This is the second in a series celebrating Black History Month. We will take a look back at influential African Americans throughout the history of professional wrestling and what the history means to stars of the past and present.
To read part one on Booker T, click HERE
“The Big Cat” Ernie Ladd was just that, big. That much was obvious.
He stood nearly seven feet tall and weighed more than 300 pounds. That was plain to see.
But the word big isn’t strong enough to describe the impact Ladd had during his years on this planet. Ladd was a rare breed, a marvel so to speak.
Like an old reliable car, they don’t make them like Ernie Ladd anymore.
Ladd was impactful on the football field, where he won two American Football League championships with the San Diego Chargers in 1963 and the Kansas City Chiefs in 1967. Ladd was on the sidelines when the Chiefs closed the AFL with the league’s second Super Bowl title.
He was impactful in the wrestling business, as he was one of the first (and maybe the very first) African American bookers in the United States. He was eventually inducted into the WWE Hall of Fame in 1995.
A major reason Ladd was able to have the impact he had was because how tall he stood. Not in a physical sense, but rather in the face adversity and seemingly impossible odds.
He stood tall amongst normal-sized people in almost every room he entered. He stood even taller in the face of adversity at every turn of his life. For most, the odds he faced were a mountain that seemed nearly impossible to climb.
For Ladd, the odds were just one smooth step uphill and eventually over to the other side.
When he and his fellow African American AFL All-Stars were faced with racial discrimination before the 1965 AFL All-Star Game in New Orleans, Ladd stood up. He and a number of other players opted to boycott the game because of the mistreatment they encountered. Because Ladd and others stood up, the game was moved to Houston, Texas.
When “Cowboy” Bill Watts was admonished for appointing an African American to book his wrestling territory, Ladd stood up.
He stood in the face of the racial backlash and eventually became so good at the job, that the detractors no longer saw a black man telling them what to do, they saw a man that could make them a lot of green. At the end of the day, that’s all that matters in the wrestling business.
While African Americans were content with being mid-card babyfaces, Ladd stood even taller and became an African American heel in the American south — something that was unheard during the 1960s and 1970s.
When someone needed to speak up about social issues in our society, Ladd wasted little time in standing up again. He was rarely knocked off his feet in the ring and he was never knocked off his feet out of it.
Whether it was football, wrestling or politics, Ladd’s feet were firmly planted on the ground.
Few people know Ladd better than fellow WWE Hall of Fame Jim Ross, who sat under Ladd’s learning tree for many years while working for Watts’ territory.
He recently wrote a story dedicated to the memory of Ladd and summed up his contribution not just to wrestling, but also to life in general pretty well.
“From presidents like George H.W. Bush, who sought Ernie’s counsel, to the AFL becoming more aware of their black athletes to Ladd’s efforts, to swimming in great-white-infested wrestling waters, he also taught a rural Oklahoma country boy the true meaning of respect among all people no matter the color of their skin."
[Video courtesy of WWE]