How a night at Center Stage made me appreciate NXT's diversity

Vanessa Borne on Twitter

I just wrote 1500 words on the fun I had attending an NXT television taping. And then I erased it.

I erased Mike Rome rapping the lyrics to Riddick Moss and Tino Sabbatelli's theme, Lacey Evans suddenly going #MAGA, and a kid giving Lars Sullivan the business. Because none of it mattered compared to the following moment.

99.9% of the crowd cheered for Candice LeRae in her dark match with Vanessa Borne. Because real talk, who is Borne? Hell, I Googled her just now only to find there is a more famous Vanessa Borne that sings country music.

But there was that 00.1%: a young woman sitting in front of me with her boyfriend who clearly dragged her out to Midtown on a freezing night in Atlanta to watch some rasslin’. It was the only time she was audible or reacted to anything in the ring.

While the crowd chanted some variation of "you suck," this woman fought back with "no she doesn’t." Think about that. The only thing she says all night is in defense of Borne, an otherwise random performer.

This is why diversity in pro wrestling is so important. This person, resembling Borne on the simplest of levels (being a biracial woman), found her person to support that night. And she wouldn't sit quietly as Borne was booed.

Every show has a demographic it must relate to and serve as a reflection of, but the WWE has to directly interact with a present audience. For a company wanting to branch out to everyone, they need a product that is now inclusive and representative of everyone.

That is such a reversal from the previous 20 or so years. Black wrestlers came straight out the "what America thinks black culture is" handbook. International wrestlers waged war against America in under a month from debuting. Women, resembling a Stepford Wives lineup, didn't even have last names. That has to mean something, right?

Diverse performers were stereotypes. If they were lucky. Otherwise, they were bland and practically non-existent. Like "amazing athlete" guy (a la Shelton Benjamin). It’s weird. There were only a few people who were visually unlike the rest, and wrestling did everything in their power to make those people unrelatable.

It seems like bad business. Except for awhile, it wasn’t. We ate it up in the late 90s, and it’s hard to blame wrestling for feeding a reflection of our own ignorance. If we really took issue with it, we would’ve stopped showing up and buying PPVs.

And eventually, while the correlation may not be direct, those two things did end up happening. But the poor representations didn’t stop. Now wrestling has a diverse audience at a time when lazily built and demeaning characters won’t be tolerated with our time and money.

It was cool being at the NXT show and seeing how the brand is trying to fix that. A diverse crowd in a melting pot for a city had fun seeing a diverse group of wrestlers on a Thursday night. Odds are, everyone was able to find someone they could relate to.

Based on the NXT superstars listed on, 42% of the brand’s in-ring performers are either women and/or of color (and by "of color" I mean non-white). There are even more performers coming from outside North America. That’s impressive and can’t be an accident.

It feels like an initiative, a conscious effort to have as many different faces as possible. And it isn’t just shown in the numbers. It’s shown in how the characters are treated. They are all given distinct personalities that aren’t necessarily rooted in their gender, race, or ethnicity. They get to play intricate characters that are humanizing rather than typical.

And sure, someone is thinking of Street Profits. But these aren’t just two brothas dancing and clapping like R-Truth or the debuting New Day. Street Profits are a product of the social media generation: two young dudes having a good time and doing so loudly as they hope to one day live dreams they couldn’t imagine.

Heck, Moss and Sabbatelli (who I enjoy) actually play similar characters. The only difference is they project it in a more "two guys who just bought a boat" sorta way. Their volume emanates from their possessions. Street Profits’ volume is in their actions.

Even more, Andrade Almas and Ember Moon are two of NXT's current champions. It's diversity at the top of the brand’s ladder. These men and women are given the opportunity to be the best amongst their peers.

Which is crucial. There is this video of kids reacting to the 2012 United States presidential election. The kids are asked to describe Barack Obama. One child, six-years-old, curly hair with a red shirt probably three sizes too big says, "He’s black. Like me." It’s adorable yet powerful.

That kid got to see someone resembling him at the highest position of leadership in America. And that’ll stick with him because he’ll know anything is genuinely possible in this world. It’s not just empty words. For eight years, it was a reality.

I lived in a neighborhood where the only non-broke people were drug dealers. Where school took a backseat to helping mom with the bills. I was fortunate to be surrounded by images of black excellence and success to counteract that.

Kids are impressionable and soak up so much of what they see. Outside of parental motivation, I was also parked in front of the television, watching The Cosby Show and Fresh Prince. In spite of the very real struggles of being black in America, I could still be a doctor, judge, lawyer, raise a family, have fruitful relationships, live in an affluent neighborhood, achieve a higher education, and play a positive role in my community.

Wrestling never offered that hope. Not that they had to, but damn, it would have been nice.

Of all the years I have been a wrestling fan, there remains no story more frustrating than that of Booker T. at WrestleMania XIX. This man was told that people like him don’t get to be champion. Black men who made mistakes out of survival, coming from poor or broken environments, buried in hopelessness but wanting better, don’t get to be on top.

And he lost. To the owner’s son-in-law. It was a gut punch. For some, it might have been bad optics and unfair to a deserving wrestler. For me, it was an affirmation of what I had always been told. That I would have to work harder than my counterparts and still not get my due. That I will face systemic discrimination. Even in a world that didn't have to follow harsh societal norms, it was just the same old story. It felt personal.

It was the only time wrestling (and fictional TV in general) crushed my spirit. But I scanned the crowd and looked down on the NXT ring last week, realizing a day is coming where that no longer has to be the case. Where so many things that failed wrestling with a wider audience can be deleted.

No one had to walk back into the cold that night disappointed or thinking the product they support didn’t support them back. The future isn’t just in good hands due to talented performers. It’s in good hands due to NXT trying to catch up with today’s viewer.

I don’t know how it will all come across on the WWE Network. The road to NXT Takeover: Philadelphia might not be as thrilling as the live offering appeared. But I was happy with what I got that night. That was a product with potential for more growth. That was a product I would be happy to bring my kids to one day. That was the product older me wishes younger me had.

Not to mention, tickets were only $30 and the venue was selling large pizzas. LARGE PIZZAS! Bruh, how do you beat that?

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