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A Mark’s Eye View: Wrestling with race

‘Kabuki Warriors’ caused a stir online, but pro wrestling has unfortunately always been steeped in racism.

A Mark’s Eye View‘ is a weekly look at some of the things that made me a huge fan of professional wrestling.

Recently, Asuka and Kairi Sane, the newly minted the Kabuki Warriors, caused quite a stir. Not for anything they did in the ring — people were upset because of the name of the team. And why shouldn’t they be mad? The name would have fit perfectly in Memphis in the 1980s.

The generic moniker had nothing to do with the backlash, however. Some fans found the name to be racist. Definitely lazy and arguably ignorant, the name certainly has its problems. However, racism probably is not the issue (this time). Back in the day though, professional wrestling was quite comfortable showing its racist side.

Being the biggest promotion in the world made the World Wrestling Federation the most noticeable, but this still did not prevent the company’s top stars from making insensitive remarks. It was common for heels to use terms like “Mexican pepper belly” when describing Pedro Morales. Of course, this was in the 1970s. Things had to change in the 1980s, right?

Jesse Ventura may have been the worst offender in the ’80s. He regularly called Tito Santana “Chico” and talked about how Chico wished he was still selling tacos in Tijuana. He also referred to Koko B. Ware as “Buckwheat”. (Ironically, the future governor argued with his broadcasting partner Gorilla Monsoon at WrestleMania V when the always tolerant Monsoon opined foreigners should stop coming to the United States.)

The evil foreign heel was a WWF specialty. The Iron Sheik, Nikolai Volkoff, and the “Ugandan Giant” Kamala were all dispatched by WWF champion Hulk Hogan. Kamala — born James Harris in the faraway land of Mississippi — was billed from “deepest, darkest Africa” and came to the ring with a spear and tribal music. The Rougeaus became fabulous heels for seemingly no other reason than being French Canadian.

The most infamous use of race in professional wrestling, however, was outside of the WWF. During the 1980s, Edward Wiskoski played Colonel DeBeers. DeBeers was a white mercenary from apartheid era South Africa. The angle sort of writes itself, and the AWA made sure to take it to its most vulgar extremes. DeBeers took a countout loss in lieu of stepping in the same ring as black preliminary wrestler Bill Tabb. Even as a six year old, I knew there was something wrong about the whole thing. This was not the good kind of heat either. The angle led to a feud that with Jimmy Snuka that went nowhere.

The NWA was not above using race either. On an episode of World Wide Wrestling in 1986, Jimmy Valiant cut a promo calling Pistol Pez Whatley the best black athlete in the world. Whatley understandably got upset and attacked his friend. It actually made sense. Why did Valiant choose to use the qualifier? This goodwill would not last as Whatley would soon be referring to Valiant as “honky” and Manny Fernandez as “brown boy”.

Memphis was a hotbed of wrestling that was known for its wild matches and shocking angles. In 1988, Robert Fuller and his Stud Stable were part of one of the most blatantly racist moments in wrestling. Fuller was in a good mood and felt like giving gifts to the members of the Stable. While others got robes and Rolex watches, Brickhouse Brown was thrown a party in which watermelon was served. And if that was somehow too subtle, there were also references to Toby and Kunta Kinte.

Just because wrestling has a racist past does not forgive any present and future transgressions. If anything, it should held to a higher standard since those in power have shown they are more than willing to use race baiting if it means more people will pay attention. In the case of the Kabuki Warriors, WWE is probably only guilty of picking the easiest name possible. At least it’s kinda cool. And it sure beats Empresses of the Seven Seas.

Next week: Everyone gets a title!

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