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[Black History Month] Black wrestlers and the world heavyweight title

This is the first in a series of Black History Month posts here at Cageside Seats.  Special thanks to Hisaharu Tanabe's for being an invaluable resource.

Throughout wrestling history, there's a topic that's constantly come up on wrestling shows when a black wrestler had a world heavyweight title shot:  "Could [X] become the first black world heavyweight champion?"  On history-oriented wrestling message boards, trying to figure out who the first black world heavyweight champion was has always been a popular topic of discussion.  Since it's pro wrestling, there are a lot of different versions of the "world heavyweight title" to discuss, and even though it's not a legitimate sport, the idea of whether or not a certain title was "really a world title" often comes into play.

Before the end of segregation, there was some kid of "World Negro Heavyweight Title."  The first known champion was Ras Samara in Iowa the '40s, but in his case, it may have been more of a gimmick than an actual title, as was common with other "ethnic" wrestlers, as it was common to see a "Jewish Champion" in some markets.  He was eventually billed as "former champion," so without better records, it's hard to figure out.  After Samara, most of the champions were based out of Texas, with none of them being anyone you probably would have heard of until the mid-'50s, when Luther Lindsay became champion.  Nowadays, Lindsay is known as being one of the greatest shooters in wrestling history and the only wrestler who Stu Hart would say he couldn't handle.  As legend has it, in the legendary "Dungeon" basement of the Hart family's house, Lindsay was able to reverse everything Stu tried to hook him with and kept him tied up for a while.  Stu claimed the phone was ringing so Luther would let him out, only to be told that if it was important, the person would call back.  The two became best friends, and Hart was devastated when Lindsay died in February 1972 of a heart attack during a match for Jim Crockett Promotions in the Carolinas.  Luther meant so much to him Stu that a photograph of him was in Hart's wallet until the day he died in 2003.

Into the '60s, other famous wrestlers held the title, starting with high flying Jamaican bodybuilder Dory Dixon, who also wrestled as Calypso Kid.  While he did well in the U.S., main evening Madison Square Garden against NWA World Heavyweight Champion "Nature Boy" Buddy Rogers, he was a huge star in Mexico.  When many wrestlers split from EMLL (the established promotion for decades) to form LLI (better known as the UWA because that was the governing body that oversaw its titles), Dixon being one of those to jump was a key in their success.  The other three known champions were "Sailor" Art Thomas (last one in Texas), Bearcat Wright (in Michigan), and Bobo Brazil (in Georgia and Florida.)  We'll talk about them more later.

After the jump, we take an in-depth look at the non segregated titles: Which black wrestlers held "world titles" and who's the best pick for first black "world champion."

From the late '40s through the early '80s, the National Wrestling Alliance (NWA) World Heavyweight Title was the most widely recognized World Heavyweight Title in the business.  While plenty of black wrestlers got title shots, none of them won the title 2002,  a couple months after TNA first started up as NWA TNA doing weekly PPVs and controlling the title. Ron "The Truth" Killings (WWE's R-Truth) won the title from Ken Shamrock (the first champion under TNA).  Killings, who had fizzled out during his first WWE run as K-Kwik, was very well received as champion, in large part thanks to how good his interviews were (an ability he hasn't gotten the chance to show off in his 2nd WWE run, either, though he's gotten over well).  He had a solid, three month long reign as champion before dropping the title to Jeff Jarret.  He regained the title in 2004, defeating A.J. Styles in a 4-way match that also included Chris Harris and Raven. This reign was uneventful, as he lost the title 2 weeks later to Jarrett.

As far as the WWE Title goes, The Rock is the only black wrestler to hold the title, and he held it seven times.  I don't really need to tell his story, but I kinda wonder how many casual fans having no idea his father is black, as his family's background was pushed less later on and his more Samoan features are more prominent, plus I don't recall him ever being referred to as the first black WWF champion on their TV shows.  Booker T/King Booker was the first black wrestler to win what the company plainly refers to as the World Heavyweight Title, at least if you consider it a separate title from the WCW World Heavyweight Title, which it "officially" is at the moment.  It wasn't always the case, as they have linked it to the WCW and NWA titles in the past.

Speaking of the WCW title, the first black champion was Ron Simmons.  Bill Watts (there's someone we'll talk about more in another feature), who was in charge of the company at the time, was always big on pushing black wrestlers for a variety of reasons.  He felt that with black athletes dominating real sports, the opposite being the case in pro wrestling was a terrible idea.  He also knew he had to work to draw black fans in markets with large black populations, whether it was in New Orleans (where his Mid-South Wrestling promotion was based out of in the '80s, with Junkyard Dog becoming a HUGE star there) Atlanta (WCW's home base, which he was focusing on reinvigorating), or Baltimore (historically one of WCW's strongest cities).  He also had a habit of pushing black wrestlers who weren't ready or right for the spot, which happened a lot in Mid-South after JYD left for the WWF.

In WCW, his idea was to put Simmons, whose previous main event run bombed, over Big Van Vader for the title.  To Watts credit, he did everything perfectly.  He did the angle and title switch at a TV taping in Baltimore.  The angle saw Sting set to challenge Vader for the title later in the show.  Jake Roberts debuted and DDTed Sting on a chair, injuring him.  A drawing was set up where the other wrestlers on the card would be entered and the named pulled out would wrestle Vader.  Of course Simmons' name was drawn, and he beat Vader.  The moment was designed to be as emotional as possible, and it was.  The crowd exploded, and many fans remember the little black kid in a blue shirt in the front row jumping up and down as if what took place was the greatest moment of his life.  All of Simmons' fellow babyfaces joined him in the ring for a celebration.  It was followed up on with a Simmons press conference at the CNN Center.  Simmons just wasn't charismatic enough or a good enough worker or interview to work out as champion long term, though, and lost the title back to Vader a few months later.

Booker T won the title in the Summer of 2000.  He had become very over with fans with little interview time ever since becoming a singles wrestler.  It got to the "now or never" point to strap the rocket to him, and it was a good idea to give him the title.  That said, there have been various reports over the years that he was given the title in an attempt to quell the (highly warranted) racial discrimination lawsuit against the company.  He went on to hold the title another four times, four times in WCW (the last title win being non the last WCW show, which was under WWF ownership), and once in the WWF.  The Rock held the title twice in the WWF, with one of his reigns being after WCW was killed off on TV while the title remained and was renamed to the "World Title," confusing the issue with the current title that uses essentially the same name and belt.

As far as the ECW title goes, no black wrestlers held in in ECW proper.  Bobby Lashley held the WWE version title twice during his big push, while Ezekiel Jackson was the last champion, winning it on the final episode of ECW on Syfy.

The World Wrestling Association World Heavyweight Title, based out of southern California in the '60s, has the best claim for being the title held by the first black World Heavyweight Champion.  In spite of mainly being the title for a single territory, it was the world title recognized in Japan during the heyday of Rikidozan, the biggest star at the dawn of pro wrestling in the country.  The title came to be when promoter Mike Lebell withdrew from the National Wrestling Alliance by taking advantage of a disputed title change where Edouard Carpentier defeated Lou Thesz (it's a long story, check out the Wrestling Observer obituary of Carpentier and follow-ups in subsequent issues for more details) that saw some promoters recognize Carpenier as champion and have a local star beat him to kickstart a new world title.   Bearcat Wright, one of the biggest stars of the era, became most accurate claimant for first black world heavyweight champion by defeating Fred Blassie for the title on August 23, 1963.  When it came time for him to lose the title, he refused, using his boxing skills to legitimately knock opponents out (including Blassie, who thought he'd get Wright to play ball because they were friends).  Fed up, Lebell set him up by sending him to the ring against his brother, "Judo" Gene Lebell, the top shooter in the territory.  Wright walked out and the title was vacated.  In 1964, Dick The Bruiser won the title and split it off into his own version in Indianapolis.  When Bruiser tried to invade The Sheik's Detroit territory, the title sort of splintered with different champions being recognized in Detroit and Indianapolis.  At one point, Baron Von Raschke, while champion in Elkhart, Indiana, lost the title to "Sailor" Art Thomas, who ended up being recognized as champion in Detroit.  A legitimate Marine with an impressive physique, Thomas was one of the biggest black stars in the middle part of the century.  His version of the WWA title was vacated after a match with Raschke, who then regained the title the night after he also regained the Indianapolis version from Billy Red Cloud.

In 1966, Bearcat Wright won another major world title, this time the IWA World Heavyweight Title in Australia, defeating Skull Murphy.  This was the promotion run by the legendary Jim Barnett, who among other things, may have invented the concept of studio wrestling (he brought it to the US at the very least), had success promoting in more territories than any other promoter (Indinapolis, Chicago, Louisville, Detroit, Australia, and Georgia), and was one of Vince McMahon's top advisors at the start of his national expansion.  At that point, the best places for making money were tours in Japan and Australia, so plenty of top American stars came through the promotion.  Not only were they paid well, but their expenses would be reimbursed if they provided receipts for meals and whatnot.  Anyway, Wright lost the title after a few weeks to "The Destroyer" (Guy "Jerry Valiant" Mitchell, not Dick Beyer, the famous Destroyer).  A year later wright came back to transition the title from Murphy to Killer Kowalski.

While Wright was in Australia the first time, Bobo Brazil won the WWA title in 1966 from "Killer" Buddy Austin.  Brazil was one of the most famous black wrestlers of all time, best known for his seemingly endless feud with The Sheik in Detroit and his headbutt finisher, dubbed the "Coco Butt."  I have no idea if the hard headed black guy having an advantage for headbutts gimmick started with him, but he's the most famous example.  He won the title a second time two years later, also from Austin.  Brazil had defeated Buddy Rogers in an NWA Title match in 1962 in Newark, NJ, when the referee stopped the match due to a groin injury suffered by Rogers.  Brazil refused the title presumably for sportsmanship reasons, but it was announced that Brazil was champion a few weeks later because a doctor discovered that Rogers was faking the injury.  It's unclear what happened next from the results I'm looking at.

While there were various AWAs over the years, Verne Gagne's, based out of Minnesota, was the most famous.  It world title came about basically the same way as the WWA title.  Not only did no black wrestler ever hold the AWA World Heavyweight Title, but black wrestlers rarely worked in the company.  Dave Meltzer of of the Wrestling Observer Newsletter once told a telling story about this subject.  In the early '80s, Tony Atlas was brought in for a show and got a gigantic reaction from the crowd.  Verne Gagne's response was to tell a long-time AWA wrestler something to the effect of "See!  I told you blacks can't get over in this territory!"  That probably explains a lot.

The National Wrestling Federation was the name of the Buffalo, NY/Cleveland, OH-based territory in the early to mid '70s.  It was a major territory which featured plenty of top talent, and two of its world champions were not only black, but two of the greatest black wrestlers of all time.  "The Big Cat" Ernie Ladd won the title from area mainstay Waldo Von Erich in June of 1972.  At 6'9" and incredibly agile, a rarity in those day, Ladd was an incredible football player, a member of the original "Fearsome Foursome" playing for the San Diego Chargers, where he won an AFL title before moving to the Houston Oilers and then to the Kansas City Chiefs.  He started in wrestling as a babyface, but he was a natural heel and an incredible talker, easily one of the ten best promo guys in wrestling history.  He lost the title to Abdullah The Butcher.  Real name Larry Shreeve, the Windsor, Ontario native broke into the wrestling business with karate and judo experience and went through various gimmicks before transforming himself into "The Madman From The Sudan," a wildman patterned after the original Sheik.  He took Stampede Wrestling in Calgary by storm, becoming one of the biggest draws in the history of the territory and eventually ended up in Japan, where he became a legend.  When the NWF started to go downhill, Antonio Inoki of New Japan Pro Wrestling bought the company to use its world title, though the "world" part was dropped when Inoki got NWA membership.  During the same time period, the Montreal-based IWA title was a big deal as the area was in the midst of a wrestling boom, and Abdullah held this title three times.

In early 1986, Fritz Von Erich's Southwest Sports, best known for its internationally syndicated "World Class Championship Wrestling" television show) broke away from the NWA and became the World Class Wrestling Association.  The main reason was that he was fed up that the NWA would not give a real, extended title reign to his son, Kerry Von Erich, who had held the title for a few weeks in 1984 as the culmination of program where he promised to win the title for his recently deceased brother David.  The on-screen reasoning was that they were fed up with the fact that titles couldn't change hands on a disqualification or a count out in the NWA.  Kerry was injured not long thereafter in a motorcycle accident that eventually cost him his foot, so he didn't win the newly created WCWA World Heavyweight Title until March of 1988, when he defeated Al Perez.  It was then decided that it would be best for Kerry to lose the title and then be the challenger going into the annual Texas Stadium show two months later so as to have a better hook for drawing a decent crowd.  The transitional champion would be "Iceman" King Parsons, who went from a prelim wrestler in other territories to spending many years in Dallas as the Von Erich brothers' designated black friend so they would better appeal to black fans.  He had recently turned heel and won the title in a very memorable match where, at the behest of Parsons' New Freebirds stablemate Terry Gordy, someone cut the lights in the building.  When they went back on, both Von Erich and his second, Michael Hayes, were knocked out, with the latter in a pool of blood.  Parsons pinned Von Erich and was then billed as the first black world heavyweight champion.

The AWA and WCWA titles were unified in 1988 by Jerry Lawler.  Kinda.  I explained it here.  The AWA title went back to the AWA but the WCWA title was dropped, with the "Unified Title" being recognized in the Dallas and Memphis based territories (renamed the USWA) and eventually the USWA was just the old Memphis territory again.  Even during the period where the USWA covered both territories, title changes in the Memphis end weren't usually acknowledged in the Dallas end, which had national TV.  The title was also defended (usually by Lawler) in the other remaining territories (at first) and later some independent promotions.  It wasn't much of a world title, but it was widely recognized enough to be worth mentioning, especially since it was held by plenty of black wrestlers.  Those wrestlers were:

  • King Cobra (a long-time prelim wrestler who got a fluke win)
  • The Soultaker (the future Papa Shango, Kama (Mustafa),  and The Godfather, he also held the title in 1993 using the first of the 3 WWF gimmicks)
  • The Snowman (a journeyman who challenged Lawler in a "shoot angle" where he claimed that the USWA didn't hire enough black wrestlers, he left the promotion with the physical belt and it was suggested on TV that he may have pawned it for money to buy crack.  Really.)
  • Kamala (Who held the title four times and had a hell of a title match with Lawler on the Memphis TV show in 1991)
  • Koko B. Ware (Former area mainstay who was working here when he didn't have WWF bookings)
  • The Junkyard Dog (Was quickly in and out of the territory)
  • Butch Reed (Ditto, he lost the title to Todd Champion in a phantom switch "in Cleveland" five days after winning it)
  • Ahmed Johnson (In via the WWF early in his run there)
  • King Reginald (Reggie B. Fine, a long time area prelim wrestler getting his moment as the promotion was on its deathbed)

Going back in time a little, when Jerry Lawler was desperately trying to get a world title, the CWA title was made for him, and it was initially held by Thunderbolt Patterson, who mysteriously vacated the title (which he won in a phantom match where he beat Mark Lewin in Australia).  Patterson was well know for claiming that he was held down for racial reasons.  It may have been partially true, but he did make trouble and hold promoters up for money.  He was definitely a draw, doing the type of "shuck & jive" shtick later picked up (someone controversially, in a subject I suspect we'll discuss later in the month) by Dusty Rhodes.  As for the title, it lasted a couple years, importance dwindling throughout.

In the history of Japan's major world titles, the only man to win any of them was Bob Sapp, who won New Japan Pro Wrestling's IWGP title.  This was during the height of the promotion's mixing of wrestlers and MMA fighters (in both works and shoots) at Antonio Inoki's behest.  He won the title from Kensuke Sasaki in a miracle match given his inexperience and never lost it in the ring, vacating it after losing a fight to NJPW's Kazuyuki Fujita in K-1.  Fujita then went on to win the vacant title.

Finally, here's an interesting one I had never heard of before.  The Boston-based world heavyweight title (Atlantic Athletic Commission World Heavyweight Title turned Big Time Wrestling World Heavyweight Title) for Tony Santos' promotion (which evolved out of the Thesz-Carpentier switch) disappeared when the promotion closed in 1975.  Another Boston-area Big Time Wrestling opened in 2006, got permission from the Santos family, and claimed the lineage.  Jay Lethal was the first champion and Too Cold Scorpio was the third, with John Walters the gap between them bridging the gap.

I hope you all enjoyed this piece.  Feel free to leave any and all feedback in the comments.

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