[Editor’s note: this was originally an editorial I sent to the Torch, but with the current questions about quotas and my feeling on them I wanted to release this on our site as well, with a few additions. –Rich]
December 13th 2016 was a pretty historic day for me as a fan of color that follows WWE. The New Day became the longest reigning WWE Tag Team Champs in history. Sasha Banks is the 3 time reigning WWE Women’s Champion. Rich Swann is the first black WWE Cruiserweight Champion (in terms of this title’s lineage) and second person of color to hold the belt. This level of representation is unprecedented in WWE. But Big E’s tweet this week, highlighting the #BlackExcellence hashtag was under fire because some saw it as divisive. I’d like to give a little perspective on the hash tag and why this current era of representation needs to stand out in the overall history of WWE.
On December 6th, 1983 Tony Atlas and Rocky Johnson defeated the Wild Samoans to become WWF World Tag Team Champions. In February during Black History Month, when this fact is touted as a reason how great it is to be a part of the WWE, the math of how long it took to get there is always left out. You see, WWE wasn’t founded on January 7th, 1982 or 1972. It was founded in 1952 if you go by the creation of Capital Sports. It took 31 years for the company to decide men of color could hold their tag team title.
If you take only Vince’s time in charge (1982) it took a year to get black tag team champions, which is impressive. Conversely, it still took 16 years for the first black WWE world champion (The Rock) to arrive. To expand the field, you have to look at the “World Heavyweight Championship” acquired in the WCW purchase and you add in Ron Simmons, Booker T and Mark Henry. Four men. That’s it. Discussing this topic during the week on the East Coast Cast Travis, Cam and I remarked on the insanity of these statistics.
Some will dismiss this as a case of the “right person” not emerging or someone not grabbing the proverbial McMahon brass ring. I can’t speak to the goings on or machinations of that era – which is why I’m a proud subscriber to the Torch and love diving into those back issues. Reading interviews with bookers of their era talk about the decisions they made and the how’s and the why’s help fill in the picture I couldn’t see on television.
When Kofi Kingston took the time to write his Instragram post and highlight how proud all 5 of them were to be given “the ball” to run with at once, I was disappointed that statement needed to be made. This level of trust is something we have not seen as an audience and should be celebrated. At my son’s age, I saw in the 80s WWF Koko B. Ware, Akeem the African Dream, Saba Simba and always wondered why my dad would bristle when I watched “wrasslin”. The only time he would perk up is when my hero, Bad News Brown, would be on the screen to beat up some dude who my dad said “had it coming”.
While my dad wasn’t the biggest fan of wrestling, he really liked Brown. When I was old enough to learn about the man behind the wrestler my dad also appreciated that Brown inspired me to practice Judo – an activity I enjoy to this day. For my son to see a strong young woman and four successful men of color on the screen is absolutely amazing to me. While I do not always appreciate the over the top pandering dancing of The New Day, I have been completely engrossed with Sasha and Rich Swann’s work.
The picture matters as much as the one in 2015 Sheamus and Finn Balor posted on Twitter highlighting the #IrishTakeoverWWE. At the time, no one said a word when two champs from the emerald isle celebrated their accomplishments. The pride both shared at being WWE and NXT champions without running down the aisle holding a four leaf clover or some such thing meant as much as the 4 black men and black woman to me. Somewhere a little Irish boy or girl can grow up and say “I can because they did”, which in any walk of life is something we all should hope for.
Big E’s picture matters as much as the pictures you see of Roman Reigns and the Usos together, proud to represent their family’s heritage and carry the tradition forward. Unlike their parents however, they don’t have to ask where the fish are they’ll have to eat raw to scare the fans, or the guttural noises they’ll make to cement their Polynesian status as “other” to the audience. Instead, Roman can be the cool dude with the moves, while Jimmy and Jey can add to their family’s legacy without being a caricature of themselves.
Now, the issue of quotas. It is not lost on me that every WWE broadcast has a black man as the “third guy” on it. In each case, that person is treated as the “geek” of the group, constantly catching derision from the heel color (highly ironic that) commentator and good for the odd throwaway statement to prove they are still breathing air when the show goes on. As a function, a three man announce team is already weird; your play-by-play guy is going to go through the WWE language minefield and the color guy is going to be the voice of Vince, aimed at whomever his praise or ire dictates.
The “colored” announcer is there to just…be there. Other than a funny “cash me ousside” joke by Mauro and David Otunga, what has Otunga done that stands out as an announcer? Why does SmackDown Live need a fourth person to “host” if you can split the duties between the three men already there? Byron Saxton and Kevin Owens has a great relationship, but the more I hear Corey Graves’ digs at Saxton, with no reply from Byron other than a mealy mouthed mumble, the less I like Saxton and the machine he represents. In NXT, Percy Watson is the third wheel to a team that is slowly reverting into the WWE machine’s version of commentary, instead of the throwback work done in the years prior to the third brand being seen as equal to Raw and SmackDown by the ardent faithful.
Also, note I’ve said men throughout this – the fact that one of their best announcers, Renee Young is relegated to pre-show and interviews without getting to show what I thought was quality work during her time as NXT announcer is a crime in and of itself.
In terms of the WWE Hall of Fame, it becomes more apparent. Since the “full-time” induction process started in 2004, the WWE has inducted 10 black wrestlers and 4 black personalities, good for one a year. While in actuality there were years no black wrestler was inducted (2005, 2007, 2010, 2015) questions popped into my head with the list:
JYD, Tony Atlas, William “The Refrigerator” Perry, “Soul Man” Rocky Johnson, Koko B. Ware, Abdullah the Butcher, Mike Tyson, Ron Simmons, Booker T, Mr. T, The Godfather, Snoop Dogg, Ms. Jacqueline and this year’s sole inductee (thus far) Teddy Long
1. Why were Tony Atlas and Rocky Johnson separate when most teams are inducted as a pair, unless one member went on to massive acclaim? (see Booker T.)
2. Why isn’t Bad News Brown in this group? The stories of him standing up to Andre the Giant…*tackled by security*
3. Why are comedy acts that were never given any WWE championship pushes like the Godfather, Koko B. Ware and a hardcore icon outside of WWE like Abdullah the Butcher thrown in?
4. Why are there no historic black wrestlers from the territory days? Why is Sailor Art Thomas in the contributors section but Bearcat Wright isn’t? Where are Thunderbolt and Ice man?
I know many may ask why isolate this. But to me, when I see only black wrestlers talking off-screen about 1st grade level Black History Month historical figures – and not a sole non black wrestler hop in with thoughts on Jackie Robinson I get twitchy.
(I’m sure Michael Hayes wants to hop in there and drop some knowledge on the people, but that’s a conversation for another day…)
In time, I hope there is a day where you can see a group of wrestlers that hold titles and not find it “funny” or interesting that they are the champs, or that they can announce without being treated as an accessory that’s a step up from the removable tv screens. While WWE has made strides in that regard, the response of some of the fan base – as well as some independent wrestlers afterward makes it clear that day has not arrived. I would however be remiss not to lend kudos to WWE for making that day closer than it has been in quite some time.