In honor of Black History Month, we here at Last Word on Pro Wrestling will be conducting a series of articles on pioneers in the world of professional wrestling involving African-American (or in some cases, African-Canadian or African-British). We debuted this series with a look at the first African-American pro wrestler, Viro Small (aka Black Sam), from 1870, followed by a look at the first African-American women’s wrestler, Ethel Johnson. We also looked at a man who is arguably pro wrestling’s true Jackie Robinson, Luther Lindsay, who broke segregations and color barriers in the 1950s that had never been broken down before. This piece looks at Bearcat Wright, the first African-American to win a World Championship in professional wrestling.
While he wasn’t one of the first African-American pro wrestlers – he was beat to the game by Vira Small by nearly 80 years, as well as earlier stars like Luther Lindsay, Sailor Art Thomas and Bobo Brazil – Ed “Bearcat” Wright holds the distinction of being the first African-American grappler to win a World Heavyweight Championship in the industry.
Born in 1932, he was the son of pro boxer Ed “Bearcat” Wright Sr. and actually started as a pro boxer himself in the early 1950s, where he went 8-0. But with his hulking size – he stood 6’6″ and weighed 275 lbs. – he was drawn to the spectacle of pro wrestling and debuted in 1959. He was often paired with Bobo Brazil early in his career, before becoming a huge babyface in territories where non-segregated matches were still potential riot hazards. His flying dropkick was one of the earliest uses of the move in the industry.
In 1961, Wright began to work for Tony Santos‘ Big Time Wrestling in Boston, Massachusetts and in April, defeated Killer Kowalski to become the BTW Heavyweight Champion, becoming one of the first African-American to win a major singles title in the territories (although BTW was not affiliated with the NWA). Two years later, in 1963, he was working with the California territory, World Wrestling Associates (WWA), and on August 23, 1963, he defeated Freddie Blassie to win the WWA World Heavyweight Championship, becoming the first African-American to hold a major World championship (his win preceded Bobo Brazil’s win of the same title, that many often mistake as the first African-American World Champion, but nearly three years. Brazil would win his in 1966). Wright was a stubborn man though and repeatedly refused to drop the title to his future challengers – he refused to drop the belt to former NWA World Heavyweight Champion Edouard Carpentier or back to Blassie in a rematch. Wright was well known for his inhuman strength – he’d routinely rip telephone books in half pre-match to the crowd’s delight – so finding someone to “shoot” and take the title proved to be a challenge. In December at the planned rematch with Blassie, “Judo” Gene LeBell (the judo champion and submission wrestler who would go on to train such fighters as Roddy Piper, Ronda Rousey and Chuck Norris) stepped in as Blassie’s replacement. Wright refused to fight the legendary grappler, so WWA stripped him of his title instead. In 1968, WWA entered alliance with the NWA and became NWA Hollywood.
Despite this controversial moment following such an historic one, Wright remained a hugely popular star in wrestling, before retiring in 1974 at the age of 42. He was posthumously inducted into the WWE Hall of Fame in 2017, having passed away in 1982 at the age of 50. But Ed “Bearcat” Wright will go down in history as this first African-American to win a World Heavyweight title in pro wrestling’s long and storied tale.