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?
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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.
Booker T once came close to winning the big one. In the buildup to Wrestlemania 19 in 2003, Raw’s world championship was safely in the hands of Triple H, a performer named Paul Levesque who was playing a “franchise” character, a cocky bad guy who everyone is supposed to hate because he always wins. Triple H’s first character was named Hunter Hearst Helmsley, a New England blueblood. The franchise character was based on sports teams like the New York Yankees and the New England Patriots, teams that have been so good for so long that people are eager for someone to come along and dethrone them. Nothing more accurately describes Triple H in 2003. People were tired of him winning. They wanted an underdog, and that underdog was Booker T.
As with many things in professional wrestling, the logic doesn’t hold up if you look at it too much. Booker T was, as he would put it, a five time, five time, five time, five time, five time world champion in WCW, a company that surpassed WWE in ratings for a significant chunk of the time he was champion there. But in order for the feud with Triple H to work, Booker T had to be convincingly portrayed as the underdog. But what on Earth would make Booker T the underdog against Triple H?
Well, Booker T is black and Triple H is white.
That’s it. That was the story line, almost explicitly.
“Somebody like you doesn’t get to be a world champion,” Triple H told Booker T during a promo, a segment meant to build excitement for a match. Triple H made mention of Booker’s “nappy hair,” and claimed Booker was in the WWE to make people laugh, to be an entertainer rather than a competitor, to “do a little dance” for him.
The crowd ate it up, and loud “ASSHOLE” chants rained down on Triple H. The next week, Booker T gave an impassioned talk about his past, about how he’s overcome every obstacle that has been put in his way in his life, and how he was going to beat the odds again at Wrestlemania 19 to become the world champion. It was, in one sense, brilliant storytelling. Hollywood is chock-full of plots that involve scrappy minorities overcoming racism to accomplish their dreams. With Triple H as the franchise, and the franchise’s job being to eventually lose to the underdog, fans were thoroughly in the corner of Booker T. The storybook ending just made so much sense.
And then Triple H won. 1-2-3. There was no cheating, no controversial finish, no ambiguity about it.
There’s real-life drama and then there’s fictional drama. WWE’s response to allegations of racism, misogyny, homophobia, and ableism have always been the same: It’s fictional. But that excuse wears thin when the fictional racism lines up perfectly with the real-life racism.
Triple H the character said somebody like Booker T doesn’t get to be a champion, and he was right. Nobody like Booker T has ever been WWE’s world champion. For whatever reason, WWE’s decision makers decided that Booker T, and every black athlete before him and after him, is not the kind of guy they want as the representative of their company.
The only person of African descent ever named world champion was Dwayne "The Rock" Johnson, a special case. Half Samoan and half African-Canadian, Johnson identifies as Samoan and comes from a line of famous wrestlers. As WWE's first third-generation fighter, he was allowed a narrative that reflected his specific family history, not the mere fact of his race.
In a statement to The Atlantic, a spokesperson wrote, "WWE is a global entertainment company committed to embracing and celebrating individuals from all backgrounds as demonstrated by the diversity of our employees, performers and fans worldwide."*
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WWE currently employs 12 black wrestlers. There are three character situations to be found among them:
1. The performer plays or has played a character based on a racial stereotype.
2. The performer does not have any discernible character.
3. The performer is largely absent from television and/or has never played a significant role in WWE’s fictional universe.
For some performers, all three situations apply. Take JTG, who has become sort of a meme in the professional wrestling community. Until a few weeks ago, he'd been employed by WWE for eight years, but hadn’t been on an episode of Raw since December of 2012, and hadn’t been on any WWE programming since September of 2013. Not even Rusev’s ravenous appetite for black wrestlers had been enough to draw JTG to television. Despite this, each time WWE has had a mass firing of workers, known colloquially as Black Fridays, JTG remained employed until late June.
There are several popular fan theories to explain his longevity. One suggests that JTG saved Vince McMahon’s life once, and McMahon is in debt to him. Another speculates that WWE had simply forgotten JTG was employed by them, and knowing his own lackluster status, JTG was in no hurry to remind them of his existence, so (fans like to imagine) he stayed out of the catering room, traveled alone, and kept to the less populated parts of the arena during television tapings.
JTG debuted in 2006 as The Neighborhoodie. He was quickly teamed with another black wrestler named Shad, forming The Gang-Stars. Perhaps fearing a lawsuit from DJ Premier and the similarly named Gang Starr hip-hop duo, WWE changed the team’s name to Cryme Tyme, easily the most racist gimmick in the history of pro-wrestling racist gimmicks. Hype videos for the team’s debut literally featured the phrase “yo yo yo, pop a 40 and check ya Rollies.” JTG and his partner Shad were shown assaulting police officers, robbing people, and participating in other generally illegal activities. I’m talking full-on platinum grillz and making it rain.
Then you have fighters like Ron Simmons, who WCW crowned as the first black world heavyweight champion in the history of the sport in 1992. He eventually signed with WWE in 1996 and was rechristened Farooq, a gladiator (fancy word for slave forced to fight other slaves for the entertainment of their oppressors), then the leader of the aforementioned black supremacist Nation of Domination, then a beer-drinking, cigar-smoking hired gun.
These days, Ron Simmons is a WWE Hall of Famer known for randomly showing up on WWE television during bizarre moments, looking around confusedly, and saying only “Damn,” calling to mind Deon Richmond’s its-funny-because-it’s-true monologue from Not Another Teen Movie: “I am the token black guy. I'm just supposed to smile and stay out of the conversation and say things like: ‘Damn,’ ‘Shit,’ and ‘That is wack.’"
There’s also Simmons’s fellow Nation of Domination alumni Charles Wright. During his time with WWE, Wright played a voodoo demon named Papa Shango, a black supremacist named Kama Mustafa, and, one of the most infamous ‘90s characters, a Huggy Bear-inspired pimp named The Godfather who came to the ring with a cane, fur coats, and a couple of ladies of the night.
On the rare occasions that WWE decides not to create a clearly stereotypical persona for its black wrestlers, it makes them into “natural athletes,” a.k.a. Guy Who Is Strong. But this too is a stereotype, albeit a bland one. In the WWE Universe, all the wrestlers are athletes, as wrestling is fictionally considered a legitimate athletic sport. So promoting a black wrestler as a Natural Athlete falls in line with the racism displayed by mainstream sports media famously written about in the Boston College study “Brains Versus Brawns.” In an analysis of National Football League commentary, it was found that sports media figures are more likely to refer to a white athlete as a student of the game or a technician, while they will refer to a black athlete as a “beast,” an “animal,” or a “machine.”
Out of the 12 black wrestlers, only one is an original, distinctive character regularly featured on WWE television and who is not a racial stereotype. That's Victoria Crawford's Alicia Fox, who recently inexplicably turned into a deranged, borderline psychotic figure and challenged the extremely pale Anti-Diva Paige to a match for the Divas Championship, the highest prize for women in WWE.
Outside of that dubious example, black wrestlers simply don’t get to be the fascinating, three-dimensional characters that their white counterparts are. Black guys can’t be the bulletproof vest-wearing vigilantes, the swamp-dwelling cult leaders, the straight-edge punks, the intellectual saviors, the school-yard bullies, the power-trio rock band members, or the deranged former movie stars covered in gold paint. Both historically and in modern times, black wrestlers can either have a racial stereotype for a character, or they can have no character at all.
Other racial minorities are subject to similar treatment. Take the Colon cousins, Eddie and Orlando. Born into one of professional wrestling's most famous families, the two almost have a birthright to the sport. Their father and uncle Carlos Colon is the most important promoter and wrestler in Latin American history, having played a seminal role in the sport's growth in Puerto Rico. Carlos Colon was acknowledged for his accomplishments earlier this year when WWE placed him into their Hall of Fame, the same class that included the Ultimate Warrior. Eddie and Orlando, along with former WWE wrestler Carly Colon, another member of the Colon family, inducted Carlos into the Hall. Carly, who went by Carlito during his time in WWE, joked about the induction, suggesting that WWE only included his family in the program to offer the audience a chance for a bathroom break.
“Send out the Colons!” Carly imitated, eliciting uncomfortable laughter from the attendees.
But Eddie and Orlando were quiet, respectful, and almost stoic when introducing their family's patriarch, presenting an odd contrast with the personas they currently portray on television. For a while, Eddie and Orlando were Primo and Epico, two characters whose only defining characteristic was that they were Puerto Rican. They came down to the ring to generic-sounding Latin music with the seductive Rosa Mendez salsa dancing at their side. Now, Eddie and Orlando play Diego and Fernando, or Los Matadores, a pair of masked bullfighters who are accompanied to the ring by a dwarf in a cow costume named El Torito. Their catchphrase is “Ole!”
To the WWE’s credit, a lot of these character changes appear to be, in a strange way, beneficial to the performer. Primo and Epico were floundering as a tag team before WWE repackaged them as Los Matadores. Now, they get a lot more TV time. That means more opportunities to connect with the fans, more chances to end up on pay-per-view special events, and more money. Ultimately, WWE is a business, and if fans want to see racist characters, then WWE is going to give them racist characters. You can't even fault the performers. With dozens of wrestlers on the active roster and even more waiting in the developmental system to get their shot at the main events, and only a few hours of TV time per week, you've got to take the opportunity to get on screen whenever you can.
But the reports from behind the scenes of WWE don’t inspire much confidence that all the stereotyping and marginalization of minorities happens by accident. Michael “PS” Hayes, a longtime member of the creative team, was disciplined at one time for calling Mark Henry the "N" word, and before that, a young black wrestler named Bobby Lashley quit amid accusations that Michael Hayes had racially harassed him.
Lashley is an interesting case. He's currently employed by Impact Wrestling, the only other wrestling company with a national television deal in the United States, in a main event stable with fellow black wrestlers MVP and Kenny King, the aptly dubbed M.L.K group. On June 19th, Bobby Lashley won the TNA World Heavyweight Championship. He is the first black wrestler to hold TNA’s world title, and the second black wrestler to be a world champion in TNA. In TNA’s early days, the company did not have its own world championship, instead “leasing” the world championship of the National Wrestling Alliance, one of professional wrestling’s oldest entities. R-Truth held the NWA World Heavyweight Championship during this period—making him another black athlete who could be a world champion in other companies but never in WWE.
The irony is that WWE has appeared desperate in recent years to turn around its negative image. Women are no longer stripped naked, overly violent hardcore matches are a rarity, and dirty words are kept to a minimum. WWE prides itself on putting on a show appropriate for children. The highly publicized "Be A Star" campaign urges kids to avoid bullying, top stars like John Cena and Daniel Bryan do a massive amount of charity work for Make-A-Wish kids, and WWE even changed its television content dramatically enough to receive a PG rating. But in all that, what is the message being delivered to black children? It’s clear if you pay attention.
Somebody like you doesn’t get to be a world champion.
*Update: These two paragraphs were added after publication.