The lack of African-American (or African descent) World Champions in WWE is no secret. But history has shown that it’s not only been a WWE issue but something that has plagued pro wrestling since it’s earliest days. With Kofi Kingston‘s huge win over Daniel Bryan for the WWE Championship on Sunday at WrestleMania 35, Kofi Kingston joins a small club of African-descended wrestlers to hold a world championship in pro wrestlings 100+ year history. And despite having African-American wrestlers in the sport from the beginning, like early star Viro Small, it took until the civil rights movement of the 1960s before any promotion would dare put a World title around a black man’s waist. Here’s a look at the 27 men who have held a major World title, both in major promotions like WWE and WCW, to top major indies like PWG and CZW.
Bearcat Wright, WWA (Los Angeles) World Heavyweight Champion, 1963
Los Angeles’ World Wrestling Association (WWA) was a breakaway territory from the National Wrestling Alliance (NWA). While they rejoined in 1968 (rebranding as NWA Hollywood), prior to that they were one of the top major competitors to the NWA, especially on the lucrative West Coast. It was in 1963 that WWA became the first promotion to crown an African-American its World Champion, when Bearcat Wright defeated the vicious Freddie Blassie for the World title, holding it for 115-days.
Bobo Brazil, WWA (Los Angeles) World Heavyweight Champion, 1966
WWA was also the early stomping grounds for Bobo Brazil, arguably the most popular African-American superstar of all time. In 1966, Brazil also found himself in the World title picture, and in September of 1966, he defeated Buddy Austin to become the second black World Champion in history.
“Sailor” Art Thomas, WWA (Indianapolis) World Heavyweight Champion, 1972
“Sailor” Art Thomas was a solid journeyman who did much to fight segregation in wrestling during the 1960s, and his fight was rewarded in Indianapolis with another promotion that called itself the World Wrestling Association (WWA). Not affiliated with the now debranded NWA Hollywood, this WWA was the national promotion run by legend Dick The Bruiser. In 1972, they became just the second promotion to crown an African-American Champion, when Art Thomas defeated Baron Von Raschke for the WWA World Championship in Detroit, Michigan.
Ernie Ladd, WWA (Indianapolis) World Heavyweight Champion, 1980
A perennial World title contender in the WWE during the 1960s and 1970s, it wasn’t until 1980 that “Big Cat” Ernie Ladd finally became a World Champion himself, when he defeated Dick the Bruiser himself for the World title in November of 1980.
Calypso Jim, WWA (Indianapolis) World Heavyweight Champion, 1987
While he was also known as Bobo Brazil Jr., Calypso Jim was a trainee of Brazil, who competed in the AWA. He also competed in the WWA, and in 1987 became WWA World Champion. Sadly, WWA would eventually fold in 1988 after 24 years in operation.
Iceman King Parsons, WCCW World Heavyweight Champion, 1988
During the 1980s, longtime Texas NWA territory Big Time Wrestling, run by Fritz Von Erich in Dallas, seceded from the NWA and went national, rebranding as World Class Championship Wrestling (WCCW). In March of 1988, Iceman King Parsons defeated WCCW golden boy Kerry Von Erich for the WCCW World title. Parsons was an NWA star throughout Mid South, Mid Atlantic, and Memphis, but in Texas, he became a World Champion.
Ron Simmons, WCW World Heavyweight Champion, 1992
Considered the first major African-American World Champion, it’s a bit unfair to the previous winners – the WWA in both Los Angeles and Indianapolis were both huge promotions in their day and deserve the recognition. But on a grand scale, the huge win for Ron Simmons over Vader at Great American Bash ’92 was a huge statement for a company more associated with the Old South. He would go on to hold it for 150-days, defending the title against the likes of Vader, Cactus Jack, Bobby Eaton, and “Dr. Death” Steve Williams.
The Rock, WWE World Heavyweight Champion, 1998
The most polarizing entry – many detractors refuse to acknowledge The Rock as an African-American wrestler based on his half Samoan side – The Rock finally became WWF World Heavyweight Champion in 1998, defeating Mankind for the vacant title at Survivor Series that year.
Booker T, WCW World Heavyweight Champion, 2000
It would take WCW another eight years to crown their next African-American World Champion and it arrived in the rise of Booker T to singles star. A 10x WCW Tag Team Champion with now WWE Hall of Fame tandem Harlem Heat, Booker T emerged as a hero that the world could rally behind, and in 2000 at Bash At The Beach, Booker T defeated Jeff Jarrett for his first of many World Championships.
R-Truth, NWA World’s Heavyweight Champion, 2002
Originally a WWE Superstar named K-Kwik, he left the WWF in 2001 and in 2002, signed with TNA/IMPACT Wrestling. As Ron “The Truth” Killings, he became the first African-American to hold the NWA World’s Heavyweight Championship, defeating Ken Shamrock for TNA’s top prize on their eight weekly pay-per-view event.
Xavier, ROH World Champion, 2002
With the rise of the indies in the early 2000s, these independent companies were quick to embrace the diversity of its audience and locker rooms. In September of 2002 at ROH Unscripted, just months into Ring of Honor‘s existence, Xavier defeated Low Ki to become just the second ever ROH World Champion and the company’s first African-American to hold the big belt.
Bob Sapp, IWGP Heavyweight Champion, 2004
Originally starting out as a pro wrestler in 2001 with NWA Wildside, Bob Sapp made a name for himself in MMA, becoming a top star with K-1 in Japan. His success in K-1 made him a celebrity in Japan and in 2002 he joined New Japan Pro Wrestling. In March of 2004, at NJPW King of Sports, Sapp defeated Kensuke Sasaki to become the World Champion in NJPW. While his reign was a transition phase (he lost in his first defense to emerging young star Shinsuke Nakamura), he remains the only African-American to hold New Japan’s top prize.
Ruckus, CZW World Heavyweight Champion, 2005
Combat Zone Wrestling (CZW) star Ruckus was a longtime star with the company, as a 2x CZW World Junior Heavyweight Champion and CZW World Tag Team Champion in BLKOUT. But in 2005, he defeated The Messiah at Only The Strong: Scarred For Life to become CZW’s first African-American champion, holding it for 308 days.
Human Tornado, PWG World Champion, 2007
Human Tornado was a breakout star from the West Coast in the early 2000s, working for Pro Wrestling Guerrilla (PWG) in its earliest days. But at PWG Based on a True Story in January of 2007, he became the first African-American World Champion for PWG when he defeated Joey Ryan for the belt.
Mark Henry, World Heavyweight Champion, 2011
While the WWE had put World titles on The Rock and Booker T, in 2011 “The World’s Strongest Man” Mark Henry was elevated to main event status as he unleashed his “Hall of Pain” gimmick that created a monster that ran through the WWE Universe. In September of 2011 at WWE Night of Champions, he defeated Randy Orton for the World Heavyweight Championship, defending it against Big Show, Christian and Daniel Bryan.
AR Fox, EVOLVE Champion, 2013
EVOLVE Wrestling was launched by former ROH executive Gabe Sapolsky in 2009 and in 2013, they crowned their inaugural EVOLVE Champion. That crown was placed firmly on the head of rising star AR Fox, who has since gone on to become a top-level indie star with the likes of Lucha Underground, who held the EVOLVE title for 324-days.
BLK Jeez, CZW World Heavyweight Champion, 2014
A huge star with CZW for the bulk of the 2000s, BLK Jeez was better known as part of the stable BLK OUT and being a 7x CZW World Tag Team Champion. But at Cage of Death XVI in 2014, he defeated CZW World Champion Sozio and challengers Bif Busick (Oney Lorcan) and Drew Gulak to win the World title, which he held for 238-days.
Bobby Lashley, IMPACT World Heavyweight Champion, 2014
While Ron Killings was a 2x NWA World’s Heavyweight Champion with TNA in its early days, it wouldn’t be until Bobby Lashley entered the scene with IMPACT that they would find an African-American to dominate the World title picture. The 4x IMPACT World Champion won his first World title on IMPACT TV in June of 2014, defeating Eric Young for the World title.
Rich Swann, FIP World Champion, 2014
Full Impact Pro (FIP) was founded in 2003 and was another promotion that had a strong hand in the early renaissance of the US indie scene. In 2014, at an FIP event in China, current IMPACT X-Division Champion and former WWE Cruiserweight Champion Rich Swann defeated Trent Baretta to become the new FIP World Champion.
Jay Lethal, ROH World Champion, 2015
While Xavier was ROH’s second World Champion and first African-American World Champion, it would be another 13 years before ROH would see another black World Champion. That man was Jay Lethal, who would win his first World title at ROH Best In The World in 2015, defeating Jay Briscoe for the belt. Lethal would go on to hold it an astounding 427 days.
Jonathan Gresham, CZW World Heavyweight Champion, 2016
While often dismissed due to their penchant for the hardcore and extreme, CZW has always been a breeding ground for the top US indie scene and has the best track record at putting its World title on African-American stars in the making. In 2016, Jonathan Gresham was still best known throughout Europe, more so than he was in the US, but that didn’t stop CZW for making Gresham their World Champion at Down With The Sickness in September of 2016, defeating CZW World Champ Matt Tremont and challengers Greg Excellent and Joe Gacy.
Fred Yehi, FIP World Champion, 2016
At FIP Accelerate in May of 2016, EVOLVE and Southern indie star Fred Yehi defeated Caleb Konley for the FIP World Championship. Yehi would go on to hold the title for an astounding 562-day reign as the apex predator of Full Impact Pro.
Lio Rush, CZW World Heavyweight Champion, 2017
Before joining NXT, 205 Live and becoming Bobby Lashley’s hype man in the WWE, “The Man of the Hour” was a rising indie superstar with Ring of Honor and CZW. At CZW Sacrifices in May of 2017, Lio Rush defeated Joe Gacy to become the new CZW World Heavyweight Champion.
Shane Strickland, CZW World Heavyweight Champion, 2017
In July of 2017, at CZW EVILution, DEFY Heavyweight Champion Shane “Swerve” Strickland faces CZW World Champion Davey Richards, Joe Gacy and Lio Rush in a title for title match, with Strickland emerging victorious and new CZW World Champ. He held the CZW World title for 126 days, but it wouldn’t be his last World title before reportedly heading to the WWE this month. In April of 2018, he defeated Matt Riddle to become the new Major League Wrestling (MLW) World Heavyweight Champion as well.
Ricochet, PWG World Championship, 2017
While he’s now chasing tag team gold in WWE, former indie star Ricochet finally won his first World Championship in PWG in October of 2017, defeating Chuck Taylor in one of his final indie shows before heading to NXT.
Moose, IPW World Championship, 2017
While “Mr. IMPACT” Moose has yet to win the World Championship with IMPACT Wrestling, he did win his first World Championship in 2017 while touring the United Kingdom. While performing for International Pro Wrestling (IPW), one of the UK’s top indie promotions, he defeated UK legend Jonny Storm for the IPW World Championship at IPW:UK One Wrestling: All For One & One For All in October of 2017.
Keith Lee, PWG World Championship, 2018
Chuck Taylor lost his second World Championship title in PWG to Keith Lee at PWG Time Is A Flat Circle in March of 2018, marking Lee’s first World title on the US indie circuit. It would mark another PWG World Champion to finally win the gold just prior to making the jump to NXT.
Kof Kingston, WWE Champion, 2019
On Sunday, April 7, 2019, the world was enamored as New Day‘s Kofi Kingston finally climbed to the top of the mountain after an 11-year career in the WWE and captured the WWE Championship from Daniel Bryan on the Grandest Stage of Them All, WrestleMania 35. With the win, Kofi became the first African-born black wrestler to win a major World Championship and the first black World Champion in the WWE since Mark Henry eight years prior.
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