The face of victory

As anyone who has ever talked to me about pro wrestling knows I’ve been at this fan thing since 1985. Now since then Women’s wrestling has had it’s ups and downs, particularly in the US. And as tumultuous a time as it’s had as a whole it’s been less kind to Black women. Over the years the opportunities have gone from few and far between to more plentiful but still not what they should be. With the advent of Bianca Belair winning the Royal Rumble, and with a serious push behind her to boot, I thought it would be good to reflect on the way I’ve seen it as I’ve been a fan. Now I didn’t get every name here. Some were in their prime when I wasn’t watching and I can’t fairly speak on them, so I won’t. But here’s my account – the good, the bad, and the ugly.

This story starts back during the waning days of the Attitude Era. During this time the WWF Women’s title was being fought for between Trish Stratus, Lita, and Jazz. As I watched the matches they had together, I came to the conclusion that Jazz at the time was way better in the ring than either of them and that she was there largely to make their matches look passable while her two greener opponents got better in the ring. Even though she was champion at the time, it was clear who was being pushed as the stars of the division.

While I was not privy to any backstage discussions about anything the eye test said that the black woman Jazz was essentially being used as mule to make for a presentable matches while the two white women got ready for prime time, and that there was nothing she could do to earn her way into a spot alongside them. Maybe I was wrong but it sure felt like as soon as they were ready Jazz would be sent back to the bin. As it turned out she tore her ACL and we didn’t get a definitive answer.

Now fast forward to 2012. The WWF is now the WWE and the women’s division is known as the Divas division, and has hit a nadir that would go on until 2015. Over that time the champion and one or two challengers would be highlighted while the rest were stuck in catering until it was time for a battle royal or 10 woman tag match. And no matter who was involved the matches were held below 10 minutes, and that’s if they weren’t under 5.

It was here that two black women, Alicia Fox and Naomi were mostly left out of title matches and only used in plug and play situations like above. From where I was sitting it looked like they were there for surface level diversity and not much else. To be honest I can’t decide what’s worse, to be hired to hold a fort down that you’ll get to run to just exist as window dressing. Neither one is a position I’d wish on anyone. Naomi has gone on to win the Smackdown Women’s Title once but has still been more of a ‘when in need, break the glass’ member of the roster than a regular player. While for the millionth time that appears to be changing, I’m not holding my breath.

Fast forward to 2015 and the beginning of the Women’s Revolution. Naomi and Alicia have roles, but as side characters not major players, in a three feud between three trios of women. The lead in Naomi’s group is one Sasha Banks. Over the next six years Sasha would surpass every black woman who’s worked there but still would run into a glass ceiling year after year where she would either lose her biggest matches to whitRouse. (Charlotte Flair, Alexa Bliss, and Becky Lynch) in the company or be set aside for a short term attraction in Ronda Rousey. Progress, yes, but decisions were still being made to go with others over her not out of necessity but by choice.

Fast forward one more time to 2021. Bianca Belair is four years into her WWE career and almost a year past getting moved from NXT to the main roster. Her time in NXT was quite often baffling as once she showed she’d gotten the hang of this wrestling thing, and the potential to be a huge star, she was booked to lose big title matches multiple times. And while you can come up with a paper justification for it, those losses left a whole lot of us wondering ‘why?’, and colored us skeptical that she’d be used to her potential on Raw or Smackdown. The best predictor of future behavior is past behavior after all.

Years of seeing what I’ve described, along with times where Naomi, Sasha, Ember Moon, and now Bianca were used to liven up Royal Rumble and Money in the Bank matches with no change of actually winning them have left me as a Black man in I’ll trust it when I see it mode. I don’t give a damn how much you say they’re great if you don’t book the best of them that way. Nobody’s asking for a 10 year title reign here but nine times out ten where they get nothing but a highlight reel is a lot less then what they’ve earned and what they’ve shown they can handle.

So here we are now with Bianca winning the Rumble and off to presumably face Sasha at WrestleMania in what will be the biggest moment for black women in the history of WWE and the entire wrestling business. Finally the spotlight they’ve earned and a victory in a big match on the biggest stage for once. So what do I see now? Progress yes, but a long road ahead still. This can’t just be a novelty act or ‘here you go, damn!’ situation. These two women are worthy of this being a regular thing and not a one off. Naomi should be a TV regular and not three months on, six months off while others who can barely get through five minute matches without looking lost get featured more. We can relax when Sasha and Bianca getting this spot is no longer a big deal because it happens regularly, be it for them or someone else down the road.

And down the road is important. As anyone who’s studied history knows progress often comes with pushback and with a reversion to the mean if those in charge are left unchecked. With the default choices in the entire entertainment world being what they are the struggle for black men and women to get their proper opportunities is ongoing. But for now while we stay vigilant so as not to let things backslide into the way things always were, we celebrate as we do all wins big and small. If you asked me in 2002 if we’d ever see this I would have said probably not. So I’m glad to have been wrong, and I hope it stays that way.


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