Cynicism runs deep within the wrestling community when celebrities get involved, but that sentiment didn’t taint Bad Bunny throughout his WWE run. The Latin trap sensation was a revelation—after performing his hit “Booker T” at the Royal Rumble, he became a consistent highlight on Raw with fellow Puerto Rican Damian Priest as they feuded with fame-hungry D-listers The Miz and John Morrison. Fuelled by the mainstream attention that followed, the high-profile storyline culminated in a marquee tag team bout at WrestleMania 37 which ranks among the greatest celebrity wrestling matches of all time. Bunny’s entrance was as grandiose as expected, rolling into Tampa’s Raymond James Stadium atop a big rig, but no one foresaw the Grammy winner busting out spinning headscissors and Canadian Destroyers with the fluidity of someone more seasoned.
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For the WWE, only positives can be gleaned from finally tapping into hip hop with undoubted success. But Bunny’s successful debut at the Rumble didn’t prevent friction between personalities of both worlds. Lacey Evans and Cardi B exchanged fiery words on Twitter, while Randy Orton’s beef with internet rap savant Soulja Boy veered towards puerile playground insults over a two-month period. Naturally, rumours of more rappers at Mania 37 swirled (and never materialized in the end), but the spats also supported the WWE’s habit of blurring reality with fiction. It’s a shame then that their track record of reaching for the brass rings of cultural relevance point towards Bad Bunny being the exception rather than the rule.
One of wrestling’s longest running jokes is how the world’s biggest grappling promoter remains incedulously out-of-touch with pop culture. Only Vince McMahon would see the value in releasing a series of Flintstones and Scooby-Doo crossovers as recently as 2016. Scott Hall’s story of successfully pitching obvious Tony Montana ripoff Razor Ramon to McMahon, who had never seen Scarface, is as amusing as it is unsurprising. Alt rock and nu-metal still make up a large portion of PPV themes despite both being usurped by hip hop as music’s premier genre. Vince’s stubborn insistence that the WWE retain its monolithic mentality often leaves them trailing behind, which is ironic for a company that tries so damn hard to be cutting edge.
Hip Hop’s Love of Wrestling
If you’re someone like me, who counted hip hop and pro wrestling as prominent fixtures during their adolescence, then you’ll be able to relate to this. The same friends who I swapped G-Unit mixtapes with would diss my attempts to shoehorn major WWE storylines into conversations that revolved around girls, soccer and rap beefs. My high school was too cool for talk of men in tights performing pantomime acrobatics, so I lived my teenage years keeping my wrestling fandom close to my chest. It wasn’t until I grew up later on that I delved deeper into hip hop’s adoration of wrestling and began to spot the ties that bound them.
On the surface, it doesn’t seem that rap music has drawn much inspiration from wrestling. Rap has always garnered admiration for its authenticity, while wrestling gets its fair share of flak for being “fake.” However, a closer look reveals that they are both stylised versions of performance theatre, both featuring larger-than-life characters getting entangled in beef, trash-talk and other over-the-top shenanigans. If anything, despite the seeming disparity between both worlds, there’s actually a deeper kinship between the two.
For one, Meek Mill’s February altercation with hip hop’s enfant terrible 6ix9ine outside an Atlanta strip club wouldn’t look out of place in a backstage segment on Raw. Luxury rappers like Rick Ross draw inspiration from the smug excess of golden era heels such as Ric Flair and Ted DiBiase. When asked why he thought that “rap is the new wrestling”, A$AP Rocky shared a blueprint on how to get over in the music industry that would also apply to a promising wrestler: “Take a weird name, add outlandish sayings and wait for the world to pay attention.” You can name at least a dozen rappers in our lifetime who have done the same.
It’s also no secret that rappers love wrestling. Global superstars like Lil Wayne have name-dropped Andre the Giant in Billboard chart-toppers, while Sasha Banks’ entrance at WrestleMania 32 began with a smooth verse from her cousin Snoop Dogg. “Bam Bam” Action Bronson named one of his albums after “Mr. Wonderful” Paul Orndorff. Smoke DZA released a series of EPs called Ringside where he rhymes over some of Jim Johnston’s iconic themes. Method Man and Redman have shouted out to Bob Backlund of all people. Pusha T sees a like-minded soul in Ric Flair. Westside Gunn and Conway the Machine, two-thirds of the Griselda collective who were in attendance at Mania and whose massive discographies are laced with wrestling references, call themselves Hall ‘n’ Nash. No Limit’s Master P, who made a bunch of appearances on WCW Nitro during the late ‘90s, can lay claim to being the Vince McMahon of hip hop after acquiring a wrestling company of his own. We even had the irrepressible Def Jam video games, which allowed you to grapple as Ghostface Killah or snap necks as N.O.R.E.
Wrestling’s Cold Shoulder
And yet, to my utter bemusement, hip hop’s affection for the squared circle remains largely unrequited. The WWE is mainly guilty of this, having featured the likes of Rick Ross, Wale and Snoop on TV in the past five years, but their presences were little more than glorified cameos. Ross’ backstage appearance should’ve amounted to more than being one of Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson’s props during one of his Miami homecomings. Wale, as diehard a wrestling fan as some corners of the IWC, should’ve played a bigger role in the Usos/New Day rap battle than just refereeing it. Snoop is credited as among those who helped develop Sasha Bank’s wrestling persona, showing a more astute mind for wrestling than most current writers under WWE’s employ. Given the culture’s standing in the zeitgeist, WWE’s reticence on stitching hip hop into its fabric had caused more missed opportunities even though both industries’ biggest boom periods happened at the same time.
The mid-to-late-’90s saw hip hop reach uncharted waters in relevancy, mirroring the squared circle’s most successful spell in the mainstream. Puff Daddy’s flash, Jay-Z’s cool and DMX’s intensity dominated the Billboard charts, coinciding with the WWE’s Attitude Era becoming the difference maker in McMahon’s Monday Night War against Eric Bischoff’s WCW. The WWE’s shift towards adult-oriented programming should’ve been fertile ground for rap music to firmly plant itself into wrestling’s DNA, spearheaded by their WWF Aggression album which doubled as an introduction to audiences unfamiliar with the rap game’s rising popularity. It seemed like Vince finally became cognisant of how wrestling and hip hop can feed off of each others’ energies as we approached the turn of the millennium.
Unfortunately for fans of both, it wasn’t to be. WWF Aggression hasn’t aged well, the record reeking of inauthenticity as most of the tracks were a mismatch of rappers whose bars had almost nothing to do with their assigned wrestlers’ characters. Acts who’ve outlived their demand such as Kid Rock and Limp Bizkit were hired to perform at WrestleManias during the Noughties. Save for John Cena’s career-defining turn as the freestyle rapping Doctor of Thuganomics, WWE’s ventures into the realm of hip hop amounted to nothing more than half-hearted attempts. And no, Flo Rida doesn’t count.
Bad Bunny’s stellar showing gives us a glimmer of hope, though. Not only was he this year’s top merch seller at one point, but he also brought casual eyes to a product that goes all out for media attention during Mania season, where the need to entice casual fans is more paramount than ever. It’s hard not to compare Bunny’s situation to how Cyndi Lauper embraced her role in the inaugural edition of WrestleMania, showcased at the height of her popularity and the peak of the Rock ‘n’ Wrestling Era. McMahon was smart to hitch his wagon to Lauper back in 1985, and was wise enough to repeat history with Bunny in 2021.
Hip hop’s place at the pinnacle of pop culture isn’t declining anytime soon. For the WWE to remain on the cusp of what’s trending, they have to find a way to organically implement the genre into their almost impenetrable universe and embrace it with open arms. Bad Bunny has given Vince and the WWE the perfect template to work from, but it remains to be seen if they can finally crack the code in getting that “hip” demographic they’ve been missing since the Attitude Era. If any generation can shatter the notion that rap and wrestling can’t coexist, it’s this one.