A famous example is the Japanese tag-team of Taka Michinoku and Funaki who debuted in the 1990’s as ‘Kaientai.’ Their characters cut deliberately poorly lip-synced promos that were dubbed over by English voice actors. Packaged as being from the “Evil empire,” they carried Japanese flags and were often mocked, once being called “silly little ninja freaks.” Kaientai were often used as joke opponents to make larger superstars look good, such as when they were destroyed by Kane and his brother The Undertaker.

WWE icons Kane and The Undertaker toy with Kaientai. Source: YouTube. https://youtu.be/-tkuSQy7lT4?t=235]

From race to gender, WWE was a show that thrived on stereotypes. From the 1960s to the 2000s, there were many racially stereotyped gimmicks. While some were less offensive, including an arrogant American ‘hero’, snobby Englishman and rowdy Scotsman, others adopted more outrageous gimmicks – including Mexicans who “lie, cheat and steal,” and an African-American who was portrayed as a servant to a millionaire white man.

Scroll over the map below to see some of WWE’s most racially stereotyped characters.

Scroll over the map to see some of WWE's most racially stereotyped characters.

Some characters and storylines undeniably went too far and can be described as offensive. Others confronted real-world prejudices in a similar way that many comedy shows parody racial stereotypes for comedic effect. Regardless of the controversies, WWE still had a huge global following – including in Asia – and especially in India and Japan.

But the world was becoming more politically correct and advertisers were shying away from the provocative show. WWE had to keep up with the times so in 2008 they entered the ‘PG era’. Soon began the gradual phasing out of scandalous storylines packed with extreme violence, sexist portrayals of women, and over the top characters. Since doing so, their sponsorship has reportedly tripled in revenue.

One of the most noticeable outcomes of this ‘taming’ was that wrestlers’ characters no longer had to centre around their ethnicity - but their ability. As a result, Asian wrestlers in particular began to rise to the top.

One of the most successful Asian wrestlers of recent times is Japan’s Shinsuke Nakamura. He made his WWE debut in 2017 after much anticipation and received one of the greatest ovations in history. That same year he competed in two main event PPV matches against then WWE World Champion Jinder Mahal, who is Indian by ethnicity. An all-Asian main event would have been unthinkable a few decades ago – let alone two.

A gif of Shinsuke Nakamura facing off with then champion Jinder Mahal.
Shinsuke Nakamura faces off with then champion Jinder Mahal. Source: YouTube. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=4YLVcj0BpVY&t=7s

Also from Japan, Asuka signed with WWE in 2015 and is one of the most formidable women to set foot in the ring. She went undefeated for a record 914 days, and in December 2018 won the WWE Woman’s Championship.

A gif of Asuka, a wrestler from Japan who won the WWE Women's Championship.
Asuka from Japan wins the WWE Women's Championship. Source: YouTube. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=1pKBevJRtSw

But perhaps the greatest example of how WWE has transformed is with superstar Mustafa Ali, who is of Pakistani decent. He joined WWE in 2016 and despite his Muslim name, his character (and attire) are not defined by his religion or ethnicity. He is a crowd favourite and in 2019 posted the following on Instagram:

“There was a time in our industry and in entertainment that a name like Mustafa Ali was automatically booed. He was the villain, the enemy. Not one of us. These past few days on #SDLive tour has shown me that I’m changing that. We are changing that. Brick by brick, night after night. #BeTheLight.”

A gif of Mustafa Ali, the wrestler, showing off his high-flying stunt in the WWE.
Mustafa Ali is one of the best high-flying wrestlers in the WWE. Source: YouTube. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=W35JDmoWSQU

Unfortunately, as these wrestlers gained momentum, WWE’s TV ratings slumped. On 10 May 1999, during the controversial ‘Attitude era’ days, viewership for WWE’s weekly flagship television show Monday Night Raw peaked at 8 million viewers. Today, viewership hovers around the 2 – 3 million mark. The politically correct WWE of today is simply not as popular among the American audience.

However, the company is now expanding further around the world. With this comes the opportunity to develop an even more diverse roster of superstars for an increasingly diverse fan base. WWE has already signed several Chinese wrestlers, an Arab woman from Jordan, and recently trained aspiring Arab superstars in Saudi Arabia where they currently host two shows per year – an unpopular and controversial decision since the killing of journalist Jamal Khashoggi.

The future looks bright for Asian and Arab wrestlers. No longer do they have to make do with playing the villain or being the butt of everyone’s jokes. Finally, they are champions, crowd-favourites – and heroes.

And while WWE remains the biggest stage of them all for aspiring wrestlers, Asia is fast developing its own regional circuit. In Singapore and Malaysia, thousands are being entertained by home-grown superstars. Furthermore, the popularity of professional wrestling continues to flourish in Japan with many considering it the best place in the world to watch skilled technical wrestling.

In the words of respected wrestling journalist Dave Meltzer, “in wrestling there’s more good talent outside WWE.” We are now entering an era where this will be fully recognised.

 

This story was edited by Adam Clark.



Topics:

  • wrestling

Disclaimer: Our stories have been researched and fact-checked to the best of our abilities. Should you spot mistakes, inaccuracies, or have queries about our sources, please drop us an e-mail at hello@kontinentalist.com

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