Two hours of cheers and crying and pleading while my Mother listened from a satellite phone somewhere drenched in sweat, grime, and who knows what else? That was how I fell in love with professional wrestling.
Those two hours every few months – Royal Rumble, WrestleMania, Summerslam, and Survivor Series – were my link to my mother as she fulfilled her duty to the United States Armed Forces. Wrestling was how we bonded, and how she kept my mind from dwelling on the crippling reality that I was growing up in the hands of (mostly) capable aunts, uncles, and grandmas instead of with her.
In order for her to understand those cheers and taunts, I had to be well-versed in the storylines. Knowing who was the heroic do-gooder, like my mother, trying to right a wrong, understanding the motivations of the despicable bad guy who thwarted the hero using every cowardly, nefarious trick to gain an advantage – that was how my mom kept me out of trouble. I cherished those phone calls and the weekly viewing required of me to be knowledgeable of the product, and that knowledge is the reason why professional wrestling holds sway over my life today.
My mother loved professional wrestling. A North Georgia girl, she used to tell me stories about how the neighborhood would crowd into the bottom of her church to watch pro wrestling and cheer on Bobo Brazil, Koko B. Ware, and Sylvester Ritter, otherwise known as the Junkyard Dog.
As a Mid-South and NWA fanatic, she expressed her blackness – that irrepressible strength she derived from her daily struggle growing up in the remnants of Jim Crow – by cheering on Ritter as he defeated the monstrous King Kong Bundy, those “Long Haired Bastards” (Mom’s words) the Fabulous Freebirds, and that “loser” Ted DiBiase, whose loaded glove sent Junkyard packing.
My mom used to tell me that the only time she hated wrestling was when JYD was forced to wear that “demeaning” collar, or when he was scheduled to face other black wrestlers such as Ernie Ladd or Kamala. She took special pleasure in watching Junkyard defeat each one of his foes using his strength, wits, and guile – emphasis on wit!
I’ve never asked her, but when she recounts these stories I imagine that young Mary projected her own fears and struggles into the fists of Ritter; his matches were not just wins and losses, they were a struggle against the very powers of Jim Crow, or its remnants. That Ritter, even with that stupid chain around his neck, was the main event on every show was a powerful, lasting image to my mother. His stories were worth telling. They were worth believing in. He was REAL. That connection is something she would never forget… and something I will always remember.
That said, she hated Ritter’s run with WWF. She hated the dancing, the preening, and most importantly, she hated that he was just another guy. He was no longer special, and as I told her stories of his matches with Harley Race (“Washed up!”) and Greg “The Hammer” Valentine (“Who?”) you could almost hear the bile rise in her throat. She heard me cheer and hum along to the theme songs of Ultimate Warrior, Macho Man, and the top star, Hulk Hogan. She wanted to know why Junkyard never got to knock any of them down a peg.
I would shrug and explain how the evil “Mega Bucks” were about to wrestle the “Mega Powers” and how Macho Man’s jealousy was making him hate Hogan. “These stories are getting worse and worse,” she would say wearily, as I desperately pleaded for Hogan to return to the ring, knowing that Macho Man couldn’t possibly hold off Andre the Giant and Ted DiBiase by himself. Sure enough, Macho was pinned before Hogan could return and, as I cried watching the two friends fight in the ring, all I can remember my mom saying was, “Junkyard would have NEVER left his friend in the ring.”
Much like my mother grew up with Ritter, my formative wrestling years were all about Hulk Hogan. The “24 inch pythons” showed up in every pose I did with my mother or father. I ripped up so many shirts my mom promised to send me to school shirtless if I continued my wanton path of destruction though my Fruit of The Loom tees. My wrestling buddy? Hogan. My brother’s? Macho Man.
You and I both know who won every tag match.
The hand to the ear. The shaking off of every punch and kick. The big boot. The leg drop. The vitamins. The prayers. The cross necklace. All of these things were a part of my wrestling world.
Even when I became a cynical, disillusioned teenager, the newly christened “Hollywood” Hulk Hogan shapeshifted right with me. The leader of the NWO trash talked, cheated, and did whatever he had to do to stay on top, and my jaded world view synchronized with his fall into depravity.
It was glorious! Sorry Bobby Roode, Hogan was there first.
My mother did not watch as much pro wrestling as I got older, but when she did, she often asked me who the black tag team was beating up. The Steiners were beating the Harlem Heat and she would inquire as to why they were not on TV more. She loved the Nation of Domination, telling me, “Ron Simmons is speaking a lot of truth and they don’t even realize it.” She has fond memories of the Rock’s father, and she said if it was not for that “redneck” Steve Austin, ROCKY would be the top star! She wondered why all the black wrestlers were rapping, singing, or generally acting an ass, while the other wrestlers got to be “cool.” She asked why I did not save my money for a Nation of Domination shirt, or why Harlem Heat did not have a shirt. I would tell my mom they were never “cool” enough and proceeded to enjoy the latest NWO beat down, never quite noticing how the Cryme Tymes, G.I. Bros, R-Trizzles, and “DAMN!’s” of the world had replaced that image of strength my mother saw in Ritter so many years ago.
I realized later that my mother was experiencing then what I am experiencing now – my blackness is under attack. Hulk Hogan, the now-disgraced (and outed racist) Hulk Hogan, sent into exile after his disgusting comments were revealed to the world, says he wants back into the WWE business.
Will the largest professional wrestling company, the same one that has provided me with so many memories, friends, and a sense of belonging, decide to bring this man back to be… what? A mentor? An on air personality? A brand ambassador? It defies logic at best, and is tone deaf at worst.You would think that choosing between the disgraced racist, Hogan, and a minority fan, who has spent thousands of dollars attending shows, buying merch, watching television and pay-per-view shows, paying the monthly $9.99 network subscription would be an easy choice, right? I mean, hell, my beautiful visage is front and center in their latest WrestleMania commercial! You would think that my business would matter. Further, you would think my BLACKNESS would be worth something to them, right?
You would think that keeping people like me, and the large contingent of people who look like me or understand the history of the minority plight, was worth more than providing a coward and a racist one final moment in the sun. Hell, the asshole refuses to even apologize for his racist, slanderous remarks!
Much like my mother’s disdain for CoCo, JYD, and 2 Cold Scorpio’s run in WWF, I constantly fight the reality of what I see in acts like R-Truth, Titus O’Neil, Apollo Crews, The New Day, and Street Profits today. As a black wrestling fan (and yes, all of these things are both separate and equally a part of how I view what I see), my desire to see them all be successful is tempered by their presentation. Montez Ford has undeniable talent and charisma; he is highly athletic and has picked up on some of the smaller intricacies of the in-ring performance that makes even jaded fans like me cheer and lose ourselves in the moment. He is going to be a star, but…
Big E, back when his last name was Langston, is often the forgotten NXT Champion. His title reign is rarely mentioned, but his repurposed 5 Count Gimmick (made famous by Ritter’s nemesis, King Kong Bundy), his unique look, and his undeniable sense of humor (follow his Twitter account if you don’t believe me) had me pegging him a future world champion and someone this company could build into the next Rock. He was – in my mind – what Bobby Lashley should have been. He should be a huge star, but…
Very rarely are African-American professional wrestlers presented like their white counterparts in WWE, and anyone who says otherwise is a liar. Remember Shelton Benjamin’s “Mama?” How about Men on A Mission? 2 Cold Scorpio? “Sexual Chocolate” Mark Henry? The Godfather? We can dive deeper, but the point remains that if you aren’t dancing or smiling you are most likely an afterthought in the WWE. Their inability to present black wrestlers with any semblance of nuance is maddening. I can imagine what would happen if Apollo Crews or Cedric Alexander were protected like Randy Orton, or given characters like Bray Wyatt, or allowed to speak passionately about their love for wrestling like Daniel Bryan… and I just shake my head.
As indy favorites like Richocet, “Limitless” Keith Lee, and Lio Rush make their way to WWE, my mind races back to this reality slowly confronting me – WWE does not care about my blackness. They do not care about me seeing nuanced black MALE characters (because shoutout to Sasha Banks, Ember Moon, and Bianca Belair for not being pigeonholed into caricature like their male counterparts) fighting for the biggest prize in Sports Entertainment. Apparently, according to WWE, I cannot have calculating heels or larger-than-life babyfaces who do what’s right that have the same hue as me. Although, there has been some progress, any consideration of a return for Hogan is further indications that change will not be forthcoming anytime soon. It only further serves to exemplify the WWE’s tone-deafness towards their black audience.
I want to see Velveteen Dream and Keith Lee wrestle at WrestleMania. I want to see Big E get his hand raised, preferably after a five count (because, “3 ain’t enough man, I need 5!”), after overcoming the odds and being the hero that my sons will one day look up to. I want Richocet to inspire, Apollo to cut a passionate promo, and for Cedric Alexander to be more than a smiling, athletic blur of talent. I want Kofi and Woods to transition away from the pancakes and trombones and show more of their UPUPDWNDWN personality to the world. I want to spend my money watching these brothers compete at the highest level, on the biggest stage, for real stakes, with real stories that make them fully-realized characters, not one-note caricatures.
In short, I just want to see their blackness, in all its glory presented to the world, so that maybe they will see mine. That is the point, is it not? The goal is to reach as many people, regardless of race, ethnicity, or creed while furthering the bond between father/son, mother/daughter, father/daughter, and mother/son. If the WWE can go to Saudi Arabia and understand, and cater to, a social climate that disenfranchises half of the WWE roster (i.e., women), then why would they not try to understand how much Hogan has hurt their black fanbase?
What I don’t want is Hulk Hogan being allowed to earn a paycheck after showing his true colors as being a racist, entitled piece of garbage. In the grand scheme of things, I am a nobody to the WWE. I am a fan. I am also a black man. I have experienced racism, sometimes at WWE events, and I still carry the burdens that comes with racial profiling and unjust policing.
Wrestling is supposed to be the escape – where I can lose myself in the spectacle of the moment. This escape served me well as a young kid coping with my mother being away in the military fighting for the freedom that the Hogan character used to stand for. I want it for people like my mother, who found her blackness in the characters who truly represented her, like Ritter. I want to show my sons that the idea that a black man can be the very best is not just a hope but a reality that plays itself out through their favorite black wrestler on a WWE screen
And sadly, if WWE cannot see how powerful that is to someone like me, it might be time for me to take my business elsewhere.
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NOW CHECK OUT THIS GUEST EDITORIAL: EDITORIAL: Cutting His Swath, Bruno Put The ‘Pro’ in Professional Wrestling