New Jack Was Wrestling’s Only Real Gangsta

In a world built on artifice, Jerome Young captivated fans by making his work too real.

For a certain type of wrestling fan, the blaring of Dr. Dre and Ice Cube’s 1994 single “Natural Born Killaz” evokes a context even more legendary than the two former N.W.A. members collaborating for the first time since Cube found the group’s manager Jerry Heller’s hand in his pocket. In Extreme Championship Wrestling, “Natural Born Killaz” became the background music for a New Jack mugging. Born Jerome Young, New Jack had the fearsome thousand-yard stare of a felon. He never wrestled a day in his career, but at one point his fights were among the most captivating spectacles in the art form.

Not only was “Natural Born Killaz” New Jack’s entrance music, the song played on repeat throughout his matches—thanks to Paul Heyman gleefully flouting music licensing fees while offering the record label unpaid credit on ECW Hardcore TV—conjuring the image of someone catching a severe beatdown on a Saturday night in the hood. You can practically see the broken bottles and discarded hubcaps on the curb.

Young named himself after New Jack City, the Mario Van Peebles-directed vehicle for Wesley Snipes in his iconic role as Nino Brown. New Jack adopted the attitude and the smoldering racial strife of early-nineties Los Angeles, boiled over from the 1992 Rodney King uprising. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. once famously said, “A riot is the language of the unheard.” Well, the fury of the riot had just found a college educated voice with a criminal record to barnstorm the perennially white-dominated world of 1990s professional wrestling.

Along with Mustafa Saed and a very young D’Lo Brown, New Jack formed the Gangstas in Smoky Mountain Wrestling. New Jack’s promos were the clear highlight of the group’s presentation, nearly inciting race riots in SMW locales like Spencer, West Virginia and Johnson City, Tennessee. This motherfucker shouted out O.J. Simpson in a promo, the subtext as light as a cinder block. In another, he said, “The only thing we got in common is you didn’t like Martin Luther King, and I didn’t like him either. Because if you smacked him, he turned the other cheek. But baby, if you smack New Jack, or if you smack Mustafa, I’ll beat you like I own you!”

Not since the day “The Big Cat” Ernie Ladd called Bobo Brazil an Uncle Tom was there such a refreshingly incendiary presentation of Blackness in pro wrestling. You would need a psychopathic indifference toward giving a fuck to cross that line in the good ol’ boy’s playground of pro wrestling.

Poor Bob Caudle must have been terrified on the regular.

The Gangstas were defiantly, confrontationally pro-Black; they weren’t just a thug panic gimmick created solely to scare white people—though that was an important part of the whole. They came to the ring with their own security because they didn’t trust the racist police in whatever backwater, hillbilly town they were wrestling in.

New Jack boasted of bringing the Smoky Mountain Wrestling Tag Team Championships back to the hood for their people who couldn’t afford to go to the matches. And they did; New Jack smiled while talking to some young brothers from around the way about beating up Ricky Morton. He openly and frequently decried the Confederate flag in his promos, to the point where he started waving his own flag; black with a white X. “When you look at it, look at it good. It’s more black than it is white. So don’t you think I’m ever a minority, because it’s ‘95 and I’m the majority.”

It is a fantasy of most self-respecting Black Americans, to storm into their local strip mall tavern or across the gravel parking lot of your local Hitchin’ Post Saloon and say, “Listen up, you fucking rednecks!!” Many a Black man has smiled in his heart when seeing the fear of some random white person’s eyes when they see us in the supermarket parking lot or at the pharmacy. New Jack was pro wrestling’s embodiment of the thrill when a Black man realizes white America is scared of him.

White people are afraid of Black power because they think it’s what white power is. Black power is about giving Black people the tools and the courage to survive in a country founded on and running to the watch of white supremacy. Black power is New Jack shouting out Medgar Evers and calling the Knoxville chapter of the NAACP “trained negroes” while openly rejecting the social hierarchy of Southern pro wrestling. (You know, rednecks.) In ECW, New Jack was more than “hardcore” or “extreme.” Young’s style was literally deathmatch wrestling; the ultraviolence swirling inside of him from the trauma he witnessed in childhood. On the Dark Side of the Ring episode “The Life and Crimes of New Jack,” Young describes in horrific detail some of the things his father did to his mother right in front of him.

This is an obituary, but not a hagiography. Jerome Young had his moral flaws—his regular cocaine use before matches; fucking up Mass Transit so bad he caught a case and almost got sued for it; his unfortunate relationship with his son (late in his life, Young would tell his wife he was proud of him)—but people are so fucking self-righteous when their moral flaws aren’t the ones on the table. New Jack presented a real side of the type of Black man a few us know; the violent uncle who had a violent childhood. There is no monolithic Black experience, and though pro wrestling today has many different standards of Blackness—hypebeasts and gamers and MF DOOM-inspired technical wrestlers—there’s no way there will be another New Jack.

In our front-facing, performatively woke, corporate-contemporary culture, where it’s very profitable for rich white folks to act like they care about people different from them, there’s no way New Jack circa 1994-1998 would ever get a sniff at a wrestling contract today.

The most successful wrestling characters are extensions of their own personality; if you’re reading an article on a pro wrestling website, you probably already know this. Ultimately though, pro wrestling is a universe of archetypes. New Jack never felt like an archetype. He probably would have been in the street beating motherfuckers the exact same way had he never entered the wrestling business. That’s what made New Jack so special; he was this real, crazy motherfucker who walked into a world enriched by artifice; a world built on artifice. And he forced it to become more real.