The Bobby Lashley became only the third Black WWE champion in the company’s history. Now, depending on how you count world titles, Lashley is either the eighth or the sixth overall Black heavyweight champion. You can even argue Lashley is the 10th World champion. But even with all those disputes, considering the WWE title has existed since 1963, and the World title since 1901. The question must be asked why there hasn’t been many Black world champions before. Pro-wrestler isn’t like boxing; whereas if the best boxer in the world is Black, then they will more than likely win a World title in their career. In pro-wrestling’s case, who is World champion depends on promoters and storytelling.
Before Ron Simmons won the WCW World title, no Nationally recognized promotion had Black world champion. Yes, the two WWA World titles, one in Los Angeles and one in Indiana, both had 2 Black World champions of their territory. Each of those four champions are all names that deserved to have World champion in their resume: Bobo Brazil, Bearcat Wright (oh I should do a deep dive on him), Sailor Art Thomas, and Ernie Ladd. These World titles did have a legitimate claim by way of lineage, they were not defended outside of the territory. So many don’t consider these titles to be World title. But honestly they were a much a World title as the AWA or WWWF title was in those days.
The World Colored Heavyweight title
Before we get started, I want to mention the World Colored Heavyweight title. The World Colored Heavyweight title was created so promoters could segregate Black and White wrestlers. In boxing, Jack Johnson beating White fighters caused many fans to riot violently, and wrestling was trying not to have that happen to them. The World Colored Heavyweight title existed so Black wrestlers wouldn’t challenge for the NWA title. By 1960 it was only recognized in the state of Michigan. To have Black wrestlers fairly represented in the sport, wrestling would need forward thinkers in their promoters. Enter a large territory in California.
The list of World Colored Heavyweight Champions can be found here.
WWA Los Angeles
The Los Angeles territory is truly a fascinating place. Based in one of the very few arenas built for in ring sports like boxing or pro-wrestling, the LA territory also was in a very diverse market. With a huge Mexican fanbase, and being on the Pacific coast, many Mexican and Japanese wrestlers would travel through the territory on their American tours. Because of the this, the WWA LA territory of the World title has one of the most diverse lists of champions in history. And it’s this version of the World title that give us our first two Black World champions: Bearcat Wright, and Bobo Brazil.
Bearcat Wright, one of the most imposing wrestlers in the 1960’s
The WWA LA title wasn’t a touring title like the NWA title, it had World title recognition in Japan. Part of being a World title is being global, so it has that. With that said, when Wright entered the WWA LA, he quickly became the biggest draw in the company. A strong babyface, Wright was an unstoppable force. Though one thing about the LA territory, you wouldn’t have a title for long. As soon as Wright won the title in 1963, he was asked to lose the title. Wright would refuse that request, instead threatening to shoot on any challenger. Wright was a strong man that could rip phone books in half.
Very few people in the wrestling business could match his strength. So when Wright refused to drop the belt to Freddy Blassie and Edouard Carpentier, there was little the promoter could do to get his belt back. The promoter himself, Gene LeBell (yes, the LeBell Lock), changed the card last minute and substitute himself against Wright. LeBell was a true legit shooter. Wright simply walk out of the building and he never returned to the LA territory again. Blassie said Bearcat began to think of himself as wrestling’s Jackie Robinson, as he let his ego get the better of him. Usually in these cases, a promotion in the 60’s might not ever have a Black champion again, but just a few years later WWA tried again.
Bobo Brazil with the WWA Los Angeles World Title
To hear my dad talk about him, you’d think he was the greatest wrestler of all time. Bobo Brazil has the distinction of being the longest reigning WWA World Champion, a reign that lasted from 1967 to 1968. Brazil had a reputation of being an honest player, and his humble nature really rubbed off to his mic skills. He would ask people to come to the show to support him, because he can’t win without the support. Brazil was a huge draw nationally, so it was no surprise that the LA territory kept the belt on him for almost a year. Even Freddy Blassie, who was the main attraction in LA, only got 290 days for his longest reign (but he did have 4 reigns). When the LA territory rejoined the NWA, Brazil’s reign came to an end with a WWA vs NWA unification match.
Brazil was already a national star, holding titles in territories across the country. He was the rare Black wrestler that could draw White audiences. In Los Angeles, he would draw very diverse crowds to the LA Olympic Auditorium. He would become such a strong champion that instead of beating Brazil, the match ended in a time limit draw. Brazil then gave up his claim of the title and the NWA champion was recognized as the real champion. Brazil flirted with the NWA belt before. Six years prior to this, in New York, Brazil challenged Buddy Rodgers for the NWA title. Brazil would beat Rodgers by accidental low blow, then he refused the title. Brazil rightfully deserved to be World champion at some point. Thankfully it did happen, and Brazil has World champion to add to his legacy.
This title is a little bit harder to justify as a World title. Dick the Bruiser won the belt in the LA territory, but then lost it back to The Destroyer. Bruiser though didn’t recognize his lost to The Destroyer, so this started the Indianapolis branch of the WWA of the title. With that said, the WWA Indianapolis has very few arguments as World champion. But they did crown two Black World champions in their history, so I think it’s important to note them.
Sailor Art Thomas in his prime, impressing the fans
Named Sailor Art Thomas, a real World War 2 Navy veteran, Thomas was near the end of his career in the 1972 when he beat Baron von Raschke in Minneapolis for the WWA World title. The WWA and AWA in Minneapolis had a very close relationship, and you would often see their titles defeated on each other’s shows. Thomas was a bodybuilder who caught the eye of promoters across the nation. His original gimmick was that of a sailor who was watching in the crowd. When the heels started to act up, he would jump in the ring and help the faces.
Over time he’d move from a plant in the crowd to actual wrestler and one of the top drawing Black wrestlers in the business. In the WWWF he’d also team with Bobo Brazil and Bruno Sammartino himself. His WWA World title win seemed to be more of a career achievement award, as him and von Raschke fought a rematch and the title was held up after that. It was a short 2-week reign, but it was a perfect career capstone to one of the most popular figures in wrestling.
Ernie Ladd with the WWA Indianapolis World Title
Next was Ernie Ladd, who was truly a larger than life figure in wrestling. Ladd only held the title himself for one month. Beating Dick the Bruiser in 1980, Ladd held the title for the month of November. Eventually he would lose the title back to Bruiser, and he’d then venture to the Mid-South territory with Bill Watts and he’d help develop the Junkyard Dog. Stories of Ladd are legendary, as he was so big and so charismatic. Also, unlike the other Black champions so far, Ladd was a heel. Wright, Brazil, and Thomas all made their livings as faces, getting the crowd behind them. Ladd made his career being a heel and also being the biggest man at any given territory. Above all though, Ladd would have a very keen sense of business.
To most wrestling historians, Ron Simmons is the first Black World champion. Unlike the two WWA territories, WCW was a national promotion when Simmons won the belt. At the same time the NWA title had lost its strongest claim to being the only World title when Ric Flair broke the lineage by walking to the WWF. One can argue that the WCW title was actually more important than the NWA title at this time, because when Ric Flair left, WCW filled the title quickly and it matched the storyline at the time. It took the NWA over a year to fill the title which happened in New Japan Pro Wrestling.
While the NWA was working itself out, WCW putting the title on Ron Simmons helped legitimize the title in the eyes of many. Moments like Simmons winning the WCW title made the belt feel special. And if a title feels special, then it is special. Though the Fall of 1992, Simmons held the title and he was recognized by all major promotions and publications as the first Black World champion. After a 4-month reign though, he lost title back to Vader and WCW would not have a Black World champion until the year 2000. By then, the NWA lineage and the WCW lineage both unified again, though the NWA name would move on.
Ron Simmons becomes the first nationally recognized Black World Champion
When Booker T won the title in 2000, I remember that it might have been the most popular decision WCW made in a long time. In the aftermath of Hogan leaving as he working himself into a shoot with Vince Russo, Booker T came out with the WCW title. A long time WCW strong hold, Booker had survived many bad gimmicks and was now put in place to be World champion. For a short period of time, there was hope that WCW could turn it around just because of this move. Of course, not even Booker can save a place from bad business and bad booking. Eventually, WWF would buy WCW and Booker would be the one to carry the WCW title from Turner to the WWF.
Booker T and the Big Gold Belt after his first World title win
WWF and the Rock
The Rock as Corporate Champion represented everything Americans hated about the spoiled Black athlete in the 1990’s
It’s interesting to think, WWF made a huge deal with Ahmed Johnson being the first Black Intercontinental champion, and Rocky Johnson and Tony Atlas being the first Black tag team champions. But no one mentioned The Rock being the first Black WWF champion. Since then, many fans have asked the question, was the Rock really the first Black WWF champion? Some would argue that he’s half Samoan, therefore not Black.
Myself personally, I never questioned it. The Rock was presented as a person who was proud of his African American father and his Samoan heritage as well. He joined the Nation of Domination. He was able to portray the spoiled Black athlete that audiences hated in the 90’s, a spin off of Deion Sanders. So it puzzles me to question the Rock’s Blackness, especially when it comes to being the first WWF Black champion. Like Triple H would say, Barack Obama was the first Black president, yet he is of mix race heritage. The Rock also is of mixed race heritage, so he’s as much the first Black WWF champion as Obama is the first Black US president.
WWE and Now
When WWF bought WCW, for simplistic reason, I’m just calling the whole era after the merger as WWE. From here, if I write WWF, just know that’s WWE before the merger, and if I say WWE, that’s WWE after the merger. Yes, I know WWF wouldn’t become WWE until 2002, and I’m talking about 2001 at first. But just go with it. It’s how I look at it. LOL.
Once WWF bought WCW, they inherited the WCW World title. Originally held by Booker T, they right away made the Booker T/Rock dream match that everyone wanted to see. The only thing was WWE was not going to bury their champion. It was with this in mind that the Rock won the WCW title from Booker T right away. Then after the Rock lost the title to Chris Jericho, who then unified the WCW title with the WWF title, we now have a WWE Undisputed champion.
Though this would not be the last time Booker would hold the WCW linage World title, as he would win the World Heavyweight title from Rey Mysterio and reign as King Booker. This was a fitting last reign for the champion who kept that belt credible through so many changes. In many ways, the Big Gold Belt is as associated with Booker T as it is with Sting or Lex Lugar, and I’d argue more so than Triple H.
Mark Henry inducts everyone to the Hall of Pain
A lot like the WWA title reigns for Ladd and Thomas in Indianapolis, Mark Henry’s title reign felt like a career achievement award. And I want to make this very clear, I am all in favor of a career achievement World title reign. These are wrestlers who are pillars of the business for years and years and years, and as such the business at the very least could reward these wrestlers with a World title reign. Looking at WWE’s history with big strong monsters, I am willing to argue that had Henry been White, he would have been World champion 5 to 6 years prior to his actual reign.
Look at Big Show, who was still green. He got a World title in WWF right away, even if Vince didn’t like his work. Henry didn’t have that opportunity. Instead he was Sexual Chocolate, who fathered a hand. Henry and was not allowed to be the dominant athlete he was. Still, when Henry finally got the World Heavyweight title, it felt special. The Hall of Pain gimmick was masterful, and Henry looked like a wrecking ball. Henry was a very deserving champion and I think every fan is glad we all got to witness it.
Very few dry eyes when Kofi won the WWE title at WrestleMania
It’s the first time my children got to watch WrestleMania live. I wanted them to see it, Kofi Kingston vs. Daniel Bryan. Kofi Mania was running wild in WWE. For years the New Day were one of the top merch sellers, selling breakfast cereal to unicorns and everything in-between. An act like New Day would generally spin out and produce solo stars, but instead the members of New Day wanted to stick together. When Kofi won the title, New Day celebrated with him. Kofi’s career was that of struggle and perseverance. On a personal note, it was also very cool to see my sons there, bouncing up and down chanting, “Kofi, Kofi, Kofi.” for almost the whole match. Kofi not only joined the ranks of Black WWE champions, but he was the first ever African born WWE and World champion.
Bobby Lashley wins the WWE title
The man of the hour, Bobby Lashley. You know, when someone wins a title for the first time, it always feels special, except those pesky Money in the Bank cash-ins. Something felt very special when Lashley hooked the Miz in the Full Nelson and made him tap out. We got to witness not only a new champion, but the cumulation of a career. Lashley had a journey like no other, which now adds to what Lashley has to offer as champion.
It should be noted that now Lashley is teaming with his Impact crewmate MVP. Now Lashley is part of the Hurt Business, a group of full-grown men who look like they can beat every wrestler in the locker room. When I watch Hurt Business on Raw, then see AEW, Hurt Business just looks more legit. And of the Hurt Business, Lashley looks the part of dominate force.
A Common Theme of this Article
I want to point out something. If you look at almost every Black World champion, there is only one Rock. What I mean by that, the Rock won the title at 26 years old, and the WWF pushed that man to the moon. But outside of the Rock, and Wright who was 31, other Black World champion won title later in their career. Bobo Brazil was 42, Art Thomas was 48, Ernie Ladd was 42, Ron Simmons was 34 with heavy miles on his body, Booker T was 35, Mark Henry was 40, and Kofi Kingston was 37. There is a reason for this.
As much as we deny it, society dictates what the champion looks like and what merch the audience will buy. Over the years, audiences bought into heroes that look like them. It’s why Rock was the perfect heel to Steve Austin. Austin was the beer drinking every man, the Rock was the spoiled rich athlete that the crowd hated. These are the stories the audience resonates with. If you point this out, many claim you are making this about race.
This rivalry carried the Attitude Era, even if the Rock was a face, the fans supported Austin
But if it wasn’t about race, we’d see more Black wrestlers pushed to the main event scene. A “can’t miss” talent like Shelton Benjamin was force to have his “Momma” follow him as his manager. It goes beyond Vince McMahon, this is an industry wide thing. I am not sure what can be done about it, wrestling is a reflection of society. But, if wrestling was actually a reflection on athletics, Black wrestlers would be dominating the World title scene. Instead we see green White monsters win titles early on, like Braun Strowman, and it takes a Black wrestler over a decade to win. This leads to a question, if Mark Henry was White, would he have been champion 5-7 years earlier. I personally think the answer is yes. Many big monsters have world titles while still being green?
Looking at everything, I do think things will change. Lashley winning might be a step in the right direction. Also, Big E looks to be getting a push coming up as well. When I see Montez Ford, it is clear he has all the tools to carry the company one day. It also looks like Triple H is looking for wrestlers of many different backgrounds to diversify the roster. This should lead to more opportunities. But as we move forward, it is important to look back. Looking back, we can see, no one was just given a title. The Black men who won these World titles worked hard for them.
Finally, Congratulations Bobby Lashley. You have joined a club of giants in the business. I look forward to the Reign of the Almighty!