I’ve been doing a lot of thinking about pro wrestling recently, and a lot of rewatching old matches. I had my favorites, the Undertaker above all others, but this isn’t about him. This is about the wrestlers of color who brought joy to my childhood and early adulthood, who have done great things for the business and for future wrestlers of color.
So let’s start off big, with one of the biggest wrestling families of them all.
(Three of the most famous members of the Anoa’i family, Roman Reigns, The Rock, and Yokozuna, courtesy of WWE.com)
The Anoa’i family is a huge Samoan/Fijian (Jimmy Snuka married into the family) clan that includes four generations of wrestlers. The most famous member of the clan, The Rock, has gone on to achieve mainstream success outside of wrestling. He is also the first and only (half-)black man to win the company’s flagship title (Ron Simmons and Booker T both won the WCW title, Booker T and Mark Henry won the World Heavyweight title under its tenure in WWE as the secondary world championship, and Bobby Lashley and Mark Henry won the ECW title when it was WWE’s tertiary world championship, but The Rock is the only one to win the WWF/E title).
Other famous members of the family include former WWF champion Yokozuna (billed as Japanese, because champion sumo wrestler), current face of the family in WWE Roman Reigns, multiple great tag teams including 3-Minute Warning, the Wild Samoans, the Uso brothers, and the Headshrinkers. You can perhaps begin to see some of the problems pro wrestling has had with wrestlers of color and reliance on lazy stereotypes.
(Chavo Guerrero Sr. with his son and brothers, courtesy of the Examiner)
So I know I only promised five wrestlers, and I’ve already given you an entire family, so I figure what the hell - let’s do another family. Los Guerreros are the most famous family of luchadores, and the family patriarch Gory Guerrero is often credited as a pioneer in lucha libre through his invention of several moves and holds which have become commonplaces in the sport.
The most famous of los Guerreros, by far, was Eddie Guerrero. Eddie’s career in WCW included three title reigns as Cruiserweight Champion and United States Champion, but it’s in WWE where he really took off. He would go on to win numerous titles (including every major title the company had before his death), culminating in winning the WWE title at Wrestlemania XX in 2004, becoming the second Latino (after Pedro Morales in 1971, prior to Rey Mysterio Jr. and Alberto del Rio, the only other Latino champions) and first Mexican-American WWE champion.
The next most famous Guerrero is Eddie’s nephew, Chavo Jr. Chavo’s a great wrestler with a lot of great moments, but I want you to just take in another stunning instance of the pro-wrestling business’s seeming inability to not screw up when it comes to their wrestlers of color. As related by Wikipedia:
On June 30, Guerrero became one of the last minute trades in the 2005 WWE Draft, which saw him jump from SmackDown! to the Raw brand. The next week, on Raw, he denounced his Hispanic heritage in favor of the Anglo-American way. This came after two weeks of being battered by the Mexican faction, The Mexicools. It led to the changing of his persona to “Kerwin White”, a stereotypical, middle-class, white, conservative, Anglo-American man. He dyed his hair blond and often drove a golf cart to the ring which held his golf clubs. His new catchphrase became the pun, “If it’s not White, it’s not right.” The phrase later changed to “If it’s not Kerwin White, it’s not right”. It was later phased out entirely. Soon after his debut, White started making suggestive remarks towards African Americans, Hispanics, Asian Americans, Native Americans, and other non-White people, specifically directed towards then-babyface, Shelton Benjamin. On an episode of Raw, White cost Shelton a match against Rob Conway. Benjamin defeated White by disqualification the following week when Kerwin attacked Shelton with his golf club. At Unforgiven, White was beaten by Benjamin. White then hired Nick Nemeth(later known as Dolph Ziggler) as his new “caddy” to help him in his matches.
What may have been an elaborate troll on the part of WWE (but more likely was just the company being awful) would come to an end when Chavo discovered his uncle Eddie dead. Chavo took his name back and proceeded to have some of the best work of his career, and we can all try to pretend Kerwin White never happened.
(Jacqueline, the third woman to win the Cruiserweight title and only one to do so after WWF acquired WCW)
I’ll get to the image shortly. Jacqueline Moore has one of the longest careers among women in wrestling. During the Attitude Era, Jacqueline provided actual wrestling ability among all the bikini contests, bra and panties matches, and other indignities inflicted upon the women’s division (Jacqueline remains the only woman to defeat a man, legendary manager and equally legendary non-wrestler Harvey Wippleman, to win the Women’s championship - more on that soon too).
Yes, Jacqueline won the women’s title from a man once. As a fitting conclusion to the match, she proceeds to strip him to his underwear, as if to comment on the absurdity of such matches being de rigeur for WWF/E during much of her tenure there. She became the first Women’s champion after the Alundra Blayze incident, becoming in the process the first black woman to win the title. Her career has inspired other women to perform, including two-time Women’s Champion Jazz.
But let’s talk a moment about the Cruiserweight championship. WWE has had six women win championships traditionally considered to be men’s titles. Chyna is a two-time Intercotinental champion, and four women have had short reigns as WWF Hardcore Champion. Jacqueline is the only one to win the Cruiserweight championship (and the third and last ever to do so, taking into account the title’s prior history in WCW). Jacqueline is the only woman of color to win one of these championships, defeating Chavo Guerrero Jr. to win it.
(Funaki, courtesy of Mind of Carnage)
Funaki was always one of my favorites as a kid. He brought a lot to the lightheavyweight/cruiserweight division during his time as an active wrestler. As part of the Kai En Tai stable, he and other Japanese wrestlers injected the division with a lot of then-innovative stylings already popular back in Japan.
Funaki was also one of the all-time greats in the comedic side of pro wrestling. Wrestling needs to be at least a little bit campy in order to work. Playing on the tradition of badly-dubbed Japanese movies, Funaki and Taka Michinoku would often cut their promos in Japanese, being dubbed over in English. Funaki’s role was to conclude the promo, being dubbed over with a very deep, very ominous “INDEED” every time.
Funaki’s time in WWF/E would see him win the Cruiserweight and Hardcore titles once each, as well as mentoring several wrestlers new to the business. As his wrestling career wound down, Funaki took on a more comedic backstage role in interviews, declaring himself “Funaki, Smackdown #1 Annoucer,” occasionally wrestling and helping put over new talent. This segment with Tajiri remains a favorite of mine:
Funaki currently lives in San Antonio where he runs a wrestling school and occasionally provides translation services for WWE when they need to contact Japanese wrestlers who don’t speak much English.
(AJ Lee, first Puerto Rican WWE Diva’s Champion, courtesy of Sportskeeda)
Jacqueline Moore may have helped the women’s division limp survive the worst until Chyna and the Lita/Trish Stratus/Victoria years came into their own, but AJ Lee helped reinvigorate the division in the years following the retirement of Lita and Stratus. She went on to become a three-time Diva’s champion before retiring.
After Patricia Arquette made her statement about the wage gap and how it was time for queer people and people of color to support women’s wage equality, WWE executive Stephanie McMahon tweeted her support. AJ Lee proceeded to call her out, as WWE had some major inequality in pay between the women and the men.
Not unexpectedly, if you look at people’s responses on twitter, there are a lot of people who really don’t like her speaking truth to power like this.