Professional wrestling and politics have always been linked, whether through stories of wrestlers using backstage politics to get their own way or overtly political statements being made on TV shows.
WWE has been more overtly involved in politics for many years, from their ‘SmackDown Your vote!’ initiative started in 2001 to encourage fans to vote, to the bizarre spectacle of a fake Hilary Clinton bodyslamming a fake Barack Obama on Raw in 2008.
However, there are many wrestlers who took things further and entered the real-life political arena themselves. In this feature, we will look at five of these wrestlers and the varying degrees of success they had in winning over the public as they looked to achieve victories of a different kind.
Jesse Ventura – “We shocked the world!”
Jesse ‘The Body’ Ventura started his professional wrestling career in the 1970s after finishing a six-year stint in the US Navy which included time in the Vietnam War. While he did not see combat during his time there, he did go on to receive the Vietnam Service Medal.
Portraying a flamboyant heel, Ventura wrestled in territories across the US during the early 1980s. He moved on to the WWF in 1984, where he quickly found himself facing Hulk Hogan for the WWF Championship. However, after losing to ‘The Hulkster’ three times that September, he was forced to step away from the ring due to blood clots in his lungs (something he links to exposure to Agent Orange while in the Navy).
Soon after this, he moved to colour commentary and became the first openly heel WWF announcer. His partnerships with the more strait-laced Vince McMahon and Gorilla Monsoon were hugely entertaining and well-received by fans. Despite being cleared to return to the ring in 1985, Ventura continued to do commentary while also lacing up his boots for occasional matches on TV and at House Shows.
After being released from WWF in 1990 due to numerous disagreements with Vince McMahon, Ventura made his first foray into the world of politics, successfully running to become the Mayor of Brooklyn Park, the sixth-largest city in Minnesota after basing his campaign around saving a treasured wetland in the area from destruction. Ventura went on to serve in the position until 1995.
The next challenge Ventura took on was running to become the Governor of Minnesota after being selected as the nominee for the Reform Party. After polling at 10% – impressive for an election that also included established Republican and Democrat candidates – Ventura was able to claim a position in the televised debates.
From this platform, he was able to put forward his platform of cutting taxes, reducing state government, and reducing public school classroom sizes. As he began rising further in the polls, Ventura began reaching into his pro wrestling past, making promo-style speeches and airing eye-catching commercials featuring mock toy adverts pitting the heroic Jesse Ventura action figure against those politicians with vested interests.
By the weekend before the election, Ventura had achieved 27% in the polls, almost neck and neck with the other candidates. Not only was he winning over voters from other parties, but more importantly encouraging people who normally wouldn’t vote to register to have their voice heard.
In the end, he won the election with 36% of the vote and credits those first-time voters with the victory. Celebrating the unpredicted win, he told his supporters and the assembled press that “We shocked the world!”
During his time in office, which ended in January 2003, Jesse Ventura was credited with reforming the state’s property tax system, which his Revenue Commissioner said was “the biggest change in the structure of how state and local government is financed in about 30 years.”
His other achievements included reducing income tax in the state, and the construction of the METRO Blue Line light rail in the Minneapolis–Saint Paul metropolitan area, which was one of his key pledges when he came into office.
When asked if he was worried that his successor in the role would undo any of these achievements, Ventura was surprisingly unconcerned:
“I don’t worry about whether he dismantles what I did. I know that we did the best while we were here, and I cannot control what happens after me.” (H/T Minnesota Public Radio)
However, the Governor also had his fair share of criticism and was widely attacked for leaving the state with a $4bn deficit when he left office despite inheriting a $3bn surplus when he took the reigns.
Despite pledging to donate his fee for appearing as the Special Guest Referee for the main event of SummerSlam 1999 to charity, Ventura was accused of illegally profiting from his office. However, the complaint did not proceed as the law in question did not apply to elected officials.
Rhyno – “I’ll fight for you.”
Rhyno is best known as an ECW original, although he only wrestled for the promotion for two years before it folded in 2001. Rhyno ended up as the final ECW World Heavyweight Champion and World Television Champion.
From there, ‘the Man Beast’ had lengthy stints in WWE and then TNA as well as competing on the independent circuit. Over the course of his career, he has amassed an impressive array of titles including the WWE Hardcore, NWA World Heavyweight, and various Tag Team Championships. He has also taken part in high-profile feuds with the likes of Chris Jericho, Kurt Angle, and Samoa Joe.
It was during his second run with WWE in 2016 that Rhyno unexpectedly decided to get involved in the political world. He announced that March that he was running for the 15th District seat of the Michigan House of Representatives under his real name of Terrance Gerin.
Rather than try to distance himself from pro wrestling, Gerin leaned into it, telling Fox Sports that his wrestling career was beneficial for his new venture.
“The cool thing about what wrestling has done for me is opening a lot of doors. It’s given me a loud voice. That’s very important when you represent people and want to try to get stuff done. You want someone representing you who knows how hard it is to get doors open.
“I don’t think it will hurt me at all. I think candidates that run against me will try to make fun of it to discredit me so they can win the election, which is understandable. But I want to go out and discuss how we can make this state better, how we can make people’s lives easier and educate the kids.” (H/T Bleacher Report)
Gerin ran as a Republican, with his main challenger being the Democratic candidate, Abdullah Hammoud. During an interview with The Ringer, he laid out his political beliefs which include a belief in the importance of federal entitlements and empathy for illegal immigrants who fled to the US to escape poverty and violence. His plans would also have seen him improve public services such as parks, pools, transportation, and schools.
While he admitted those sound closer to Democratic positions, he insisted he identified as a Republican. Gerin did take positions on many issues that were closer to the wider Doanld Trump-led GOP campaign in 2016 such as the infamous Hilary Clinton ’email scandal’, welfare reform, and taxes.
Despite it being a night of suprise wins for Republicans across the US – the party kept control of both the House of Representatives and Senate, and most shcokingly of all, Donald Trump won the Presidency – it was not to be for Gerin, who lost to Hammoud by a landslide margin of 38% to 62%
Following the loss, Gerin returned to action as Rhyno and had one of the most fondly-remembered runs of his WWE career when he began teaming with Heath Slater. In-storyline, Slater had been desperately trying to get a new contract with WWE to take care of his family.
It was Rhyno who teamed with him in the tournament to determine the inaugural SmackDown Tag Team Champions. The pair won the titles and Slater got his contract as a result. The two continued to team together until Rhyno left WWE in 2019.
Antonio Inoki – “Fighting Spirit Diplomacy”
Antonio Inoki is a highly-decorated legend of Japanese wrestling. Trained under the Godfather of the sport in the country, Rikidōzan, from the age of 17 and then by another hugely influential wrestler, Karl Gotch, the future was always bright for the star.
Inoki wrestled for Rikidōzan’s promotion, the Japanese Wrestling Association for several years until, after the murder of his mentor, he went on excursion to the US in 1964. He returned to the JWA in 1971, but after a failed power grab was fired.
It was then that he went his own way and founded New Japan Pro Wrestling, which still operates 50 years later. However, Inoki himself was forced out of the company in 2005 after a big downturn in fortunes in the company that many blamed on his booking decisions and focus on MMA-style matches which were not popular with fans.
It may have been Inoki’s experiences with backstage politics in wrestling that led to his interest in frontline politics that saw him found the ‘Sports and Peace Party’ in 1989, while he was still an active competitor.
At the centre of Inoki’s politics is the belief – hinted at in his party’s name – that peace between nations can be achieved through sports, something he calls “Fighting Spirit Diplomacy”. It was on this platform and the promise to put “An Octopus Hold [manji-gatame] on the National Diet [Japan’s Parliament]” that Inoki was elected to the upper house of the Diet, the House of Councillors, in 1989 with 993,989 votes.
Inoki put his “Fighting Spirit Diplomacy” into action In 1990, soon after Iraq invaded neighbouring Kuwait. As part of the invasion, Saddam Hussein ordered his forces to move foreign residents in the country to Iraq where they were kept as hostages, this included around 300 Japanese citizens.
While official negotiations had led to the release of many of the hostages, in November 1990 there were still 41 citizens being held against their will. So, the future WWE Hall of Famer set off to Iraq on an unofficial mission to free the remaining detainees through a sports and music “festival of peace” he would organise in Iraq’s capital city, Baghdad. He took with him rock stars, wrestlers, and martial artists for the two-day event.
“I think we were able to bring here [to Iraq] the voices of the world that hope for peace.” (H/T Grantland)
To the disbelief of many, the event led to Inoki meeting with Hussein’s son, Uday, Iraq’s Minister of Sport, who not only announced that the remaining hostages would be freed, but apologised for the length of time it had taken to grant their release.
Inoki would continue his unconventional approach to diplomacy throughout his term, with a highlight being his attempts to get the isolationist dictatorship North Korea to begin relations with the rest of the world. On one of several trips to the country (which were frowned upon by his political colleagues), Inoki organised the infamous Collision In Korea event in partnership with WCW, featuring Inoki himself in the main event against Ric Flair.
After numerous allegations against him late in his second term, including accusations of embezzlement and involvement with the Yakuza, Inoki was unable to hold onto his seat in the 1995 elections.
He returned to politics in 2013, once again winning a seat in the House of Councillors, but this time with the Japan Restoration Ticket since the Sports and Peace Party had been dissolved in 2006. During his second stint in politics, he undertook several more unauthorised trips to North Korea – but none quite as spectacular as in 1995 – arguing that Japan needed to open dialogue back up with the hermit nation. However, one of those trips resulted in a 30-day suspension from the House.
In 2019, after sitting in the House of Councillors for six years and becoming an independent, Inoki announced that he was retiring due to health reasons, bringing to an end one of the most colourful political careers in recent history.
Jerry Lawler – The King Who Wanted To Be Mayor
Jerry ‘The King’ Lawler began his decades-long wrestling career in 1971 and quickly made a name for himself in the American South during his long run in the Memphis-based Continental Wrestling Association.
While part of that promotion, he became known nationally due to a feud with popular comedian Andy Kaufman. The peak of the rivalry came when the pair appeared on NBC’s talk show, ‘Late Night With David Letterman’. After Kaufman insulted Lawler, ‘The King’ punched him in the face, knocking him off his chair and shocking the TV audience across the US.
Following the feud, Lawler remained in the CWA for several more years before making the jump to the WWF in 1992. there he would engage in feuds with the likes of Bret Hart, Jake ‘The Snake’ Roberts, and ‘Rowdy’ Roddy Piper before transitioning to full-time colour commentary in 1997. He and his play-by-play partner Jim Ross would become integral to the Attitude Era as the voices of the promotion at that time.
It was during this period – in 1999 – that Lawler made the decision to run for Mayor of Memphis, where he was still hugely popular amongst wrestling fans. He admitted in an interview with the Memphis Flyer that, while he had considered running for some time, the election of Jesse Ventura had been the catalyst for him to finally do it.
“I’d been thinking of running for mayor for a long time, actually, but without a doubt he was the stimulus.” (H/T Memphis Flyer)
‘The King’ ran against the incumbent, Willie Herenton, who was looking to win his third term. He stood on a platform of “common sense” and wanted to implement a seven-point action plan which would include making the streets safe, beautification of the city, and improving education standards.
Insted of having a traditional HQ for his campaign, Lawler went for a portable version, using a winnebego decked out in posters of him. He said at the time that he wanted it to be a “campaign of conveniance” which would see him go to the voters rather than the other way around.
Lawler was still working at the WWF during his campaign and made full use of his connections when he invited ‘The People’s Champion’ The Rock to help him campaign, drawing huge crowds. That event even featured on a segment of WWF Superstars at the time, further boosting his reach.
In the end, no amount of help from his wrestling friends was enough to swing the election, and Lawler came a distant third with 11.7% of the vote to Herington’s landslide 45.7%.
Despite his loss in 1999, Lawler was back on the campaign trail a decade later in 2009. He ran on much the same platform as his previous attempt, although came out swinging at the hypocrisy he saw in other politicians.
“With the announcement by former Mayor Herenton on the Thaddeus Matthews radio show that Herenton would now NOT be in the special election October 15 to select a new Mayor of Memphis, the political circus that is Memphis politics came full circle. Once again one of our political leaders said one thing and did another.
That is so typical of ALL politicians…saying one thing and doing another. Hopefully on October 15, the good citizens of Memphis will remember this and show the politicians we are tired of their empty promises, by electing someone who says what they mean and means what they say. Elect someone who says there will be no more political nonsense, only common sense in city government. Elect me, Jerry Lawler the new Mayor of Memphis and start a new era of honesty, fairness and common sense.” (H/T Jerry Lawler Campaign Website)
Once again, though, it was not to be, as this time he came fifth on only 4% of the vote while the new Mayor, AC Wharton Jr. swept the 25-man field of candidates by taking an astonishing 64%.
Kane – “Lighting the Way for Our Future.”
Glenn Jacobs began his pro wrestling career in 1992 in the United States Wrestling Wrestling Association where he first met Jerry Lawler, who was the promotion’s champion while Jacobs performed there as ‘The Christmas Creature’. In 1995, it was Lawler who brought Jacobs to the WWF, claiming he was his “personal dentist”, Isaac Yankem, DDS, although in reality ‘The King’ wanted to use him in his ongoing feud with Bret Hart.
Other gimmicks were to follow, including the infamous Fake Diesel when he joined the equally fake Razor Ramon in a tag team for several months when the real Scott Hall and Kevin Nash left the promotion to join WCW.
Once his previous personas ran their course, Jacobs finally debuted at 1997’s Badd Blood pay-per-view as the masked demonic half-brother of The Undertaker, Kane. Undertaker and Kane went on to have one of the longest storylines in WWF history as over the next two decades they veered between bitter enemies and true brothers in the ring.
Outside of that rivalry, Kane had a highly successful run in WWF, going on to win every major title in the promotion at one time or another and being inducted into the Hall of Fame in 2021.
Jacobs has been involved in politics for many years and identifies as a libertarian. He supported Senator Ron Paul for the 2008 Presidential election and is a member of The Free State Project which aims to make the state of New Hampshire an example of a libertarian state – meaning small government, low taxes, and little regulation.
In a 2013 interview with Tom Woods, Jacobs spoke at length about his political leanings and named economist Murray Rothbard as a key influence. Among the ideas Rothbard was known for was that of a stateless society, although Jacobs doesn’t belief this is feasible in his lifetime.
In 2017, Jacobs announced that he would run for the mayoral seat of Knox County, the most populous county in Tennessee, as a Republican. During his campaign, he made several nods to his fire-raising alter-ego, using the slogan “Lighting the way for our future” and featuring a flaming torch on his logo.
Similarly to Jerry Lawler before him, Jacobs had a seven-point plan for Knox County. This included policies related to his libertarian beliefs such as a commitment to low taxes and “a fresh outlook on limited government” as well as tackling local issues such as infrastructure and attracting jobs to the area.
Also like other wrestlers entering politics before him, Jacobs enlisted the aid of his fellow Superstars on the campaign trail, including ‘The Nature Boy’ Ric Flair and, of course, his onscreen brother, The Undertaker, who gave him some advice along the way.
“His advice was to work hard and stay true to what I believe. He was always a great role model of mine. Night in and night out, he gave everything he could for the audience. That’s what I have always done in wrestling.” (H/T Wrestling Inc.)
Glenn Jacobs went on to win the election in August 2018, defeating his Democratic opponent Linda Haney by the huge margin of 51,804 (66.4%) votes to Haney’s 26,224 (33.6%). At time of writing, he is running for re-election on much the same platform as his original campaign.