This article was originally appeared in Wrestling Perspective Vol. XI Number 88 published in 2000.
Black Stars of Professional Wrestling
By Julian L.D. Shabazz
Awesome Records, 1999
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The Rock Says
By The Rock with Joe Layden
Regan Books, 1999
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Until the unfortunate recent incident concerning Rikishi admitting to proportedly running over Steve Austin, I was beginning to think that wrestling was freeing itself from the need to stereotype its minority wrestlers. I wrongly assumed the Rock's multicultural popularity and the demise of the obnoxious Godfather character spelled better times ahead. Oh well, wrong again.
Historically, minority groups have been treated poorly in wrestling (both as wrestlers and fans), but none worse than African-Americans, who have been relegated to the shadows of history. We know Gorgeous George, but how about Jim Mitchell, who wrestled during the same time and even faced George in a couple of matches? Jack Claybourne was an internationally known star during the Thirties, drawing huge crowds in Europe, Australia, India and Canada. Yet, to some, he is not even a name, for they have never heard of him.
A new book titled Black Stars of Professional Wrestling by Julian L.D. Shabazz is an attempt to right these wrongs. "Attempt" is the proper word here, because this book has a long way to go, but at least someone is trying. Shabazz told me in a phone conversation that his inspiration to do the book came from his observation that no one had done such a book and that someone should. I told him I couldn't agree more; such a book was a necessity. However, though the spirit is willing, the finished product is weak, for what we get instead of a full history of "whys" and "wherefores," is only a list of "whos" and "whats." How about the racism the Black wrestler faced over the years? "I could have done that," he answered, "but I think we all know this sad history, and rather than dwell on the negatives I want to focus on the positive." He laughed. "The sad history part I think I'll leave to you," he said.
If you're a regular reader of this column or a student of wrestling history, you know the sad history of the Black wrestler. Yet, one of the first recorded professional wrestlers was an African-American.
Viro Small was an ex-slave who toured various county fairs in New England during the late 19th Century. His debut in wrestling was accidental, substituting for another wrestler. His opponent that night, Mike Horagan, defeated him. Horagan, however, was so impressed with Viro that he took him on the road. He worked under the moniker "Black Sam," and held the Vermont title twice. He also worked the crowd at the fairs by daring anyone in the audience to stay with him in the ring for 15 minutes.
African-Americans would virtually disappear from the American wrestling ring during the next 100 years. Black promoters down South would stage their own cards for the local folk using only Black wrestlers and admitting only Black patrons. Owney Madden, the notorious gangster who owned the Cotton Club in Harlem, would often stage a match between two well-built Black wrestlers for the amusement of his White patrons. Jack Pfeffer ran all-Black shows in Harlem, though these oft times were nothing more than numbers fronts for his "patron," Dutch Schultz.
It wasn't until the late Thirties and early Forties that the African-American was able to step into a big-league ring. The first to do it was Jim "the Black Panther" Mitchell, who gained fame working the rings of Southern California. At first, though, he was limited to wrestling Japanese and Hindus. Woody Strode followed Mitchell in 1941. Because of his celebrity (an ex-UCLA football player) and acceptance among wrestling fans in Southern California, Strode was allowed to wrestle Whites, but he could never play the heel.
Things didn't improve that much in the Fifties. In parts of the country a system of apartheid ruled. Nothing could be more telling than this description by Luther Lindsay of a week's schedule: "Monday I wrestle Shag Thomas in Portland, Tuesday I wrestle Shag Thomas in San Francisco, Wednesday I wrestle Shag Thomas in Dallas, Thursday I wrestle Shag Thomas in Houston, Saturday I wrestle Shag Thomas in Memphis." Lindsay once claimed he knew Shag Thomas better than any other wrestler. That was the understatement of the century.
With the coming of the Sixties, things improved somewhat. Bearcat Wright went over as World's Champion for the Santos promotion in New England in 1961. Though a capable wrestler, he could not draw the necessary crowds to sustain his reign and was soon dethroned. (Bearcat would later win the belt in the World Wrestling Association of the LeBelle brothers in Southern California.)
On the West Coast, Bobo Brazil rose to become a major box-office draw for the LeBelles, when he was crowned WWA champion in 1966 after defeating Buddy Austin on a TKO. Brazil would win the belt in Dick the Bruiser's Indiana WWA twice in 1981. He was also a good draw on the East Coast; so much so that Vince McMahon gave him the invisible "U.S. Heavyweight" belt. (Perhaps it was to symbolize an invisible champion.) Brazil's ability to draw put him on top, but not without the stereotypical touch. His famous finisher was the Coco-Butt -- a head butt that let the audience know those big black men just have harder heads than little ordinary white wrestlers.
Another major gain for Black wrestlers in the Sixties, believe it or not, was the coming of the Black heel. Before this, Blacks were always cast as babyfaces so as to prevent race riots among less-educated White patrons. Ernie Ladd became the first nationally exposed Black heel in 1968 (Sweet Daddy Siki played the bad guy in 1964 on the East Coast) and would do so with an absolute minimum of stereotyping. The same was true of Rocky Johnson, who seemed for the most part to escape the stereotyper's brush.
However, progress is a tenuous thing. For every Ernie Ladd and Rocky Johnson there was a Junkyard Dog, a Pez "Shaska" Whatley, a Virgil, a Kamala, a Slick, and a Godfather. We even saw a White One Man Gang turn into the Africanized Akeem.
One would've thought that with the crowning of Ron Simmons as WCW champ on August 2, 1992 the corner was finally turned. No such luck, for although Simmons was presented as an athlete and not a stereotype, WCW atoned for their previous good deed by not giving him the push he needed as champ. It was easier for WCW to push White wrestlers who merely pretended to be Black, such as P. N. News and Johnny B. Badd. Apparently, it is even easier to fool Black Entertainment Television, as they both did one memorable night in one of the all-time greatest swerves.
None of what I just told you appears in Shabazz's book. His book is a listing of just about every Black wrestler who ever ventured to put on a pair of trunks, no less and certainly no more. Nor does it pretend to be anything more. Shabazz is an interested onlooker who wants to try to measure the Black contribution to pro wrestling. When I originally praised this book in the pages of WOW magazine, some historians thought I was nuts, to put it mildly. "There are too many errors in the book," I was told. I agreed, but there were other considerations in my decision: One, while it is true that the book does contain some obvious and unfortunate errors, Shabazz realizes he had made mistakes and promises to correct them in a later edition. As it is the book is reasonably priced at $14.95 and errors or not, it gives the reader a look into a world he rarely sees, much less thinks about. As such it is invaluable for any beginner who wants to catch other sides of the past.
Two, and just as important, extremely few works on the history of wrestling are error free. It's simply the nature of the beast. I will continue to tip my hat to someone trying to put together the pieces of a disjointed past -- and when discussing African-American wrestlers we are not only talking about a disjointed past but a dysfunctional one as well. I will also ignore the critics who can only damn him for trying something they are unwilling, or incapable, of doing themselves.
The Rock Says . . . isn't the best wrestling autobiography out there, but it isn't the worst, either. I just find it a bit preposterous for a 28-year old to pen an autobiography, especially considering Maivia's been in the business for only about five years. It is yet another volume in the saga of WWF autobiographies that began with Mankind's interesting volume. Up next is Chyna, and I can't wait to hear what she has to say.
Anyway, the best thing I can say about the current volume is that it is. What stands out in the book is not the list of Rock's accomplishments both inside and outside the ring, but the missed opportunities. The book is loaded with them. We learn that Duane Johnson morphed into Rocky Maivia into the Rock, but precious little else is added. It's almost as if he's waiting for the sequel.
For instance, Rocky introduces us to his family, but that's about as far as it gets. The man is the son of Rocky Johnson and grandson of Peter Maivia. Add in all the wrestling cousins and we have the makings of some very interesting chapters. Too bad we never see them. What was it like growing up on the road? Growing up with all those wrestlers? What was it like being the son of a wrestler, one of the most popular Black wrestlers, at that? What was his relationship with his father and grandfather like when on the road? When his father was on the road, did Duane ever accompany him? What were the circumstances of his father winning the WWF tag title? Can Duane give us any additional insight? Considering the information we do get, apparently not. He's too busy informing us as to how he lost his virginity.
Duane also tells us that his father took to the bottle after his wrestling days ended. He also tells us this is hardly unusual among wrestlers. Yet, no other information or insight is provided. Duane, what happened to your family when your father developed this drinking problem? What happened to your relationship with him? He touches on it, but there is so much yet to mine. The same holds for your father's reaction when you announced you wanted to enter the business. A little background on how wrestling treated him would have been most useful.
The most interesting part of the book, almost by default, is Duane's description of his breakthrough into his new line of work. I like the fact he gives a large tip of his hat, so to speak, to Steve Lombardi, who worked Duane's first match. Lombardi is a master in the lost art of credible jobbing. It really takes a lot to swallow one's natural ego and not only put the other guy over, but put him over with style and a bit of panache, as it were. It's refreshing to see Lombardi praised for his art and his contribution to the making of a future superstar. The "Flex Kavana" days in Memphis were interesting; too bad there weren't enough of them. Duane is writing not to inform us about Memphis. He's just telling us how soon he got out of there. Anytime one is in a situation such as Memphis, there has to be much to write about, but, again, we are only allowed so far inside the door.
Rock also tells us when he became the Rock, but not how. I remember Rocky Maivia as a moderately talented and very green rookie who couldn't speak to save his life. Once he became a heel, he spoke with such verve that I began to think he was the illegitimate child of Fred Blassie. How did he get that way? Where did he learn the fine art of public speaking and rabble rousing? According to the Rock, it was within him all along. Oh, really? Then why didn't we see it earlier? Whenever the Rock gave an interview as a face he sounded like Marcel Marceau. Notice he got a lot better when he was paired with Ron Simmons and after Austin came out of his shell to establish his Stone Cold character. Interesting.
These missed moments become the highlights, for the book goes downhill after this. Schtick becomes interspersed with the facts of Duane's career. One moment he's telling us about his relationship with Steve Austin, the next we are listening to the Rock as he gives his spiel. It gets confusing and I begin to wonder why Rock's co-author didn't straighten it out. But having read the work of Judith Regan, under whose imprimatur this book is issued, I can grasp the subliminal message (of sorts). Regan, the publisher of tombs by literary heavyweights like Howard Stern, has a predilection for garbage. The book bears this out with graphics that fight, rather than enhance, the text. I've come to the conclusion Regan's books are targeted at those for whom reading is a chore to be avoided at all costs. As such, this is the perfect book for them.
The Phantom of the Ring is a regular contributor to Wrestling Perspective.
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