Pay-per-views, Reddit rabbit holes — and a semi-ridiculous new TBS show: battle rap is back — if it ever left The gloves-off battles are sweaty, verbal MMA fights, with rappers getting directly in each other’s faces

On Dec. 9, dozens of rap fans crowded into a tiny, undisclosed location to watch a night full of rap battles — including a battle between Rum Nitty and Iron Solomon, who stole the show in what may go down as the most exciting battle of the year — as MCs traded mostly pre-written bars, insulting each other for three timed rounds. The event, called Smack Vol. 1, was held by the top battle rap league in the country, URL — for Ultimate Rap League. The fact that there were only dozens of fans in attendance is a misleading representation of battle rap’s popularity.

The small venue for Vol. 1 was by design — an attempt by URL to take the event to its roots of intimate crowds. But in actuality, battle rap events draw hundreds of fans, while thousands stream them live on pay-per-view before watching the battles on YouTube by the millions. Battle rap is a simmering subculture. It dominates Reddit threads, message boards and YouTube — and it’s going mainstream.

Iron Solomon vs. Rum Nitty

For instance, Drop The Mic. The Tuesday night TBS show is a spinoff of the rap battle segments from James Corden’s Late Late Show in which he battled celebrities like Kevin Hart and Anne Hathaway. Celebrities like the stars of Big Bang Theory lob rhymed insults at each other. The Seattle Seahawks’ Michael Bennett recently battled Vanessa Hudgens — to the tune of almost 1.4 million views. Hosted by Hailey Baldwin and Wu Tang rap legend Method Man, the show employs artists from the battle scene to help contenders craft lyrics and presentation. Drop The Mic is a gentrified but entertaining look at a battle scene that has been bubbling under the surface of mainstream American pop culture for decades.


The godfather of the modern-day battle rap scene is Troy “Smack” Mitchell. He’s an enterprising Queens, New York, native who set out to document New York rap culture in the early 2000s by recording guerrilla-style interviews of rappers. “I had access to a lot of MCs … because I was in the streets and knew a lot of people,” says Mitchell. “I really grinded … waited for artists outside of clubs. It just blew up from there.” He released the interviews and exclusive freestyles on his Smack DVD series, which features early looks at rappers like Kanye West, Cam’ron and Beanie Sigel. The series was hugely popular in the pre-internet era. And at the end of each DVD was a rap battle.

Kevin Durant once stood on stage, right next to Smack himself, in breathing distance of the battlers.

“We came up doing the battles as kids,” says Smack. The rap battles on the Smack DVDs took place on street corners, barbershops and clothing stores. MCs surrounded by dozens of spectators. The rappers had prepared “rounds” of timed raps directed at their opponents. No beats played, and if there was a stumble, slip-up or stutter, the rapper’s round was over.

Shells and Jae Millz

Mychal Watts/WireImage for KSA Publicity

The competitions were intense and legendary, and they helped rappers like Murda Mook and Jae Millz get signed to Ruff Ryders and Young Money. Smack brought battles to living rooms, even though the competitions have been part of hip-hop lore since the genre’s inception.

Here’s your history lesson: Rappers have always tested their mettle against one another. Big Daddy Kane used to roam the Big Apple streets challenging the best rappers. Jay-Z and Busta Rhymes infamously rapped against each other in high school. And a young rapper named Biggie Smalls made his name taking on all comers in freestyle competitions.

Eminem in 8 Mile which was one of the first time mainstream America got a glimpse into battle raps.

Universal Pictures

But it was Eminem’s 2002 8 Mile, in which he battled to famous rap beats like Mobb Deep’s “Shook Ones,” that introduced battle rap to the mainstream. The battles in 8 Mile were fictionalized takes on the real-life Scribble Jam battles that Eminem participated in during the late ’90s — and which got him noticed by Dr. Dre in the first place. By 2003, rappers E. Ness and Jae Millz were battling on MTV’s Making The Band. MTV also had a show called “Fight Klub,” and BET’s 106 & Park had a popular Freestyle Friday segment from 2001 to 2013.

Rappers have exposed opponents for cheating on their fiancées and poked fun at dead relatives or whether rappers’ dads turned state’s witness.

Battle rap found a new level of popularity via YouTube, and it shed light on leagues that had formed around the world. The two front-runners were Grind Time — the popular, now-defunct league that started in Florida and expanded to Los Angeles — and Smack’s own Ultimate Rap League that sprouted from his DVD series. Today, Smack battles sell out venues like New York’s Irving Plaza and the Highline Ballroom, and fans pay upward of $100 to attend.

The leagues book the battles. The rappers spend weeks preparing rhymes catered specifically to their opponents. The rappers take the stage, flanked by entourages, and perform alternating timed rounds anywhere from two to five minutes. The battles are verbal MMA fights, with rappers getting directly in each other’s faces.

While most of the rounds are pre-written, some rappers open their rounds with freestyled rebuttals to what their opponent just rapped, flipping insults in their own favor. Battlers never know what’s coming, or how personal an insult can get. When it’s a rapper’s turn to listen to his or her opponent, “defense” is employed, which is essentially how someone reacts to the person rapping — standing stone-faced, shaking a head to show disapproval or mumbling sarcastic reactions. It’s a human chess match — mentally taxing. Competitors physically train for battles and usually end up sweaty and dehydrated by the end of each contest.

“You know who your opponent is ahead of time so you can do research,” Smack said. “Did they get played? Did they get beat up? You can expose them.” Battles have gotten personal and tense, but it’s accepted, especially since the rappers are celebrities within the culture. They are revered within the battle scene but largely lead regular lives. While the most famous battlers like Loaded Lux and Murda Mook can live off of battles, making music and bookings, most battlers have day jobs. And, yes, the day jobs are function as ammo for insults. Nothing is off-limits.

Really. Dumbfoundead and Conceited once spent their whole battle exchanging short jokes and racist Asian stereotypes. Rone went viral for a whole round about Big T’s obesity. Rappers have exposed opponents for cheating on their fiancées and poked fun at dead relatives or whether rappers’ dads turned state’s witness. Despite that, you could count on one hand how many battles have turned physical.

Courtesy of Underground Rap League

“It’s very much like a boxing match,” says Kyle “Avocado” Gray, who has filmed and directed battles for Grind Time and URL, adding a cinematic touch to battles broadcast live on pay-per-view. “These two people get into a ring. They have to have a thick skin. They have to be ready for people to say anything, and not be fazed by it. It almost brings them closer in the end, for having been through that battle together.”

Because fans are so invested in the battles — they reach such a fever pitch — battle rap culture has become a community of message board commenters and YouTubers. Battles often refer to earlier battles and online happenings online that may sound like a totally foreign language to the novice. However, catching the references is part of what makes fans feel rewarded for their dedication.

Competitors physically train for battles and usually end up sweaty and dehydrated by the end of each contest.

“The culture is super incestual,” Gray remarked. “The art in general isn’t that welcoming to an untrained ear.” But that’s what YouTube rabbit holes are for. And celebrities are happy to join in on the fun, even if that means getting called out midround. James Harden has attended — and Kevin Durant once stood on stage, right next to Smack himself, in breathing distance of the battlers. Drake and Diddy have co-hosted, with Diddy famously putting up $10,000 of his own money midbattle to see who would win between T-Rex and Aye Verb.

There are now leagues in every corner of the globe. In addition to URL, there’s King Of The Dot (KOTD) out of Canada, England’s Don’t Flop, Atlanta’s Bullpen Battle League and all-woman Queen Of The Ring in New York. Battle rap is as popular as ever, with landmark moments happening at a breakneck pace. This year alone saw KOTD bring in Russian battle rapper Oxxxymiron, whose massive following garners tens of millions of YouTube views per battle, to Los Angeles for the most viewed battle in North American history — and counting.

And Drop The Mic does utilize writing talent of competitors from the scene like Rone and Hollow Da Don. And the satire Bodied, about battle rap, is making a splash in independent movie festivals and should see wide release in 2018. There’s also the permanent roles of rappers like Charlie Clips and Hitman Holla on Nick Cannon’s improv show Wild N’ Out.

The rapid expansion of battle rap culture is what made Smack want to take things back to the basics with Dec. 9th’s Vol. 1 event. “I didn’t want the battle culture to lose its identity,” he says. “We wanted to take it back to the essence.”

Ric Flair and black fandom in wrestling The ‘Nature Boy’ is one man in a long, complex history for professional wrestling

About halfway through Nature Boy, ESPN’s 30 for 30 documentary (Nov. 7, 10 p.m. EST, ESPN) on WWE legend Ric Flair, the conversation turns to Flair’s transcending impact on popular culture. The flamboyant grappler, known for his loud fashion sense, “heel” tactics, braggadocio and quick tongue, was reminiscent of a young Cassius Clay/Muhammad Ali, captivating audiences not only with his physical dexterity but also with his ability to sell himself.

And Flair most surely sold himself. He was the man whom women wanted to be with and men wanted to be like. He was the 16-time world champion, no matter how much he would cheat to win, and made sure you never forgot it.

“I mean, why did people like Ali?” Flair asks in the documentary. “No one has marketed themselves in boxing like Ali.”

Moments later, rapper Snoop Dogg appears on the screen and explains how Flair pulled from and was an inspiration of the early roots of hip-hop and black culture. “As a kid growing up watching Ric Flair, he was very inspirational to myself and a lot of other hip-hop artists because he represented what we wanted to be,” Snoop Dogg said. “We wanted to be Ric Flair; we wanted to be flamboyant and the ‘kiss-stealin, wheelin-and-dealin,’ we wanted to be all of that.

“He was a part of our culture and our life. That’s why we love him and we cherish him. We’ve always held him high in the black community, because Ric is one of us.”

Snoop Dogg, who has hosted and appeared on WWE’s flagship show Monday Night Raw on multiple occasions and was inducted into the company’s Hall of Fame in 2016, paints a peculiar portrait of Flair, he of white working-class roots, bleach-blond hair and 1 percenter persona, as “one of us.” But between the luxurious clothes, brash delivery and unmitigated swagger, how was Flair any different, color aside, from an Ali or Denzel Washington or N.W.A.?

Flair was one of the greatest heels, or bad guys, in professional wrestling history, making you want to hate him as easily as Floyd “Money” Mayweather would some three decades later. But unlike Mayweather, Flair had the charm, personality and lifestyle to make every man envy him. He was also an early adopter of the overindulgent persona that took over 2000s hip-hop. To borrow from Jay-Z, Flair flaunted the “Money, Cash, H–s,” at one point owning 15 $10,000 robes, a pair of $600 custom-made shoes (gators, presumably) and a $15,000 Rolex. Not to mention all of the women.

“You see the Rolex watch, you see the glasses, you see the beautiful women, Baby Doll and Precious,” said Glen Thomas, 39, co-host of the Wrestling Marks of Excellence podcast. “You hear Ric Flair talking about the night they had in Vegas … and you see the sunglasses and the $5,000 Armani suits and shoes and you see the belt, you desire to be that. I didn’t know about Disney World, but I knew about Space Mountain.”

In recent years, the 68-year-old has been reborn as an apparent icon of black culture. Indianapolis Colts players mimicked Flair’s famous “Rolex-wearin’ ” promo during a postgame speech in 2015; rapper Pusha T shouted his trademark “Woo” catchphrase on 2012’s “Don’t Like”; and Flair “ran” for president with rapper Waka Flocka Flame in 2016.

But Flair, who hasn’t been a regular performer since retiring from WWE in 2008, is just one man in a long, complex history of professional wrestling. The “Nature Boy,” as a character, lives in a universe of offensive, sexist, anti-gay and, most glaringly, racist content — there are multiple instances of blackface being used in WWE. Which begs the question: Why do black fans continue to tune in?

There are many reasons, it turns out. Wrestling combines the visual presentation of cinema, the never-ending continuity of television and the pure athleticism of professional sports. In between the perilous stunts and knee-slapping comedy also lie real-world consequences, as evidenced by former wrestler Daniel Bryan having to retire because of repeated concussions. A bit of nostalgia is baked in as well. The average age of a pro wrestling viewer is 54 years old, compared with just 40 for the NBA, with many current viewers having watched the product since its heyday in the late 20th century.

“It’s one of those things where I can’t remember the start date,” said Camille Davis, 28, co-host of the Milwaukee-based TECKnical Foul sports podcast. “It’s kind of like when I think back about why I started sports: It’s just something that was always around.”

Whether it was a parent, aunt, uncle, cousin or deacon from church, most fans of wrestling had a familial introduction to the National Wrestling Alliance, World Championship Wrestling or WWE. Like anyone who grew up a fan of other sports, it wasn’t out of the norm to be a wrestling fan.

Black fans followed the established stars of the 1980s and 1990s like everyone else: Flair, Randy Savage, The Ultimate Warrior, Shawn Michaels, Bret Hart and Hulk Hogan. It didn’t even matter that none of these stars weren’t black; wrestling wasn’t immediately about race for those who grew up watching it.

But as black fans got older, many started to also gravitate to the male and female performers who looked like them. For older fans, there was Koko B. Ware, “Iceman” King Parsons, Bobo Brazil and “Sailor” Art Thomas. The most popular and transcendent of the early black wrestlers, though, was Junkyard Dog, who co-starred in Hogan’s Saturday morning cartoon show, Hulk Hogan’s Rock ‘n’ Wrestling.

For younger fans who grew up in the 1990s, professional wrestling’s renaissance era, they had what felt like an abundance of talent to root for. There was Harlem Heat, composed of real-life brothers Booker T and Stevie Ray; strongman Ahmed Johnson; black nationalist stable Nation of Domination; female grappler Jacqueline Moore; and, of course, Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson.

The Rock, who debuted in WWE in 1996, was the biggest star in the company’s history, winning multiple championships and eventually becoming the highest-paid actor in Hollywood. As half-Samoan, half-black, The Rock was one of the most visible black people in the country, a role model for many young people.

“The Rock was more of an inspiration,” said Brian Waters, 31, who’s hosted internet radio show The Wrestling Wrealm since 2011. “Knowing that he was half-black, half-Samoan, I was like, well, it don’t matter, he’s black. It’s kind of like Barack Obama. It don’t matter, he got a little black in him.”

Once black fans become aware of their own blackness, they would tend to root for the black wrestlers, no different from rooting for the Doug Williamses and Mike Vicks of football, the Williams sisters of tennis or the Tiger Woodses of golf.

This partially explains the ascent of The New Day, an all-black trio of wrestlers who have been a fan favorite for going on three years straight. But, surprisingly, race wasn’t the only factor in the popularity.

“I didn’t like New Day because they were black,” said Davis. “It was more so because they were funny. And even then I’m like not really big on The New Day train. There’s no real black wrestlers I feel like that they even give a chance to achieve.”

For black female fans, like Davis, the female wrestlers weren’t given much of an opportunity to achieve either. There have been only five black women’s champions in WWE history: Moore, Jazz, Alicia Fox, Naomi and Sasha Banks. Moore, in 2016, became the first and only African-American woman to be inducted into the WWE Hall of Fame.

Even with this black female representation for young women, the wrestlers had such unrealistic body proportions, from Moore’s bust to Jazz’s bulk, that not all viewers could relate to them.

“None of the women wrestlers are technically going to look like me, because their bodies are never going to look like how my body looked or was going to look,” said LaToya Ferguson, 29, who writes about wrestling for pop culture blog Uproxx. “I could enjoy them and appreciate them, but I don’t think I ever really had that connection a lot of girls wanted to have of the Divas.”

While children normally learn about race as young as 6 months old, research shows that they don’t learn about “racism” until they’re teenagers or young adults. For African-Americans who watched wrestling, this meant many didn’t notice the problematic storylines in WWE involving African-Americans until they were adults. And there were plenty.

In 1990, white wrestler “Rowdy” Roddy Piper donned blackface while in a storyline with black performer Bad News Brown, who was supposed to be the bad guy in the feud. Less than a decade later, all-white stable D-Generation X, who, like Piper, were the supposed good guys, painted their skin black while facing off with The Rock and the Nation of Domination. In the 2000s, Shelton Benjamin, one of the most gifted athletes in the company’s history, was accompanied to the ring by a Hattie McDaniel-like “momma” character, while all-black duo Cryme Tyme sported cornrows and platinum grills and stole from other wrestlers as their gimmick.

But two incidents stand out the most. In 2003, white wrestler Triple H delivered a racially charged promo against Booker T, calling the black performer’s hair “nappy” and telling him that “people like him” don’t win championships in the WWE. “He almost called him everything except for the N-word,” Thomas said.

And it didn’t end there for Booker T. Two years later, WWE chairman and CEO Vince McMahon called John Cena, who is white and replaced The Rock as the company’s most prominent star, the N-word on live television as a perplexed Booker T walked past.

Despite these incidents, and many more in American professional wrestling’s nearly 200-year history, black fans haven’t wavered. They still make up nearly a quarter of WWE’s total audience, according to Nielsen, and have many reasons for not jumping ship.

Professional wrestling, like the NFL or MLB, is a form of communal entertainment, with fans tuning in live every week because their close friends or family members are following along as well. If they aren’t one of the 3 million people watching Monday Night Raw on the USA Network, they’re filling up more basketball arena seats than the NBA team that owns the building or watching thousands of hours of content on the WWE Network. Like any parent, wrestling fans can also pass down their fandom to their kids. There are times when the product will let you down or offend you, but how is that any different from a fan pushing his or her kids to root for the Cleveland Browns?

There is a lack of diversity and problematic storylines for wrestlers of color, but black viewers tolerate those same issues in other forms of entertainment. Many African-Americans watched network dramas in the decades before Kerry Washington became the first black female lead in a television show since 1974 when she starred in Scandal. Movie ticket sales still sold in the billions in the years leading up to the #OscarsSoWhite campaign. And in sports, despite boycott threats from African-American NFL fans over treatment of black athletes, namely Colin Kaepernick, in response to player protests during the national anthem, NFL games still draw in tens of millions of viewers.

Fans of wrestling just want to be entertained. It’s the golden age of wrestling right now, with the most gifted performers in the history of the “sport” performing right now, whether in WWE or on the independent circuit, including Kentucky-raised Ricochet, the most popular non-WWE black wrestler in the world. And depending on who you talk to, wrestling can be both this amazing art form — “I feel like it’s one of the last true performance arts,” Ferguson said — and guilty pleasure.

“It’s the best soap opera I’ve seen, the best television,” Waters said. “I guess I’m one of those people that if you told me I could only have one channel, it would be USA [Network].”

Thomas added: “People watch Scandal, they watch How To Get Away With Murder, they watch Law & Order: SVU. That’s your TV show, that’s your escape for two hours. That’s your soap opera. Wrestling is my soap opera, where I can suspend my disbelief for three hours on a Monday or two hours on a Tuesday.”

‘The Black Cowboy’ will shine light on history hidden in plain sight Documentary in production lends insight into African-American cowboys and rodeo

Denard Butler is not the typical cowboy in Checotah, Oklahoma, known as the steer wrestling capital of America. He holds an advanced degree in behavioral health and worked for a time as a therapist. He speaks routinely about “the laws of the universe” and quotes Bible verses.

Oh, and he’s black.

Of all Butler’s attributes and uniqueness to his profession, his race is the most surprising — and polarizing.

At 33, he is a third-generation cowboy from Georgia, just outside of Atlanta, meaning he went into his chosen career aware of the challenges that come with it because he was not white. And he chose it anyway.

“It’s a passion,” said Butler, an accomplished steer wrestler who also owns a trucking company. “When you’re black and competing in places like San Juan Capistrano, California; Price, Utah; and Prescott, Arizona, you’re not going to see many people who look like you. So you will hear the N-word. A lot. I use it for power. I feed off it. I tell myself, ‘You’re going to read about me. You’re going to get sick of seeing me.’ I want it more than most, and so I use it as fuel. My belief system is different.”

Butler’s story, which includes four bar fights with white cowboys or patrons who put their hands on him, is part of a revealing documentary in production that promises to lend heretofore unknown insight into black cowboys and their history in America.

Charles Perry’s film, The Black Cowboy, takes a high-definition and comprehensive look at the legacy of African-Americans as cowboys, which dates to the beginning of the lifestyle, up to today’s influx of black cowboys in Oklahoma and other places across the country.

Perry, of Carson, California, said he “escaped” suburban Los Angeles to play college basketball at Northwest College in Wyoming in 1994. In 1997, he visited a friend’s home in Lewistown, Montana, and attended a rodeo.

“And there was this black kid participating,” Perry said. “And it was loud in my mind: ‘That kid must be adopted. A white family must have taken him and made him become a cowboy.’

“That thought stayed in my mind as I drove from Georgia to Portland, Oregon, [in 2014] with a friend. We ran across the Okmulgee Black Rodeo in Oklahoma. I was in a daze, seeing all these black cowboys. I didn’t understand what was going on.”

But it was at that moment that the budding filmmaker embraced the idea for his first major project. He had worked with others on small films where he served various roles. Perry also worked on films as an extra or bit, nonspeaking roles and said he would stick his head in directors’ discussions, and “they never told me to get out, so I learned a lot.”

In April 2015, the resourceful Perry took a job driving a U-Haul truck from Charlottesville, Virginia, to Portland. He drove “directly to Okmulgee, to tell the Okmulgee City Hall my plans of making the documentary.”

He met Delta Higgins, who worked at City Hall and who has been a guiding force for Perry — “my angel,” he called her.

“It is an incredibly important yet omitted story within America’s narrative,” the 41-year-old Perry said. “How often do we see now or in the past the cowboy of the Wild West represented as a black man or woman? Very rarely … and yet, they were there in important ways. Black cowboys and their story have been neglected.”

Filmmaker Charles Perry.

Ivan McClellan

Perry has spent the better part of three years traveling the country, mostly by car, to research, meet and film black cowboys in all points of the country. He said the film should be completed in time for entry into the renowned Sundance Film Festival next summer. He also plans to enter it at Cannes, Tribeca and other festivals.

He used online crowdfunding to raise $25,000, which allowed him to hire Emmy-nominated cinematographer Erik Angra and respected African-American photographer Ivan McClellan, who are working at discounted rates, Perry said, because they “see the vision of the film.”

Perry’s younger brother, Marcus, is on the staff, as well as two high school friends — J.R. Redmond, who won a Super Bowl ring as a member of the New England Patriots, and Tony Harvey, who once played for the Utah Jazz of the NBA — who serve as executive producers.

“It’s been a grind, something Nate Parker [director of Birth of a Nation] told me last year at Sundance what it would be,” Perry said. “But I’m determined.”

The total budget of the film is $220,000, and Perry said he used his savings and supplemented the support and donations he’s received by eating less and working side jobs more. “I will pass up on an extra hamburger but not skimp on using the best-quality cameras we need,” he said.

Mostly, Perry said, “I know how to hustle” to keep afloat. To support himself and the film, he edits online video content, including short films and music videos.

“I’m a one-man crew for $2,500 a job. I get three or four jobs a month [to] sustain myself,” he explained. “I’m doing what I have to do to make this film. It’s that important to me.

“So I’m taking my time, not rushing,” Perry added. “This thing is deeper than I thought when I started.”

Perry, for instance, has learned that the term “cowboy” originated when farmers would instruct black farmhands to “go get that cow, boy.”

He learned that Oklahoma, first home of Native Americans, was a haven for African-Americans who fled the South in the 1800s. Blacks owned land and built thriving communities.

Government officials asked Congress to designate Oklahoma as a “black state” or “Negro Colonization.” It never happened, but the influx of African-Americans produced countless farmers and, yes, cowboys.

“I grew up playing at Will Rogers Park and Will Rogers Beach in California, so to learn the most famous black cowboy, Bill Pickett, was Will Rogers’ right-hand man, well, that was something of a confirmation for me that this was a film I should make.”

Prominent in the film is the story of Pickett, who is credited with creating in 1903 the sport of “bulldogging,” now known as steer wrestling. It is a rodeo sport in which the cowboy rides on a horse alongside a steer, leaps onto the bull and wrestles it to the ground by its horns.

Pickett is a cowboy legend and was the first African-American to be inducted into the National Cowboy Hall of Fame of the National Cowboy & Western Heritage Center in Oklahoma. He died in 1932 after being kicked and stomped in the head by a horse when he was 61.

His legacy did not die with him, however. Pickett also is in the Rodeo Cowboy Hall of Fame and has been honored with the annual Bill Pickett Invitational Rodeo in Oklahoma. Pickett’s emergence spawned a wave of black cowboys that, the documentary will show, has continued over all these decades.

“It’s a good thing this story is finally going to be told,” said Clarence LeBlanc, 65, a former black cowboy who retired 13 years ago, but not before twice claiming the world steer wrestling championship (1983 and 1990). “Every ranch since the beginning had black cowboys on them. But when you saw the movies or heard the stories, we were excluded. This film will help let people know our impact.”

LeBlanc said he was quite “uncomfortable” much of his career because “prejudice was strong. When I started out, it was really bad. Most schools weren’t even integrated. Over time, the white cowboys began to get to know me because we were seeing each other every week at different rodeos. Many of them let go of the ignorance.

“But the towns we went to, those people had never been around black people before, and they didn’t want us there. And they let us know that.”

He said he never felt his life was in jeopardy, but “I knew when I was in a place that was more [volatile], and so I stayed close, I didn’t venture off at all. … But I don’t think there was anything anyone could do to run me off, I loved the sport so much.”

That love among African-Americans continues to rise, according to Perry, who estimates there are more than 100,000 black cowboys in the United States. Most are in Oklahoma, but others are in Georgia, California, Arizona, Texas, North Carolina, Mississippi and Arkansas.

“There are small pockets of black cowboys in many parts of the country, and we visit those places and the people wonder why we want to take their pictures,” Perry said. “It’s like when blacks go to Japan and the Japanese want to take our photos because they don’t see many black people. That’s how it is with the black cowboy.”

This is news to many, including a man Perry recently encountered at a party in Boston. Perry said he wears a hat and T-shirt with “TheBlackCowboy.com” on it almost everywhere he goes. “This was a smart, educated white man,” Perry recalled. “He noticed my hat and I told him a little about the history of the black cowboy, and he said no way in the world was what I told him true. He said, ‘Oklahoma is white.’ He just didn’t want to believe it.”

Perry said he has received skepticism from some in the cowboy community because others before him had committed to documenting its history of blacks in the profession but failed. So many did not “take me seriously,” he recalled.

To gain trust, he paid out of pocket for a sizable portion of historic footage — and has been consistent in his efforts to complete the movie.

“I’m excited about seeing the film myself,” Butler said. “I haven’t studied the black cowboy. I am into Warren Buffett and Napoleon Hill. But do know the black cowboys have two things in common: talent and perseverance. That’s the only way to make it with all we have to go through because of our race.”

And don’t forget money, added Butler, who also raises and sells horses on his ranch. “Really, you have to be close to rich, or have someone in your family with money, to compete,” he said. “My family isn’t rich, but my parents made some real sacrifices to get me out here.

“You’re talking $21,000 in fuel to travel to events, $20,000 fees to enter. A horse trailer: another $40,000. Then there are all kinds of miscellaneous stuff. It’s the No. 1 reason there aren’t a lot of blacks on the [rodeo] circuits.”

For LeBlanc, who has lived in Oklahoma all his life and raised prize-winning horses, seeing the number of black youths in rodeos makes him proud. “I know, in at least a small way, we paved the way,” he said. “I have a little grandson, and I can’t wait for him to get old enough to get out there.”

In the end, Perry anticipates a work that enlightens and entertains. “Our goal is not only to bring their story to the mainstream but to establish resources for young aspiring cowboys and cowgirls to follow their dreams,” he said. “I have almost been like a detective, digging for the truth, and it’s been fun.

“Imagine being a cowboy in a rodeo — the sole black person in an entire arena. It’s as close to Jackie Robinson as you can get. This is a history that has been hidden in plain sight … while going on today.

“Well, we’re bringing it all to light with this film.”

Neil deGrasse Tyson to Kyrie Irving: “I’m glad you play basketball instead of serve as head of NASA” Astrophysicist is pop culture’s ultimate superfan

Celebrity astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson likes to talk. Loves it. When you ask the New York native and director of the Hayden Planetarium a question, his voice lights up. Whether it’s about science or popular culture, Tyson is eager to educate, often offering more than you even asked for.

The fourth season of National Geographic’s StarTalk, his hit late-night talk show (née podcast) that features the likes of Bill Clinton and Terry Crews, premieres Oct. 15. “I care deeply about what role pop culture plays in hearts, minds and souls,” said DeGrasse. StarTalk mixes science with comedy with interesting conversation for a show both entertaining and educational — but most importantly, accessible. “I can start where you are, what you bring to the table, and I just add to that,” he said. “I think that’s part of the successful recipe of StarTalk.”

What’s a bad habit that you have?

I’m always aware of bad habits, so I’ve probably gotten rid of it already. I have an unrealistic attraction to kettle chips. The crunchier chips, [fried] in peanut oil, no shortage of salt — is that a flaw? Is it a bad habit, or is it just a habit? The real question is, if anyone has a bad habit, why haven’t they done anything about it yet if they are self-aware it is bad? I used to twirl my hair when I was a kid, but then I stopped. I notice when other people are twirling their hair, it’s interesting. I empathize with them.

“Dwayne Johnson. I used to have a body that kind of resembled his body.”

Kyrie Irving once said that the world is flat, although he later admitted to (supposedly) trolling. What would you say to him about this?

We live in a free country, where you can think and feel what you want, provided it doesn’t violate someone else’s freedoms. I greatly value that. So to Kyrie Irving I would say, ‘I’m glad you play basketball instead of serve as head of NASA.’ It’s a reminder there are jobs for people who have no idea what science is or how and why it works. And in his case, basketball is serving him well. The problem comes about if you are not scientifically literate, hold nonscientific views and rise to power over legislation and laws that would then affect us all. That’s the recipe for social and cultural disaster.

What’s the last museum you visited? Do you find yourself going to museums often?

I very much enjoy museums. The last museum I went to that was not local in New York City … it was an art museum in Sydney, Australia. There was a whole section that had aboriginal art, not only of Australians but also some from the Maori tribes of New Zealand.

“I have an unrealistic attraction to kettle chips. The crunchier chips, fried in peanut oil, no shortage of salt — is that a flaw?”

What is your favorite social media spot?

Lately, I have to say Twitter because of the value I derive from it. I have these random thoughts every day, and Twitter is a means by which I share these thoughts with the public. And in an instant, I get to see people’s reactions. Were they offended? Did they laugh? Did they misinterpret it? Did they overinterpret it? So I get a neurosynaptic snapshot of how people react to thoughts that I have. And this deeply informs public talks that I give. It’s my way to get inside people’s heads without violating their space.

People go to your Twitter feed to learn, so it’s nice to hear that you enjoy learning from your followers.

It’s not like I’m Professor Neil on Twitter. I tweet about a lot of really random things. People say, ‘Why don’t you give us the latest news?’ I’m not a news source. If I don’t think about that news today, you ain’t getting a tweet about it. I don’t start the day saying, ‘What am I going to tweet today? Let me think something up.’ No, it’s random. … You just happen to be eavesdropping in my brain. Before the end of the month I’ll be engaging in my Instagram account. I’ve yet to post to it. I deeply value photographic arts. It’ll mostly be artsy things, more artsy than purely educational. Then I write my own little caption about it.

So no pictures of your dinner?

If the dinner evokes some cosmic thought, yes, you’ll get a picture of my dinner. Otherwise, no.

If you could be any athlete, dead or alive, who would you be?

I think about Jesse Owens often. I think about Jackie Robinson often. Simply because of how great they were at what they did, how honed they were in their performance and the fact that their existence meant more than their performance. In other words, the whole was greater than the sum of their parts: great athlete, at an important time, doing an important thing, having an influence on people in a positive direction.

Have you ever been starstruck?

I was a little bit starstruck when I interviewed Jeremy Irons. There are movies he’s been in where I just — how can you be this good in that role? How is that even possible? And just to shake his hand and interview him for StarTalk, that meant a lot to me. And here’s one you won’t expect. I’ve never met him, but I’d be delighted to. I’ve got him on my short list: Dwayne Johnson. I used to have a body that kind of resembled his body. He’s beefier in the last two years than he was about 10 years ago, when he was actually wrestling. He beefed up extra for the Fast and the Furious series, so not in that state, but in an earlier state, of Dwayne ‘The Rock’ Johnson. When I looked like that, no one was interviewing me in the newspapers. No one was asking to publish my books. So he’s a modern reminder of a lost chapter of my life.

When you were wrestling in high school, did you want to become a pro wrestler?

No. No, no, no. No! You want to talk about physics — physics in pro wrestling is what allows things to look like they hurt when they don’t. But it’s the laws of physics exploited to fool you, rather than exploited to win.

What sport do you most enjoy watching, from a purely physical standpoint?

I like many. And there is physics in all sports, so I don’t rank them in this way. In fact, StarTalk because of the success of our shows where we cover sports, we spun off an entire branch called Playing With Science. It’s all the ways science has touched sports. We talk about famous catches, famous hits. We do talk about concussions. We brought in a neuroscientist to talk about [concussions] from football. We talk about NASCAR and the technology involved with that. We talk about the physics of driving around a track. There’s a lot of fun physics in essentially everything, you know why? Because there’s physics in everything.

This conversation has been edited for clarity and length.

‘Survivor’s Remorse’ recap: Wrestling with faith, money and family history

Season 4, Episode 8 | “Future Plans” | Oct. 8

With season four coming to a close soon, Future Plans mostly functioned as a setup for the final two episodes. But more significantly, it revealed the way the season’s puzzle pieces fit together to form a larger narrative.

After broaching the subject of ring shopping with Allison in last week’s episode, Cam has plowed ahead with the engagement. He bought a giant ring, he asked Allison’s parents for her hand in marriage and staged a thoughtful proposal. We have liftoff on this engagement.

Meanwhile, Cassie (Tischina Arnold) has been faithfully attending Father Tom’s Sunday school classes, and now she’s just got one corporal act of mercy to make before she’s confirmed in the Catholic church. What’s touching about Cassie is that she has so many questions about her faith. She talks to the statue of Mary in her yard and she’s the most eager participant in her confirmation classes. Cassie illustrates the nuances of what it means to be spiritually engaged. Even though she’s sure she wants to devote herself more deeply to her religion, she’s not always sure about what exactly that means.

All the while, Chen (Robert Wu) has been a supportive partner. He’s not especially religious, but he’s been sensitive and engaged in Cassie’s journey. Theirs ends up being an illustration of how two people of differing levels of intensity when it comes to spirituality can coexist in a romantic relationship. Cassie doesn’t spend her time constantly proselytizing Chen, and Chen hasn’t pressured Cassie about her newfound religiosity. It probably helps that Cassie’s found a religious community that doesn’t shame her for her sexual relationship with Chen, given that they’re not married.

Reggie (RonReaco Lee), always the practical strategist, urges Cam (Jessie T. Usher) to think about the future to which he’s committing himself by marrying Allison (Meagan Tandy). And the issue that Reggie raises is class. Both he and Cam spent most of their childhoods without their fathers. Cam’s father was in prison and Reggie’s was abusive. Allison, like Missy (Teyonah Parris), comes from a loving, stable, two-parent background. Cam, Reggie warns, is going to have to do more than just show up.

Survivor’s Remorse began this season by asking what a healthy relationship with your parents looks like, and now we know why: It has a huge effect on your romantic relationships. Hearing Reggie’s advice to Cam, I thought of Beyoncé, Jay-Z, Lemonade and 4:44. A significant portion of those albums are about confronting how Bey’s and Jay’s pasts informed — and nearly tore asunder — their relationship. Jay grew up poor and without a father in Brooklyn, New York’s Marcy projects, while Bey grew up in a two-parent home in Houston. Some of the most affecting themes in both albums touch on how Jay had to unlearn the hatred he’d picked up for himself and for black women to be a better partner. And Beyoncé, after being hurt by the manifestations of that hatred, had to learn to forgive Jay so they could move forward.

By introducing Reggie’s father, Cam’s father, and Missy and Allison’s parents, it feels like much of season four has been laying the groundwork for deeper interrogation of those themes — I certainly hope so, anyway. It’s an area rich with ideas that haven’t been explored deeply on television, and if there’s a writing staff and directing corps with the chops to pull it off, it’s Survivor’s Remorse.

In some ways, Missy and Reggie have functioned as a test case. The two are about to embark on a journey together as real estate developers, if they can unshake the $480,000 they need from Missy’s trust, two years ahead of when she was originally scheduled to get it. Missy’s parents have given a tentative yes, assuming they can persuade their trustee to move ahead. All this comes after uncovering their differing attitudes about money, and where and how those attitudes originated.

It seems we might be learning what a healthy romantic relationship looks like for M-Chuck (Erica Ash), too. Out of all of the characters, we’ve had the biggest window into M-Chuck’s introspection and growth as a person. We’ve watched her deal with discovering the identities of her three possible fathers and the way she’s still working through the boundaries of where her mother’s privacy ends and her own trauma begins.

Now that she’s confident enough to write about those experiences for her freshman comp class, it looks as though she may have found a possible friend, and maybe more, in her classmate Therese. The class was asked to write the first paragraph of their autobiography anonymously. When they turn their papers in, the professor distributes them so they can be read aloud.

Upon hearing her essay being read, M-Chuck snatches her paper away before her classmate can reveal that she was a product of her mother being raped. Seconds away from tears, she storms out. But later, she gets a call from Therese, who already knows more about M-Chuck than possibly any woman with whom M-Chuck’s ever hooked up.

Remember when M-Chuck and her therapist were trying to work on her tendency to drown out her problems with semi-anonymous sex? Perhaps Therese will mark a turning point.

DeMarcus Cousins said Trump needs to ‘get his s–t together’ and other news of the week The Week that was Sept. 25- 29

Monday 09.25.17

A Pittsburgh fire chief said he regrets adding Pittsburgh Steelers coach Mike Tomlin to his “list of no good N—–s” on his Facebook page and wants to apologize because “This had nothing to do with my Fire Department” and “My fire department should have never been dragged into this.” Republican Alabama Senate candidate Roy Moore, very on brand in a leather vest and cowboy hat, pulled a (tiny) gun out during a political rally. Donald Trump Jr. posted a map that supposedly showed an overwhelming number of Americans who supported NFL players standing over kneeling with the caption “where else have I seen this???”; the map was county-level results from the 2016 presidential election. A Texas pastor said NFL players “ought to be thanking God” that they live in a country where they don’t have to worry about “being shot in the head for taking a knee.” New Orleans Pelicans center DeMarcus Cousins, who has the most technical fouls in the league since 2010, said Trump “needs to get his s— together.” Former New England Patriots offensive lineman Matt Light, a teammate of convicted murderer Aaron Hernandez for two seasons, said after some New England players knelt during the national anthem on Sunday, “It’s the first time I’ve ever been ashamed to be a Patriot.” Retired college football coach Lou Holtz, who is white, said he doesn’t understand why black athletes demonstrate during the national anthem because “I’ve been unfairly ticketed. I was given a ticket when I didn’t exceed the speed limit, because I was coaching at one school, and the patrol officer graduated from the other.”

Tuesday 09.26.17

Four assistant basketball coaches from Arizona, Auburn, Oklahoma State and the University of Southern California — which, combined, make more than $300 million in total revenue across all sports and do not pay players — were arrested on federal corruption charges for taking thousands of dollars in bribes to direct college players to certain sports agents and financial advisers. New York Giants owner John Mara, who continually employed a kicker who abused his wife and didn’t sign Colin Kaepernick because of possible fan protest, said he is

very unhappy” that Giants wide receiver Odell Beckham Jr. simulated a dog urinating on the field on Sunday. To make room for more terrible sports and Insecure takes, Twitter will increase its famed 140-character limit to 280. Another person left the Trump administration, and another former member of the administration has hired a lawyer. Professional wrestling legend and Wilt Chamberlain rival Ric Flair estimates that he had sex with 10,000 women: “I wish I hadn’t said that because of my grandkids,” Flair said in an upcoming ESPN documentary.

Wednesday 09.27.17

Longtime adult actor Ron Jeremy doubts Flair had relations with that many women: “It’s very difficult to get numbers like that.” Los Angeles Chargers unofficial mascot Boltman said he risked being beaten “like Rodney King” by the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department after he refused to remove his mask at last weekend’s home game. A bar in Missouri, a state for which the NAACP has issued a travel advisory for people of color, displayed recently purchased NFL jerseys of Marshawn Lynch and Kaepernick as doormats with the two jerseys spelling out “Lynch Kaepernick.” Another airline was caught violently dragging a customer off one of its airplanes. A Madison, Wisconsin, gyro shop worker was charged with “first-degree reckless endangerment … possession of cocaine with intent to deliver and carrying a concealed weapon” after he shot a man at his place of work when the man tried to run off with $1,300 worth of cocaine without paying for it; “Dude shot me in the back,” the “victim” told police. Taken actor Liam Neeson, two weeks after announcing his retirement from action movies because “Guys, I’m 60-f—ing-five,” said he’s not retiring from the genre and that “I’m going to be doing action movies until they bury me in the ground.” Trump, who was an owner in the USFL, which folded after just three seasons, said the NFL is “going to hell” unless it prohibits players from kneeling during the national anthem. Former action “star” Steven Seagal, currently a resident of Moscow, said demonstrations during the national anthem were both “outrageous” and “disgusting.”

Thursday 09.28.17

Hours after posing an anti-DUI video on Instagram with the hashtag #dontdrinkanddrive, a Los Angeles police officer, under suspicion of driving under the influence, caused a three-car crash that killed three people. Trump, blowing a dog whistle so loud a deaf man could hear it, said NFL owners, some of whom are his “friends,” don’t punish players who kneel during the national anthem because “they are afraid of their players.” During the all-male Presidents Cup tournament, the PGA Tour, still trying to rid its long-held sexist label, held a cook-off among WAGs (wives and girlfriends) of the competitors. Reality TV star Rob Kardashian, per a lawsuit, accused former girlfriend Blac Chyna of smashing his gingerbread house during a December 2016 incident. Just hours after Georgia Tech football coach Paul Johnson joked that he was glad “that we were with Russell [Athletic]” when the Adidas and college basketball corruption case news broke, Russell Athletic announced it will “transition away from the team uniform business”; Georgia Tech will switch to Adidas in 2018. A Canadian woman who tattooed purple dye into her eyeball may lose her sight in the eye; “I took my eyesight for granted,” the woman said. Philadelphia 76ers guard Ben Simmons, just piling on at this point, called Trump an “idiot” and a “d—head.” In “it’s about respect for the military” news, the message “go home n—–” was written on the whiteboard of a black cadet at the Air Force Academy Preparatory School.

Friday 09.29.17

Proving what we already knew, Boston Celtics guard Kyrie Irving said teammate Gordon Hayward and coach Brad Stevens “have an unspoken language already.” Cleveland Cavaliers guard Dwyane Wade said it was not his idea to ride on the back of a banana boat with Gabrielle Union, LeBron James and Chris Paul: “I remember saying, ‘Guys, I didn’t wanna get on there,’ but, you know, peer pressure.” Trump, who aced geography in college, said Puerto Rico is “an island. Surrounded by water. Big water. Ocean water.” Former Maricopa County Sheriff Joe Arpaio, who recently received a presidential pardon after being convicted for essentially racial profiling Latinos, traveled to California to continue his investigation of former President Barack Obama’s birth certificate. Former NFL player Chad Johnson, who once legally changed his last name to “Ochocinco” because he thought it was Spanish for “85,” compared the NFL’s “whitewashing” of protests during the national anthem to “a goddamn Ice Bucket Challenge.” Third-graders in the Washington, D.C., area said they don’t like Trump because “ever since he was president a lot of bad things have been happening,” “Trump doesn’t like black people and Hillary Clinton does,” and because “he’s orange.” Another person resigned from the Trump administration.

Marshawn Lynch was fined for flipping the bird and other news of the week The Week That Was Sept. 11-15

Monday 09.11.17

Musician Kid Rock, who is both the “KING OF DETROIT LOVE” and the creator of “Sweet Home Alabama,” said he is not racist because “I LOVE BLACK PEOPLE.” Right-wing radio host The White House, whose high-profile occupant believes the human body has “finite amount of energy,” went into lockdown after a yoga mat was thrown over the north fence. Cable morning show Fox & Friends, once compared to a children’s show by The New York Times, compared Sept. 11 memorials to those of the Confederacy. New Orleans Saints running back Adrian Peterson, who averaged just 2.5 yards per carry during the preseason and 1.9 per carry last season, said he wanted to run the ball up the Minnesota Vikings’ “Donkey” after rushing for 18 yards on six carries. An employee of the Chelan County (Washington) Emergency Management Department posted a meme of a stick figure being run over by a vehicle with the headline “ALL LIVES SPLATTER.” Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas) was caught “liking” graphic pornography on his official Twitter account; the senator’s communications team said the “offensive tweet” was “posted” to Cruz’s account despite that not being how likes work on the social media platform.

Tuesday 09.12.17

Musician and habitual line-stepper R. Kelly attempted to promote new music by tweeting a message that said, “All it takes is one ‘yes’ to change your life” followed by a graphic of repeating “Noes” with a “Yes” nestled in the middle. A student loan refinancing company reportedly maintained a work environment where the (former) CEO slept with multiple employees who were not his wife; an executive drunkenly crashed his car after sexting a subordinate; and where colleagues had sex in parking lots and public restrooms, where multiple toilet seats had to be replaced. A separate company, once again proving you never eat at the company potluck, had one employee stop breathing and others fall severely ill after they ate a shrimp casserole. Golden State Warriors forward Kevin Durant, definitely not mad online, released a new NBA Finals-themed shoe that includes every critique directed at him over the past year imprinted on the insoles. Former NFL wide receiver Steve Smith,

who had 2,641 yards and 12 touchdowns in his six-year career, was nominated for the Pro Football Hall of Fame because voters confused him with five-time Pro Bowler Steve Smith Sr. Black conservative radio host Larry Elder, who once tweeted, “The welfare state has done more to destroy the black family than did slavery and Jim Crow,” tweeted, without a hint of irony, that “ ‘Uncle Tom’ is a more destructive pejorative than ‘n—–.’ The latter is an insult. The former stops blacks from independent thinking.”

Wednesday 09.13.17

The White House misspelled African-American Republican Sen. Tim Scott’s name as “Tom.” The Minnesota Vikings, a team that built a new stadium that kills a lot of birds, hired an 18-year-old author and public speaker to serve as its “Gen Z Advisor.” The New York media is upset that professional dancers and part-time athletes Odell Beckham Jr. and Russell Westbrook had a dance-off during a live Wyclef Jean performance. A day after Kid Rock told protesters in his hometown they “can protest deez nuts,” the Detroit Lions declined to comment on a season-ticket holder posting a photo of two African-American fans on his Facebook page with the caption “Ignorant n—–s.” A Shelby County (Tennessee) strip club, where in 2016 a man was shot in a restroom and left a paraplegic, turned out to be illegally owned by the county, a new lawsuit revealed; the establishment, formally named Babes of Babylon, was ordered shut down in 2011 after “drugs, assaults, and prostitution got so bad at the club.” Retired boxer Floyd Mayweather Jr., outside of the strip club he owns in Las Vegas, told an inanimate Hispanic puppet that he has seven girlfriends because “having one is too close to having none.” Hawaii walk-on quarterback Hunter Hughes had to twerk to the sounds of a trombone at a WWE event to earn a full athletic scholarship.

Thursday 09.14.17

Philadelphia Eagles owner Jeffrey Lurie, who employed Michael Vick when the quarterback was released from prison after a dogfighting conviction, Riley Cooper after the receiver was caught on camera saying, “I will fight every n—– here,” and Wendell Smallwood after the running back was arrested for witness tampering related to a murder case, said he wouldn’t sign Colin Kaepernick because “I don’t think anybody who is protesting the national anthem … is very respectful.” Peterson, still not letting it go, said he “didn’t sign up for nine snaps” when he signed with the Saints this season despite the team already having a starting running back and a quarterback who threw for more than 5,200 yards last year. Oakland Raiders running back Marshawn Lynch, best known for repeatedly stating, “I’m here so I won’t get fined,” was fined $12,000 for “raising the middle finger on both hands” during last week’s game against the Tennessee Titans. Trump once called his attorney general, Jeff Sessions, disloyal and an “idiot” and told him to resign after a special counsel was appointed to lead the Russian investigation earlier this year. Wrestling legend Hulk Hogan, who recently was awarded $31 million for a sex tape he willingly participated in, called those without water and power in Florida because of Hurricane Irma “crybabies.”

Friday 09.15.17

Two weeks after being traded to the Indianapolis Colts, quarterback Jacoby Brissett, who has had only 13 days to learn the playbook and plays a different style from starter Andrew Luck, is expected to start for the 0-1 team. A former St. Louis police officer who reportedly yelled that he was “going to kill this m—–f—–” before fatally shooting an unarmed black man was found not guilty of first-degree murder. In completely unequivocally unrelated news, Kaepernick was named the NFL Players Association’s Community MVP after the first week of the season. Former White House strategist Steve Bannon wears no fewer than three shirts at all times; “Never two. N-e-v-e-r t-w-o,” his spokesperson said. Police officers in a Chicago suburb sold $10 raffle tickets at a Labor Day festival for the chance to win an AR-15-style semiautomatic rifle; the town banned assault weapons in 2013.

Michael Bennett had gun pointed at his head by police and other news of the week The Week That Was Sept. 4-8

Monday 09.04.17

Denver Broncos quarterback Brock Osweiler, who signed a $72 million contract with the Houston Texans last year and went on to complete just 59 percent of his passes and throw 16 interceptions, said signing with Houston was like “when you’re a little kid and your mom, you know, she tells you, ‘Don’t touch the hot stove.’ So, what do you have to do as a curious kid? You’ve got to go touch the hot stove, and you learn real quick how nice that stove is when it’s not hot.” The Jacksonville Jaguars are so lacking in quality players that

they named a tight end and offensive lineman as team captains. New Tampa Bay Buccaneers safety T.J. Ward, once arrested for throwing a glass mug at a female bartender in a strip club, said his former team, the Denver Broncos, were “completely unprofessional” in how they cut him from the team last week. The Buffalo Bills signed quarterback Joe Webb; the 30-year-old played wide receiver last season. The Oakland Raiders are engaged in a $4 million “contractual standoff” with their … kicker.

Tuesday 09.05.17

Motivational speaker Sean “Diddy” Combs said, among other things, to “be a f—ing wolf … eat people’s faces off … [and] never apologize for being awesome.” Former Donald Trump campaign manager Corey Lewandowski, once accused of assaulting a female reporter, will serve as a visiting professor at Harvard this fall; the school’s Institute of Politics said Lewandowski will engage in “dynamic interaction with our students.” President Trump, who rescinded an immigration policy that protected children of undocumented immigrants, pardoned a former sheriff who was accused of violating the civil rights of Hispanics and wants to spend billions of dollars on a wall along the border, said, “I have a great heart for” those affected by his most recent immigration policy decision. Former Milwaukee sheriff David Clarke, once a highly regarded law enforcement official and rumored Department of Homeland Security deputy secretary nominee, will serve in the distinguished role of spokesman for a pro-Trump super PAC. The Boston Red Sox, who, yes, hail from the same region as the New England Patriots, admitted to stealing hand signals from the New York Yankees using an Apple Watch. Washington Redskins quarterback Kirk Cousins said the Lord told him to only sign a one-year, $24 million contract with the team this year; no word on whether the Lord also told him to throw two interceptions in a season-ending loss to the New York Giants last year.

Wednesday 09.06.17

A Pennsylvania man, attempting to keep it real, will be charged with disorderly conduct for asking Sen. Pat Toomey (R-Pennsylvania) if he knew “whether or not your daughter Bridget has been kidnapped?” Former Boston Celtics guard Isaiah Thomas, actually keeping it real, said, “I don’t think the Boston Celtics got better” by trading the All-Star to the Cleveland Cavaliers. A Hawaii football assistant coach, whose team has won just

20 games over the past six seasons, fractured his wrist and dislocated his elbow while celebrating a blocked kick last weekend. A Florida sheriff, showing tremendous dedication to protecting and serving, is threatening to detain people with warrants who attempt to seek shelter during Hurricane Irma. Also getting this whole compassion thing down, Trump told a North Dakota crowd, “You have a little bit of a drought. [Texas] had the opposite. Believe me, you’re better off.” Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) director, and creator of aptly named song “I Ain’t Bulls—-in’,” Luther Campbell told Florida residents that “you all can die” if they plan parties during Hurricane Irma.

Thursday 09.07.17

Waffle House restaurants, violator of many health code violations, are used by FEMA as a barometer for how an area will recover from a natural disaster. A Las Vegas police union, in trying to defend two officers accused of assaulting Seattle Seahawks defensive player Michael Bennett, brought up Bennett’s national anthem protest, the height of a barrier he allegedly jumped over and the racial identity of the officers instead of explaining why at least one of the officers aimed his weapon at the player’s head. Brooke Hogan, the daughter of wrestling legend Hulk Hogan, said fellow legend Ric Flair, weeks removed from being placed in a medically induced coma, sounded like he was “full of piss and vinegar” and could return to the ring at the ripe age of 64. Former NFL player Steve Smith Sr., best known for his subdued temper and for once predicting there’d be “blood and guts everywhere,” now works at a Taco Bell. There’s a supervolcano underneath Yellowstone National Park that could kill us all. Commissioner Roger Goodell, paid over $30 million a year to run the National Football League, said he is not a “football expert.” In “racism is in the past” news, Texas A&M football coach Kevin Sumlin received a letter from an unknown sender this week that read: “You suck as a coach! You’re a n—– and can’t win! Please get lost! Or else.”

Friday 09.08.17

The NFL finally got around to adequately suspending 38-year-old free agent placekicker Josh Brown for allegedly abusing his ex-wife. Three days after proclaiming that Hurricane Irma is “a desire to advance this climate change agenda” by the “drive-by media,” right-wing radio host Rush Limbaugh will evacuate from Florida. Despite the continued unemployment of national anthem protester Colin Kaepernick, NFL ratings are still down. A Washington Redskins-themed restaurant, staying on brand, was forced into bankruptcy after just one year in operation. Florida Atlantic football coach Lane Kiffin thinks the Bible, like The Simpsons, predicted hurricanes Harvey and Irma. Golden State Warriors guard Nick Young caused the infamous locker room duel between Washington Wizards teammates Gilbert Arenas and Javaris Crittenton in 2009.

Professional wrestler Booker T’s raw life An orphan, a dropout, a felon – and now a famous, married father running for mayor of Houston

They came out bug-eyed and angry, just like the promoter had instructed. Real-life brothers in a phony sport, mean-mugging in lavender tuxedo jackets, bow ties and shades.

“Ebony Experience!” the announcer boomed.

Just like the pro wrestling gods of their youth — Ron Simmons, Junkyard Dog and all those thickly muscled black men who used to enrage fans at ringside — Booker and Lash Huffman ticked off the crowd that night, too.

The 300 or so fans in the mostly empty Sportatorium, a dilapidated Dallas bandbox built in 1934, bent their torsos over the railing as the fledgling tag team made their way to the ring. They contorted their faces and screamed every racial epithet they could think of for a black man.

“C—!”

“N—–!”

“Go back to Africa, you f—– j——s!”

Booker wanted to jump the barrier and throw haymakers. Lash, six years older, laughed, camouflaging his anger. These bigots “are everyday stuff in America to us,” he told himself, widening the ring ropes for his little brother to slip through.

It was 1992, less than three years after Lash had told Booker he needed to come up with $3,000 to attend a pro wrestling school in Houston. And now, for $100 each, they had a tryout with the Global Wrestling Federation. The script called for them to go out as heels (villains) against two beefcakes called Brute Forcz. They would then emerge as faces (good guys), aiming to win the crowd’s affection by the end of the match. If the Huffmans were entertaining, they’d get more work.

But when the promoter told them, “You have to make the guys you’re working with look good,” Lash shook his head and pulled his brother aside.

“It looks like the fix is in,” he said. “Let’s just go out there and make these guys look better than they’ve ever looked in their life.”

They played the heels to the hilt at first, scowling and grunting as the N-bombs cascaded from the stands. But then Booker began quarterbacking the match. “OK, throw me into the ropes,” he whispered to one of his opponents as the match was going on. “Now duck.”

Incredibly, the crowd began to turn. “Same dude that just called us all that awful s— is now going crazy for us,” Booker said.

When it ended, Booker went to the middle of the ring and began break dancing, ending with his shoulders on the mat and his legs twirling in the air, a move the ringside announcer christened “The Spinaroonie.”

Within a week, Ebony Experience was the Sportatorium’s main attraction. The Huffman brothers — Booker at 6-foot-3, 250 pounds, Lash standing 6-5 and pushing 290 — a quarter-ton of bicep-flexin’, smack-talkin’ black ’tude, were packing all 4,500 seats.

After that night, the racist bile from one man’s mouth or an entire crowd wouldn’t faze Booker, because he came to understand an unsettling truth: The same people who N-bombed him were paying his rent, and some of them went on to become his most ardent fans. If he had to smell America’s bad breath, so what? It was the price of acceptance and ascendance in the squared-circle world, a world so much grander and greater than he had known before.


Twelve years later: Another arena, this one on Long Island, New York, another white opponent who needed to look good. Paul Michael Levesque, a stringy-haired behemoth known as Triple H, eyeballed Booker up and down within inches of his face, as if he had bought his opponent at auction.

By this time, Huffman, wrestling under the name Booker T, was no newbie. Propelled by a charismatic personality, the Spinaroonie and a trademark catchphrase purloined from the 1979 film The Warriors — “Can you dig it, sucka?” — he was one of the most popular figures on the pro circuit. That’s why it was so disturbing when, weeks before Triple H and Booker were to face off for the heavyweight championship at Wrestlemania XIX in Seattle, Levesque went to sinister places to sell the card.

“Somebody like you … doesn’t get to be a world champion,” Levesque told Booker at an event in the Nassau Coliseum in Uniondale, New York, pausing between sneers for effect. “People like you don’t deserve it.”

People like you?

“You’re here to be an entertainer. … Go ahead, Book, why don’t ya entertain? Do a little dance for me, Book. Why don’t you give me one of them Spinaroonies? Come on, don’t be embarrassed. That’s your job, to make people like me laugh. You’re very good at it — with your nappy hair and your ‘suckas.’ ”

The payoff had to be revenge, right? Black good guy over white meanie? When faces absorb such abuse from heels, the story is supposed to end with the face getting vindication via pin — or something that felt like the karma gods had spoken.

In the match itself, Booker T nailed his routine, breaking out an arsenal of dropkicks and clotheslines. At one point, he flipped 360 degrees off one of the turnbuckles and landed perfectly flat, next to Triple H’s head, which he elbowed. It was a feat as skillful as anything Greg Louganis ever managed off a 3-meter diving platform.

When both men collapsed in exhaustion at the end, the crowd was waving handmade, pro-Booker T placards. But as Triple H feebly laid an arm on Booker T’s chest, the “referee” counted the face out instead of the heel.

Crestfallen adults and children could be seen in the crowd. These people had bought in. They were sure of the outcome, knowing it would be as sweet for Booker T. as for them.

And then … nothing. No silver lining.

Not that night.

“I found out about a week before the match that that’s how it was going to go down,” Huffman, 52, says now. “I had to make the crowd feel a certain way about a guy with a silver spoon in his mouth beating a guy who pretty much worked his way up from the trenches. I didn’t question it, argue it. I knew everyone wanted me to win. But I just went along with what they wanted.

“It was easier that way. If I didn’t go along, where would I really be now? Could I have done the things I’ve done, overcome the things I’ve overcome?”


Todd Spoth for The Undefeated

There are no victims here, only volunteers. This is a story about a professional wrestler who used an artificial sport to build a real life.

It’s about a kid who dropped out of high school before becoming a convicted felon, and the big brother who refused to let “Junior” throw his life away. He found a career and his second wife in the ring. And after vanquishing multiple fictional foes, he now wants to take on education and homelessness as the next mayor of Houston.

Booker T’s loss to Triple H that night crushed many fans because, perhaps more than anyone else in the wrestling business, his reality was so integrated with his ring character that it often was hard to distinguish between the man and the actor.

He grew up orphaned and poor. He caught no breaks early, got in his own way later and somehow still found a path to prosperity in a profession that mirrors and magnifies the best and worst in its heels, faces and audience.

His career blew up nearly 20 years ago after a seemingly innocuous visit with wrestler Diamond Dallas Page to a juvenile detention center. He debated that day whether to tell his actual life story or stick to clichés about hard work and keeping your head on straight. But when he noticed that some of the hard-knock kids were rolling their eyes at Page’s motivational speech, Huffman went all-in. He told those kids everything, down to the day he got out of prison.

Some teared up. Others sat there, wide-eyed. When he finished, they stood and applauded. Page was so moved he told Huffman he needed to tell his story through his character, that his odyssey was much better than anything wrestling’s scriptwriters could come up with.

“It’s funny, you know, they love to say how wrestling is so fake and made-up,” Lash Huffman said. “And the irony of the whole thing is, the best thing about my brother is his honesty. Junior is so honest.”

Booker T inside of the ring at his gym, Reality of Wrestling.

Todd Spoth for The Undefeated

The more his story was told, the more the lines blurred. Was this real or entertainment? Sport or theater? Is the scripted racism damaging or satire? Do the heels and faces of pro wrestling reflect the world, or are they a caricature of it?

In the end, those are false dichotomies: The answer is always yes.

It is sport and theater. It reflects society and is a caricature of it. The racism is harmless and hurtful.

Pro wrestling is entertainment and real — especially for a boy who lost his mom young.


Danny, Carolyn, Lula Gayle, Billie Jean, Donald, Lash, Bonita and the baby, Booker: Rosa Huffman had eight children by three different men. And every member of the family watched pro wrestling, including a 4-foot-6 grandmother who had an old mattress put in her backyard for her grandchildren to practice flapjack pins.

Booker’s father, said to be a serious man and a good provider, ran moonshine, gambled and worked legitimately at the local pool hall in Plain Dealing, Louisiana. Booker Jr. was just 10 months old when his father went to retrieve a block of ice for the pool hall and dropped dead of a stroke. He was 59.

Rosa Huffman couldn’t bear staying in Louisiana after her husband’s death. She moved the family to Houston, where she worked as a nurse and supported all eight children by herself.

But when she was just 49, Rosa fell through the ceiling onto her back and neck while trying to fix the kitchen fan. She kept telling her panicked children she would be OK. And she was, for a few months. But a second surgery to remove fluid from her spine left her in a coma.

After several weeks, she was taken off life support. Booker, 13, and Bonita, 16, lost the only responsible adult in their lives. The older siblings tried to play guardians for a while, but many were running the streets, bringing home drug people and others who left Booker and Bonita so afraid to go to sleep at night that they wedged a chair against the bedroom door handle. Lash, the third youngest, couldn’t take the madness. He moved to a friend’s house without telling his youngest siblings.

Soon, the chaos of their siblings’ lives scared Booker and Bonita into moving back into their mother’s crumbling apartment by themselves. When the water was shut off for lack of payment, they schlepped 5-gallon buckets to a service station up the street, filled them with water and lugged them back, the skin of both palms bloodied by the metal handles. Bonita says she and her brother used the water for drinking, bathing, dishwashing and “filling up the toilet so it would flush.”

“Lot of days we just ate one meal at school and went hungry at home,” Bonita recalled. “No social worker even knew we were there. I could see my brother upset about a lot of things at that point. He was angry.”

Booker took out his meager station in life on other neighborhood kids. Bonita never remembered her brother losing a fight. “He wasn’t a bully or anything like that. He just never backed down,” she said. “That was something I loved about him: You don’t run, you face it head-on.”

Booker T holds an old photo of himself and his brother Lash.

Todd Spoth for The Undefeated

At 17, he impregnated a 15-year-old girl, who kept the baby even though her high school beau stopped answering his phone when she called. Still, Booker got a job at Fiesta Mart to help support their boy and began lifting steaks and whatever else he could manage. He was fired soon after — not for stealing, but for trying to impersonate his sister Billie Jean, calling his manager in a comically high-pitched voice to say, “My brother isn’t feeling well and won’t be in today.”

Booker dropped out of school. Bonita had moved to Dallas for work, and none of his uncles or aunts wanted him staying with them. Every reservoir of familial goodwill had dried up, except for one.

He’d barely had a relationship with Lash in the four years since their mother had died. But Booker swallowed his pride and moved into the Willow Creek Apartments with his older brother, who told him he could stay if he got a job.

So working a mile and a half away, he began dropping frozen fries into hot oil, assembling burgers with cheese and filling cups of soft-serve ice cream. He didn’t exactly rock that red shirt and black cap. But with no diploma and a newborn son, Booker was happy to have a job at Wendy’s.


A few months later, he was transferred to a different Wendy’s across town, which meant he had to catch one bus, wait 30 minutes and transfer to another one to get to work each day. In no time, the job went from a needed employment opportunity to a dead-end gig.

Billie Jean hooked him up with her boyfriend, a prominent marijuana dealer, who routinely had pounds of cannabis on his dining room table. Booker began slinging $5 and $10 bags of marijuana on the side, often smoking most of his profit.

He saw less and less of Lash at home, falling in with a crew that included his childhood friend, Wendell Sylvester, and Zackery Claybourne, a streetwise brother who had been to prison for robbery. They began carousing the club scene, wearing matching Adidas suits and coming up with nicknames for themselves: Booker was Nature Boy (after wrestler Ric Flair), Zack was Z-Boy and Wendell became Mr. Big Stuff.

Booker and Zack both worked at the Gulfgate Mall Wendy’s off Telethon Road, where their manager kept riding them about overcooked fries, undercooked burgers and the need to scrub the rings of caked-on chili off the pots. Eventually, Zack quit and Booker was fired for not showing up.

One night as they all smoked up Booker’s sales, someone threw out an insane idea: “Why don’t we get some guns and rob Wendy’s?” It kept coming up over the next few weeks until they decided on the most wacked notion of all. Zack and Booker each had a few uniforms.

Let’s rob Wendy’s with our uniforms on.

Decades later, it’s still one of the city’s most brazen string of robberies. Pretty quickly, they stopped concealing their faces with stocking caps, walking into a restaurant with .38-caliber pistols and their work uniforms, often behind legitimate employees taking the trash out at closing time. Booker would wait outside in his aunt’s car.

Soon, the crime was less a rush than getting home in time to watch the local news — “Wendy’s Bandits Strike Again” at 11:01 p.m. Over the first three months of 1987, Booker and his friends had robbed 12 Wendy’s, stealing between $400 and $4,000 each time. In what would be their last holdup, Booker went into the restaurant with Zack and Wendell, pistols drawn.

Houston police issued a reward of $5,000 for information that would lead to their arrest. The ads began playing on a local “CrimeStoppers” segment, and one of the interested viewers was Zack’s girlfriend.

On what became his last day of freedom, Booker met Zack at McGregor Park, smoked and sold weed, and headed home around dusk. As he neared the front door of the unit he shared with Lash, he sensed an eerie quiet.

Police officers in SWAT gear had him on the ground and cuffed in seconds. Booker feigned ignorance at first, but he was picked from a police lineup by witnesses who remembered him from the night he went into the Wendy’s for the robbery.

Within months, Booker, Zack and Wendell were in separate 6-by-8-foot cells at the Texas State Penitentiary at Huntsville – Walls Unit. Named for its brick facade, Walls Unit was where all convicted felons were processed through the state’s penal system. It also housed the state’s execution chamber.

Huffman recalled something his mother once told him: “Junior, you know right from wrong. There’s no gray area in between. If you don’t stop, you’ll end up dead or in jail.”

At 22 years old, he was 1 for 2.


Todd Spoth for The Undefeated

Good behavior allowed Booker to serve just 19 months of consecutive five-year sentences for armed robbery and aggravated assault. Sylvester, by contrast, said he served 9½ years of a 22-year sentence.

Though Booker’s lying killed much of the trust Lash had in him, Lash knew his younger brother wasn’t a career criminal. He told Booker, “I’ll help you get back on your feet. But whatever you do — sweeping floors, washing dishes, digging ditches — you gotta pay your dues and walk a straight line.”

He got a job at American Mini Storage, completing his parole and getting custody of his son, Brandon, 6, who had been turned over to child protective services because his mother was unable to care for him. A part of him missed his old life: the partying, the chaos, the sense he could go buck wild at any moment. But that world couldn’t compare with microwaving Ramen noodles, adding chicken, cheese and crumbled-up crackers, and sharing dinner with his son.

As a lark one afternoon in 1989, Lash went by a small wrestling school in Houston owned by Ivan Putski, the bodybuilder/wrestler whose duels with the Iron Sheik and Jesse Ventura fueled the sport in the 1970s and ’80s. He simply then said to Booker, “Let’s start rasslin’.”

Booker thought he was joking at first, but Lash kept going. “Man, we’ve been fans for so long, and we both need something more in our lives. We’ve both got size, we’re athletic and we’ve got personality off the f— charts!”

Lash said it would cost $3,000, and Booker sulked. He didn’t have that kind of money anymore. But his boss at the storage company, Bruce Gasarch, gave Booker a $3,000 bonus and told him to make him proud.


“Cowboy” Scott Casey, a former World Wrestling Federation star, mentored Booker at Putski’s school. He also came up with his first character at the time the Gulf War had begun: “G.I. Bro, America’s greatest hero.”

Lash was given the character name “Stevie Ray,” and within two years they were on their way to Dallas and the Sportatorium for their first tag team match. Booker wrestled on the Texas Independent Circuit for two more years and kept the job at the storage company until Ted Turner’s World Championship Wrestling signed him for $70,000. Booker left for Atlanta and a life he’d dreamed about as a kid.

“It was an escape for me,” he said. “I had been in prison. I had lost my parents at a young age. I had no high school diploma.

“I finally found something that I really did very, very well. It was like, ‘Wow, I’m better than everybody else at this.’ I’m serious. It was like that. I knew I was better than everybody else. I had done theater and been a drum major for a while in high school. Then when I found wrestling, it was like déjà vu. Like, ‘Man, I’ve done this before in another life.’ ”

In 2000, wrestling’s once-dominant organization, World Championship Wrestling, was in a no-holds-barred battle royal with its rising competitor, the World Wrestling Federation. The WCW decided to pit its world heavyweight champion Jeff Jarrett against Booker T at the end of the season’s tour in Daytona Beach, Florida, in a card titled “Bash at the Beach.”

For the first time in his solo career, it was decided Booker T would emerge with the belt — the exact one (sans a few missing gemstones) that his childhood hero, Flair, had once worn. But in a bizarre turn of events, Hulk Hogan went off script. He had creative control written into his contract. And on the evening of the event, he told the WCW brass he wanted to be champion.

A poster of Booker T wearing the WCW World Championship belt inside of his home gym.

Todd Spoth for The Undefeated

Organizers were furious. But they created a storyline where Jarrett lay down in the ring with the belt at his side. Hogan, looking equally angry, circled the ring with a microphone and called the WCW a “bulls— organization” before half-heartedly climbing atop Jarrett. The referee counted to three for the pin and the lights went down. This was all part of the show, but it was followed by an unusual turn: WCW head writer Vince Russo coming to the ring and launching into a five-minute tirade aimed at Hogan, calling the wrestling legend a “god damn politician,” among other epithets.

Later in the evening, Booker T’s music began playing and everything restarted. Jarrett came out as if he was still champion, and he and Booker T performed the heel-face dance to perfection. For the first time in his individual ring career, Booker T was a heavyweight champion of the world.

No pro wrestler actually wins his title in the ring, of course. The decision is made backstage or weeks before by company presidents and scriptwriters. But once the belt is bestowed on you, it means your employer believes you are ready to be its most important ambassador. WCW believed an African-American with a backstory better than any they could write would sell. And Booker T sold.

Although promoters often wanted him to play a stereotype, he made a conscious decision to try for crossover appeal. He refused suggestions that his walk-up music be gangsta rap. He enunciated all his words. The only from-the-’hood line he used was his trademark slogan, “Can you dig it, sucka?”

“If I was wrestling a white guy and he was a good guy, they would cheer for him and boo me if I was a stereotypical black guy,” he said. “But me not being the stereotypical black guy, I can get away with it and be cheered just as much as him.

“They were cheering for Booker T — not the black guy coming out from the curtain.”

It wasn’t exactly “I’m not black, I’m O.J.” But for many people in the crowd, he seemed like a good guy with a remarkable backstory, and they were happy to cheer for this black man.

Booker realized how famous he had become one night in 1995 at the Sands Hotel in Las Vegas. He was eating a steak dinner when an older gentleman interrupted him. “Are you Booker T? My kids love you. You mind if I take a picture with you?”

Booker did a double take. Frankie Valli of the Four Seasons knows who I am?

“You know why the fans were sad [about the Triple H loss]?” he said. “Because I touched them. And that doesn’t happen very often in this business, where someone of color can make them feel that way. I always worked on emotion. On telling my real story. My goal was to make them cry.”

A year after he was made champion, the WCW was taken over by the WWF and rechristened World Wrestling Entertainment. Huffman signed on. More than a decade after Putski’s wrestling school, he was now contractually obligated to WWE CEO Vince McMahon.


Todd Spoth for The Undefeated

It’s been 14 years since his Wrestlemania loss to Triple H. You want Huffman to be angry, resentful even, that McMahon and his writers wouldn’t let his character win that night.

He’s not.

“I never lost a wink of sleep over that,” he said. “Let all the fans know because they ask me about it all the time. They wanted Booker T to win the title more than I wanted to win myself.”

Triple H, he said, “was just playing his part, however f—– up that part looked.” At the time, Triple H denied any bigotry on his part, saying, “Why would anybody think I am a racist? Did I ever mention the word ‘black’?

Asked for comment, a WWE spokesman responded with this statement: “WWE is committed to embracing and celebrating individuals from all backgrounds as demonstrated by the diversity of our employees, performers and fans worldwide. Just like other TV shows and movies, our entertainment programming features fictional characters who play the role of protagonists and antagonists. Over the years, WWE storytelling has evolved along with the social landscape, and today WWE offers family-friendly, PG-rated programming.”

“They used me and I used them — that’s how I looked at it,” Huffman says now. “I was never down with being the stereotypical brother, and I made sure of that as my career went on.

“But at some point, you also realize white guys invented the sport and still control it. If you want to work, you gotta play by their rules and sometimes be who they want you to be.”

Perhaps that’s how you last in an entertainment genre that routinely traffics in ugly stereotypes about African-Americans.

One in which Rowdy Roddy Piper once pretended to feed bananas to a poster of Mr. T, saying he would “whip him like a slave.” And Ventura used to refer to black wrestler Koko B. Ware (James Ware) as “Buckwheat.” Kamala (Jim Harris) was billed as an almost-mute African savage. Tony Atlas was remade into Saba Simba, replete with shield, spear, headdress and a cringe-inducing “tribal” dance.

When Lash and Booker came to the WCW in 1993, their storyline called for them to play two convicts, won in a card game by cigar-chomping, seersucker-wearing manager/plantation owner Col. Robert Parker. At some of their first shows, the Huffmans dressed in prison jumpsuits and leg shackles because that’s what their white bosses thought would sell. Naming a modern tag team composed of two African-Americans Cryme Tyme seems almost benign in comparison.

Moralizing about it, expecting cultural enrichment and organic diversity is like expecting NASCAR fans to lower those LDL numbers. It’s the world of the Tonga Kid, the Mad Hungarian and an Asian-American man with perfect diction called Mr. Fugi, who practiced speaking broken English. Every minority is crudely stereotyped in the squared circle.

“Understand the only thing that has ever been real for me with wrestling is the entertainment and the performance in front of the crowd,” Huffman said. “In the end, it was all a show. … If it was real, I would have been one-time heavyweight champion because I would have beat up everybody.”

Late in his career, as a heel named King Booker, Huffman won the now-retired WWE World Heavyweight Championship, a belt the company created in 2002 for its Smackdown and Raw brands. But since the WWE’s origin in 1963, through 50 champions and more than 130 belt changes, no African-American has won its highest-profile title, the WWE World Championship. John Cena had 13 title reigns. Triple H had nine. The Rock (Dwayne Johnson, whose mother is Samoan and whose father is African-Canadian) held the title nine times.

“It’s still the one title that no [African-American] has ever won,” Booker said as we ate lunch at a Tex-Mex restaurant in Houston, a few hundred yards from his Reality of Wrestling training gym. (He has another facility an hour south of town where wrestling shows are taped for TV, and he also promotes boxing and MMA cards.)

“Why I never won it? Look, it’s their company. It’s almost like, I went to play a pickup game at the park. The one kid who’s got the basketball, he may be an OK player but maybe not the best player. But he’s on the team. It’s his ball. If I’m not a big person about that, I’m going home.”

It’s worth noting that Booker still works for WWE, where Levesque is now an executive vice president, as an announcer on Monday Night Raw. Booker never slammed the WWE for its decades of race-baiting. But then, how could he when he never objected to playing his part in the wincing black-white bits?

He played Triple H’s victim during that racially loaded promo. A few years later, he and Sharmell, his stage partner and real-life wife, conveniently stood off to the side as McMahon called John Cena “my n—–.” (“Tell me … he didn’t just say that?” Booker responds in what he acknowledges is one of his worst acting jobs. “I got so much grief for that from the black community. Part of the show.”) One time, he used the N-word himself while talking about Hulk Hogan during a promo, although he later acknowledged it was a mistake.

He retired as a full-time wrestler in 2012 and officially in 2016. With distance comes perspective.

“Look at these poor cats, New Day,” he said, referring to a current black tag team, a three-person outfit allowed to keep the two-man title under the “Freebird rule.” (Because why wouldn’t you have three black men following a rule named for three whites who once showed up for a match at Comiskey Park in Chicago with their faces painted as Confederate flags?)

“They’re the new token black guys,” Huffman said. “It’s as racist as it’s always been, most black wrestlers still being put in the back seat. I just never spent too much energy on it, other than not getting my total just due as being a champion, which I deserved.

“I woulda been a great champion, great ambassador. I know I would have.”

Does he get to play both sides of this fence? On his way up, Booker permitted wrestling to use his race. Now that it’s over, he gets reflective.

Was he genuinely hurt by his profession’s racism or not? Again, it’s a false choice.

He cared and he didn’t care. He didn’t care what sold the product. But he did care that he had to play by rules that kept him in the box labeled “Black Guys.”


“I look forward to having a dialogue with the voters of Houston, and if I am so privileged to serve, I will fight for them as hard as I have fought for myself and my family over the last 30 years,

— Booker T. Huffman’s Twitter account, December 2016

“You’re a mess,” Booker says to his 6-year-old son, Kendrick.

“You’re a mess, Dad,” Kendrick says back.

“Yeah, Daddy, you’re a mess,” echoes his twin sister, Kennedy.

Booker never really retired from wrestling. He just went into business as a suburban father. His pectorals and arms are still Royal Rumble-ready. He does 400 pushups each morning, not out of vanity as much as to ensure a 52-year-old father of young twins remains on this side of the soil as long as possible. (Brandon, now 33, had his own trouble with the law growing up. He lives in Houston and works in marketing.)

Booker T speaks on the phone while his twins, Kennedy and Kendrick, play on his shoulders.

Todd Spoth for The Undefeated

The felony conviction from 30 years ago still follows him. When he began traveling for wrestling shows internationally, Booker was frequently questioned by immigration agents. He had trouble at first getting a liquor license for his venue that hosts wrestling shows and boxing cards. And he needs a pardon from the governor before he can legally be a candidate on the November 2019 ballot.

“The paperwork is already in,” Booker said. His three personal references: Stephanie McMahon, Vince’s daughter, Triple H’s wife and the chief brand officer of WWE; Joanne Herring, the Texas socialite who persuaded the U.S. government to train and arm the Afghan mujahedeen fighters during the Soviet war on U.S. Rep. Charlie Wilson’s behalf; and Gasarch, his former boss who lent him the money for wrestling school.

Incumbent Sylvester Turner, an African-American Democrat, was a longtime member of the Texas Legislature before winning the mayor’s office in 2016 on his third attempt. Booker has yet to declare a political party, but he’s serious about his campaign. He’s hired an aide and an adviser to help formulate a platform.

Houston’s growing homeless problem, inspiring the city’s youth and fixing its educational system are his first priorities.

“You’ve got to go to the young people and look at it from their perspective,” he said. “We’ve heard forever, ‘Respect your elders,’ and it’s made us help little old ladies across the street and pay attention to our senior citizens. But I’ve never heard one time, throughout my 52 years, someone say, ‘Respect your young people.’

“We’ve got these classrooms of 40 kids, and it’s so disruptive the kids can’t learn anything. My mother-in-law works in the school district. She sees it daily. Something needs to be done about that. I’m not against public schooling, but I feel like the money that’s going into public schools needs to be appropriated properly.”

No Houston media outlet has taken the town’s temperature over the 2019 election, so it’s hard to say whether Booker’s candidacy will be received well. But he says with conviction, “I think I can win. I’ll get the young vote, the millennial vote.

“Sylvester Turner, Harvard [Law School] grad. He’s a very smart guy. But it’s not about him. It’s about my legacy, how many people I can help while I’m on this earth. Thing about it is, if I win I win, and if I lose I win. It’s not about just winning. It’s about getting off my couch and doing something.”

Maybe 20 years ago, the idea of a pro wrestler becoming mayor of a major American city might have been politically fraught. But we are in the post-Ventura, Arnold Schwarzenegger world now. A reality show host is our nation’s president. Why would we think Booker T can’t win? He’s already completed an apprenticeship of what it takes to move the masses in America.

“I pretty much made some dirt when I was a kid and made sure I got a big broom as an adult so I could sweep it,” he said, laughing. “I’m still sweeping to clean it up.”

Almost exactly 30 years after his robbery conviction, he still has nightmares of that swarm of police in riot gear. Strangely, there is also gratitude for those 19 months in prison, a reminder of the 336 months of freedom that followed.

A few years ago, he was contracted to give a speech to a group of wealthy Houston residents and wondered what he could say to motivate millionaires. “They’re already rich.”

He decided to tell the story of the Wendy’s Bandits feeling young and invincible before their fall. They gave him a standing ovation, unaware that Booker had a surprise for them.

“I want to introduce you to Wendell,” he said, pointing to a man immaculately dressed in fine Italian wool like many of the others in the room.

Booker had run into Sylvester at a gas station. He had no job, hadn’t shaved in weeks and looked hungry. Booker got him cleaned up and asked if he would accompany him to the speech.

Sylvester, who says he’s been straight since he got out of prison in 1995, now works as a driver for a trucking company. Although Booker says he wanted to keep helping him, the two men have since lost touch.

We want a world of bright lines. Heels and faces. But that’s not real life. It’s not the wrestling world, either. Both are messy. Complicated. Good and bad are mixed together, and both can be profitable for anyone willing to play their part.

Can you dig it, sucka?

‘Queen Sugar’s’ second season explores a fraught mix of family and historical legacy Halfway through season two, we’re wondering what happens when the Bordelons fight back

Family legacy and the legacy of race in the South are the compelling — and intermingling — themes midway through the second season of Queen Sugar.

That’s an ambitious load, especially considering a series of adjustments for the widely lauded OWN drama: There’s a new showrunner in Monica Macer to free up day-to-day obligations for executive producer Ava DuVernay. And the show is now wandering farther away from the Natalie Baszile novel that inspired it.

Last week’s episode gave us one big startling revelation, but there’s plenty of unresolved conflict still simmering. So far, we’ve witnessed Charley Bordelon (Dawn-Lyen Gardner) powering through some serious upheaval. She’s divorcing her husband, she’s opened the first black-owned mill in the fictional St. Josephine’s Parish, and she’s struggling to help her teenage son, Micah (Nicholas L. Ashe), after a harrowing encounter with a police officer. Meanwhile, her sister Nova (Rutina Wesley) is second-guessing how much their late father accepted her decision to eschew a husband and children to throw herself into journalism. Their brother, Ralph Angel (Kofi Siriboe), has been desperately trying to grasp some independence for himself now that he and the rest of the family know their father, Earnest, intended to leave the Bordelon farm solely to him, thanks to a letter Earnest left that contradicts his will.

Alfonso Bresciani/ ©2016 Warner Bros. Entertainment

On its face, it’s easy to identify how Queen Sugar is wrestling with ideas of legacy. In the wake of Earnest’s death, Charley poured her energy into opening the Queen Sugar mill as a way to honor him. But that’s a bit of a ruse. After Ralph Angel confronts the family with Earnest’s letter, which leaves the family farm entirely to him rather than split between the three siblings, Charley is reeling. She tells a magazine reporter profiling her that she honestly doesn’t know what Earnest would think of her efforts. Opening the mill has provided Charley with an escape from having to deal with her divorce, her son’s post-traumatic stress disorder and her burgeoning relationship with Remy Newell (Dondre Whitfield).

There’s another legacy Queen Sugar is examining, one that’s less obvious than the land and independence Earnest left his family and far more compelling. Remember, the Bordelon farmland used to belong to a white family, the Landrys, who are eager to buy it back. The Bordelon ancestors used to belong to the Landrys too. DuVernay uses the antebellum connection between the two families to explore legacies of slavery, racial terrorism and emotional violence wrought against black people in Louisiana. Since it debuted, Queen Sugar has repeatedly revisited the concept of invasion into black spaces, whether it’s the repo man who comes to take Earnest’s tractor, police coming to search Bordelon property at night, or showing up again to question the ownership of a rifle, which Ralph Angel can’t have because he’s been convicted of a crime, or Landry deploying a drone to the Bordelon farm.

The Landrys and law enforcement are the two most obvious remnants of the Jim Crow-era South. That’s why the scenes of hostile white people showing up to Bordelon land to take something that’s not theirs — either people, property or both — engender the same feelings of panic and tension you get from watching night riders or the Klan accosting black people on TV and film.

Skip Bolen / @2016 Warner Bros. Entertainment Inc. All Rights Reserved

The feud with the Landrys is fertile ground, and not just because of the echoes of racial implications that still ring true in Louisiana today. The parts of the show that set me most on edge are the ones with Samuel Landry (David Jensen), even as the two-dimensional villain he is. Because of the enormous wealth the Landrys possess, they effectively control the St. Jo’s sugar market. With the only mill in the parish, they have a monopoly on grinding cane, and they use that monopoly to financially subjugate the area’s black farmers.

Charley and the Queen Sugar mill hold out the promise of a better deal for the farmers. Landry doesn’t take it well and deploys a drone to spy on the Bordelon farm. Ralph Angel discovered it when it crashed into his young son, Blue (Ethan Hutchison). The scene was deeply unnerving, both because of Blue’s already-established vulnerability and because the drone’s presence was such a contumelious intrusion of privacy. It was such an effective disruption of the calm, quiet and relative safety that rural living can provide that I wondered if it was fair to designate its use a form of high-tech terrorism. Who needs white hoods and burning crosses when you’ve got unmanned cameras and a private prison system eager to make money off the missteps of black people?

Ralph Angel’s status as a parolee continues to hang over his head — one wrong move and he’s back in prison, a weakness Landry is happy to exploit. For now he’s safe, but I have a feeling the second half of the season will get even more difficult for Ralph Angel.

But perhaps nothing is as awful as the revelation of what happened to Micah after a police officer pulled him over as he was driving his new Porsche.

In a gut-wrenching eighth-episode scene with his father, Davis (Timon Kyle Durrett), Micah reveals that the officer who stopped him didn’t take him directly to the parish lockup. Instead, he drove past it, pulled into a darkened alley, forced the barrel of his gun into Micah’s mouth and pulled the trigger.

Micah left jail without so much as a scratch on his body, but he was so shaken by the experience that he’s barely been recognizable to his parents since he was arrested. That’s how Queen Sugar examines a legacy of emotional violence and terrorism. The white people of St. Josephine’s Parish like their power, and they don’t want to let it go. But they’re smart, too, and their relationship to the black people of the parish can resemble that of an abuser toying with a victim. Sometimes it’s enough to simply flex the power that you have to send someone’s life off course, without ever firing a bullet. That’s something that the Landrys and the officer who arrested Micah know and are happy to exploit.

The midpoint of season two leaves us wondering: What happens when the Bordelons fight back?