WWE: E(race)ing Opportunities by Marc Madison

February is over. That might not normally be something worth mentioning since the month is generally uneventful. February, however, is also Black History Month. This brings to mind its significance as it applies to wrestling history and black wrestlers. If we look at the growing number of talented black athletes that there are today, it is easy to presume that championships will come their way. The question isn’t whether they will achieve success, but rather the level of success they will achieve throughout their careers. WWE Hall of Famer and former NWA World Heavyweight champion Ron Simmons is credited as being the first black heavyweight champion. This achievement took place in the early 90s, over twenty years ago. Over the years the WWE has had prominent black wrestlers who have been either Intercontinental champions or tag team champions, but what about black world heavyweight champions?

Fans could easily argue that The Rock, whose father is Rocky Johnson, was easily the most successful black wrestler in history. But some feel there is an asterisk next to his name. A few weeks ago I had the privilege of speaking with former WWE superstar and member of The Nexus Michael Tarver.Tarver was quite eloquent as he shared his thoughts about wrestling, his career and his outlook for the future. He also enlightened me to the historical failure of WWE to elevate black wrestlers. There has been no problem elevating wrestlers from the United Kingdom or Mexico, and the belief that it could be a cultural difference isn’t really there because wrestlers such as Alberto Del Rio, Sheamus and ReyMysterio were all synonymous with their cultural background, which is steeply entrenched into the title and their characters.

When Tarver spoke he mentioned that with The Rock, there appeared to be more promotion of his Samoan heritage, much like they are doing with Roman Reigns, then his father’s heritage and accomplishments. Yes, Mark Henry was elevated and made a world champion (though it was the now defunct secondary World Championship, not the WWE Championship.) But the issue then becomes, what is done with the time a black wrestler is champion? Was it memorable? Did their accomplishments stand out as something to be proud of? Henry held the title for a marginal time until John Cena defeated him for it. When Simmons captured the title he was a face, and heralded for his accomplishments. When he broke through the glass ceiling and achieved this, he did so in World Championship Wrestling, a promotion that was based in the Southern United States. The focus with Henry was less about colour and more that he was a heel and that it would be better to have John Cena, the proud and beloved white champion take the title away from him.

What exactly could be done to make a black wrestler world champion, and have their reign be memorable? There are a number of things, but the first has to be the realization that there is a problem with what creative believe fans want and what a wrestler needs to get over. It could be easy to presume that they could book a black wrestler as being a sympathetic face that fans can stand behind. What if Daniel Bryan was black, would he have been pushed as much as he has? Fans will support the underdog regardless of colour because they wanted good wrestlers and good wrestling to ultimately succeed. But good wrestlers can only do so much if the company doesn’t back them. It shouldn’t be a matter of race, but in doing what the WWEdoes by only making mention of some black athletes and not others, are they really capitalizing on potential?

One of the biggest and most popular factions today is New Day. They are both liked and disliked because their antics get them noticed. It is on them for how much of a reaction they were able to generate. So let’s think about it for just a minute. Does part of New Day’s success have to do with them having creative freedom? It has to be. They are a success because they have a great deal of say in how they do what they do. The question becomes, could they achieve more if one of them was a singles wrestler in pursuit of the WWE championship? Of the men all in the faction, Big E appears to be the one who fits the mold that Vince McMahon has for his heavyweights. He has a mesomorph frame, he’s entertaining on the microphone, he is home grown in that they’ve worked to develop his talent. Would they ever work to have Big E be everything that the WWE looks for in their (usually white) champions? Based on past history, it doesn’t look likely. Is it fair to question why the New Day are a success? In an interview with ROH wrestler Cedric Alexander, he pointed out that the faction is in many ways playing up to racial stereotypes. The pantomime of New Day throwing dice which was considered racially suggestive and isn’t how you want your black athletes seen.

What remains remarkable is that the company doesn’t actively look for ways to elevate their black wrestlers in a way that isn’t offensive and isn’t marginalizing their skill. Shelton Benjamin and Kofi Kingston were among the most exciting athletes to be a part of Money In The Bank matches. While they get included because they are known for being creative in these matches, and will offer some level of excitement, why didn’t they win them? Was there ever an intent to have the Money In The Bank title opportunity storyline presented to them? I’d like to think they would, but if we explore history it’s really hard to see that happening.

Sadly, some talent have received pushes linked to stereotypical and racially charged characters. “Mr. USA” Tony Atlas had an incredible physique during his time, but when he returned to the WWF after a prolonged absence he was known as SabaSimba. The character didn’t reflect someone that was going to main event or contend for the Heavyweight championship, but rather a mid card wrestler who was meant to fill time, rather than be elevated into something more. It is unfortunate that this was probably wrestling fans’ last memory of him competing for the company. When he was given work he was nothing more than a reflection of a racial stereotype.

Atlas isn’t the only wrestler to have his push based on a stereotype. Kamala, the Ugandan Giant was part of a main event feud with Hulk Hogan and known all over the world, but would he have been given a chance to be the heavyweight champion? It isn’t likely that Kamala was going to be the one that took the title off of Hogan. He, much like Atlas, had a stereotypical African gimmick that didn’t frame him culturally in the right light, but didn’t provide him with a chance at being a champion. Hulk Hogan was the character that was going to come out victorious regardless of what obstacle was in front of him.

There were a number of former WWE wrestlers such as MVP, Bobby Lashley and Brodus Clay that have found success in TNA. But why wasn’t someone like Bobby Lashley in a position to be the WWE champion? When we consider that Lashley has also achieved cross over success in MMA, it says that he is able to achieve success regardless of where he is positioned. There are a number of wrestlers competing on both the independents or for other promotions that aspire to be a part of the WWE. And if you advocate equality in public campaigns, then why doesn’t your philanthropic ventures align with you scripted storylines?

Fans today want realism when they watch wrestling. So how is it realistic that black WWE champions are so few and far between? How is it that there have been only a handful of black champions since Ron Simmons captured the championship over twenty years ago? Everyone knows and accepts that Vince McMahon’s prototypical wrestler has a muscular build and is quite tall. Yet one of the most talented wrestlers not to be in the WWE until the last year or so was Kevin Owens. He doesn’t fit McMahon’s mold, but he’s achieved success when given opportunity.

We won’t get into the argument of talent because that’s a moot point. A company wouldn’t employ someone if they didn’t believe that they were capable and talented at what they do. Darren Young and Titus O’Neil are an entertaining pair, but was there going to be a legitimate main event shot or Heavyweight title for either one of them on the main roster? I’d like to think and hope there would be, but again what does a black wrestler have to do in the WWE in order to not just play a stereotypical character, but be taken seriously based on ability alone. In comparison, UFC has had more black champions, and their competitors are not only skilled at legitimate combat, but at promoting a fight because they are given the chance to sell themselves. As it stands right now, Apollo Crew’s contention for the NXT championship has been put on the back burner for the time being. One has to ask yourself, when he does appear on the main roster will he become the next black WWE Heavyweight champion, or a footnote, a what could have been?

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