During the early days of social distancing in the COVID-19 pandemic, it seemed like everyone was talking about Netflix’s Tiger King, including AEW announcer and wrestling legend Jim Ross. On his podcast, Grilling J.R., Ross said that the show’s central character, Joe Exotic, reminded him of an old indie wrestler. Specifically, one that’s “poor but thinks he’s great.”
His co-host, Conrad Thompson, said Exotic would have made a good six-man tag team partner with two legends, Michael Hayes and Diamond Dallas Page. That’s less flattering than it appears since Thompson meant it as a backhanded compliment comparing their tacky aesthetic to his. It might surprise Ross, Thompson, and many of the show’s ardent fans to find out that Exotic actually had some real ties to the wrestling business.
Exotic was an announcer for regional promotion NWA Texoma (later Texoma Wrestling) from 2014 to 2018. He also hosted two shows at his infamous G.W. Zoo. Talent on the shows Exotic was involved with included WWE‘s Viking Raider Erik, former WWE Tag Team Champion Charlie Haas, and former NWA Champion Tim Storm, who has become a mainstay in Billy Corgan’s version of the promotion. Clips of the shows, which are still up on Exotic’s YouTube page, began appearing on Twitter once fans discovered Exotic’s wrestling side hustle.
The shows at Exotic’s zoo offered a novel experience for the wrestlers. Their dressing room was in a gazebo where zoo visitors normally watched the tigers. Exotic and the show’s promoter, Robert Langdon, sprang for pyro for entrances, and the typical low pay of an indie show was supplemented by solo time with the tigers. Indie wrestler Moonshine Mantell said the time with the cats made it his favorite booking ever. Another indie wrestler, Jaxon Stone told Vice “It’s become like the coolest thing I’ve ever done in my career,” said Stone. “It’s my WrestleMania moment, baby!”
Exotic has also had run-ins with wrestlers outside of his shows. Former Ring of Honor World Champions Matt Taven, Jay Lethal, and Dalton Castle took a trip to Exotic’s zoo following a show in Texas. During their visit, Lethal mentioned that he was from Tampa, Florida. The notoriously paranoid Exotic and his staff then assumed the wrestlers were spies for Exotic’s nemesis, Carole Baskin, whose Big Cat Rescue is located in Tampa. The trio eventually smoothed things over and convinced Exotic they weren’t working for Baskin.
Exotic’s feud with Baskin ran so deep that he thought “Black Machismo” (or anyone else from Tampa) would be part of it. It’s part of what makes him a true pro wrestling character beyond his professional association with the business. Ross had him pegged far better than he knew.
It’s a wrestling truism that the best characters come from wrestlers turning their own personalities up to 11. Exotic did that in his real life and lived his gimmick like an old school pro. If there was any difference between Joe Exotic and Joseph Allen Maldonado-Passage, he never showed it. One thing you can say about Exotic, his specific gimmick (a southern-fried polygamous gay exotic animal zoo operator) is certainly a unique one.
Every wrestler needs a rival, and Exotic found his with Baskin, whose attempts to shut down exotic animal parks made her an existential threat to everyone in the business. Exotic took Baskin’s crusade personally, and used his prolific YouTube presence to essentially cut promos on Baskin. He openly threatened her numerous times, and promising to fill your rival’s mailbox with snakes as a birthday present sounds like the best Attitude Era segment Steve Austin was never part of — although it’s a little different when threats like that come outside the confines of sports entertainment.
Even Exotic’s infamous “Here Kitty Kitty” music video that referenced the theory that Baskin murdered her first husband was reminiscent of a WWE promo. Elias’s entire gimmick is cutting promos on his enemies through song, and other wrestlers, like Steve Austin and the Rock, have busted out a guitar to cut heel promos on their opponents (and crowds). Exotic’s “Here Kitty Kitty” video can even be looked at as a southern-fried version of Doctor of Thuganomics-era John Cena’s diss raps. It’s also easy to draw a parallel between Exotic and Jeff Jarrett during his country music singer days, although the worst thing Jarrett ever did was smash a guitar over someone’s head.
Tiger King’s shedding light on the seedy side of an insular entertainment business is similar to another documentary series airing at the moment, Vice’s Dark Side of the Ring. Both shows have introduced flamboyant but obscure characters to a wider audience, and reactions to Exotic in the wider pop culture world are similar to those of fans who discovered New Jack in his episode. While it’s likely Exotic will die in prison, at least he didn’t suffer the same fate as Dino Bravo.
Even Exotic’s bizarre political career, which saw him run for President in 2016 and Governor of Oklahoma in 2018 as a libertarian, is straight out of the wrestling playbook. Beyond angles like Bob Backlund and Hulk Hogan running for President in the ’90s, actual WWE Superstars have held office, with WWE Hall of Famers Jesse Ventura and Donald Trump being the most famous examples. Although he won his mayoral race in Knox County, Tennessee as a Republican, Glenn “Kane” Jacobs is an avowed libertarian, which means he and Exotic might have some interesting policy discussions if they ever cross paths.
Exotic’s obsessive recording of life, and hatred of Baskin, were a boon to the production of Tiger King that also helped bring about his downfall in court. Having an online catalog of threats to Baskin as accessible as compilations of unhinged Scott Steiner promos made Exotic as famous as he always wanted to be — albeit at the cost of his freedom. Exotic’s turning himself into a pro wrestling character in his real life is, if nothing else, a good cautionary tale about the perils of working yourself into a shoot; wrestlers should take note that living a gimmick can come back to haunt anyone.
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Before his Netflix infamy, Joe Exotic had a side as a wrestling announcer, but it's his feud with Carole Baskin that's pure pro wrestling.