Tuesday, March 6, 2012

Nerd History: The Trials and Tribulations of Sgt. Slaughter

I'm 30 years old today, so when I was growing up, my pro-wrestling "phase," as it were, was in the very late 1980s into the early 1990s. I remember being a big fan of the Bushwhackers and the Ultimate Steroid Warrior (more on him later this month), but, living outside of Worcester, Massachusetts, this meant that I could see the WWF pretty much every time it came through the area. I got to see a few tapings, any number of weird occurances, and the weirdest thing that I didn't realize was weird at the time - the return of Sgt. Slaughter to the WWF. I was at the old Boston Garden during the height of the bizarre Gulf War-era storyline of Slaughter when he feuded with Hulk Hogan. While there are some significantly bizarre stories to exist in the weird world of professional wrestling, this is one of the few cultural touchstones that bled over into the "real world," as it were, and continued to have repercussions.

To understand why the Sgt. Slaughter thing was sufficiently weird, you have to first understand the history of him and his character. He toiled away for a few years before hitting the WWF in 1980, and played more of a strongman type. It was only in the mid-1980s that he became super popular, turning against the anti-American Iron Sheik and becoming America's premier defender of freedom within the squared circle. At the height of this, Slaughter made some significant history - he was one of the few "real" people to be modeled as a G. I. Joe character, even being included in the cartoon. Forget Hulkamania, this is Slaughtermania, or something.

This is where it takes a turn, though - after a dispute with WWF management, he leaves the company for a few years, returning in 1990. His return, however, is at the height of the crisis in the Middle East that culminated in Operation Desert Storm. Sgt. Slaughter's character became an Iraqi sympathizer, praising Saddam Hussein and teaming up with the Iron Sheik (now being labeled as Colonel Mustafa) to go against "real American" Hulk Hogan. Slaughter would march around with an Iraqi flag, use "chemical weapons" in the ring, throw sand in the faces of his enemy, etc. Looking back, you can't help but wonder what they were thinking when they tossed this storyline out there, especially given that Slaughter was receiving death threats at the time and actually lost the G. I. Joe endorsement as well. Really strange.

Slaughter's character eventually turned back to the warm embrace of American Patriotism, but a lot of the damage was already done at that point. He's come back to the WWF/WWE a few times since the Iraqi debacle, but, considering his cultural touchstone status in the 1980s, really never came close to reaching those heights again. In a time where it's typical for wrestling stars to get movie deals and cross over into the collective consciousness, the rise and fall of Sgt. Slaughter is really a strange look at a radically different time.

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