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Treatment of Black Wrestlers Has Evolved For The Better, but There’s Still Work To Do: Documenting Pro Wrestling’s Race Issues

Written by Jameus Mooney

The world is protesting the atrocity of American society, that in 2020 is still as racist as ever when it comes to people in authority. The recent tragedies of Breonna Taylor and George Floyd have sparked a wonderful movement that has most of the Eastern World joining the movement for Black Lives Matter. Like every business in America, there will be a history of discrimination in professional wrestling.

Last year at WrestleMania 35, Kofi Kingston became the first full-black WWE Champion in the belt’s 57 year history. Currently, Keith Lee is the NXT North American Champion, The Street Profits are the Raw Tag Team Champions, Sasha Banks is one half of the Women’s Tag Team champions, Kofi Kingston and Big E are the Tag Team Champions for the SmackDown brand and R-Truth is the 24/7 Champion. Former United States, ECW and Intercontinental Champion Bobby Lashley challenges for the WWE Championship at Sunday’s Backlash event. SmackDown superstar Naomi is a 2x Women’s Champion. Cedric Alexander is a former Cruiserweight Champion. Shelton Benjamin is a former United States, Tag Team and Intercontinental Champion. The WWE has no shortage of black talent that on the surface have strong accomplishments, and no doubt all of these athletes, especially that of Naomi, Montez Ford and Shelton Benjamin, are world class athletes. However, it hasn’t always been that way. The really intriguing thing, however, is that the progression in professional wrestling in a way mirrors that of the real world.

Bobby Lashley at the December to Dismember 2006 pay-per-view where he won the ECW Heavyweight Championship.

Professional Wrestling has been a thing for hundreds of years. The first black wrestler (“Black Sam”) in 1870 was shot by Billy McCallam after he was booked to win a match. However, it wasn’t until 1900 where it truly began to become an actual business, a business that would run territories across the globe. A wrestler would jump from territory to territory to work with new people, in front of a new audience, whenever their act got stale where they were at. Wrestling, however, wasn’t beginning to desegregated until the 1950s by a Caucasian male named Sputnik Monroe. For comparison, 3x NL MVP and black backstop Roy Campanella was in his final year of his Hall of Fame career for the Brooklyn Dodgers by the time Monroe started breaking barriers in wrestling. AEWs Colt Cabana tells the full story of Monroe on his YouTube Channel with David Bixenspan of Forbes on an edition of “Pro Wrestling Fridge.”

It was 1957, deep in the South, when Rock Monroe was stuck in the midcard. On his loop, which included Alabama, historically one of the most racist states in America, he’d pick up a colored hitchhiker and take him to the show. This got him a lot of heat, and he got even more heat when they pretended to make out with each other. Society was far less forgiving in 1957 and it was taboo to be two things: colored and a member of the LGBT community. Alas, Monroe did not care. He got called “sputnik,” in reference to the USSRs involvement in the Space Race, only about a decade or so into the Cold War. He took the moniker ‘Sputnik Monroe’ to Memphis in 1959 and became their biggest star until the arrival of one Jackie Fargo just a few years later. He’d hang out with mainly the black audience, something he’d get arrested for, which he’d fight the charges with black attorneys.

Reminder for those who aren’t the best at remembering dates, the March on Washington which featured famous speeches from the likes of the NCAAPs Roy Wilkins and Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. didn’t take place until 1963. The Jim Crowe Laws weren’t abolished until 1964. This is a good five years out from desegregation. Black fans in arenas were only allowed in on the balcony which featured minuscule seating. Monroe paid off the people who sold tickets to allow far more colored people than the promoters wanted, thus giving a more diverse audience to the performers. Sputnik threatened to walk out if they didn’t integrate audiences going forward.

Throughout the 1950s and into the 1960s, the world was still segregated and thus, wrestling’s perception of the black male was not a good perception. Talents such as Bearcat Wright and Reginald Siki saw moderate success and relegated to curtain jerking most nights. But, Luther Lindsay would make history in the mid-1950s that would make the audience started taking notice and at least accept that black performers could captivate a crowd.

One of a small number, Luther Lindsay was a magician when it came to the technical style and had so much prowess that he defeated Stu Hart in a shoot at the infamous Dungeon in Calgary, Alberta. People took notice in spite of his skin tone and he was rewarded with a program from 1953-1956 with NWA World Champion Lou Thesz, becoming the first non-white person to ever challenge for the Heavyweight Championship of the World. The matches took place in Tacoma, Washington and most went Broadway.

In 1962, Bobo Brazil won the NWA World Heavyweight Champion from “Nature Boy” Buddy Rogers to become the first black male to become World Champion in wrestling. The NWA refused to recognize it and the title change does not count historically. The NWA would frequently switch the title around for a buzz before not recognizing the official change and other wrestlers such as Jack Veneno, Victor Jovica, Carlos Colon, Edouard Carpenter, Killer Kowalski and Bruno Sammartino fell victim to this type of booking. There would not be a recognized black world champion in any major promotion for another 30 years, until Ron Simmons defeated Vader to become the WCW World Heavyweight Champion in August of 1992. You can see the full Ross Report of the events that transpired that put Ron Simmons into the match and Ron Simmons monumental victory below:

The shot of the man in literal tears when Gary Michael Cappetta announced “here is your winner and NEW World Heavyweight Champion Ron Simmons!” does more justice to how much that moment meant than my words written in this piece ever will.

To get back on track with the timeline, in 1994, James Dudley, a former Negro League ballplayer who was supposedly just as good as that of guys like Ernie Banks, was inducted into the WWE Hall of Fame in its second year of existence. This drew a lot of scrutiny from those who don’t realize how pivotal was to Vince McMahon Sr.’s Capitol Wrestling in the 1950s. While Vince Jr. certainly hasn’t had the cleanest track record in the world, nobody can doubt that Vince Sr. didn’t have a racist bone in his body. When he broke off from the NWA to form the WWWF (now known as the WWE) in 1963, he built the promotion around Italian sensation Bruno Sammartino. He brought in the pride of the Fiji Islands Jimmy Snuka, “Polish Power” Ivan Putski, Latin Superstar Pedro Morales, Egyptian Spiros Arion, African American Ernie Ladd, The Iron Sheik, Native American Jay Strongbow, Frenchman Andre The Giant, Balzan Baron Scicluna, among others. This was the most diverse promotion in the world up to that point.

Dudley became one of McMahon’s best friends. Originally his limo driver, Dudley was respected within the black community during the heavily segregated Eastern seaboard. He went to different venue owners and said if Vince can’t promote in their side of town for their community, he wouldn’t be apart of the community, thus allowing Vince J. McMahon to promote everywhere in the area. He went on to be in charge of ticket sales for the company, he was Vince’s bodyguard and he managed Bobo Brazil. The WWWF became the first promotion to prominently feature a collection of black talent.

In the ultimate heatseeking move, Ernie Ladd calls Bobo Brazil an “Uncle Tom.”

Vince Jr. took over the WWF in the early ’80s, and one of the first acts to get over during his tenure was the tag team the “Soul Patrol” consisting of ‘Soulman’ Rocky Johnson and ‘Mr. USA Tony Atlas. They were the first black WWF Tag Team Champions. Unfortunately, that’s about as well as wrestlers of color were treated in the WWF in the 1980s.

In 1985 at the first WrestleMania, Special Delivery Jones lost in one of the shortest matches of all-time.

In the Mid South, Bill Watts heavily pushed guys such as The Junkyard Dog and Bad News Harris, granted the booker was Ernie Ladd. In Memphis, they were pushing Stagger Lee and Soul Train Jones. All of them joined the WWF.

The Junkyard Dog was relegated to dancing for the audience, known as “the juke” despite the audience gravitating towards him. Bad News Harris went on to become the “Ugandan Giant” Kamala, put in war paint, an African mask and loincloths. Kim Chee was his “handler” because he was an animal. Stagger Lee became Koko B Ware, a dancing birdman and lovable loser, who dressed up colorfully. I almost don’t even want to mention Soul Train, who took on the role of Virgil, the butler of Ted DiBiase, a rich, white man. On commentary, Jesse Ventura would refer to Koko as “buckwheat” and a number of different comments with racial overtones regarding the Junkyard Dog, such as “he has a mouth full of grits.” Later on, they brought in Curtis Hughes who was jacked. If you’ve seen the show Prison Break, in season 4 the Company’s hitman Wyatt Mathewson, gives off the same vibes that I’ve always gotten from Mr. Hughes. I personally think that could be a really cool wrestling persona, but they just never did anything with him and just threw him from person to person to manage with no payoff in mind. In the WWE, there was not a major black singles champion in 1996 when Ahmed Johnson defeated Goldust at the King of the Ring pay per view to become the Intercontinental Champion. There hadn’t been another black duo to win the tag championships until 1994 when Men on a Mission, two dancing guys who wore purple and were accompanied by a rapper named Oscar, won the titles from the Quebecers. They held the gold for two days and never appeared on television with the championships.

In 1991, Bill Watts, who heavily pushed Ron Simmons, The Junkyard Dog and other top talents of color, did an interview with PWTorch and made the following comments. Please note: this is VERY sensitive, VERY offensive, it does not represent my views or the views of Pro Sports Extra:

“If you want a business and you put money in, why shouldn’t you be able to discriminate? It’s your business. If free enterprise is going to make or break it, you should be able to discriminate? It should be that, by God, if you’re going to open your doors in America, you can discriminate. Why the fuck not? That’s why I went into business, so that I could discriminate. I mean, really. I mean I want to be able to serve who I want to. It’s my business. It’s my investment…I can’t tell a f*g to get the fuck out. I should have the right to not associate with a f*g if I don’t want to. I mean, why should I have to hire a fuckin’ f*g, if I don’t like f*gs? F*gs discriminate against us, don’t they? Sure they do…Do blacks discriminate against whites? Who’s killed more blacks than anyone? The fuckin’ blacks. But they want to blame that bullshit Roots that came on the air. That Roots was so bullshit. All you have to do if you want slaves is to hand beads to the chiefs and they gave you slaves. What is the best thing that has ever happened to the black race? That they were brought to this country. No matter how they got here. You know why? Because they intermarried and got educated. They’re the ones running the black race. You go down to the black countries and they’re all broke. Idi Amin killed more blacks than we ever killed. You see what I mean. That’s how stupid we are. But we get all caught up in this bullshit rhetoric, And so, it’s ridiculous what’s happening to our country. Lester Maddox was right. If I don’t want to sell fried chicken to blacks I shouldn’t have to. It’s my restaurant. Hell, at least I respect him for his stand.”

-Bill Watts during a PWTorch interview.

Not only is this veiled in homophobia, but it’s also flat out racist. That is what a promoter, the same promoter who booked the first black Heavyweight Champion of the World, thinks of people who aren’t like him. He did not respect his talent, he saw them as assets only and he saw the money in the black community. These remarks are flat out appalling and disgusting, but even with how far the world had come, it’s how society viewed minorities still. That was 1991, it came to light in 1993 and is why he parted ways with WCW. 1993 was one year before the Clinton Administration put the Violent Crime Control Act into effect, one of the most racist and controversial bills ever put in place that ended up protecting the police brutality that we are just now started to truly fight against in the wake of the Breonna Taylor and George Floyd tragedies. That bill was written by current presidential nominee Joe Biden. While we as a society can tell you “no, that’s wrong,” society didn’t in 1993. The movement for LGBT rights didn’t even start until 1969 with the Stonewall Riots, which was after the Civil Rights movement. They were treated even worse in 1993 than black folks. It wasn’t until 2015 that gay marriage became legally binding under a court of law. People still get kicked out of their homes for being apart of the LGBT community. With how poorly society still treats minorities, imagine 1993? These views are just sickening, and that was the world.

That wasn’t it for WCW in 1993, no. They debuted Harlem Heat, one of the greatest tag teams of all-time, brothers Stevie Ray and Booker Tio Huffman. When they debuted, they were convicts won by Col. Robert Parker in a game of cards. Unfortunately for one of the greatest wrestlers in the history of our sport, this certainly won’t be the only time the name Booker T makes an appearance in this composition. He did go onto win five WCW World Championships, though, so there’s at least that.

1996 seemed to start off as a turning point, when Ahmed Johnson won the Intercontinental Championship, the first black superstar to hold an actual championship, and the WWF signed Ron Simmons. Unfortunately, Ahmed couldn’t stay healthy. As for Simmons, he debuted as a gladiator christened “Farooq Asad.” If you laughed just reading that, I think you understand why the character was DOA (dead on arrival; not to be confused with the future biker faction the Disciples of Apocalypse).

They then repackaged him as “black nationalist” forming a cult named The Nation of Domination. Basically, the idea was to call out the racism in North America, and because of this, they were bad guys. According to the WWE and its mid-’90s audience, wanting to be treated equally vilifies you.

Then, this led to X-Pac not even hiding his blackface in the DX segment mimicking the Nation.

Don’t get me wrong, the segment is hilarious. But, it’s telling that I really don’t want to go into the Attitude Era because of the racial overtones. Just the Nation members alone: Mark Henry, The Godfather and Ron Simmons. Of course, the era was known for pushing the envelope on the culture of the 1990s was far less politically correct than the culture of 2020, and all things considered it wasn’t necessarily deemed offensive back then, so should it really be deemed offensive now? That really all depends on the lens you choose to look at it through, as hindsight’s always 20/20 (no pun intended).

Mark Henry in the Attitude Era took on the persona “sexual chocolate.” While in character, he made out with a transvestite, proclaiming “Sweet Jesus, a penis” when making out with what assumed to be a woman. Next, Mark Henry entered a relationship with elderly Mae Young, who then gave birth to his child: a hand. He was a sex addict character who went to counseling, admitting his own sister deflowered him at 8 years old and that they, to that day, still got it on.

The Godfather, whose first WWE gimmick was that of a voodoo master, was basically a wrestling version of Morgan Freeman’s Street Smart character. He was literally a pimp. But, he loved it, the audience loved it, so can you really fault it? Not really.

Ron Simmons ended up in a great pairing with Bradshaw. But, recently, Bradshaw revealed that they wanted to make the Acolytes about race, when it shouldn’t have been.

The saving grace for the Attitude Era was the breakout of the Rock, son of Rocky Johnson, but he focused far more on his Samoan heritage.

Fast forward to 2003. Still, there has not been a full black World Champion under the WWE banner and there is now two World Championships heading into WrestleMania 19. Raw’s main event will feature World Heavyweight Champion Triple H defending against Booker T. After a promo that had a lot of racial implications, it seemed surefire that Booker would win. Why would they go back to his crime days, and say that “people like you don’t beat people like me,” with Triple H encouraging him to do a dance and carry his bags, if Triple H wasn’t going to have his comeuppance?

The issue with Booker losing wouldn’t have been an issue whatsoever had they not pulled the race card, which validates everything that Triple H had said. Bruce Prichard has tried to pass it off on his podcast, which I for one am I huge fan of Something to Wrestle, I think it’s a great product, I’ve been a listener for years. But, Bruce has tried to pass it off as WCW superstars can’t beat WWE superstars. The issue is that Triple H wrestled Scott Steiner for months on end before this and Bill Goldberg after this, and not once did that come up. For me, that’s a hard sell. Triple H would not have told him “go ahead, dance for me” if that was the case. 2 years later, at the Survivor Series, Booker also watched his boss say the N word. He then was involved in a storyline with Kurt Angle where Kurt wanted to have “bestiality” sex with Booker’s real life wife Sharmell.

Booker did get his moment in the sun when he defeated Bobby Lashley to win the 2006 King of the Ring and eventually defeated Rey Mysterio to become World Heavyweight Champion. He had a brilliant as King Bookah and it is one of my favorite personas of all-time. Booker T was the first full black World Champion in WWE history.

The scrutiny that this is met with is that it was not the WWE Championship. By the time Booker won, they had three World Championships. The WWE Championship is the main belt held by the Hulk Hogan’s, The Randy Savage’s, The Bret Hart’s, The Steve Austin’s, the Eddie Guerrero’s and all of the faces of the company at one point. It doesn’t take a brilliant mind to realize in 2006 that the World Heavyweight and ECW Championships weren’t necessarily on the same scale when SmackDown and ECW aren’t portrayed as equal to their flagship Monday Night Raw. At Summerslam that year, there were seven matches. 4 from Raw, 2 from Smackdown and 1 from ECW. At the end of the year, Bobby Lashley won the ECW World Championship.

Around this time, they started christening Mark Henry as “the silverback.” I’ll just let the video explain.

The start of the video also explains stuff well that is currently in the limelight in 2020.

Over the next few years, you’d get acts like Cryme Tyme, the most stereotypical black duo ever. But, for every Cryme Tyme, there was an MVP who was there to be a great worker and a great character and was rewarded with what at the time was the longest reigning United States Championship reign in WWE history. Mark Henry won the World Championship in 2011.

In 2015, Hulk Hogan, arguably the most famous wrestler of all-time, went on his infamous racial tirade, prompting WWE to sever ties with him for several years.

In 2019, Kofi Kingston replaced Mustafa Ali inside of the elimination chamber and lost in the final two, with the audience getting behind “Kofimania.” This led to Vince McMahon not wanting him in the WrestleMania championship match, parallel to 2014 Daniel Bryan. The heel, however, was the aforementioned Bryan. Big E cut this promo, which was a worked shoot, that just speaks volumes:

But at WrestleMania, Kofi Kingston defeated Daniel Bryan to become the first black WWE Champion in company history. I still can’t describe it and do it justice. So, I’ll leave you with this video on just how much this meant to people of color.

Last year, All Elite Wrestling took the wrestling world by storm when Tony Khan started his own promotion, with executives The Elite and Brandi Rhodes.

Originally a ring announcer for WWE under the name Eden Stiles, that’s where Brandi met her husband, current TNT Champion Cody Rhodes. She is the Chief Brand Officer for AEW, a position many questioned her credentials for. However, when it comes to business, perhaps nobody hired was more qualified than Brandi, which is what the inspiring thing is. Brandi has a Bachelors degree from the University of Michigan, and a Masters from the University of Miami. She’s been around wrestling for 10 years now, in a variety of facets, and is a trained performer by Chris Hero and Steve Kerr. Not to mention, her father in law is one of the greatest minds in the history of wrestling. A colored woman in a position like this in the wrestling business is unheard of, but she’s worthy of her spot and will continue to break many barriers.

All in all, we’ve come a long way from segregation and comedic acts. The fact that a majority of WWE’s champions are of color is a very good sign in how far the business has come. But there’s still work to be done. No black superstar has ever been the face of the industry. Even the Rock was never the number one face of the company, Steve Austin was. However, there are plenty of options with potential. Big E is only 34, Montez Ford is 30, Velveteen Dream is 24 and you could always get a few years at the top out of Keith Lee.

Wrestling’s history of racism is extremely well documented, and I haven’t scratched the surface, but much like society, our stance has seemed to change a lot over the years. In both cases, I hope they do. Because from a societal standpoint, it needs to change. This oppression needs to stop, there is zero reason for it in 2020. Black. Lives. Matter.

Follow me on Twitter: @TheJameus

About the author

Jameus Mooney