Black wrestlers are finally having their moment, but will it last?

From the indie circuit to WrestleMania and beyond, Black wrestlers are more popular than ever

Victor Martin Jr. is 5-foot-10, 123 pounds. And his dream is to be a professional wrestler.

Martin — who has chosen the name Mr. Danger — is taping up his wrists and getting ready to jump into a ring at Atlanta’s World Wrestling Alliance 4, a tiny school tucked past the strip clubs and gas stations on Fulton Industrial Boulevard. In 2014, Mr. Danger dropped out of high school (It “wasn’t my thing,” he says). After a few years of bouncing from job to job, he got his GED diploma, joined Job Corps and earned enough money to pay for wrestling school, where he’s spent most of his nights since.

The 22-year-old is part of a new generation inspired by a surge of Black wrestlers who are seeing unprecedented success, popularity and representation in an industry that has traditionally depicted Black performers as the most basic, offensive stereotypes possible. The past year, by contrast, has seen Black wrestlers win championships, present their authentic selves and dominate TV time like never before. Black women were the main event at WrestleMania for the first time. WWE world titles were exchanged between two Black wrestlers. A wrestling show, NXT, had Black wrestlers in almost every segment, and All Elite Wrestling has Black executives. WWE is heading to a WrestleMania this weekend where we could see a Black woman win the women’s title and two Black women win the women’s tag team title.

But is this era just a fad? And if not, is it enough to undo years of insulting depictions of Black wrestlers, and by extension Black people, that preceded it?

Mr. Danger isn’t thinking about that right now. He’s 24 hours away from his graduation from wrestling school. It isn’t the pomp and circumstance that you’re used to seeing at academic institutions, though. For Mr. Danger to graduate from the World Wrestling Alliance 4, he has to survive a 15-minute match with AR Fox.

One year ago, Bianca Belair, a former collegiate track and field star with a ponytail down to her knees, stood across the ring from Sasha Banks — a wrestling savant who was enjoying the crossover success of guest-starring in the Disney+ series, The Mandalorian — as 25,000 fans in Raymond James Stadium in Tampa, Florida, cheered at the history they were witnessing. Not only were Belair and Banks the first Black women to square off during a WrestleMania main event, they were the first Black wrestlers to take center stage at WrestleMania to compete against each other in a world title match — ever. Banks forced a scowl to shield her excitement and appreciation of the moment – and to maintain her act as the bad guy in the story. Belair, on the other hand, had tears in her eyes as she nodded along to the cheers.

“That moment and that image is so powerful,” Belair told Andscape. “We just stood there and we soaked the moment in without us even having to open our mouths or say anything or touch each other or wrestle. Just by us showing up, history was already made.”

But Black wrestlers aren’t just facing off during the WWE’s biggest event. Last year, on a September episode of Monday Night Raw, Ettore “Big E” Ewen, a former University of Iowa football player who has become a fan favorite as part of The New Day faction, defeated Bobby Lashley for the WWE championship. It marked the first time in the company’s history that a Black man defeated another Black man for a world title.

But it’s not all about unprecedented world title matches. Black WWE stars are getting screen time like never before as fully fleshed-out characters who represent a Black fan base that’s been there from the beginning.

Take Belair, for instance. She showed up in 2016 in NXT — the WWE’s version of the NBA G League — breaking every record in the WWE Performance Center combine, which gave her the idea for her character, or “gimmick:” the “-est” of the WWE. “I call myself the strongest, the fastest, the roughest, the toughest, the quickest, the greatest, the best,” Belair said, breaking into full promo mode.

“The version of myself that I want to be is being unapologetically me and bringing my full self to the table,” she continued. “As a Black performer, I’m not picking one element of myself. I want to showcase the whole side of me as a Black woman and a Black performer.”

One aspect of her performance speaks directly to Black fans, especially Black female fans: The hair. Belair’s long ponytail has become a focal point of many of her matches as her opponents try to grab it for an unfair advantage. But Belair wrests the hair from their grip and whips them with it, creating a loud smack that reverberates across the arena. The signal is clear, and it’s become a mantra for Belair: Don’t. Touch. My. Hair.

“That’s a universal thing for us,” Belair said. “ ‘Don’t touch my hair.’ That’s my No. 1 rule, and now I have to use [the hair] on you.”

Bianca Belair (left) and Sasha Banks (right) square off in the ring during WrestleMania 37.


That’s not the only way Black wrestlers are speaking directly to us. Belair’s husband, Montez Ford, is one-half of the Street Profits tag team. He joined NXT around the time Belair did, and he broke all the combine records on the men’s side. The Street Profits’ “gimmick” is exuberant fun, complete with red Solo Cups and gold chains. Oh, and of course, they’ll beat the hell out of you.

“It’s about a complete contrast of like, ‘Wow, he’s an entertainer, but he can also whip your ass,’ ” said Ford. “Our whole entire culture is like that. I feel like we’re some of the coolest, laid-back individuals in the world until you step out of line.”

Beyond their individual approaches, the power of Ford and Belair comes from how they present themselves as a couple: Black love and a blended family (Ford has two children from a previous relationship), as well as showing a Black man madly in love with a muscular Black woman.

“You get a lot of different people calling you different names, saying, ‘Oh, you’re too muscular. You look like a man,’ ” Belair said. “It’s like being muscular and strong, for some reason, sometimes isn’t in the same category as being sexy or pretty. So to have someone that loves me for me and loves my muscles, because I have to have someone that does that, because I love my muscles.”

The freedom Belair and Ford feel with their characters and representation extends across the WWE to people like Lashley and his former faction, Hurt Business, in suits and swagger; Naomi’s charismatic fan engagement and, of course, The New Day.

And when NXT relaunched its Tuesday night TV show in April 2021, it immediately became one of the Blackest wrestling shows on national television. From the outset, almost every segment featured at least one Black wrestler. The guy leading the charge is Carmelo Hayes, a cornrowed highflier and North American world champion. In just a year, he’s gone viral multiple times for moments that resonate with Black folks. Like the time he stood in the ring and poured out liquor for his dead opps. And just a few weeks ago, he filmed a montage talking trash in a Black barbershop.

“When you allow Black talent to be themselves, as opposed to trying to be a caricature of what you think Black wrestlers should be,” Hayes said, “that’s when people can relate and people can attach themselves to us more.”

Hayes credits part of his ability to go out and be himself to the self-awareness of the 50-something white former wrestlers behind the creative decisions at NXT. 

“[WWE Hall of Famer and current NXT producer] Shawn [Michaels] told me from the jump, ‘I don’t know what cool is anymore. I trust you to tell me what cool is,’ ” Hayes said. “So the talent is creating that feel because we’re being authentic to ourselves.”

The Black wrestling renaissance is not limited to WWE. All Elite Wrestling, owned by Jacksonville Jaguars co-owner Tony Khan, had its first event in 2019 and is now the second-largest wrestling entertainment company in the country. From the beginning, AEW featured Nyla Rose, a Black transgender, Indigenous wrestler and the first transgender wrestler to be featured on a major North American promotion, as well as Sonny Kiss, a Black gay wrestler. AEW also began with Brandi Rhodes as its chief branding officer, making her the first Black woman to hold an executive position at one of the major wrestling promotions in America. Moreover, the company has done well to avoid placing Black wrestlers in demeaning storylines or stereotypes. AEW also now has two Black titleholders: TNT champion Scorpio Sky and TBS champion Jade Cargill.

Cargill has been a star since she debuted in the AEW in late 2020. Her first contest was a tag team bout with Shaq (yes, that Shaq, basketball legend Shaquille O’Neal) as her partner. Her opponents were Cody Rhodes and another Black woman, Red Velvet. The segment was one of AEW’s highest-rated, amassing nearly a million viewers, according to Nielsen. Since then, Cargill has gone undefeated and connected with fans for her no-nonsense promos and intimidating persona — at 5-foot-10, she towers over most of the women she faces off against. And while Cargill has only had about 30 televised matches, her charisma and character jump off the screen (like in this viral clip about her take on karate).

“Every week, I step farther and farther into my character,” Cargill said. “I have to be the one to put it all together and present that to the audience. I’m still learning and growing the skin to become who I’m going to be.” 

And she’s doing all of that while showing what it means to be a working mother, another multidimensional aspect of a character rarely given to Black women wrestlers.

“I use my daughter as fuel to kick ass,” Cargill said. “When she sees me on that stage, she thinks I’m a superhero. That makes me feel freaking amazing.”

AEW also recently signed Keith Lee, a brooding, 340-pound giant one might expect to play the stereotypical monster role. There was a time in pro wrestling when he’d be asked to be a low-IQ giant and it might have been a blueprint for success. But Lee also can fly over the top rope and is a masterful technician. When he speaks, he sounds like he’s giving a lecture at MIT. A couple of weeks ago, Lee was a trending topic on Twitter as fans made memes about how polite he sounds when he grabs the mic. But this isn’t an act. It’s who Lee really is.

“I know I’ll rock the boat a bit,” Lee said. “And I just don’t give a damn. This is about my culture. This is about teaching people about intelligence, drive, pushing themselves, being more than they were the day before. This is about so much more than such a small, minute, very vocal, hateful realm of human beings. I don’t care about them.”

Lee comes from the indies — smaller wrestling companies that don’t get national TV slots, but sell out gyms, warehouses and small arenas. For many, it’s the path to getting to the big leagues. For Black wrestlers, it’s often a place where they were alone in all-white locker rooms, vying for a chance to get recognized.

Trish Adora (left) faces off against Rhio (right) at Progress Wrestling’s Who Run The World? event on March 22 in London.

Rob Brazier/PROGRESS Wrestling

Hayes recalled a white wrestler joking that he’d steal a wallet backstage. Lee also reflected on the way fans and promoters would balk at the idea of someone who looked like him being a fan favorite.

“When it came down to promotions and promoters, it would get really prejudiced where they’d say, ‘We already have a Black woman or a Black man. Why do we need you?’ ” said Aerial “Big Swole” Hull, an independent wrestler who previously wrestled at AEW. “Then I’d just leave and tell other wrestlers that place wasn’t worth their time.”

Swole and other Black wrestlers found, or created, their own safe spaces. For instance, RISE — a women-only indie company featuring mostly women of color — was started by former ring announcer Kevin Harvey after hearing Hull’s frustration with the indie scene.

Trish Adora, an up-and-coming indie star, was once told that she would never be cheered on because she’s a Black woman. Despite that, she found comfort in more inclusive organizations and her own confidence. Adora has given herself the moniker Afro-Punk, and rocks an Afro while being F1ght Club Pro Wrestling’s Pan-Afrikan World Diaspora champion — a title that would have been unheard of just a few years ago.

“I try to allow my life to imitate my art as much as possible,” Adora said. “I’m walking around as the product of every diaspora. I’m representing the ‘hood girls, representing the girls from around the way. I represent African Americans. I represent Africans. There’s a piece of home in me for that person, I hope.”

Adora just returned from London, where she wrestled for an all-female card and a card entirely composed of women of color at Progress Wrestling, a British indie wrestling company. These cards that cater to marginalized groups are all over the indies and allow wrestling fans, and the wrestlers they watch, to be themselves.

“I can dare be a superhero for somebody else on an LGBT card to help people who are living in the closet or afraid to come out,” Adora said. “It’s all about making people feel more comfortable or just having that conversation, at least. I would love to accept bookings like that all the time, because representation is extremely important.”

The indie scene is also home to several Black-owned wrestling companies, including Booker T’s Reality of Wrestling in Houston. Master P also bought House of Glory, a promotion and wrestling school.

Before wrestlers get to those indie promotions, they have to get trained. That’s where the World Wrestling Alliance 4 comes in. The school’s owner and trainer Thomas “AR Fox” Ballester, is a former indie star. He moved from Connecticut to Atlanta to learn at WWA4, which was then run by Curtis Hughes, a wrestler from the 1980s and 1990s known for being the muscle for cocky white wrestlers. Fox lived in a motel for years, working odd jobs and focusing on wrestling. He’d eventually make waves in the indie circuit as a high-flying wrestler who flipped across the ring in the Lucha libre style. His biggest break came when he landed a role on the wrestling-meets-telenovela Lucha Underground, which aired on the El Rey Network from 2014 to 2018. The exposure and check led him to purchase the WWA4 school.

Ballester runs the school with his wife, Ashley, who handles everything from human resources to publicity to ringside announcing. It has about 100 students and they put on matches every Thursday night where they perform in their chosen gimmicks and personas.

“It’s just cool to see everyone be able to go out there and be themselves and play the music they would listen to,” said AR Fox. “They get to wear the clothes they want and be authentic. It’s such a big wave coming through and so different than when I was in the indies years ago.”

Fox has had several graduates end up in the big leagues, including Austin Theory, who will be the first from his school to have a match at WrestleMania this weekend.

“When I found out AR Fox was running a school here,” remembered Mr. Danger, “I knew I had to join. It was a no-brainer. He’s had matches with people on TV. This is a steal.” 

Not everyone close to Mr. Danger sees his dedication to wrestling as the right path. He lives with his dad, who owns a tree-cutting service.

“I want to be a pro wrestler and that’s it,” Mr. Danger said. “When I tell [my dad] that, he thinks it’s kind of dumb because I’m not getting paid for it. He thinks I’m wasting my time, but this is serious! He doesn’t understand. I’m right where I want to be.”

Booker T (left) endures La Résistance (right) during WrestleMania XX at Madison Square Garden in New York City.

KMazur/WireImage/Getty Images

To understand the importance of wrestling’s current moment of Blackness, one has to go back through the long and often troubling history of how wrestling portrayed and treated Black talent.

I’ve been hooked on watching athletes stage choreographed physical battles in between scripted threats and storylines ever since I saw a recording of Hulk Hogan body-slamming Andre the Giant when I was a toddler in the 1980s. Since then, I’ve watched hours of wrestling per week, every week. For most of that time, it followed a standard pattern no matter the company: Championships and main events were reserved for white men while Black characters were foils, middle-tier performers and the subject of racist gimmicks and storylines.

I’ve seen Mississippi-born James Harris portrayed as a Ugandan cannibal named “Kamala.” I watched Col. Rob Parker dress like a slave owner to bring out the tag team Harlem Heat. I saw Papa Shango, the witch doctor, cast imaginary spells on his opponents. Later I’d watch white wrestlers Triple H and D-Generation X don blackface to mimic the Nation of Domination faction that featured Black wrestlers The Rock, D’Lo Brown, Mark Henry and The Godfather in 1998. There was Cryme Tyme, The Gangstas and G.I. Bro. Shelton Benjamin’s “Mama,” Sexual Chocolate and Ted DiBiase’s butler, Virgil.

It should be mentioned that racist portrayals were applied to many Hispanic and Asian wrestlers, including, but not limited to, the Mexicools riding lawn mowers to the ring, the Piñata on a Pole match, Japanese wrestlers Kai En Tai saying “choppy choppy pee pee” and more.

Only four Black wrestlers — Ron Simmons, Ron Killings, The Rock and Booker T — held world titles through 2010. While The Rock was one of the most popular wrestlers of all time, his race — his father is Black and his mother is Samoan — was rarely brought up, especially as he became more successful. He was also the first good guy or “babyface” to lose the main event of WrestleMania against a heel, doing so twice in a row in 2000 and 2001. And despite his popularity, The Rock never won the world title at WrestleMania.

Regardless of the dead-end storylines, many Black wrestlers found ways to connect with audiences, or “get over” in wrestling terms. And they certainly connected with Black fans.

For Ford, it was The Godfather in 1999. While the character, a pimp who brought sex workers to the ring and screamed about a “hoe” train, was another caricature, the charisma of Charles Wright (who also had been previously saddled with the Papa Shango gimmick) stood out. 

“He had this purple metallic vest and he had these yellow pants, these bedazzled-out sunglasses,” Ford recalled. “I remember him walking out and the whole atmosphere just kind of got me drawn in. And, of course, Godfather swag, man.”

Hull was inspired by Jacqueline and Jazz — the former, the first Black woman to hold the WWE women’s title in 1998. Still, their jobs were mostly to help make the white performers more popular with the fans.

“I was very aware growing up,” said Hull. “I would notice that there were certain wrestlers who didn’t get that shine. I was always rooting for Jazz. People could put Trish [Stratus] on that high pedestal, but it was also the people who got her there, that’s what it’s about.”

Professional wrestling has long occupied a cultural space where WrestleMania draws big numbers and the stars are household names, but the regular weekly viewer is part of a niche audience. That has been especially true for Black wrestling fans, who often grew up struggling to find other Black kids who loved wrestling. The emergence of social media allowed these formerly niche audiences to find community.

Kazeem Famuyide, a former writer and editor at The Source who’d go on to write and produce for WWE in 2018, grew up a die-hard wrestling fan. While at The Source, he noticed the intersections of wrestling and hip-hop fans. Soon he’d help found a crew called Wrassle Rap.

“It was just kind of like a community of folks who were like, ‘We love wrestling, but we know there’s not a lot of us on the inside that look or sound like us,’ ” Famuyide said. “It was impossible to ignore that there’s a pretty sizable Black audience over here that not only enjoys the product but can help the product. Black Twitter made our voices a lot more undeniable than it would’ve been before.”

Soon, Black wrestling fans would gather in group chats and Facebook groups, forming hashtags, memes and their own slang about what was happening during a given Monday Night Raw episode. Communing about wrestling on Twitter would become a Black experience.

Unfortunately, wrestling — namely WWE — was slow to catch up. Former Olympian and World’s Strongest Man Henry won the world heavyweight championship in 2011. He’d hold the belt for three months. WWE went years before another Black wrestler even had a shot at a world title on pay-per-view, let alone win it. Meanwhile, WrestleMania’s main events exclusively featured white men. Black female wrestlers Naomi and Alicia Fox failed to gain much traction in an already underused women’s division despite Black fans gravitating to the former’s athleticism and the latter’s dynamic personality. Three Black wrestlers — Big E, Kofi Kingston and Xavier Woods — were floundering in midcard contests, losing matches almost every week. WWE decided to put them together to form a faction called The New Day based on being … faux Baptist preachers.

In other areas of entertainment, Black fans have had no problem dropping popular shows for lack of representation, all-white writers’ rooms and racist depictions of Black stars. So how did wrestling maintain its hold despite its history?

“I think it’s about hope,” said Khris Davenport, a former editor at Complex and founder of the Black Rasslin podcast. “Black people are going to root for the Black person in those arenas regardless. And there definitely are people who can talk, people who can work, people could put on big matches. We need to help get them slotted.”

By the mid-2010s, the WWE product started to change. The members of The New Day would transform their potentially disastrous gimmick into a fan-favorite faction that mixed comedy, great tag team matches and poignant displays of Black friendship, catapulting their merchandise near the top of sales in WWE. Around this time, Banks would debut on the WWE main roster, winning the women’s title and headlining pay-per-view shows.

This rise in popularity of Black wrestlers coincided with hip-hop artists integrating their love of wrestling into their work: Offset and Metro Boomin’ made a song called “Ric Flair Drip” with the titular wrestler in the video. The rap group Griselda incorporates wrestler names as song and album titles. And then, there’s Wale. 

“Wale has such a real, true love for professional wrestling,” said Famuyide, who is friends with the Washington rapper. Wale would tweet about wrestling, drop references in his music and eventually find himself as a ringside guest for multiple WWE events, including 2015’s WrestleMania 31 in Santa Clara, California. “He was a big part of a lot of Black talent getting signed to the WWE. So there was a whole lot of respect over there. And on top of that, he always came in so humbly and with such a respect for the business that the people in the business respected him back, too.”

Wale had an idea for an event similar to NBA All-Star Weekend before WrestleMania, in which the MC would perform some of his hits, have Black wrestlers show up and do Q&As, and sell out venues full of mostly-Black wrestling fans. Heading into its eighth year this weekend, WaleMania has become a gathering spot for Black wrestling fans. The biggest one happened in 2019, when the event acted as a pre-coronation parade for Kingston, The New Day member heading to a WWE title match.

Kingston had been in the WWE for 12 years and never came close to a world title. But fans had been petitioning for him to get a shot. Soon the tweets would turn into chants at events and WWE booking took notice. 

“That wasn’t supposed to happen,” said Famuyide, who’d help write some of the lines and stories that catapulted Kingston into the world title picture. “It’s one of those things that was just organic because it was undeniable that the fans wanted that Kofi moment at WrestleMania.”

Kingston would go on to win the WWE title in 2019 and become the first African-born WWE champion and the first Black person to win the WWE championship at WrestleMania. That moment leads to Sasha Banks vs. Bianca Belair, which leads to Big E vs. Bobby Lashley, which leads to where we are today.

It would be easy to simply bask in the Blackness on display in wrestling rings today. But as with any aspect of being Black in America, there is room for improvement. 

Six months after Kingston won the championship, he lost the title to Brock Lesnar on Fox’s debut episode of WWE SmackDown! The match lasted 10 seconds. In August 2021, Belair lost her title to Becky Lynch. The match lasted 26 seconds. Big E also lost his title to Lesnar after a championship run that many fans believed could have been longer and more thoughtful. Each time, the fans were furious. Remember, these outcomes are predetermined. And the message felt clear to fans: The Black champions were placeholders for bigger white stars.

“Initially it was hard,” Belair said of the SummerSlam match. The fan outrage, however, made Belair more popular among supporters who thought she got a raw deal. “They definitely rode hard for me and we’ve come full circle with me going against Becky at WrestleMania in a rematch.”

Despite some of the ways AEW has been a trailblazer, it’s also come under fire for its early struggles to highlight Black talent. The company spent most of its first two years with Black wrestlers missing from its pay-per-view posters and matches. YouTube channel Pro Wrestling Bits found that Black wrestlers in AEW won just 4% of pay-per-view matches in the company’s history, and in January, Black wrestlers spoke for just 102 seconds over the course of eight hours of AEW’s flagship Dynamite show.

In December, Hull, who had left AEW a few months earlier, went public with her problems with diversity in the company. “There is no representation,” she said on her Instagram Live call-in show. “And when there is, it does not come across in the Black community as genuine.”

Aerial “Big Swole” Hull (right) during Shimmer Wrestling in Chicago.

Scott Lesh Photography

Khan responded with a tweet naming the seven Black wrestlers who won on TV in December while disparaging Hull as a performer: “The top 2 @AEW execs are brown (me & Megha)!! all won on TV this month. The TBS Title Tournament has been very diverse. I let Swole’s contract expire as I felt her wrestling wasn’t good enough.”

“I just wanted to say my piece,” Hull told Andscape. “You incorporate the young talent but when it came to Black people, the waiting was a lot for some of us. Then when I saw the tweet, it made me completely believe that he didn’t listen to everything I had to say.”

Khan, in an interview, indicated that he didn’t want to respond directly on the record to Hull’s previous comments, but he did offer an explanation for AEW’s slow start when it comes to diversity.

“When we started the company, the available talent in 2019 wasn’t as diverse as I wanted on the male side of the roster, especially,” he said, noting that AEW has traditionally obtained many of its bigger stars from other companies, namely WWE, after those wrestlers leave or are released. “When I started, Big E and Kofi Kingston and Keith Lee weren’t free agents. We used our developmental system to develop talent internally while we waited.” The time it took to develop the newcomers, according to Khan, is part of the reason there was a delay in that talent being featured on TV.

Cargill was one of those undiscovered Black acts, and fans wondered why she didn’t get a bigger push earlier, but she saw it as a plan.

“I had no wrestling experience at all prior to being at AEW,” she said. “Our company is so open to listening and growing because we are new. Tony Khan has always been an open door for me and he’s always listened to everything I’ve had to say. He doesn’t look at color at all. You have to give things time. We’re a new company as opposed to other companies who have been around for generations. People just have to sit back and be patient and let it grow. Now we have two Black champions.”

Maybe the decisions that Black fans take personally are simply bad booking — part of wrestling’s overall shortcomings with how to handle storylines and juggle which superstars to push. Whatever the case, the history of wrestling’s treatment of Black talent has fans keenly aware of any slight, even in this time of prosperity. 

“I think that PTSD [post-traumatic stress disorder] as a Black wrestling fan is hella real,” said Famuyide. “I think wrestling fans and Black wrestling fans need to realize that sometimes our favorites are going to lose and sometimes it’s going to make you feel terrible. It’s designed that way. It’s designed to create real, genuine human reaction and emotion out of you because that’s what sells tickets. That’s what makes Bianca Belair and Becky Lynch a huge match. It’s about that climb back.”

Despite the frustrations, it’s undeniable that this era of ultra-Blackness in wrestling has been a dream come true for lifelong fans. The Kamalas and Cryme Tymes gritted their teeth and performed through their gimmicks to inspire the Montez Fords and Jade Cargills. And even though this current era once felt unimaginable, it’s OK to demand more.

“As Black wrestlers, I want us to show up as our full selves however we define that to be,” Belair said. “To not hide a portion of ourselves because it’s ‘too Black’ or ‘not Black enough,’ to get rid of labels in representation, to not even have to worry about that but instead to just show up and do work and positively influence people along the way. For Black excellence to become the norm.”

Mr. Danger at the WWA4 Wrestling Show in Atlanta on March 24.

Matt Odom for Andscape

It’s showtime. 

Mr. Danger’s graduation is a 15-minute match with his hero AR Fox. As is customary, other WWA4 students surround the ring to cheer on the challenger. Mr. Danger’s ring attire is simple: black leather shorts and boots. He’s all arms and legs, a contrast to AR Fox’s chiseled frame.

The WWA4 warehouse is as makeshift as it gets: a ring entrance made of cardboard, old bed frames and spray-painted metal. Tiny fog machines go off when wrestlers walk out to the music blaring out of a speaker attached to an old boom box. There are about 100 people in the crowd sitting on folding chairs. Most of them are Mr. Danger’s family — his mother, godfather, cousins and siblings. His father is absent.

Think about the test you took to graduate from driving school: a few turns, parking. The basics. And for a few minutes, this match is similar to that: some simple wrestling holds, some body slams, a few clotheslines.

Suddenly, though, Mr. Danger knocks AR Fox outside of the ring. Then the student does a front flip over the top rope, landing with maximum impact on the teacher. The match has become something unexpected: a display of high-flying, high-impact collisions. AR Fox lands a series of neck breakers and kicks. Danger is “selling” all of the moves, eliciting sympathy from the crowd, which has become immersed in the choreography. Mr. Danger is the perfect babyface: slight, resilient and wearing his emotions on his face. This, of course, only makes his comeback more explosive. Jumps off the top rope. Dropkicks. And finally, a 450 splash — a full rotation and a half flip from the top rope — that he calls the Obliteration.

He goes for the cover. The referee’s hand slaps the mat for a one count. Mr. Danger’s classmates are pounding the ring, counting along. They’re jumping up and down, yelling as loudly as they can.

The referee’s hand slaps the mat for the two count. His mother, godfather and cousins are holding up signs, clapping and hugging each other. They’re holding their phones in the air, their mouths agape.

I watch the referee’s hand start to come down one more time and I think about the night before. About Mr. Danger sitting ringside talking about his hopes and dreams. “Tomorrow,” he said, his entire face lighting up. “Tomorrow. In that ring. With AR Fox.

“That’s my WrestleMania.”

David Dennis Jr. is a senior writer at Andscape and an American Mosaic Journalism Prize recipient. His book, The Movement Made Us, will be released in 2022. David is a graduate of Davidson College.