Indeed it was, and not because of the number of participants but because of the roles they were given, from headliners to defending champions to rising stars to young prospects to wily veterans here to help said young prospects. There was a level of trust to Black wrestlers at this show, for the ring work and to sell the event itself, never given before. For our own corner of wrestling fandom it was like when Black Panther premiered a few years ago, and we got to see ourselves not just in the movie but leading the movie, selling the movie, and then propelling it to huge success. For a few fleeting moments it felt like we had truly arrived. But just how far have we come and much further do we have to go? Now, not later, is the time to take a look.
Before we look at this year’s card, let’s first look back to the first WrestleMania. That show and it’s lineup may have been a perfect commentary on the history of Black people in the business. In the main event was Mr. T, who at the time was a huge Hollywood star, but further down the card another Black man, Special Delivery Jones, was literally squashed by King Kong Bundy in nine seconds and in the middle the Junkyard Dog won by countout over Intercontinental Champion Greg “the Hammer” Valentine. A big match featuring a star so big that everyone wanted him, a defeat so quick that you missed it if you blinked, and an unsuccessful attempt to win a title. If you wanted a picture that represented Black people in wrestling for most of it’s existence that was it. Now fast forward to today. There were nine Black wrestlers on the card and all of them were competing for a championship or an opportunity to wrestle for one. There were also another six Black wrestlers on the Friday night preshow, two of which (The Street Profits) who were competing for the Smackdown tag team titles. But the real cappers were that the WWE World Title, with it’s lineage going back to 1963, was successfully defended by a Black man in Bobby Lashley and the first night’s main event was contested for the Smackdown Women’s Title between two Black women in Sasha Banks and Bianca Belair. For Black people it very well may have been, in the immortal words of Tony Schiavone, the greatest night in the history of our sport.
But is this a real thing or just a huge blip? Lashley is the first Black wrestler to successfully defend the WWE Championship at WrestleMania while Banks and Belair are the first Black women to main event a night at WrestleMania. But a few exceptional people at the top doesn’t mean much if they are the only ones getting real opportunities. Lashley, Banks and Belair undeniable are forces of nature, people who look and perform like big, main event level stars. Leaving them out of big spots would only bring about questions of just what the hell you were doing, and ultimately cost you millions of dollars. Just like pushing the Rock was a no brainer, you don’t get any extra credit for them either. No, the real work is with people who do have talent but need some help from the people backstage to fully maximize their potential, the ones who you have to make a choice to invest in over the usual (white) suspects. The paradox of fighting for equality is that you are ultimately fighting for the right to be seen as normal, not to be great. And in a normal workplace the people below the top layer keep the train running as much as the ones in the corner offices. Do we get to be those types now, the ones who show and do their job and get compensated accordingly or do we still have to be supernovas to be seen at all?
The news on that front is mixed. The three members of the New Day have gone on to become big stars in their own right but only after a long road that saw them have to fight for the same treatment as their white contemporaries, while Naomi is still inexplicably shut out of bigger opportunities at every turn. The Hurt Business, Lashley’s faction, was cut in half by Vince despite pleas from Lashley, MVP, and others to keep them all together longer. Even Banks and Belair have been victim of some head scratching booking decisions, ones that don’t even fit into a logical booking strategy of any kind. And that’s not even mentioning some of the recent backstage drama with guys like Lio Rush and ACH (not gonna rehash that here because sides were chosen on those and nobody’s moving, and you can look up what I wrote about it on this site). So to anyone who might say ‘are y’all happy now?’ the answer is ‘not yet!’
That’s not to say there weren’t other positives. Apollo Crews represents a different kind of progress in that he was languishing for years on the roster but in years four and five was given the chance to assert himself and find something that worked. Crews is exactly the kind of example that needs to be more common, the guy or gal that is given time and the assistance to finally reach the right lane if things don’t go right out of the gate. Being perfectly honest Crews is a guy that had he been released in 2018 or 2019 would not have been missed; pushing him like this was a choice and not an obvious call so for that decision to have been made is something to take note of.
So what all am I saying here? Basically that like everything else we celebrate the victories while not losing sight of what work there is still to be done, and that these victories are not permanent and must be maintained through continued work, continued support of the performers, and continued pressure on their employers. As I am prone to saying in conversation the struggle is ongoing despite a few high points. That great day and the others that preceded it didn’t just happen out of thin air and they didn’t happen by waiting on the benevolence of the bookers. They were fought for and earned, so that’s what we, the wrestlers themselves and most importantly the people in charge need to keep doing as long as we’re here.
But I will close with this. Never in all my time as a Black wrestling fan did I think that over a two year span that Bobby Lashley walking in and walking out as WWE World Champion, which has literally never happened for a Black wrestler in the show’s history, would be the third biggest moment of that time for us. That is a big F-ing deal no matter how you slice it. I’ve sat through Saba Simba and Akeem the African Dream and the old ‘two Black guys in the same company either team up or feud’ trope so I will take this moment to smell the roses and you should, too. And the next day we resume the fight for more, because there is still more to be achieved. See you on the battlefield.