Victory Glow: A Brief History of Black Women and Championships in Wrestling

naomi
Source: WrestlingNews.co

I caught the live broadcast of WWE Elimination Chamber tonight. I mention this for three reasons. First, They’d Rather Be Right is kind of boring so far. Second, I did promise at one point (both to myself and to an unspecified and completely theoretical audience) that I would spend time between books doing some actual real person blogging about things that are not award-winning sci-fi. Third, as a UOTM reader (or maybe just “Mind reader”), you deserve to be reminded from time to time that the person behind this blog is a somehow simultaneously a political leftist and a professional wrestling fan who watches one person get a predetermined victory over another person and thinks to himself, “I wonder how this fits into the long and sordid history of race and gender in the wrestling industry?”

So, on that note…

Naomi is a black female wrestler, and the new Smackdown Women’s champion, having just defeated evil blonde white girl Alexa Bliss. In some ways, the victory means less than it might have in another day and age; the Smackdown Women’s Championship is a newly-created title belt (Naomi is only the third champion ever) and often thought of as secondary to the comparatively ancient lineage of its counterpart, the Raw Women’s Championship, formerly the WWE Women’s Championship. But the fact that there are two titles for women at all says something, and the fact that Naomi’s victory occurred in one of three women’s matches on a wrestling show says even more. I don’t think that’s ever happened before.

Moreover, as a black woman holding a championship, Naomi joins a very exclusive club in the wrestling industry. Much like the rest of the world, WWE likes to pretend its history of racism is in the past, but there haven’t been many opportunities in wrestling for black men over the years, let alone black women.

Naomi is now only the sixth black woman to hold championship gold in WWE. The first was Jacqueline Moore, who won it in 1998 (the title had been around since the 1950s). She would win the belt a second time in 2000, and in 2004, she briefly held the WWE Cruiserweight Championship, a men’s title. In between, a black wrestler named Jazz won the Women’s championship in 2002, and again in 2003. After Jacqueline and Jazz, there would be no black women champions until Layla El, a Londoner of Moroccan descent, won the Women’s title in 2010. El and another black woman, Alicia Fox, had reigns with the WWE Divas Championship — the infamous “butterfly belt” which became symbolic of how little WWE respected women’s wrestling in the late 2000s and early 2010s. And in 2016, former NXT Women’s champion Sasha Banks won the new WWE Women’s Championship three times (though her combined reigns totaled about a month and a half).

Outside WWE, the pickings are even slimmer. The most prominent black woman on the independent wrestling scene is Kia Stevens, known in various promotions as Amazing Kong or Awesome Kong, and during her brief WWE run as Kharma. Stevens won the National Wrestling Alliance’s World Women’s Championship in 2007 and Total Non-Stop Action Wrestling’s Knockouts Championship, twice, in 2008. She was also a prominent member of the well-known independent promotion Ring of Honor and the all-female SHIMMER Women Athletes, but Ring of Honor has never had a women’s championship, and neither Stevens nor any other black woman has ever held a title in SHIMMER. Meanwhile, Jazz, now a 20-year veteran (she started in 1998 as part of the legendary Extreme Championship Wrestling, which didn’t have a women’s title) is the current NWA World Women’s champion. Another wrestler worth mentioning is Adrienne Reese, who won the American Joshi Championship three times in Anarchy Championship Wrestling under the name Athena before arriving in NXT, where she goes by Ember Moon, wears terrifying red contact lenses, and is considered a favorite to become the next NXT Women’s champion.

All of this is merely to say that Naomi, by virtue of being chosen to hold a championship belt as a black woman, has reached rarefied air in the wrestling industry. That fact is, objectively, kind of terrible, but in context, it may be a sign that things are changing for the better. Don’t get me wrong, WWE is still a pretty racist place to work in ways both subtle and overt (during tonight’s match, the announce team repeatedly referred to Naomi as a “phenomenal athlete” or a “pure athlete,” which is WWE-speak for “black person” and has been for over a decade) but small victories are still victories, and a slight trend upward is still a trend upward. Prior to 1998, there were no black women with championship belts. For the rest of the 90s, there was one. In the 2000s, there were three, and in the 2010s, there have now been six. Two black women are currently holding wrestling titles at the same time, one that’s been around since 1935, another that’s been around for less than six months. If Ember Moon wins the NXT Women’s championship sooner rather than later, as she’s expected to, there could be three black women holding three different golden belts at the same time.

I’m positive that has never happened before.

UPDATE: On the episode of WWE Smackdown Live that aired on February 21, 2017, Naomi was forced to forfeit the championship, ending her reign prematurely early, due to a knee injury suffered in her match at Elimination Chamber. Because this is the darkest timeline.

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