In the dark days of segregation, three pioneers paved the way for a more inclusive sport that we see today. They endured discrimination and hatred along the way, but their sacrifices ultimately reaped the rewards — even championship gold!
Before becoming a professional wrestler, Bearcat Wright competed professionally in the “sweet science” of boxing, following in the footsteps of his father Edward “Bearcat” Wright. In a nearly twenty-year boxing career, he battled greats like Jack Dempsey and Sam Langford. But to his father’s disgust, Bearcat eventually opted for wrestling instead, as he stated in 1958 to Boston columnist Jerry Nason.
“In my first two bouts, on successive nights, I earned $225. That was more than I cleared in twenty-two bouts as a pro fighter.” The 1951-52 record books state that the young Bearcat went 8-0 with five knockouts to his credit. At age seventeen, he was boxing in main events on amateur cards run by old-time touring carnival wrestling promoter David Van Fleet.
By 1960, now a full-time wrestler, the 6’7” 260 lbs Bearcat Wright was one of the hottest babyfaces in the country. In April of that year, the police estimated that at least 15,000 people roamed the outside of the International Amphitheater in Chicago frustrated because they couldn’t get tickets to see him versus Johnny Valentine. On July 19th, a crowd of 31,000 packed Comiskey Park in Chicago to witness him fall to Buddy Rogers in the semi-main event. Six weeks later, he beat Killer Kowalski at the same venue in front of almost 27,000 fans.
Recommended read: BUDDY ROGERS: The Man Who Drove a Wedge in the NWA
1961 saw Bearcat defeat Killer Kowalski and becoming champion, but in a small New England promotion in Boston, Massachusetts under promoters Tony Santos and Jack Pfefer. New Jersey promoter Willie Gilzenberg, who would later become a partner in the WWWF, wrote to Pfefer, “If it is true that you put your hooks into Bearcat Wright, you have made the best snatch of your entire career in wrestling. Again, if it is true, I must congratulate you on grabbing the best drawing card wrestling has ever had and that included Jim Londos, Strangler Lewis, Antonio Rocca, or any other wrestler in the history of the game.”
In November of 1962, Bearcat was billed as the World Negro Heavyweight champion but only recognized in Michigan. This title has roots as early as 1924 with champion Reginald Siki and is an often, perhaps purposefully, forgotten title that was a product of a time when some promotions segregated their wrestlers. This was to avoid potential riots amongst black and non-black fans. In other instances, it was simply prohibited to have a black wrestler wrestle anyone who wasn’t black as well. It varied from state to state and promoters.
Other notable holders of this title were Bobo Brazil, Luther Lindsay, Art Thomas, and Jack Claybourne.
Bearcat Wright and The First-Ever Black World Heavyweight Champion Debate
Getting a huge push, Bearcat Weight soon became champion with the WWA (Worldwide Wrestling Associates) based out of Los Angeles, California five days before Martin Luther King delivered his famous “I Have a Dream” speech in Washington, DC. Freddie Blassie dropped the title to Bearcat on August 23rd, 1963 in a three-fall countout, thus establishing him as what many at the time conceded as the first black world champion. Remember in 1963, it was normal to think that the local promotion was indeed all there was; that is how they represented the product to the public and very few fans knew better. Nowadays most do not consider the WWA championship a true world title, but a title from a regional promotion that had temporarily separated from the NWA.
So after winning the WCW World Heavyweight Championship in 1992, Ron Simmons is usually considered the first black World Heavyweight Champion. This is a stance shared by WWE as well but some dispute that this distinction should be held by Bearcat Wright and giving it to Ron Simmons is revisionist history headed by WWE.
Although The WWA had just recently separated itself from the NWA (National Wrestling Alliance), their title wasn’t perceived as just another of many state or regional titles in a time when wrestling was divided into territories under the said alliance. It was recognized as far as Japan and the promotion had a working relationship with JWA (Japan Pro Wrestling Alliance) and later New Japan Pro Wrestling after it reverted to the NWA in 1968, renaming itself NWA Hollywood Wrestling. This may be the reason why many historians and fans toy with the idea of Bearcat Wright being the first black world champ. What do you think?
Endearing himself to the fans, Bearcat Wright would apply his claw hold onto his opponents and routinely demonstrated his hand strength by crushing apples and ripping telephone books in half. Despite being hugely popular and recently obtaining the WWA championship, Bearcat could be a lightning rod of controversy in a time when race relations in the USA were not at their best. The WWA had been bold and forward-thinking, deciding to have a black man represent its organization when in several territories they could only wrestle each other or simply were not hired.
Even though Freddie Blassie had urged the securing of Bearcat’s services for the WWA after seeing what a strong draw he’d become elsewhere, he is very opinionated about the ofttimes controversial Bearcat who began to put himself ahead of the business as Blassie states in his book, The Legends of Wrestling: “Classy” Freddie Blassie: Listen You Pencil Neck Geeks by Keith Elliot Greenberg.
He and previously “The Flying-Frenchman” Edouard Carpentier had fallen victim during Bearcat’s title run when he refused to reciprocate and “do the honors” of dropping back the title when asked by promoter Mike LeBell.
Blassie states, “Bearcat was a big drawing card, but he was no Jackie Robinson. Very quickly, he let the win get to his head and became delusional. To hear him speak, he was America’s number one role model for the black race, and now that he had the title, he wasn’t going to give it up.”
After not dropping the title to either Blassie or Carpentier, a last-minute switch was done backstage previous to a rematch against Blassie. Legitimate shooter and Judo champion Gene LeBell would be facing Bearcat and was tasked to get the title back either by grappling or torturing him. Gene very well had the skills to do this and more, so according to Blassie, “before a jolt of common sense struck him,” Bearcat left the building.
The explanation presented to the fans was that Bearcat had forfeited the title in Indio, California. Carpentier was awarded the title but shortly thereafter dropped it to Blassie.
Did you know: Bearcat Wright was one of Bill Apter’s favorite wrestlers growing up, but had been rumored dead in 1973? After checking several sources including New Jersey promoter Willie Gilzenberg and Vince McMahon Sr., Bill Apter from the Pro Wrestling Illustrated group of magazines wrote the story in the 1973 edition of Inside Wrestling after supposedly confirming Bearcat’s death. Once thousands of magazines had already hit newsstands, they received a letter from a fan that had seen Bearcat Wright teaming with Sweet Daddy Siki in Toronto at the Maple Leaf Gardens after publication.
Two years later, Bill Apter ran into a very much alive Bearcat backstage in Florida where he was managing the Mongolian Stomper. His theory is that Gilzenberg and some other promoters in the northeast who “didn’t like him for one reason or the other” planted the rumor. But Bearcat also told Apter that this story “was the biggest help of my career.” He retired shortly after, after working a few dates in Tennessee managing the Mongolian Stomper in the summer and early fall of 1975.
According to his WWE Hall of Fame biography, “Bearcat Wright never met a barrier he didn’t break and with great relish. Despite the controversy he created (often willingly), Wright remained one of the sport’s premiere competitors until his retirement.”
Bearcat obtained numerous regional titles including San Francisco, Hawaii, Florida, Ohio, Vancouver, Arizona, the Pacific Northwest and even in Australia.
Wright died at the age of 50 on August 28, 1982.
On March 31, 2017, Wright was posthumously inducted into the WWE Hall of Fame as a part of the Legacy wing.
Despite the large 6’6” 270 lbs frame of Bobo Brazil, long-time publicist, announcer, and promoter from southern California Jeff Walton believes Bobo’s unpretentious manner resonated with fans of every race and ethnicity. “What really got him over was his speaking. He was a big guy, but he was mellow. He’d be very low, very quiet, and he’d go on the interview and say, ‘Folks, come out and support Bobo. I cannot win this match without you being here.’ Very simple, no yelling and screaming, he came across very humbly. ‘Just come down and support me and I won’t let you down. I guarantee you that. You’re the ones that won the matches for me.’ He was a big guy, but he didn’t come across as one. He came across as an average Joe and he truly was a nice guy.”
Houston Harris was born on a cotton farm in rural Arkansas on July 10th, 1924. His father died when he was only seven years old, and so the family moved to East St. Louis, Illinois and then to Benton Harbor, Michigan where relatives lived picking fruit for fifty cents a container and driving a truck that carried the produce from the fields and into the small city.
Years later while working at a steel mill and exercising at a local armory, the future WWE and Pro Wrestling Hall of Famer was spotted by “Jumping” Joe Savoldi, a former professional wrestler and football player who promoted once in a while in the midwest region.
Savoldi saw something special in Harris and decided to train him in exchange for menial labor where he’d help set up the ring at spot shows with Savoldi’s son. There was no segregation in Savoldi’s shows and Harris’ first recorded match was on March 29th, 1948 in Benton Harbor where he wrestled as “Huston Harris, The Black Panther.” He went a thirty-minute draw against Armand Myers.
Savoldi’s grandson comments that Harris was taught by his grandfather “Jumping” Joe Savoldi to “be an honest athlete in the ring and never to take shortcuts on anybody to win a match. He was instilled to be a crowd’s friend right to the end.”
Using a sequined satin cape stitched together by his wife, Joe Savoldi came up with the ring name “Bubu Brasil” from South America which later changed to “Bobo Brazil” when he started to wrestle in Chicago in 1950. Some sources say that there was a typo by a promoter and that’s how the name stayed. Television helped present Bobo to a national audience and in 1952 he headlined with tag partner “Whipper” Billy Watson in Toronto. Fans soon started to realize that it was okay for a black wrestler to defeat a non-black wrestler, and the sun was still going to rise the next day.
The Sheik and Bobo Brazil Rivalry
In 1956, The Sheik and Bobo Brazil began their long storied rivalry which went well into the early ‘90s. Bobo was one of the few allowed to pin The Sheik’s shoulders and take his U.S. Championship, twice! The blending of styles worked very well together as recounted by “Supermouth” Dave Drason who worked in Detroit for years and managed The Sheik at the end of his career. “The best way I can describe the longevity is almost like a rock and roll band like the Rolling Stones. The same with The Sheik and Bobo. Sheik was hardcore; no other way to put it. He was chaotic, no rhyme or reason, but Bobo brought wrestling into their matches, and would make it seem like a contest.” He continues, “Without a doubt, he was the greatest wrestler of color ever to appear in the squared circle.” Bobo was not a scientific wrestler, but instead a tireless brawler who seemed to invite his opponents to cheat in order for him to counter with an arsenal of his own doing, and would take on all comers.
Discriminated But Later Breaking Barriers
Killer Kowalski, who wrestled Bobo many times, remembers how he had to sneak him into restaurants and hotels that refused him service even in the northeast and recounted such incidents when speaking in 1993 at Mike Lano’s Wrestling Wreality forum. “Some of these hotel managers had come to the arenas and paid to see him wrestle me and cheered Brazil, but then when he wanted to rent a room to sleep for the night, they apologized and refused him. I’d later quietly sneak him into my room, to share it with me later on in the middle of the night which I did many, many times. It was very ugly, an ugly time and it happened in so many towns around the country.” He continues, “Bobo or Bearcat Wright or ‘Sailor’ Art Thomas would act like it didn’t bother them, but you always knew in your heart that it hurt them very deeply. I could feel their disappointment in their fellow man and the hurt.”
Wrestler Mike Dupree, who got to know Bobo very well while in the Indiana area, says that Bobo made it acceptable for a white fan to root for a black wrestler and adds, “He was pro wrestling’s Jackie Robinson in these parts. Growing up around a bunch of white bigots, I can attest to how over he was with that crowd.” In 1960, Bobo became the first black allowed to wrestle a white man in Indiana, by wrestling Hans Herrmann. He also competed in the first integrated match in Georgia a decade later where he teamed with El Mongol to defeat Mr. Ito and The Great Ota.
Bobo Brazil – A Master at Selling and World Champion
Bobo Brazil was always willing to help his opponents and learned to sell very well. Even as a big man that he was, he could convince you that his opponent was “thrashing him within an inch of his life,” as recounted by Fred Blassie. Blassie claims that when he wrestled Bobo in Washington DC, he didn’t see a white face in the audience and had around 16 or 17 ushers surrounding him for his protection when going to the ring. Needless to say, the referee was fearing for his life.
The following incident is exactly why many promoters refused to book black wrestlers with anybody other than another black wrestler, regardless of the possible financial benefits.
“The moment Brazil stepped through the ropes, he put his hands on the back of my head, wound up and began slugging me. I backed from him, shaking my body and throwing my head back. The crowd went wild but their euphoria didn’t last. Soon, I unloaded on Bobo, rocking him with punches, then snatching him around the throat and taking him down to the mat, choking him.”
He continues, “Bobo was a master at selling a chokehold. Spittle was forming at the edge of his lips. ‘Ah, Ah, Ah!’ he groaned, loud enough to be heard in Arlington.”
Through all this, the referee “Two Ton” Tony Galento was demanding that Blassie break the hold because the angry fans were getting closer and closer to the ring.
Blassie, being a master of improvisation, thought of only one solution. “Thinking quickly, I released the choke, grabbed Bobo’s hand, and pressed his fingers around my neck. Now it was my turn to sell: ‘Ah, Ah, Ah, Ah! Fuck you, Bobo! The way you sell you’re gonna get me killed!’
“The referee looked on in amazement, but I hadn’t been in professional wrestling this long without learning anything. With Brazil in command, the people were happy and forgot that they’d planned to tear the building down.”
Watch: Bobo Brazil Interviewed in Detroit Big Time Wrestling. “Go, Go, Bobo!”
The Legacy of Bobo Brazil
Other than defeating the dreaded Original Sheik for his United States title on two occasions, he has held regional belts from Florida, San Francisco, Toronto and even in Japan. Bobo also held the World Negro Heavyweight Championship on several occasions and in at least five territories. 1966 saw Bobo become the champion for the WWA after beating “Killer” Buddy Austin on two occasions, the second time being in 1968, right before the promotion returned to the NWA.
Recommended read: Buddy Austin and Pedro Morales – The Party They Almost Didn’t Leave
Bobo feuded with some of the most notorious villains in wrestling including Freddie Blassie, Dick The Bruiser, Brute Bernard, and Ernie Ladd. Fans loved the “coco-butt” applied by who was universally known to have the “hardest head in wrestling” and was said to be able to bust through a concrete wall! He was one of the few fan favorites that challenged Bruno Sammartino for his title in the northeast during the ‘60s.
Rick O’ Toole, who mostly worked in the Detroit territory and in the Midwest, offers his opinion of Bobo Brazil and what drew the fans to go see him. “Bo did not have much wrestling finesse. His uniqueness, his size, and finish to kick butt on a good heel is all that folks, blacks, and whites, wanted to see Bo do.”
In 1994, Bobo Brazil was inducted into the WWE Hall of Fame by “Big Cat” Ernie Ladd. One year later, Brazil inducted Ladd. In 2008 he was also posthumously inducted into the Pro Wrestling Hall of Fame and Museum located in Wichita Falls, Texas. Bobo Brazil died on January 20, 1998, aged 73, after suffering a series of strokes.
“Sailor” Art Thomas
Many fans remember Rocky Johnson and Tony Atlas having bodybuilder-type bodies, but “Sailor” Art Thomas preceded them both.
In Madison, Wisconsin after his mother died, Arthur Thomas dropped out of high school, worked various jobs, and at a very young age lived in different orphanages and foster homes.
After being discharged from the Navy in 1947, serving twenty-seven months in a construction battalion, building an airstrip in Guam, and delivering ammunition to neighboring outposts, Arthur Thomas began a serious weight-training regimen. He later competed in bodybuilding contests, most times being the only black competitor.
In his prime in the ‘60s, few wrestlers had a better body than “Sailor” Art Thomas. His large hands were perfectly suited for applying his crippling bear hug, which was a favorite finisher of his. Thomas enjoyed the attention he got from his phenomenal physique. “I was a big black fellow,” Thomas explained, “and there wasn’t too many blacks in Madison anyway. I’d go downtown on the square and people would just stare, which did make me feel good. I started working out that much more and got pretty cut up.
In a 1981 interview when he had just retired from wrestling but was still in phenomenal shape, Thomas said, “My strength has taken me quite a long ways in this profession. I can remember when I first started, you have a lot of jealousy just like every sport. When a new rookie comes up, all the older folks are trying to hurt you. These old-time ‘rasslers would get me in the ring and try to break an arm, break a leg, but I’d muscle out if it, I’d be strong enough to get out of it. At the time I didn’t realize the fundamentals of the holds, and how to get out of them in the proper manner so I had to get out the hard way, and had the strength to do so.”
In an interview in 1998, “Sailor” Art Thomas said that in 1961, after mostly being a journeyman with few real opportunities in the sport, and gaining experience in the carnival circuit and AT shows, at 36 years old he caught his big break in what he calls “the big time.” Buddy Rogers was key in convincing Vince McMahon Sr. to bring him to New York to work in a series of matches for the WWWF. Thomas did eventually take on “Nature Boy” Buddy Rogers on several occasions including at Comiskey Park where former heavyweight boxer “Jersey” Joe Walcott was the guest referee and they drew 31,000 spectators, according to Thomas. He says that he had Rogers beat but lost by a fluke, joyously adding that “going for the belt” was the biggest thrill of his career.
In 1967, he had a successful six-week tour of Japan where he claims he won every single match. Thomas regularly teamed with Bobo Brazil, Dory Dixon, “Sweet Daddy” Siki and on occasions even with Bruno Sammartino. He considered The Bruiser, Buddy Rogers, Hans Schmidt, and Freddie Blassie his toughest opponents, but admits that they were so many that these are the ones that stand out. He fondly remembers being tag champion with Bobo Brazil in Detroit, and the belts he won in Texas and in Florida as the World Negro Heavyweight champion in 1967.
“Sailor” Art Thomas Wins Several Championships
Arguably the most prestigious singles title he obtained was the WWA (World Wrestling Associates) championship, a promotion that was run by Dick The Bruiser out of Indianapolis, Indiana and had no relation to the former WWA in Los Angeles, California where both Bearcat Wright and Bobo Brazil previously had won the title as well. At this time in 1972, the WWA in Los Angeles had returned to the NWA and was rebranded as NWA Hollywood. Thomas was voted Mr. Black Adonis in 1973.
On March 20, 2003, “Sailor” Art Thomas passed away only one month after receiving a cancer diagnosis. He was posthumously inducted into the WWE Hall of Fame in 2016 as a Legacy inductee.
It was certainly a thrill watching Kofi Kingston win the WWE championship at WrestleMania 35 on April 7, 2019, but lest we forget the legends who paved the way for black wrestlers in today’s sport.
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