The loudest cheers at the 2016 WWE Hall of Fame Induction Ceremony weren’t directed at the legendary performers being enshrined.
The group that really got the American Airlines Arena rocking was The New Day, a tag team trio comprised of three black wrestlers: Daredevil Kofi Kingston, geeky loudmouth Xavier Woods, and champion powerlifter “Big E” Langston. Since their debut as a team in late-2014, their combination of call-and-response theatrics and savvy nerd culture references has taken the sport by storm.
They were there to induct the four members of the Fabulous
Freebirds, an extremely successful Southern
rock-inspired tag team from the 1980s, and their induction speech
centered on the similarities between the two.
“Like us, those dudes loved to have fun,” said “Big E” Langston. “Remember the face paint?”
The audience, some of whom undoubtedly remembered the Confederate flag face paint occasionally worn by the Freebirds, fell silent.
“Yeah, we’re gonna talk about that,” Langston continued. “Red, white, and blue—those guys were patriotic!”
The crowd laughed at Langston’s joke and The New Day continued their speech, but this was a telling moment: One minor aspect of pro wrestling’s unsavory racial past had been invoked, mocked, and then buried by three men who appear to represent the future of the business. A genuinely new era, announced almost in passing by Rolling Stone’s 2015 Wrestlers of the Year, may have finally arrived.
Minority performers have occupied a niche in the carnival
atmosphere of the sport almost since its outset. Since wrestling became more
colorful and spectator-friendly in the early 1930s, with a gradual movement
away from amateur-style wrestling and black trunks, people from the Levant and
the Middle East have been cast as sheiks
and sultans, hairy men of all backgrounds have played Rasputin-type
Eastern Europeans brutes, and Asians have found themselves asked to
portray exotic Oriental villains.
Even in a business that emphasizes simplistic conflicts and easy-to-understand theatrics, these roles were limiting. “Although white wrestlers like the flamboyant Gorgeous George or Adrian Street could sometimes be associated with multiple, fluid masculinities, the minority body under the colonial gaze is often assumed to be incapable of irony or self-representation,” explained Broderick Chow, a lecturer in theater at Brunel University London who has written extensively about professional wrestling. Black performers have fared especially poorly, usually winding up cast as African savages or soulful bad guys.
Over time, a handful of truly spectacular entertainers distinguished themselves as major draws during an era when the professional wrestling business consisted of many loosely-affiliated territories, each with its own regional focus. From Bobo Brazil and “Sailor” Art Thomas in 1960s, through ex-NFL great Ernie Ladd and “Thunderbolt” Patterson in the 1970s, and all the way to Southern superheroes Junkyard Dog and “Iceman” King Parsons in the 1980s, the sport benefited from the work of black athletes whose presences guaranteed big box offices in cities like Detroit, Dallas, and New Orleans.
But it wasn’t until then-WCW president Bill Watts put his federation’s title belt on former All-American football player Ron Simmons that a black wrestler held a recognized world title. Watts had printed money with Junkyard Dog as top dog in his regional territory during the 1980s, but both his stint at WCW and Simmons’ run with the belt were short-lived—doomed, oddly enough, by the revelation of racist remarks made by Watts in support of former Georgia governor Lester Maddox that led to his ouster from Ted Turner’s organization.
Some of these athletes, such as Junkyard Dog and Simmons, made
their way through the WWE, where they were rebranded in whatever image the
company deemed appropriate for them. The Dog went from a John Henry-style folk
hero in Mississippi to a barking, tongue-wagging sidekick to 80s
megastar “Hulk” Hogan, while Simmons was retrofitted in the mid-90s first as a
weird kind of “modern gladiator” and then as the Elijah Muhammad-style Nation
of Domination leader Faarooq.
The Nation of Domination offers a good example of how Vince McMahon has handled black wrestlers. Born in eastern North Carolina and raised in the wrestling business, McMahon’s first inclination is to make everything colorful, bizarre, and cartoonish—which means McMahon has also never met a stereotype he doesn’t like. The offenses in this regard are spread across the socio-cultural spectrum, with Southerners depicted as inbred rednecks, Latinos as low-riding sleazebags, and Asians as vengeful genitals-chopping schemers.
The Nation of Domination, originally a kind of catch-all destination for mismatched wrestlers such as heavyset high-flyer D-Lo Brown and champion weightlifter Mark Henry, also launched the career of Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson. The Rock, who had faltered as a second-generation good guy, emerged as a mega-celebrity simply by being an outsized version of himself. Instead of merely portraying the part of a craven separatist second-in-command, The Rock subverted that paradigm and launched a long and successful career as a massively charismatic catchphrase-deliverer with crossover appeal.
But even though he was the son of Rocky Johnson, a black bodybuilder who was one of the top WWE superstars of the early 1980s, The Rock presented himself as a post-racial figure. He had reinvented himself, to be sure, but he wasn’t a mash-up or a signification of anything else; he was sui generis, and it was fitting that he abandoned the Nation of Domination to create his own distinct legend.
Which brings us back to The New Day, a group that, new or not,
are very much indebted to the old, namely the WWE’s history of mismanaging
black talent. The success of The Rock didn’t stop poor stablemate Mark Henry,
perhaps the greatest athlete to ever set foot in a WWE
ring, from being labeled “Sexual Chocolate” and forced to pantomime vomiting
after “accidentally” receiving oral sex from a transsexual (this really happened). It
didn’t stop the fans from having to endure hours of the Godfather, whose
gimmick consisted of “pimping hos,” or R-Truth rapping his way to glory while
occasionally forgetting where he was or what he was doing.
The New Day initially weren’t expected to do much, either. Kingston and Langston had held lower-level singles titles, and Woods had worked as a second for R-Truth, but none of the trio had done anything to suggest they were mega-stars in the making. In today’s WWE, tag teams are usually where moderately successful singles wrestlers go to either revive their careers or disappear quietly, and the initial packaging of this trio amounted to more of the same. The group, who together delivered a message of obnoxious positivity in a gospel style, initially received the same overwhelmingly negative crowd response that The Rock had; in both cases, chants of “you suck” rained down on the performers.
But, also like The Rock, The New Day absorbed those boos and used them to elevate their work. Hated by all, laboring in a tag team division that is largely an afterthought in a company obsessed with finding the next solo superstar, they began to incorporate one personal touch after another. But these decisions, from the adoption of Woods’s nerd culture obsessions to the trio’s playful and not-at-all exploitative deployment of a vulnerable, edgy self-presentation built around “horn blowing” and unicorn horns, seem like thoughtful nods to intellectual currents within black culture rather than attempts to elide or transcend it.
As Laur Jackson noted in a recent essay about the blackness of meme movement, “even as by definition anything called culture is constantly ... remaking itself with old material, the survivalist maneuver performs most importantly amongst a [black] tradition that knows itself to be up for grabs in a certain way, that must always be made anew but never lose itself.”
The New Day, then, is perhaps better understood as the “Making it Anew” Day, a group of defiantly black athletes (Langston, Kingston, and Woods have roots in the Caribbean, Ghana, and Georgia, respectively) whose reclamation of their full selves has occurred week by week, in front of millions, even as WWE’s creative team has struggled to develop Roman Reigns, a gifted wrestler who seems to have everything but “it,” into a 2016 iteration of The Rock.
They have dominated the tag team ranks for two years now, gotten over with the fans like the departed C.M. Punk and Daniel Bryan before them, and earned a tremendous amount of mainstream acclaim in the process. But can a group that has exceeded the sum of its parts truly prosper in a superstar-driven business?
“The challenge with tag team wrestlers is that usually they’re in tag teams because they couldn’t get over on their own,” said “Cowboy” Johnny Mantell, a long-time former wrestler and current president of the Pro Wrestling Hall of Fame. “Even the most popular tag teams like the Road Warriors were never really on top of a card; they were in co-main events at best.”
Mantell thinks that the Freebirds, whom New Day inducted into WWE’s Hall of Fame, offer a model to emulate. “All of those guys could go out there and wrestle on their own. Terry Gordy and Buddy Roberts were incredible talents, and Michael Hayes was amazing on the microphone. The Four Horsemen, same thing—those guys, Ric Flair and Arn Anderson and Tully Blanchard, could headline shows on their own. So that’s the test.”
It’s also the test for the WWE, which has had to grudgingly set aside its best-laid corporate plans to make way for self-made sensations like Steve Austin, The Rock, and CM Punk. Will each member of The New Day receive a second chance to shine in singles competition?
For wrestling scholar Broderick Chow, there is much more at stake than fame and fortune. “When I watched New Day’s recent entrance at a Brooklyn show, I wondered about audiences perceiving the irony here. There’s so much going on, but as with Beyoncé’s ‘Formation,’ you had people freaking out and reacting to it in a literal way. I think when you’re dealing with an artist of color, people immediately assume a kind of literality they wouldn’t with a white artist.”
In other words, can The New Day draw audience Steve Austin-level applause not just for their antics but for their artistry? The weight of wrestling history may not be on the group’s side, but the recent breakthroughs of so many critically acclaimed black performers in other fields suggest that a brand new day could be dawning in professional wrestling, too.