Well That Didn’t Work: Saba Simba

Craig Wilson

Our ‘Well That Didn’t Work‘ series returns to the blog today. Previously we’ve looked at The Undertaker v Undertaker feud, the NWA invasion of the WWE and The Brawl for All and many more. In this edition, Craig looks at the return to the WWF in 1991 of Tony Atlas, but now renamed Saba Simba…

Debuting in wrestling in 1974, Tony Atlas would go on to have a successful in-ring career. Predominantly a tag team wrestler, as well as capturing WWWF tag gold with Rocky Johnson, The Rock’s Dad, he also achieved tag success outside of Vince McMahon Sr.’s company with the likes of Mr Wrestling II, Tommy Rich and Kevin Sullivan.

It was a career that took in the WWWF, World Class Championship Wrestling World Wrestling Council and the American Wrestling Association. In winning the WWF tag titles with Rocky Johnson, they became the first Afro-American team to hold the titles. A singles push was mooted but drug problems, which caused him to miss shows, put paid to that.

By the late 80s that early success must have felt like a lifetime ago as Atlas battled a serious drug addiction that saw him find himself homeless. The story goes that his current wife found him, took him to the ER and played a part in getting him back on his feet.

In 1990, a rejuvenated Atlas found himself once again turning to a McMahon to help with his wrestling dreams. However, it was Vince McMahon Jr. who was in charge of the now World Wrestling Federation (WWF). With it being 1990, dodgy gimmicks were everywhere, and Atlas soon found himself saddled with one, that of a warrior of a Ugandan tribe complete with ridiculous headdress and attire.

The character began appearing soon after SummerSlam 1990 and lasted until just after the Royal Rumble, with a Rumble appearance being his only PPV one. He entered the Rumble 7th and lasted barely two and a half minutes before being tossed out by Rick Martel.

In the above clip, Roddy Piper states: “Hold the fort. Hold the fort. That’s Tony Atlas. That ain’t no Saba Simba, that’s Tony Atlas.” This causes Vince McMahon to mumble about how Atlas is proud of his heritage… I can’t help but think ‘fair play’ to Piper for attempting to cut through the BS and not treat wrestling fans as idiots.

To nobody, barring perhaps Vince McMahon, the gimmick proved to be unpopular at best, and racist at worst and only appeared on the one PPV.

In an era when stereotypical characters were, sadly, part and parcel of wrestling. Not long after this period, Kamala returned to our screens, a similar gimmick, and the Headshrinkers soon debuted along with their typically tough Samoan heads.

A quick google of Saba Simba throws up countless internet messageboards, quite rightly, lambasting the gimmick with many focusing on the racial connotations and the stereotypical portrayal of a black wrestling by the WWF.

Ultimately, Atlas himself credits his WWF return as having saved his life. It’s a fact thrown about by some on the aforementioned messageboards to suggest the gimmick was neither racist or stereotypical. Ultimately, that run with the WWF may indeed have saved Atlas’ life, but it would have saved it had he not been saddled with such a woeful gimmick, too.

Anyway, let’s leave James E. Cornette to have the last word, eh?

You can read all previous ‘Well That Didn’t Work’ pieces here.

3 thoughts on “Well That Didn’t Work: Saba Simba

  1. Pingback: Atlas Falls: The Story of a Wrestling Superstar Going From Riches to Rags | Ring the Damn Bell

  2. the samba simba character cam along just as I left the wrestling spectator role. too many black guys treated like Africans or ghetto-hoodlums. WWF lost as many fans as they gained with all of their re-packaging.

    Liked by 1 person

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