Booker T was never really supposed to wrestle Triple H 15 years ago at WrestleMania 19 for the World Heavyweight Championship. It seemed like the stars were aligning for a newly-signed Scott Steiner to be the challenger. But a combination of poor performances, injuries, and age forced WWE to rush through the feud at Royal Rumble and abandon the Steiner/HHH matchup, which left Triple H without a logical challenger. So when a number one contender battle royal took place on the February 24th edition of Monday Night Raw, it seemed like the most likely new opponent would be a returning Rock. Needless to say, it came as a shock when Booker tossed the People’s Champion over the top rope to earn his spot at the World Heavyweight Title.
Booker’s push to the title picture, while shocking, was deserved. He’d proven himself in WCW as a five-time champion. He main evented SummerSlam against the aforementioned Rock, had an unforgettable and iconic grocery store fight with Steve Austin, and had single-handedly turned a simple breakdancing move into one of the more popular acts in all of professional wrestling.
By 2003, Booker was hitting on all cylinders as a babyface performer and was extremely popular. Still, it wasn’t clear that he should have beaten a champion like Triple H, and if not for the angle leading up to WrestleMania, a Booker T loss wouldn’t have been that big of a deal. But given the context of the build-up, what happened at ‘Mania is inexcusable.
To lead up to that match, WWE went forward with an angle that transcends the idea of harmlessness. For WrestleMania 19, Triple H and WWE buried Booker T under weeks of racist epithets and barely-coded language before pinning the five-time WCW champion clean in the middle of the ring. The build-up to the match was so racist that it almost promised us a championship moment for Booker T and black wrestlers in general at WrestleMania. 15 years later, that promise has largely still been unfulfilled.
In 2003, Triple H was a dominant champion who was in the middle of putting together Evolution with Randy Orton, Dave Batista and Ric Flair. It was Hunter’s most dominant year, but also the one he’s most scrutinized for. He headed into 2003 coming off of an angle where he called Kane a rapist, then ended an episode of Raw by having sex with a mannequin in a casket. This was followed by the aforementioned barely-watchable matches with Scott Steiner. He’d close 2003 with disappointing matches with Goldberg and Kevin Nash. It was during this time that the legend of Triple H as someone who buried his opponents by berating them in the ring while lobbying for wins with those in charge started to grow., fairly or unfairly. And right in the middle of it all was his travesty with Booker T.
The first face-to-face confrontation between the champ and challenger on Raw set the stage for what would be an angle based on racial overtones. The promo started with a tirade by HHH that can’t be described as anything but racist:
“I think you’re a little bit confused about your role in life here. You’re going to get to go to WrestleMania, but the fact is, Booker … somebody like you doesn’t get to be a world champion. People like you don’t deserve it. That’s reserved for people like me. That’s where the confusion is. You’re not here to be a competitor. You’re here to be an entertainer. That’s what you do. You entertain people. Hell, you entertain me all the time. Go ahead, do a little dance for me. Go ahead. Give me one of those Spinaroonies. Entertain me. That’s your job. Don’t be embarrassed. You’re here to make people like me laugh. With your nappy hair and your ‘suckas.’ Hell, I was laughing all week long after you won that battle royal.”
It’s all there. The coded language of “people like you” vs. “people like me.” The idea that the black wrestler is there to dance for the white wrestler. If you want to plausibly deny the implicit racism there, fine. But there’s no getting around calling Booker’s hair “nappy.” None.
Triple H would double down in the following weeks as the storyline revolved around Booker T’s very real arrest and three months spent in jail stemming from an armed robbery arrest when he was a teenager. The arrest became a bullhorn for Booker not being cut out to be champ. Hunter would then go so far as to suggest that Booker needs to carry his bags and wear a chauffeur hat.
All of this, of course, is Racist Promo 101. Triple H is the villain, and if he wants to be truly despicable, being an irredeemable racist falls under that umbrella. Hunter spent much of 2003 paying homage to Ric Flair. He revived a popular bounty angle with Goldberg. He created a makeshift Four Horseman. And in many ways, his promo work about Booker mimicked a lot of what Flair did when he went to small towns in the deep south and berated people like Butch Reed and Junkyard Dog. And that’s totally fine, really. It’s racism within the confines of a storyline, which isn’t any different from DiCaprio playing Mr. Candy in Django Unchained. But this only works as long as, in the end, the racist gets his comeuppance — or at the very least, said racism is presented as hateful and inaccurate.
That didn’t happen at WrestleMania 19. Instead, Triple H won relatively fair and square, ending with Booker T getting pinned, laying flat on the mat for nearly 30 seconds waiting for Triple H to pin him after a Pedigree — all while Jerry Lawler is deep into his bag of racist jokes. On paper, there’s nothing really wrong with the idea of keeping the title on Triple H, but when he is using his racial superiority to justify his victory, there’s no way to defend him winning.
Booker never got a rematch.
The ending to the match, with the storyline racist triumphant, validated everything he said about Booker leading up to the event. Triple H winning showed that yes, he was fundamentally better than Booker. He was better, and “guys like” Booker T just didn’t win championships. What should have been a crowning moment for Booker T and black wrestlers overall ended up being a celebration of racist rhetoric that had been used for a month to disparage a man who deserved better.
15 years later, the Triple H vs. Booker T debacle is still a sore spot for black fans. And what makes it all worse is the fact that WrestleMania has failed to give black wrestlers the showcases they deserve. The Rock is the only black wrestler to headline WrestleMania (Mr. T and Lawrence Taylor notwithstanding) — the last time he did so was five years ago.
This year promises to be more of the same: New Day will be in a tag title match, while Naomi and Sasha Banks are going to be in the WrestleMania Women’s Battle Royal. Titus O’Neil and Apollo will be doing who knows what. There isn’t a black champion on the horizon and there damn sure doesn’t seem like there’s any black wrestler primed to headline a WrestleMania any time soon. The closest is probably Sasha Banks, who has the added obstacle of being a woman to add to the reasons her getting that chance is a long shot.
“You’re not here to be a competitor. You’re here to be an entertainer.”
It’s the part of Triple H’s promo that I keep coming back to. The idea that black wrestlers are there for entertainment and not for actual winning. I can’t help but think that reflects the actual front office idea for black wrestlers, especially when it comes to the company’s most prized titles. After all, Mark Henry, who is getting inducted into the Hall Of Fame this weekend, is the last black wrestler to compete for the world title on a pay-per-view, doing so five years ago. At this rate, I wouldn’t be surprised if N-word-spouting Hulk Hogan is welcomed back before we see a black wrestler hold up the world title to close out a ‘Mania.
All this goes back to that fateful WrestleMania 19 night. Where one wrestler’s blackness went from a point of pride to a target of hateful rhetoric. And instead of allowing him to overcome that hatred, he was made to succumb to it. On the biggest stage wrestling has to offer. Fifteen years later, we still haven’t seen much in the way of retribution for that loss. It’s a moment that hangs over WrestleMania’s head no matter how many years and unfulfilled promises pass by.
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