Growing up in the 70’s as a wrestling fan, the sport was very different from what we see today. Some of the changes were for the good, but many detracted from my enjoyment. One of the biggest changes I’ve seen over the years has been with regard to wrestlers doing interviews.
Back in the 70’s, very few wrestlers had great “mike skills”. I recall Jesse Ventura providing some entertaining interviews with Vince McMahon holding the microphone. However, the majority of the interviews were unscripted and poorly executed (as compared to the TV-time conscious efforts of today). Guys would repeat themselves and blank out in the middle of sentences. It was pretty bad. But the great thing about wrestling in those days is that you didn’t need to have great mike skills. There was a tool created to do all the talking for you. It was called your manager. Some of the greatest wrestlers said very few words while guys like Bobby Heenan, The Grand Wizard of Wrestling, Fred Blassie, Jimmy Hart and Lou Albano stood next to them and shouted for 3 minutes about how their guy was going to tear the challenger apart.
But thinking back to some of the most menacing wrestlers at that time…. guys who seemed ten times as scary as Kane or the Undertaker…. guys who you didn’t want to ever meet in a dark alley….. legitimate nut-jobs…. were the guys who didn’t say a word.
I remember a guy who was billed as “The Mongolian Giant”, Killer Khan. Killer Khan was about 6’8″, of Asian descent and bald. During interviews, Khan would look into the screen while his manager (I think it might have been Fred Blassie) would talk. The kicker was that during the interviews and the matches, Khan would scream occasionally and slap himself in the face. Hard. To this day, I would freak out if I saw Killer Khan. And to have him speak in fluent English would completely ruin the effect.
Lots of folks remember Jimmy “Superfly” Snuka as the man who jumped off the top of a steel cage and pounced on top of Don Muraco. However, I recall the guy who made a splash on the scenes in the WWF in 1980 under the tutelage of Lou Albano. Back then, Snuka would contort his face and twitch his body every so often. He never spoke. Only looked strangely into the camera… as if he wasn’t quite sure whether his reflection was another guy on the inside of the lens. Of course we now know that Jimmy Snuka probably could talk, but he was so much more horrifying when he didn’t talk.
One of the guys who understands this premise even today is Kamala. While Jim Harris is actually a guy who speaks with southern drawl and is from Mississippi, the in-ring persona of Kamala is the Ugandan Giant — a large, overweight wrestler who plays upon the “uncivilized African” stereotype, painting moons and stars on his body and slapping his stomach. Had Kamala ever spoken during a wrestling interview, it would have completely ruined the character. And Jim Harris was smart enough to understand that.
I could go on and on. George the Animal Steel. The Berserker. The Samoans. The Moondogs. And there are still some guys that wrestling bookers still realize are better as non-speaking characters. Right now in the WWE, Eddie Fatu is wrestling under the name of Umaga, playing upon the “barefoot uncivilized Ugandan” stereotype. The effect isn’t quite as strong since Eddie is pretty easily recognized from his previous speaking gimmicks. However, if you didn’t see him before, you would buy the gimmick that he doesn’t speak because Fatu does a good job being Umaga.
And I said all of this leading up to one example of where the WWE just can’t seem to understand the value of silence. Sabu. Everyone who watched Sabu either in ECW or TNA-NWA knows that Sabu doesn’t speak. He doesn’t need to. One look at the horrifying scars across his back, stomach and chest reveal that something isn’t quite right. He paces like a caged animal. His manager for most of his career, Bill Alfonso, would appear as if he could barely control him. The most sickening match I ever saw was between Sabu and Terry Funk, where both wrestlers almost bled to death in a barbed wire match. Sabu, who normally wrestles with Arabian stereotype baggy pants, had them torn to shreds by the barbed wire. Overall, Sabu is a very interesting wrestler who blurs the lines between “sports entertainment” and the actions of a legitimate madman.
And so when the ECW brand was revitalized and Sabu was said to be one of the top guys in the new brand, I was pretty happy. Finally we would watch as Sabu got the recognition he deserved. That was until Sabu started…. speaking. Sabu is billed as being and Arab from “Bombay”, but hearing a perfect English accent emit from his mouth completely ruins any impact of billing him as the crazy Arab. He might as well be every other guy on the roster. And fortunately for Sabu, the innovative ways that he uses a chair during his matches and his acrobatics more than make up for any issues with ruining his gimmick. But it just makes you wonder what goes on through WWE writer’s heads. (Part of me thinks they do this on purpose to ruin a wrestler’s value if they every tried to leave the WWE. They have a history of making long-time masked wrestlers reveal their identities. This feels like the same thing.)
In wrestling, sometimes silence is indeed golden. Personas can be much more believable if we never heard some guys speak. The bigger and the crazier the guy, the more our imagination runs wild. Maybe he was raised by animals? Maybe he grew up in his parents basement chained to a pipe and was never let out? Not knowing whether a guy talks perfect English or with a foreign accent, is well-spoken or uneducated, talks with a lisp or annunciates perfect, has a very high or a low baritone tone — are all factors that further the mystery of the character.
Imagine if Jason Vorhees of the Friday the 13th movie series took off his mask at then end of the movie and started speaking, (even if he spoke broken English) into the screen about how he was going to torture his next victim? The madman gimmick would be severely damaged. Same idea here.