The Common Denominator – Religion in ‘Rasslin’ (Ted DiBiase, Sting, Kevin Sullivan, Tully Blanchard, Shawn Michaels)

Okay, so first off… a while back I mentioned how it’s pretty neat when “worlds collide.” At that time, I had a chance encounter with former regional star and one-time USWA Champion Eddie “The Snowman” Crawford when the wrestler-turned-preacher came into my office at the newspaper where I work and dropped off some public announcements for his church.

Well, this time wrestling and church have collided again, and no, it has nothing to do with the time Vince McMahon forced Shawn Michaels to tag-team with God (yes, that is really a thing that happened).

Our pastor at the church where I attend was out of town Sunday morning, so we had a guest speaker. His name was Carl Kirby, and he had a lovely and informative slideshow on how science and the Bible can actually coexist without the need to engage in a holy war or whatever. Now, I’m not here to evangelize, except to say that I believe in both John 3:16 and Austin 3:16, and there are people who have given me crap for both.

Now, if by now you’re asking how this relates back to wrestling, allow me to explain.

As he began his presentation, Mr. Kirby explained how he did not grow up in a very strong Christian household. In fact, he went on, he grew up in an environment of guys who were named “Bruiser” and “Crusher” and “Mad Dog.”

“My dad was more interested in who I could beat up than getting me to Sunday school,” he told us. His father, it turns out, was a professional wrestler named Roger Kirby. While the name sounded familiar, I couldn’t place him, so it was off to the internets I went. Wikipedia was no help. They had a Roger Kirby, but this was definitely not the droids I was looking for. Onlineworldofwrestling.com was more helpful. Billed as “Nature Boy” Roger Kirby (who knew there was another one?), “Rip” Kirby, and (for some reason) “Cowboy” Bob Baker, Carl Kirby’s daddy had a pretty long career, wrestling all over the freaking country throughout the 1970s and 80s, primarily in the NWA territories, along with the AWA, WWA, Memphis and Texas, holding regional championships everywhere he went. He apparently stole the “Nature Boy” nickname from “good friend” Buddy Rogers, not Ric Flair. And if I had to guess, he picked up the “Rip” moniker from Rip Rogers, as both spent a lot of time in the Pacific Northwest territories. I even found a YouTube video of Kirby taking on Kevin Von Erich in a World Class TV match.

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=lpMzMVyIc8s

This was toward the end of Kirby’s career, but he seemed to have the “old school heel” bit down pretty good by then. Now, just for giggles, here’s another gem I uncovered during by YouTube quest of discovery. Kirby, going by the super-awesome ring name of “Honorable Sheik” Kirby versus “Tiger Mask.”

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=gCDK9Z2DE7k

Now, before you get too excited this particular Tiger Mask is not the one you were probably hoping for. Nope, this one’s not even Asian. It’s “Nightmare” Ken Wayne. Now, there’s nothing wrong with Ken Wayne. He and fellow “Nightmare,” Danny Davis were a pretty decent tag-team in the 80s in the South. But the whole gimmicky nature of this match had me thinking back to my youth.

So, anyways, this got me to thinking about religion in pro wrestling. Has anyone ever taken a serious attempt to bring a Christian (I’m just going with what I know) character into the squared circle?

Yes, I’m aware of the many characters and gimmicks that lampooned religion, and no, I’m not offended by them. I thought Brother Love totally nailed the TV evangelist gimmick at a time when many of those figures were going down in the flames of scandal. There’s really no telling how much money Kevin Sullivan made playing the “Satanist” role in the South, where religion permeates every aspect of society. I’m not sure how seriously we were supposed to take Jake Roberts’ “born again” character, and really wasn’t he more of a heel? I suppose there have been several masked wrestlers who were “Angels” of various types, but I think that’s stretching a bit.

Usually when religion makes its way into the wrestling world it is done for laughs, or even to vilify someone, similar to how CM Punk’s “straight-edge” lifestyle was used to make Punk “holier than thou” as a heel. When Jeff Jarrett made his “highly successful big return” to the WWE one time, he called Austin 3:16 “blasphemous” and was booed thoroughly. I seem to remember Dustin Rhodes doing some kind of goofy evangelist thing during his weirder days as well, but I was mostly watching WCW during that period.

Or there’s the aforementioned darker side of religion, a la Kevin Sullivan. The Undertaker went through a quasi-satanic period, complete with a “not-crucifixion” of Austin. Of course that was very derivative of Raven crucifying the Sandman in ECW, which went over about as well as the proverbial fart in church and turned Kurt Angle away from signing with ECW from what I’ve heard.
A few years ago, I bought a 2-disc DVD set at Wal-Mart for $1.00 called “Grand Masters of Wrestling.” From the best I can discern, there was this wealthy Jewish family that was holding a family reunion or a bar mitzvah or something, and for entertainment they booked a card full of former wrestling stars worthy of the infamous “Heroes of Wrestling” pay-per-view to put on a show. Such has-beens as Ken Patera, Iron Mike Sharpe, and Nikolai Volkoff show up for this thing. And in the “main event” the villainous Iron Sheik, who still seems to think it’s 1983, faces the “Mighty Maccabee” (a fat masked wrestler with a Star of David on his head). I’ve managed to erase most of the details from the DVD from my memory (I think the event was called MaccabeeMania), but I guess that counts as religion in wrestling, right?

A few former stars other than the Snowman have found Jesus along the way in their lives. Ted DiBiase comes immediately to mind. In fact, I think he was running a Christian-themed wrestling promotion for a while, having turned his back on his wild “Million Dollar Man” days. Tully Blanchard is a reverend now, I believe. Sting had a conversion to the faith toward the end of his heyday, which I think created somewhat of a rift between him and long-time buddy Lex Luger, but Sting has never really incorporated his faith into his character.

Of course Shawn Michaels famously found Jesus and repented of his sins (and it seems there was a lot to repent). And yes, that conversion was used for storyline purposes (see the aforementioned tag-team with God), but I wonder if a character who was openly Christian, but not in a hit-you-over-the-head-with-it kind of way would get over with today’s audience. I’m thinking of a Youth Group Leader type of guy who was geared toward the kids and tweens, but with a positive message for everyone. Ted DiBiase, Jr. could probably pull this off, and if Daddy had any influence over him during his developmental years, he might actually be a Christian – something that certainly wouldn’t hurt the character’s legitimacy.

Now, I’m sure there would be some portion of the audience that just wouldn’t get behind the idea no matter what. Religion is certainly a touchy subject with a lot of people. And of course, turning the character heel would certainly be tempting after a while. I think the key would be to not be overt with it. Just be positive at first, begin a few subtle mentions of “thanking God” after a big win or whatever, and then down the road, have one of those super-serial sit-down interviews where the guy discusses “his faith and his mission” or something. I don’t know, but I think it could work.

Anyways, thanks for reading…and no jihads in the comments section!

 

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