I was reading an article by Andy Glen Ravens about his predictions for tonight’s WWE Battleground Pay-Per-View event and I decided to leave a comment; the gist of it was that, given the downing of Malaysia Airlines Flight MH17 by Russian backed separatists in Eastern Ukraine and the subsequent deaths of 298 innocent people, I was intrigued to see what this means for Rusev & Lana & their gimmick going forward. After a brief exchange of comments with ‘ThE CrAzY JoKeR’ he suggested I write something on it (thanks for the suggestion bud; hope you appreciate the due credit/shout out); I’d stated in my original comment that I was surprised I hadn’t seen anything about this anywhere on the Internet so given the prod I thought I’d give it a go.
Wrestling has always used real world events as sources for it’s stories; all forms of entertainment do so, it’s not alone here. But where wrestling separates itself is in the way it does things; in an almost pantomime fashion designed to make the character hated. Wrestling at it’s most basic is a story of two guys who have an issue and fight it out; and as humans there are certain broad themes that, depending on our country of origin, the majority dislike. One of the more universal themes in the world is the dislike of a foreigner coming into our country and bashing it while holding their own country up as the standard we should all emulate; but, it has to be said, with the strong national pride ingrained into Americans, that this approach is especially effective in the USA.
Topical foreign wrestling heels are nothing new; Fritz Von Erich portrayed a Nazi to post-WW2 audiences. There were countless pro-communist Russians during the Cold War era; The Iron Sheik played off the tensions between the US and Iran during the seventies and eighties. As the US geared up for the first Gulf War Sargent Slaughter defected to Iraq and sang the praises of Saddam Hussain (ironically later joined by The Iron Sheik as Iraqi Colonel Mustaffa); in more recent times we had the always walking a fine line until the end WWE run of Mohammed Hassan that played off post 9/11 tensions and feelings. Even when it’s a much smaller tension between countries you get a wrestler with a gimmick that plays off of it; a good example being the La Resistance stable when there was tension between the US and France over their refusal to join in and objection to the wars in the Middle East.
Generally I have no problem with this; it’s wrestling. We get to live vicariously through the babyface as he gets revenge on the dastardly foreigner. Generally; the foreign villain is portrayed in such a comical fashion it almost comes across as Brechtian satire. There have been exceptions to this rule over the years (Sargent Slaughter and Mohammed Hassan especially) but generally it’s a harmless bit of jingoistic fun.
Which brings me to Rusev and Lana; who ditched their expatriated Rocky IV routine (where they generally slagged off the USA while not praising another country in particular) and started praising Russia in general and Russian President Vladimir Putin in particular as tensions rose between Russia and the West over the crisis in the Ukraine. But up until now it’s been relatively harmless because Russia wasn’t really directly doing anything except supporting the separatists who saw themselves as Russians; it was a civil war in the Ukraine and the Russians were more akin to Grima The Wormtongue in The Lord of the Rings. Never directly involved but clearly in control of the situation; whispering in the ears of the separatists. It wasn’t like they were doing a Ukrainian separatist gimmick; so it was walking the line but okay. Plus tensions have never truly gone away between the United States and Russia in my opinion; probably due to there never being a major dust up between them where each clearly either won or lost. It’s human nature to think “I could’ve had them; and I would given the chance”; it’s just how our egos work.
Long story short it was working because it played off a classic formula that may not be in the best of taste but wasn’t overtly offensive; and it was working for them. It was getting over for all the reasons I listed above and because those performing it were doing it very well.
Then Russia gives the separatists surface to air missiles and 298 people of various nationalities who were uninvolved in the conflict lose their lives.
While no one can say for certain the exact wheres or whys of what happened today; WWE must address the fact that they have a star who goes out before a match and praises a head of state who is at least indirectly responsible for the murder of the passengers of Malaysia Flight MH17. A head of state who has the balls to deny involvement and try to blame either the Ukrainians or an international conspiracy set up to undermine Russia (check out RT news if you can get it; this is seriously what the Russian news is reporting in regards to this incident) DESPITE the overwhelming evidence (including footage of a truck with four missiles coming into the area from Russia before the incident then leaving, heading back towards Russia, two missiles light and US Secretary of State saying US satellites picked up everything and it was the separatists who brought the plane down) the rest of the world is finding against them.
But here’s the kicker; can they do that without seriously harming the careers of Rusev and Lana in the way they ruined Mohammed Hassan’s? Have they gone too far down this route for a backtrack to the gimmick pre-Putin praise to work?
It’s a tough one but I think they can; I’d really struggle if I was in charge of what to do in this situation. Especially if reports are true that Rusev speaks little or no English; because it limits what you can realistically give the man to do. It’s also difficult because he is so suited to the foreign monster/brute gimmick.
Personally; I believe that the best course of action for WWE, Rusev and Lana would be to revert to being just a general anti-American gimmick and quietly loose the praise of Russia and Putin as well as the Presidents Medal. Play up the Bulgarian Brute thing instead and emphasize the Rocky IV aspects of the gimmick in their places. I believe this to be the best compromise given the circumstances and the way forward that hurts Rusev and Lana the least. At the end of the day, it’s not their or, indeed, WWE’s fault that world events have taken this turn; it’s the risk you run with satire. What will be their fault is if they decide, despite the event, to go the bad taste route and continue with the gimmick unaltered.