I became a wrestling fan in the downstairs den of a North Carolina group home.
The only other kid staying there at the time was sitting in front of the television set while I was still processing what led me to this group home; the pyro of WCW Monday Nitro exploded on the other side of the room.
I had watched pro wrestling here and there in my childhood; in North Carolina, it was well-established that 6:05 every Saturday night was when wrestling was on TV. Sometimes I’d come in from playing in the woods or skateboarding down the dirt hill behind the Section 8 apartment I lived in with my biological mother. Other times I’d forgo watching and continue to play outside—occasionally armed with a water gun full of ever-so-slightly-watered-down bleach so the other boys wouldn’t try jumping me for fun again—until the sun went down. A little black-and-white set sat on a crate in my bedroom with a big analog dial hooked to it when we could afford cable. Cactus Jack wearing a Sting shirt and using his wit to threaten his rival was when I first realized wrestling wasn’t what I thought it was, which is when it began to pique my interest. But I couldn’t say I was actually a fan.
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By 1997, I knew Ric Flair was still the man, or at least still riding high from the past 15 years of goodwill by virtue of having been the greatest wrestler on earth at some point—and living smack dab in the middle of Horsemen Country, I was always reminded of it. I knew Hulk Hogan had become a bad guy, and I watched enough WWF to know Shawn Michaels was well on his way to succeeding Flair as the top wrestler in the world. I can’t say I would have picked Nitro to watch, but my housemate did all his homework and his chores, and I was still too new for television choice privileges. We had to go to sleep after Nitro was over, so I decided I would try to enjoy it.
I can’t divulge all the details which led me to stay in the shelter of people who worked very closely with the Department of Social Services to take decent kids out of bad homes. It was partly my own doing, feeling as though I wasn’t receiving the vital balm of emotional support I needed after being terrorized throughout childhood by the woman who brought me into the world and suffering the grief of losing my grandmother—one of the few people throughout my life who loved me unconditionally. Don’t let people fool you; love is almost always conditional.
Burned into my brain was the contempt a certain family member occasionally looked at me with, as if I was the same person as my biological mother, who used to punch me in the face and hit me with crutches like I was a wrestler. Who has time to support a child living under the terror of physical and psychological abuse—to treat them like someone who needs more validation and patience than your own children, who have led well-adjusted lives and actually had the opportunity to just be kids—when you could just heap your blame and misdirected anger on a kid who was already carrying too much weight?
Though somewhere in between all that abuse, my biological mom took me to my first wrestling event; some small independent spot show at the armory close to the border of High Point and Jamestown. I can’t for the life of me remember any of the wrestling or the wrestlers there, but running my hand along the ring apron before the show started, to this day, comes to me so clearly. The brown hardwood floor being a slight shade lighter than the bleachers, the dim lighting, the basketball hoops on both ends of the room. The loose, scattered collection of kids also there with their parents.
I bounced around between relatives, like a lot of Black kids growing up in Section 8 housing with parents who struggled with addiction. I’ve been in group and foster homes like those same Black kids.
Passively watching Nitro led to a life-changing moment. Two big, tough dudes walked down the aisle wearing Oakley sunglasses, tremendously popular in the 90’s but now gathering dust at every Sunglass Hut from sea to shining sea. They took turns talking to the camera like they were talking to me; talking about how tough they were and how suckas were about to catch a beatdown. Adorned in long red tights with flames painted on them, the words HARLEM HEAT were emblazoned in aggressive white lettering on their tops.
Nodding my head along to their banger of an entrance theme, containing the allure of something that would have gotten heavy rotation airplay on 102 Jamz—the Piedmont Triad’s only FM hip-hop station—five years prior, I was instantly awed by all the white people raising the roof to varying degrees of success. Part of what I knew about wrestling as a young child was that the Black wrestlers were marginalized into outdated or dumbed down characters; also that the white men who ran wrestling had no idea what young people admired. Everything from the music to what the characters wore were years behind what people my age would consider cool. (Wrestlers still wore mullets in the late-1990s. I rest my case.)
The difference was Booker T and Stevie Ray were cool. And the audience that night adored them. (It would be years before I would see footage of biker children at Sturgis hurling the n-word at them; another story for another time.)
I don’t even remember who Harlem Heat were facing that night, just that it was a nonconsequential spotlight match deep in the second hour of Nitro; I suppose it’s a moot point anyway given this was my first glimpse of one of the top tag teams of their generation. No one could touch the presence of these two bad ass dudes muscling around their opponents, and the live crowd ate it up like $5 arena nachos. Booker T wrestled circles around his semi-anonymous opponents, working harder than any heavyweight wrestler I had seen in my limited wrestling viewing up to that point. Stevie Ray, looking and hitting the part of someone who truly would beat the fuck out of anybody, looked like one of the cats in my neighborhood who everybody knew was not to be trifled with. Stevie was built like a brother who just came home from prison.
Many of my memories from group and foster homes have been buried beneath the two decades-plus worth of memories, jobs, apartments, short-lived flings, creative endeavors, therapy sessions, sleeping pill and alcohol abuse, and god knows what else that went on inside my head. But I remember crying the entire day after being sent to a foster home a couple weeks after this night. I remember hearing Redman’s Muddy Waters LP for the first time shortly before I left the foster home for my aunt’s house; sitting outside of the courtroom for a custody hearing with my father about an hour before our cross-country flight to Washington State. And I vividly remember Stevie Ray bullying motherfuckers and Booker T gliding across the ring on this night.
There’s a saying I used to hear about drug dealers being the rock star ideal for most hood-reared kids because they’re the first sign of glamour they saw; that was most certainly true for me as a child. A guy named Ricky lived near me, drove a brand-new Lexus and wore Polo Ralph Lauren every day—and I idolized him. But then I saw these huge, tough, Black dudes on wrestling’s most popular weekly program, who looked like they could have grown up in the same type of neighborhood as me, who might have been scrawny like me at one point in their lives; who were on TV, who were artists, who were stars. A big part of me was convinced I wasn’t going to live long enough to have a future, but if I did have one, there might have been a way out of the damned existence I lived in the shadow of.
I knew even then I didn’t have it in me to become a wrestler, but I was already a dreamer. Harlem Heat helped me determine what would happen if I had a dream big enough to climb into.
I was in attendance at WrestleMania for the infamous Booker T vs. Triple H World Heavyweight Championship match.
When WrestleMania came to Seattle, I took my little brother. My best friend at the time brought along his girlfriend’s little brother, who happened to be friends with my baby bro. They were both around my age when seeing Harlem Heat on Nitro stopped me in my tracks years before. Along with my then-best friend, who was briefly in the midst of pro wrestling training in Tacoma, we were the brain trust of a character-centric backyard wrestling “federation.” We had two old mattresses which we laid on a patch of grass on the side of his house. Our show was as sophomoric as Being the Elite, only not even remotely funny.
But we had our moments, culminating in a final match which took place in the car wash I was the manager of (IRL, not kayfabe). (It goes without saying our taping took place after hours.) For programming purposes, I played the role of the boss: an over-the-top, megalomaniacal twerp who was revealed in-storyline to be merely a figurehead for the company owned by my father. At the time I was obsessed with the concept of the hip-hop mogul—this being the early-2000s and the bulk of my music listening being peak Roc-A-Fella and the dying gasps of Bad Boy Records—and I dressed to reflect this fascination aesthetically. It was interesting for me to be a Black person in a position of power, occupying a space which had been historically occupied by white men. So I wore my doo-rags and Rocawear shirts, fake Cartier glasses and platinum chains—the latter straight from an ad in the back of XXL Magazine—and I played the part as convincingly as possible.
WrestleMania XIX occurred at the end of our run, where we tried to put on a show in the pouring rain underneath a tarp and nobody wanted to be a part of it. To tell the truth, I think we were getting burnt out on the entire experience. This would end up being the last wrestling event I would attend or watch before CM Punk dropped a pipe bomb at the end of an episode of Monday Night Raw and most of the things I hated about wrestling began to erode. Some of those things exist to this day, but the product is by and large more compelling than it was around 2003.
To be honest, my interest began to fade before this night; I couldn’t bring myself to watch WWF/E for four hours every single week, especially when my interest in pro wrestling was being replaced by an obsession with music, clothes, and dating. But this was WrestleMania, and I knew some of the wrestling would justify the fact that my friend and I stood in a long line outside of a Rite-Aid at 8:30 on a Saturday morning. I wore a Hulkamania tee with matching wristbands and a red doo-rag to the event (of course), pretty sure it would be the only WrestleMania I’d ever attend. (For now, that fact would remain true.)
Though there was evidence Black wrestlers had finally broken through the glass ceiling of pro wrestling, as soon as one broke through, they built the glass studier for the next one. Most of us knew how many cosmic signposts had to be passed in order for The Rock one of the brightest stars WWE ever had; all of the attributes which have led him to being the same for Hollywood, playfully flirting with the idea of a presidential campaign on an NBC sitcom. If he were missing any single component—the looks, the charisma, the knack for wrestling, or the third-generation birthright—would Dwayne Johnson have been one of the biggest stars WWE has ever had? People talk endlessly about Vince McMahon’s glass ceiling, same as they do for every one in every corporate structure. Plenty of talented Black wrestlers have bonked their heads on it. 2003 was WWE’s chance to break it for Booker T. But they decided not to.
Within the same year of establishing my wrestling fandom, Booker T had moved on to singles wrestling, won the WCW TV Championship, and proved himself to be one of the best wrestlers in the world. I consider myself to be a pretty even-minded person, but there’s no motherfucker in the world who can tell me Booker wasn’t a god-level wrestler in 1998. He kept pace with the technicians, slugged it out with the brawlers, flattened the high-fliers, and showed he was game enough to get a good match out of wrestlers who weren’t quite as good as him. When Nitro became a much less compelling show, he was easily the week-to-week highlight. When McMahon bought WCW for pennies on the dollar, Book was game again, engaging in a very memorable program with “Stone Cold” Steve Austin and turning a randomly assembled, odd-duck pairing with Goldust into a hysterical and surprisingly emotional character arc.
It did feel as though by 2003, Booker wasn’t allowed to flex his chops as a wrestler as much as in WCW—as great a character as he had been and would become, he was just so good in the ring. Concurrently, his WrestleMania opponent assumed the mantle of WWE’s top heel, a position he would hold for several years. Triple H had some very good matches—occasionally even great ones—but the common thread between them was they were with wrestlers who were either better wrestlers or more compelling stars than him (oftentimes both).
Even to the untrained eye, in this period he was far from known as the guy who got great matches out of guys who weren’t as good, or cared to make rising stars look as good as they were. When Triple H was motivated, he managed to have the type of blockbuster matches WWE had staked their reputation on. When he was uninspired, his matches were plodding and ponderous. Grandiose and pretentious even before his overly elaborate entrances and extended match times he favors these days.
And let’s not even broach the subject of his character at the time. He was given more promo time than most other wrestlers had for their matches. He roofied a woman, married her, and bragged about “consummating the marriage” when she was unconscious! He humped a corpse on primetime television! Funnily enough, Triple H was my friend and WrestleMania attendance mate’s favorite wrestler until he was awarded the Big Gold Belt for no reason.
You remember the infamous promo Hunter cut on Booker T. The one where Triple H referenced Booker’s “nappy hair” with a particular hint of disgust in his voice, when he espoused the idea—not necessarily in words but most certainly in tone—“once a criminal, always a criminal.” He told him someone like Booker—a neon sign pointing to the subtext—didn’t deserve to be the World’s Heavyweight Champion or even be in the same ring as him. If you ask me, the matter of who couldn’t lace whose boots in 2003 was not in overwhelming favor of the champion.
Fast-forward to the present day a bit: Of Bruce Prichard’s philosophy of “never allow the truth to get in the way of a good story or convenient worldview,” the most laughably egregious thing he’s ever said on his Something to Wrestle podcast was on the WrestleMania XIX episode when he tried to justify the existence of the build to Booker and Triple H’s less than stellar outing, having the gall to suggest it wasn’t what it was. Prichard lobbed an eye-roll-worthy argument suggesting Hunter’s inference was that Book was the top guy in the minor leagues of WCW, even though nobody cared about WCW anymore since they were blown out at every turn during 2001’s bungled Invasion storyline. No undue offense to Prichard, as I’m a pretty loyal Something to Wrestle listener and his defense of the WWF/E product is usually inoffensive and lighthearted, but him scrubbing out the inherent racism of Triple H’s promo on Booker is at best an alarming stretch of critical credulity. At worst it’s casual white privilege at its most damaging.
Look, I’m not saying Triple H is or was an outright racist; I think he was about as racist as the vast majority of white men were in that period. The Woke Olympics didn’t exist back then; white men weren’t falling all over themselves to prove to the groups they used to gleefully marginalize that they were good people. I wasn’t that offended when Harley Race (a favorite wrestler of mine whom Hunter emulated at nearly every turn) told Ron Simmons a boy who looked like him used to carry his bags, but Triple H’s taunts here demoralized me as a wrestling fan. Whereas Race seemed like he was making an observation about Black people being held back in society—regardless of his role in it—Triple H put a little too much mustard behind his character’s white privilege. He was too convincing, which might be more of a compliment to his character than his true motivations, but it was still a depressing program nonetheless.
I was hopeful Book would get his shining moment under the bright lights of WrestleMania, a karmic reward for one of the best wrestlers in the game (pun intended) and all the bullshit he probably had to put up with because he was Black. Here was a man who actually had an upbringing similar to mine—you could say perhaps even worse, given the grief he suffered so young—who made something great of himself; who made something great of himself even back when I saw him tagging with his brother in 1997. Given that I already had a certain idea of how things pan out in wrestling, I had my doubts, but I was gonna be there to shout my heart out if the Black man finally wins.
Booker T coming out to that crowd of 50-some-odd-thousand at what was then called Safeco Field was one of the goosebump-sprouting moments of the show—which included the famous Shawn Michaels vs. Chris Jericho match and the hush which fell over the huge crowd when Brock Lesnar’s ill-advised decision to do a shooting star press which led everyone to believe he broke his neck. In the glow of the WrestleMania stage setup, I remember briefly thinking WWE would make Booker a star because he entered the ring after the champion.
All in all, the match was good, mercifully short for a Triple H bout, spoiled by its (probably unintentional) ending; it took H nearly seventeen seconds to get to the pin after the Pedigree, and the match ended not with a hotly contested finish, just a man pretending to be unconscious for damn near a half a minute. It didn’t do anything for Triple H, it didn’t necessarily make the Pedigree seem like a devastating move. The ending to the match was the slow agony of a balloon deflating.
What is the moral of this fable? Well, the white man ridiculed the Black man about his hardscrabble past and, again, his “nappy hair,” exposing his extreme privilege as one of wrestling’s top stars. The white man underestimated the Black man to no goddamn end, cheated multiple times, and still won. It felt like an enormous parallel to the real world, the sort of situation wrestling pats itself on the back for avoiding by letting the good guy hold the championship and his head high for the world to see, a rare occasion where wrestling hit way too close to home.
I learned a valuable lesson that day.