Black Drop: A History of Black Trailblazers in Pro Wrestling

Brian Damage

Professional wrestling has a very long and rich history. You cannot talk wrestling history without the many contributions and achievements of African Americans and other wrestlers of color that helped pave the way in breaking ground, fighting segregation, battling racism and rising above it all. Today’s stars like Bobby Lashley, the New Day, Bianca Belair and many others might not be where they are without many of these trailblazers.

One of the very first, if not the first black pro wrestler was a wrestler named Viro Small. Viro Small started out his career at age 16 and was a former slave. He wrestled on the east coast under the moniker ‘Black Sam.’

The first ever black wrestler to hold a world championship of any kind was the Jamaican born Frank Crozier. In 1909, Crozier won the world middleweight title in London, England. He defended the title against both white and black challengers.

Reginald Siki was the grandson of slaves and wrestled from the 1920’s until the late 1940’s. Siki was one of the first African Americans to successfully tour the country and the world. He wrestled against all races at a time when most white wrestlers refused to be in the same ring with black competitors. His star power made him a champion in Europe and caught the eye of Hollywood directors like Cecil B. DeMille. Siki married a white woman, which was extremely taboo during his era.

‘Black Panther’ Jim Mitchell broke color barriers in Canada by becoming one of the country’s top babyfaces starting in 1926. He hailed from Louisville, Kentucky, but promoters in Canada said he was from Harlem, New York. Mitchell would integrate wrestling up north by wrestling against numerous white stars of that era. All in all, his career lasted 23 years.

During the 1950’s, black wrestlers were segregated into their own division. They wrestled in the “Chitterling Circuit,” which was named after the innards of pigs that slave owners used to feed to their slaves. They had their own championship titles that were called the World Negro title or World Colored title. The titles were recognized by the National Wrestling Alliance.

Inspired by Jackie Robinson breaking the color barrier in baseball in 1947, promoter Billy Wolfe decided to capitalize on history by introducing black women to professional wrestling. His troupe consisted of three sisters named Ethel Johnson, Babs Wingo and Marva Scott. Other black women included Kathleen Wimbley and Mary Horton. Wolfe was quoted as saying about his all black women wrestlers…“My negro girls are the hottest thing in this sport.”

Luther Lindsay was a former stand out college football player who couldn’t find work in the NFL because of his skin color. Lindsay ended up playing pro football in Canada and that is where he met Stu Hart and became good friends. Lindsay was trained by Hart and became a wrestler competing from the 1950’s until the early 1970’s. Then NWA world champion Lou Thesz said that Luther Lindsay was the greatest black wrestler of all time, but also added that his place in history was not because he was black, but in spite of being black.

By the 1960’s, pro wrestling began its desegregation spearheaded by the likes of Sputnik Monroe, a very popular white wrestler who refused to compete on shows unless the black fans could sit where ever they liked, instead of being isolated from other non black fans. He would also often team with African American wrestler Norvell Austin, Monroe would say “Black is Beautiful” and Austin would reply, “White is Wonderful.”

In the 1960’s, promoter Nick Gulas booked the first integrated match in the south…Birmingham, Alabama to be exact. Len Rossi (white) teamed with Bearcat Brown (Black) to take on Saul Weingeroff and Tojo Yamamoto. The news of this match taking place, led members of the Ku Klux Klan to send bomb threats at the building the match was going to happen at. Gulas stuck to his guns and moved forward with the match. The show was a sell out and the team of Rossi and Brown continued to team together to win numerous titles to sell outs all through out the south.

The first integrated world title match was believed to be between Nature Boy Buddy Rogers and Sweet Daddy Siki in Greensboro, North Carolina in the early 1960’s for the NWA world title.

Bobo Brazil started his career in the segregated 1950’s wrestling circuit. He was so popular with both black and white fans, promoters started booking him to face off against all races. On October 18, 1962, Brazil defeated ‘Nature Boy’ Buddy Rogers after kicking him in the groin and Rogers could not continue. Bobo was awarded the NWA world title (Becoming the first African American world champion), however, Brazil relinquished the title to set up a rematch with Rogers in which he lost. The NWA never recognized Brazil’s title victory.

Edward ‘Bearcat’ Wright won the WWA (Los Angeles version of the world title) just 5 days before Martin Luther King’s I have a Dream speech in 1963. The title victory made Wright the first recognized black world champion of any kind. The WWA title eventually lost its world title status. Bearcat was also very vocal about segregation and often times refused to wrestle unless blacks were allowed to sit with whites.

Dory Dixon was a Jamaican born wrestler who became Mexico’s very first black superstar in Lucha Libre. Dixon’s wrestling career spanned over 30 years. He mainly worked for EMLL and the UWA, but also ventured to places like Japan and the WWWF, but the majority of his success was in Mexico.

‘The Big Cat’ Ernie Ladd was a pro football player turned hall of fame wrestler. Ladd was also made the first African American booker/promoter who worked side by side with Bill Watts for the Mid South territory.

Earl Maynard was born in Barbados and became a bodybuilder. In 1960, he transitioned to pro wrestling, During and after his wrestling career ended in 1978, Maynard successfully made his way in Hollywood. He has over 20 movies to his credit as an actor and even more as a director.

‘Sailor’ Art Thomas was a former Merchant Marine who became a very popular wrestler back in the 1960’s and 70’s. Often using his time as a Merchant Marine to get over with fans of all races, Art Thomas was a true star of his era.

Sonny King was the first black wrestler to co hold the WWWF tag team titles with Chief Jay Strongbow in 1972.

Tony Atlas and Rocky Johnson aka ‘The Soul Patrol’ were the very first all black world tag team champions in the WWF. There would not be another all black tag team champion team for the company until the 2000’s.

Thunderbolt Patterson started his wrestling career in the mid 1960’s and faced a great deal of racism along the way. Instead of just sitting back and allowing it to happen, Patterson became outspoken of the racial inequalities in professional wrestling. By the 1970’s, Patterson was blacklisted from the NWA and their various territories. He attempted to start his own promotion, but the power of the NWA at that time was too strong. Thunderbolt Patterson never gave up fighting and was eventually reinstated and allowed to compete in NWA rings, thanks to friends like Ole Anderson and Dory Funk Jr.

The Junkyard dog was so popular during his run in Bill Watts Mid South territory, many fellow wrestlers compared his popularity at the time to rival that of Hulk Hogan’s in the early 1980’s. His star power helped sell out arenas throughout the territory and when heels took advantage of this beloved babyface, riots and attempted murder on the heels were common place. We got into greater detail of his big time run in Mid South here.

‘Hacksaw’ Butch Reed replaced JYD as the top face in Mid South after Junkyard Dog left for greener pastures of the WWF. Back in 1982, Reed defeated Ric Flair to become the new NWA world champion while wrestling for Championship Wrestling in Florida. His title victory did not hold up, however, as a “Dusty Finish” as it would be known a few years later occurred.

As we all know, in August of 1992…Ron Simmons finally broke the glass ceiling by defeating Vader to become the WCW world champion. In doing so, Simmons is recognized officially, as the first African American world champion in pro wrestling history.

Jackie Moore was considered one of the very toughest wrestlers either male of female in the industry. She started her career in 1988 and wrestled both men and women. She was a record 14 time USWA women’s champion, the very first black female to win the WWF Women’s title and was also the first female to crack the PWI 500 list for best wrestlers for the year 1993. She was inducted into WWE’s Hall of Fame in 2016.

There have been several wrestlers who traveled to Japan and had successful careers such as Abdullah the butch among others. None had the success that former WCW Power Plant trainee Bob Sapp had. On March 28, 2004, Sapp defeated Kensuke Sasaki to win the IWGP Heavyweight Championship, becoming the first (and only, to date) African-American to hold the title. Not only did Sapp achieve that, but branched out to become a star outside of wrestling in Japan. He did commercials and even cut a record album there.

There were many other greats in African American wrestling history with the likes of Booker T, Ron Killings, Jazz, Black Venus and many others. No doubt these men and women contributed so much to entertain fans worldwide and knock down walls for others to succeed and excel.

14 thoughts on “Black Drop: A History of Black Trailblazers in Pro Wrestling

  1. Wow. Just wow. Amazing job. Thanks for your time and work. This site and Jim Cornette’s podcasts are pretty much the only two places where I can still learn new (and interesting) things about wrestling history.

    Liked by 3 people

  2. Pingback: Grappling With Tragedy: Rufus Jones | Ring the Damn Bell

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.