Two weeks ago, Big E—his pseudo-surname Langston colonized out of existence as he has often joked—called his shot by announcing on Twitter he was going to cash in his Money in the Bank briefcase on Monday’s episode of Raw. When he followed through on his promise by pinning Bobby Lashley, he not only upended the very nature of Twitter threats, but he sent a worldwide expanse of wrestling fans into a puddle of happy tears.
His friends, his peers, fans desperate for any justification at all to still watch WWE’s flagship weekly series. E closing Raw with the title aloft was met with universal praise, the outpouring of pride and congratulations a rare sign of a wrestler being truly beloved.
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Just as significant as Big E being part of a small handful of Black world champions in the history of professional wrestling is the fact that he achieved that honor on his own terms.
Every few years I cringe as the mainstream (read: white) American public has to be reminded there is no monolithic Black experience. We as African Americans, just like every other race of people in the world, have a range of identities, experiences, interests, and cultural touchstones. I feel like I’m dumbing myself down even having to write that sentence in the moments before I realized there are still people who need to know this essential fact.
In order to really get to the crux of why Big E winning the WWE Championship is Important, we have to look at the archetype of past top title holders. Most reading this essay knows World Wrestling Entertainment is guided by the whims of a 76-year-old man with an incredibly specific view of what a top star in his field should carry themselves. From Hulk Hogan to the recently unseated Lashley, WWE’s marquee champions more often than not project an alpha maleness that practically challenges you to arm wrestle from the other side of the TV screen.
There are exceptions, like E’s chosen brother and New Day partner Kofi Kingston, but Kofi was always a wrestler’s wrestler and his miracle championship reign was years overdue. Even so, his run might have been in spite of McMahon’s well-known preferences rather than because of them.
Big E is, by his own admission, an introvert. On the New Day’s podcast, The New Day: Feel the Power, he once quipped about having a “fear of not missing out” that I quote as often as nearly everyone else who has listened to the show references “big, meaty men slapping meat.” E has been very open about his struggles with depression and self-doubt, two ailments I can relate to having deeply. And how does the former state champion wrestler emerge from his shell in order to fill the outsized mold of WWE Superstar? He swivels his hips, he does the splits, he launches into a very convincing preacher’s voice while cracking jokes on WWE programming which flies squarely over the heads of anyone not tapped into Black Twitter.
When he was a heel, he pantomimed flicking his dick sweat onto his opponents, something I was certain he wouldn’t be able to get away with for as long as he did.
The New Day
The New Day’s rise to generation-defining group in the structure of WWE is inextricably tied to their relatability as performers and humans. We all have friends like these three media-savvy, wisecracking, goofy-ass dudes. Kofi’s a sneakerhead vegan who hates singing-ass rappers, Xavier Woods is such an accomplished gamer he’s now a G4 host, E speaks about professional sports, hip-hop, and his barber with an equal amount of reverence.
In WWE canon they are the only group who made people look forward to pancakes, trombones, and absurdly named breakfast cereal. The brass instrument Francesca and her successor, Francesca II: Turbo were honest-to-god characters on the show. They preached the power of positivity—first disingenuously as heels, and then as a defining ethos when they turned face.
The New Day’s approach was and is a far cry from the brolic, scowling menace of past top Black stars in WWE—excluding The Rock of course, because once-in-a-lifetime stars are always going to be the exception to the rule. After KofiMania ran wild at Wrestlemania 35, it seemed as though fans immediately asked when Big E’s turn was coming. When Kingston was unceremoniously removed of his championship by Brock Lesnar on the Fox premiere of SmackDown, rhetorical fantasy booking turned to outright demand.
A bold structural move by WWE would lead to a slow and thankfully steady rise when during the 2020 WWE Draft, the company decided to split up the band, keeping E on Friday nights while moving Kofi and Woods over to Raw. The expressions on their faces said it all; Kingston disgusted, Woods crestfallen and deeply contemplative. In his first act as a solo artist, E reflected a range of emotions as he rested his elbow on the top rope and held up his face with his right hand. Reflective, betrayed, deeply disappointed, a little confused; all with one look.
The operative cliche at WWE is “we make movies.” Big E showed a leading man’s ability to tell a whole story without saying a word on the night his brothers were sent away from him.
Thankfully, the next 11 months would mark a refreshingly steady climb for E that would reach its end at the mountaintop. In fact, the only real roadblocks he encountered weren’t due to WWE’s notoriously wishy-washy plotting or its cold feet when building new stars, but in the form of how he was perceived by respected veterans of the wrestling business.
Be More Serious
Booker T was the most vocal in his criticisms of the Big E character, speaking on his Hall of Fame podcast about Big E needing to shed the more lighthearted aspects of the New Day in order to be taken seriously as a main event, marquee star. But Book—another Black star whose world championship reign in WWE was painfully overdue—didn’t offer the only iteration of this argument; E has alluded in interviews to the common advice he’s received backstage, to be “more serious.” To portray himself as the brooding ass kicker seen at the top of WWE in many iterations over the past nearly 60 years; to forsake what has made him one of the most genuinely entertaining personalities the company has had in a long while.
There is a suggestion when people talk about Big E needing to be more serious, especially when looking back at the small handful of Black world champions there have been in pro wrestling. That observation promotes the need to assimilate, to fit oneself into the narrow paradigm of the badass Black world-beater in order to easily reach the opportunity to be that top star. Only in the past few years—most certainly fewer than a decade’s worth—have we as Black people been given a mainstream platform to offer different perspectives, different looks, different interests as it pertains to being Black. For so many years we’ve only been allowed to convey different ideas on what it means to be Black.
Being a funny weirdo doesn’t detract from E’s gifts as a pro wrestler; it doesn’t take away his speed or his ring intelligence or the fact that he could probably deadlift a Fiat. Truth be told, E offers so much more to WWE and its fans by being the cartoonishly exaggerated version of the person behind the character.
As wrestling fans, all we need is our favorite stars to be believable, authentic representations of themselves. That’s how we set aside the theatrically silly aspects of pro wrestling and latch onto it as a human experience, it’s how we laugh, cry, and wretch with our heroes. It’s how we feel things when we watch two people in spandex throw each other around.
Since winning the Intercontinental Championship for the second time in December, Big E has taken us on a compelling emotional journey through all its peaks and valleys. We cheered him on when he took the title off of Sami Zayn in a storyline nobody could claim as “serious” with a straight face. We watched as he spun gold out of Apollo Crews’ fake Nigerian accent. We raised our eyebrows in confusion as Aleister Black was released in the middle of a blood feud with E. A lump rose in our collective throat when E choked up and nearly burst into tears while holding his newly won Money in the Bank briefcase.
The pop from when he pinned Lashley was deafening. Too loud for someone who truly needed to compromise the character they’ve spent years cultivating in order to be taken seriously and viewed as a “real” top guy.
It’s a fundamental truth which has been repeated ad nauseum: Representation matters. And truthfully, WWE is rich in Black characters articulating varied expressions of Blackness even outside of the New Day. Sasha Banks and Bianca Belair are two of the most naturally gifted and charismatic stars wrestling has ever seen. MVP and Bobby Lashley carried a floundering Raw on their backs for over a year. Reggie seemingly came out of nowhere to become a low key dazzling WWE star. Malcolm Bivens is the best manager in wrestling and has been for a while. Hit Row, led by NXT North American Champion Isaiah “Swerve” Scott, is the freshest thing to happen on NXT in a long time—containing the sort of new-school rap swagger it would have been unfathomable to see on a wrestling show a decade ago. Big E emerging to the top is indicative of a wrestling fandom wanting to see top stars who stand out, not ones who remind them of a thinning era.
More importantly than the legions of fans in the arena cheering their lungs out for Big E as he smiled broadly and held the WWE Championship aloft, way more importantly than writers like me thinking of cool ways to articulate his tears of joy, there were glowing televisions all over the world, with thousands of Black kids who decided they want to become professional wrestlers. Maybe they’re a little introverted, a little goofy, told they weren’t serious enough or determined enough to achieve their dreams.
Then those Black kids watched Big E and saw themselves in his victory. And ultimately, that’s the true gift of representation; to show future generations they can do what you did by being themselves.