I have been a professional wrestling fan for as long as I can remember. For a large part of my life Black performers weren’t given opportunities to flourish in prominent positions on the card. Much like other forms of entertainment, a huge knock on the pro-wrestling industry was that Black wrestlers were cornered into specific roles. I began watching wrestling in the early 90’s, but I also would go to the video store and choose older tapes from the late 80’s as well. On those tapes I became familiar with characters such as The Junkyard Dog and Koko B. Ware. Both characters had a flamboyant nature about them, they were “baby faces” (good guys). They had national stardom, but the biggest show in town, the WWE(F) never built the company around their brands.
Being so young, I had no real context for what I was witnessing with nearly no Black acts involved in the programming that I was watching, much less Black women. The truth is that in as much as I loved “the business,” it was extremely White. Looking back, the business catered to what this country has always been comfortable with, which is whiteness.
This past weekend, we were able to watch the first Wrestlemania main event between two Black women. If my memory serves me correctly, this is also the first main event between two Black people. And inasmuch as this content is pre-determined, the representation here will certainly influence viewers young and old, and normalize seeing Black people functioning and thriving in this space. That’s something I never had as a kid, but something that I truly appreciate now.
Pro wrestlers Bianca Belair and Sasha Banks’ break the mold of characters that typecast us in this industry. Their characters are intelligent,strong, and respected for their physical abilities. In pro-wrestling, that provides you a lot of range in regards to the stories that you’re able to tell; it maximizes the amount of people you can work with. Bianca is the upstart who has engaged viewers for the past year on the main roster with her charm and charisma. Her character lauds her physical and mental prowess as she deems herself the “EST” (fastest, smartest, greatest etc.) Sasha Banks is certainly now the cunning veteran. She calls herself “The Boss” and has had a decorated run in the WWE. Banks is known to have great matches with all of the women on the card and delivers in the biggest moments when the most people are watching.
This portrayal of these characters and their competitive nature is a huge 180 from being relegated to “bra and panties” matches in the early 2000’s. Now there’s depth and it shows that women’s wrestling is being more seriously. Wrestlemania 37 marked a clear shift in how Black people on the card are portrayed in the spotlight.
Two years ago at Wrestlemania 35, Kofi Kingston became the first fully Black (Ghanaian heritage) heavyweight champion. This happened on the same night that women were main eventing Wrestlemania for the first time. So as we fast forward to this past weekend, it’s a full realization that women’s wrestling can sell, and that Black people can be marketed successfully and do great business as long as the opportunity is given.
What we’re witnessing now is variance in the landscape. There was another featured bout at Wrestlemania 37 that pitted Big E versus Apollo Crews. The match was for the Intercontinental championship which in years past was known as the “workhorse” title. It usually showcased some of the better technicians of the day. It is used as a barometer and many times a springboard into the main event scene for talents.
Apollo Crews has been a great talent, but for years was given no real direction. Once they tapped into the fact that he was of Nigerian descent, they decided to embrace that, run with it and tell his story. In that, he becomes an antagonist (heel or bad guy) for Big E as he does whatever it takes to cement his legacy as Nigerian Royalty.
That type of character is what I think many Black people were hoping for instead of being depicted as unintelligent or simply not serious. Tapping into what is real has always been a formula that works. The audience wants to feel connected and they want talent to have some autonomy in growing a character. It’s the same appeal of most of the scripted television that we consume, we watch to see how things develop. Pro-wrestling is no different.
I have to take my hat off to the WWE. There isn’t another moment in history that I can recall this much Black prominence on the card. From Naomi being featured on the card, to Omos becoming a tag team champion with AJ Styles, we’re in a great era. I'd also be remiss if I didn't mention Bobby Lashley, the WWE's current heavyweight champion. He retained his title to many people's surprise on Saturday night. He is only the second full African American WWE heavyweight champion.
Also, much respect to the WWE for putting on their first show with a live audience in over a year. It was outdoors, after a storm, with the first main event people saw being the first one main evented by talented Black women. And it can’t be understated what it means to be a main player in the company. The amount of opportunities outside of pro-wrestling and just the money associated with being a draw is many times determined on how you’re portrayed as an asset to the company.
By all accounts, night one of Wrestlemania was the better night, and it crescendoed with Bianca Belair versus Sasha Banks which started with recognition of the monumental moment as seen below.
The match exceeded the hype and put the cap on a memorable night for all who seek to be sports-entertained. I’m excited for what lays ahead in the future for us in this business, ironically enough, things are just getting started.