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Meet Bearcat Wright, The First African-American World Wrestling Champion

Edward “Bearcat” Wright was a second generation boxer and wrestler. He became best known as the first Black World Heavyweight champion in a wrestling promotion. Finishing his 8-0 boxing career in the late 1950s, he made his wrestling debut in 1959.

His hottest period was the 1960s. His 6’6, 275lbs frame made him the perfect heel (bad guy) when wrestling was still segregated and Blacks were often heels. Also during this time, the territory system was nearing its peak.

BEARCAT WRIGHT’S IN-RING STYLE
As a heel he wrestled similar to Venezuelan wrestler and former boxer Ciclon Negro, he used a brawling style. As a face, he made use of various kicks and splashes from the top rope, something that wasn’t totally unusual at the time, but was grounds for a disqualification in most U.S. promotions within the National Wrestling Alliance.

He showed basic wrestling competence on the mat but wasn’t the greatest technician. As a matter of fact, he hovered around “decent.” He was similar to many heavyweight Black wrestlers brought in at the time: a good brawler, athletic, charismatic, and could have a good match depending on the opponent.

He wasn’t someone who just produced great matches that endured time with anyone. That said, he didn’t need to be good depending on the territory because he was a draw. He could pull up wrestlers who were good in-ring wrestlers but were paint can interesting overall.

His finishing move was the Claw, best known for being used by the famous Von Erich Family and “German” wrestlers as The Iron Claw. As was customary at the time, he demonstrated his hand strength for the Claw by ripping phone books with his bare hands.

ROLE IN DESEGREGATING WRESTLING
In his early career, he participated in Black only matches—similar to early Black boxers mainly boxing other Black fighters pre-Jack Johnson—and was even World Negro Heavyweight Champion. On a show in Gary, Indiana he declared that he wouldn’t wrestle in Blacks only matches. He was banned by the state athletic commission but had other territories—groups of cities controlled by a promoter to run shows in—to appear in.

Seeing the drawing power of Black wrestlers as heels, several promoters stopped segregating wrestling. This saw other Black wrestlers of the period—namely Thunderbolt Patterson, Bobo Brazil, and Abdullah the Butcher—appear outside of home territories that already allowed for desegregated matches and championship booking for Blacks. It should be noted that Bearcat Wright wasn’t solely responsible for desegregating wrestling since different wrestlers were based in different territories.

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STEREOTYPES AFTER DESEGREGATION
While the territories were desegregated in most cases, racism persisted and promoters played up to this with stereotypical gimmicks such as the “mystical oriental,” an Asian wrestler with face paint and mask who used kicks and spat “poisonous” green mist such as the Great Kabuki and more famously Keiji “The Great Muta” Mutoh. Or the “sneaky Asian” who threw salt and finished people off with chops or a diving Kamikaze headbutt like Mr. Fuji.

There was also the rich Arabic madman such as the fireball throwing, pencil stabbing The (Original) Sheik in Detroit (the greatest enemy of Bobo Brazil) and Abdullah the Butcher from Ontario known for stabbing and cutting opponents open with a fork. Of course, you also had the savages: the “Island savage” for every wrestler of Polynesian descent until The Rock and “African savages” such as Kamala the Ugandan Giant.

The similarity for all of these is that they were always heels, the bad guy. In the case of Black wrestlers, you had babyfaces who were often very athletic, former football standouts like Ron Simmons, or just friendly like Junkyard Dog.

WORLD HEAVYWEIGHT CHAMPION
With the desegregation of wrestling getting around, Bearcat Wright wrestled a variety tough, old school wrestlers who liked a stiff match. He became the World Champion of Big Time Wrestling out of Boston, defeating major territory star Killer Kowalski. Decades later, Kowalski would become known for training future WWF/WWE World Champion and current WWE exec Triple H and the deceased former WWF Women’s Champion and Intercontinental Champion, Chyna.

He made his way out west for Los Angeles’ WWA promotion, ran by the Eaton/LeBell family. Wright became WWA World Heavyweight Champion defeating “Classy” Freddie Blassie in August 1963.

After becoming WWA’s first Black World Champion, he refused to drop the championship to popular grappler Edouard Carpentier. He also refused to lose to Blassie who wrote in his biography that Wright had become “crazed” with being world champion. As was the way of the time, WWA called in a shooter—or someone who legitimately solved problems the ring.

BLACKBALLED
The problem solver was “Judo” Gene LeBell, the son of the WWA’s promoters, National judo champion, and black belt. He also trained in catch wrestling with famous World Champion from the legit era of professional wrestling, Ed “Strangler” Lewis. In short, he wasn’t to be trifled with. Also that year LeBell had beaten a boxer in a mixed match, choking him out. Years later he would referee the fight between Inoki and Ali in 1976.

While LeBell was brought in under a mask Bearcat Wright sensed something was up and refused to enter the ring. As a result, he was stripped of the World Title and Edouard Carpentier was made champion. After that, he was blackballed in the territory and elsewhere as someone who didn’t cooperate. He was such a draw that he did manage to find work elsewhere such as the southern U.S. He managed to become a World Champion for an Australian promotion years later.

FINAL YEARS
Bearcat Wright would return to Los Angeles in the late 1960s. He continued to be drawing heavyweight before retiring in 1974. He passed away in August 1982 at the age of 50. Decades later he was added to WWE’s Hall of Fame in 2017.

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Written by PH

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