It’s a new day! Yes it, For Kofi Kingston anyway. Kingston went into his match with Daniel Bryan seeking his first WWE (World) Championship Sunday at Wrestlemania 35. With his defeat of Bryan he won not only his first world title, he became the first African American to hold the WWE Title. That is if you ignore Dwayne ‘The Rock’ Johnson. Further complicating any claim to being first is the acquisition of WCW by Vince McMahon which created two world titles in WWE. That, along with the later reunification of those titles into one single championship that was held by both Booker T and Mark Henry. For the wrestling business, this may be just another day. Here we explore the history of black world wrestling champions.
If you ask the WWE, that honor goes to Ron Simmons. A man, they, somewhat coincidentally, employ. Before wrestling under the ring name Farooq, a militant black character who leads a stable known as the Nation of Domination; a natural predecessor to Kofi’s ‘New Day’ faction. A stable that, under Simmons’ would transform into a “Bigger, Badder, Better and Blacker” version of itself. The members of which, in this iteration, were all former or future world champions in their own right. Prior to wrestling in WWE, Simmons wrestled for World Championship Wrestling(WCW). He would become a one-time WCW Champion, becoming the first officially recognized African American World Champion.
The original ‘World’s Wrestling Champion’ was crowned in 1905 when George Hackenschmidt won several tournaments to be recognized as World Champion in North America. This title was decommissioned in 1956 and picked up again with the NWA Championship in 1957. Nearly every major world championship, that exists in the United States today, can trace its origins back to this title.
During the earliest days of professional wrestling matches were segregated. Black and white wrestlers were considered different divisions. Some of the territories established a World Negro Heavyweight Champion in addition to their other Titles. History is unclear whether this was a physical championship or simply a gimmick. The earliest known World Negro Champion appears to be Reginald Siki. He was billed as champion starting in January 1924, Alex Keffner as Black Panther 1933(Des Moines, IA) George Godfrey in January 1935. In 1936 the NWA recognized Jack Nelson as Negro World Champion from, at least, March 8- April 3, 1936. Rufus Jones, 1938 (Kentucky), Jack Clayborne became champion in February 1941 He was recognized as such, in various territories until March 8, 1954. Seelie Samara was named as the champion for being the “only negro known” to the territory sometime after May ‘41 in Iowa, as well as other states, reigning until 1954. Alex Keffner claimed the title in 1941(Milwaukee), Don Kindred in 1946 (Akron, OH). Johnny Cobb is billed as champion in 1950(Janesville, WI), Frankie James in 1954(Springfield, MA), Luther Lindsay 1955, Bobo Brazil 1957(Honolulu,HI), Sweet Daddy Siki in 1959(Indianapolis,IN), Bearcat Wright in 1962(Michigan) Bobo Brazil in 1963-1965(Lansing, MI and Bridgeport, CT) and finally, Art Thomas 1967(Orlando, FL)
During the old territory days, becoming and being recognized as world champion relied heavily on the National Wrestling Alliance(NWA). The NWA was the preeminent ruling body of professional wrestling. Their board of directors decided who would be their World Champion by vote. Each territory had their own champion but would, normally, recognize and acknowledge the NWA World Championship and whoever held it, as the main title for each of the associated territories. There were cases in the history of old NWA when different men were recognized as champion in different territories. Generally, the World Champion toured the partner regions, typically, facing their champion helping to build the profile of their top star and prestige of their title.
The NWA did not, officially, recognize its first black World Champion until August 2, 2002, the night Ron Killings won the NWA World Heavyweight Championship. Decades before Killings held the title, Bobo Brazil defeated Buddy Rogers becoming NWA Champion in 1962 through the NWA does not acknowledge this win officially.
Territories operating outside of the NWA were considered to be an outlaw. Several of these rogue organizations would have African American World Champions. Big Time Wrestling was one such of these outliers. On April 4, 1961, a black wrestler by the name of Bearcat Wright won the Atlantic Athletic Commission World Heavyweight Championship giving him the distinction of being the first, unofficial, black world champion.
Again on August 23, 1963, Bobcat, now wrestling for WWA Los Angeles, would make history by winning his match against ‘Classy’ Freddie Blassie for the WWA World Championship, which traced its lineage back to the original World Heavyweight Championship. That night he became the first, officially, recognized black champion of the world. Three years later Bobo Brazil also won the WWA World Title on Jan. 12, 1968. In October that year, WWA would join the NWA. Brazil wrestled Gene Kiniski to a time limit draw in a title unification match. Bobo Brazil once again fell short of becoming NWA Champion when they recognized Kininski as champion after their match. The WWA World Title stayed active in Indianapolis. On April 25, 1972, Art Thomas won this version of the title. Nine years later, on November 1, 1981, Ernie ‘The Cat’ Ladd won the title from Dick the Bruiser. Bobo Brazil would win this title twice in ‘81 first in July and again in November. Calypso Jim was the second to last champion, winning the title in the Summer in 1988.
After the national expansion of the WWF, AWA and, JCP in the early 1980s major titles were merged into others. The AWA merged its World Title with WCWA’s World Heavyweight Championship created the USWA Unified World Heavyweight Championship on December 13, 1988, at Super Clash 3. Reigning AWA Champion Jerry Lawler defeated Kerry Von Erich unifying the two titles in one. In March 1988, before the title unification, Iceman King Parsons won the WCWA World Champion defeating Kerry Von Erich. The USWA ran from 1989 to 1997.
A number of black wrestlers would hold their World Title. The first of these men was Charles Wright, a future member of the aforementioned Nation of Domination stable, wrestling under the moniker Soultaker. He won the USWA Title from Jerry Lawler on October 23, 1989. Neither of these title changes is acknowledged by the Texas branch of the USWA. King Cobra was next. He also defeated Jerry Lawler becoming World Champion on August 27, 1990. He would later be stripped of the title after no-showing a defense. The WCWA leaves, severing ties, with the USWA. Jerry Lawler won the title, again, after a tournament to crown a new champion. He would secure the title several times more before dropping it to Kamala in the first of his four World Title reigns for the company on November 25, 1991. Kamala won the USWA Title for the second time, on December 9, one week after losing it back to Lawler and the title was vacated. The title was once more vacated after Kamala defended against Koko B Ware against whom he won their rematch for his third reign with the belt. Two weeks later, Koko B Ware won the title in the first of his two championship reigns. This marks the first time a World Title changed hands from one black champion to another.
At this juncture I will return to the story that inspired this article: Ron Simmons August 2, 1992, WCW Championship victory. On that fateful night, Big Van Vader was set to defend his WCW World Championship against Sting. Before the bout could take place, a debuting Jake Roberts would injure Sting with a DDT. In a stroke of brilliance, Bill Watts, President of WCW, held a raffle to decide the next contender to Vader’s championship. Ron Simmons won the raffle securing himself a shot at the champ in the main event. Simmons defeated Vader becoming the first African American to win the WCW World Championship. It was a great moment in wrestling history. Simmons celebrated in the ring with his fellow faces from the locker. As in war, History favors the victors and WWE won that war. So, on that night, Ron Simmons became recognized as the first African American World Heavyweight Champion in wrestling history.
On September 22, 1992, Junkyard Dog won the USWA World Title kicking off his only world championship reign. Two years prior he, unsuccessfully, challenged NWA Champion Ric Flair. Only five days later, JYD would lose the title to Butch Reed. On December 7, 1992, in what became a recurring theme for two dozen time champion, Jerry Lawler, lost his title to Koko B Ware beginning his second and final title reign with the company. Charles Wright returned to USWA during talent exchange with the WWE. As Papa Shango, Wright would win his second World Title before dropping it to Owen Hart the next month. Wright was unhappy that he felt the company took advantage of his being black by having him win the World Title in front of the mostly black crowd. He would quit the business before eventually returning to WWE. Several years later Ahmed Johnson, other alumni of the notorious Nation of Domination faction, also won the USWA World Championship. With his victory over Jerry Lawler, King Reginald became the last black World Champion of the USWA in 1997 before the promotion shut its doors two years later.
Check back tomorrow for part two.