A Moment of Unity: Wrestling Breaking with Bigoted Tradition

Surveying the modern wrestling landscape brings a sense of hope for many Black wrestlers. Ushering in new ideas and embracing open-mindedness set the stage for Black athletes across companies to stand in their well-deserved spotlight.
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Ingrained in its history, professional wrestling used racist stereotypes and prevented many Black athletes from achieving main event status. Now, they do not appear restrained by the myopic booking eye that kept talents huddled in the middle of the card. With many barriers falling by the wayside, more talent looks to break through. Yet, questions remain regarding what took so long. In all honesty, racism sat atop the industry and sadly enough, in parts of the business, it still exists.

Quiet Pioneer

Granted, wrestling fans would not know the name Viro Small from a hole in the head. Yet, Small's boldness to step between the ropes transitioning from boxing goes mainly unnoticed. Imagine coming into the world as enslaved, spending half of your childhood deemed property by the state you reside in. Small spent the first nine years of his life as a slave.

When the Civil War ended, racism still existed. Small ventured north to kick off a boxing career. From there, wrestling was called. In front of probably dozens of people, he competed. Granted, little documentation exists. Yet, thinking that he endured otherworldly abuse and mistreatment from fans and promoters alike, does not feel like a stretch. In fact, in one of the first cases of working yourself into a shoot. Salty over a match result, opponent Billy McCallum shot Small in the neck. While Small survived, he knew that no matter what, Black wrestlers faced an uphill battle for equal footing.

None for Us

When Terry Bollea met Vincent J. McMahon, the elder McMahon looked at the young wrestler, saying “He goes like Ivan Putski for the Polish Americans, Bruno Sammartino for the Italian Americans, Chief Jay Strongbow both for the Native American Indian Americans, and I want you to be Hulk Hogan for the Irish Americans,” Hogan recounted on an episode of the Theo Von Podcast. Now, a couple of things, Chief Jay Strongbow was never, ever Native American. Joe Scarpa donned the headdress strictly for work. Also, where was the Black community’s guy? Notice the erasure of a pretty substantial part of past wrestling fandom. Watching S.D. Jones count the lights at every house became the norm.

Sad Facts

It took the WWE/F twenty-five years to crown a Black world champion. Similarly, it took the NWA/WCW, forty-four years to let a Black wrestler run with the title. During their thirty-one-year run, the AWA never had a Black world champion. Moreover, Black fans needed to sit in the nosebleed seats to attend matches. Wrestling fans like to tell you that the only color that matters is green. Keep lying to yourself.

Tropes For Miles

In wrestling, controversy creates cash, but lazy tropes make millions. For example, every pushed charismatic Black wrestler like the Calgary/Mid-South version of the Junkyard Dog, witness the unbridled shucking and jiving of other wrestlers looking to get over. No blame should fall upon that talent for doing what they needed to do to keep their job. These people played a role on television and house shows to feed their respective families. Why would promoters fall into the trap of booking the middle and lower parts of the cards lazily, playing upon ignorance? Plain and simple, many never thought any non-White wrestler should be the face of the promotion. Honestly, many promoters probably thought that every Black person conducted their daily lives like that.  In fact, to get a heel strong, promoters would let the racism flow. Old school or not, videos like these hurt to watch.

The Jimmy the Greek Mindset

If you want a concrete parallel drawn between the trashy thoughts of promoters and fans, remember the name James Snyder. Known as a football commentator “Jimmy the Greek”, Snyder worked on The NFL Today for a dozen years. When a reporter asked him about the Black athlete. As sure as the sun rises in the east, many promoters felt this way. He wasn't the first.

August 2, 1992

Following wrestling since the age of five, many events flow to mind. Yet, only two resonate harder than watching Ron Simmons and Kofi Kingston win world championships. Granted, Ron Killings enjoyed two NWA title reigns and the Rock enjoyed a half-dozen. Yet, the first two mentioned elicit both a big smile and teary eyes.

For Ron Simmons to win the WCW World Heavyweight championship, we need to flashback to 1982. I am eight years old. After watching Bob Backlund overcome the odds once again to retain, I asked my father why aren't there Black champions. Furthermore, I asked why S.D. Jones always looked good to start the match but always lost. he said, " ain't no way, they will let a ****** win the belt." That thought remained in my head until that bout aired. Additionally, my father remembered his words and looked thrilled to retract them. Then, I mumbled something about Black presidents and he roiled his yes. He died six years after that card.

April 7, 2019

Physically, Kofi Kingston does not cut a remarkable silhouette, not a body guy. At the same time, he manages to connect with crowds, even getting pancakes and unicorn horns over. In reality, Kingston stands a shade above six feet and weighs a feather over 200 pounds. In the eighties, he would probably serve as fodder for Killer Khan or Earthquake. Now, he performed in front of seventy thousand people. Suspension of disbelief of not, that three count echoes through history, tipping the cap to all the talented who were held back.

The video of MVP and Shad Gaspard rejoicing induces tears just watching. In sports and life, the constant need to break barriers wears on us. Sports entertainment or not, the entire Kofi saga captivated fans worldwide and opened the door for fans of color to rejoice. When Rey Mysterio and Eddie Guerrero captured the belt, friends of Latino descent, and fans of the product rejoiced. Why? One of their own stood in what many believed, was a White man’s ring, holding the title aloft.

The Reversal

The 1990s evolved into a flashpoint for change. While Ron Simmons drew praise, holding the WCW title with dignity, a different type of heel emerged. Like him or not, respect the legacy or don’t, New Jack’s mic skills turned the business on its collective ear. For the first time, a Black heel enraged the audience with a cadence and rhetoric sure to inflame long-simmering hostilities. Vividly, some who defended Roddy Piper as edgy, crumpled under the weight of their own hypocrisy when Jerome Young turned the tables. Did he wrestle well? No. Should anyone condone the numerous in-ring assaults? No. However, by putting voice to the mic, one promo stands as a change in course.

Far Better Place

From a booking/continuity balance, modern professional wrestling pales in comparison to eras past. The lack of coherent storylines affects a major company while an overreliance on talking segments plagues another. Notwithstanding, seeing new Black stars rise every year elevates the sport to a higher plane. My son turns eight years old in September. In his short life, a time without seeing a Black titleholder does not exist. All he knows is watching people who look just like him, serving as the company’s face.

Why This Matters

Already, the “all lives matter” contingent prepared to camp in the comment section. This is not about the desires of the myopic. Representation matters. A product connects itself to its audience by relating. Above all else, the representation shows significant progress. Imagine the bigoted promoters of yesterday, watching Swerve Strickland or Bianca Belair leading their brand, engaging millions of people around the globe, helping make the promotion hand over fist. America is the name written across our passports. On the other hand, America has an atrocious history, in regard to the treatment of Black people. It is difficult to love a country that never loved you back. Yet, seeing strides in wrestling sends a small but impassioned message that change, occasionally inevitable, becomes necessary.