Apollo Crews Takes Flight: One of WWE’s Most Important Prospects Has Arrived


Apollo Crews begins his main roster career, not simply as a talented prospect, but as a potential African-American star in a company that has had too few.

During his year spent in NXT, the Florida developmental arm of World Wrestling Entertainment, Apollo Crews developed a rather straightforward catch-phrase, shouted to the crowd amidst his latest dismantling of a hapless opponent.

“Too Easy!”

Achieving success on WWE’s main roster will be anything but.

The 6’1, 240-pound Crews, (real name Sesugh Uhaa), made his debut this week in one of the most high-profile slots possible, the post-Wrestlemania edition of Monday Night Raw. Brought to the company’s highest level, within storyline, by authority-figure-for-the-night Shane McMahon, his task was a simple one: Make a grand entrance, take apart an opponent, in Tyler Breeze, that he had worked with extensively in NXT, and ensure that the crowd in Dallas left with a powerful first impression.

The Atlanta product accomplished exactly that, running through Breeze in mere minutes with an impressive array of power and agility, capped by his familiar finishing routine of gorilla press slam, standing moonsault, and spin-out powerbomb. It’s a sequence designed to dazzle, and along with the “Too Easy” declaration, one that positions his character as a pro wrestling natural, a man who seems to have been built specifically for success in this business. His remarkable physique, athletic background, and magnetic smile transform him into a larger-than-life superhero figure, the kind routinely embraced, and pushed, by the WWE.

While there’s a long road ahead, if Crews reached that mountaintop and one day claims the WWE Championship, it will undoubtedly be a moment worthy of celebration, not simply for the wrestler, but for a company that has often struggled to maximize the careers of their African-American stars. To date, Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson remains the only man of African descent to hold the company’s top prize. (Both Booker T and Mark Henry held the company’s “World Heavyweight Championship” big gold belt, generally recognized as slightly less prestigious.)

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Meanwhile, a host of talented black performers, including Bobby Lashley, Shelton Benjamin and MVP, all topped out with “intermediate championships” in the WWE hierarchy. Even today, while there is no denying the success achieved by R-Truth, Titus O’Neil and most notably, the endlessly creative and vibrant tag-team champions, The New Day, there remains an unshakeable sense that a glass ceiling exists for the company’s African-American superstars.

But if that is in fact the case, Apollo Crews may be the man to break it. A veteran of Dragon Gate USA, where he wrestled under his high-school nickname of “Uhaa Nation,” his style quickly attracted attention across the country, and his moveset and work rate were impressive enough to win the approval of discerning indy wrestling fans. Still only 28 years old, but already with a wealth of experience, Crews is in many ways one of the most “complete” African-American prospects the WWE has ever seen. And while this undoubtedly represents a great opportunity for a company trying to position itself as more diverse, and progressive, it also means that plenty will be keeping a close eye on how he is packaged, presented and utilized.

And there is no doubt that plenty of work remains to be done. Though he acquitted himself well during his time in NXT, and was given plenty of prominent matches, including battles with reigning champion Finn Balor, crowds never seemed to fully connect with Crews in the way they have with many other developmental stars. This can be attributed at least in part to the fact that Crews never seemed to develop beyond the basic archetype that was established upon his arrival. He was a talent, a star, a made man from the moment he was signed by General Manager William Regal. But in this “reality era” of professional wrestling, where the most effective characters are the ones who seem at least somewhat grounded in a performer’s true personality, NXT audiences never got a true sense of who, exactly, Apollo Crews really was, underneath all the glossy packaging.

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It’s a tendency that’s been explored before, most prominently by Dion Beary, writing for “The Atlantic”, who noted that when black wrestlers are able to avoid the often offensive gimmicks of preacher, pimp, thug, or comic relief, they are usually presented with no real story at all, simply as yet another impressive combatant in a company full of them. “On the rare occasions that WWE decides not to create a clearly stereotypical persona for its black wrestlers,” writes Beary, “it makes them into ‘natural athletes,’ a.k.a. Guy Who Is Strong. But this too is a stereotype, albeit a bland one.”

It is quite easy to conceive of Crews falling into that same trap, if the company’s writing and character development do not ultimately match his obvious gifts. That being said, some of the WWE’s most memorable personas are ones that developed organically, over time, from Steve Austin’s anti-establishment hellraiser, to The Rock’s brash people’s champion, to Daniel Bryan’s ultimate underdog. Crews is, after all, still in the earliest stages of his career, and may very well follow that same path to an iconic role in the company’s history.

In the backstage, online-only interview that followed his Raw debut, Crews may have offered a kernel of what could become his developing narrative. “(I’m) one of the rawest talents in this business today,” he proclaimed, “and I say that with all the confidence in the world.”

There is something interesting here, in the idea of Crews as supremely promising, in need of experience, and self-aware enough to recognize both. The notion of one of WWE’s most important projects, arriving onto the scene as a lump of clay, needing to be shaped, opens up an array of possibilities. Might his peers grow jealous of his early success? Does he partner with a more experienced hand to serve as a mentor/manager? And perhaps most intriguingly, how will he react upon encountering serious adversity for the very first time?

Pro wrestling is just storytelling, after all, albeit a particularly spirited, loud, and violent variety. There are, without question, plenty of compelling tales to be told about an intelligent, good-looking, charming, hyperactive super-athlete from “Stone Mountain, Georgia”. But what’s most exciting about Apollo Crews is that if and when it happens, his ascendance to the top of the mountain will be as fantastic a story in real life, as it is in the “kayfabe” WWE universe.

“Too Easy?” Fat chance of that. But most wrestling fans know that a long, challenging chase makes the coronation that much sweeter.