"Wrestling Declassified" is a new series from WrestlingINC.com in which we draw together lesser-known details regarding some of the most noteworthy matches, angles, and stories in pro wrestling history. We'll also include commentary and new information from the men and women of pro wrestling who generously share their reflections for this series. This week, we're discussing the willingness of some grapplers to risk their personal safety and well-being as they export pro wrestling to geopolitical hotspots far and wide.
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For over a decade, WWE had proudly touted its regard for America's armed forces with their annual Tribute to the Troops event. Some of these shows have emanated from areas close to bona fide combat zones, including events held at military bases in Afghanistan and Iraq. To be sure, WWE had the benefit of staging these shows under the protection of legions of combat-ready soldiers. But some wrestlers venture into areas of political tension, imminent conflict, and civil unrest without the support of heavily armed protectors.
In 1995, WCW sent a number of its top stars to North Korea to work a huge event in cooperation with New Japan Pro Wrestling. Although tensions between North Korea and the United States would rise considerably following George W. Bush's "Axis of Evil" speech in 2001—and retaliations would continue to deteriorate over the course of subsequent years—the relationship between the two countries was far from amicable in the mid 1990s. Ric Flair described the experience of visiting the country in a 2014 interview with USA Today:
"They kept us three days after the event—we were supposed to leave right after but they kept us three days longer," Flair recalled. "The thing that really disturbed me the most was that they wanted me to make a public statement... that after my time in North Korea, I saw that they could dominate the United States of America if they wanted to. I couldn't say that, you know what I mean? I can't remember how I angled my way around that one but I did not say that. I just said that I was thrilled and honored to be there and appreciated their hospitality. They were, for the most part, very nice. It was just an intimidating format, the whole time. There was no misunderstanding that [the North Koreans] wanted us to know that they were a threat as a world power."
The "Collision in Korea" show entertained a reported 190,000 Koreans in Pyongyang's May Day Stadium and featured some of WCW's most noteworthy stars of the day, including Chris Benoit and Too Cold Scorpio. Despite some tense moments and concerns on the parts of the participants, everyone returned to the States without incident and the event remains a unique moment in pro wrestling history.
Traveling abroad is often an eye-opening and life changing experience whether a traveler's objective is business or pleasure. Mick Foley's acclaimed autobiography Have a Nice Day! A Tale of Blood and Sweatsocks offers the hardcore Legend's firsthand accounts of his earliest tours overseas, including his trips to Burkina Faso, Africa. Foley described the conditions in the former French colony in graphic and unsettling terms, noting that the workers and crew braved unsafe venues and struggled with significant illness, including one worker who came down with malaria and left the tour early. Around a week after he returned home, Foley learned that the country's president, Marxist revolutionary Thomas Sankara, was assassinated during a coup that sparked a brief spate of armed conflict in the country.
Foley also traveled to Nigeria as a young wrestler and, while he did not comment extensively on the political environment or living conditions there as extensively as his descriptions of Burkina Faso, he shared a hair-raising account of an attack by around a dozen fans inside of a show venue. According to Foley, he initially sought to get some distance between the attackers and himself by climbing into the ring but he was ordered out of the ring by the show's promoter. He said there were police officers with machine guns on hand at the show but they did not intervene and it was up to the Nigerian wrestlers to provide Mick with a safe and secure route back to the dressing room.
Bullet Club member Luke Gallows experienced an even more harrowing incident when he toured Nigeria in August 2011. Speaking to Harry Burkett in the February 2012 issue of Pro Wrestling Illustrated, the wrestler recounted an extremely tense situation in which he ended up staring down the barrels of bayoneted M16 rifles after losing his cool in front of some Nigerian guards. Also during the trip, Gallows and fellow travelers Cliff Compton and Micah Taylor were detained for four days in the city of Lagos after their hotel was placed on lockdown due to a terrorist bombing in the nation's capital.
Wrestling photographer Thomas Rude served in the United States Army from 1985 to 2007, retiring as a Staff Sergeant. Asked if pro wrestlers have any special advantages when they end up in high-stress situations in the real world, the veteran expressed skepticism:
"Personally, I don't think so, said Rude. "I've seen some indy guys lose it over the small stuff and watched wrestling veterans act like children."
Nevertheless, many workers feel compelled to endure harsh conditions and difficult circumstances to bring in-ring action to their fans in all corners of the globe. Lady Grappler The Great Cheyenne, a mainstay in the Midwestern independent scene—traveled to Nepal in 2011, a country which had finally settled into some semblances of political stability after years of unrest. Speaking to WrestlingINC.com for "Wrestling Declassified," she recounted some of her experiences while working shows there.
"There was one day in which the city shut down. We were not supposed to leave the hotel," she explained. "Of course, we did leave and go out only a couple of blocks away to get some food. In other instances, we'd be told we shouldn't go out after 6:00 or 7:00 in the evening. We'd still make it out to do some sightseeing or to visit what they called the 'Bollywood' dance bars. They would be stern about not being out when the lights went out because ...in those regions they didn't have street lights then. That was at times a bit disconcerting because you literally cannot see directly in front of your walking path where you were stepping. We used the flashlights on our phones, providing our batteries had not died out. Thank God he watched over us. We were always safe. The lights would be out at around 8:00 PM daily and then if the building had a generator, we were lucky to have light that night. We often used candles in our room to sit around and chill or we'd go to the top of the buildings where there were rooftop 'chill spots' and restaurants. It was weird to see militarized heavily armed men standing guard on the streets and on the corners and having posts every few blocks…It was like standing on a battlefield."
"The women were not working in the public businesses; only men," she continued. "We only saw women employed in public places if their husbands or fathers owned the businesses along with them. Once it hit evening, the women would not venture out for fear of disappearing, never to be seen again, being sold, or trafficked. That's what we were told."
Nevertheless, Cheyenne felt that it was worth the risk to brave the unusual circumstances in Nepal.
"Wrestling is, to me, the most universal of all sports, no matter the language barrier. It brings people of all walks of life together and it is extremely engaging in blissful times! In the midst of stress and civil unrest, people need some relief from negative times. A wrestling event can be that ultimate joyful unifier and stress reliever. These people also prove to be some of wrestling's greatest fans!"
Veteran Thomas Rude agreed with these sentiments, noting: "Anything to take peoples' minds off of tragedy is always welcome."
For Cheyenne, she has taken the experience of her visit to Nepal—as well as travels to Bahrain, Qatar and India—and retained them as formative aspects of her personal work ethic and spirituality.
"I found that the visual fortitude we wrestlers displayed in our battles in the ring was of an inspiration in these areas, she said. "It was a great spiritual experience. Women were in tears and men were in awe. I think these emotions were a product of their environmental issues. We all can use inspiration. I know they inspired me in my adventures there."
Maybe some of the world's biggest problems can be solved not on the battlefield or through polemical and vitriolic debates but within the squared circle. It sure seems like some of the spandex-clad men and women of the sport know a thing or two about diplomacy that somehow escapes the guys in suits and uniforms.