Though the WWE is more diverse than ever, there seems to consistently be a shortage of black world champions or “top guys”. This has been the case over the 40+ year history of the WWE championship. With Raw, SmackDown, and NXT, the company currently has its deepest roster from top to bottom. There are multiple stars that fans are behind that happen to be black. In order to have fair representation, they need to get rewarded for their value.
“Black wrestlers don’t need gimmicks because being black is their gimmick.” An old statement that allegedly came out the mouth of WWE producer Michael P.S Hayes.
These are the statements and stereotypes black pro wrestlers have had to face since the beginning. Historically black wrestlers have always been broad stereotypes or subtle ones. This is a subject that gets swept under the rug a lot, and it’s important to have serious discussions on an issue that has been present in WWE since its inception.
Since the 1980’s black professional wrestlers have been struggling to reach top guy status. It goes unnoticed, but one of the most popular wrestlers of that decade was Junkyard Dog. The former Green Bay Packer had a strong connection with the fans, yet he never won a championship in WWE. Junkyard Dog used to lose to everyone else. Oh by the way, he had to shuck, jive, and dance for the audience – an act that many black wrestlers are stuck in. It was clear that he was just a crowd pleasing mid-carder to the higher-ups.
The “Big Cat” Ernie Ladd was giant in an era where giants were really valued as attractions. Still, for some reason he was a superstar that jobbed to others; Ladd would have been a totally believable monster champion.
Then there is Koko B. Ware (another guy reduced to dancing for the audience). It was clear that Koko B. Ware was popular, especially amongst the children. WWE never positioned him to be taken seriously. Quite frankly, I do not think they wanted him to be taken seriously. As long as he came out in colorful attire and danced, that was enough for them. If they wanted him to move up the card they would not trap him in such a limited gimmick.
Back in 1992, Ron Simmons became the first black World Champion, defeating Vader to become for the WCW World Champion.
Later when he arrived in the WWE as Farooq, he was cast as the leader of the Nation of Domination. For the majority of his career afterwards, he was a tag team competitor in the APA. It is a fair question to ask that why exactly couldn’t Farooq become world champion in the biggest company in sports entertainment? At 6’2″, 270 pounds he had the look of someone who can beat somebody up. It is no secret that wrestling is a visual business, and Simmons was certainly larger than life. He had the look that turned heads when he walks in a room. That is something WWE has always looked for in their superstars, even to this day.
For example, Triple H stressed how important it is to have a look. He said, “We’re looking for the human being first . We’re looking for the person that when they enter a room, they have an innate ability to take someone’s attention – that X-Factor that draws you to them”
Also, Farooq was a former defensive tackle in the NFL and CFL. He had the credentials of a legitimate athlete that could have been highlighted more within this persona. Instead, it was clear that the company mostly viewed him as a good hand for tag team wrestling and the occasional comedy skit. Fans loved when the former WCW Champion dropped a spontaneous “Damn!” However, Farooq could have easily been a star with the right push and feud. Simmons’s lack of success in WWE implies that there has historically been an artificial glass ceiling for black wrestlers, which hasn’t been removed with time.
Why Haven’t Kofi Kingston Or Shelton Benjamin Been World Champion?
It is well-documented that Shelton Benjamin took a brief hiatus from WWE to work for other promotions. However, it’d be hard to find many more talented wrestlers in WWE over the last 14 years. Benjamin is the overlooked star from an OVW class that consisted of wrestlers like Batista, John Cena, and Brock Lesnar. Shelton Benjamin is arguably better in the ring than all three of them; Benjamin has a rare blend of athleticism, power, and technical wrestling acumen.
Kofi Kingston has been a constant for the company since 2006, as he is versatile, capable of filling any role at any time. That versatility is in rare supply and is coveted in wrestling.
Additionally, one of the best things about Kingston is he is rarely ever sidelined with a huge injury. For any superstar, that is incredible durability, but that’s especially true for a wrestler with Kingston’s catalogue of complex maneuvers.
During Royal Rumble matches, fans eagerly await what stunt Kofi will pull to keep both feet off the ground. Kingston is a show within the show; he is someone you have to watch. Kingston has had countless great matches against the likes of Chris Jericho, JBL, and Rey Mysterio.
Fellow New Day member Xavier Woods never hesitates to state how much Kingston deserves a push. In an interview with RauteMusik (transcription H/T to Wrestling Inc.), Woods said, “The last thing that I really want to do is make sure becomes heavyweight champion because he deserves to be one.”
In addition, both Benjamin and Kingston have helped make the Money in the Bank ladder match the spectacle it is. They have never been afraid of putting their bodies on the line in unique situations, and the spots they execute are superhuman. Both talents are multiple time Intercontinental Champions, Tag Champions, and United States Champions; there is literally nothing left for these two veterans to do other than chase world championships. Ironically both are on SmackDown Live which is “the land of opportunity”. So why haven’t either of them gotten even a mere opportunity at world title glory?
Giving Benjamin a mid-card championship would be redundant at this point. We have been there and done that. Recently, he has stepped in the ring with top guys like AJ Styles and Daniel Bryan, and Benjamin still looked like he belonged. In fact, he has a victory over Daniel Bryan that WWE has essentially ignored.
Meanwhile, Kofi Kingston being a member of the New Day should encourage creative to put him in the world championship picture. They sell loads of merchandise and the crowd is in love with them – perhaps giving Kingston a chance would likely result in even more merchandise sales. It would tell a great story of a veteran that has paid his dues finally getting to the top. Want evidence that the audience is fully behind Kingston as champion? Go back and watch last year’s Money in the Bank PPV. When New Day finally revealed Kofi as the participant the crowd pop huge. Kofi chants rained throughout the arena during the match.
Black Wrestlers Have Shown Their Excellence When Given Opportunities As Champions
There are certain stars that break through and show the cream rises. Sasha Banks has been a foundational piece to the growth of women’s wrestling around the world, and she is already one of the greatest women’s wrestlers of all time. At any WWE live event, just look around at the crowd and the crowd shots to see so many little girls dressed as Sasha Banks. Her bond with the WWE universe is so clear. This is more proof that black wrestlers are looked up to. Black wrestlers are top draws, especially since they show young fans that people who are like them can become “The Legit Boss” and showcase their excellence to the world.
Naomi won the first ever WrestleMania Women’s Battle Royal. She is a two-time SmackDown Women’s Champion. She started from the bottom as a Funkadactyl alongside Brodus Clay, but it didn’t take long for the former cheerleader to blossom into one of the best in the business. Though Naomi recently lost a title match against Asuka on SmackDown Live, hopefully we see her inclusion in the championship picture more often during ‘Mania season. She’s been a part of some of WWE’s biggest moments in the past couple of years, and along with her catchy entrance and “Glow” gimmick, Naomi has quietly inspired a generation of young fans.
Then there is Booker T, who had to rise above the backstage politics in WCW and WWE. A world champion in both companies, Booker has done it all in wrestling. Furthermore, he has transitioned into a valuable broadcasting role for the WWE on Pay Per View kick-off shows.
More importantly Booker has been giving back to the industry by opening a wrestling promotion/ school Reality Of Wrestling. His promotion “Reality Of Wrestling” is one of the best in the Texas area, making Booker T more than a legendary wrestler. He is one of the most brilliant minds any up and coming wrestler can learn from.
Why Representation Always Matters
WWE, at its core, is a business that relies on emotions and connection. They tell stories in the context of a pro wrestling ring. Let’s face it, stories affect how we see other people and how we think about ourselves. Think about what young black children miss when they don’t see black wrestlers holding world champions and defending them every night. An absence of black wrestlers reaching the peak of WWE sends the message that black athletes do not matter in pro wrestling. Even as an adult, it does hurt that, as a black man, I rarely get to see a black person as the fighting champion who gets a real run at the top.
It is important for black people to see people like them win the biggest prize in sports-entertainment. Fans cannot underestimate how an individual’s self-esteem is affected when all they see is people of their race portrayed as thugs or dancers. The current roster of talented black wrestlers gives WWE a chance to right these wrongs. If WWE would get out of their own way, they could even see that there is money in doing what’s right.
Now let’s fast forward to this past NXT TakeOver: WarGames 2. There is no doubt that Tommaso Ciampa has been a great NXT Champion, as he is a dastardly heel that can back it up in the ring. Nevertheless, it is Velveteen Dream that has everyone talking. As the saying goes, he is over like rover.
Fans don’t watch Velveteen Dream perform; they experience it. From the moment Dream walks through the curtain, everyone HAS to pay attention. He is extremely identifiable and clearly understands creativity. Reminiscent of the late Rick Rude, Velveteen Dream’s ring attire always tells a story. Big-time superstars like John Cena and Drew McIntyre have stated how much they see the “it” factor in him. Even the leader of the NXT system, Triple H, raves about Dreams’ talent.
More importantly, the Dream has had compelling, acclaimed matches with Aleister Black, Johnny Gargano, and Lars Sullivan, and he participated in a five-star ladder match at NXT TakeOver: New Orleans during WrestleMania weekend. All of this is more than enough reason for the 23-year-old to have beat Ciampa for the NXT World Championship. While it wasn’t in the cards, Dream is an example of a talented black wrestler who can easily be the face of a brand in the (near) future.
There always seems to be no real reason why talented black superstars aren’t winning world championships. There has not been enough in the history of the company. No, that does not mean give the championship to anyone that is black just cause. At the same time, it is crucial to have representation of all ethnicities, genders, and sexual orientations.
For example in 2011, fans were thoroughly entertained by R-Truth in the world championship picture. Truth is a veteran that has found a way to stay steadily employed in the pro wrestling business for a long time. Whatever creative gives him, he embraces. At the time, Truth had an edge to him that could have carried him to the top. He was smoking cigarettes, acting crazy, and smashing heads with water bottles. Unfortunately fans did not get a chance to fully embrace him as a big time player. Mostly everyone would have like to see a fresh champion, especially at a time where Cena and Orton were always in the mix.
Those higher-ups in the company will point out The Rock and Booker T as proof that there is no insensitivity. However, one can argue that those two are mostly outliers. The last black world champion the company has produced is Mark Henry back in 2011. It is about to be 2019. Henry had a solid and believable run with championship. Still, that push was simply a “thank you” to a veteran who has been loyal to WWE. They did not give him the top prize to have him be a consistent top guy.
There are black sports entertainers on the roster who are more than capable of contributing to the main event scene. With injuries and important guys like Roman Reigns sidelined, WWE must diversify their options. For example, a veteran like Shelton Benjamin can add a new wrinkle to the championship scene on SmackDown Live. Benjamin would be especially useful when SmackDown is being broadcasted by FOX. There have been reports that FOX wants less comedy and more of a sports vibe for the brand. Pushing guys like the “Gold Standard” that have real athletic backgrounds and can work a match does just that.
The almighty Bobby Lashley has yet to be given a significant storyline since feuding with Roman Reigns briefly. Lashley even beat Reigns cleanly, something not many people on the roster can say. That was the perfect time to keep moving forward with the former ECW World Champion. Brock Lesnar vs Bobby Lashley would draw interest as much as many other matchups. In fact, the best way to solidify Lashley as a top-tier superstar is to have him go over Brock for the Universal Championship. Objectively speaking, there is not a more believable and qualified athlete than Bobby Lashley to put Lesnar down, given Lashley’s impressive record in Bellator.
Historically, wrestlers of color are stuck in a team, a dance gimmick, or something that depicts them as comedy characters who aren’t threats to win titles. Nowadays. WWE has enough “over” personas that aren’t heavily stereotyped. It is time the WWE Universe sees a shift. With great superstars like Ember Moon, Keith Lee, and Bobby Lashley, there should be more black world champions going forward. Without equal representation at the top of the world’s largest professional wrestling company, how can the sport truly take steps towards progress?