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Black History Month:
Pro Wrestling's Black Stars, Part 1
February 5, 2002

by Denny Burkholder
Exclusive to OnlineOnslaught.com


In recognition of Black History Month, let's pay homage to some of pro wrestling's greatest black athletes and performers. This tribute started as a two-part special on WrestleLine.com in February 2000. In 2001, it became part of Circa, and expanded to a four-part series. This year, I've added several names to the tribute, and completely revised the ones that were already included. Watch for the next three installments throughout the month of February, right here on this web site.

The following is just a sample of the black wrestlers, managers, and valets who have entertained crowds in the sport of kings for over a century.

This tribute is not a complete list of every black performer in pro wrestling's long and storied history. Exclusions are unintentional and were not done out of spite, but rather in the interest of keeping this already-large column to a respectable size. I apologize in advance for any omissions, and I welcome your feedback.

We kick things off with the men who helped put black wrestlers on the map for good - the pioneers. Those who emerged later are placed with the era in which they achieved their greatest notoriety. Links for each part of this edition of Circa can be found at the bottom of each section, as the sections are published. Enjoy the tribute!



Viro Small is one of the earliest black pro wrestlers on record - perhaps the very first, although that would be impossible to prove.

Because it was so long ago, some of the facts on Viro Small conflict. Most reliable information says that he was born into slavery in Buford, South Carolina, in 1854. It is believed Small made his debut in 1870 at the age of 16. It is also known that in April of1881, he wrestled a collar and elbow match in New York against Mike Horogan as a substitute for another wrestler. He reportedly lost the match, but so impressed Horogan that the man began training Viro Small soon afterward. Many sources point to that 1881 match as Small's debut, despite the information that he debuted in 1870. A possible explanation for this conflict is that Viro Small was both a collar and elbow wrestler and a boxer, so he might have boxed primarily until the 1880s. Again, many sources have his wrestling debut in 1870, so where the exact truth lies is debatable.

But in 1881, Small's wrestling career definitely took off. He wrestled out of St. Albans and Rutland, Vermont, under the name "Black Sam." He won the Vermont Collar and Elbow Championship twice, becoming perhaps the first black pro wrestling champion in the United States.

Small also traveled on the county fair circuit in New England with Horogan and challenged members of the audience to keep up with him for a set time limit in a wrestling match. He wrestled a great deal in New York City, in some of the roughest areas of town. He trained by hauling sauerkraut and beer barrels around the city. His frequent opponents in New York included Captain James C. Daley, Harry Woodson, Joe Ryan, and Billy McCallum, who was so enraged by his match against Small on September 3, 1882, that he shot Small in the neck as he slept later that night. Small survived the gunshot wound.

Small wrestled in New York at a tavern called Bastille of the Bowery, owned by former boxer Owney Geoghegan. The bar contained two rings for boxing and wrestling contests, and was notorious for crooked management, rowdy patrons and an overall seedy atmosphere. Geoghegan reportedly won a decision over an opponent in the Bowery by having his henchmen aim a gun at the referee's head post-fight. It was at this bar where Small's match with McCallum ended in a no-contest after a major conflict broke out between the two, causing McCallum to attempt to murder Small later that evening.


Reginald "Reg" Siki was a pro wrestling superstar from the 1920s through the 1940s. He preceded future great "Sweet Daddy Siki," who adopted Siki's name and debuted in 1955.

The original Siki was famous from Winnipeg, Canada, to New York, to Los Angeles, and all points in between. His career spanned more than two decades. Siki was wrestling for the California Heavyweight title as late as the late-1940s, after becoming a popular star in the 20s. Legendary names such as Larry Moquin, Willy Davis, Jim "Black Panther" Mitchell, Vic Christy, Gino Garibaldi, Joe Savoldi, and Rudy Dusek shared billing with Siki through the years. Siki was a true pioneer not just for black pro wrestlers, but for pro wrestling as a whole.


No less an authority than the legendary Lou Thesz has proclaimed the greatness of Luther Lindsey (born Luther Jacob Goodall). In his book Hooker (available on Amazon.com), Lou says the following:

"[Lindsey was] without question, the best black wrestler ever. Luther had a fantastic body and limitless energy to compliment his skill. Like many other industries, wrestling was not open to African-American wrestlers during his career, so it was an amazing accomplishment for Luther to even learn his craft. His place in history is not because he was black; it is in spite of the fact he was black."

Just like countless black baseball players of his era, Lindsey was relegated to wrestling black opponents, and competing for "Negro" championship titles in many areas. Lindsey once claimed to have known Shag Thomas better than any other competitor, because in many territories, the two men had to wrestle each other because they were both black.

But in the territories where Lindsey was allowed to compete on the same level as the main event white wrestlers - such as Stampede in Calgary, Hawaii, or the Pacific Northwest - he fast became a major star. Lindsey wrestled Thesz to time limit draws for the world championship many times.

Lindsey was a four-time Pacific Northwest Heavyweight Champion between 1961 and 1969, and held the tag team titles on eight different occasions - four with Shag Thomas, and once each with George Dussette, Bing Ki Lee, Herb Freeman and Pepper Martin. Lindsey also counts the Hawaiian Heavyweight and Tag Team Championship (with Bobby Bruns) among his prizes. On a tour of Japan in 1962, he scored the All Asia Tag Team Titles (with Ricky Waldo) with a win over Rikidozan and Toyonobori in Tokyo. Besides Thesz, Lindsey's many opponents included fellow legends "Iron" Mike DiBiase, Bronko Nagurski, Kurt Von Poppenheim, Buddy Colt and Mad Dog Vachon.

Stu Hart shared Lou Thesz' high opinion of Lindsey, who was one of the first black superstars for Hart's Stampede. In 1967, a match between Luther Lindsey and future WWF Champion Stan Stasiak (with boxing great "Jersey" Joe Wolcott as special referee) drew the largest wrestling crowd in Calgary's history up to that point.

Tragically, Luther Lindsey died after a match on February 21, 1972, due to heart failure. He was 48.


Also known as "King Toby," Shag Thomas was a trailblazer from the same era as Luther Lindsey. The two men worked many of the same circuits, and often wrestled each other in segregated venues. Shag Thomas was a very prominent babyface in Don Owen's Pacific Northwest territory in Oregon, winning the Heavyweight title twice (in 1960 defeating Ed Francis, and in 1966 defeating Tony Borne).

Thomas also held the Pacific Northwest Tag Team Titles a whopping 16 times, with partners Lindsey (four times), Pepper Martin (three times), Tony Borne (twice), Bearcat Wright (twice), Billy White Wolf, Danny Hodge, Dan Manoukian, Armand Hussein, and Rene Goulet.

Standing a mere 5'6" and tipping the scales at 255 lbs., Shag Thomas was a former football standout for Ohio State. As a wrestler, he established himself as a likeable performer with a knack for entertaining matches and getting the crowd behind him. Like so many other black wrestlers through time, Shag Thomas counted the head butt as one of his trademark maneuvers.

As Luther Lindsey did, Thomas made a stand in NWA Hawaii, winning the Tag Team Titles with Robert Duranton in 1963. His dominance of tag team wrestling is further evidenced by his reign as NWA Canadian Tag Team Champion with Mighty Ursus in 1959.

James "Shag" Thomas died on July 25, 1982, following a heart attack.


It's not what you think: Jim Mitchell was famous as wrestling's "Black Panther" long before the activist Black Panther Party gained fame.

In fact, it is believed that Mitchell made his official wrestling debut some time in the late 1930s, starting a lengthy career in which he sparred with stars like The Masked Marvel and Earl Wampler (in South Carolina), Gorgeous George (in California), and "Mr. America" Gene Stanlee. Because of prevailing racist attitudes of the time, he was limited to wrestling other minority opponents for a while. But Mitchell persevered, and today claims a place among pro wrestling's early great performers.


Step back, Rocky: Woody Strode was Hollywood's favorite wrestler-turned-movie star years before The Rock was a twinkle in the People's Eye.

In fact, Woody Strode also beat The Rock and Ron "Faarooq" Simmons to another honor: he was the first black professional wrestler to come from a sensational college football career. His days as an All-American superstar on the UCLA Bruins football squad earned him a 1992 induction into the UCLA Athletic Hall of Fame. Strode played professional football for the NFL's Cleveland Rams and the Calgary Stampeders of the CFL before taking his celebrity status to wrestling rings in California. In the state of his first glory, Woody Strode was already a hometown hero, and had a far easier time earning the acceptance of the fans as a babyface.

Strode was 6'4" and weighed just over 200 lbs. in his prime. He was part black and part Native American, and identified just as strongly with his roots to the Blackfoot tribe as he did to his African heritage. His great grandfather escaped slavery in the south, finding safety with a Creek tribe and marrying one of its squaws. His grandfather would one day marry a woman from the Blackfoot tribe.

Due to his athletic build, Strode would play the role of African warrior or Native American tribesman in many of his Hollywood ventures. Strode eventually earned prominent roles in movies such as The Outlaw Josey Wales, Spartacus (in a very famous scene as a warrior Kirk Douglas refuses to kill), The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance, The Ten Commandments (1956), The Cotton Club, Posse, and the lead role in the 1960 classic Sergeant Rutledge. In a film many have included among the "Blacksploitation" movies of the 60s and 70s, Strode played the lead role in 1971's Black Jesus as well.

At the age of 76, Strode branched out into yet another successful career when his 1990 autobiography Goal Dust was praised by a host of critics.

Strode died of lung cancer in 1994 shortly after completing work on his last film, The Quick and the Dead. He was 80.


From the 1930s through the 1950s, Jack Claybourne was famous worldwide for his wrestling skills. He was popular in England, Canada, Australia, Hawaii, the continental United States, and just about everywhere else there was a ring to wrestle in. Yet in many territories - especially in the early days of his career - he was subject to the same segregation tactics as his peers, and was often relegated to wrestling for Negro championships.

In fact, Claybourne won the Kentucky Negro Championship from Hallie Samara on September 2, 1941, in Louisville. He dropped that title the following year to King Kong Clayton.

As his star rose, Claybourne began wrestling for bigger titles, and wrestling a wider variety of opponents. He soon began popping up on cards with such names as Ed "Strangler" Lewis, Sandor Szabo, Yvon Robert, and Whipper Billy Watson. In 1954, he and Luther Lindsey won the Canadian Open Tag Team Titles from Great Togo and Tosh Togo (Harold Sakata, who played "Oddjob" in the James Bond movie Goldfinger).


Dory Dixon was one of the most impressive athletes in wrestling during the "Golden Age" of the 1950s and 1960s. It has been documented that Dixon so impressed a youthful Mil Mascaras with his aerial ability and exciting style that Mascaras decided to become a wrestler himself, just like Dixon.

Dixon made his mark in Mexico, most notably with a successful reign as EMLL Light Heavyweight Champion in 1959 (he defeated Al Kashey for the title in Mexico City). But he was also very popular in the United States for years, from Texas to California to New York. Dixon even had a shot at the world title in Dallas, wrestling Buddy Rogers to a 90-minute time limit draw in October 1962.

In November 1962, Dixon wrestled to a non-finish with World Champion Buddy Rogers when they pinned each other at the same time in Madison Square Garden. Six months later, on May 17, 1963, Dixon teamed with Bobo Brazil to wrestle to a time-limit draw with U.S. tag team champions Brute Bernard and Skull Murphy in Madison Square Garden on the same card where Bruno Sammartino defeated Buddy Rogers in 48 seconds for the WWWF World Title.

Besides Mexico and the WWWF, Dixon made his presence felt in areas such as World Class in Texas and various NWA territories. He notched two NWA America's Tag Team titles with Earl Maynard and Raul Mata, respectively, in 1972.

Dixon's style and ability influenced many wrestlers besides Mascaras as well. He opened doors for people like Elix Skipper to incorporate an aerial style into their performances.


Reginald "Sweet Daddy" Siki, with his blonde hair, sunglasses and hand-held mirror, commanded the attention of every crowd he every wrestled in front of. Nicknamed "Mr. Irresistible," Siki's gimmick was similar to that of Gorgeous George, making Siki one of the first wrestlers to successfully use an arrogant, primadonna persona to rile fans up.

Making his wrestling debut in 1955, the Texas native was famous worldwide for his "Siki Strut" and his aggressive style. Siki teamed with "Sailor" Art Thomas, and feuded with men such as Leo Burke, Dave Ruhl and countless others. Today's black superstars owe a debt of gratitude to the "Sweetest Man in the Whole Wide World," who helped pave the way for future generations.


"Sailor" Art Thomas was one of only a handful of big-name black stars in pro wrestling from the 50s through the early 70s. Known for his crushing power, foes feared his bearhug, which usually spelled defeat. Thomas was a beloved fan favorite, taking on such villains as Ox Baker and sometimes teaming with Sweet Daddy Siki.

Thomas' gimmick was that of a merchant marine bodybuilder. In many territories, he wrestled as "Seaman" Art Thomas rather than "Sailor." He held NWA Texas title on several occasions in 1962 and 1963. Thomas won the WWA title from Baron Von Raschke in Indianapolis in 1972, but that title was not officially recognized by the WWA during that period. Thomas lost to Raschke in a match that officially marked the recognition of the title by the WWA.

Sailor Art Thomas retired from wrestling in 1983 and settled in Madison, Wisconsin.


Debuting in 1951, Bobo Brazil (Houston Harris) was a trailblazer for today's black pro wrestling superstars. The most famous black competitor of his time, and easily one of the most popular stars overall from the 50s through the 80s, Brazil brought 6'6, 270 lbs. of power and ability to the ring. A gentleman outside the squared circle, Brazil feuded with the nastiest villains in the game, such as The Sheik, Fred Blassie, Dick the Bruiser, Brute Bernard, and Ernie Ladd. Fans delighted in watching the Benton Harbor, Michigan native stun opponents with his patented "coco-butt."

Among the long list of titles on Brazil's resume were several versions of the U.S. Title (mostly in Detroit) between the early 1960s and 1976, and two WWA championships between 1966 and 1968.

After concluding an amazing 40-plus year wrestling career in the early 1990s, Houston Harris passed away in 1998. He was 74.


In the early 1960s, a tall, trim wrestler named Edward "Bearcat" Wright came into prominence in the Northeast. Wright's stature made it very easy to power out of many holds, or simply slide out of them due to his slender build. Bearcat Wright can lay claim to being the first black pro wrestler of his time to win a major heavyweight singles title, with Big Time Pro Wrestling in Massachusetts. He defeated Killer Kowalski for that title in 1961. He beat Fred Blassie for the WWA title two years later.

But perhaps Wright's greatest achievement came when he was suspended by the Indiana State Athletic Commission in the early 1960s for announcing to a live crowd that he would never again wrestle in a segregated venue. Bearcat Wright took a stand against racism at the risk of losing his career. Nonetheless, Wright remained a popular figure all over the Western hemisphere, from California to New York, and from Texas to Hawaii.

Edward "Bearcat" Wright died in 1983 at the age of 50.


Another famous Bearcat of wrestling lore is Bearcat Brown, a popular star in southern territories from the late 1950s through the 1970s. He gained initial fame working for promoter Nick Gulas in the burgeoning Tennessee territory. At that time, many southern fans were still not completely open to the idea of a black wrestler competing with white wrestlers. Brown defied racial prejudices by forming a tag team with white grappler Len Rossi, and legend has it that Brown and Rossi - along with promoter Gulas - were faced with extreme racist opposition and even death threats over the duo. But the team survived and became a big hit with fans in Alabama and surrounding areas over time.

Bearcat Brown remained a prominent figure in the south, particularly Memphis, for the next two decades. He won tag team gold with Johhny Walker (who was later known as The Grappler and Mr. Wrestling II) in 1969. As the 1970s ended, Brown played babyface to an imposing newcomer heel in Gulas' promotion - a man who would gain fame as the Junkyard Dog. Bearcat Brown's wrestling career truly helped bridge a generation gap for black stars in the business.


Listed below is a sample of other pioneering black wrestlers. These men also contributed to pro wrestling's rich history, and despite my space and time restraints within this column, all deserve to be recognized. Their efforts are appreciated.


With the foundation laid by men such as those profiled above, the wrestling scene would have an influx of even more talented performers through the 1960s and 1970s. In Part 2, we look at some of those performers.

[Note: This tribute is by no means an exhaustive list of every black performer in pro wrestling's long and storied history. Exclusions are unintentional. I apologize in advance for any omissions, and I welcome your feedback.]

Circa's Tribute to Pro Wrestling's Black Stars
Pt.1, the Pioneers -/- Pt. 2, the 60s & 70s -/-
Pt. 3, the 80s -/- Pt. 4, the 90s and Beyond


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