The last two days have been very hectic for me. I had been (over)working until the Saturday morning, and found myself in wonderful nuptial surroundings in the afternoon. As a result of the busy schedule, it was only at the wedding reception that the news broke (for me) about Hulk Hogan’s racist remarks and termination from WWE and, seemingly, WWE lore.
I had friends there who like wrestling, but they weren’t the ones breaking the news; it was mainly the non-fans who know I’m a fan. This is the effect of Hulk Hogan. He and his ‘brand ’have had a sort of Miss Havisham quality over the last 10 years. Constant, eye-catching, but fading. His name still resonates with everyone regardless of whether or not they watch wrestling, and he is still worthy or mainstream news and hype, but increasingly, with a negative effect.
To wrestling promotors, he is seen as a magic bullet – someone who can command profits, attention and ratings, but in this regard, WWE are running their usual 5-10 years behind the times. While Hogan may still be the first name most people think of when they think of wrestling, he is increasingly far removed from today’s successful wrestlers and how they portray themselves. The wrestling world is a goldfish bowl, with WWE as its dominant decorative castle feature, most notable to those looking in. But inside the goldfish bowl, the waters of wrestling change are shifting.
Ask yourselves what the hottest, most dynamic offerings in wrestling are at the moment? NXT, Lucha Underground, and specific talent within, are at the top of the list, with NXT stars Kevin Owens, Sasha Banks, Charlotte, and Becky Lynch crossing over to the WWE mainstream. Each example is atypical and of their time. Lucha Underground is producing pulp/comicbook style programmes in a way never seen before, while Owens is an overweight asshole-cum-de facto hero; and for WWE standards, the women wrestlers are defying traditional boundaries by demanding respectful, excitable attention on a show which has only ever had one female main event – and getting it.
Hogan is the antithesis of that. He is an unchanging avatar wheeled out to draw in ‘casual’ fans and to give credibility to new signings by appearing with them. Only, increasingly, he has seemed less successful in these regards. He ‘hosted’ Wrestlemania 30, but it’s hard to quantify what effect that had. His role can be summed up by getting the venue wrong and sharing the ring with Stone Cold Steve Austin and The Rock. The comparison to the The Rock is telling. The Rock is every bit of what Hogan is supposed to be. He is near the most financially and popularly significant movie star on the planet, and a huge draw of mainstream media whenever he returns. Hogan, in comparison, has done practically nothing outside of wrestling for years, and the impact of his appearances has been diminishing with every passing return. That WrestleMania belonged to Daniel Bryan, an attraction forged by the fans and their demand for ‘their’ guy. Hogan was wheeled out to endorse Bryan, as he was with Hideo Itami, but in both cases, they were self-made men for whom Hogan’s endorsement was meaningless.
So wrestling, and WWE specifically, have been left with a man whose name remains culturally recognisable, but less and less helpful to the wrestling business as he is overexposed in the WWE and doing little else. In that sense, the recent media storm was something of an inevitability. Because he hasn’t been hitting headlines between the ropes, he has mainly been doing it in relation to grubbier subjects, like his recent sex tape dispute, and now being caught out for his racist rant. Those are eye-catching stories the media will frenzy over because of his name in a way they won’t anymore for any wrestling connections he has. Case in point: he is (or was) a judge on Tough Enough, but TMZ, ESPN, and the BBC aren’t reporting that.
One of the talking points coming out of the scandal is how WWE have never had a black WWE Champion, something that – seemingly – points to intrinsic racism in WWE’s decision making. There are a few asterisks to note with this stat – a) that many consider the Rock to be a black WWE champion due to his father’s heritage and b) that Mark Henry and Booker T have been World Heavyweight Champions. Where the line is drawn is debatable, but it is clear that WWE has been consistently uncomfortable with positioning black athletes at the top of the card.
So sitting on the train on my way home from the wedding I attended, I started wondering whether WWE would, or should now push a black athlete to the championship.
My short answer is that they certainly could. There is a degree of precedence for this as, in the wake of the Chris Benoit tragedy and WWE’s problematic relationship with drugs and steroids generally for a decade or so before, WWE reluctantly pushed CM Punk up the card to be a drug free, ‘straight edge’ poster boy for a squeaky clean WWE. In that situation though, Punk was popular and credible as a main event player, held back only by managerial indecision and hesitation on him.
It is telling of the WWE’s culture towards black athletes that there are no black superstars who could credibly be pushed in the same way. There are simply no black wrestlers anywhere near the WWE main event as of now. I do believe the Hogan news may alter this in some way though, and so for sheer speculation and fantasy booking, I thought I would run through WWE’s most high profile black superstars and consider which of them could be made in to a Punk-style talisman as WWE Champion.
In many ways, Darren Young would be an ideal candidate to show off just how contemporary and diverse WWE is. Openly gay and of course, African-American, he would tick a lot of boxes to counteract any criticisms levelled at the WWE. Unfortunately though, that is where his suitability comes to an end. It is self-evident that the quiet one from a sometimes entertaining tag team doesn’t have what it takes to become the successful focal point of the company. We will likely see more of him going forward though.
Young’s tag team partner has been drawing a lot of praise recently for his explosive performances of late, and the crowd has certainly been responding (listen to the crowd when he does his barking taunt). He is a big, pure athlete with some charisma in him, and has also recently been paraded in the media as an exemplary father. With the right groundswell, he could be climbing the card in the near future. He is, however, largely unproven as a ‘superstar’ as of yet, and would be in danger of following the path of tears behind Roman Reigns – a big, marketable star who is rejected for being forced on to crowds. He is certainly a better candidate than Young, and could in the future be in the conversation, but it feels premature without him having a significant run behind him. What should be clear though is that this scandal may well extend the Prime Time Player’s reign as tag champs significantly.
R-Truth is considered here because he has fought for the WWE Championship before. While the match was forgettable, save the goofy finish, Truth did have a run where he was at least near-believable as a top star. Truth is 4 years older than that now and really in the later Autumn of his career. This is without mentioning that he currently spends his Monday nights parading around in a cape and toilet plunger at the bottom of the card. Talented and uniquely charismatic as Truth is, WWE won’t be handing him any championships for a while, and especially not their top one.
When booked to be strong and allowed to shout terrifying threats during his matches, Mark Henry is a credible champion. His run challenging for, and then winning the World Heavyweight title in 2011 was incredible, cementing Henry as a personal favourite. This should mean of course, that Henry should be a shoe in as a champion. The only problem is that a combination of injury and diminishing impact of his ‘Hall of Pain’ character after turning face and being treated as less important have undercut the buzz he once drew. Sad to say that Henry’s music hitting denotes a meaningful jobbing rather than a remorseless beating. It is a shame, but Henry is simply not currently important to the WWE other than as a placeholder. That, mixed in with his age and the limitations that brings make the idea of him being pushed to the top again seem pretty unlikely.
Though I somewhat convinced myself of the merits of Titus O’Neil when writing about him, my favourite for this sort of push would be Big E. The guy looks incredible, is relatively young, charismatic as hell, and, importantly, has been through the WWE mill. He has been at NXT (admittedly before the Full Sail era (BFS)), has been pushed, has been dropped, and has succeeded on his own with the New Day. If pushed, I don’t see fans rejecting it and if WWE were to allow him to mix all of his best points, he could be a major star. Let him have his 5 count, let him talk and be himself (a unique brand of off-the-wall intensity), and let him show his physical prowess in important situations. He is one of the few current superstars of any heritage I could see believably matching Brock Lesnar’s physicality. Comparisons to Lesnar highlight the only issue with Big E in this talismanic role though as it was only a few weeks ago at ‘Beast in the East’ that he and his New Day brothers were dispatched by Lesnar with embarrassing ease. Though E and the New Day are important parts of the show currently, it would take significant change and patience to get E in to a state where he could, for instance, headline WrestleMania.
While I believe Big E the person may be ready, the character isn’t, much like O’Neil. A push would necessitate a sad, premature end to the New Day as we know it and maybe altogether, and time for Big E to find himself a main event character. So while it’s easy for me to imagine what Big E would be like, it would have to be trialled, tweaked, and given space to succeed without being buried under marketing (another issue Roman Reigns has suffered from). He would need feuds with powerful, successful heels like Kevin Owens, Rusev, and others for him to solidify himself as significant before challenging for the title. All that is possible, but won’t be successful without time for it to grow at least somewhat organically.
Of course, this wouldn’t be a problem if WWE had black characters in more significant roles already, and could just propel one to the next level, but it is the situation they find themselves in now – not realistically being able to push a black star as champion, even when ‘creating stars’ is a skill the naively boast of from their corporate voice.
All this takes us back to one of the original questions asked: should WWE put their top title on a black athlete to compensate for Hogan? Well, of course not. To push someone because of their skin colour is incredibly patronising to their black athletes and audience; and they would probably be setting up that character to fail if they rushed it. What they really should be doing is taking this as a warning and realising that they should provide more opportunities to deserving athletes from all backgrounds for the future.
The real revolution, which WWE sometimes embraces and sometimes tries to diminish is the triumph of personality and talent over booking decisions. The fans are increasingly vocal about who they want to see succeed, and will reject superstars they haven’t supported, or even picked for success. Daniel Bryan was the first incarnation of this, with fan support triumphing over WWE booking, but the success of and support for superstars like Kevin Owens and the NXT female wrestlers has served to solidify this. I think it’s pretty self-evident that the divas ‘revolution’ is nothing to do with Steph ex Machina, and all to do with fans raving over The Boss, Charlotte, Becky Lynch and Bayley. Their presence was demanded, and only hard-headedness from the WWE old guard can stop their success.
Again, this is a world and an atmosphere which Hogan doesn’t belong in. He is a huge star forged in a different era. He is an avatar who fans are only situationally excited to see. His music hits and everyone gets excited because it’s HULK HOGAN, but five minutes of brothers, dudes, and Hulkamania doesn’t satisfy and ‘put ass in seats’ as WWE’s young generation are. As Hogan’s power depletes, it is clear that the views he held for black people aren’t the only outdated thing about him. He will always be ‘Immortal’, but especially after this incident, fans will increasingly choose what is contemporary and dynamic over what is omnipresent and unchanging.