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Fighting for attention: When politics and professional wrestling collide

Earlier this month, nearly 300 people packed the four-bay garage of the Jackson County Rescue Squad in Sylva on a Saturday night during the height of campaign season to witness a high-stakes struggle between two fierce competitors.

They’ve been fighting over your attention on the internet and the television for what seems like forever now; they’ve got their slogans and catch phrases, their soundtracks and color schemes, their gimmicks and gags, their die-hards and their haters. One’s a hero, the other’s a villain. Countless hopes ride upon the outcome but in the end only one can be victorious. 

It sounds an awful lot like politics, but we’re actually talking about professional wrestlers.

“To me it’s, it’s the suspension of disbelief,” said Chad jones, a Sylva native who goes by the ring name “Outlaw Randy Wayne,” of the enduring popularity of the sport. “If it’s done right, it’s an art form and it’s definitely entertaining for people. They like to come out, they have a good time and get engaged with the guys in there working for them, and, you know, get a little rowdy. I mean, it can be dirty, you know, people can play dirty.”

 

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Dylan Dollar (foreground), hits the mat as his tag-team partners Ric Savage (center) and Ty “The Standard” Davis (right) react. Cory Vaillancourt photo 

 

Everything Jones said describes wrestling — or as it’s pronounced in these parts, “wrasslin’” — but everything he said also applies to politics. 

“As far as politics and wrestling, they go almost hand in hand,” Jones said. “People get passionate about both and people get emotionally and mentally invested in both and I think that’s what you’re seeing right now, in the climate politically, in the entire country, not just in Jackson County.”

Jackson County’s been one of Western North Carolina’s political hot spots for most of the year, with ongoing debate over the fate of a Confederate statue owned by the county but prominently displayed in Sylva’s picturesque downtown. 

The town wants it gone. The county doesn’t. Jones has become part of the fight to save it and staged a brief write-in campaign for Jackson County commissioner before withdrawing. 

Jones organized the Oct. 10 Sylva event through his promotions company, Heroes 2 Legends Wrestling, as a fundraiser for a “stuff the bus” school fundraiser benefitting Jackson County Public Schools. They raised more than $1,450 toward that cause. 

Frank Huguelet, another Sylva native who goes by “Heavy Metal Ric Savage” in the ring, pinned his opponent in a three-on-three tag-team match that night, claiming victory. 

Also hoping to claim victory for Republicans like Franklin Rep. Kevin Corbin and lieutenant governor candidate Mark Robinson, Huguelet’s been active outside the ring, calling for compromise on the Confederate statue and serving as an emcee for several recent WNC political events. 

“I’ve seen that the only difference between wrestling and politics is there’s no physical attacks,” said Huguelet. “There’s a lot of verbal attacks. You create a character, you come up with a slogan, you’ve got a catch phrase and you go out and you get your character over to crowds. It’s no different. The only difference in wrestling is we have to actually fight.”

After Huguelet’s pin, Jones, the reigning 284-day Pro Wrestling Union heavyweight champion, had to defend that title against J.D. Drake. 

Before the match, Drake, in classic heel fashion, called Sylva’s women ugly and postulated that the IQ of the local populace was low, whilst simultaneously extolling his own purported virtue and virility. 

 

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Frank Huguelet (right), who wrestles as Heavy Metal Ric Savage, came out of retirement for the charity match.

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Chad Jones, aka Outlaw Randy Wayne (left), faced J.D. Drake in the night’s main event.

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Nearly 300 people showed up for a wrestling match at the Jackson County Rescue Squad in Sylva. Cory Vaillancourt photos

 

“Wrestling is good versus evil,” said Jones, who as Outlaw Randy Wayne defeated the nefarious Drake to thunderous approval from the crowd. “You’ve got a good guy. You’ve got a bad guy. You’re in there telling a story, whatever the story may be, you’re in there telling the story and it’s the same thing. I mean, politics, there’s good versus evil. It just depends on your perception of who’s good and who’s evil.”

President Donald J. Trump is definitely good or evil, depending on who you ask, but according to Huguelet, Trump also has a lot of the core skills a good wrestler needs. It should thus come as a surprise to approximately no one that Trump is probably the only U.S. president ever to make an appearance in a professional wrestling match. 

It was at WrestleMania 23, held before more than 80,000 spectators on April 1, 2007, at the Silverdome in Pontiac, Michigan. 

Trump didn’t exactly wrestle, but he didn’t exactly stay out of the fray, either. 

As the storyline goes, for more than a month, tensions between Trump and World Wrestling Entertainment Chairman Vince McMahon had been building. Verbal taunts turned into theatrical stunts that culminated in an event that would be called “The Battle of the Billionaires.”

That battle would be fought through surrogates — Extreme Championship Wrestling Champion Bobby Lashley for Trump, and WWE Raw’s Intercontinental Champion Umaga for McMahon. 

Trump and McMahon weren’t going to wrestle anybody, but they did both have some skin in the game — actually, it was their hair; the loser of the match had agreed to have their head shaved by the winner, live, inside the ring. 

During the match McMahon and Trump, both in suits and ties, strutted around outside the ring barking out encouragement to their wrestlers while occasionally disparaging each other. Eventually, as a dazed Lashley lay prone on the canvas, Umaga came off the top rope to land a devastating slam and pin. 

Things looked bad for Lashley and Trump’s hair as the referee began his three-count, but he could only make it to two before Stone Cold Steve Austin — with utter and flagrant disregard for both sportsmanship and for the rules of professional wrestling — ran into the arena dressed as a referee, pulled the real referee out of the ring and beat him senseless. 

Austin, in defense of Lashley, entered the ring and attempted to attack Umaga, but was felled by a blow to the throat. 

As McMahon berated a writhing Austin for his meddlesome misdeeds, Trump took advantage of the chaos to charge at McMahon and drop him with a running clothesline. With McMahon stunned and defenseless on the ground, Trump mounted McMahon and landed several blows to his head. 

The crowd, as well as the ringside announcers Jerry “The King” Lawler and Jim “JR” Ross, went wild.

“Donald Trump taking down Vince McMahon!” Ross exclaimed. “The hostile takeover of Donald Trump on Vince McMahon has happened at WrestleMania 23!” 

Lashley experienced a miraculous resurgence and pinned Umaga, with “referee” Austin counting him out. McMahon was subsequently tied to a barber’s chair inside the ring. 

Against McMahon’s vehement protestations, Lashley, Austin and Trump put electric clippers to McMahon’s mane. Trump made the first cut. 

 

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Donald Trump, then a reality television host, celebrates victory at WrestleMania23. WWE screenshot

 

“You’re humiliating me!” McMahon screamed. “I’m never gonna forget this!” 

At the time of his 2007 Wrestlemania appearance, Trump was a well-known property developer and reality television show host, but hadn’t yet entered electoral politics. His brief overlap with the world of professional wrestling didn’t lead to his political rise eight years later — instead, it predicted it. 

“He’s a master entertainer. He knows how to work a crowd. He knows how to relate to a crowd,” said Huguelet. “It doesn’t matter if you’re a billionaire or trillionaire. If you take Donald Trump and Jeff Bezos and stick them in a bar, by the end of the night everybody’s going to be hanging out with Donald Trump and Jeff Bezos is going to be sitting by himself. It’s just a personality thing. Some people can do it, some people can’t.”

Although he may be the biggest political crossover with professional wrestling, Trump is far from the first or the most recent.

Ten years after shaving McMahon’s head, Trump appointed McMahon’s wife, WWE executive Linda McMahon, to serve as the head of the U.S. Small Business Administration — a cabinet-level position.

She left two years later, in 2019, to chair the Trump First American Action PAC, which raised $42 million this past September alone. Her husband, Vince, is now an economic advisor to the president. 

James Janos, aka Jessie “The Body” Ventura, was elected mayor of Brooklyn Park, Minnesota in 1991 but in a testament to the drawing power of his professional wrestling career went on to win the race for governor in 1995 — as a third-party candidate, no less.

Glenn Jacobs had an equally high-profile career in the WWE as The Undertaker’s half-brother and sometime-rival, Kane. The former champion appeared on the same 2007 WrestleMania card as Trump but now serves as the elected mayor of Knox County, Tennessee. 

“Wrestling is the one thing that cuts across all levels of entertainment,” Huguelet said. “You can be a rock star and it’s cool. You can be a politician and it’s cool. Being a pro wrestler, there’s something about it that just crosses boundaries. Everybody had wrestling on in their living rooms when they were little kids. Grandpa watched it. It’s just a part of life. It’s something so uniquely Americana.”

So is running for local office. Ron Haven, a former Macon County commissioner, wrestled for Georgia Championship Wrestling decades ago. 

Haven may very well be the last professional wrestler — wrassler — to serve as an elected official in Western North Carolina, but if he is, he may not be for much longer. 

If Heavy Metal Ric Savage and Outlaw Randy Wayne follow through on notions they’ve previously expressed, we may soon see them just one seat away from having a pro-wrestler majority on the Jackson County Commission. 

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