Pro Wrestling Is Fake, but Its Race Problem Isn't

Don't laugh: WWE has been trying to show some social consciousness lately. So why does it still insist on making its minority wrestlers into grill-wearing, thuggish B-listers?
The Big Show hoists up R-Truth at a Wrestlemania bout in April. (AP)

Thirteen-thousand fans pack an arena in anticipation of big fights, championship bouts, and a whole lot of drama. The cheering melts to boos as a blonde woman takes the stage, curvy and intimidating, the kind of character you’d expect to see James Bond meeting at a cafe in Kiev.

“Foolish Americans,” she begins in a painfully fake Russian accent, prompting a "U-S-A!" chant from the Chicago crowd. She rips into them, speaking at length about America’s crumbling empire, declaring Russia the Earth’s sole superpower and Vladimir Putin its greatest leader.

This is Lana, the ravishing Russian, and she is berating the Americans, foolish though they may be, in order to hype up her associate Alexander Rusev, the Super Athlete. He’s an imposing figure, roughly the size and shape of a refrigerator, and he’s waving the Russian flag around as if attempting to swat invisible bald eagles. He will face off against Big E, a somehow even larger man, waving the American flag with equal ferocity.

This particular World Wrestling Entertainment match, see, isn’t just a couple of greased up guys pretending to fight: It’s America vs. Russia.

Professional wrestling, everyone knows, is theater. Its finishes are predetermined, its storylines are scripted, and its characters are a product of a team of creative writers. But “fake” remains a dirty word in professional wrestling fandom. This is because professional wrestling, in many ways, isn’t fake. The performers are real people and wrestling is their job, and WWE is a real company that makes a lot of real money. No, Rusev and Lana aren’t actually out to prove Mother Russia’s dominance over the United States, but what they do is real in the same way that the individual plot of a film might not exist, but the film itself exists.

Because of this, to many fans, it’s the stories that play out backstage—in really real life—that are the true draw of professional wrestling. Although Rusev’s victory over Big E in a little more than three-and-a-half minutes at the June special event Payback may read as Russia defeating America in the fictional universe of WWE stories, the real-world narrative playing out is much more insidious.

Rusev has been squashing black wrestlers almost exclusively since his debut back in April. Before Big E, there was R-Truth, who comes down to the ring dancing and rapping; Kofi Kingston, a Jamaican whose accent mysteriously vanished a year or so after his debut; and Xavier Woods, a legitimate Ph.D. candidate when outside the ring, but a funk-loving dancing machine within it.

Fans online remarked in amusement at the coincidence, at first. Kingston, Truth, and Woods are perpetual losers called “jobbers,” meant to get beaten by whoever the WWE brass have decided to push that month. Before Payback, even Big E joked in a tweet that stopping Rusev might involve putting back together the Nation of Domination, a controversial black-power faction formed in WWE in the mid-‘90s. That tweet was quickly deleted, and perhaps in response, the next guy Rusev beat had a lot less melanin in his skin, a Jersey Shore-inspired jobber named Zack Ryder.

But Rusev quickly returned to form, beating Big E at Payback. Rumors recently surfaced online that Rusev’s next major opponent will be another black wrestler, the World’s Strongest Man, Mark Henry. But Big E and Mark Henry aren’t jobbers like Kingston, Truth, and Woods. Big E had his own heavy push in recent months, enjoying a lengthy run with WWE’s Intercontinental Championship, the second most prestigious belt in the company at the moment, and Mark Henry was at one point legitimately considered the strongest man in the world. He’s an Olympian who has been with WWE for over a decade and has enjoyed two reigns as “world champion.”

Those scare quotes need an explanation. Mark Henry has held world titles before, but never the world title, the WWE Championship. From March of 2002 until December of 2013, there were two world championships in the company, one for each brand of WWE programming, the flagship Monday Night Raw and the B-show Friday Night Smackdown. For a brief period, WWE operated a third brand, a relaunch of ‘90s grunge federation ECW, and there were three world championships in the company. However, not even in WWE’s nonsensical universe can there be three different people who are supposedly champion of the world, so a hierarchy of titles formed. Fans recognized that since Raw was the flagship show, whatever championship was defended on Raw was the real world championship.

Mark Henry held ECW’s world championship, and then Smackdown’s world championship. But despite having one of the most impressive resumes in WWE history, he has never won the top prize in WWE.

In the fictional WWE storylines, being the world champion means you are the best wrestler. But in real life, it means you are the best performer. The decision of who gets to be the titleholder simply comes from a team of creative writers with the final call going to WWE owner Vince McMahon himself: Who do we want to be the face of our company? Who do we think is good enough?

In its 62 year history, WWE has never chosen a black wrestler to hold its world championship. 

That’s not Rusev’s fault, of course. He just showed up a few months ago, and the black wrestlers he’s effortlessly demolished during his short tenure are just a small fraction of all the talented black wrestlers who’ve never been entrusted to hold WWE’s most important big shiny belt. Rusev is just the flavor of the moment until proven otherwise, a guy in which WWE officials see potential, so they’re having him beat the rogues gallery of jobbers in order to bolster his credentials. Fans who jokingly ask why Rusev is beating up all the black dudes are missing the more pressing question: Why are so many of the black dudes jobbers?

* * *

Born Booker Tio Huffman Jr., the wrestler Booker T grew up in a rough neighborhood in Houston. He was the youngest of eight children raised by a single mother. Like many stories that begin this way, Booker fell into trouble. At the age of 22, Huffman and a friend robbed a Wendy’s where they worked, leading to Huffman being convicted of aggravated robbery and sentenced to five years in prison. Following his release, Huffman ended up a single parent himself, working in a storage company and looking for a way to provide a better life for his son.

He found it in the form of professional wrestling. His first character was a military gimmick named G.I. Bro. He quickly hooked up with Stevie Ray to form the Ebony Express. In 1993, the team signed with WCW, WWE’s biggest rival throughout the ‘90s, and changed their name to Harlem Heat, with Huffman eventually taking the name Booker T, a name he would hold the remainder of his career.

The difference between WCW and WWE was always a philosophical one. WCW’s roots were in the southern variety of wrestling, a slower paced, more technical style. WWE, then called the WWF, was based up north and leaned more to that region’s style of wrestling, based around colorful characters, a whole lot of pomp, and power moves. Conventional wisdom dictates that racial bias would be more often encountered in southern wrestling, but the opposite is the case.

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Dion Beary is writer based in Charlotte, North Carolina.

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