Race and ethnicity have influenced promotion in professional wrestling since long before it became a billion-dollar industry being broadcast worldwide. Back when the ability to put asses in seats was the only source of revenue, promoters had to cast their shows based on talent with whom the local audience would culturally identify. Living legend Bruno Sammartino, for example, benefited became a folk hero for his Italian heritage in the New York area just as much as he did for his strength and wrestling ability. Even Hulk Hogan (born Terry Bollea) got his name because there was a need to cater to the Irish contingent of wrestling fans.
When it came to representing black wrestling fans, most parts of the country still have no need for black wrestlers to create an economically viable draw. Still, the theatrics, athleticism, and work ethic required in professional wrestling make it a matter of course that black performers would thrive despite the disconnects that would put them at a disadvantage. And although the marginalization of blacks in the mainstream increases the chances of black wrestlers being memorable, their contributions to the business go far beyond the black-fish-in-a-white-pond novelty.
Today, since WWE has become a global phenomenon, ethnic diversity has more importance than it ever has, oft requiring representation from all corners of the planet. Despite the obvious artifice of which fans have been made fully aware (RIP kayfabe), WWE has no problem grafting false ethnicities onto their talent if only to satisfy a local audience for an overseas tour. For example, Batista’s ethnic ambiguity served WWE well during the early 2000s as the company would bill him from several Latin and/or Asian countries depending on where they were selling tickets.
And perhaps this evidence that diversity equals dollars is what has made WWE one of the greatest exhibiters of a cultural spectrum on television (artificial or otherwise). In some ways, demonstrating this range has put WWE ahead of the mainstream curve when it comes to the images of blackness that its Superstars project. And although black identities in WWE earn the criticisms that they continue to draw, the sheer volume of black Superstars aids in showing a fan base of people, who still don’t know any black people personally, that the race is not as monolithic as the media would scare them into believing.
So for those of you with a more general curiosity for how that “fake” thing some weirdoes go crazy over actually has cultural relevance worth examining, below are brief profiles of the black WWE Superstars currently wrestling with the company. As for the current WWE fans, who already know most to all of this information, thank you for humoring me.
Rarely does a WWE Superstar transcend his wrestling stardom to become a mainstream superstar. Rarer still does such a WWE Superstar have black ancestry. As the product of Rocky Johnson and descendent of the legendary Anoa’i family of Samoa, Dwayne Johnson’s genetics lent themselves to a high in-ring acumen. But it was his unrivaled charisma that made him The Rock Obama,* a demonstration that the racial possibilities in the WWE were endless.
Of course, as is the case in America writ large, WWE Superstars of color still must work harder to win over fans and ascend to top-guy status than their non-black counterparts, who are often hand-picked by the WWE for reasons that honor a template but often betrays the sensibilities of loyal fans. But when someone with the star power that the Rock has fights through those barriers and redefines what a global icon can look like, WWE can no longer contain it. In case you were wondering how The Rock can just come and go as he pleases between WWE TV and pay-per-views, he’s just got it like that.
*The Rock Obama was never a gimmick that WWE used, but it sure would have been a cool pun considering Johnson’s Brahma Bull mascot. The Rock Obrahma? Frigging brilliant!
With all due respect, Mark Henry’s WWE career brings to mind Cecil Gaines of Lee Daniels’s The Butler because of how long he has been with the company. Entering in his mid-20s following an impressive Olympic weightlifting career, the now 42-year-old behemoth is the only talent to have been on the main WWE roster since the Attitude Era not named The Undertaker. And as a black elder statesman, it would not be surprising if Henry were not instrumental in ushering in younger talent and showing them the right way to do business in and out of the ring.
Henry has undergone a character evolution ranging from tongue-in-cheek sex symbol to unstoppable wrecking machine. And he carried the championship mantel for the now-dissolved ECW, briefly giving the brand legitimacy that fans of the original Extreme Championship Wrestling were hoping it would achieve. Maintaining the gravitas and intensity becoming of a grown man paid to pretend to beat people up has served Henry well and will surely be a major reason he is a WWE Hall of Famer-in-waiting.
Kofi Kingston originally filled the Jamaican void that WWE had for so many years (?), until someone realized that maintaining a phony accent would be embarrassing for all involved and that Kingston’s talent superseded any ethnic panache they slapped onto him. After all, he’s not even Jamaican; his parents are from Ghana, and he grew up in Massachusetts.
Anyway, Kingston’s exuberance and ability has led to several lower-level championship runs, and he continues to wow and excite crowds with feats of athleticism that WWE fans now expect him to surpass every time he’s in the ring. Hopefully, Kofi will be in the company for years to come, but he may want to consider altering his style to suit the inevitable betrayal of his body so that he doesn’t wind up hurting himself trying to jump from the crowd barrier to the ring apron (he really did that; incredible). Black might not crack, but Father Time is undefeated.
Initially hyped as the surly juggernaut you’d expect a man of his size in a combat spectacle to be, Brodus Clay instead rose to popularity as the ‘Funkasaurus,’ who would dance to and in the ring wearing an Adidas track suit and brimmed hat flanked by 2 ladies known as the Funkadactyls.† His theme song, “Somebody Call My Momma,” further established Brodus Clay as a fun-loving and generally kind soul who just happens to be large and skilled enough to inflict punishment in the squared circle.
A more PG version of the pimp-inspired Godfather, Brodus Clay in his current iteration allows the audience to enjoy the attraction without having to take him seriously as a title contender. Considering how many Superstars are on the main roster to jockey for those positions, it is clear that only the characters who make clear their intention to be a champion land in the conversation, which Clay has not. The Funkadactyls have since left Clay to join the rookie Xavier Woods, so perhaps a more serious Brodus Clay is on the horizon. It sure would be nice, because WWE already has enough dancing Negroes (keep reading).
Fun fact: Before launching his wrestling career, he worked as a bodyguard for Snoop Dogg (born Calvin Broadus, hence the name).
Not so fun fact: Brodus Clay’s name in Florida Championship Wrestling was G-Rilla (yeesh).
†I have no idea if the Funkadactyls name spawned out of black women in WWE being historically rare, but that sure would have been clever and self-aware. I did NOT mean for that to rhyme. Maybe it IS innate. Huh!
Before coming through the WWE developmental pipeline and NXT, Woods impressed crowds with his athleticism and youthful exuberance as Consequences Creed on TNA Impact Wrestling. His afro and Rocky-inspired ring attire made his character a pop culture derivative fit for a business that consistently languishes behind the times when it comes to trends.
But the WWE debut of Xavier Woods begged for the return of a throwback justification for the shuck-n-jive act that has ensued since he got called up to main roster. Swiping Broadus Clay’s I-love-to-dance gimmick (including the song and the Funkadactyls), WWE has supplemented the modern-day minstrelsy with attempts to give Woods dimension during guest announcer appearances on Raw and Smackdown. According to those appearances, Woods is studying for his PhD while keeping up with the brutal grind of the WWE schedule, an impressive feat that is difficult to build a gimmick around, but gets drowned out completely since it is apparent that the WWE Universe already expects him to smile and dance more than wrestle.
As R-Truth, Ron Killings continues to entertain crowds in his second tenure with WWE. Once dubbed K-Kwik, Killings distinguished himself from other Superstars by blending impressive musculature with speed and agility that few men his size could match.
R-Truth has set himself apart even further in recent years by embracing the role of a borderline schizophrenic, cigarette-smoking, rap-spitting (at least one brother had to rap, right?), dance-o-holic (see?).
Still, even though he is just as crispy as Flavor Flav, he’s hardly the embarrassment to black people that the Public Enemy hype man became (thanks, VH1). But now that he’s allied with Xavier Woods, the pair of musically-inclined Negroes demonstrate the unifying power of music, which distracts either of them from becoming ‘top guys’ to take seriously. Tale as old as time for brothers in the WWE, I suppose, but at least they’re at the book (?).
Darren Young & Titus O’Neil
To allay any concerns about lumping these two into one profile, please know that it’s only because they share the same gimmick as halves of a tag team called the Prime Time Players. The Prime Time Players have capitalized on the egocentric, money-hungry trope made famous by ‘real’ sports figures to an effect that is fun to watch yet easy to dislike.
The most interesting part of this group is that Darren Young (on the right) made history last year by becoming the first-ever active WWE Superstar to publicly discuss being gay (in real life). The revelation does not seem to have negatively impacted O’Neil or Young, so hopefully Young’s good standing with the company and with fans will lead to a broadening of tolerance throughout the WWE Universe and beyond.
My apologies for not having much to say about Titus O’Neil, but frankly there just isn’t a whole lot to the guy from what I’ve seen.
David Otunga raided Carlton Banks’s closet upon joining WWE. As the only WWE Superstar to tout his authentic membership to a BAR Association, Otunga’s lawyer gimmick has given him onscreen time in segments as a legal advisor, probably lengthening his career since he does not have to depend so much on actually wrestling.
Still, Otunga remains a whipping boy (ugh, sorry) in the sense that he has been dubbed an ‘A-lister’ because of his marriage to the much-more-famous Jennifer Hudson. Being a real husband of Hollywood has worked wonders for his ability to draw ire and contempt from crowds steeped in patriarchy, but the authenticity of the lawyer-wrestler dichotomy can only be positive in terms of what is possible for character development in the WWE.
Big E Langston
Known backstage as a funny guy, Big E Langston still has the WWE Universe rapt for when that sense of humor will be fully incorporated into his on-air persona. In the meantime, his size, strength, and energy in the ring have made him a fan favorite worthy of holding the Intercontinental Championship.
It appears as if WWE has big plans for Langston, especially since he has demonstrated that the championship spotlight does not faze him. The concern for how they integrate more of his authentic personality into the character remains, as is the case for a company capable of monumental blunders. But the stage is set for Langston to flourish in a way that few black WWE Superstars have experienced.
Currently in the blackground
WWE Superstar JTG debuted as part of the culturally insensitive gimmick Cryme Tyme, a duo of thugs more known for their knockoff G-Unit costumes and stealing than their in-ring performances. The lone survivor of that gimmick (Shad Gaspard was released from WWE in 2010), JTG has since undergone a makeover, which apparently included clarification on what the initials stand for (jobbin’ to guys), as he has lost pretty much every match he’s had and has been relegated to lower-profile WWE shows.
Ezekiel Jackson, the Guyanese bodybuilder, showed promise with the company for his undeniable size and strength and mild-mannered fan friendly vibe outside of the ring. Unfortunately, a string of injuries has precluded the momentum any WWE Superstar needs to build in order to establish a true presence. Jackson remains with the company, but it remains to be seen whether WWE will to keep him around to see what he has left following this most recent surgery.
Looking back…looking forward
In casual discussions of race, the quantifiable benefits of exposing people to faces unlike theirs remain debatable. Still, the sheer presence of diverse and compelling personalities is always a step in the right direction, no matter how small. The same debate surrounds the recent hire of Sasheer Zamata to the cast of Saturday Night Live, a show in which cynics still have no interest yet acknowledge that Zamata is a great addition that the viewing audience that would not sought out otherwise. As it stands today, it would not be surprising if a study comparing wrestling fans to non-wrestling fans would yield that wrestling fans are less racist even if they don’t know any black people personally.
That WWE can implicitly debunk generalizations about black people in spite of thriving on broad characters—no matter how hard Xavier Woods and R-Truth work against them—is as humanitarian an effort as the company’s campaigns to fight cancer or bullying. So even if the product continues to infuriate fans with its lack of fresh ideas, WWE has earned points if for no other reason than its projection of black male images that have taken mainstream media decades to embrace.
And finally…a roll call for the brothers who also contributed to the legacy of WWE
Bobo Brazil…Rufus Jones…Ernie Ladd…Junkyard Dog…Abdullah the Butcher…Tony Atlas…Butch Reed…Ron Simmons/Faarooq Asaad…Koko B. Ware…Bad News Brown…S.D. Jones…Kamala the Ugandan Giant…Slick…Theodore “Teddy” Long…Virgil/Vincent…Norman Smiley…Booker T…Stevie Ray…Ahmed Johnson…Papa Shango/Kama Mustafa/The Godfather…Ice Train…D’Lo Brown…Shelton Benjamin…2 Cold Scorpio/Flash Funk…Mo…Mabel/Viscera…Ernest “The Cat” Miller…D-Von Dudley…Maven…Montel Vontavius Porter (MVP)…Bobby Lashley…Elijah Burke…Marcus Cor Von…Shad Gaspard.