In the dark days of segregation, Bearcat Wright, Bobo Brazil, and "Sailor" Art Thomas were three pioneers who 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 his father’s footsteps, 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 as written in the book, The Pro Wrestling Hall of Fame: Heroes and Icons, by Steven Johnson, Greg Oliver and Mike Mooneyham.
"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." It’s possible he’s embellishing how many fights he had. But all indications point that he was a more than adequate pugilist but the money just wasn’t there for him to want to continue. 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 country’s hottest babyfaces. In April of that year, the police estimated that thousands roamed the outside of the International Amphitheater in Chicago frustrated because they couldn’t get tickets to see him versus Johnny Valentine. Washington D.C. saw him and Buddy Rogers draw 16,521 enthusiastic fans to see them, which was a record at the time. On July 19th, a crowd of 30,275 packed Comiskey Park in Chicago witnessing 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. All this according to the book, National Wrestling Alliance: The Untold Story of the Monopoly That Stangled Pro Wrestling, by Tim Hornbaker.
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."
According to wrestling-titles.com, in November of 1962, Bearcat was billed as the World Negro (now colored) Heavyweight champion but only recognized in Michigan. This title has roots as early as 1924 with champion Reginald Siki. It 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 the charismatic Bobo Brazil, the powerful Luther Lindsay, the strapping Art Thomas, and “Gentleman” Jack Claybourne.
Bearcat Wright and The First-Ever Black World Heavyweight Champion Debate
Getting a considerable 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. the incomparable 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. 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 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 Jules Strongbow booked WWA based out of Los Angeles, California had recently separated itself from the NWA, many didn’t perceive their title as just another of many state or regional titles in a time when wrestling was divided into territories. The promotion had a working relationship with Rikidozan’s JWA (Japan Pro Wrestling Alliance) where Freddie Blassie and the Destroyer Dick Beyer faced the puroresu icon in several heated bouts. Later in their early years, New Japan Pro Wrestling worked with the promotion after it reverted back 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 and not Ron Simmons.
Endearing himself to the fans, Bearcat Wright applied his claw hold onto his opponents and routinely demonstrated his hand strength by crushing apples and ripping thick 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 any mean necessary. Gene very well had the skills to do this and more, so according to Blassie, "before a jolt of common sense struck him," Bearcat fled the building to never return.
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 October 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, but not before 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 premier competitors until his retirement."
Bearcat obtained numerous regional titles, including San Francisco, Hawaii, Florida, Ohio, Vancouver, Arizona, the Pacific Northwest, and even in Australia. No question that Bearcat Wright was a star and paved the way for others.
Wrestling champion and pioneer Bearcat Wright died at the age of 50 on August 28th, 1982.
On March 31st, 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, as once again written in the highly recommended book, The Pro Wrestling Hall of Fame: Heroes and Icons, "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 sadly died when he was only seven years old, so the family stricken with hard times, moved to East St. Louis, Illinois and then to Benton Harbor, Michigan. There 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. Fortunately for Harris, there was no segregation in Savoldi’s shows, and his 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. He also worked with Jim Spencer and Peter Schuh.
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 stuck. Television helped present Bobo to a national audience, and in 1952 he headlined with tag partner "Whipper" Billy Watson in Toronto. Fans soon realized that it was okay for a black wrestler to defeat a non-black wrestler. 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 (Burzynski), 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 acted 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 in his book. 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 feared 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 held regional belts from Florida, San Francisco, Toronto, and even in Japan. Bobo also found the World Negro (now colored) Heavyweight Championship wrapped around his waist on several occasions and in at least five territories. 1966 saw Bobo become the champion for the WWA on two occasions after beating "Killer" Buddy Austin on two occasions, the second time being in 1968, right before the Los Angeles-based 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 the man 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 people’s champion Bruno Sammartino for his title in the northeast during the ’60s.
Rick O’ Toole, who mostly worked in the Detroit territory and 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, he returned the honor and inducted Ladd. In 2008 he was also posthumously inducted into the Pro Wrestling Hall of Fame and Museum located in Wichita Falls, Texas. Wrestling champion and pioneer Bobo Brazil died on January 20th, 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 and out of necessity worked various jobs just to survive. A stable family life always eluded him, as he was constantly on the move living in different orphanages and foster homes from a very young age.
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, 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 weren’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 spoke about how his physique had helped his career tremendously.
"My strength has taken me quite a long way 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 of 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." Stellar superstar wrestler Buddy Rogers was key in convincing Vince McMahon Sr. to bring Thomas to New York to work in a series of matches for the WWWF. Thomas eventually took on "Nature Boy" Buddy Rogers on several occasions, including at Comiskey Park, where former heavyweight boxer "Jersey" Joe Walcott was the guest referee. 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 even 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 the legendary Bobo Brazil in Detroit and the belts he won in Texas and Florida as the World Negro (now colored) 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 on April 25th, 1972. This was a promotion run by Dick The Bruiser out of Indianapolis, Indiana and had no relation to the former WWA in California, where both Bearcat Wright and Bobo Brazil had previously won the title as well. Thomas’ chiseled physique got him awarded Mr. Black Adonis in 1973 too.
On March 20th, 2003, wrestling champion and pioneer 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 7th, 2019, lest we forget the legends who threw wide the door for black wrestlers in today’s sport. Let us honor and celebrate their legacy.
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