Professional Wrestling has been around since the late 1860s and during the beginning of its existence, matches were segregated. Black and white wrestlers were looked at as “different divisions”. Now professional wrestling has changed quite a lot and some of the greatest in-ring performers to grace the squared circle like The Rock, Mark Henry, and Booker T are legends to us all.
Today we will take a look at some of the greatest moments in wrestling history for the black community. This list will highlight some of the best men and women who have broken down the racial barriers in the business and paved the way for the future generation of hopeful men and women looking to be on the top of the wrestling world.
1860-1870: Viro Smalls “Black Sam Of Vermont”
From Slave To The First Black Professional Wrestler
A former slave in Buford, South Carolina, Viro Smalls is considered the first black professional wrestler in America. Smalls became a proficient boxer and wrestler in 1870. Smalls wrestled in the traditional “elbow and collar” technique, a style of wrestling that began in Ireland and found its way to America by Irish immigrants. Smalls’ first documented match was against Mike Horogan. Smalls may have lost the match but was taken in by Horogan as a mentee. Smalls would go on to have 63 wins over a 10-year career with two of those wins being for the Vermont Collar and Elbow Championship.
1950s: Ethel Johnson
A True Pioneer For Women Of Color In Pro Wrestling
Today’s top black female stars like Sasha Banks, Big Swole, and Naomi have Ethel Johnson and her two sisters to thank for opening the door for females of color in wrestling. Johnson began training at the age of 12 and made her pro wrestling debut at the age of 16 in 1950. 16 years old and she was already hitting the ropes! Johnson was known for her matches with or against her sisters, Babs Wingo and Marva Scott; They would compete against each other across the United States in singles & tag team matches. Johnson would have a 26-year long career and in her final match in 1976 she ended her career facing her sister Marva Scott, which must have been an amazing feeling for the two of them.
Ethel Johnson brought hope for not just the black community but women all over the world looking to become major league athletes.
1962: Bobo Brazil
The First “Unofficial African-American World Champion”
That’s right, an unofficial champion. Bobo Brazil, the first African-American megastar in pro wrestling was technically the first African-American to hold a major World Championship and the first African-American NWA World Heavyweight Champion. All three of those “firsts” prove that Bobo Brazil is one of the most essential men in pro wrestling for the black community.
In 1962, Brazil technically became the first African-American world heavyweight champion when he defeated Buddy Rogers for the NWA title. However, things changed when Buddy Rogers claimed to have been injured before the match, Brazil refused to take the title and wanted to have a rematch with Rogers once he was 100% healed. Turns out the injury was fake and because of that, the local promotion did in fact declare Bobo Brazil as the champion, but the NWA itself did not recognize this title change. In my eyes that is a whole load of malarkey and Bobo Brazil should be known as the first African-American world champion in America.
Bobo Brazil broke racial barriers as one of the hottest pro wrestlers at his time. Having matches with some of the biggest stars such as Andre the Giant, Bruno Sammartino, Roddy Piper, and even Antonio Inoki; Bobo Brazil’s personality made him a star around the world. Many have referred to Bobo Brazil as the “Jackie Robinson of sports-entertainment” and with the legacy Brazil leaves behind I would strongly agree. Brazil also has the honor of being the first African-American to be inducted into the WWE Hall of Fame in 1994, a man who truly deserves more recognition.
1963: Bearcat Wright
The First African-American To Hold A Major World Championship Is Officially Crowned
In 1963, World Wrestling Associates (WWA) became the first wrestling promotion to have an African-American hold a major world championship when Bearcat Wright defeated Freddie Blassie to win the WWA World Heavyweight Championship. A title reign that lasted for 115 days until he was stripped of the title as Wright refused to drop the belt. Honestly, who could have taken this guy down? Wright had crazy strength! He would regularly rip phone books in half like they were nothing just to pump up the fans.
Bearcat Wright is a true fighter for the black community. Wright was once served a suspension from the Indiana State Athletic Commission after stating he would no longer fight until wrestling had become desegregated. Bearcat was a talented athlete and was adored by many. In 2017, Wright was inducted into the WWE Hall of Fame.
1983: Rocky “Soul Man” Johnson & Tony Atlas
“The Soul Patrol” Take The Gold!
The late great Rocky Johnson and Tony Atlas are top tier athletes who opened the door for future generations of black wrestlers to step foot in the ring. Johnson and Atlas, known as The Soul Patrol, became the first black tag team champions in WWE history when they defeated the Wild Samoans.
Back in their day, Johnson and Atlas were one of the top tag teams in the business because of everything from their in-ring performance to their likeability. When The Soul Patrol went into the ring you knew you were going to be entertained.
Rocky “Soul Man” Johnson was a true trailblazer in the business for wrestlers of color. Johnson once turned down a segment where he would be whipped on television – thank you, Rocky Johnson, for not dealing with that crap and setting an example that a person of color should not be forced to do anything that hurts their dignity.
1992: Ron Simmons
The First Recognized African-American World Champion For A Major Promotion
As you can see from the various amount of “first-ever African-American world champions”, black wrestlers have not been given the respect they deserve. Bobo Brazil and Bearcat Wright are legends in pro wrestling and made it possible for someone like Ron Simmons to make history as the first recognized African-American World Champion for a prominent wrestling promotion.
Ron Simmons shocked the wrestling world when he won the WCW World Heavyweight Championship from Vader at a house show in Baltimore, Maryland. I recently re-watched this match and the pop from the crowd after the three count was surreal. The emotion that was pouring out of the Baltimore arena was beautiful. Simmons would go on to hold the world title for 150-days, defending the title against legends like Vader, Cactus Jack, Rick Rude, “Stunning” Steve Austin, and “Dr. Death” Steve Williams.
The First African-American WWE Women’s Champion & To Win A Male’s Title
We can’t forget about Jacqueline! In 1998, Jacqueline became the first African-American woman to win the WWE Women’s Championship. In 2004, she became the first and only African-American woman to win the WWE Cruiserweight title from Chavo Guerrero. Finally in 2016, she became the first African-American woman to be inducted into the WWE Hall of Fame. Jacqueline was a force in the ring! It didn’t matter if you were male or female, she’d mess you up either way.
Also if we’re accepting all these technicalities that deal with race in professional wrestling, then technically Jacqueline is the first black wrestler to hold a world title in the WWE when she won the WWE Women’s Championship on September 15th, 1998 – 60 days before the Rock won the WWE title (which is a little bit of a controversial topic in the wrestling world).
1998: The Rock
The Great One Becomes WWE Champion
Now, as I alluded to before, this next one is very interesting. Many would refrain from acknowledging Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson as an African-American wrestler because of his half samoan side. You know The Rock – one of the biggest stars to ever come out of the WWE, the highest paid actor in Hollywood today! Well The Rock became WWE World Heavyweight Champion in 1998 after defeating Mankind for the vacant title, thus technically becoming the first African-American champion. Currently, people have started to consider Kofi Kingston as the first African-American WWE Champion after winning the title at Wrestlemania 35 last year. However, Kofi Kingston believes this is a little ridiculous.
“I think it’s sometimes kind of silly that people try to not count The Rock in that category because, regardless of what you look like, you are what you are, you know what I’m saying? Like, he’s black. Whether he is half-black or black, he’s black.”Kofi shared his thoughts on this in a recent interview with the Table Talk podcast.
Kofi is right! This is silly! The Rock is half black and should be considered in this category. The WWE even acknowledges The Rock as a black pro wrestler in their black history montage so something needs to be established.
2000: Booker T
FIVE TIME, FIVE TIME, FIVE TIME, FIVE TIME, FIVE-TIME WORLD CHAMPION
You had to know that the five time WCW Champion was going to make this list! When I think of black excellence in professional wrestling, the 2 time WWE Hall of Famer, Booker T is someone who comes right to mind.
Everyone loves to talk about drip nowadays, well my man Booker T is the definition of drip as he has held 40 titles; 35 of those titles come from top promotions like WWE, WCW, and TNA. He is a former 5-time WCW Champion, 1 time WWE World Champion, an 18 time Tag Team champion, 2006 WWE King of the Ring winner, a WWE Triple Crown and Grand Slam champion.
Booker T is the definition of a success story. After spending nineteen months in prison for armed robbery, Booker T looked for a better way of life and that’s when he and his brother Stevie Ray found pro-wrestling. The Master of the Spin-a-Roonie can do it all! An amazing athlete in the ring, a great color commentator, who by the way, can even wrestle and commentate his own match! A radio show host as well as an analyst for the WWE, Booker T truly has paved the wave for the young generation of black wrestlers.
2002: Ron Killings
40 Years Later NWA Finally Recognizes An African-American As NWA World Champion
August 7th, 2002 is a date in wrestling history that deserves more recognition. 18 years ago during the NWA days of TNA, the first-ever recognized African-American NWA World Heavyweight champion was crowned and that champion was Ron “The Truth” Killings aka WWE’s R-Truth. That’s right – The 37-time (and counting) WWE 24/7 Champion made history long before his current run with the WWE.
R-Truth is a man that is loved by all. His entrance gets everyone in the crowd pumped, let him have a moment to talk and there is a 99% chance you’re going to be laughing your ass off, and for being 48 years old this man looks like he’s in his prime! R-Truth made his return to the WWE 12 years ago, and he found the recipe on how to stay relevant.
When you see R-Truth now he is the comic relief of the main roster and he fits the role oh-so-perfectly, but let’s not forget that R-Truth is 100% legit. In June 2011, we saw R-Truth take on John Cena in the main event of a pay-per-view for the WWE title and that wasn’t even his biggest accomplishment that year! Five months later R-Truth partnered with The Miz to take on John Cena and The Rock… THE ROCK! In front of a sold-out crowd in Madison Square Garden for the 25th anniversary of Survivor Series. R-Truth has had such an amazing career in the WWE and no one can refute the fact that one day he will be in the Hall of Fame.
2004: Bob Sapp
The First African-American IWGP Champion
Bob Sapp is a dude who made an impact on the growing MMA scene in Japan. It was only a matter of time before New Japan Pro Wrestling (NJPW) would hop on the train and sign Bob Sapp in 2002.
In March 2004, Sapp would go on to beat Kensuke Sasaki for the IWGP Heavyweight Championship becoming the first (and only to date) African-American to hold the title in the company’s history. Sapp’s first and only title defense was against the future star of NJPW, Shinsuke Nakamura at the Tokyo Dome! He ended up beating Nakamura (which is crazy to think about now), but would then drop the belt after becoming injured due to a real fight he was in. Interesting times for NJPW, but nonetheless a major accomplishment for the black wrestling community.
2013: Darren Young
The First Openly Gay Wrestler To Be Signed With The WWE
I felt this was very important to talk about because at the time when this event occurred it was a brave thing to do. The United States was still learning to be accepting of others in 2013, and still is. In an interview on August 13th, Darren Young, a former member of the popular stable “Nexus” and tag-team “Prime Time Players” publicly came out as gay.
While there are plenty of former WWE wrestlers who have come out, this would be the first time a wrestler under contract with the WWE would publicly come out. While Darren Young’s career in the WWE might have come to an end for now, what he did for the LGBTQ community and black community is something that deserves praise.
2019: Kofi Kingston
WWE’s First-Ever African Born Wrestler To Win The WWE Championship
On April 7, 2019 at Wrestlemania 35, Kofi Kingston was on top of the wrestling world when he captured the WWE Championship from Daniel Bryan! This is by far one of the greatest feel-good moments I have ever seen in the WWE over the last decade. It took 11 years for Kofi to get the chance he deserved and this was the first black world champion in 8 years since Mark Henry won the World Heavyweight Championship.
To write this piece I had to educate myself on a side of the business that hasn’t been given enough love. It is clear to see over the long history of professional wrestling that black wrestlers deserve more of a chance. If 2020 has shown us anything it is that things have to change. We all come together for our love of wrestling and now we should all come together for our love for each other.
Wrestlers like ACH shouldn’t have been treated the way that he was. 2020 has been a rough year but let’s use this as a time for learning and growing. So far in this year alone, we have seen 12 African-Americans become champions across 3 top promotions; Hopefully a few years from now this is more of a norm. After reading this article I hope you take the time to learn and watch more of the great things black pro-wrestlers have done for the business. Thank you to all of the black pro wrestlers who made a name for themselves and became role models for a person of color looking to accomplish their dreams.