Since the early days of professional wrestling, villainous wrestlers travelled from all over the world to take down our American heroes.
Fritz Von Erich was billed as a Nazi sympathizer sent to terrorize American fans in the 1960s. The Iron Sheik capitalized on the general disdain Americans had for his native Iran in the 1980s. In 2005, the Arab-American, Muhammad Hassan, caused so much controversy that his gimmick, as a whole, was nixed.
The “foreign menace” is an emotional play off of current events and a call to stir our inner American patriotism. Before fans were “in on the act,” it was common to believe that the men you saw in the ring were the men you’d see in everyday life.
Mr. Fuji never stopped disrespecting America, and he never ceased from throwing magic Japanese blinding powder in the faces of his enemies. This made him a bad man – how could he disrespect our land and freedom so much?
The foreign menace was hot – maybe the easiest way for a performer to get over as a heel.
No one bothered to ask why these people were even competing in the U.S. if they hated it so much. Yet, like many other facets of the circus that is pro wrestling, this issue was simply swept under the rug. It’s beside the point, anyway.
The glory days of the foreign menace were fascinating, and the superstars involved played the role so well – Nikolai Volkoff, Ivan Koloff, the original Sheik are worthy of mention here. Even our own Sgt. Slaughter turned his back to the red, white, and blue in one of the WWE’s hottest storylines of the 90s.
But, it’s 2015 – the curtain is pulled back further than it ever has been before. We knew Muhammad Hassan wasn’t a terrorist. We knew Umaga was the supremely talented Eddie Fatu (Jamal of 3 Minute Warning). We knew Vladimir Kozlov was a highly touted martial artist recruited to WWE and originally portrayed as a clueless face. Double double E!
So, why is the foreign menace still trotting out each and every week in the form of Rusev?
First, the WWE operates primarily out of the United States. Today’s product is indeed a global phenomenon, sure, but Raw, SmackDown, and nearly all live events are run in America.
Second, there has to be real world tension to feed off of in order for a heel to generate genuine heat. There is a new generation of fans who monitor the honest tension between the U.S. and Russia on the news.
But, what happens to that formula when the foreign menace is actually pretty damn entertaining?
Introduced as “The Bulgarian Brute,” Rusev was undefeated for nearly a year before suffering a loss to John Cena (read: Captain America) at WrestleMania 31. He defeated Sheamus to capture the United States Championship late in 2014, and became a central figure in the WWE mythos. His promos aren’t half bad, either….though I won’t claim to even remotely understand what he’s saying. It just sounds tough.
At WrestleMania 31, he even entered the arena in a tank. HE DROVE A TANK TO THE RING, PEOPLE!
Lana has largely served as his valet and mouthpiece, but even in that, she’s become one of the most important women on WWE programming.
The gripe is that the whole pomp and circumstance seems unnecessary for such a talented prospect.
We know Rusev is gifted enough to work without this gimmick. He’s an improving, solid worker that has delivered intense physical matches with John Cena, Sheamus, Roman Reigns, and Big E. He sells well and his facial expressions show just enough pain to make his opponent look good but not so painful that he looks weak.
History shows us that the foreign menace doesn’t last forever. Fritz Von Erich went from Nazi enthusiast to good ol’ boy with a family of good ol’ boys in Texas. The Iron Sheik went from a legitimate champion to an obscene oddball comedic character known more for shoot interviews than wrestling prowess. Worse than that, the career of Nikolai Volkoff seemed to spiral into irrelevance after the threat of the Cold War subsided.
Rusev is well-equipped to be the WWE Champion, and could main event shows for years to come. The thought of his becoming a comedy act or altogether forgotten is enough to cause worry.
The greatest fear is that we’ll see what could be a cornerstone for the WWE slip into obscurity just because of the dated foreign menace gimmick after it has run its course.
Stoney Keeley covers the WWE for WrestlingNews.co, and is a Tennessee Titans Staff Writer for Pro Football Spot. You can follow him on Twitter at @StoneyKeeley and the SPOT’s Tennessee Titans Twitter feed at @spot_titans.