By Thomas Golianopoulos
On a recent Friday afternoon, Terrance Guido Gerin, the Republican nominee for state representative in Michigan’s 15th District, canvassed Dartmouth Street in Dearborn, introducing himself to potential voters. “Hi, my name is Terrance Guido Gerin. I’m running for state rep here in Dearborn, Michigan, just dropping off some literature. I’m just introducing myself. Do you have any questions?” With his stocky build, scruffy goatee, and long, black hair, which he wore in a ponytail, Gerin looked more like the lead singer of a grunge tribute band than an elected official. He is neither.
For more than 20 years, Gerin has earned a living as the professional wrestler Rhyno. He’s shared the ring with the Rock and John Cena, and wrestled in more than 20 countries, winning championships and earning the nickname “The Man Beast” along the way. But when he wasn’t wrestling or training or eating every two hours, he was studying presidential history. An autodidact, Rhyno is comfortable explaining the policy positions of the James K. Polk administration.
Naturally this led to an interest in local government, and around three years ago, Rhyno began attending bimonthly Dearborn City Council meetings on Tuesday nights. “We were total junkies,” says his friend Marti Karl. “We really looked forward to them.” When he realized that term limits were ousting state Representative George Darany, a Democrat from Dearborn, Rhyno decided to run for the seat.
“It’s such a wrestling story,” Rhyno jokes, recalling the Republican primary on August 2. He woke up in Dearborn, voted, worked the polls, flew to Nashville to appear on SmackDown Live, speared Heath Slater in a backstage segment that lasted about a minute, and then drove nine hours back to Michigan.
“Usually with a long drive, you try not to waste time by sitting and eating,” he says. “But I was like, ‘Let’s go to Waffle House. Let’s get some egg whites, chicken, and some waffles.’” And it was there, at a Waffle House on the Kentucky border (“The birth state of Abraham Lincoln!” he adds proudly), where Rhyno learned he had won the Republican primary by 56 votes.
When we met, Rhyno was back in Dearborn, after a SmackDown event in San Diego. “We are gonna crush some doors!” he told me. He wore all black, a campaign T-shirt, And 1 basketball shorts that drooped past his knees, and low-cut Nikes. “I have done probably between ten and twelve thousand [doors] myself.” The campaign is a bare-bones operation, with Karl assisting in her dual roles of volunteer and campaign manager.
The first door he knocked — and he always knocks, he said, because dogs don’t like doorbells, and there are a lot of dogs in Dearborn — went unanswered. “Sorry I missed you,” he wrote on a campaign mailer.
“It’s a little more personal,” he said. “At least they know I’m knocking on doors.”
He next approached a middle-aged man working on a car. Rhyno delivered his spiel.
“Is this to go to Lansing?” the man asked.
“Yeah, I’m running for state rep.”
“Do you know Dave Cochran? He’s my uncle!”
“The name sounds familiar,” Rhyno said. From his expression — eyes squinted and looking upward, curled lips, the physical manifestation of “Hmmm?” — it’s clear he did not know Dave Cochran, but it was enough to convince Cochran’s nephew otherwise. “Tell your uncle I said, ‘Hi!’ I hope I have your support on November 8.”
As we walked down Dartmouth, Rhyno explained how his day job prepared him for moments like that. “Wrestling has trained me to adjust as things come up,” he said. “Things change at the last minute. You had a 10-minute segment, but the segment before went long, so you have to cut two minutes and still have it make sense.”
Wrestling turned out to be the perfect campaign prep. He acted like a superhero when a 13-year-old wrestling fan recognized him. With senior citizens he told corny jokes like a Borscht Belt comedian. He seized the right tone with each person he encountered. This wasn’t luck or even what political commenters would deem charisma.
“Wrestling has also taught me to feel emotions,” he said. “If I can’t feel the audience’s emotion, I can’t give them what they want. It’s the same with voters — you have to feel the voters’ emotion.”
Politicians come from all walks of life — they are lawyers and doctors, athletes and actors, community organizers and reality TV stars. Along the way they sharpen the skills that make them successful politicians (i.e., those who win elections). In many ways, professional wrestlers are uniquely qualified to thrive in this arena. The best pro wrestlers, and politicians, must possess the ability to enrapture large crowds while clutching a mic. They must be camera-savvy, have the capacity to think on their feet, and be comfortable with, yes, having public and private personae. Presentation and establishing an emotional connection with the audience are also paramount.
There is an act of performance and persuasion — more like manipulation, really — that comes with both gigs. “My job as a villain was to get people to spend their money to see me get beat,” former Minnesota governor Jesse “The Body” Ventura tells me. “That really is no different than getting someone to vote for you. In politics you’re selling yourself to the public to get votes.” A cynic might say it’s all a big work (wrestling terminology for a deception or fraud), and none of these people — from the world heavyweight champion to the president of the United States — are real.
Many politicians embody a character, a gimmick, that’s been refined through focus groups or advisers, whether it’s Donald Trump posing as the canny, straight-talking businessman; Hillary Clinton’s efficient technocrat routine; or Bernie “The Democratic Socialist” Sanders, who, during his campaign, captured something similar to the populist appeal of the late “American Dream” Dusty Rhodes; there are palpable similarities between Rhodes’s legendary “Hard Times” promo and the average Sanders stump speech.
If you believe that politicians running for office are merely participating in another form of kayfabe — a carny term adopted by wrestling, defined as a sleight-of-hand routine in which the desired result is convincing others that what is bullshit is actually true — then a professional wrestler should be perfect for the job.
Less than a year into his political career, Rhyno has a meta campaign slogan (“I will fight for you”), but he’s still searching for a gimmick that fits. “In wrestling, the whole work is, I’m Rhyno, here to beat up everyone, screaming and everything. I’m working the people to make them think I’m something that I’m not,” he says. “Knocking on doors, I’m Terrance Guido Gerin. I’m not working them for a vote.”
Jesse Ventura never struggled to find his voice during his transition from wrestling to politics. He was still “The Body,” a flamboyant truth-teller with a fierce independent streak, but he changed his nickname to “The Mind” during his campaign. Ventura rebelled early in his career, threatening wrestling’s code of secrecy, or kayfabe, by traveling with babyfaces (wrestling good guys), and discussing politics with the boys, which was typically frowned upon. “In the late 1970s, Jesse Ventura was my [neighbor] for six months in the Kansas City territory. He was already very outspoken politically,” remembers Brian Blair, who later found fame as one half of the Killer Bees. “If you wanted to get along with Jesse, just shut up and listen. I don’t want to say he was overbearing, but Jesse was a very confident person who wanted you to understand that his logic was right.”
Ventura became more popular after his in-ring career ended in the mid-1980s. He perfected the heel wrestling announcer shtick, acted alongside his friend Arnold Schwarzenegger in Predator and The Running Man, and, in 1990, was elected mayor of Brooklyn Park, Minnesota, a suburb of Minneapolis–Saint Paul.
Ventura was considered a long shot when he ran for governor under the Reform Party ticket in 1998, but Dean Barkley, his campaign chair, sensed Ventura connecting with voters. “I had never seen someone with such natural ability to motivate an audience,” Barkley says. In 2002, Ventura selected Barkley to temporarily fill the seat of U.S. Senator Paul Wellstone after he died in a plane crash. Barkley assumed the role for two months.
“The same ability to motivate a crowd to hate him,” Barkley says, “he was able to motivate a crowd to vote for him. It was the same talent that he used in politics.”
“I spoke from the heart and from off the top of my head,” Ventura adds. “I spoke the same way that I would do in a wrestling interview.” Compared to Ventura, his opponents, Norm Coleman and Hubert H. Humphrey III, looked like canned politicians.
He also used his size, all 6 feet, 4 inches and 250 pounds, to his advantage. When the candidates shook hands at debates, Ventura straightened his posture, making his foes appear puny. Barkley says his presence sent a message of leadership and confidence to voters. And it resonated.
Ventura polled strongly enough that Hillary Clinton, first lady at the time, parachuted into Minnesota during the home stretch to campaign for Humphrey, the Democrat. And when Ventura heard that Clinton had referred to his campaign as a “carnival sideshow,” he cut a classic Jesse “The Body” Ventura promo on her: “Well, it seems to me that, rather than being concerned about Minnesota politics, Mrs. Clinton should be more concerned about leaving Bill alone in the White House.”
For the first time in his career, Ventura says, he was the babyface in the equation. “She had no business in Minnesota,” he tells me. “She doesn’t live here. She wasn’t a constituent. I was the babyface responding to the heel. I live here. I’m born and raised in Minnesota. She isn’t. And then she threw a low blow. Why would she call my candidacy a carnival show? I had already been a mayor. I had been out of wrestling for nearly a decade. If she hadn’t started it, there would have been no reason for me to have a response, would there?”
Ventura won the election with 36.99 percent of the vote. His polling demographics closely resembled that of the majority of pro wrestling fans: young males.
Ventura wasn’t the first politician to have once made a living wearing tights — Tom Drake served 32 years in the Alabama House of Representatives; Abraham Lincoln had an amateur wrestling background — but Ventura’s triumph encouraged a handful of other wrestlers to run for office. Jerry Lawler placed third in the 1999 Memphis mayoral election; Bob Backlund lost a bid for Congress in 2000; and Ventura’s old friend, Brian Blair, lost a 2002 effort for county commission in Hillsborough County, Florida.
When Blair ran again in 2004, his opponent, future Tampa mayor Bob Buckhorn, used Blair’s wrestling background to burn him, distributing mailers featuring Blair’s wrestling action figure. It backfired. “People actually thought that was a good thing,” Blair says. “There were no Bob Buckhorn action figures.” Blair, a conservative running on a small-government platform, won a close election.
“Sincerity sells,” he says. “Wrestling taught me how to be sincere as a babyface and give everything that I have to make the people feel like they got their money’s worth. It’s the same with a constituency. You want to make them feel like you will truly deliver on what you say you’re going to do.”
Born the youngest of three boys, Rhyno grew up in Dearborn Heights, a commuter town neighboring Dearborn. His parents followed current events and politics, never missing the evening news or 60 Minutes, but they didn’t discuss their personal beliefs with their children. “I knew they voted,” Rhyno says, “and that was it.”
His politics took shape during Ronald Reagan’s first term. “Ronald Reagan did something for me as a kid,” he says. “You felt safe. You felt like you could be anything or do anything. You live in the greatest country, but it takes hard work, dedication, and that stuff.” He recalls Reagan’s reelection in 1984, and the famous campaign ad “Prouder, Stronger, Better,” with delight. “It’s morning again in America,” Rhyno says, replicating the soothing tone of narrator Hal Riney.
Hulk Hogan was another of his childhood heroes. Rhyno would bike to his grandmother’s house after church on Sunday to watch the Hulkster on WWF’s syndicated programming. Like most teens, though, his interest in pro wrestling waned when he reached high school.
While at Annapolis High School in Dearborn Heights, Rhyno played nose tackle and center for the football team and wrestled at heavyweight. He didn’t have concrete career plans until senior year, when another kid said he looked like Terry “Bam Bam” Gordy of Fabulous Freebirds fame. Around that time, he reconnected with a friend who was the kind of wrestling fanatic who’d stake out airports in hopes of meeting his heroes. Rhyno fell in love with pro wrestling all over again. “I knew this was what I wanted to do.”
After graduation, he trained at the Can-Am Wrestling School in Windsor, Ontario, under “Irish” Mickey Doyle, Denny Kass, and Scott D’Amore. Within nine months, WCW hired him as enhancement talent, in 1994. Sometimes he would rub shoulders with the greats. Backstage at the 1995 Great American Bash, Rhyno gazed in horror as Hulk Hogan downed beers throughout the event; Hogan wasn’t booked to wrestle that evening. “He drinks a beer. I’m like, ‘Wait a second, what happened to “say your prayers, eat your vitamins”?’ I was 19. I still had that markish side to me. I started justifying it to myself like, ‘He’s over 21, he’s allowed to have a beer.’ Then he grabs another one,” Rhyno remembers. “After six beers I was officially upset.”
He wrestled in Canada and Germany before debuting in ECW in 1999, when he immediately became one of its biggest stars. Repeating a familiar refrain about the promotion, Rhyno says he felt like he was “part of something special in ECW.” But the company was slowly collapsing. Its biggest stars had fled to WCW and WWE, a television deal with TNN hadn’t led to an uptick in live events, and its finances — never sturdy to begin with — were dwindling. The promotion folded in April 2001. Rhyno was the final ECW World Heavyweight Champion.
Soon thereafter, Rhyno debuted in WWE, where the structure and professionalism were antithetical to the ramshackle charm of ECW. The pay was also healthier — Rhyno says he made nearly $250,000 in 2001, his best year in the business. He was a stalwart in WWE’s midcard until he was fired in April 2005 following a public argument with his now-ex-wife. He never considered transitioning to a more stable career.
“I will wrestle until my body doesn’t allow me to,” Rhyno says. We are on adjacent treadmills in a Dearborn gym warming up for a back workout. With campaigning taking precedence over morning cardio, the 295-pound Rhyno is 25 pounds heavier than during his ECW days. Still, he’s enjoying a renaissance in WWE as one half of the SmackDown Tag Team Champions.
After WWE fired him, Rhyno bounced around the independent circuit for a decade, wrestling in TNA, Ring of Honor, even Juggalo Championship Wrestling. Like the Rhyno character — like all independent contractors — Terrance Gerin was a mercenary: He’d fight if the money was right. He had lean years, during which he almost lost his house. He did unload one prized possession: the original ECW World Heavyweight title belt, selling it to a collector in Alabama. “I didn’t get a ton,” Rhyno admits. “More or less, I had to. It was just running into hard times.”
Hard times molded his political beliefs. He stresses the importance of federal entitlements, noting that his father received benefits from the time of his second heart attack in 1976 — when Rhyno was a year old — until his death 16 years later. He says he empathizes with people who live in the country illegally who are escaping poverty, sex slavery, and gangs. He also wants to improve public education (“I’m a mark for public schools”), public parks, public pools, and public transportation. And despite being “very pro-life,” Rhyno doesn’t support legislation banning abortion.
“Are you going to say I sound like a Democrat? Because people tell me that,” he says. “I ran under the Republican ticket because I identify more as a Republican.” He sounds more like a proverbial Republican when discussing Syrian refugees, welfare reform, taxes, and Hillary Clinton. (“What do you think about the email scandal or her lies?” he blurts between sets of seated lower-back extensions.) Like many moderate Republicans, he voted for John Kasich in the Michigan primary. He is undecided about November.
Rhyno’s run for public office surprised his colleagues. “That’s the last guy I thought would get involved with politics,” says Konnan, the former WCW star who worked with Rhyno in TNA. “Talking wasn’t his strong point — all he would say was, ‘Gore! Gore! Gore!’ Backstage, he had a dry sense of humor and was a bit introverted. He didn’t have a big personality that you’d think a political candidate would have. He’s not a Jesse ‘The Body’ Ventura. He was just a cool, mellow dude.”
Wrestling broadcasting legend Jim Ross remembers Rhyno as “really introspective. He read a lot. Terry was so reliable; if he told you he was going to do something, he did it. That he was a reliable person who kept his word and didn’t have any hidden agendas, I would say he is probably as ill-suited to be a politician as anybody you can think of.”
“I watched him growing up,” Abdullah Hammoud says of his opponent in the general election. “I watched wrestling back in the day when it was the Rock, Stone Cold, Mankind, Kevin Nash, and Scott Hall. It’s funny to see that this is who I’m running against. It’s very surreal. It’s kinda cool though.”
Hammoud sits in Famous Hamburger, a halal burger joint in East Dearborn, with his younger brother Mohammed and his campaign manager, Ghida Dagher, unwinding from a long day. In the morning he attended Bernie Sanders’s rally for Hillary Clinton in Dearborn, and then met with members of his primary opponent’s staff to “bridge all the Democrats together.”
We scan the menu. “What’s good here?” I ask. He stares straight ahead through his Prada glasses. “The salad,” he deadpans. “It’s called Famous Hamburger. No, really, the kale is really good.” He orders a chicken quesadilla, no jalapeños, and French fries.
A political wunderkind at 26 years old, Hammoud is the more polished candidate in the race by a wide margin. He answers policy questions about infrastructure and the environment with depth and nuance, and he’s already mastered the art of uttering platitudes like, “I tend to look at issues through a nonpartisan lens.” He either is a future senator or will enter the private sector and make millions. If it were available, I would buy stock in Abdullah Hammoud.
The child of Lebanese immigrants, Hammoud grew up in an observant Muslim household in Dearborn, the son of a truck driver and stay-at-home mom. With the highest concentration of Arab Americans in the United States, Dearborn was “a bubble,” Hammoud says. “Everyone in Dearborn kind of knows everyone in Dearborn.” He still encountered Islamophobia as a kid. He recalls September 12, 2001, when a man pointed a gun at him and his friends through a window. “He said, ‘Keep walking before I decide to shoot,’” Hammoud says. “I was 11.”
The fall of 2001 marked another turning point for him, when a Lebanese American immigrant named Abed Hammoud (no relation) ran for mayor of Dearborn, sparking Abdullah Hammoud’s interest in politics. “At first I just wanted to wear his T-shirt,” Hammoud says. He worked the polls for Abed Hammoud in November, which later led to handing out fliers, knocking on doors, canvassing, and heavy involvement in student government at the University of Michigan–Dearborn.
He’d been working in the health care industry for six years when he decided to run for state representative, and as the youngest candidate in the race, Hammoud says, he faced skepticism from voters early on. He also combated prejudice; one campaign mailer was returned with the messages “No Arabs” and “Go back to Lebanon.” He says his poll numbers plummeted following the Orlando nightclub massacre in June. But he rebounded, and with 38 percent of the vote, he prevailed over five opponents in the August primary. He’s certain he’s the best candidate on the ballot.
“First and foremost, I have real policy experience. Terrance has zero policy experience,” he says. “In a world of term limits, you need to hit the ground running and you need to understand the issues before you assume office.”
We are now driving on Schaefer Road, heading toward Warren Avenue. “This is the heart of the east side of Dearborn,” Hammoud says. Small businesses with signage in English and Arabic line the streets. Hammoud points out Shatila, the largest bakery in Dearborn, and Papaya Fruit Market, a famous local grocery store. “All of these shops are primarily owned by Arab American entrepreneurs,” he says with pride.
Though the 15th is a strong Democratic district, Hammoud must increase voter turnout in this neighborhood to win comfortably on November 8. He seems poised to benefit from the Republican nominee for president. “This year with Trump,” he says, “I think people want to cast their vote.”
Political commentators across the spectrum, from John Podhoretz and Bill Kristol to The New York Times editorial board, have likened Donald Trump’s campaign to professional wrestling, an astute comparison according to members of the business. “Donald Trump isn’t just taking one page out of the wrestling playbook, but multiple pages,” says GFW founder Jeff Jarrett, a 30-year industry veteran. He cites Trump’s behavior at rallies and his debate performance. “You can call it ring presence or stage presence, but his presentation is very strong.”
Like the best pro wrestlers, Trump reads his audience. He’s even admitted to utilizing his call-and-response catchphrases — crowd favorites like “Build the wall!” and “Lock her up!” — if he senses energy flagging at his rallies.
Trump’s relationship with WWE began in 1988, when Trump Plaza in Atlantic City hosted WrestleMania IV. Trump, surprisingly, avoided the spotlight that night. But he made an impact behind the scenes. During the opening match, a 20-man over-the-top-rope battle royal, Brian Blair, future Hillsborough County commissioner, split open his chin after a bump on the steel railing. “I heard a lady say, ‘That’s real blood!’” Blair remembers. Trump, he says, offered his handkerchief, escorted him to the locker room, and waited until the ambulance arrived. “He was really comforting. He was like, ‘Everything is going to be good.’” Blair’s cut required 14 stitches. Later that evening he won more than $1,200 in blackjack. He says he’s voting for Trump. “I think he’s a brilliant man,” Blair says.
Trump’s biggest wrestling moment occurred in 2007, at WrestleMania 23. Billed “The Battle of the Billionaires,” Trump and WWE chairman Vince McMahon each selected a representative — Bobby Lashley and the late Umaga, respectively — to fight on their behalf. On the line that night: The losing billionaire would have his head shaved on live television. “A lot of people were skeptical when they first heard of the idea,” Jim Ross remembers. “Not that it wasn’t a good idea — it was a great idea. But would we be able to execute it?”
The angle, Ross says, hinged on Trump’s availability to appear on television and his willingness to go along with the story line. Bobby Lashley pinned Umaga, Vince McMahon’s head was shaved, and Trump ate a Stone Cold Stunner from guest referee “Stone Cold” Steve Austin.
“For him to get physical was a surprise for me. I didn’t think he would go that deep into the character, but he did and it worked out,” Ross says. “[Trump] wanted to be involved in a hit, and he was.”
WrestleMania 23 has the second-highest pay-per-view buy rate in WWE history, behind only WrestleMania XXVIII, which featured a main event pitting John Cena against the Rock.
“At the end of the day,” Ross says, “everything worked out famously.”
The campaign for Michigan’s 15th District has unfolded in predictable fashion. The policy wonk has focused on the issues, with an emphasis on education, the environment, and health care. The professional wrestler made a commercial in which Kurt Angle put an undecided voter in an ankle lock.
Hammoud has more volunteers and sounder infrastructure, and according to online filing he’s raised $84,610, nearly 10 times as much as Rhyno. The state Republican Party hasn’t made up the difference. “They’re very supportive, but 17 out of 110 seats are in play,” Rhyno says. “They have to focus on seats that are winnable.”
Despite these drawbacks, Rhyno was optimistic when we spoke two weeks prior to Election Day. “I’m feeling good,” he said. “I feel the momentum.” With a full-time roster spot, he’s on the road more often with WWE, and he was excited about changes planned for the Rhyno character. “You’ll start to see more of my personality,” he said. “The facials are developing. Before I was always snarling. Now it’ll be a goofy look sometimes too.”
Rhyno the politician also underwent some slight tweaks. At a recent town forum at the Henry Ford Village, a senior center in Dearborn, Rhyno hugged Hammoud, mugged for a photographer onstage, and cracked jokes to the audience’s delight.
“Will I fall flat on my face on November 8?” Rhyno wondered aloud. “We’ll see. Even if I don’t win, I did something I believe in, which is work hard, be yourself, and be for the people.”
But what if Rhyno pulls off a miracle? Can he rely on his wrestling skills in Lansing? Do the same skills that help wrestlers win elections come in handy once they’re in office?
“No!” Jesse Ventura says, followed by a villainous cackle. “Governing and providing services and being the head of government? Really, I don’t think there’s much way you can pry that from performing as a wrestler.”
Thomas Golianopoulos (@Golianopoulos) is a writer living in New York City. He has contributed to The New York Times, BuzzFeed, Grantland, and Complex.