Wrestling Characters: Separating The Person From The Persona

Is it right to honour the achievements of wrestling icons when they have a less than stellar personal track record?


The announcement of The Fabulous Moolah Memorial Battle Royal had been a total PR nightmare. Since the big reveal on the most recent episode of Monday Night Raw, fans and pundits have made their disdain known. The reasons are several fold and were recently covered by my esteemed fellow Vulture Thomas. As he stated in his article, there is enough evidence surrounding the stories attributed to Moolah to really question why WWE thought this was a good idea.

WWE must have realised that there would be a certain amount of backlash. The anti-Moolah sentiment became so strong that WWE were eventually forced to change the name, removing all mention of her. Whether through fan fury or sponsor pressure, WWE were forced to do something they very rarely do: back down. Anybody with an internet connection can find more dirt on Moolah than in a Colin McRae Rally game. I doubt they quite expected the amount of backlash they have received though. After all, Moolah was a staple of wrestling for decades, most recently excelling as part of a geriatric double act with Mae Young. Moolah was presented to fans as a tough old lady who earned the respect of the Attitude Era fans with her crazy, badass wrestling character.

That’s something that often gets overlooked in matters such as these. Moolah the wrestling character is a separate entity from Mary Lillian Ellison the human being. Can we, or should we, treat them as such when we view them in a wrestling context? In previous decades, when kayfabe was king, these distinctions weren’t as clear as they are now. Wrestlers lived the gimmick and any life outside the ring was kept as hushed as possible. Fans simply didn’t have access to the amount of information they have today.

We recently reported that Rich Swann announced his retirement from wrestling following his departure from WWE. Swann was released after being charged with false imprisonment and domestic battery, charges that were later dropped due to insufficient evidence. Despite the charges, Swann quickly had a full diary of bookings thanks to his in ring talent and his enhanced profile due to his time on WWE television.

rich swann
Source: WWE

In short, promoters considered the positives to outweigh the negatives and booked him on their shows. This wasn’t a view shared by a large section of wrestling fans and Swann soon found himself on the wrong end of a fan backlash. Swann’s retirement announcement partly came about because his wrestling character couldn’t outrun the negative perception of his private life.

In a weird paradox, the more we accept that wrestlers are separate from the characters they portray in the ring, the harder it can be to distinguish between the two. Wrestlers’ personal lives are now almost as public as their wrestling personas and so the two meld together in our minds.

While listening to the most recent episode of The Attitude Era Podcast and reliving the Invasion angle, I’d personally forgotten the domestic violence allegations that surrounded Steve Austin during that period. The podcast hosts themselves address their difficulty in objectively watching the interactions between Austin and his then wife Deborah. It’s difficult to imagine that Austin would have continued main eventing PPVs if those allegations came to light today.

stone cold
Source: WWE

I don’t think, in this day and age, that it is possible for fans to distinguish between a character and a person. More to the point, I don’t think they should. Wrestlers should be held accountable for the decisions they make in their private life.

There’s nowhere to hide anymore, recent campaigns such as the #TimesUp and #MeToo movements show that society in general is changing.

The recent Fabulous Moolah outrage shows that no matter how WWE try to manipulate the narrative, we no longer make exceptions for people due to the entertainment they’ve provided. So yes, we know that the characters we see on our TV screens and at live shows week in and week out aren’t analogous with the real life person, but it has become impossible to untangle the two.