Barrier-breakers: African-Americans who changed the game

Luther Lindsay and Bearcat Wright

“Luther Lindsay was legitimately a very, very tough guy,” Jim Ross said. “Stu Hart once told me that Luther Lindsay was one of the toughest guys he’d ever worked out with.”

It has even been noted that Lindsay is one of few men who got the best of the legendary Hart patriarch in his mythical Dungeon training center.

“Luther was more than a showman,” Ross said. “Luther had a lot of steak to go with the sizzle. He had a great background and was a legitimate submission guy. In the early days, submission guys were proficient in the art of hooking, a term used for guys who utilized joint manipulation to work the wrist, the ankle or elbow. Luther was really proficient in that regard.”

Lindsay got his start in the early 1950s just before the height of the civil rights movement and competed in pro wrestling’s first interracial contests. Early on, he challenged another submission expert, Lou Thesz, for the NWA World Heavyweight Title, becoming the first black man to challenge for the title and earning the respect of Thesz in the process. Lindsay also later became a rival of Mad Dog Vachon and “Iron” Mike DiBiase — the father of “The Million Dollar Man.” In the late ’50s, Lindsay became the first African-American to compete south of Washington.

“Bearcat Wright was also huge star in a lot of areas,” Ross said. A contemporary of Lindsay’s, Bearcat Wright also became his frequent tag team partner.

“Guys like Luther and Bearcat Wright were looked at by promoters as a novelty,” Ross said. “They had to be able to handle themselves because every now and then you’d get a wrestler that was anti-equality and would be a little rough with them, so they had to be able to take care of themselves. Sometimes they had to travel alone because their peers didn’t want to ride with them. I’d have to think it was a very challenging and lonely existence for some.”

But competitors Luther and Bearcat persevered to ensure a future for African-American stars, whether they knew it.

“I don’t know that some of them knew they were trailblazing as much as they had regular work,” Ross explained. “They had a job. That was a big deal. They were on television and became TV stars.”