Let’s start with the refrain: All cops are bastards. It has been nearly a month since George Floyd was murdered by Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin, and every single night since then, in the wake of protests across the country, local, state, and federal officials have abused their power again and again and again, pepper spraying crowds from moving vehicles, arresting protesters after initiating contact, shooting “non-lethal” weapons at civilians and journalists and claiming eyes and bones as a consequence, kettling protesters on bridges, indiscriminately using tear gas on citizens (sometimes to the point of death), and committing yet more extrajudicial killings of unarmed people of color on pretenses so flimsy they may as well admit to doing it just because they could.
This month has been a complicated, anxious one where citizens of the United States have finally began reckoning with the role of the police in American society to the point that defunding them is normal discourse and, in some cities, police abolition is on the table. It’s also been cause for an examination in popular culture’s role in deifying the police and whitewashing their crimes. On June 1, Tom Scharpling, writer and executive producer of Monk, tweeted the following:
If you – as I have – worked on a TV show or movie in which police are portrayed as lovable goofballs you have contributed to the larger acceptance that cops are the implicitly the good guys. Most shows dont portray the brutal shit – much less the racism – that goes on daily. 1/3
— scharpling (@scharpling) June 1, 2020
He and others who’ve written, produced, acted, and otherwise worked on shows featuring cops have since donated money to various charities and reflected on what their shows did to burnish the image of cops as generally decent human beings despite the fascist, racist nature of the task they carry out. Shows like COPS and Live PD have been cancelled despite storied runs on television and massive ratings. Normalizing Injustice, a study of 353 episodes of television across 26 scripted series released in January by Color of Change and the USC Annenberg Norman Lear Center, has served as the crux of critical inquiry into shows like Law & Order, which shifted the narrative of crime procedurals from stories about proving innocence to stories about punishing guilt.
How this connects to professional wrestling should be obvious to anybody with a passing familiarity with the Hulkamania era of the World Wrestling Federation. The Big Boss Man, otherwise known as around half a dozen other gimmicks, including his real name, Ray Traylor, is one of the most instantly recognizable characters of that time—a huge, imposing man dressed in a police officer’s uniform, complete with a nightstick and a pair of handcuffs. Before making his debut for Jim Crockett Promotions in 1985, Traylor was a correctional officer in Cobb County, Georgia. You probably know this because when he made his WWF debut in 1988 as the Big Boss Man, the words “Cobb County” and “correctional officer” were blurted out as often as possible. Later, when theme songs became something that every attraction-level wrestler needed, Boss Man’s “Hard Times” started out with the lyric “If you ever take a trip down to Cobb County, Georgia / You better read the signs / Respect the law and order.”
The implication of the theme song is not that if you drive 60 MPH in a 50 MPH zone that the Boss Man is going to be on the scene to pull you over and issue a ticket, but that he’ll be the man you meet in prison, a man with a big stick and, weirdly, a ball and chain. While this was his theme song, Boss Man was a face. So you’re sitting there, a kid, and here comes this cop who hangs out with Hulk Hogan, theme song threatening bodily punishment and inviting you to observe law and order, long a rallying cry for “tough on crime” Republicans, from presidents to judges to sheriffs to city council members. And this bit about ball and chains—yeah, ball and chains are a cartoon gag and Boss Man never had one on his person, but the state of Georgia, from which he hailed, was notorious for its use of chain gangs in its prison system, and at the center of a national controversy over their use following the 1932 release of I Am a Fugitive from a Chain Gang, based on Robert Elliot Burns’ memoir I Am a Fugitive from a Georgia Chain Gang! It’s worth noting that Burns was a veteran of World War I who was arrested for robbing a grocery store of $5.81. Since Georgia didn’t have a state prison at the time, he fell into the system of convict leasing, essentially making him a state-owned slave.
You can see the issue in making a cheery song about being forced into shackles by a good guy cop when it’s spelled out, but the thing about copaganda is that it’s meant to be innocuous, something unseen that nevertheless tugs at the unconscious until the abhorrent becomes expected. This is how every cop gimmick in the United States works, face or heel, serious or buffoon, from the Mountie, a comedy character who won matches by shocking his opponents with a taser that made a big cartoon electricity noise, to the State Patrol, an obscureish WCW tag team who wrote fans tickets for liking face wrestlers. Most cop characters have a short self-life—they always feel like they were conceived by someone taking petty revenge for a DUI—so the Big Boss Man’s endurance in a narrative medium that’s prone to diminishing or forgetting stars at his level is pretty remarkable, due in no small part to the World Wrestling Federation’s relentless merchandising of him as a face.
The above WWF Wrestling Buddy version of the Big Boss Man is a pretty desirable collectible now, but in 1990 or 1991 he was just a cuddly cop with a fucking Confederate battle flag patch on his sleeve, sold in regular stores and shown on TV in the audience. Nobody had a problem with this. The flag was never mentioned, not when he was a heel and it was the full battle flag, and not when he was a face and it was there as a consequence of the state flag of Georgia being designed by white supremacists. Until his return in the late 1990s as private security for a ruthless plutocrat, the Boss Man either existed as a bad guy cop who loved a racist nation state or a good guy cop who worked for a racist state that venerated a racist nation state. This man, the law and order one ought to respect in the rings of the World Wrestling Federation.
The long arm of injustice.
I’m jumping around the timeline a bit, so let’s go back to the Big Boss Man’s debut and work forward. It’s 1988 and he’s wrestling Louie Spicolli on Superstars of Wrestling. You know immediately that Boss Man is a crooked cop because he’s managed by Slick, a pimp caricature as problematic as Slick was often brilliant. In the picture in picture promo that’s the real introduction to Boss Man’s character, he says one word, “Scum,” and beats his nightstick against his hand while Slick opines about how criminals and wrestlers alike are in for hard labor when the Big Boss Man rolls around. Boss Man brutalizes Spicolli, pins him, then handcuffs him to the ropes so he’s defenseless against a further assault with his nightstick.
This is a normal jobber squash match, but it hits a little differently when the dominant wrestler is dressed like a police officer, when his post-match routine is police brutality. He’s a heel, meant to be intimidating, but even as a face who didn’t attack his fallen opponents after the bell, he’s still a cop beating the shit out of someone. Watching Big Boss Man matches, I was fascinated by the decision to call the character that, when “boss,” at least in its common usage, is either a means of addressing someone you don’t know or a word for the superior person in a work environment. The book Americanisms: The English of the New World by Maximilian Schele de Vere explains that “boss” is of Dutch origin and was adopted by Americans to avoid using the word “master” to describe a superior, given its connotations in the slave trade. According to “The Correctional Officer’s Guide to Prison Slang,” maintained on the ancient Tripod website of the American Federation of State, County, and Municipal Employees Local 3963 (Abilene, Texas, if you’re curious), “Boss” is defined as follows:
A term used extensively by inmates to refer to officers working as guards (Correctional Officers), this began in the early years of penitentiaries as “Sorry son of a bitch” backwards. Most of the inmates that are now incarcerated are not aware of this and the term is accepted by officers as a sir name.
While it would be cool if Big Boss Man’s name meant “Big, Sorry Son of a Bitch Man,” let’s assume that Vince McMahon wasn’t up on his prison slang and went with something appropriately southern and authoritative when the gift of a big, athletic man with a history of working in corrections in a state notorious for its policing and prison abuses fell into his lap. What a fine institution to be the boss of.
Because every analysis of a wrestling gimmick is accompanied by a chorus of people who say “it’s okay because they’re a heel,” “it was a different time,” or “it’s only wrestling,” I’d submit that it’s very much not okay to reenact a common abuse of state power regardless of the era, regardless of whether or not one believes, erroneously, that wrestling is a lower kind of art than others and thus immune from accusations of copaganda, racism, misogyny, and a billion other offenses large and small. Furthermore, since Big Boss Man’s character drew from Ray Traylor’s background as a corrections officer in Cobb County, Georgia, it’s possible to pull research on the conditions of the prison he worked in, which I did. While I can’t find the exact years Traylor worked as an officer, I searched the archives of the Atlanta Journal Constitution from the years 1979 to 1985, when he made his debut in JCP.
You don’t need to be a prison abolitionist to guess that the conditions in a county jail in the state of Georgia in the 1980s was poor, but the Cobb County jail, where Traylor worked, was at the center of much moral handwringing about overpopulated prisons. Investigations into the issue turned up curios like a convicted rapist who was “lost” for two years rather than being transferred to state prison, the women’s jail overflowing with 200 inmates when it was built to house 138, and reports of prisoners sleeping on floors and being denied recreation. In 1981, Thomas Yinger filed suit against the prison, hoping that doing so would force the federal government to step in and improve conditions there. He alleged a lack of recreation, a lack of access to legal materials and counsel, prohibitively high bonds, and a lack of medical and dental care. That case made it to federal court, where Yinger’s attorney, Debbie Kittay, unfolded and stood on a two foot by two foot piece of paper to demonstrate the amount of personal space inmates had in their cells. The court ordered the county to figure out how to fix the issue of overcrowding. In 1983, construction began on a new jail.
This was a known issue, one that was addressed in statement after statement by Cobb County Sheriff Bill Hutson and that was hardly unique among smaller jails that were not built anticipating the war on drugs. The Cobb County jail was built in 1969, two years before that war, and by 1974 it was already over capacity, despite measures like being lenient on non-violent offenders and sending prisoners to other jails in metro Atlanta. In 1979, a grand jury suggested that the jail might not have as many issues with escapees if they provided adequate health care. In 1981, the overcrowded conditions led to a riot amongst the jail’s female population. The images of these overcrowded cells, four or more inmates piled atop one another, are as familiar as any other photographs of human rights violations in American prisons, and they were taken on days when journalists were allowed to tour the facility. Just like all cops are bastards, no prisons are humane.
These things being true about the jail in Cobb County makes them part of the Big Boss Man’s backstory. That’s what happens when you draw on reality for a wrestling gimmick—while you can pick and choose which trappings to wear to the ring, you can’t shed history. You can whitewash it, which is what even a heel cop gimmick does. In real life, if a cop chokes you with a nightstick you’re either going to the hospital or the morgue. In wrestling, if a cop chokes you with a nightstick you’ll be back next week to take a licking from Hacksaw Jim Duggan or whoever. And if you’re a child watching Superstars of Wrestling, you get a diminished portrayal of police violence that are at odds with decades of footage and photographs of cops beating and murdering citizens. It’s propaganda, and propaganda is something that takes time and effort to deprogram.
In 1990, it was time for the Big Boss Man to turn face. He did so when Ted DiBiase got Slick and the Boss Man tied up in his feud against Jake “The Snake” Roberts. At the conclusion of a DiBiase/Roberts match, Boss Man interfered, struck Roberts with his nightstick, handcuffed him to the ropes, and walked over to Brother Love’s set, where DiBiase laid out his plan to regain his Million Dollar Championship. Boss Man is super chill with the whole thing until DiBiase says that he “bought the best police protection money can buy,” at which point his face goes sour. Boss Man, after two years of terrorizing the World Wrestling Federation at the behest of a man so uncouth his theme song was about how untrustworthy he was, suddenly has a sense of moral decency. He did it—and by “it” I mean “beat a man with a nightstick”—because he thought he was recovering stolen property, which was just the right thing to do. If there’s one thing an officer of the law cannot abide, it’s being bribed in front of an audience of thousands.
Immediately, two years of WWF history was reframed as a cop being led astray by a bunch of easily debunked lies like “we’re helping this man recover his property” and “I swear to you that this man is from the continent of Africa.” But in wrestling, calling this a betrayal, a coming to senses, is entirely plausible. As a face, Boss Man embraced the carceral aspects of his gimmick without outwardly brutalizing his opponent. He wrestled The Mountie in a Jailhouse Match where the loser spent the night in lock-up. The Mountie lost, and it was implied that he’d be raped in his cell. In 1992, the WWF decided that Boss Man was going to feud against Nailz, a wrestler who debuted with the character “inmate who claimed that Big Boss Man was abusive to him while he was in the Cobb County jail.” Go back and read the section about the human rights issues at that facility and tell me that this feud was a good idea.
The Nailz feud, which ended in a Nightstick Match (where the nightstick was placed on a pole and was legal to use once retrieved), failed to revitalize Boss Man’s first WWE run, and within a year he was gone. Traylor showed up again in World Championship Wrestling in a number of gimmicks meant to remind the viewer of the Big Boss Man—The Boss, which was nerfed by a WWF lawsuit, and the Guardian Angel, a gimmick based on the New York City vigilante group whose training Traylor underwent so he could properly represent their red and white uniform. His later run in the WWF culminated in a WWF Championship feud against The Big Show, where he made fun of Show for being a bastard and showed up in a cop car that looked like the one from The Blues Brothers to steal his dad’s casket, the absolute peak of the Attitude Era.
But it’s that 88-93 run that stands out the most, specifically his face run from 1990 until the end, when the gimmick could no longer be “bad cop,” as a good cop, at least in fiction, needs an excuse to be violent. Let’s be clear about this, too: The character wouldn’t have existed without Traylor’s background. When Dusty Rhodes saw Traylor, he gave him the name Big Bubba and made him Jim Cornette’s silent enforcer, zero mention of his prior career. While the WWF’s whitewashing of that background may have been unintentional, it happened, accompanied by one of the most well-remembered theme songs of its era. The character is regularly featured in video games, his action figures are highly collectable, and he is one of the most strikingly designed characters of his era, which is almost more recognized for its designs than its wrestling. By comparison, the overcrowded cells, riots, rapes, suicides, and pleas for civil rights that emanated from the jail made famous by his character have faded into history. There are no good cops in fiction. There are no good cops in wrestling. They’re all bastards. Don’t let anyone tell you otherwise.