Art of Gimmickry

The Naturally Athletic Black Wrestler

Bobby LashleyThere’s nothing wrong with being athletic. In a pseudo-sport like pro wrestling, it’s kind of expected of wrestlers to be athletic. And if you happen to wrestle for Vince McMahon, it’s especially helpful to look the part. Some wrestlers happen to be naturally gifted when it comes to their physical attributes that it becomes part of their character. This is particularly the case with several black wrestlers. There was a funny video that came out about the three characters black wrestlers are allowed to play on TV. One particular gimmick that falls into the “happy black wrestler” category is the amazingly talented, naturally athletic black wrestler.

Over the years, black athletes have dominated professional sports. That’s no secret. Professional sports has produced many successful black athletes. But it’s also become a sort of stereotype people pin to young black men. Of course, to some people it’s looked at as a “positive stereotype”, like how people assume Asians to be good at math. And Mexicans… I’ll get back to you on that one. But there is a negative to positive stereotypes. It’s still stripping away one’s individuality and forcing us to think about others in terms of race or ethnicity.

Professional wrestling being historically racist is an easy target when it comes to pointing out stereotypes. For example, it wasn’t hard for me to list the most stereotypical black wrestling characters. But it’s easy to overlook the positive stereotypes, because… Well, they’re thought of as being positive. And there’s no more positive stereotype in professional wrestling, with regards to race and ethnicity, than the stereotype of the naturally athletic black wrestler. It actually might be the only positive stereotype in all of professional wrestling.

Some of the characteristics that define this gimmick are having an amateur background in another sport, such as wrestling or football. It also helps if said naturally athletic black wrestler is extremely agile or possesses superhuman strength.

Black Supermen
Back when he wrestled for World Class Championship Wrestling, Tony Atlas was dubbed “Black Superman” and with good reason. He was originally from Krypton. Actually, Atlas was  a previous winner of both the Mr. Universe and Mr. USA bodybuilding titles. Sadly, he wasn’t asked to compete when Vince McMahon started the World Bodybuilding Federation. Tony Atlas’ bodybuilder physique was impressive even in the 80’s era of wrestling where bulky strongmen were the norm. In Mid-South Wrestling, announcers, like Bill Watts, would claim Atlas could bench press 600 pounds; which helped back up Atlas’ look. Atlas was dubbed a phenomenal athlete and would perform moves like a flying headscissors which many other athletes close to Tony’s size couldn’t pull off.

IMG_5024Atlas holds the distinction of being the first black WWE Tag Team Champion alongside The Rock’s father, Rocky Johnson. But aside from that accolade, Atlas never made it to that next level. That might’ve been due to Atlas not being able to handle his early success. Hell, the title of his book is Too Much… Too Soon. And, according to his Wikipedia page, he was slated to win the intercontinental belt, but then drugs happened. It was the 80’s, after all.

Atlas’ gimmick of being a strongman is one of those things that wrestlers, wrestling promoters, wrestling fans, and anybody with any kind of connection to wrestling, will say is a solid gimmick. It’s just highlighting someone’s athletic prowess. The problem is with WWE, and wrestling in general back then, was never actually giving these athletically gifted black wrestlers the ultimate payoff of winning a major world title. In 1992, Bill Watts and WCW changed all that.

Former wrestler and promoter Bill Watts has always been a polarizing figure. And not in the John Cena way, but more in the “he’s either racist or not” kind of way. However, no one can argue that Watts did push black wrestlers as major stars while he was the head of two promotions. In WCW, he made Ron Simmons the first black world champion. Technically, the second, but the NWA didn’t count Bobo Brazil’s NWA World Title reign, so it didn’t happen. Anyway, after making the transition from a tag team wrestler to a singles one, and a babyface at that, Simmons started to rely on his previous All-American status as a college football player as part of his character.

IMG_5022Having played for Florida State University, Simmons would sport logos and colors linking him to his Alma mater. Not only was Simmons presented to be this naturally gifted powerhouse of a wrestler, but he was often referred to as “All-American.” Probably a clever ploy to get fans, in particular southern WCW fans, behind Ron Simmons. Wrestling fans can’t boo something with the name All-American. Just look at Jack Swagger and Zeb Colter. And they were supposed to be bad guys!

You’ll be hard pressed to find a match featuring Ron Simmons during his world championship reign that didn’t make mention of his college football career. Especially, with Jim Ross calling the action. Simmons’ time as champion didn’t turn things around for WCW, but it got some people talking. Okay, very little people talking. As this happened many years after the height of WCW’s popular Four Horsemen period. Yet, it was the one time a black wrestler who had been touted for being an exceptional athlete was actually proven to be one inside the squared circle by actually wining the world title.

No other wrestler in history has been promoted as being one of, if not the, strongest wrestlers in the world, like Hulk Hogan was back in his day. So when WWE announced back in 1996 that it had signed two-time Olympian, record holding, powerlifter, Mark Henry, to a contract you would’ve thought the mountainous Henry was actually the second-coming of Hulk Hogan, and not Lex Luger or Sid Vicious as was previously considered. I mean, why else call somebody the world’s strongest man? Although Henry was rushed to TV prematurely, he is another prime example of getting saddled with this naturally athletic gimmick and it never really paying off.

IMG_5028Henry found early success as Sexual Chocolate, a wrestler with a sexual appetite that could barely be satiated by Chyna and Mae Young. After that, he kind of drifted into being the “World’s Strongest Man” again, which included performing random auto-related feats of strength. Granted, during this time, Henry was actually improving as a wrestler. And even though everybody knows how wrestling works, you would think WWE would do a better job of protecting a guy called the “World’s Strongest Man”, and you know, actually make him look strong in the ring.

References were always made regarding Henry’s powerlifting background, his competing in the 1996 Olympics, basically anything to accentuate Henry’s superhuman-like character. Henry’s Hall of Pain gimmick was the closest thing we got to Henry being this dominant monster of a man we had been patiently waiting for him to become. That mean streak was the missing ingredient that Henry needed to become a champion and top tier guy. And it worked. Then, for whatever reason, Henry lost the belt and he kind of went back to doing what he do: more auto-related feats of strength.

And that’s where the mismanaging of the gimmick comes into play. It’s one thing to see the “World’s Strongest Man” get his ass beat by Brock Lesnar, because that’s Brock Lesnar’s gimmick. He’s a legitimate bad ass who can beat up anybody. But then you have Neville beating Henry in less than five minutes. That’s no knock on Neville, but even for a surprise win that was way too short of a match. You’re telling me Mark Henry couldn’t put up more of a fight? But that’s just an overall WWE booking problem. It’s nothing new. Mark Henry can be just as expendable as a guy like Curtis Axel one week, then become the unbelievably strong powerlifter who can demolish dudes the next. So then why even bother building up Mark Henry’s powerlifting background and strength if all it did was amount to a short secondary world title reign? He might as well remained the sex addict dressed as a giant Hershey’s Kisses.

IMG_5045Bobby Lashley didn’t quite have the amateur wrestling background as Brock Lesnar did, but he was still a decorated amateur wrestler with four national college championships to his name. He also trained for the Olympics, but an injury forced him to do away with those plans. Yet, WWE didn’t give Lashley the monster push they gave Lesnar right out the gate. That’s not to say he deserved it though. Lashley was naturally gifted, but he just didn’t have that same presence that Lesnar did. Then again, it can also be argued that under the right circumstances the WWE can make anybody look dominating. Roman Reigns being the most recent example of the last two years.

Lashley didn’t really turn heads the way Kurt Angle did by naturally transitioning into pro wrestling by relying on his amateur background. Instead, his strength was emphasized as his main attribute. There was definite room for improvement considering Lashley’s entire WWE run only lasted four years, and that’s including his time at the Ohio Valley Wrestling developmental camp. And despite winning the ECW World Title and WWE U.S. Title, Lashley never really seemed to meet the expectations that a man of his caliber is capable of. Especially, when you consider that the biggest highlight of his career was representing Donald Trump at WrestleMania 23. He did win the TNA World Title twice, which sadly, further proves the WrestleMania/Donald Trump thing being the highlight of his career.

Titus O'NeilRoom for improvement is also a phrase that can be used for Titus O’Neil. Currently suspended from the WWE for being chivalrous. Unlike Bobby Lashley, Titus is a lot more charismatic and is decent on the microphone. However, despite being super strong and immediately standing out as an imposing figure during a time when the majority of the WWE roster barely reaches six feet, Titus is still not firing on all cylinders. His time playing football at the University of Florida was highlighted when he moved to being a singles star, and during his time teaming with Heath Slater, but Titus’ best days were as part of the Prime Time Players. Tag team wrestling just helps hide Titus’ weaknesses, and even though he’s got an impressive build and superhuman strength, him being known for his overall athletic ability as his gimmick isn’t enough. They should at least give him more on-screen depth by presenting him as the most charitable wrestler, outside of Make-A-Wish.

When Big E. made the jump from NXT to the WWE, he was brought in as Dolph Ziggler’s muscle. And with good reason. Big E., much like Mark Henry, had also previously competed as a powerlifter before signing with WWE. He was also a defensive lineman for the University of Iowa. But if you were to follow Big E. on Twitter, before he joined The New Day, you’d know his Twitter game is on another level. Even Wrestling on Earth named him #4 on their Best 7 Wrestlers on Twitter list. But it took a while for WWE to recognize how non-physically talented he was. Before New Day, and after breaking away from Dolph Ziggler, Big E. was given a slight push by winning the WWE Intercontinental Title, but there was no character development to go along with it. He was just another naturally gifted black wrestler. When Big E. held the IC belt, it wasn’t even defended at WrestleMania XXX. Even The Miz got to defend it on the pre-show at WrestleMania 29. It wasn’t until the WWE’s original plan for The New Day backfired, that Big E. was able to break out of his shell on TV and show people what those who followed him on Twitter already knew.

Pure Athletes
If you ever watched Shelton Benjamin wrestle in the WWE, then you definitely heard the term “pure athlete” being used by Jim Ross to describe him. I never knew what a pure athlete was and I’m pretty sure Jim Ross made it up. Nevertheless, many of the naturally athletic black wrestlers don’t rely on strength, or have it in the superhuman form. Instead, they rely on their agility and quickness which, based on the definition provided by J.R., makes them pure athletes. I guess.

IMG_5038Shelton Benjamin was a gifted amateur wrestler from the University of Minnesota. And no other wrestler, black or white, was as praised as Benjamin for his athletic ability. There was never any doubt that Benjamin was incredibly gifted. He had all the tools to become a world champion, more specifically a WWE World Champion. After being drafted to the Raw brand in 2004, Benjamin even scored an upset victory over Triple H. Something Booker T. couldn’t even do, and he’s a former five-time WCW World Champion. This momentum eventually led to an Intercontinental Championship run for Benjamin. From there, WWE could’ve just made Benjamin the black Kurt Angle, but even Kurt Angle eventually showed more character depth aside from being a wrestling machine.

Having no discernible character is what ultimately held Benjamin back. He was never charismatic, nor did he have some kind of catchphrase. And in the WWE you need a character. It’s sad that the most the WWE could think up for Benjamin was having a stereotypical character as his mom, or having him dye his hair blonde and call himself the “Gold Standard.” However, just like when Butch Reed dyed his hair blonde and started calling himself “The Natural,” there was no truth to Benjamin’s claim. The “Gold Standard” gimmick might’ve worked had the WWE put at least one of the three world titles they had in rotation at the time on Benjamin, and not just the Intercontinental Title.

IMG_5047Elijah Burke was given a significant push during the the “revival” of the ECW brand on the Sci-Fi network. His impressive amateur boxing background (which included over 100 knockouts) was brought up here and there to prove just how athletically talented Burke was. He wasn’t bad as a wrestler either and he had decent mic skills. Burke led the new breed of ECW stars that the WWE was trying to build, but other than that, he kind of just floundered.

His most important singles match was against CM Punk for the ECW Title at the 2007 Unforgiven pay-per-view. Watch it. It’s pretty good. Then you can hear Joey Styles describe Burke as “unbelievably athletic.” Even though Elijah Burke is built as someone who’s supposed to be athletic, and doesn’t even do half the things “pure athlete” Shelton Benjamin could do. But he was a young, fit, black guy who had an amateur sports background, so why not call him unbelievably athletic. You know who was unbelievably athletic? Guys like Yokozuna and Umaga, who were super heavyweight wrestlers but somehow moved gracefully for their size.
IMG_5054Despite lacking any kind of amateur sports-related background, Kofi Kingston’s athleticism had been the only thing that Kofi was known for before he joined up with The New Day. Well, his athleticism and his Royal Rumble saves, but I guess those saves are due to his athleticism. Kofi was the very definition of mid-card wrestler. He was a good hand in the ring, but lacked any kind of real on-screen presence, except for a great smile. Even Jim Ross commented on Kofi being a “nice, educated, young man” who needed to “toughen up.” Which was probably code for turn heel so he can develop some kind of persona, or something. This was said during his match against The Miz where Kofi kicked the shit out of him with a nasty-looking Trouble in Paradise. Maybe Kofi had taken to heart Jim Ross’ comment about toughening up.

Point is, even J.R. was running out of ideas to describe Kofi because the guy lacked any kind of personality. Now with The New Day, Kofi has come out of his shell. Sure, he won’t be competing for the WWE World Title anytime soon, but the WWE probably never planned on him doing so anyway. At least, he’s not being described as Shelton Benjamin 2.0 anymore. Furthermore, developing an actual marketable character translates into merchandise, which translates into more money for the wrestler himself. Baby steps.

The Future is Now
Before he started teaming with Chad Gable, Jason Jordan’s impressive amateur wrestling background was often brought up during commentary, but it didn’t make up who he was as an on-screen character. His size was and is a major talking point as well, considering the number of “smaller” wrestlers on the NXT roster. Yet, Jordan was mainly bouncing from one tag team partner to the next. He was also bland as all hell. Then Chad Gable was called up to the NXT roster and American Alpha was born. They pretty much became the newest variation of the World’s Greatest Tag Team, or the Steiner Brothers. Both wrestlers’ styles compliment each other, especially Gable’s charisma, which Jordan has very little of.

IMG_5073Originally, they tried not to go the route of making Jordan the next amateur wrestling standout, like they had with Jack Swagger, but clearly naturally athletic wrestler is a gimmick that is working for Jordan. However, with Gable’s added dude bro, frat guy persona they don’t come off as strictly no-nonsense amateur wrestlers suplexing the hell out of their opponents. Clearly, Chad Gable is the breakout Shawn Michaels waiting to happen, but he has helped Jordan elevate his game a lot and it being the WWE, there’s a good chance Jordan might be the one to get the singles push down the line thanks to his size. Whether or not that will happen based on his current gimmick, which heavily relies on his amateur wrestling background, is another story.

Originally nicknamed Uhaa Nation because his high school coach said he was “as strong as a single nation,” Apollo Crews has gone on to prove inside the ring that he’s not only strong, but agile as well. Brandon Stroud put it best when he wrote,  “He’s what happened when Bobby Lashley ate Adrian Neville’s heart and stole his powers.” Crews is one of those rare wrestlers who can gorilla press 200 pound men, but also perform high-flying flippy stuff generally reserved for the smaller guys. There are not many wrestlers who can combine strength and agility. The only guy that comes close to Apollo’s ability is Brian Cage, who’s slightly bulkier than Crews. But Cage is clearly a mutant. Even Triple H has tweeted that Apollo has the potential to be NXT Champion. But NXT Champion and WWE Champion are two different things. Big E., Neville, and Bo Dallas were all NXT Champions at one point.

IMG_5067So far, in NXT, Crews has been given many opportunities to shine, having only lost a couple of matches to top guys like NXT Champion, Finn Balor, and perennial sourpuss, Baron Corbin. But aside from being the new amazingly athletic black dude, who’s really happy to be in the WWE, there isn’t a whole lot to Crews. The closest we got to getting to know him was during one of those NXT documentary segments in which we caught a glimpse of Crews’ background in order to make a connection with him as a person. It worked because I certainly was able to relate to him begging his mom for a WWE toy when he was a child. We’ve all been there. But that was real life Apollo Crews. Aside from that, Crews’ on-screen character has continued being the new Kofi Kingston or Shelton Benjamin.

Many of these wrestlers, because of their athletic talents, are sometimes seen as some kind of great black hope. The WWE hypes them up as can’t-miss prospects, and while it’s true that they do this with other non-black competitors as well, those other wrestlers don’t seem to stand out as much. These naturally athletic black wrestlers stand out because there hasn’t been a lot of them to make it to the top of the WWE. Unfortunately, they have to shoulder the weight of an entire community of black wrestlers who have been largely ignored when it comes to world title shots and main event marquee matches.

Combined with NXT, the WWE has the deepest and most diverse black roster they’ve ever had. And that’s not even taking into consideration the black female wrestlers. They also probably have the most talented group of black wrestlers they’ve ever had. But is it worth getting excited about them as future WWE World Champions? David Brown of Rap Con Queso wrote on the Fan Bros website about why it’s pointless to get excited for black wrestlers. I came across his article while researching his post, which I highly recommend reading. In it, he stated:

Black wrestlers can be and are champions everywhere else but WWE. In the WWE, they are praised for their athletic ability and raw natural talent but that praise never translate to championships. Instead Black wrestlers are stuck in a limbo of failure and disappointment.

He followed that up by writing that black wrestlers are “…talented losers with infinite potential.” And even though it seems like a downer to end an Art of Gimmickry post, it’s important to note because as positive a stereotype as the naturally athletic black wrestler is, it’s yet to yield any real positive results. If these black men are as naturally talented as we’re expected to believe, and were highly successful in their amateur careers, how come they’re unable to win the WWE World Title?

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