As with most art, pro wrestling is a reflection of life. More accurately, WWE is typically a reflection of culture. In the new year, I can’t help but to recognize how far, for better or for worse, WWE has come in my lifetime. It’s hard not to notice how much more progressive the product has become, following suit with the general political climate. Twenty years ago, most wrestling fans would scoff at the notion of pro wrestling being a symbol of progress. From characters based on broad racial stereotypes and women’s swimsuit pillow fight matches to being globally inclusive and the women’s revolution, the WWE of 2018 has certainly matured.
Whenever you meet a casual wrestling fan who grew up in either the Hulk Hogan or Stone Cold Steve Austin generations, the usual complaint is that they grew out of it or that there just aren’t any good storylines anymore. And in the vain of Eric Bischoff’s theory of “Controversy Creates Cash,” that may be true. While it’s very good for public relations to not be offensive, culturally insensitive comments can definitely be an easy way to build a heel and get a reaction. But to avoid it altogether may leave us with little to root against. However, we didn’t see WWE Creative hold back when pushing Jinder Mahal to be a main event villain.
Jinder is a great example of a progressive character breaking through while also regressing to some racially charged heat. The Modern Day Maharaja got a surprise push in 2017, coincidentally and conveniently around the same time that the WWE was booming in India. Yes, it seems the free market decided to give us the first WWE Champion of Indian descent. But he’s still a bad guy, so let’s not pat them on the back too much. Jinder would go on to cut promos about how the WWE Universe didn’t respect him because of the color of his skin; that they were intimidated by a successful, intelligent Indian man. It’s definitely a tried and true angle based in some truth, but shortly after, Jinder would play the hypocrite, making some not-so-subtle racist remarks toward Shinsuke Nakamura. This incited the first ever, “That’s too far!” chant in WWE history, proving that this isn’t the same fanbase of the Attitude Era. But it did succeed in gaining some much needed heat for Mahal. All in all, the rise of the Maharaja can be considered a success.
205 Live also boasts a rare Islamic babyface in Mustafa Ali. The Pakistani-born high flyer has discussed how he wanted to change the perception of Muslim people in the US. Back in the Hogan era, he would have quickly been labeled as a foreign enemy, but we live in a brave new world of wrestling where stereotypes and negative connotations toward certain peoples have gradually fallen by the wayside. Of course, this is also due to the fact that WWE is being broadcast in more Muslim nations than ever before. After all, no one wants to watch a product where anyone who shares your ethnicity is considered an evil foreigner.
Since the middle east is a burgeoning market for WWE, it was the perfect time for the women’s revolution to reach yet another milestone. While on tour in Abu Dhabi, Sasha Banks and Alexa Bliss made history in 2017 by having the first women’s match ever in the middle east. Despite having to be fully clothed instead of their usual ring gear to meet Muslim laws in that region, it was still an empowering achievement. This is not only big for the wrestling world, but for cultural progress as a whole. Following this, of course, was the announcement that 2018 would feature the first ever Women’s Royal Rumble match.
This is a testament to how much attention the women have been getting for having undeniably great matches and how in demand they’ve become. For the first time ever, the women’s roster is filled up (or close to it) to the point that they can logistically have a 30-woman rumble. While this may not seem like a big deal to the mainstream, the Rumble is arguably the best event of the year. My only complaint about how WWE handles the current women’s division is that they don’t receive enough air time. The historic significance of this match is not lost on the women of WWE, so expect them to go all out.
Despite coming a long way from bra and panties matches and Jerry Lawler shouting “Puppies!” every 5 minutes, or handing a Samoan wrestler a Japanese flag and calling him Yokozuna, many fans of the old product just can’t get on board with the new. And I totally get it. Yes, maybe the controversial ideas and insensitivity of that time did make for good television. It was low brow and trashy, and that’s the way we liked it. But those same fans should give the current product a chance, because while it may not light up our lizard brain as much as Stacy Keibler in a miniskirt, it’s probably better for us. It’s the pro wrestling fan equivalent of making an effort to have a more plant-based diet in the new year. It’s just healthier. And maybe…just maybe…one day wrestling will unite us all as human beings …
… but we’ll still bicker about Roman Reigns getting a push.
Nathan Burke is a standup comedian based in Boston and can be found on Twitter @IamNathanBurke