June 19, 2023

Image via Jedi Jack Yeti

Words: Andreas Hale

Image: Jedi Jack Yeti

Although social media can be criticized for many things—with Wrestling Twitter having its own special place of toxicity and tribalism—it has been an excellent tool for discovering and finding your tribe of people who share your interests. Perhaps no place is this truer in pro wrestling than the boon of African Americans in the industry. At one time, Black wrestlers and their fans were little more than a novelty that was often met with a raised eyebrow when discussed out in the wild. But the past decade has seen exponential growth in both fans and talent across multiple promotions. And with that growth has come an era today where Black champions are almost normalized.

Thanks to acts like The New Day (Kofi Kingston, Xavier Woods and Big E), Bianca Belair, Jade Cargill, Mercedes Moné (FKA Sasha Banks), Keith Lee, Bobby Lashley, Carmelo Hayes, Jay Lethal and others, the idea of a Black champion in professional wrestling is no longer a foreign concept. 

The mold of what a Black wrestler is supposed to be no longer exists and the archetype that toggled somewhere between mindless brute and smiling Sambo for the better part of 40 years has been shattered. The idea of no longer being hamstrung by stereotypes has opened the door for African Americans to be true to themselves both in and out of the ring.

Why did it take so long?

For starters, the biggest wrestling promotion in the world was run through the eyes of a conservative white man who built the entirety of his company on stereotypes. Foreigners and minorities were often typecast into roles that the All-American white man had to conquer. Mexicans rode lawnmowers, Asians never spoke English, gay wrestlers were treated as jokes, and Black wrestlers were thugs or overly happy and way too eager to entertain the masses. None were ever viewed as champions unless they had white friends or stripped themselves of their culture on their way to the top. 

Somehow, pro wrestling is one of the last forms of entertainment to reflect society. Think about this: there was a Black president before there was an African-born WWE champion.
With Black talent holding prominent positions in major wrestling promotions, it’s only right that we’ve seen a significant rise of African Americans in the indie ranks over the past decade. And as we’ve seen for the past decade, the independent scene is ripe with talent that will eventually feed into the major promotions as they seek new stars. 

There was a time that you couldn’t find 50 Black pro wrestlers to fill up a list. But there is an abundance of talent to deliberate over that stretches across the globe. From the brilliant stylings of British talent Michael Oku to the physically imposing—but stunningly agile—Calvin Tankman to the technically superior Jonathan Gresham and the inexplicably talented Bianca Belair, there’s something for everyone and no two Black wrestlers are the same. 

What makes this era truly special is the community that supports Black talent and, in turn, is responsible for them being pushed to the top of the card. The idea that the straight white male/female is the prototype for a wrestling promotion’s idea of a superstar is antiquated and, as a result, pro wrestling fans of all genders and races simply want their wrestling to reflect a society that is wrestling with diversity every single day. It may not be perfect, but it’s something that we can truly feel that we are a part of.

There are promotions that dedicate themselves to Black talent like Atlanta’s BattleSlam, shows that spotlight the Black indie scene like GCW’s For The Culture and events that bring the community together simply to celebrate one another, like WaleMania. We are no longer spectators yearning for scraps. We are a big chunk of the community that promoters are now forced to pay attention to. Our desires as wrestling fans won’t be ignored. And if they are, we’ll be sure to make a lot of noise.

Ask Black Wrestling Twitter. 

While the casual wrestling fan is surely cognizant of the Bianca Belairs, Willow Nightingales, Ricochets, Powerhouse Hobbs and Ricky Starks of the industry because they grace our television screens on a weekly basis, there is a burgeoning community of Black independent talent that is truly tearing up the scene and absolutely necessary to be placed on your radar. The art of discovery is still significant and nobody wants to be late to the party when identifying something special within our community. 

Not all of them will make it to the major leagues, and that’s okay. Not all of our favorite rappers end up being signed to a major label, either. And, oftentimes, it’s better that way because it doesn’t water them down. Some are sadistically hyper-violent (Billy Dixon), others are far too in touch with the dark side (Holidead) and then there are the absurdly athletic innovators of offense (Kevin Knight). They are globetrotters who make a living traversing across state lines and getting their passports stamped to showcase their ability. Eventually, some will make their way to the major promotions and (hopefully) continue to display just how uniquely diverse Black wrestlers are.

Remember, before he showed up in NXT, nobody had ever seen a big man move quite like Keith Lee did in the indies. Or, a woman who Vince McMahon would have ridiculed for her overly joyful persona and body type that isn’t rail thin but can absolutely go in the ring like Willow Nightingale. Or, a wrestler who defied gravity to the point that his ariel offense was considered a unique artform like Ricochet.

Black wrestlers continue to innovate and eventually become game-changers.   

With that, it’s only right that we spotlight a few so you can make sure you catch them when they pay your city a visit.


Andreas Hale is the Senior Combat Sports Writer at The Sporting News. He’s also the co-host of “The Corner Podcast” with ESPN Ringside’s Kel Dansby, an on-air talent on Sirius XM’s Fight Nation and co host of “Fighting Words.” Before covering boxing, MMA and pro wrestling, Andreas held senior positions at HipHopDX, BET and Jay-Z’s Life+Times. He’s also the co-creator of the upcoming animated series “Our Heroes Rock” with Ettore “Big E” Ewen and Jonathan Davenport.

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