April 5, 2011
Muhammad Hassan is back, sort of
By COLIN HUNTER - SLAM! Wrestling
He was one of the most controversial villains in wrestling history, whose actions and words touched a raw nerve in the beleaguered, post-9/11 American psyche.
Then, as quickly as he burst onto the wrestling scene and onto international headlines, he vanished -- not to be seen or even mentioned on television again.
The story of how Marc Copani, a 23-year-old Italian college dropout from Syracuse, NY, became the incendiary Arab-American villain Muhammad Hassan is a story of timing and luck -- both good and bad.
It has been six years since Copani got booted off network television and turned his back on professional wrestling, and only now has he decided to break his silence about his meteoric rise to infamy and his plummet into self-imposed obscurity.
"For a long time I didn't want any more attention," Copani said in an interview with SLAM! Wrestling, one of only a handful he has granted since his 2005 departure from WWE. "But I figured this would be a good opportunity to get my side of the story out, six years later."
His side of the story tells of a young, admittedly immature athlete who dreamed of stardom but got "too much, too quickly," and made a few enemies in high places along the way.
For a while, Copani enjoyed his newfound notoriety portraying an embittered Arab-American claiming to be a victim of racial profiling and discrimination. But the pressures of being vaulted to main-event status, combined with death threats and a widespread disgust over his controversial gimmick, weighed heavily on the rookie wrestler.
He loved performing in the ring -- it was a childhood dream-come-true -- but his infamy created pressures and problems for which he wasn't fully prepared.
Now 30, with the wisdom of hindsight and perspective, Copani looks back on his wrestling days with some fondness and nostalgia, but with no desire to re-live them.
"When I left wrestling, I told myself I would leave for good -- I knew that from the start," Copani said over the phone from upstate New York, where he's completing his long-postponed university degree in adolescent education and history.
In 2002, Copani was just one semester away from completing a history degree at the State University of New York in Buffalo when a thirst for adventure led him to Louisville, KY, where he signed up for the WWE breeding ground Ohio Valley Wrestling.
He adopted the name Mark Magnus and trained alongside Nick "Eugene" Dinsmore and Johnny Jeter, developing in-ring fundamentals to match his chiseled physique.
When word circulated that the bigwigs at WWE wanted to introduce an Arab-American character to the main roster, OVW honcho Jim Cornette approached Copani about playing the part.
"I thought it was pretty funny, actually -- playing an Arab," he recalled. "I'm 100 per cent Italian, from Syracuse, New York. But I was open to it, and I knew it was going to be a big opportunity."
He also knew it was potentially a big risk. Early on, he met with WWE road agent Arn Anderson, who regaled him with tales -- some funny, some worrisome -- about the intense hatred elicited by the Iron Sheik in the 1980s.
"Arn Anderson told me how to be prepared, and how it could all go downhill," said Copani.
The writers at WWE toyed with a variety of ideas for the Arab-American character, such as making him an oil tycoon bent on procuring the world's fossil fuel supplies.
The stroke of genius that separated Muhammad Hassan from all the previous middle-eastern heels was the idea that he was not evil at all, but rather a victim of American xenophobia and prejudice.
In a series of taped vignettes, accompanied by kinetic sidekick Daivari (who lent credibility to the middle-eastern conceit by "translating" Hassan's tirades in Persian), Hassan admonished the American public for unfair treatment of dark-skinned citizens.
"I am an Arab-American," said a shirtless, oil-slathered Hassan in one early segment. "I grew up right here in America. I went to the same schools, I ate the same food, and there was never any animosity between us. But since 9/11, you people tend to generalize or stereotype people like me. We are singled out. We are humiliated. We demand the same rights that any American has!"
He yearned for a better America, in which people are judged by their actions, not the colour of their skin. And people hated him for it.
"Everything I was saying was true, which is why fans loved to hate the character," said Copani. "They knew what I was saying was right, but they hated being told it."
By the time Hassan and Daivari appeared on live television in December 2004 -- rudely interrupting Mick Foley, who was voicing his support for American troops abroad (and plugging his latest book) -- they were the most reviled heels in wrestling.
Week after week, the duo continued to interrupt other segments, their arrival preceded by middle-eastern-inspired music (which had a repetitive vocal chorus that sounded conspicuously like "Aliennnn, aaaliiiennnn, aaaliennn."
In fact, Hassan became so adept at rude interruptions that his name eventually became somewhat synonymous with the practice (look up "Hassan" on UrbanDictionary.com and you'll find an entry defining it as a verb meaning "to interrupt").
Naturally, the more he interjected himself into WWE programming, and the more he complained about being treated unfairly, the more fans wanted to see him get his comeuppance.
When he entered the 2005 Royal Rumble, the eight wrestlers already battling in the ring called a temporary ceasefire in order to gang up on Hassan, whom they promptly pounded and ejected over the top rope.
Hassan racked up an impressive collection of victories, usually through nefarious tactics, and by April 2005 found himself in a headlining role at WWE's cathedral, Madison Square Garden. Looking back, Copani fondly remembers it as the greatest night of his wrestling career.
After getting himself disqualified in a match against Shawn Michaels (thanks to interference from Daivari), Hassan wrapped his headdress around Michaels' neck and proceeded to "hang" Michaels from the top rope.
Then the familiar guitar strains of Real American blasted from the loudspeakers, and out strode Hulk Hogan. The crowd, unsurprisingly, went bananas at the sight of the patriotic Hulkster.
"It was the loudest thing I had ever heard in my life," recalled Copani. "It was so loud, it was almost quiet -- a different kind of loud. The sound practically lifted me off the mat."
Hogan, the WWE's fabled vanquisher of foreign foes from The Iron Sheik to Yokozuna, unfurled some punches, a few kicks, and a vintage double-noggin-knocker to Hassan and Daivari, who flopped about accordingly.
Muhammad Hassan was trounced and humiliated; Copani, on the other hand, couldn't have been happier. He had grown up watching Hogan similarly dispatch foreign heels, and could hardly believe he now ranked among the villains upon whom Hulkamania had run wild.
It would be one of the last high points in a career that had been teetering on the edge of disaster for months, and was about to tumble over it.
Copani knew he was pushing the envelope with the Hassan character, and he had heard that angry letters and death threats were flowing in (though most were filtered out before they ever reached him personally).
The trouble escalated when Hassan and Daivari were "drafted" from Raw to Smackdown, on the relatively more family-friendly UPN network.
When Undertaker handily demolished Daivari, Hassan "prayed" at ringside to summon five men wearing ski masks and camouflage fatigues, who choked the Undertaker with piano wire, allowing Hassan to apply the camel clutch.
Though recorded on a Tuesday, the episode aired the following Friday -- just hours after the terrorist bombings in London, England.
The segment was lambasted by critics, with commentators in the New York Post, Variety and other mainstream publications saying that WWE had sunk to an all-time low in search of ratings.
In a response that aired only on the WWE website, Hassan fought back, publicly admonishing New York Post writer Don Kaplan for assuming the thugs in ski masks were Arab terrorists (they were actually white guys, for the record).
"I went out there with the article in my hand. That was 100 percent ad lib on my part," Copani recalled. "(Kaplan) had made assumptions that were false, and I called him on it. That was one of my better interviews. Sadly, it was also my last one."
Copani thinks the debacle could have been prevented by some last-minute editing of Smackdown, but he knew the Hassan character was always on the verge of pushing things too far.
"We had an idea something was going to happen," said Copani. "There had been a lot of pressure, especially from Arab Americans who thought the portrayal was unfair."
So at the height of his infamy, Copani was unemployed -- but not particularly disappointed. His WWE tenure had been such a wild ride that he was dizzied and disillusioned, and he welcomed a respite from the chaos.
"I had gotten everything too quickly in WWE," he said. "I was absolutely not ready. I was too immature. I was only 24 when all that happened. I wasn't mentally equipped to handle such a quick ascent. Looking back now, from a 30-year-old's perspective, I can see that I was just a kid back then."
Hoping to explore a different side of showbiz, Copani moved to Los Angeles to try his hand at acting and writing -- a tough business, he would discover, but a nice change from wrestling.
It was during that time that he reconnected with his friend Shad Gaspard of the tag team Cryme Tyme, who mentioned a screenplay he'd been struggling to write.
Copani, an educated and imaginative man with a knack for storytelling, offered to take on the development of Gaspard's screenplay.
"I took his original screenplay and rewrote it from scratch," he said. "I spent a year on it. We worked on it back and forth, piecing it together."
"It's a throwback to old samurai films with a mix of Kill Bill. Because Shad is a big black man and I'm a medium-sized Italian man, we had different influences growing up," said Copani. "Ultimately, it becomes a hero's quest for redemption."
The imminent release of the book has inspired its reclusive author to emerge from semi-exile in his native New York State, oblige the occasional interview request and reconnect, to a small degree, with the wrestling world.
On April 9, Copani will meet fans and sign autographs at the Super Saturday wrestling convention presented by K&S Promotions and Highspots in Essington, PA.
His main motivation for attending the event, he confesses, is a free trip to the Philadelphia area, since he and his girlfriend want to visit the city. But he's also looking forward to seeing some familiar faces, particularly Daivari, and meeting the fans.
"I live such a normal life right now, it's cool years later to see that people still remember the character I played," he said. "To talk to these fans and hear their gratitude, it's actually kind of shocking."
But Copani insists no amount of gratitude or nostalgia will make him return to the wrestling business full-time. He is nearly finished his college degree and intends to become a teacher. He's fascinated with world history -- particularly the great moments of American history, which he realizes is a tad ironic given his WWE persona -- and he is enjoying a stable, low-key existence.
He occasionally receives offers to resurrect the middle-eastern character on the indie circuit around the U.S. and overseas, but he made up his mind that Muhammad Hassan will remain a remnant of his past.
"I've seen too many guys well-past their primes (on the indie circuit) who get into unfortunate situations, and I didn't want to become that," he said.
When pressed to be more specific on the subject, Copani declined to name names. Instead, he replied with six words that illustrate how vastly different he is from the character he famously portrayed: "I don't want to offend anyone."
Colin Hunter enjoyed a cordial, fascinating interview with Marc Copani, but was secretly hoping that Muhammad Hassan's theme music would suddenly interrupt the conversation, followed by a tirade about American xenophobia. You can reach Colin at email@example.com.