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

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.

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.

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Dion Beary is writer based in Charlotte, North Carolina.

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