It’s no secret that WWE Chairman Vince McMahon fancies himself a patriotic dude.
And, in fact, it’s one of the rare occasions where how Vince presents himself is actually how he is. Of course, it’s not necessarily the good kind of patriotic. But that’s a distinction for another time.
The point is that Vince is one proud, patriotic American. And when the occasion calls for it (and sometimes when it doesn’t), Vince lets the stars and stripes flow freely across his WWE airwaves.
In some instances, the time is right, and a little injection of red, white, and blue into the WWE product is a good thing. Other times, it’s nonsensical, borders on offensive, and does no good for anybody.
With Independence Day around the corner in the states, we look back on some standout moments where patriotism took center stage in WWE.
We’ll start at the top, with those moments that’ll make WWE fans proud to be Americans. And we’ll work our way down to those moments where it’s best to just say you’re from Canada.
SmackDown — September 13, 2001
Vince and his ham-handed carnival show of make-pretend grapplers often take a beating from the media. And most of the time they deserve it. But there were unsung moments when WWE stepped up and did the right things for the right reasons.
The aftermath of September 11, 2001, is one of those times.
America was reeling. Hell, the world was reeling. Nobody in the United States seemed willing to leave their houses unless they absolutely had to. We were all glued to the CNN news ticker, desperately looking for answers. And no one in the sports or entertainment industry quite knew what to do.
Major League Baseball and the NFL put their seasons on hold. The thought of holding mass gatherings was still a scary one. Nobody wanted to offer terrorists a fresh target.
But somewhere between his sixteenth or seventeenth consecutive hour of lifting weights, Vince McMahon decided it was time to come out of hiding. The September 13, 2001, edition of SmackDown was the first major sporting event – or mass gathering of any kind – to take place after the September 11 attacks.
Just the sight of that WWE crowd, unwilling to hide in the face of a national emergency, was legitimately inspiring. And if the show taking place wasn’t enough, there was this.
Lillian Garcia tore the roof off the joint with her rendition of the national anthem. And WWE went through with that most cliched of showbiz tropes: The show must go on.
Within days, the late night guys followed WWE’s lead and decided it was time to get the country to laugh again. The boys of summer hit the field again to close out the Major League season. And life, while it didn’t get back to normal ever again, went back to as normal as it could possibly get.
The Lex Express – Summer, 1993
This was a silly WWE marketing gimmick. Plain and simple. And yet, in its own weird and wonderful way, it worked.
In the absence of Hulk Hogan, who exited the company after June’s King Of The Ring pay-per-view, WWE needed a new standard bearer. A new all-American hero. For better or worse, WWE took the “American hero” thing a bit too literally and repackaged Lex Luger as a paragon of patriotism.
Lex started sporting flag-pattern trunks and wearing those USA-themed tracksuits that your grandma probably still wears. If that wasn’t enough, they sent Luger coast-to-coast in a big red, white, and blue bus. The Lex Express.
Luger traversed the country, meeting people, shaking hands, as WWE looked to be making a genuine attempt to connect with the fans. Hey, this is wrestling – if it looks like it’s being done for the right reasons, people will buy it.
The crazy thing is that it actually gained traction after an event on the deck of the USS Intrepid on July 5, 1993. The evil Japanese sumo star, Yokozuna (the least Japanese Samoan you’ll ever see) challenged the whole WWE roster to a bodyslam challenge on the giant aircraft carrier.
After challenger after challenger went by the wayside, it seemed as though Yokozuna’s mission to humiliate America was complete. And then Lex Luger stepped up, lifted Yokozuna, and slammed him to the mat.
As they often do, WWE screwed everything up. Luger’s WWE Championship match with Yokozuna at SummerSlam 1993 ended in a crappy DQ finish, and Luger never quite regained his steam.
But it was fun while it lasted.
Sgt. Slaughter – Iraqi Sympathizer
This one is just plain embarrassing.
To no one’s real surprise, the Ultimate Warrior’s run as the WWE Champion in 1990 wasn’t exactly setting box offices on fire. As McMahon often did in the 80s and 90s, he decided he needed the belt back on Hulk Hogan.
But turning the Warrior heel wasn’t an option, as the character still had his share of goodwill with the fans. Vince needed a monster for Hogan to face off against, so he pitched an idea to Sgt. Slaughter: Turn heel, not only on Hogan, but on America.
Slaughter was hesitant, considering he’d been a patriotic babyface forever. Plus, he found a whole new generation of fans beyond WWE through his association with G.I. Joe. But even though Hogan’s star was waning, a program with the Hulkster probably still meant big money.
The Sarge reluctantly agreed. Then Iraq invaded Kuwait, and the plan got heavier. It was a foregone conclusion that the United States would get involved in Kuwait. The idea was now that Sarge would be turning on America during war time.
At the birth of Hulkamania in 1984, the Iron Shiek and Nikolai Volkoff were the hottest heels in the business. But they actually were Iranians and Russians, respectively. There’s nothing in bad taste with those guys trashing America. Opportunistic, yes, but not in bad taste.
But Slaughter was a beloved WWE hero. His entire career was built on patriotism. And turning him into a traitor when real-life Americans were very possibly about to be sent to die? That’s in bad taste.
But we’re talking about Vince McMahon here, so of course they went through with it.
Luckily, it didn’t get over, and people didn’t care all that much. When WrestleMania VII, headlined by Slaughter defending the WWE against Hogan failed to sell out the L.A. Colosseum, WWE changed the venue. WWE cited fears for Slaughter’s safety.
But all the tricks they pulled in the run-up to the match, including a doctored photo of Slaughter having a personal meeting with Sadaam Hussein (no, seriously, they put this on television). Apparently Hussein specifically assigned Slaughter to destroy Hulkamania.
People weren’t buying it, it didn’t work, and nobody’s career died. But this was in horrible enough taste that all involved were fortunate to escape this WWE debacle with their reputations intact.
WWE and the flag are never going to be that far apart.
There are cynical reasons. Vince McMahon is a businessman before anything else. The record is pretty plain on that one. But for all the times that he’s pulled the flag card out to make a quick buck, there are also times when it’s been legitimately entertaining.
And there have been instances where it was for good, justifiable reasons. Wresting is a tricky business, and it’s hard to see which is which through all the smoke and mirrors.
But, for good or ill (yeah, it’s usually for ill), WWE is as American as apple pie.
All images courtesy of WWE.