The first time I remember consciously turning on the TV to watch wrestling, I saw the Heartbreak Kid, Shawn Michaels, squaring off against Mike Tyson.
I watched in confusion as the two superstars threatened to hit each other and Michaels ripped open Tyson’s shirt to the thunderous roar of the audience, indicating that they’d formed an alliance. I didn’t know what had just happened, but I knew that whatever I had just witnessed was an epic moment for everyone in the crowd, and I wanted to be a part of that crowd. Over a decade and a half later, I’m still a fan.
Fast-forward to this year’s recent SummerSlam event. World Wrestling Entertainment champion Jinder Mahal retained his title after pinning the challenger, Shinsuke Nakamura, in the middle of the ring. At this point it dawns on me that I’m watching an Indian wrestler who often directly addresses the people of his home nation in his native tongue defeating a Japanese opponent who barely speaks English. All of this happens in New York, arguably the most diverse city in America.
As I marvel at this moment of diversity, I can hear in my head the voice of my father, who died a few years ago, questioning, “Where are the black guys?” In that moment my brain quickly scrambles to come up with a retort to the unasked question. Responses like, “They’re just not on-screen right now,” and “They were in the tag team match,” are all I can come up with at the moment.
Then I pull out my phone and look back over the history of the top title in WWE, trying to find out when was the last time someone with black skin held the company’s championship. Of the few dozen men to claim the title, few of them have been black. This is the point where some will point out Booker T and Mark Henry, both of whom held the WWE Heavyweight Championship—mostly relegated to being the top title of the SmackDown brand, which was considered the “B-show” during the brand split of the 2000s.
This designation in many ways would make it a secondary title. Others will throw the Rock’s name into the fray. His black heritage has been downplayed in favor of his Samoan heritage, so it makes him eligible for this argument but also easily skippable. In addition, WWE likes to recognize Ron Simmons as the first major black champion. Unfortunately, his title run happened in World Championship Wrestling, which only counts in WWE’s eyes because it acquired WCW in 2001.
Because of brand splits and title unifications, it makes it difficult to chart a clean history of the titles, but in mapping out what’s made available, blacks appear with the top title approximately half as often as they would appear as U.S. president—about once out of every 90 title changes. The frequency for Mexicans-Hispanics-Latinos is more than quadruple the rate for blacks, thanks to multiple reigns by Eddie Guerrero, Alberto Del Rio, Pedro Morales and Rey Mysterio. If you’re of Indian descent, your odds are similar to those of blacks, thanks to single outings from the Great Khali and current champion Jinder Mahal. And being Samoan gets you nearly a dozen title reigns in your corner, thanks to the Rock and Roman Reigns.
Statistics aside, black superstars have often been saddled with shortsighted and stereotypical gimmicks and tropes, most of which tend to fall into one of a few categories: The fearmongering savage, the tribal shaman, and the beast or jungle captive shipped straight to WWE have been portrayed by superstars such as Viscera, Papa Shango, Kamala and the Boogeyman. The jive talker, the role of slang-slinging slickster, has been picked up by Slick, Junkyard Dog and the Godfather.
One of the most profitable gimmicks is to take a group of guys and turn them into a stable. When they’re black, they often end up as the rabble-rousers or sometimes play on the “angry black man” trope. Their ranks include groups like Cryme Tyme (who briefly affiliated themselves with Hall of Fame shoo-in John Cena), Nation of Domination (which included a young Dwayne “the Rock” Johnson) and early New Day before their repackaged debut and record-breaking title run.
Another prevalent gimmick features music and/or dance. The list of wrestlers dancing, singing and rapping their way to a win is long and includes R-Truth, Junkyard Dog and Koko B. Ware.
Outside of these tropes, many black wrestlers lack direction, and many end up as “enhancement talent,” wrestlers who have mostly losing records and are often referred to as “jobbers.” Jobbers are built to lose, and in the case of some black superstars like R-Truth and Virgil, they often lose hard, fast, and in a manner meant to humiliate and bring a laugh to the crowd.
There are plenty of black wrestlers who I think are impressive and one day might have the potential to hold top titles in WWE, whether there’s a brand split or not. Many of them have the potential to go beyond stock gimmicks and forge their own paths. With the development of the NXT brand, many superstars will get the opportunity to hone their characters and will not need to fall into stereotypes that do their abilities a disservice. Diversity among superstars is at an all-time high in WWE; there’s no reason for its championship ranks to be so ... vanilla.
The Atlanta-area native of Nigerian descent has the look of a champion. His move set does not at all reflect what you’d expect from someone with his physique. Crews’ style more closely resembles that of the high-flying cruiserweight division, with a standing moonsault that is usually performed by wrestlers half his size. Crews has spent some time in and out of the midcard title hunt and is currently involved in a storyline being managed by one of WWE’s champions of charity, Titus O’Neil, alongside cruiserweight contender Akira Tozawa.
I had the pleasure of watching Rich Swann live as he picked up a win as the third cruiserweight champion of WWE’s modern age. Swann bears all the high-energy markings of a cruiserweight competitor, as well as being one of the few competitors in that division to be “over,” or to really capture the attention of the crowd enough for them to invest in him as a character. His Phoenix Splash is a thing of beauty. Currently, Swann is cast as a fun-loving wrestler eager to get the crowd on their feet in song and dance, but dangerous to underestimate in the ring. Without a doubt, his first reign as a champion won’t be his last in the division, and possibly may transcend the limitations of wrestling for superstars under 205 pounds.
The New Day are a trio of wrestlers who are the quintessential answer to the question, “Do black geeks exist?” Anytime the team holding WWE’s tag team record of 483 days has its own cereal and makes its WrestleMania entrance as a group of Super Saiyans, and then the following year hosts the event as characters from Final Fantasy, there is a lot of geekery afoot. Also, if you can hold a 4th of July Rap Battle against a rival tag team featuring Wale as the judge, you’ve got a pretty heavy sway over the creative process of your brand.
The group has gone through a number of transformations, starting out in 2014 as a group of unsatisfied superstars hell-bent on taking the success they’d been denied. Weeks later they debuted as a dancing, gospel-choir-backed group of motivational speakers. They soon morphed into a group of naysayers who bashed every local town they wrestled in. About halfway into their record-breaking championship, they once again turned “face,” or good guys, becoming fun-loving, quick-witted geeks who enjoyed video games and Black Twitter.
New Day member Kofi Kingston, a veteran wrestler, has achieved numerous midcard titles during his career. He has a knack for amazing saves during WWE’s annual Royal Rumble event. Xavier Woods carries most of the black-geek weight in the group, hosting a gaming channel, UpUpDownDown, on YouTube. Woods is also a Ph.D. candidate in the field of educational psychology.
Other than tag team success, the third member, Big E Langston, carries the most potential for success at the top of the card. With a history as a powerlifter, a reign as the NXT champion and a knack for comedy, Langston is likely to have a career trajectory that is reflective of Mark Henry’s, “the World’s Strongest Man.” In the past, WWE has had a penchant for pushing big men, and Langston, at the age of 31, has the chance to be one of them.
Jason Jordan is half of one of the first tag teams to come out of WWE’s developmental brand, NXT. As part of the tag team American Alpha with Chad Gable, Jordan captured gold as the NXT Tag Team champions and later as SmackDown Tag Team champions just months after debuting. Currently, Jordan is working a storyline as the estranged biological son of U.S. gold medalist and WWE Hall of Famer Kurt Angle. More than likely this storyline will see him chasing titles in the midcard and potentially, after furthering his brand, becoming a competitor for the main title.
Black wrestlers in WWE who are worth a mention can also be found in the Women’s Division, including multiple WWE Raw women’s champion Sasha Banks and recent SmackDown women’s champion Naomi. Outside of WWE, black wrestlers often flourish. Bobby Lashley juggled a professional wrestling career with time spent in mixed martial arts. Jay Lethal has dominated Ring of Honor; Global Force Wrestling has a strong prospect in Moose; and the independent wrestling scene has Keith Lee.
Black success in wrestling has never been an issue of skill or talent; it has always been a matter of booking. As audiences diversify and crave stars who reflect themselves, the landscape of wrestling will continue to change as well, and we will definitely see more stars of color wearing gold.