The Overlapping Worlds of Wrestling and Politics
Wrestling and politics have more in common than you think. Pro wrestling is fraught with backroom deals, double-crosses, shady associations, and enormous egos. So maybe it’s no wonder many wrestlers pursue politics after their days in the ring end – it’s familiar ground!
Sometimes wrestling in the political ring is harder than a match in the squared circle. These wrestlers found out firsthand—some succeeded, some got close, while others didn’t quite make it over the ropes and failed miserably!
1 – Glenn Jacobs
Glenn Jacobs—better known as former WWE World Champion Kane—was the latest pro grappler to mix wrestling and politics when he threw his hat into the, ah, ring, announcing in 2017 his candidacy for mayor of Knox County, Tennessee, where he owns an insurance business and lives with his wife, Crystal.
While this was technically his first political race, Jacobs had been active in espousing Libertarian viewpoints. They were approached in 2014 by a group of Tea Party Patriots who tried to persuade him to run against incumbent Republican U.S. Senator Lamar Alexander.
Wrestling Ring to the Mayor’s Office
Ultimately, Jacobs chose not to run against Alexander. But the local political landscape looked very different when Knox County Mayor Tim Burchett was nearing the end of his term limit.
Despite labeling himself as an outsider, Jacobs hit familiar conservative values during his announcement speech.
"Now this is the part where many politicians will stand up here and tell you all the grandiose things that they’re going to do just by snapping their fingers," he said. "I’m not going to do that because that would be unrealistic and disingenuous."
Glenn Jacobs would end up winning the Knox County Mayoral election in Tennessee and officially took over as mayor of Knox County on September 1st, 2018.
Wrestlers have often pursued public office, but they’ve been met with varying degrees of success (and often a great deal of ridicule). Some consider running for office only to back out at the last minute.
Take Ric Flair, for example.
2 – Ric Flair for Governor?
In the late 1990s, the Nature Boy explored the possibility of running for governor of North Carolina on multiple occasions. Flair has been active in fundraising for GOP politicians in the state and has had a good relationship with past legislators and governors.
Flair even went so far as to announce his intention to run in 2000 and 2004. But a campaign never materialized. As late as 2008, Flair was still mulling his options, but a conversation with another blonde bomber may have stopped him from pursuing elected office.
Jesse Ventura, a retired wrestler and maverick politician unexpectedly elected governor of Minnesota from 1999-2003, revealed during a podcast that Flair had sought his advice, but Ventura convinced him he shouldn’t mix wrestling with politics due to some of Flair’s own legal challenges.
Set Backs: Legal Challenges and Transparency
"He told me he had something like 143 speeding tickets," Ventura said.
"I told him, ‘You can’t be governor, you can’t run, they’ll kill you. That’s a total disregard for the law, and as governor, you’re the head law enforcement officer in the state."
While the political climate in 2017 is different than in the early to mid-2000s, Ventura believed Flair would have trouble adjusting to the transparency needed to win the governor’s mansion in the Tar Heel state.
"This game is much more harsh and much dirtier than wrestling ever was," Ventura said to Flair. "If you have any skeletons in the closet, you better expose them beforehand. If they find out after, you’re dead."
3 – Jesse "The Body" Ventura
Jesse Ventura, of course, knows what he’s talking about. Well before Donald J. Trump would parlay voter dissatisfaction and a sense of shameless self-promotion into an Electoral College victory, there was Jesse Ventura. During the 1998 Minnesota governor’s election, Ventura capitalized on his fame as a wrestler and actor, riding to an improbable win as a third-party candidate.
Ventura took 37 percent of the vote as the Reform Party candidate, besting Hubert Humphrey III and St. Paul Mayor Norm Coleman.
Ventura’s close advisers say that Trump’s victory map was much like the Minnesota election, slightly changed due to the burst of technology and connectivity that has happened here in the second decade of the new century.
Overlapping Campaign Strategies
"Jesse’s success is the perfect case history to show this can happen," Bill Hillsman told PBS Newshour during the 2016 presidential election.
“Hillsman is a Minneapolis ad man and close Ventura adviser who came up with several memorable campaign ads, including one that depicted Ventura as an action figure who tells special interests: "I don’t want your stupid money."
"Trump’s campaign is just Jesse’s campaign writ very large, with more money and some hugely advantageous communications tools," such as social media and online organizing, Hillsman said.
But there was an element of Bernie Sanders’s optimism and hope in Ventura’s campaign, as well.
After initially funding his campaign with $250,000, most of Ventura’s funding came through small donations of $50 or less and selling $22 T-shirts.
Mixed Legacy: Jesse Ventura’s Tenure
Ask people in Minnesota about Ventura, and the results are a mixed bag. Sometimes when mixing wrestling and politics, the old TV Persona can get in the way.
After campaigning partially on a tax cut, he did refund part of Minnesota’s budget surplus to taxpayers. But even in that, the former governor’s ego got in the way. He referred to those refunds as "Jesse Checks." And those checks kept coming to Minnesotans for three straight years until the state ran into financial trouble.
While Ventura oversaw installing a light-rail system in the Twin Cities and allocated more money for schools, many observers noted that as an outsider, he tired quickly of the day-to-day grind of governing, and he frequently clashed with other elected officials and NPR radio personality Garrison Keillor.
Toward the end of his first term as governor, Ventura announced that he would not seek another term.
Still, Ventura is the most successful American wrestler-turned-politician since Abraham Lincoln. Most of the time, wrestlers who go into politics end up doing the J-O-B.
4 – "Not Quite the King" Jerry Lawler
Jerry Lawler is a beloved icon in Memphis, so a mayoral bid was not out of the question. What’s surprising is that Lawler lost two elections in his hometown, and rather badly at that.
In 1999, the semi-retired wrestler and co-host of WWE’s RAW television show decided to mix wrestling and politics by launching a bid to become the mayor of Memphis.
Jerry Lawler’s Bid for Mayor of Memphis
In a crowded field that included 15 candidates, Lawler pulled down 11.7 percent of the vote, ahead of 12 of the other challengers. Unfortunately for him, incumbent mayor Willie Herenton won more than 45 percent of the vote, breezing past the crowded field for another four years in office.
While much of Lawler’s platform was laudable— his platform included making the streets safer for residents, beautifying the city, and improving the quality of education. He also promised to attract businesses to Memphis, improve traffic flow, create more parks, and decrease property taxes.
The Ups and Downs of Jerry Lawler’s Political Career
Lawler’s bid for mayor came in the months following Ventura’s rise in Minnesota, and the King had high hopes for an upset bid. That didn’t happen. The New York Times speculated that it was partially because he was indicted on charges of attacking a police officer in a parking dispute at the airport before the election.
But his showing was strong enough that Lawler mounted another campaign for mayor, this time in the summer of 2009, during a special called election. Lawler struggled this time, bringing in only 4 percent of the vote and finishing fifth in the race.
Those election losses might be the only real jobs the King did over a 30-year career headlining in Memphis.
"Jerry Lawler, for the People!" Watch Jerry Lawler’s Mayor of Memphis campaign ad:
5 – The "All-American Boy" Bob Backland for Congress
Bob Backlund has a secure place in wrestling history.
Despite the current backlash against his late-’70s ‘Howdy Doody’ look and his 1990s run as a crazy heel who ‘snapped’ and went after fallen opponents, Backlund was a legitimate wrestler with great credentials.
He was an NAIA national wrestling champion, and Vincent J. McMahon hand-picked him to dethrone Superstar Billy Graham for the WWF title.
Backlund kept the belt, too, taking on all comers over a period of four-plus years before dropping the strap to the Iron Sheik in December of 1983.
Bob Backlund’s Congressional Campaign
Backlund ran for Congress in 1999 (sensing a pattern yet?), campaigning for the seat representing Connecticut’s First District.
Mixing wrestling and politics was unsuccessful for him, but his tours engaged voters and brought them out—even if it was only to vote against him.
While Backlund’s populist run was covered in a front-page New York Times story, that didn’t turn into much momentum for him back in his home state.
In fact, Michele Jacklin, a political columnist for the Hartford Courant, essentially called Backlund’s candidacy exactly what it was: a stunt.
A Stunt or Serious Pursuit?
"Lacking the traditional accouterments of a big-time political campaign and having little money or staff to speak of, Backlund has managed to parlay his WWF career and the news media’s infatuation with wrestler-turned-governor Jesse Ventura into scads of free publicity for his 1st Congressional District bid," Jacklin wrote.
"Last year, Backlund was profiled in a flattering front-page story in The New York Times. It was enough to turn Democratic freshman John B. Larson’s hair gray(er), even in a district whose voter registration overwhelmingly favors the incumbent.
"But Larson isn’t the story and hasn’t been, even though he’s got a two-year record worth examining.
“Larson could disrobe (Calm down, congressman. I’m not suggesting that you would), climb to the top of the Travelers Tower, lob marshmallows onto passersby, and the news media wouldn’t bat an eye. We live in a political culture that covets celebrity and gimmickry. Backlund’s got both."
Backlund lost to Larson, and badly. He didn’t even win a single town in the First Congressional District.
When asked if he would run again, Backlund was noncommittal. He’s most recently been spotted as Darren Young’s "life coach" on WWE programming.
6 – Rhyno
And then there’s Rhyno, the tough-as-nails former ECW World Champion and tag team partner of Heath Slater in WWE and TNA.
While the team won championship gold in WWE (technically bronze, I guess?), Rhyno’s alter ego Terry Gerin didn’t quite have the same luck regarding running for statewide office in his native Michigan.
While more than 13,000 people voted for Gerin, who won the Republican primary by a mere 54 votes, his democratic opponent, Abdullah Hamoud, tallied more than 21,000 votes, according to The Press and Guide, a Dearborn, Michigan newspaper.
Unlike Backlund, Gerin was endorsed by a major newspaper when the Detroit News chose him over his GOP opponents.
Unfortunately for him, Gerin was running in a district that leaned heavily toward Democrats. His schedule did him no favors, either, as he was on the road for WWE for much of the campaign.
Rhyno Reflects on His Campaign
In his concession speech on Facebook Live, the candidate lauded the efforts of his supporters.
"The numbers are in, and I regret to say I was unsuccessful in my bid," Gerin said.
"But I was very successful in becoming closer to my community, knocking on doors, talking with residents, and just forming a bond. I knew going into this that Dearborn is a Democratic district, and it would be an uphill battle, a battle I was willing to take on," Rhyno continued.
"Myself and my volunteers created something out of nothing [a campaign], we pushed forward with honor and pride. I’m very proud to [have] had them in my corner."
While Gerin did not say whether he would seek elected office again, he encouraged his supporters to stay politically active and involved in their communities.
7 – Antonio Inoki
While some wrestlers like Rick Steiner (Cherokee County, Georgia, Board of Education) and B. Brian Blair (County Commission, Hillsborough County, Florida) has had successful stints in local politics; no country embraces wrestling and politics as Japan does.
Antonio Inoki: Wrestler Turned Diplomat
The most prominent example is, of course, Antonio Inoki. The founder of New Japan Pro Wrestling was elected to the House of Councilors (a part of the Japanese Diet, similar to the U.S. Congress) in 1989, winning re-election in 1992 before losing his seat in 1996.
Grantland’s Mimi Hanaoka details Inoki’s rise in political prominence in detail:
"When Inoki was first elected to the Japanese House of Councillors in 1989, it was through the ‘Sports and Peace Party,’ which was established largely around him.
“Even then, his political party was premised on a sports-infused takedown of the political status quo. The party’s catchphrase was ‘An Octopus Hold [manji-gatame] on the National Diet, a jumping roundhouse kick to the back of the head [enzuigiri] on the national consumption tax.’
The Influence and Legacy of Antonio Inoki
"Less than a year after he began life as a politician in 1989, more than 100 Japanese families living in Iraq were arrested and held by Saddam Hussein as human shields during the first Gulf War.
“Hussein hoped to forestall military retaliation for his August 1990 invasion of Kuwait, and detaining foreigners in Iraq seemed like it might prevent the bombardments that would later be called Operation Desert Storm …"
Essentially, Inoki tired of the slow process of official channels and approached Hussein on his own, using his reputation as a wrestler and performer.
Inoki was able to persuade Hussein, in part, because he was negotiating with the dictator not as an agent of the Japanese government, but as an agent representing the peaceful will of the Japanese people.
While the hostage crisis went on for months, and Inoki made repeated trips to Iraq, each time he made a little more progress than the last.
Finally, after multiple ploys and a ‘festival of sport’ sponsored by Inoki, the last of the hostages (41 of them, in fact) were freed.
That’s when Inoki made a move from popular wrestling to politics. But it wouldn’t last. Multiple scandals beset the Japanese hero, and he retired from political life for 18 years, until 2013, when he again campaigned and won a seat in the House of Councillors.
He’s convinced that what worked with Hussein can work with North Korea. Since his re-election, he’s visited Kim-Jung Un on multiple occasions, fearlessly inserting himself into slow-moving machinations despite protests from his own country and party.
Inoki’s story is long and involved.
He’s considered running for mayor of Tokyo and has helped create at least two political parties in Japan: the Sports and Peace Party and the Assembly to Energize Japan.
Before his passing at 79 on October 21st, 2022, he seemed to have seen himself as more of a statesman than anything else, understanding his unique standing in Japan and Asia and was determined to use it to effect some change on that part of the world.
Other Japanese Wrestlers in Politics
Other Japanese wrestlers have gone on to have prominent political roles as well.
Hiroshi Hase, a former wrestler for both New Japan and All Japan, is currently a part of the presidential cabinet, serving as Minister of Education, Culture, Sports, Science, and Technology.
Of course, that is after a career in the House of Councillors and the House of Representatives in the National Diet.
Hase was the second professional wrestler elected to national office, after Inoki. Still, others have served as well, including Atsushi Onita and the Great Sasuke, who was the first masked wrestler elected to national office.
The Unique Perspective of Japanese Wrestlers in Politics
So while many American wrestlers have mixed wrestling and politics, Japanese wrestlers seem to have perfected actually getting elected.
"My family and I could live anywhere in the U.S. we want," he said when announcing his candidacy.
"We live here because we want to live here. Because we love it here."
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