On Saturday night, Bobby Lashley will march to the WrestleMania 37 ring as the fifth-ever Black WWE world champion.
Lashley, 44, has spent the last year helping to carry WWE through the coronavirus era, a bleak time with no live spectators, as the leading man in the Hurt Business, the all-Black group that has featured real-life pals Montel Vontavious Porter (AKA MVP), Shelton Benjamin and Cedric Alexander.
The WWE’s longtime weekly three-hour program on USA Network, Raw, saw the team dressed like chief executives for their backstage bits – or, as Lashley likes to describe them, as a bunch of “thugs in suits” – with a palpable on-screen chemistry. Social media timelines have been inundated with Hurt Business memes, gifs, photos and videos, showing the team beating up opponents and posing with their championship belts – a sign of their popularity in a year with no audiences.
It’s a success that Lashley scarcely could have imagined growing up the son of Panamanian immigrants, subsisting on cereal and Taco Bell in a single-parent house with no hot water in the north-east Kansas town of Junction City.
His rise to the top of the company should have felt preordained when he debuted back in 2006 – full of skill, looking like a Greek god and moving like an Olympian. But reaching this moment perhaps took longer than it should have, as he was made to navigate an industry with a long history of racism.
Professional wrestling is performance art. It’s a forum through which stories are told, morality is debated and justice is served. It is self-expression through choreographed combat; a blend of athleticism, stage presence and chutzpah. The tension is in the blurred lines, where fans are left questioning where fantasy ends and reality begins.
The most compelling characters are those who don’t feel like ones. They are people playing themselves with the volume turned up. And in an industry with a long history of writing Black performers into stereotypical roles, that was what made the Hurt Business so compelling: they were a group of suit-wearing ass kickers who just happened to be Black.
Part of the reason the group achieved such success before their forced split in March – more on that later – is the novelty factor.
“You’ve never seen anything like that before,” said Kenny King, who worked with Lashley in the Nashville-based company Impact Wrestling.
Speaking of the way in which Black wrestlers have consistently been typecast and handed rigid roles that lack complexity, he said: “Four Black dudes who are, first and foremost, amazing athletes. Articulate. Well-dressed. Successful, business-minded. You’ve never seen anything like that before. You’ve seen things like that with, call it what it is, white dudes.”
Never before had WWE presented four Black men in such a light; they had, in fact, often been portrayed as racist caricatures. In wrestling historian David Shoemaker’s book The Squared Circle, it’s noted that Michael PS Hayes, WWE’s vice-president of creative writing and booking, once said that Black wrestlers didn’t need gimmicks – because being Black was a gimmick.
The highlight of Lashley’s first run came in April 2007 at Wrestlemania 23, when he represented Donald Trump in the “Battle of the Billionaires” match against Umaga, a Samoan wrestler represented by the WWE supremo, Vince McMahon.
The winner of the match – and their billionaire – would be permitted to shave the other billionaire bald. Of course, Lashley won.
His placement in the match pointed to the high esteem in which backstage decision-makers held him at the time. But something was missing. Lashley was cheered by children, sure, but met with apathy by those who comprise the key 18-49 demographic and crave more authentic characters. The clip resurfaced in 2016 as some questioned the efficacy of putting America’s nuclear codes into the hands of a man who once participated in such a carny stunt.
“Bobby was just muscles, man,” Andrew Goldstein, the former WWE writer said. “They were not putting a mic in front of him, and if they did put a mic in front of him, it was just going to be generic, threatening type of verbiage.”
In 2008, Hayes was suspended for allegedly telling the WWE Hall of Famer Mark Henry “I’m more of a nigger than you are,” during a party the weekend of Wrestlemania, and tensions with Hayes reportedly led Lashley to ask for his release.
“Sometimes people will hate you personally and try to destroy you, which happened here,” Lashley said in a statement then. “Evil has prevailed.”
His departure set WWE back; the company had invested in him. At that time it desperately guy needed new stars, and Lashley was a natural fit. But the company invested little in thinking about him as an autonomous, nuanced character – most crudely summed up in the way members of WWE’s creative team referred to him: “Black Lesnar.”
The physical and athletic comparisons to Brock Lesnar, another recently departed megastar in the business, were not misplaced. But the distillation of Lashley to his Blackness reflects the myopia that pervaded stories about many Black performers from that era.
After a summer of anti-racism protests in 2020, businesses were forced to have their own internal reckonings about their past. WWE is no outlier. The company’s history of using racist tropes has resurfaced in recent weeks as Peacock, the NBC Universal streaming platform that subsumed the WWE’s own streaming service earlier this week, has erased from its library some of the company’s more controversial moments – like a 2005 segment where McMahon used the N-word in an attempt at humor.
Also among the cuts was a 1998 clip that saw the members of D-Generation X, an all-white group, wearing blackface to mimic the Nation of Domination, an all-Black group based loosely on the Nation of Islam and the Black Panther Party. D-X were the good guys; the Nation the bad guys. Fans booed when the Nation protested, as they did when Farooq, the group’s leader, rejected McMahon’s on-screen apology.
“Do you think you can come out here and apologize to me for over 400 years of what we call antagonizing, slavery, washing your cars … building your houses, building this country?” Farooq shouted, a scowl on his face and a black leather beret on his head.
The Oklahoma crowd erupted in jeers.
In July, against the backdrop of the George Floyd protests, WWE considered rebooting the Nation with MVP and Lashley, but someone at the company thought better of it.
Reforming the Nation would have been tone-deaf, and it also wouldn’t have been true to Lashley. He and MVP were instead allowed to set in motion the Hurt Business. They first added Benjamin, another veteran with whom they had come up in the mid-2010s, and then Alexander, a 31-year-old prospect. While MVP was the group’s voice on the microphone, Benjamin and Alexander provided Lashley with backup and enjoyed an 84-day run as the Raw Tag Team Champions.
Their chemistry translated to the screen. Success in the pandemic era has been determined by social media buzz in the absence of in-arena “heat” – and for months the Hurt Business was the talk of Twitter. And so, when the group split on Raw this March, the plot twist dumbfounded fans and former wrestlers alike.
“I had to call and ask, like, what the fuck was going on? Why would they go and do some silly shit like break up the Hurt Business?” King said, about a call he had with Lashley and MVP, a day after the breakup.
Part of the calculus for the split, some have speculated, is to put more shine on Lashley and set him up for profile-elevating matches down the line – the kind of showdowns that pull viewers out of their skin, that make adults feel like children and children feel like their heroes on the screen.
Now Lashley is set to defend his championship against Drew McIntyre this weekend at WrestleMania. Some have likened it to when Kofi Kingston became the second Black WWE champion at WrestleMania 35, as part of a storyline that incorporated the company’s real racist skeletons into the show – Kingston at one point glared at McMahon and said: “I’ve never complained about the fact that you have never allowed someone like me to compete or contend for the WWE title.”
But the equivalency is false. Lashley’s run has nothing to do with race.
Lashley v McIntyre is an appealing matchup, though the dissolution of the Hurt Business has taken attention away from the buildup to the showdown.
Lashley knows there’s one opponent with whom he can create an even bigger match. The man, who, like Lashley, briefly left WWE for mixed martial arts, and who, unlike Lashley, has been the WrestleMania main event three times since his 2012 return. The man whose shadow he’s spent his career trying to outrun, who he has called out in interviews since winning the championship.
Lashley can see it. The arena is awake. The fans are jumping and hollering. Lashley wants Lesnar.