Operating under different names throughout its dominance among North American wrestling promotions, the WWE has been around since 1953. In that time, can you guess how many Black WWE Champions they’ve had? Four, and the first one was crowned in 1998. That’s pretty crazy when you think about it. It took 46 years for the McMahon family to bestow that honor upon an African American wrestler. That’s not for lack of options either, with accessible talent like Ernie Lad, Tony Atlas, and Ron Simmons, the WWE could have pulled that trigger at any time. Here, we’ll look back at the Black Champions of the past and offer suggestions of current performers who are poised to expand that list.
Dwayne ‘’The Rock” Johnson became the very first African American WWE (then WWF) Champion in the promotion’s history in 1998. He did so at that year’s Survivor Series PPV by clawing his way through the Championship Tournament to defeat Mankind in the Main Event. I was an 11-year-old kid watching history be made, that’s how recently this happened. Even though it was long overdue, at that moment, the WWE was at heights of popularity it had never seen before and has rarely seen since. African American viewership was at an all-time high and The Rock was the perfect person to carry the weight and expectations of that moment.
It would be eight years before another black performer was booked to win the title. Booker T came to the WWE in 2001 after fully establishing himself at the top of WCW, where he was a four-time Heavyweight Champion. He held a total of 21 titles at WCW, making him the most decorated performer in its history. Five years later, in 2006, Booker T would win that year’s King of the Ring Tournament, setting him on a collision course with then WWE Champion, Rey Mysterio. A few months later, Booker would win a battle royal on an episode of Smackdown! to earn him a heavyweight title shot. He’d win that night to become only the second African American World Champion in the company’s history. I graduated High School that year, insane.
It’s difficult to overstate how much of a monster Mark Henry was in the weight lifting world before he joined the then WWF in 1996. He was a two-time former Olympian and gold medalist at the Pan American Games. A two-time U.S. National Champion for USA Powerlifting and The World Drug-Free Powerlifting Federation Champion in 1995. He still, to this day, holds the WDFPF world records in squat and deadlift. He’s actually credited for the highest raw squat and raw powerlifting total ever done by a drug-tested athlete. That’s not even all of his weightlifting accomplishments, I just got tired of typing them out. It took the WWE 15 years after his debut, but they finally strapped the company on his back in 2011, when he became the World Heavyweight Champion after defeating Randy Orton at the Night of Champions PPV.
In an event now affectionately referred to by fans as “Kofimania,” Kofi Kingston defeated Daniel Bryan to become the WWE Champion at Wrestlemania in 2019. This also made him the first African-born WWE Champion in history. Kofi’s win and rise to the top was the best babyface storyline in recent memory. Too often, the WWE gets this sort of thing wrong, but they were almost forced into the booking by overwhelming crowd support for Kofi. As with CM Punk and Daniel Bryan before him, Kofi was catapulted to the top by crowds who would take over WWE broadcasts with chants of his name and boos to every performer the company attempted to push instead. The payoff at the biggest PPV of the year, as Kofi lifted the belt while holding his two children in his arms was euphoric. Sometimes, you gotta give the people what they want.
Four Potential Black WWE Champions for the Future
He’s one of the most protected wrestlers in the company today. I have to assume he’s building credibility for a long run at the top. If Vince McMahon could build a physique in a lab, it’d be Bobby Lashley’s.
Like Mark Henry before him, he’s a USA Powerlifting Champion. He was the second-ever NXT Champion (WWE’s developmental brand). As part of The New Day, he’s a 10-time Tag Team Champion. With that level of experience with gold, he’d be a natural fit at the top of WWE’s heavyweight division.
He’s only 32, but he’s wrestled and held championships all over the world, including in Japan, Mexico, and the USA. He’s legit one of the most exciting performers you’re ever likely to see. He’s got that Rey Mysterio, underdog babyface champion energy about him. The WWE should put the belt on him if only to sell a ridiculous amount of merch to kids.
Have you ever seen a dude whose size to agility ratio seems to defy physical possibility? That’s Keith Lee. He’s huge, strong, and doing top turnbuckle moonsaults to the floor. He’s the up-and-comer you can’t wait to see wrestle the established big guys like Brock Lesnar.