Barrier-breakers: African-Americans who changed the game
When Jackie Robinson joined the Brooklyn Dodgers, he withstood death threats from racist fans unaccustomed to seeing an African-American compete at such a high level alongside white men. Black competitors in professional wrestling underwent similar hardship, before No. 42 ever buttoned up a jersey. WWE.com spoke with Booker T, Teddy Long, Jim Ross and Jerry Lawler to gain insight on some of the more forgotten grapplers who paved the way for Superstars like Kofi Kingston and The Prime Time Players.
One such competitor was Viro Small who Jim Ross says “was one of the first African-Americans used by promoters.” The former slave gained his freedom after the Civil War and competed under the name Black Sam.
“Based on records that are available, he may have been the first pro wrestling champion of African descent in America, but that’s obviously an arguable point,” Ross admitted. “Either way, he was very, very talented or the white promoters would not have used him. Racial prejudice was still very prevalent at that time.”
Finding sanctuary in the north, primarily in Vermont, Small blazed a trail for future African-American stars to break down barriers in the world of sports-entertainment.
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.”
Following the success of Luther Lindsay and Bearcat Wright, Bobo Brazil emerged soon after as a true national star. Though Lindsay came close, Bobo made history by defeating Buddy Rogers to become the first black man to win the NWA World Heavyweight Championship.
“Bobo was generally regarded as a real good guy,” Jim Ross said. “He was a big guy, great big personality, great charisma. The kind of guy you’d have no issue liking no matter what his skin color was. He really paved the way for a lot of black men to work in main events.”
Booker T acknowledged the influence Bobo had on him. “Bobo Brazil definitely was a groundbreaker,” the SmackDown General Manager said. “He paved the way for guys such as myself who saw Bobo do it the way he wanted to do it.”
In 1994, Bobo broke another barrier when he earned his rightful place as the first African-American competitor to be inducted into the WWE Hall of Fame.
Rufus R. Jones
Following the efforts of Luther Lindsay, Bearcat Wright and Bobo Brazil, the doors were opened wider for black competitors through the following decades. African-American heroes became embraced by fans of all races thanks to a bevy of talent around the territories.
One was the late, great “Freight Train” Rufus R. Jones.
“The Freight Train was a tremendous wrestler out of Kansas City, Mo.,” Teddy Long said.
But Rufus wasn’t limited to his wrestling abilities. “He was a highly charismatic guy that gave a really unique interview,” Jim Ross said. “Rufus had a good locker room demeanor, got along with everybody and promoters could depend on him. He made his name in St. Louis working for promoter Sam Muchnick, who was the voice of the NWA. When Rufus did well in Sam’s territory, it was just a phone call by Sam to get Rufus booked in other territories. He worked a lot in the Carolinas for the Crocketts.”
“Thunderbolt Patterson was groundbreaking in so many ways,” Cody Rhodes once told WWE.com, “especially at a time when prejudice and civil rights were a hot issue.”
Patterson made a name for himself in Georgia and Florida during the 1970s, and held the NWA National Tag Team Titles with Ole Anderson, who turned on Thunderbolt to partner with his cousin Arn instead. Thunderbolt also courageously spoke his mind regarding racial discrimination, making him a hero to many and blacklisted by others.
“Thunderbolt really broke barriers, because he had a lot of success in major territories,” Jim Ross explained. “[He] really stood out because was great on the mic and transcended color. He related to the common guy, the day laborer. Thunderbolt Patterson was blue collar Americana.”
Sailor Art Thomas
With a career that spanned more than 30 years, Sailor Art Thomas became internationally well-known for his tremendous physique.
“Art Thomas was not a great scientific wrestler, but he had a phenomenal physique. Just amazing,” Jim Ross said. “He’s another guy who grew up in the South, in Arkansas, migrated north and ended up in Wisconsin. He was known as one of the strongest guys in the business at the time and was a big guy, too — 6-foot-6, 265 pounds. You get a guy like that and he was very unique.”
But Thomas didn’t just have the big muscles. He also had a big love for his country and served in the Merchant Marines.
“Art was very popular,” Ross explained. “Art, Bobo, Thunderbolt, all these guys had the one thing you can’t teach. They had ‘it.’ People either have it or they don’t. They had that innate ability to connect with the audience. That’s what it’s really all about. Today, then or tomorrow. I can assure you, no matter their color, no matter their size, no matter how big their muscles were, if they weren’t able to connect with the paying customer, they wouldn’t have had work.”
"Pistol" Pez Whatley
“Pez Whatley was a star that came out of the college ranks as the first African-American wrestler from the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga,” Jim Ross explained.
Whatley became an enormous influence to many future African-American stars.
“The late, great ‘Pistol’ Pez Whatley is passed away now, but he was certainly one of the top black athletes in professional wrestling,” Teddy Long said. “[He] started back in the NWA and worked the Florida and Georgia territories and also teamed up with Tiger Conway Jr. — they were The Jive Tones.”
Booker T also remembers those Jive Tone days. “To see Pez Whatley out there in the middle of the ring with Tiger Conway Jr. doing their thing was highly motivational for my brother [Stevie Ray] and me to become a tag team,” the former WCW Champion recalled. “I can honestly say ‘Pistol’ Pez Whatley was one of my greatest inspirations.”
Long cannot stress Whatley’s importance to sports-entertainment enough. “ ‘Pistol’ Pez Whatley was a great asset to our sport. And believe me, playa, we really miss him.”
He wasn’t African-American, but Memphis, Tenn., icon Sputnik Monroe is as important in the history of black wrestlers as almost anybody else.
“Sputnik Monroe is, at least to the people in Memphis, a legendary wrestler,” Jerry Lawler asserted. “In the early ’60s, almost all of the South was still segregated. Even the movie theaters and the wrestling shows. At that particular time, the black fans were forced to sit in the rafters. But Sputnik Monroe was the first white wrestler actually to step up and go to the promoters and say, ‘If you don’t let my black fans come down and sit at ringside or sit anywhere they want to, then I’m not going to wrestle here anymore.’ ”
Thankfully, Monroe was a popular enough attraction to make those sort of groundbreaking demands. “He basically pulled a power play,” Lawler said. “That was the first time the wrestling shows in Memphis started to be desegregated and the black fans were able to sit wherever they wanted to.”
Due to this tremendous display of respect for all fans, Monroe has become a revered figure.
“One of the first weeks that it happened, one of the white wrestlers went to the promoter and said, ‘I don’t like all of these blacks sitting down close to the ring,’ ” Lawler explained. “But Sputnik said to the promoter, ‘You know what, don’t pay that white wrestler any of the black money.’ He was really a leader and he was out in the forefront of desegregation at the Memphis wrestling shows. Sputnik hung out on Beale Street in Memphis, which was a famous street known for the blues and great music. Primarily black fans congregated there, but Sputnik hung right there with ’em and he was really a hero in the African-American community’s eyes.”
Sputnik’s efforts spilled over into the movie theaters, restaurants and other establishments, influencing the greater culture at large.
Rocky Johnson & Tony Atlas
Before there was The Rock, there was Rocky, a stunningly charismatic athletic “Soul Man” who exhilarated crowds with his outstanding physique and breathtaking dropkick. Together with “Mr. USA” Tony Atlas, The Soul Patrol was a tremendously popular tandem that became the first black World Tag Team Champions in WWE.
“There weren’t any African-American tag teams before them that accomplished what they accomplished,” Jim Ross explained. “I think that motivated all fans, especially African-American fans. They were very charismatic. Rocky and Tony were big guys with amazing bodies who looked like Greek gods and had great athleticism. You couldn’t find two guys who looked any better. Tony was a powerhouse and Rocky was an amazing athlete.”
Despite each man’s success as a singles competitor, their biggest waves were made as a team.
“When you talk about Rocky Johnson and Tony Atlas, they had much longer individual careers than they did as a tag team,” Ross said. “But seemingly, by most fans, are remembered more as a tag team than they are for their individual careers.”
And for good reason. On the night when The Soul Patrol defeated the savage Wild Samoans for the titles, the Allentown, Pa., crowd became unglued.
“People were ready for a change,” Ross said. ”It was something they’d never seen before.”
“Jackie Moore is one of, if not the most underrated female performer ever to work in the wrestling business,” Jim Ross declared.
Beginning her career in the late 1980s, Jacqueline competed around the country and in Japan before arriving in WCW in 1997. She is perhaps best-remembered for managing Harlem Heat and even defeating Disco Inferno on pay-per-view.
“Wow,” was all Booker T could say muster at first when recalling his former manager. But he soon found the proper words. “Jacqueline was definitely one of a kind — a female who has done it all in every organization. She will go down in history as one of the best wrestlers that’s come along in the game, not just best black wrestlers. Jackie has set a very, very high standard.”
Ross called many of Jackie’s matches during her tenure in WWE. “Jackie had amazing fundamental skills,” Ross explained. “She was mentally and physically tough, but then she was able to adapt to the times when lady wrestlers were becoming Divas. I don’t have a vote, but if I had a vote for the Hall of Fame, I see no hesitation in voting for her. Very much overlooked.”
When WWE revived the Women’s Championship in 1998, many fans believed it was a foregone conclusion that Sable would win the title. Instead, it was Jacqueline.
“People have to realize, Jackie was operating at a skill level that was far above many of her contemporaries,” Ross asserted. “[She] had to adjust her game to the skill level of some of the ladies she was working with. A lot of women would not have done that. A lot of men in the same situation would have rebelled. But Jackie was a great teacher and did a tremendous job. Because of the glitz and the glamour, she sometimes gets overlooked and that’s unfortunate.”
Due to Jacqueline’s tremendous success and longevity, other African-American Divas like Jazz, Naomi and Alicia Fox have been able to follow in her footsteps. But no Diva could ever fill the shoes of Jackie Moore.
Bobo Brazil might have won the NWA World Heavyweight Championship in the 1960s, but the true zenith of African-Americans’ success in a wrestling ring came on Aug. 2, 1992. After being selected at random by Bill Watts to fill in for Sting, Ron Simmons pinned Big Van Vader to win the WCW World Heavyweight Championship.
“Ron won the WCW Championship on their platform of TBS and national cable,” Jim Ross explained. “When Bobo won his titles, there was no national cable overlay.”
A Hall of Fame college football player, Simmons is mostly remembered by the WWE Universe for a four-letter exclamation and playing cards with JBL. But in WCW, the future Acolyte earned his reputation as one of the toughest men ever to step foot in the squared circle.
“I had the opportunity to manage Ron Simmons along with Butch Reed,” Teddy Long recalled. “We were the first Afro-American World Tag Team Champions in NWA and WCW. Ron does a lot of active work in the community with kids. Florida State, All-American and an all-time great.”
Booker T had even stronger things to say about the WWE Hall of Famer.
“[Ron Simmons] gave me the blueprint for what it was going to take for me to make it in this business,” Booker said. “Ron Simmons being the first black World Heavyweight Champion definitely made me see that if he could do it, there was definitely a chance for me. Ron was definitely the guy that was in my corner so many days and so many nights, pushing for me to be that guy that he was going to pass the torch to.”
Eventually, Booker earned that torch at Bash at the Beach 2000 when he became the second African-American WCW Champion.
“I fulfilled that dream of being the heir apparent to Ron Simmons’ success in WCW,” he said. “I honestly, truly believe that if it wasn’t for Ron Simmons, there’d be no Booker T.”
All of the African-American competitors who blazed a trail, from territorial grapplers to World Champions, deserve the respect of the entire WWE Universe.
“Their contributions should never be forgotten by anybody,” Ross said. “And not just African-American fans. Anybody who’s a fan of the genre should embrace those people for what they went through, the prices they paid to achieve success and to contribute to the legacy of our business.”