Wrestling: Eel O’Neal wants to see Black performers acknowledged as top stars

Eel O’Neal recently participated in an exclusive interview with Daily DDT to discuss F1ght Club Pro, The Second City, Black Lives Matter, and #SpeakingOut.

Last year, there was a resurgence of small wrestling promotions in the DMV area. Incidentally, this return also marked a veritable renaissance for Black and LGBTQ+ performers with the birth of promotions like F1gth Club Pro. Eel O’Neal is a promising member of this new school of Black wrestlers who have bolstered the independent scene in Washington D.C.

(Editor’s Note: This interview was conducted before an internal investigation on Prime Time Pro Wrestling promoter Nick Capezza.)

O’Neal is a Baltimore-native and one half of an intergender tag team called “The Kings of the District” with Jordan Blade. The duo became the inaugural PTPW Tag Team Champions in January at the Invitational Grand Prix Tournament of Tournaments Classic International. Eel briefly talked about their experience as the promotions first-ever tag champs.

“It’s good,” he said. “The ladder match was fun to get it. It’s a weird way to win a tag team title but that tends to be how Gator likes to book. He likes to set weird expectations for everybody which is why even me and Jordan are together, which is great. It’s great being an intergender tag team where she’s the powerhouse and I’m kind of the fast guy. People have been really receptive to us, particularly in the District like indie scene. People have been real friendly to us and it’s been real nice. I’m really grateful for the community we’ve built in a really short time.”

“The Kings of the District” formed after Blade returned from a catastrophic ankle injury that kept her out of the ring for most of 2019. Prime Time Pro packaged them together as a way to reintroduce her but they’ve quickly developed a real friendship.

“It was Prime Time’s idea because Jordan was coming back and they wanted Jordan to have this great resurgence and I was having a feud with Kip Stevens at the time. It just made sense to kind of use that as a nice springboard for her because I’m sure you know she snapped that ankle. I was actually at that show when she did that. It was against Faye [Jackson]. I was there, which is crazy because I wasn’t even wresting in Virginia at the time like I wasn’t known to the sort of DC wrestling community at that time in North Virginia. I saw her break that ankle and she finished that match. I mean, she’s a champ, and then she just had to rehab it and come back stronger and like bang bang boom. We wanted to do something big for her and luckily, Gator thought of me when he thought about the tag team and, you know the rest was born. I think our styles kind of work together. We have like the matching gear now, which works even better. I’ve become really close with Jordan like I really really care about her. She’s great. So, the sky’s the limit, hopefully.”

The emergence of F1ght Club Pro Wrestling

Eel O’Neal has also notably worked with F1ght Club Pro Wrestling. In February, he made it to the semifinals in the promotion’s “Crowning of a Champion” Tournament, where he lost to Trish Adora. In the finals, Adora went on to win the vacant Pan Afrikan World Diaspora Championship. The development of the title is monumental for many Black wrestlers and fans and O’Neal didn’t take that lightly.

“When [Chris] Kazama and Johnny [Xross] came up with the idea, and like J.A., and they started marketing it and everything I thought that it was great. One, wrestling was coming back to the District. Prime Time had already started and D.C. hadn’t had wrestling in the city proper for ten years. Something happened with the commission and the commission was just like, no wrestling, like, we’re gonna put you through hoops if you try to do it. So much so that like, wrestling promoters with it’s like, Hey, DC’s not worth it. I mean, kinda, the same thing happens in Baltimore, where I’m from, like, in the city limits proper there’s no like regularly running promotion. After a kind of Nova [Wrestling Club]’s untimely demise, which is a whole story into itself, I’ll leave that for other people, Gator and Lo came together. And they thought that they would make a completely, I think, a completely 21st-century look at what professional wrestling can be. It’s completely inclusive, all that. PAWD and  Fight Club Pro is an extension of that in a greater direction where it’s like a Black centric promotion. Where nobody can tell you that you can’t be the top guy because you’re Black because so many of the performers are Black and are working at top guy level.”

“Like if you look at Kristian Robinson. I mean he’s super young but he’s amazing. This kid can do things that like that rival like Ricochet and then you look at O’Shay [Edwards], who’s going to be everywhere in less than a year. Then, you look at Trish [Adrora], who is literally like the most inspirational individual in professional wrestling right now. Like, you’ll want to find, in this world, a more pure babyface who lives and works that attitude the entire time you know her. She is completely dedicated to wrestling. She is every bit the hero that she portrays in the ring and she’s such a hard worker.”

O’Neal went on to explain how a promotion founded and run by Black promoters creates a different experience for Black fans. He also touched on how a predominantly Black roster changes the mindset when crafting stories for the performers. It allows the audience to decide who they want to get behind without racial bias or stereotypes.

“I think F1ght is such a great example of all of the things that, if wrestling hadn’t been completely controlled by, like, old white men, you’d see, right? I mean, the intermission was just great music and people having fun, dancing, buying t-shirts, talking, communing. The way that everybody loses their mind when Trish wins that championship in that PUSH show is incredible. And like the amount of community and the amount of togetherness that all of these people have is so unreal. And, it is so possible like, having that level of community is so possible. And it’s just been held back by the fact that wrestling been kind of controlled by a group of people who only care about, oh, work the crowd, get the butts in seats the exact way that we know how and we will dictate what a champ looks like, what a winner looks like, what a loser looks like, what a bad guy looks like. Nah man, the way Johnny and Kazama and J.A., the way that they book. The heels and the faces, the people kinda decide that since we’re all Black, with the exception of Killian [McMurphy] and ‘Money’ Mark Carlson. Since we’re all Black, it’s not like a white guy steps into the ring and then a Black guy steps into the ring and people immediately start booing and talking smack to the Black guy, which is something that, you know, like any worker who’s been anywhere can tell you that. I mean, that’s such a regular occurrence. Even if it were the face in the, even if you’re the face in the show and you’re billed as such, you get out there and you start working and all of a sudden, before like the bell rings, you’re hearing like some guy or some, you know, somebody out there saying something rude to you as if you’re the bad guy even though clearly came out smiling and you know, ‘come on’ and clapping your hands. For some reason, they think that, you know, your skin color dictates your alignment on the chart. But, PAWD made sure to totally get rid of that and they made sure that we could tell super complex stories, like the entire night, that first match that I worked with Trish. I worked that arm so she can’t hit the Lariat Tubman until she does and that’s the entire throughline to the show. Once she finally hits the lariat, boom, boom, boom. She runs, the crowd goes wild.”

“I just, I can’t, I know I’m going on a bit of a tangent, he continued. “But I can’t speak highly enough of F1ght Club Pro. They know exactly what aesthetic they’re trying to reach, the same way that Prime Time does. They know what they want to do and how they want to do it and what’s missing from the wrestling landscape that they’re trying to reach. And, the fact that they make it happen, it’s just, it’s just amazing.”

If you’ve seen anyone who promoted or worked with F1ght Club Pro online, chances are you’ve noticed the comradery and devotion they have for work they’re doing. O’Neal chalks that to the lack of opportunities given to Black wrestlers and the drive to chart their own course in the industry for the first time.

“I think it’s just because we haven’t been given the chance, and we’ve been told for such a long time that it’s either like play it quote-unquote that man’s way, or you’re not going to get bookings. If you listen to the older generation of Black wrestlers, sometimes you’ll hear them say, make excuses for people, for bookers and stuff like that, and be like, ‘Oh, there just weren’t enough Black wrestlers, who could work at the top guy levels to get booked that way.’

And then you look through the history of wrestling and you see all of these Black workers who were just so absolutely incredible, and dynamic. And, I mean, like from hosses to, you know, to lucha guys to, you know, high flyers to middleweight guys, like wrestle you down to the ground, like athletes. And the failing is with the people who have the book.”

“Like, them and the commentary don’t know how to describe Black people as anything other than, like, ‘he’s athletic, and he plays this sport” and he, you know, he’s not, can’t be intelligent. He can’t be intense. He can’t be mischievous. He can’t be devious. He has to be athletic. That’s it. He’s an athlete. Whereas, white characters had a lot of time to develop and bloom and say, ‘Oh, I’m this kind of person and I have this eccentricity and I can do this and that.’ And now, we’re seeing people take us seriously as performers and that allows us to take ourselves seriously and ask for what we want as performers and create characters. Like, GCW just ran a show and that was really close to all Black. Yeah, I’d say it’s probably about 60% Black workers out in whatever show GCW just ran outside. And the guys who are wrestling each other, at no point, feel like, oh, these are two of the same guys and that’s the myth that they always tell you when you’re booking when you’re talking to like an old school booker. It’s like, oh, you can’t put two Black guys together, because people will just be, like, oh, it’s just two Black guys.”

“And it’s like, no, man. You have Tre Lamar versus Lee Moriarty, and Tre Lamar is this remarkable highflying-wrestler, you know, this dynamic lucha, and mover. And Lee is the best pound for pound chain and mat wrestler that we kind of have out of the new school right now. So, like they’re different people. You know what I mean? And like, same way if I put Calvin Tankman versus, let’s say, AJ Gray.  They’re two different people. They’re both hosses but like AJ is probably 20 pounds lighter than Calvin is. And AJ does move off the top rope. We’re not just limited to being athletes now. We have characters. We’re full types of people, and I am really, really proud to say that it looks like the new school of bookers is figuring out that what the audience wants. They want these dynamic, multi-background diverse characters, instead of just the old like, you know, blonde-haired blue-eyed, babyface.”

His background in improv and time at The Second City

Eel O’Neal works a fast-paced style and he was given the nickname “Baby Hoss” because of his surprising strength for his size. He also can cut engaging promos as he proved in the months leading up to the “Crowning of a Champion” Tournament. O’Neal broke down how improv and his time with the historic Chicago comedy troupe, The Second City, informs his promo work.

“There are two types of promos that I’m really, really good at,” he said. “And it’s, like, kind of, like a fun manic babyface promo, and then a really methodical slow promo with and points. Both of those come from the way that I used to enjoy doing improv scenes, like stuff that was like a lot of energy and information coming from all over the place, was really, really fun. Where like people were just constantly adding different aspects to it. Then, one-on-one scenes where it was super, super slow, and the audience is listening to what you’re saying as opposed to kind of seeing and figuring out and trying to guess what’s going to happen next.”

“Second City was a great experience for me just because it helped me learn the concept of like staying in the pocket when really performing and listening. Improv is all listening. That’s the most important. It’s listening and remembering. That’s the thing that I learned from improv that helped me the most with wrestling was, ‘OK, I’m here. I’m in this moment and since I’m here and in this moment, what am I going to do next?’ Or, what does this person need from me next? Wrestling is all body tissues, or whispers, or, like, intonations, or, like, sort of, like, suggestions from the other person and from yourself, even if you called it in the back. I mean, frankly, somebody’s going to forget something, and then, you guys are going to have to find your place like, Oh, where were we? What’s next? Now, now now.”

“The Second City was just was such a great experience for me, and that’s actually where I started to get back into wrestling. We really only did three things, me and my friends, who were out there while we were in the improv practice program. We went to class, went to jams, and watched tv.”

“The TV watching, because while my friends were like writing the scripts and stuff like that, I would just put stuff on. So, I’d be channel surfing and I turned on Raw. My weirdest story is that “Miss Teacher Lady” promo, the Bray [Wyatt] one? That was my resurgence back into loving wresting. His first promo back, I was like, ‘Man, that is a guy talking, he’s doing it. That “Miss Teacher Lady” promo, like, whenever I talk to people about, guys, who I think had unlimited potential, and unfortunately, weren’t used the way that they should have been, 100% Bray’s on that list for me.”

Yeah, but that like methodical style of like making the audience listen to you, that’s the promo work that like, it’s golden. If people are listening to you, and they’re hearing what you’re saying, and it’s not like you yelling and you yelling the time and date. ‘oh, hey, this is when the show is and when I get my hands on you at, you know, Rage on the Stage 24, on Friday, August 27th. You know, I swear that, you know, I’m going to do blah, blah, blah. When it’s like the reason that you’re fighting, and all of that, like even if somebody doesn’t have the full backstory of who you are, even if they catch a promo, they’re like watching like a clip show or something like that or they’re watching IWTV and like a random episode of, let’s say Beyond, you know, comes on or, you know, Uncharted Territory or anything. And after you work your match, they always post your promo and somebody sees your promo and they don’t know you from Adam, but you can make them listen to you, they’ll search out who you are.

I have people who saw me doing some silly promo on the Internet and watched all my matches, and then DM me and said, ‘oh, hey, I thought your name was silly and I listened to your promo and I really liked it. And then I watched your matches and I think that you’re a cool wrestler, you know, thank you for doing what you do.’  That’s happened to me more than once like enough that I’m like the importance of establishing who you are and making them listen it’s an unbridled pool. That’s what I got from Second City.”

A familiar but unconventional calling card

“The Electric” Eel O’Neal has a unique look topped off by his baseball cap, which is a callback to a hat that was popular in the 90s when Spike Lee’s Malcolm X hit theaters. It has become his trademark when he’s working as a face. It works as an homage to the original Static comic book series written by the late Dwayne McDuffie.

Most Black people who grew up in that time period will immediately recognize it. Eel says several influences went into the decision to wear the cap.

“So, that was my original look with like lightning bolt trunks, the green ones. When I got in the pocket for the character, I wanted to do a combination of Mookie from Do the Right Thing and Eddie Haskell. The idea was when he’s a babyface, he’s got a lot of mischief in him. And then when he’s a heel, he still has a little bit of good in him that you can see. But the like, cheating and mischievous stuff, that’s, that’s kinda where that comes from.”

“That’s why I wear my glasses to the ring and the Malcolm X hat, and that jacket that I have. It’s like the bright nineties colors. Now that I’ve kind of moved away from the Spike Lee, like Baby Spike Lee, idea I don’t wear the jacket as much, so like it’s a little bit harder to find. But I still wear the Malcolm X hat when I’m working face. I never wear it when I’m working heel. I do not want that connotation anywhere near that. So, I never, ever wear my Malcolm X hat when I’m a heel.”

“But when I’m working face, I always wear it because I think it’s a really, I think it’s a really strong statement I make and it’s a nice way to introduce myself to them with some semblance of imagery. You know what I mean?”

The social-political climate and its effect on the wrestling industry

Last month, Black Live Matter became rallying cry again as people all over the world took to the streets to protest against police brutality and hate crimes. For the first time in recent memory, major companies and institutions have been forced to take notice. Notably, many wrestling companies have taken a stance, which is rare when it comes to issues involving race. O’Neal talked about how he feels about the response so far.

“It’s wonderful to finally see people say like, ‘oh, hey, like we had a big discrepancy in what people’s talent level was versus the way that we utilize them in wrestling. But it’s even better for me to see wrestlers actually make a stand for justice and to say, hey, look, this is not right. And people have been saying this for a really, really long time. Like, people have been saying, oh the police don’t treat us fairly and it wasn’t until finally, I mean it’s the fact that everybody has the time, you know, everybody has time to notice. I doubt that if we didn’t have Corona and we weren’t all stuck in our homes, I doubt that this would’ve gained traction like it did. So, it’s fortuitous in that way like there’s a blessing somewhere in that in that terrible, terrible sickness, that, hey, we all had to be home and then we saw this great injustice, and instead of saying, Oh, hey, I’m just going to ignore it! These people said, Hey, it’s really, really time to fight for something.”

“And that translates to wrestling too. I think that with all of the shakeup going on, like this,  Black Lives Matter and #SpeakingOut and I think that this is a real, real opportunity to bring wrestling to a point where there’s actual equity in equality with people’s talent and how we use them and making sure that people get taken care of. I think, for a really long time, there’s a saying that wrestlers say, they say that the business doesn’t owe you anything. You know what I mean?  Business doesn’t owe you anything. Business doesn’t owe you anything. They say that over and over again but there are so many people who gave their lives for this business. And so many people who lost their love for this business because people misused them or mistreated them. I know for a fact that this business and this sport, and this profession can be beautiful art, and people don’t take it seriously enough, because we don’t take it seriously enough. We’re professional wrestlers. The word professional is in our name.”

“So we need to start acting like professionals and everybody needs to get on the same page as far as, hey, man, look, we’re not going to allow racism and not gonna allow sexism. We’re not going to allow people to get mistreated any longer and I think that that’s starting to happen because people have been pushed into, hey, you need to pay attention to this stuff. Now, we have the time, so why not, you know, actually do some of that right?”

On June 11, IWTV ran a special called The Best of Black Independent Wrestling. It highlighted some of the brightest Black indie wrestlers in the world and spread awareness about Black Live Matter and the victims who have tragically lost their lives. Proceeds from the stream went to the Minnesota Freedom Fund.

While O’Neal felt it should’ve singled out Jordan Blade as opposed to “The Kings of the District,” he was glad to be a part of such an impressive collection of Black talent.

“It felt good. It felt really good. I got to, I think that’s J-Rose, right? I gotta thank him. I’ll get in his DMs or something about that, and thank him. Seeing just a collection of all of us, you know what I mean. It’s not like, Oh, this is, these are the same like this feels like the exact same. It’s like there highs. There are lows. There are different body types, men, women, nonbinary folks. Black people aren’t a monolith and unfortunately in this industry, we’ve been treated like a monolith.”

“We’ve only been able to be about three characters, you know, happy dance guy, athlete, big monster, who also happens to be an athlete. So, probably just take the two. And finally, getting to see the amount of people who are like, Oh, like, they’re like this, and they’re like that, and like, they’re like, if this was wrestling, and they’re like this, you know, and seeing the inclusion of queer people and seeing the inclusion of, you know, I mean, like me, and let’s say Darius Carter, are completely different individuals.”

“We’re both like, kinda mat-based guys, but like, he’s completely different than I am. He’s Wrestling’s Richest Prize, I’m the ‘Baby Hoss’ or the, you know, ‘The Electric’ Eel O’Neal. Like they’re two different types of individuals but I even have a similar body type to him, like I’m kinda tall and lanky too and like we’re different people. So, even if you put us in a match we’re completely different and nobody’s gonna get us confused. And nobody’s gonna yell out Kofi when I’m wrestling him.”

“It’s just so incredible to see proof positive that like look how many different types of Black wrestlers there are and then to actively say, Hey, why aren’t you booking these guys on these shows because they’re incredible. Yeah, these guys should have been made because they’ve been great and they’re young, and they’re fresh, and they’re clever and talented. Put these guys on your show and make money. Print money, man.”

Lastly, Eel O’Neal talked about #SpeakingOut and what he thinks we can do to help make wrestling a safer place.

“So, it’s about shutting up and listening, and it’s about being, like I said before, the professional in professional wrestling. So, we gotta make space for women to safely tell us women and nonbinary folk rather, or people who are abused because men get abused too. That’s fair. We gotta make room for people who are vulnerable to people in power to say that they have been wronged. A lot of wrestling, not just wrestling because, because on my side of the world, on the other side of my life, and in theater, we’ve had some of the same stuff going on, too.”

“So, the people who are in charge are the people who are doing the bad thing, frankly. It tends to be people who have power and who feel like they are untouchable. Not always, it can be, you know, the small fry, just as much as the big-time guy. But the people who it seems like you’re being talked about are people who work training at schools or our stars on the indies or on the professional levels. You know, allegedly like everybody is these people who have this power and this fame and seem like they are untouchable.”

“And we have to make it so that those people can one be recorded and to be dealt with in a real situation where they actually have to face consequences, where it’s like, Hey, you wrong people. It’s not just about posting a tweet where you’re like, Oh, I’m sorry. Or, it’s fake, and it’s a lie, It’s about facing real consequences because people aren’t commodities and women aren’t commodities. Women aren’t just things to be used, they’re people. And it really stinks that, in this period of time, people are realizing that, oh, there are so many people who lost the love for wrestling, who could have been so great. And because we didn’t listen to them, that fire is lost forever. That’s a shame.”

“I need wrestling. I need it, it is necessary to my lifeblood. If I could no longer wrestle, I would train. If I could no longer train, I would still watch wrestling and be involved. I’d book. If somebody took wrestling away from me, it would be tantamount to taking away one of my limbs. So, I cannot imagine how absolutely terribly painful it was for these women and people. All that to say, we gotta make space for women and we also got to make space for women to be in charge. They just gotta be high level.”

“Right now, kind of in the background, there’s kind of a group of individuals who are working together to create safer space-intensives for professional wrestling, since we’re all basically independent contractors. There’s a million and one promotions all over the place, but trying to make a collection around the United States, for people to say, Hey, these are the rules that we all follow. This is how we do backgrounds on people. And these are the behaviors that you should be putting in place when you’re in this locker room and we’re not going to take anything else”

“So it’s a good first step, but it hurts that this is how it has to be birthed, that in order for us to protect people, protect vulnerable people, we have to say, Oh, all of these people have been hurt and we have to, we have to point them out, after the fact.”

“Like it shouldn’t be that, and it’s sad that it has to be, but we’re gonna build a better tomorrow for these people, and we’re going to rectify this situation. That’s a promise on me. If I never do anything else and wrestling, I’m gonna make sure that this situation in some way gets rectified because I just I can’t stand it, it makes me sick.”

Next: Put Black Wrestlers Matter’s August show on your calendar

Eel O’Neal says we should all follow Jordan Blade on Twitter because she is “one of the best professional wrestling women in the world”. Also, be sure to follow O’Neal himself on TwitterInstagram, and Tik Tok.

He’s also a company member at a few theaters in the DC region. “Right now, we’re going through some of the same stuff. So, if you have any reading materials or anything that you want to shoot by about how to deal with situations or rectify situations with this that’s focused on the people who were survivors of these troubles, please send them my way. I’m always willing to lend an ear. I’m always willing to be your ally.”

 

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