Black wrestlers are finally having their moment, but will it last? — Andscape

Victor Martin Jr. is 5-feet-10, 123 pounds. And his dream is to be a professional wrestler.

Martin — who has chosen the name Mr. Danger — is taping up his wrists and getting ready to jump into a ring at Atlanta’s World Wrestling Alliance 4, a tiny school tucked past the strip clubs and gas stations on Fulton Industrial Boulevard. In 2014, Mr. Danger dropped out of high school (It “wasn’t my thing,” he says). After a few years bouncing from job to job, he got his GED diploma, joined Job Corps and earned enough money to pay for wrestling school, where he’s spent most of his nights since.

The 22-year-old is part of a new generation inspired by a surge of Black wrestlers who are seeing unprecedented success, popularity and representation in an industry that has traditionally depicted Black performers as the most basic, offensive stereotypes possible. The past year, by contrast, has seen Black wrestlers win championships, present their authentic selves, and dominate TV time like never before. Black women were the main event at WrestleMania for the first time. WWE world titles were exchanged between two Black wrestlers. A wrestling show, NXT, had Black wrestlers in almost every segment and All Elite Wrestling has Black executives. WWE is heading to a WrestleMania this weekend where we could see a Black woman win the women’s title and two Black women win the Women’s Tag Team title.

But is this era just a fad? And if not, is it enough to undo years of insulting depictions of Black wrestlers, and by extension Black people, that preceded it?

Mr. Danger isn’t thinking about that right now. He’s 24 hours away from his graduation from wrestling school. It isn’t the pomp and circumstance that you’re used to seeing at academic institutions, though. For Mr. Danger to graduate from the World Wrestling Alliance 4, he has to survive a 15-minute match with AR Fox.


One year ago, Bianca Belair, a former collegiate track and field star with a ponytail down to her knees, stood across the ring from Sasha Banks — a wrestling savant who was enjoying the crossover success of guest-starring in the Disney+ series, The Mandalorian — as 25,000 fans in Raymond James Stadium in Tampa, Florida, cheered at the history they were witnessing. Not only were Belair and Banks the first Black women to square off during a WrestleMania main event, they were the first Black wrestlers to take center stage at WrestleMania to compete against each other in a world title match — ever. Banks forced a scowl to shield her excitement and appreciation of the moment – and to maintain her act as the bad guy in the story. Belair, on the other hand, had tears in her eyes as she nodded along to the cheers.

“That moment and that image is so powerful,” Belair told Andscape. “We just stood there and we soaked the moment in without us even having to open our mouths or say anything or touch each other or wrestle. Just by us showing up, history was already made.”

But Black wrestlers aren’t just facing off during the WWE’s biggest event. Last year, on a September episode of Monday Night RAW, Ettore “Big E” Ewen, a former University of Iowa football player who has become a fan favorite as part of The New Day faction, defeated Bobby Lashley for the WWE championship. It marked the first time in the company’s history that a Black man defeated another Black man for a world title.

But it’s not all about unprecedented world title matches. Black WWE stars are getting screen time like never before as fully-fleshed out characters who represent a Black fan base that’s been there from the beginning.

Take Belair, for instance. She showed up in 2016 in NXT — the WWE’s version of the NBA G League — breaking every record in the WWE Performance Center combine, which gave her the idea for her character, or “gimmick:” the “-est” of the WWE. “I call myself the strongest, the fastest, the roughest, the toughest, the quickest, the greatest, the best,” Belair said, breaking into full promo mode.

“The version of myself that I want to be is being unapologetically me and bringing my full self to the table,” she continued. “As a Black performer, I’m not picking one element of myself. I want to showcase the whole side of me as a Black woman and a Black performer.”

One aspect of her performance speaks directly to Black fans, especially Black female fans: The hair. Belair’s long ponytail has become a focal point of many of her matches as her opponents try to grab it for an unfair advantage. But Belair wrests the hair from their grip and whips them with it, creating a loud smack that reverberates across the arena. The signal is clear, and it’s become a mantra for Belair: Don’t. Touch. My. Hair.

“That’s a universal thing for us,” Belair said. “‘Don’t touch my hair.’ That’s my No. 1 rule, and now I have to use [the hair] on you.”

From left to right: Bianca Belair and Sasha Banks square off in the ring during WrestleMania 37.

WWE

That’s not the only way Black wrestlers are speaking directly to us. Belair’s husband, Montez Ford, is one half of the Street Profits tag team. He joined NXT around the time Belair did, and he broke all the combine records on the men’s side. The Street Profits’ “gimmick” is exuberant fun, complete with red Solo cups and gold chains. Oh, and of course, they’ll beat the hell out of you.

“It’s about a complete contrast of like, ‘Wow, he’s an entertainer, but he can also whup your ass,’ ” said Ford. “Our whole entire culture is like that. I feel like we’re some of the coolest, laid-back individuals in the world until you step out of line.”

Beyond their individual approaches, the power of Ford and Belair comes from how they present themselves as a couple: Black love and a blended family (Ford has two children from a previous relationship) as well as showing a Black man madly in love with a muscular Black woman. 

“You get a lot of different people calling you different names, saying, ‘Oh, you’re too muscular. You look like a man,’ ” Belair says. “It’s like being muscular and strong, for some reason, sometimes isn’t in the same category as being sexy or pretty. So to have someone that loves me for me and loves my muscles, because I have to have someone that does that, because I love my muscles.”

The freedom Belair and Ford feel with their characters and representation extends across the WWE to people like Lashley and his former faction, Hurt Business, in suits and swagger; Naomi’s charismatic fan-engagement and, of course, The New Day.

And when NXT relaunched its Tuesday night TV show in April 2021, it immediately became one of the Blackest wrestling shows on national television. From the outset, almost every segment featured at least one Black wrestler. The guy leading the charge is Carmelo Hayes, a cornrowed highflier and North American world champion. In just a year, he’s gone viral multiple times for moments that resonate with Black folks. Like the time he stood in the ring and poured out liquor for his dead ops. And just a few weeks ago, he filmed a montage talking trash in a Black barbershop.

“When you allow Black talent to be themselves, as opposed to trying to be a caricature of what you think Black wrestlers should be,” Hayes said, “that’s when people can relate and people can attach themselves to us more.”

Hayes credits part of his ability to go out and be himself to the self-awareness of the 50-something white former wrestlers behind the creative decisions at NXT. 

“[WWE Hall of Famer and current NXT producer] Shawn [Michaels] told me from the jump, ‘I don’t know what cool is anymore. I trust you to tell me what cool is,’ ” Hayes said. “So the talent is creating that feel because we’re being authentic to ourselves.”

The Black wrestling renaissance is not limited to WWE. All Elite Wrestling, owned by Jacksonville Jaguars co-owner Tony Khan, had its first event in 2019 and is now the second-largest wrestling entertainment company in the country. From the beginning, AEW featured Nyla Rose, a Black transgender, indigenous wrestler and the first transgender wrestler to be featured on a major North American promotion, as well as Sonny Kiss, a Black gay wrestler. AEW also began with Brandi Rhodes as its chief branding officer, making her the first Black woman to hold an executive position at one of the major wrestling promotions in America. Moreover, the company has done well to avoid placing Black wrestlers in demeaning storylines or stereotypes. AEW also now has two Black titleholders: TNT Champion Scorpio Sky and TBS Champion Jade Cargill.

Cargill has been a star since she debuted in the AEW in late 2020. Her first contest was a tag team bout with Shaq (yes, that Shaq, basketball legend Shaquille O’Neal) as her partner. Her opponents were Cody Rhodes and another Black woman, Red Velvet. The segment was one of AEW’s highest rated, amassing nearly a million viewers, according to Nielsen. Since then, Cargill has gone undefeated and connected with fans for her no-nonsense promos and intimidating persona — at 5-feet-10, she towers over most of the women she faces off against. And while Cargill has only had about 30 televised matches, her charisma and character jump off the screen (like in this viral clip about her take on karate).

“Every week, I step farther and farther into my character,” Cargill said. “I have to be the one to put it all together and present that to the audience. I’m still learning and growing the skin to become who I’m going to be.” 

And she’s doing all of that while showing what it means to be a working mother, another multidimensional aspect of a character rarely given to Black women wrestlers.

“I use my daughter as fuel to kick ass,” Cargill said. “When she sees me on that stage she thinks I’m a superhero. That makes me feel freaking amazing.”

AEW also recently signed Keith Lee, a brooding, 340-pound giant one might expect to play the stereotypical monster role. There was a time in pro wrestling when he’d be asked to be a low-IQ giant and it might have been a blueprint for success. But Lee also can fly over the top rope and is a masterful technician. When he speaks, he sounds like he’s giving a lecture at MIT. A couple of weeks ago, Lee was a trending topic on Twitter as fans made memes about how polite he sounds when he grabs the mic. But this isn’t an act. It’s who Lee really is.

“I know I’ll rock the boat a bit,” Lee said. “And I just don’t give a damn. This is about my culture. This is about teaching people about intelligence, drive, pushing themselves, being more than they were the day before. This is about so much more than such a small, minute, very vocal, hateful realm of human beings. I don’t care about them.”

Lee comes from the indies — smaller wrestling companies that don’t get national TV slots, but sell out gyms, warehouses, and small arenas. For many, it’s the path to getting to the big leagues. For Black wrestlers, it’s often a place where they were alone in all-white locker rooms, vying for a chance to get recognized. 

Trish Adora (left) faces off against Rhio (right) at Progress Wrestling’s Who Run The World? event on March 22 in London.

Rob Brazier/PROGRESS Wrestling

Hayes recalled a white wrestler joking that he’d steal a wallet backstage. Lee also reflected on the way fans and promoters would balk at the idea of someone who looked like him being a fan favorite.

“When it came down to promotions and promoters, it would get really prejudiced where they’d say, ‘We already have a Black woman or a Black man. Why do we need you?’ ” said Aerial “Big Swole” Hull, an independent wrestler who previously wrestled at AEW. “Then I’d just leave and tell other wrestlers that place wasn’t worth their time.”

Swole and other Black wrestlers found, or created, their own safe spaces. For instance, RISE, a women-only indie company featuring mostly women of color — was started by former ring announcer Kevin Harvey after hearing Hull’s frustration with the indie scene.

Trish Adora, an up-and-coming indie star, was once told that she would never be cheered on because she’s a Black woman. Despite that, she found comfort in more inclusive organizations and her own confidence. Adora has given herself the moniker the Afro Punk, and rocks an afro while being F1ght Club Pro Wrestling’s Pan-Afrikan World Diaspora Champion — a title that would have been unheard of just a few years ago.

“I try to allow my life to imitate my art as much as possible,” Adora said. “I’m walking around as the product of every diaspora. I’m representing the ‘hood girls, representing the girls from around the way. I represent African Americans. I represent Africans. There’s a piece of home in me for that person, I hope.”

Adora just returned from London, where she wrestled for an all-female card and a card entirely composed of women of color at Progress Wrestling, a British indie wrestling company. These cards that cater to marginalized groups are all over the indies and allow wrestling fans, and the wrestlers they watch, to be themselves.

“I can dare be a superhero for somebody else on an LGBT card to help people who are living in the closet or afraid to come out,” Adora said. “It’s all about making people feel more comfortable or just having that conversation, at least. I would love to accept bookings like that all the time, because representation is extremely important.”

The indie scene is also home to several Black-owned wrestling companies, including Booker T’s Reality of Wrestling in Houston. Master P also bought House of Glory, a promotion and wrestling school.


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