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Black wrestlers are having their moment


UNIDENTIFIED ANNOUNCER #1: Now things finally going the way of the challenger, Bianca Belair. She has a champion reeling, finally.

UNIDENTIFIED ANNOUNCER #2: Nice double underhook on the champ.

UNIDENTIFIED ANNOUNCER #1: Face-first goes Becky Lynch.


What a performance by WWE wrestler Bianca Belair a couple weeks ago. She whooped Becky Lynch, winning her first RAW women's championship. But not only is Belair a talented wrestler; she's one of the WWE fiercest Black wrestlers. And according to industry watchers, Black wrestlers are really having a moment. To help us understand more is wrestling columnist Alfred Konuwa, who joins us now from Los Angeles. Welcome.

ALFRED KONUWA: Thank you so much for having me. It's great to be here.

RASCOE: So first, talk to us a bit about how Black wrestlers have traditionally been depicted in the wrestling industry. Like, it has been extremely racist in the past. Am I wrong about that?

KONUWA: You're absolutely right. Historically, Black wrestlers have been treated as more bit players and usually security guards, usually strong, silent types, but also, especially when it comes to them speaking and having speaking roles traditionally, they play into stereotypes in terms of maybe what somebody who is not familiar with Black culture thinks a Black person talks like, acts like. And so it has lent itself to some pretty racially insensitive programming over the years when it comes to pro wrestling. And I can't honestly say that it's all the way out of the wrestling atmosphere because it is kind of an old boys' network. But it is getting better. Like you said, Black people are having a moment.

RASCOE: Now, I have to say, my brother growing up and, like, my uncles - they were really into wrestling. And I knew people were still into wrestling, but I hadn't really seen wrestling until recently. My son, my 8-year-old, has gotten really into wrestling. Like, he wants to watch it to go to sleep. So I am interested in - like, what is it like now?

KONUWA: Well, it is improving. And I was that 8-year-old boy once upon a time - 8-year-old Black boy watching wrestling. And I'm so jealous of your son because he's got so many great Black wrestlers to look up to now. For me, my hero growing up was a guy named Ahmed Johnson. That was my hero in terms of wrestling. And he kind of flamed out of the business and didn't amount to being a huge superstar. But it was the first time in my life I'd ever seen a Black person being pushed, as they say, to, like, the main event.

Now your son has so many great Black wrestlers to choose from and so many different promotions. I mean, it's Bianca Belair, like you mentioned, who just came off of what I feel is the greatest women's match in the history of WrestleMania against Becky Lynch. Bianca Belair is incredible. Last year at WrestleMania 37, I wrote an article for Forbes, and I called it the Blackest WrestleMania of all time because it was. It was the first time two Black men had competed for a title. It was the first time two Black women had main evented WrestleMania.

RASCOE: So wrestling, obviously - there's a lot that happens on stage or in the ring...


RASCOE: ...But there's a lot that happens behind the scenes, like, you know, writing the storylines and the executives. Like, how are Black people doing in those areas?

KONUWA: Pro wrestling just had its first Black woman executive in Brandi Rhodes when it comes to AEW. But AEW has had its own problems with representation, diversity or Black excellence, as I like to call it, in terms of booking Black people in prominent positions.

RASCOE: And AEW is All Elite Wrestling?

KONUWA: Yes, All Elite Wrestling. They're a new company, very entertaining. I really love what they're doing. And what I love about the fact that AEW is this new wrestling company, is now there's really an established Black wrestling media. There's more Black wrestling fans, I feel like, than ever in terms of - just from my standpoint, watching wrestling. And so the Black narrative is actually a real thing. You know, AEW has been held accountable from day one in terms of - in its three years of existence, four years of existence, from day one, people have kind of come out, myself included, and kind of held them accountable in terms of promoting Black people at a respectable level.

RASCOE: Obviously, you are very passionate about wrestling. And as a Black man who, this is your passion, like, what has it meant to you to see the change in representation?

KONUWA: The reason that I'm focused on Black people is not about equality. It's really about wrestling being mainstream again because wrestling - I talked to Nick Khan. He's WWE's chief revenue officer. He's one of the big head honchos in WWE. And WWE's main goal, he told me, is to make their audience younger. I got news for you. That's not happening without Black culture because professional wrestling is really just a microcosm of America. And in America, we're seeing this where Black people are still fighting for their voting rights. Black people still feel like they're not getting enough seats at the table, executive positions. Wrestling is just a product of that in that you look at wrestling, and it's the same story.

RASCOE: That was wrestling columnist Alfred Konuwa. Thank you so much.

KONUWA: Thank you so much, Ayesha. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Ayesha Rascoe is a White House correspondent for NPR. She is currently covering her third presidential administration. Rascoe's White House coverage has included a number of high profile foreign trips, including President Trump's 2019 summit with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un in Hanoi, Vietnam, and President Obama's final NATO summit in Warsaw, Poland in 2016. As a part of the White House team, she's also a regular on the NPR Politics Podcast.