This is the first 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.
There have been numerous stars of African-American descent throughout the history of professional wrestling, but none is more decorated and has as much notoriety as Booker T.
Born Booker T. Huffman, the Houston, Texas native went from a troubled youth trapped in a life of poverty and crime to a six-time World Heavyweight Champion, WWE Intercontinental Champion, United States Champion, WWE and WCW Tag Team Champion, a King of the Ring winner and WWE Hall of Famer.
Not to mention being wildly popular for his "spinaroonie" celebration and his catchphrase that bellowed throughout arenas before he made his entrance.
“Can you dig it, sucka?”
The fans, they dug it. They dug it for many years and will continue to do so as Booker T’s place is cemented not just in the long lineage of African American wrestling, but as one of the greatest wrestlers to ever grace a ring — regardless of race.
“For me personally, I’m just glad to be a part of the history,” Booker T said during an interview with Philly.com. “That’s something I always say is good to do in life, is to leave our mark in this lifetime.
“I always wanted to be mentioned in the same breath as all of the great wrestlers,” he added. “I’ve never really considered myself a wrestler. I always considered myself an entertainer, but I always wanted to be better than the guy next to me. I always wanted to go out and entertain the fans.”
Although Booker T has transcended racial lines, he still had to endure an upbringing a number of African Americans are accustomed to — one of poverty and crime.
Booker T was the youngest of eight children. Unfortunately, both of his parents had passed away by the time he was 14 years old, leaving his older brother and future tag team partner Lash, better known as Stevie Ray, to raise him.
But not even the influence of his older brother could prevent Booker T from falling into the trap of crime. In 1987, at the age of 22, Booker T was arrested for armed robbery and eventually served 19 months in prison.
Booker T hit a point in his life when he had to take a long look in the mirror. What he saw was a man that didn’t have nearly the amount of fortitude as his mother, who raised eight children by herself. Although Booker T had taken left turns at certain points, he still carried the respect his mother instilled in him while she was alive. With the help of his siblings, he made the decision to do right by his mother’s memory and stay out of trouble.
“I just had to change,” he said. “Either I was going to change or not. It was a crossroad.”
“All the mistakes I made coming up prepared me to be the man I’ve become today,” he added. “I needed those experiences to mold the person people see before them today,” he said.
His experiences also gave him thick skin, which helped him during the early stages of his career.
Booker T occasionally faced racism while performing in front of all-white crowds in the southern United States, but said he never let it get to him. That was partially due to some words of encouragement he received from fellow wrestler Ox Baker.
Booker T recalled a time where he was getting ready to perform at the legendary Sam Houston Coliseum. Baker pulled him aside and offered some words of advice.
Baker was a fan of his and told him that he had a lot of talent, but that he may encounter some obstacles, and although he didn't give specifics, Booker T had an idea. Baker eventually told him that instead of going around or over the obstacles, he sometimes would have to go right through them.
“I always remembered that and I understood what he meant by going straight through it,” Booker said.
“You just got to know how to deal with certain things. Just take it straight on, like Ox Baker said,” he added.
For Booker T, being an African American in the wrestling industry was never an obstacle. To him, it didn’t even matter. Booker T didn’t want to box himself in as merely a great African American star. He had aspirations of going much further than that.
“Throughout my whole time in wrestling on the road, going out and being around some of the whitest people in the world I’ve never had any problems with anybody,” he said. “It was never black or white. Booker T was just a wrestler. I did that by design.”
“When people see me come out of that curtain, it’s never been a black guy. It’s just been Booker T and I’ve always tried to make it that way.”
Booker T’s plan has worked. Most know him as a six-time World Heavyweight Champion and not as the second African American to win a world wrestling title.
He also owns a wrestling promotion in his hometown called Reality of Wrestling. He is one of the few (and possibly the only) African Americans to own a wrestling promotion in the United States.
But an African American owning a wrestling promotion isn’t celebrated. Quite frankly, it doesn’t have to be. Booker T likes it that way. He’s just a former wrestler turned businessman, who wants to give young talents an opportunity to work on their craft of professional wrestling.
Booker T’s notoriety has helped the promotion in a number of ways, including landing a television deal with The KUBE 57 in Houston. The first taping aired Feb. 1.
His inspiration for having his own promotion is not because he’s an African American blazing a trail. It is because it is what his mentor Paul Boesch did for years in the Houston area.
Boesch promoted wrestling in the Houston for years and garnered a lot of respect along the way. Booker T was among the many that looked up to and respected Boesch.
“He helped so many kids along the way,” he said of Boesch. “He did so much for so many people, he’s like an unsung hero as far as wrestling promotions.”
“For me as a kid, I watched what he did and admired it so much that I wanted to be like that one day. I’ve never heard bad word spoken Paul Boesch.”
Booker T is the quintessential rags-to-riches story. He was born into a tough situation, made a few mistakes, faced a few roadblocks and yet still persevered.
Where so many got to the fork in road and went left and off the deep end, Booker T went right and has become a role model not for just for Africans Americans to look up to, but for anyone.