Feature writing


Putin vs. Obama — in spandex: wrestling’s new cold war

The Daily Beast

May 14, 2014

Diplomatic relations between the United States and Russia are at a disturbingly low ebb. President Obama is reportedly set on making Russia “a pariah state.” Dmitry Rogozin, the Russian deputy prime minister, says Russia will no longer export rocket engines to the U.S. to launch military satellites. While Obama plays golf, action-man President Putin, previously famous for homoerotic horse-riding, scored six goals in a recent ice hockey game.

Now those politically attuned folk at the WWE are making a delicate diplomatic situation much more inflammatory. With backbreakers and stomps to the chest.

Step forward the WWE’s newest gargantuan heel, the allegedly “Russian” Alexander Rusev, who—two weeks into his prime-time wrestling adventure—is accompanied to the ring by his valet “Lana,” determined to pulverize and torture any down-home, Stars and Stripes- and Spandex-wearing American he alights upon. His own trunks could do with urgent restyling, away from their current “Spanx diaper” vibe.

The new cold war is not just being fought in terse diplomatic exchanges but in the sweaty, sadomasochistic WWE ring. If viewers of the evening news are unsure of the exact seriousness of American and Russian saber-rattling, the producers of WWE are here to help enflame age-old prejudices.

No matter that Rusev is Bulgarian and Lana is an American called Catherine (C.J.) Perry. The WWE insists Perry was born in Russia, although other online biographies of her state she was born in the U.S. and spent part of her childhood in Russia. Anyway, this is wrestling, people. Get with the storyline.

What distinguishes the introduction of Rusev and Lana is how overtly political the WWE producers are making the duo, against the crazy backdrop of body slams and byzantine personal betrayals that are the narrative engine of professional wrestling.

On Monday night’s Raw, the veteran “Hacksaw Jim Duggan,” armed with his trademark plank of wood, found himself addressed by Lana, dressed in skin-tight red dress, matching lips, and the forbidding tone of a Bond villain not to be messed with. New Russia versus clapped-out old America. “Heecksaw Jeeem Doogan,” she said, streeetching eeevryy woooord out, “You symbolize America, a great nation, but just like England, your empire crumbles, and you are the laughingstock of the world.”

The audience booed.

“Did you not know China has passed you and has the biggest economy now in the world?” Lana said to the crowd, lip curling. A little global economics-based jab alongside the political insults.

“U-S-A! U-S-A!” the crowd chanted in response.

Lana—or rather Ms. Perry, as it suddenly seemed she was breaking out of character—smiled at the unfolding pantomime she was ringmaster of. Then she turned stern dominatrix again. “Rusev is proud to represent Mother Russia and the greatest leader in the world, Vladimir Putin.” At that moment, a huge image of Putin flashed up on a screen in the arena. The crowd booed louder.

Duggan, brandishing his pathetic plank, said he thought there was something Lana should hear: the crowd’s “U-S-A!” chants.

Lana told Duggan that his behavior merely proved American inferiority and ushered “the superior athlete Rusev” to the ring. “The Bulgarian Brute,” the excitable announcers called Rusev. He’s huge, obviously, a glowering tree trunk on legs, and looked furious and malign, as if he was chewing a mouthful of glass, with added wasps.

First Duggan defied him, then Rusev smashed Duggan’s plank over his knee. Duggan got out of the ring before a younger wrestler, the Big E, hurtled under the ropes to take on Rusev, receiving a hard posting, Rusev’s bulk smashing into him, and then a resounding kick to the windpipe. The Big E ended up dazed and beaten outside the ring, with Lana and Rusev looking on, triumphant and majestic, as a Russian-sounding overture echoed around the stadium. Rusev’s only verbal communications were indecipherable howl-grunts.

The foregrounding of Putin by Lana, as well her disparaging view of America as a declining superpower, were not met by the promotion of President Obama by the American side—presumably because he would have been hit with as many boos as the Russian president by a mainstream arena wrestling audience. There was also no equivalent trash-talking of Russia and its recent controversial actions in Ukraine.

In a statement, a spokesman for WWE told The Daily Beast: “WWE programming, like Hollywood movies and television shows, is an exciting blend of action, characters and fictional storylines of good versus evil that are often inspired by pop culture and current events. Russian President Vladimir Putin has given us good material to work with to create strong characters in Rusev and Lana, who are perceived as either protagonists or antagonists depending on where in the world you are watching WWE programming.”

The extra layer of intrigue alluded to in that statement is that the WWE itself is an international brand. Two of its programs play on Russian television, and the WWE toured there as a live entertainment show last year. The WWE is therefore aware that Rusev cannot be played as a straight heel and that Russian patriotism, however cartoonish and implacably “other,” will be well-received by its considerable Russian audience. What plays as depthless violence and bruising circus on screen obscures commercial pragmatism. It will have tickled legendary hard-man Putin no end to have his image blown up stadium-size on Raw: the fact his picture filled the arena, and Obama’s didn’t, shows who the producers think is the tough guy to put in lights.

Rusev isn’t the first “Russian” wrestler—or, as in times past, American wrestlers playing Russian, almost always the villains—to appear in American wrestling. Just as now, their presence was pronounced when tensions between the two countries thrummed in the 1980s. “The Bolsheviks” were a tag team in the latter part of the decade, with one from Croatia and the other from America.

The Croatian-born Nikolai Volkoff had been the tag team partner of the villainous Iranian Iron Sheik, another heel sourced in political tension, this time between America and Iran in the 1980s. As a tag team, the men arrived in the ring waving the flags of Iran and the Soviet Union; Volkoff would sing the Russian national anthem. In Britain, World of Sport viewers saw the red-trunked “Red Ivan” get “body-splashed” by crowd favorite Big Daddy.

The key to being a good Russian heel back in the day was to be abnormally thick-set, brutish looking, with a goatee, mustache, and bald head: the circus strongman look. One finger on an opponent’s neck would lead the good-guy American to experience mysterious paroxysms of pain. They were merciless and brutal. Fake “Russian” wrestlers included “Krusher Kruschev” (American), Alexis Smirnoff (Canadian), Nikita Koloff (American), and Ivan Koloff (Canadian). The anti-Russian animus also fueled boxing movie Rocky IV, released in 1985, in which Rocky’s Russian opponent is Dolph Lundgren’s mostly mute-brute, Ivan Drago, who tells Rocky: “I must break you.”

At least the more recent fearsome Russian bear, Vladimir Kozlov, was from Tashkent, and Rusev being from Bulgaria puts him, well, in the right geographical ballpark. He will appear on Raw again this coming Monday, I am informed, although the WWE would not say if the politicking prior to his entry to the ring would be as pronounced as it was on Monday night.

Producers, while giving Rusev top billing, are keeping their options open about his “character.” Storylines change, I am told. Characters travel from heel to “face” (good guy). Even John Cena, the ultimate good guy, gets booed by some fans. The WWE, a source told me, is all about “interpretation. Anything is possible in WWE. Anything can happen.” Maybe down the road, then, we’ll get to see Rusev and Cena as tag team partners, showing Putin and Obama a fraternal way forward. Perhaps the WWE can succeed where the finest diplomatic minds have so far flailed.