Not enough people remember Bearcat Wright, the first African-American world heavyweight champion.
He was recognized nationally when the World Wrestling Associates promotion in Los Angeles put the title on him in August 1963, five days before the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom where Martin Luther King Jr. delivered the famous “I Have a Dream” speech.
His name was brought up some last year after Wrestlemania when Kofi Kingston became, some say, the first African-American wrestler to hold the coveted WWE World Title. Perhaps in doing so (and I am guilty of it here at TWM having been swept up in KofiMania), the Rock was discredited, done a disservice. While his Samoan background and A’noai family heritage from his mother has been most lauded, we are reminded with the recent passing of his father, the great Rocky Johnson who broke many barriers for African-American wrestlers as a black superstar in the 70s and 80s, that the Rock was indeed a black champion in the WWF in the late 1990s and 2000s.
This Black History Month in America seems an appropriate time to reflect on and sort these accomplishments from all four of these groundbreaking black wrestlers. While that reflection might include caveats and debates like “well, the WWA wasn’t the NWA title in the 60s so it was second tier,” and “the Rock is more well-known as Samoan than black,” or “Kofi is the first real black WWF/E champion,” there is no debate in the case of Ron Simmons, aka Faarooq.
In 1992, Cowboy Bill Watts was running World Championship Wrestling, and looking for something new to grow the promotion. If you’re only familiar with Watts from the Legends of Wrestling roundtable discussions on the Network where old wrestlers, promoters and Taz(z) sit around smoking and talking about old school wrestling, you might think Watts is just an adoring fan of old school southern rasslin’ who survived in the business. In truth, his history in the national spotlight is quite murky. At a time when most promoters in the 1980s were chiding and hiding from Dave Meltzer and the insider wrestling writing business, Watts was relying on the wrestling rags and trying to incorporate them into a storyline for his USWA promotion. He too spotted the key untapped demographics of black fans in the south, putting the Junkyard Dog over huge.
Unfortunately for Watts, future WCW commentator Mark Madden had gotten a hold of a Watts interview with a wrestling newsletter of years past that revealed his pseudo-support of Southern racial segregation as a right of freedom business owners should have in America. He also used a slew of sexually derogatory terms during the interview. This did not sit well with liberal-minded Ted Turner (or his good friend, black home run champion Hank Aaron), and Watts was forced out.
However, Watts did have a major impact during his short time running WCW. Mostly, he cut contracts and drove away wrestlers he didn’t like or viewed as overpaid, like newly signed WWF castoffs Jake Roberts and Rick Rude. He pissed off homegrown Brian Pillman by asking him to take a pay cut while still wanting to lean on Pillman to lead the light heavyweight division. However, he was instrumental in one important accomplishment in 1992: ironically, he put a major world heavyweight title on a black wrestler. In 1992, Ron Simmons became the first unquestionable black champion of a major nationally televised wrestling promotion when he beat Vader for the WCW World Heavyweight Championship.
From Jim Ross to Dave Meltzer to Watts himself (if you wish to endure his autobiography, obnoxiously entitled The Cowboy and the Cross), you can find accounts of Watts’ intentionality in booking Simmons into the championship. He recognized a large portion of the Atlanta based WCW’s audience was black, as it was with his southern-based USWA promotion before. Previously, he did find success in putting Sylvester Ritter, aka the Junkyard Dog, on top of his smaller promotion. Logically, he concluded the WCW audience would be largely receptive to the same. He did indeed consider JYD for that spot as he was signed to WCW. However by 1992, JYD had let himself go and partied and cocaine-ed too much to be relied on to carry the belt.
Enter Ron Simmons.
Likely, you know his background well as WCW and the WWF, especially Jim Ross (who is an important player in the Simmons story), never hesitated to relay his college football credentials to the viewer. In 1979 Simmons finished 9th in the Heisman voting from the Defensive Nose Tackle position. For his college career success overall Simmons was eventually put in both the Orange Bowl Hall of Fame and the College Football Hall of Fame and got his number retired at Florida State University. He also earned a short stint in the NFL and USFL (where he was a teammate of Lex Luger with the Tampa Bay Bandits).
Eventually though, Simmons’ football career washed out and he, like many other ex-footballers of the day, turned to pro wrestling. In 1986 he found himself in Jim Crockett Promotions, the forerunner to what would be World Championship Wrestling. He was well pushed as a rookie, scoring victories over the likes of Ivan Koloff, a young Yokozuna (making a one-off appearance at a house show for JCP), and The Barbarian.
There though, Simmons stalled in the mid-card as an all-American football face until turning heel in 1989 and forming a tag team called Doom with Butch Reed. The duo, first masked and known simply as Doom #1 and Doom #2 before dropping the masks and using their names again, were initially pushed big, debuting at Halloween Havoc 89 and scoring a win over the Steiner Brothers. However, by Starrcade of that year, Doom was losing every match of a tag team tournament. Somewhere in there WCW booking reversed course and in 1990 Doom beat the Steiner Brothers for the Tag Team Titles. The team got a lengthy run of nine months through most of 1991. After they lost the titles to the Freebirds, Simmons once again turned face against the heel Reed, splitting up the team.
Reed and Simmons ended their rivalry in 1991 at the first SuperBrawl with Simmons winning in a cage match. He continued on a fairly successful singles push, scoring wins over future Hall of Famers like Scott Hall in WCW from the AWA (then the Diamond Studd) and a young Kevin Nash (then portraying the terrible Dusty Rhodes’ dreamed up gimmick of “Oz”).
While the mid-card success earned him shots at major titles – like going after Lex Luger’s World Title at Halloween Havoc, only a year after debuting with Doom – he was not yet booked to go over. He began 1992 in a blood feud with Cactus Jack, and was put over in that too, getting the final win at SuperBrawl.
Here, Watts began to seriously think about Simmons for the title. He’d had success with JYD in the UWF, and knew that Simmons was capable of face success, if not yet ready to carry the whole company. The thinking became, Watts reveals in his autobiography, that though Simmons was not yet world title worthy, they could elevate the man by putting the belt on him, and both accomplish an important racial milestone and raise their popularity among black fans in the south.
Simmons got his shot when Sting was storyline taken out of contention by the aforementioned Jake Roberts in for his brief 1992 run with WCW. Simmons won a storyline raffle to get Sting’s shot at Vader’s world title. As I wrote previously here at TWM in reviewing some of Jim Ross’ all-time great calls, Jim Ross rose to the occasion and elevated the moment with a brilliant and emotional call of Simmons’ scoop-slam victory over Vader. Exploitatively, the camera cut to black fans all around the arena, but again, Watts understood the potential business for such a historic moment.
Simmons got a five-month run with the title that unfortunately did not bear out Watts’ vision. House show attendance dropped, pay-per-view returns dropped. WCW fans were still more interested in the rise of Sting, or Vader’s uniqueness. It didn’t help either that WCW had lost Flair to the WWF in 1991 and wouldn’t get him back until 1993. Many disappointed WCW fans spent that time jeering whatever the WCW product was without the stalwart Flair. It probably didn’t help that in that time, the best challengers WCW could put up (avoiding face-face matchups of course) were retread feuds with Cactus Jack and the Barbarian. He was supposed to get Ric Rude at Starrcade 1992, but with Rude injured ‘Dr Death’ Steve Williams got the shot. While Williams has long been liked and respected, he hadn’t achieved quite the star status of the lost Rude and Flair, making 1992 the second weakest Starrcade title match ever (I’m going to say Hulk Hogan defending over best friend Ed Leslie at Starrcade 1994 was worse).
While Simmons made the successful defence at Starrcade and beat fellow former footballer Williams, the WCW powers saw the writing on the wall, and two days later booked Simmons to lose the belt back to the ever-intriguing Vader a day before the calendar changed over to 1993. It was probably the right move in the end.
While Simmons proved quite capable of playing the All-American face, that goody-goody babyface has never been a persona to carry a company. The WWF never put the belt on All-American Lex Luger in that role. Faces that did carry the belt for a long period or on multiple occasions in that era tended to have some exotic quality: think Sting and his face paint; think Macho Man and his craziness; think Ultimate Warrior and his craziness; think Hogan and Dusty Rhodes and their ability to talk a jive on the mic in a way no one else could. Simmons certainly had the body and the look, and his in-ring work as worthy as any of the other aforementioned if not more so (ahem, Hogan), but his character was simply boring, and he didn’t have anything on the mic that elevated the rhetoric.
After he lost the belt, his character’s story went the only way it really could. He became embittered that the fans didn’t get behind more as champ, and turned heel. For the rest of his tenure with WCW, he basically stayed in the mid-card, losing when he got title shots at the US or Television titles. Occasionally WCW threw Simmons a bone, like creating an intriguing wrestler-manager partnership by putting Simmons with the incoming Sherri Martel, but mostly he was filler and not considered again for a title.
He was gone from the promotion he’d been world champion of for most of 1992 by Fall of 1994.
Ever eager to exploit a name, Paul Heyman snatched the former world champ up to add some legitimacy to ECW in late 1994 and most of 1995. There, Simmons feuded with ECW mainstays Shane Douglas and Mikey Whipwreck.
In 1996, the WWF brought Simmons on board. In typical McMahon fashion though, Simmons was given a new, WWF trademarked, name and cartoony costume. He was some sort of astral gladiator named Farooq Assad. Thankfully, the WWF quickly abandoned that and cast Farooq as something much more akin to his last WCW character. A man who was angry that black people don’t get a fairer shake, from the fans or the promotion.
In the post-nWo faction-craze of 1996-1997 wrestling, Farooq became the leader of the heel stable, the Nation of Domination, loosely based on perceptions of the Nation of Islam and the Black Panther Party. While at the time it often veered uncomfortably toward insensitivity and belittling important black advocacy groups, it was certainly brazen stuff that captured attention. From the Farooq led Nation of Domination spawned many storylines that carried the company, including the aforementioned Rock’s rise from nauseating babyface Rocky Mavia to attitude-laden cool heel, the Rock. And here Simmons was rewarded with sniffing the title picture, often put into the title hunt as leader of the Nation, but never being booked to actually hold the WWF World Title (nor would that have been the right move with the rise of Stone Cold Steve Austin, The Rock and HHH coming).
Eventually, when the faction party of the late 90s ended, Simmons found himself again in a tag team. The Acolytes, or APA, Beer Drinkers, or whatever you want to call the duo, future WWF champion John Bradshaw Layfield and Ron Simmons (eventually going by his real name again due to similarity with the terrorist group Al-Qaeda’s training camp named Al-Farooq) filled the roll of big, brawling ass-kickers well. The pair were over enough to remain relevant in the tag team picture for several years as the 90s gave way to the 2000s and got the Tag Team Titles three times.
Often last impressions are the lasting impressions. It was during this run too that Simmons formed his most lasting pop culture impression, uttering the phrase that still lands him that coveted Raw Legends guest spot: “Damn!” Simmons can be seen wearing the simple sleeveless black t with the phrase at all wrestling conventions and WWF appearances he makes.
And Simmons is deservedly a Legends representative when the chance arises. No one can deny his spot in history as THE FIRST black champion of a national brand in wrestling. Bless the WWE—despite its ills aplenty—for keeping him in their sights, for doing that right. While he may have once seemed a destined ambassador of the NWA and WCW as such a prominent world champ, all good things come to an end, and he found a solid home in the WWF/E for his last years in the business.
You can find me on Twitter @gritvanwinkle.