I’ve been thinking a lot about current WWE foreign menace Rusev and what his future may bring.
For eons, pro wrestling has exploited either current world situations or long-standing xenophobia to create hugely effective heel characters. But it’s been a while since the WWE has put its force behind a foreign threat like Rusev, who is alleged to hail from Russia.
When I think of bad guys from other countries, my mind immediately goes to the Iron Sheik and his successful run in the WWF in 1983 and 1984. It’s possible in ’84 that the Sheik was the most hated guy in wrestling (the irony being he is a nice guy outside the ring, having met him before briefly).
Can the WWE replicate the Sheik’s atmosphere with Rusev all these years later? Longtime mid-carder Jack Swagger seems prepped to take the role of the All-American hero who will fight Rusev.
I read a piece by one of my favorite blogs, Ring the Damn Bell, which in part said:
One thing that has never changed is the fondness for the WWE and fans alike for a feud between an all-American hero and a foreign heel. Now such a tact is being used as another throw of the dice to make the fans care about Jack Swagger.”
Can the feud with Swagger and Rusev work in the long term. Let’s compare it to the Shiek’s heyday and what it made it successful:
- The Shiek was pushed hard. He ended the lengthy reign of Bob Backlund to win the WWF Heavyweight Title, which was a huge deal back in 1983 that is hard to explain now. Granted, the Sheik lost the belt to Hulk Hogan about a month later, but even as a transitional champion, it meant something to put the title on the Sheik. Rusev isn’t at the point at which you put the big title on him, but he clearly is being pushed hard by the WWE.
- There was real animosity against a foreign country by the United States public. Back in 1984, American remained angry about the 1979-1980 Iranian hostage crisis, during which 52 Americans were detained by terrorists in Iran for 444 days. When the Sheik got on the microphone and yelled, “Iran No. 1!” it pushed fans’ buttons. Rusev and his manager, Lana, play off current Russian President Vladimir Putin’s thumbing of his nose to American saber-rattling. Could we get into an escalated conflict with Russia? Sure, it’s possible, and if that happens, watch Vince McMahon shift into full gear on the Rusev angle.
- The Sheik had a tremendous spokesman. Classy Freddie Blassie, one of wrestling’s all-time great performers and managers, was dubbed the Ayatollah Blassie while he oversaw the Sheik’s affairs. Rusev’s cohort, Lana, brings a different dynamic to her pairing, but she certainly gets a good deal of heat from fans and adds to Rusev’s character. A bonus is that Swagger is managed by Zeb Colter, played by long-time wrestler Dirty Dutch Mantel, and Colter can talk.
- A big-time heel stood up to the Sheik and then turned babyface for the feud. One day, the Sheik and Sgt. Slaughter met in the aisle as they were going to and forth for their matches, and neither man would move aside for the other. This eventually led to Slaughter, who portrayed a Marine drill sergeant, becoming the biggest babyface in wrestling at the height of his feud with the Sheik. Slaughter had been the bane of many good guys during his earlier WWF run, but had sympathy in his corner because his long-time manager, the Grand Wizard of Wrestling, had died just months before his initial run-in with the Sheik. Fans were ready for a no-nonsense protragonist to fight the Sheik. I’m not sure if Swagger fits the bill — he has been mired in the mid-card for years, and although he’s a talented technical wrestler, he’s got a vanilla personality and seems to lack fire. He may serve as a stepping stone for Rusev, but I doubt he’ll become his ultimate nemisis.
In the end, I don’t think Rusev vs. Swagger will go down in the annals of WWE history as Sheik vs. Slaughter did. However, Rusev has a good shot as becoming the biggest foreign heel in a long time, and some babyface will indeed have an epic struggle with him over American ideals.