Around 15 years ago, I wrote a piece for the now defunct eWrestling.com website on the longtime plight of black athletes in professional wrestling. That article, entitled "Can Prejudice Erase the Gold," pointed to a conversation I had with a longtime promoter in the Memphis area who worked for nearly everyone as an in-ring performer at one time or another.
The premise of the piece came from one singular statement from this man: "Jason, even though they love a lot of what they do, wrestling fans have no interest in a black man holding the Heavyweight Championship and promoters know it."
Historically, at least since the Civil Rights Act of 1964, blacks have gotten opportunities in professional wrestling based on a very similar code to anyone else. How do they look? How smart are they to the business or can they listen and learn? Do I see money in them? Those are the three questions that most promoters still ask today about interested prospective performers. If the answer to the third question is yes, the first two become nearly meaningless.
I never intended to write anything further on the subject, but watching Big E’s promo on Monday night reminded me of the article and enhanced the questions to a different level. Here’s the new theory: Maybe it’s not the lack of black champions atop a promotion that’s the issue for black wrestlers. Maybe it’s the way they’re booked from the beginning and the way their characters are developed from the outset.
How many talented black wrestlers have been pegged in dancing gimmicks? How many brilliant black performers have spoken like a comical version of Jeremiah Wright or ironically, Michael Pfleger, at one point or another? How many black wrestlers have sung or rapped as part of their regular character? How many have been portrayed as a part of some kind of criminal or revolutionary element? How many have, in some way, shape, or form, been depicted in consistent comedic roles with no trace of serious "go for the gold" attitudes?
While there’s nothing wrong with over the top gimmickry in wrestling, when done in moderation and with respect, the problem here is that one minority group is almost always handled in the same fashion, and here’s the kicker…
Those characters are not World Champions, they’re not the face of promotions, and they’re not top guys. They are merely sideshows. They’re the icing, never the cake itself. So when a black wrestler is handed a dancing gimmick, it’s basically a signal that this person will never be the standard bearer. In a way, it’s an enormous glass ceiling, even if those who built it are oblivious to that fact.
It’s not that professional wrestling promoters are a bunch of racists or individuals with some kind of political axe to grind. It’s simply that the thought process in the wrestling business as it existed in the carnival days never fully changed. It’s the mentality that a promotion could use a funny athletic quirky personality and this person looks perfect for the part. In Big E’s case, if anyone follows the man on Twitter, it’s easy to see he’s funny, he’s engaging, he’s intelligent, and he’s got a lot to offer. Monday night, however, he was doing a Jesse Jackson routine in preparation for his own slaughter.
Think about a promoter who meets a talented black wrestler and exchanges pleasantries with him somewhere in the United States. The two clearly prove they can work together with one another and it will be beneficial to do so. The promoter explains his own philosophies on booking, on talent, on angles, on match formulas, and on towns. The wrestler talks about his history, where he’s worked, portions of his move set, past characters he’s played, and perhaps a vision for his current persona.
When the meeting ends, the two shake hands and agree they’ll be working together soon and set a debut date.
Now fast forward a few days when the promoter is talking to his creative guys or the individuals charged with writing the shows and booking the talent. Put a percentage on how often that promotion’s brain trust sees the new black wrestler as a potential World Champion or the new face of a stale organization at any point. Conversely, put a percentage on the amount of times a potential comedy gimmick or some kind of music or dance-centric character pops up inside these same people's collective heads.
Are these individuals racist? If they are, it's very rarely intentional or in any way malicious. What they are is imprisoned by an outdated paradigm of a black worker's career trajectory and perceived fan reaction. Unfortunately, the results are often the same for the black wrestler.
This issue isn’t about restricted opportunities. If you can perform, by and large, you’ll get work in the wrestling industry. The issue is the roles and initial beliefs of the characters once they’re created and used. Big E’s five count gimmick worked enormously well in NXT but was completely dropped in WWE, even though the man’s music still opens with "three ain’t enough man, I need five."
These words aren’t here as some kind of expression of liberal guilt as your author is far from liberal and isn’t guilty. This article is merely observation and hopefully will open a dialogue.
Sunday night at Ring of Honor (ROH)'s Best in the World, ACH was over to an enormous degree live in Nashville, but no one expects ACH to be the ROH Champion anytime soon. His size and style preclude that possibility for the time being, but the important difference is ROH didn’t book him in a way that would make that ascension impossible. Watching Big E Monday night, it was hard not to leave with the feeling that it might be a pipe dream for the former Mr. Langston.
Here’s just a brief list of black WWE/WCW performers of the past 30 years, just off the top of my head, with no research: Big E, Koko B Ware, Slick, Ron Simmons, Teddy Long, Ernest Miller, Rocky Johnson, Ice Train, Tony Atlas, Booker T, Boogyman, Cryme Tyme, Ron Killings, Orlando Jordan, Ranger Ross, Bobby Lashley, Norman Smiley, Stevie Ray, Virgil/Vincent, Elix Skipper, Primetime Playas, Xavier Woods, D-Lo Brown, Mark Henry, Naomi, Cameron, Paisley, Brodus Clay, Shelton Benjamin, D-Von Dudley, Onyx, Godfather, Sapphire, Kofi Kingston.
That’s not even close to a full list and may not be fully accurate, again it was pure brainstorm, but what do most of those individuals have in common? Think about it. There’s one thing that all but one have in common, and that’s never holding a top prize in WWE.
United States title…sure.
Television Championship…Booker T was a great one.
Tag Team Championship…without a doubt.
But the standard bearer…not a chance.
Arguably, other than portions of Booker T’s career, the guy in the group that has been booked the best and treated with the most seriousness and respect is Mark Henry. He’s been involved in laughable angles at times, but he legitimately could be WWE Champion. While no one would be terribly excited about his long title match defenses, that character and that strength on top would be believable.
It’s that last word that needs a little more care. These sideshow characters, these gimmicks, all of them destroy believability and credibility. The guys portraying these concepts can’t be taken as legitimate championship material unless they’re so good and so charismatic it’s impossible to stop them. We generally know how a main wrestling champion is supposed to look, act, speak, and work on a regular basis. Exceptions exist, but in most cases the top guys are easy to spot for anyone with eyes.
Is it possible that almost no black wrestler really had world champion makeup or prowess? Everyone knows it’s within the realm of reality. However, because of the rather large sample size and the rather small array of black character variance, it seems fair to hypothesize that it’s the gimmicks and the "little things" that truly doom a vast majority of black workers to midcard status or at the very least, the second rung of the ladder.
Of the fifteen men involved in Sunday’s pair of Money in the Bank ladder matches, only one African wrestler, Kofi Kingston, is involved, and he’s only in because of the risks he’s willing to endure, the bumps he’s sure to take, and the crazy athleticism that fits perfectly into this style of match. He’s won maybe five matches in the last 12 months. He has a less than zero shot at the briefcase.
This isn’t baseball or tennis, where black athletes are choosing other sports. If true, those facts might help to explain why there aren’t many true top-level black wrestlers carrying World Championships. Instead, wrestling is a scripted business where anybody with the ability to draw money can be the top guy. In that way, it can ideally be a meritocracy although it usually isn't. But if you agree with that claim, why is it almost no black wrestlers have ever reached that peak? Past that, why can’t you name a currently performing black WWE wrestler who MIGHT reach that peak?
Everything happens for a reason, especially in professional wrestling. With such a systemic and historically provable set of facts and truths about the black wrestler respective to "top guy status," the results are irrefutable. With that said...
Are those conclusions not highly problematic?