As the Rusev vs. Jack Swagger feud grows more antagonistic, WWE appears ready to dig out an old, nationalistic gimmick—the Flag match.
With two countries' banners jutting off the ring corners and the pride of nations on the line, the Flag match has offered WWE an easy way to rile up fans for over 25 years. It's a bout built more around emotion than technical excellence.
There have been no great Flag matches.
Ladder matches, steel cage matches and Battle Royals have been home to classics, while the patriotism-centered gimmick match Rusev and Swagger seemed destined for is more of a novelty.
The rules of this bout have varied at times. Some have required the wrestlers to climb a pole and retrieve his country's flag to win. Others have seen victory come by pinfall, which then gives the winner the right to wave his flag in the ring.
To look back at the Flag match's history is to look back at WWE milking the audience's antagonism toward foreign nations.
There is something equally stirring and unsettlingly xenophobic about an arena full of fans chanting "USA!" while the foreigner plays the villain and the American the hero in wrestling's version of a morality play.
Rusev and Swagger will be the next to enter those roles. After months of Rusev and his manager Lana insulting the U.S., Swagger confronted the powerhouse on the June 30 Raw. They have been colliding ever since.
The impetus for their fighting has been an America-vs.-Russia narrative.
Most recently, that story has centered on those two nations' flags. On the July 28 Raw, Lana all but spat on Old Glory as she talked about how worthless it was. Swagger and Zeb Colter soon emerged, defending the U.S. flag.
A scuffle broke out, as expected. The lasting image of this segment was Swagger and Rusev each waving their nation's flag, the former doing so more angrily and defiantly. That essentially sets up the Flag match that has been rumored between them at SummerSlam.
It appears to be a lock now. WWE is going with a little-used gimmick match and reigniting the Cold War some 20-plus years after it ended.
1980s: Soviet Adversaries
WWE's early Flag matches played on the tension between the U.S. and the Soviet Union.
There was no easier way to get the crowd to hate a heel than to present him as a Russian (whether he was in real life or not) and have him insult America. The simple formula was often effective and played on the negative feelings many folks had for the Soviet Union.
On Oct. 5, 1985, that formula was the key to Hulk Hogan vs. Nikolai Volkoff on Saturday Night's Main Event.
Hogan, who walked out to the ring to the song "Real American," put his WWE Championship on the line against a man who had become famous for singing the Soviet Union's national anthem before his matches.
The Russian bruiser pounced on the champ early. He tore at his "American Made" T-shirt, beating Hogan down while he was still wearing his title belt.
Like the Flag matches to come, this was more about the fans cheering on their nation than a display of mat wrestling. Volkoff spent much of the match pounding on Hogan, but the hero eventually overpowered him.
After pinning his dastardly foreign foe, Hogan snatched up the Soviet flag, spat on it and used it to wipe his boots.
This anti-Soviet dynamic was commonplace through the '80s. Subsequent Flag matches served as a means for WWE's good guys to defend their country.
Corporal Kirchner had his own crack at Volkoff in a Flag match at WrestleMania II in 1986. Kirchner, who seemed to be WWE's attempt to recreate the success of Sgt. Slaughter, ended the match with blood smeared on his forehead but also as the victor. He forced Volkoff to watch his enemy raise the American flag once more.
"Hacksaw" Jim Duggan vs. Boris Zhukov on Saturday Night's Main Event on Nov. 26, 1988 was no classic either. This time, a man whose gimmick already included flag-waving, took on one half of a tag team known as The Bolsheviks.
Duggan said that the Soviet flag looked more like a sign from a hardware store before using his straight-ahead offense to barrel over his foe. It was a match that revved up the crowd in a pro-America frenzy, but like most Flag matches was nothing memorable.
The ongoing fight against the Communists was not the only battle that led to Flag matches. Duggan took on a French Canadian on Dec. 30, 1988. Duggan defeated Dino Bravo, allowing him wave the Stars and Stripes and keep the Quebec flag holstered.
When the Cold War came to a close, the need for new foreign foes emerged.
1990s: The Middle East, The Great White North
WWE used both real and trumped-up tension between nations during the '90s.
Early in the decade, the company harnessed acrimony against Iraq during the first Gulf War. It would later turn to the nonexistent friction between the U.S. and Canada for dramatic effect.
In one of the most controversial angles in wrestling history, longtime patriot Sgt. Slaughter turned on his country. He joined forces with the Iraqis and traded in his camo gear for an Iraqi uniform.
With Russia no longer as easy a target, it was Saddam Hussein's nation that WWE used to have its villains drum up hate from the crowd.
During that run, Duggan took on Sgt. Slaughter at Madison Square Garden on March 15, 1991. The bout came just over a week before Slaughter was to defend his WWE Championship against Hogan at WrestleMania VII. He first had to make it through WWE's resident flag-waver, Duggan.
While Duggan ended up winning via disqualification, it didn't feel like a victory.
The final images of this match include Slaughter and General Adnan stomping on two fallen Americans. The turncoat pressed his boot into Hogan's throat and waved the Iraqi flag above his head as referees struggled to pull him off.
It may have crossed the line in tapping into the real world, but it was mighty effective. Boos rained down on Slaugther and fans badly wanted to see Hogan topple him.
As is common in wrestling, the villain eventually reverted back to his good ways.
When Slaughter become pro-American once again, he found himself in another Flag match. This time, he was outnumbered taking on both General Adnan and Colonel Mustafa (The Iron Sheik) on Primetime Wrestling on Feb. 3, 1992.
This was mostly a beatdown, the Iraqis clobbering the American hero to create empathy for the latter and anger toward the former.
Slaughter had to withstand a boot to the face, Adnan choking him with the tag rope and a one-on-two disadvantage. He triumphed, as the Americans often do in these matches. To celebrate, he grabbed the U.S. flag and asked the crowd to recite the Pledge of Allegiance along with him.
That's the simplest version of wrestling storytelling at work: good versus evil, us against them.
WWE went a different direction some five years later. Canada wasn't at war with the U.S., but the company drew a line between the two nations, placing Bret Hart on one side and its American wrestlers on another.
Hart became a heel in America by dumping on that country and playing up his Canadian background.
At home, though, he was still the hero. That was evident in the first Flag match to ever air on Raw. On July 21, 1997, The Hart Foundation clashed with Steve Austin, Dude Love and The Undertaker in Halifax, Nova Scotia.
The fans cheered the Canadians despite their villainous alignment. Fans at home were likely rooting for Austin's team, while Hart, his brother Owen and British Bulldog had the Canadians behind them, especially when they grabbed and lifted the Canadian flag to claim the victory.
This was one of the better Flag matches thanks to a great supply of star power and the fact that it featured several men destined for the Hall of Fame.
Hart was in this same type of match just three months later at the Badd Blood: In Your House pay-per-view. Vader and The Patriot vs. Hart and British Bulldog was in St. Louis, so the dynamic shifted. The fans rooted for the monstrous Vader and his Captain America-looking partner.
In the end, Hart pinned The Patriot, and the Canadian flag was his to wave. WWE didn't have the Soviets or the Iraqis win in previous bouts, but Canada came out on top two straight times. It meant far less to have Canada win than a nation with which the U.S. was at war.
The next two decades saw the foreigners come from a variety of places, but WWE eventually circled back to a familiar enemy.
2000/2010s: Enemies Both New and Old
Since the beginning of this century, WWE hasn't utilized the Flag match often.
There haven't been as many nationality-centered gimmicks. There has been no Cold War to exploit. Old Glory still played a part in a few bouts, though.
The May 26, 2003 Raw featured Rob Van Dam vs. Sylvain Grenier of La Resistance.
There wasn't nearly as much emotional firepower in a battle against a Frenchman as there was a Russian in the '80s or an Iraqi in the '90s. It had more of a standard hero-vs.-villain feel when Van Dam took on Grenier.
While the referee was out cold, Van Dam claimed the U.S. flag, but that's not how the match ended.
Grenier's partner Rene Dupree interfered. He used the Stars and Stripes as a weapon, nailing Van Dam's ally Kane in the throat and eventually placing it back in its holder. After the referee came to, Grenier retrieved the French flag.
Again, it seems that WWE is only comfortable with letting the foreigner win when tensions between the nations involved aren't significant. Grenier waving around his version of the red, white and blue doesn't evoke as emotional a response as Volkoff or Mustafa hoisting their own banners would have.
WWE went back to letting the hero win in 2007 in Duggan vs. Daivari. A man who knows his way around a Flag match ran over his Iranian foe, knocked him off the apron and ended the bout with the U.S. flag in hand.
It's fitting then that Rusev, who may be bringing the Flag match back, has already met Duggan. He attempted to assault the retired star in May.
The last Flag match that WWE has produced pitted Ted DiBiase against Hunico. On the Jan. 17, 2012 edition of SmackDown, Teddy Long spun a wheel to decide what kind of bout they would engage in.
The Flag match option popped up, and DiBiase continued the tradition of making America proud by punching a man out and then climbing a pole to grab a flag.
That's not a contest many fans cherish or even remember. The Flag match has been an emotional powder keg at times, but when a country like Mexico is the one opposing the U.S., it's robbed of that element.
WWE is headed toward a return to the roots of the Flag match: anti-Russian sentiments.
Rusev and Lana have praised Vladimir Putin, the Russian nation and that country's flag. The ill will he has built up and the energy surrounding Swagger will get fans riled up for this clash.
History shows that it will be fun and inspire loud chants. After that, it's not likely to stay with the audience as WWE's greatest matches have.
The Flag match's power is often great but brief.
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