Professional wrestling is a microcosm for the world at large — a stripped-down pantomime of violence that plays upon our most basic fears, biases and desires.
Also, it’s oversized men in spandex pretending to fight.
But on a more philosophical level, wrestling taps into our most primal instincts for battle by delivering an us-versus-them morality play that mirrors our innate lust for warfare.
That’s why some of the greatest “heels” in wrestling history have been the dastardly foreigners who threaten our American way of life. They represent an attack on our liberties, and must eventually be squashed by a heroic American babyface.
Of course, finding an actual evil foreigner is a little trickier than just hiring an ethnically ambiguous American to play the part. Here are 11 of wrestling’s most notorious “foreigners,” the most exotic of whom actually hailed from the strange and distant land of Canada.
Abdullah the Butcher
Alleged Birthplace: Sudan (hence the catchy nickname, The Madman of Sudan)
Actual Birthplace: Windsor, Ontario, Canada
Real name: Larry Shreeve
Bio: Abdullah the Butcher is one of world’s most notorious “hardcore” performers, drawing (and spilling) blood in practically every match he has wrestled over the past five decades or so. His thirst for blood developed not in a depraved corner of Sudan, but instead in the dull city of Windsor on the Canadian border, which Michael Moore used as a backdrop in Bowling For Columbine to demonstrate how friendly Canadians are.
Alleged Birthplace: Uganda
Actual Birthplace: Senatobia, Mississippi
Real name: Jim Harris
Bio: Billed as hailing from the deepest, darkest jungles of Africa, Kamala actually grew up as the son of furniture store owners in small town Mississippi. After he retired from full-time wrestling, he released an album of himself singing soul music (quite terribly). Sadly, he has recently had one of his legs amputated, and possibly both, due to complications from diabetes.
Alleged Birthplace: Somewhere in the Middle East (which was specific enough for most fans to hate him)
Actual Birthplace: Vernon, Texas
Real name: Jimmy Wehba
Bio: Although of Middle Eastern descent, Akbar was born and raised in ‘Murica. But he was a wrestler and manager back in the pre-Internet days, when fans weren’t quite as savvy, so he was an enormous heel in various wrestling territories throughout the ’60s, ’70s and ’80s. He died three years ago, not too far from his birthplace, deep in the heart of Texas.
The Ultimate Warrior, The Missing Link, Papa Shango
Alleged Birthplace: Parts Unknown
Actual Birthplace: Respectively: Crawfordsville, Indiana; Kitchener, Ontario, Canada; Las Vegas, Nevada
Real names: Jim Hellwig, Dewey Robertson, Charles Wright
Bios: Although these men were said to have originated from Parts Unknown, their origins are quite well known to anyone who actually bothered to look them up. The Ultimate Warrior was a huge star but a certifiable nutcase who legally changed his name to Warrior and became notorious for ultra-conservative rants. The Missing Link became a chronic pot smoker and steroid abuser who emerged from his mental fog long enough to write a book called Bang Your Head before he passed away. Papa Shango morphed into several other wrestling characters (including a pimp called The Godfather) before retiring from wrestling to manage a Vegas strip club.
Alleged Birthplace: Syria
Actual Birthplace: Lansing, Michigan
Real name: Ed Farhat
Bio: The Sheik was one of the greatest bad guys of his era, which preceded wrestling’s huge explosion in popularity in the early 1980s. He was a master of using the concealed “foreign object” (often a pencil), which he used to tear at his opponents’ foreheads. He continued to wrestle into his geriatric years in Japan, often performing violent “deathmatches” with his nephew, Sabu, before his death in 2003.
Alleged Birthplace: Japan (or Polynesia, sometimes)
Actual Birthplace: San Francisco
Real name: Rodney Anoa’i
Bio: Although he portrayed a massive sumo wrestler and waved a Japanese flag, Yokozuna never actually competed in sumo wrestling. He just happened to have Asian features and an enormous ass, which was close enough by WWF standards. Despite his enormous girth, he was actually one of the best “big men” in wrestling, and could move with surprising agility. As part of the Anoa’i family, he was related to literally dozens of wrestlers, past and present, including The Rock. He couldn’t speak a word of Japanese, though, so wrestling fans never heard him say more than grunts of “oosh” and “hai!” He died in 2000, and was posthumously inducted into the WWE Hall of Fame last year.
Alleged Birthplace: “Deepest, Darkest Africa”
Actual Birthplace: Spartanburg, South Carolina
Real name: George Gray
Bio: Akeem remains one of the most puzzling gimmicks in wrestling history, and perhaps the most racist. Despite clearly being a white man — who previously portrayed a biker named the One Man Gang — Gray was re-christened “Akeem: The African Dream,” and managed by the jive-talking Slick. Akeem typically spoke with a stereotypical black accent and mockingly danced to African tribal music. It made no sense.
Alleged Birthplace: Calabria, Italy
Actual Birthplace: Mississauga, Ontario, Canada
Real name: Anthony Carelli
Bio: Santino had one of the greatest debut in wrestling history, having been pulled from the audience at a show in Milan (although he was clearly a plant) to challenge Umaga for the WWE Intercontinental Championship, which he won. The “Milan Miracle” gave him a huge boost of momentum, but eventually his gifts for physical and verbal comedy shone through. He almost never wins matches, but crowds love him because he’s hilarious.
Alleged Birthplace: This one’s interesting. The Arab-American character was born and raised in the United States, but felt unfairly profiled because of his race after 9/11. It was actually an ingenious idea for a wrestling heel — the American who feels persecuted by xenophobic and racist countrymen. As the character progressed, though, it was implied that he had ties to terrorist groups in the Middle East
Actual Birthplace: Syracuse, New York
Real name: Marc Copani
Bio: Perhaps the most incendiary heel of the past decade — the Arab-American who represented Islamaphobia in a post-9/11 world was actually an Italian guy. He just happened to have the dark complexion (and muscular physique) WWE bigwigs were looking for. It worked. He became one of the most hated wrestlers in ages, routinely getting death threats, until he was finally fired because his schtick was too controversial for the network. He went into a kind of self-imposed exile for a while, cutting his ties to the wrestling biz, before returning to college to study — of all things — American history.
Who did we leave out? Comment below.