Booker T on winning WWE title for first time: "I had about 10 minutes to prepare to go out and become world champion."

By Justin Barrasso
January 10, 2018

SI.com’s Week in Wrestling is published every Wednesday and provides beneath the surface coverage of the business of pro wrestling.

News of the Week: Booker T sets sights on becoming next mayor of Houston

The year 2018 has started as contentiously and divisively as its predecessor, particularly when it comes to race relations in the United States. Pro wrestling remains a piece of the fabric of American society, and race also plays an important role in wrestling.

The Rock, who is half-Samoan and half-African American, is the only African American to ever wear the WWE title. Booker T and Mark Henry were world heavyweight champions in WWE, but never wore the company’s signature belt.

WWE recognizes Ron Simmons winning the WCW world title in 1992 as the first time an African American won a professional wrestling world championship, and first in WCW until Booker T won the title in 2000.

“There was a question in my mind, because I am black, if the fans would accept a black world champion,” said Booker Huffman, better known as Booker T, who first captured the WCW world title in 2000 at Bash at the Beach over Jeff Jarrett. “Bash at the Bash was a topsy-turvy night. Finally, when the 1-2-3 came, the fans erupted. All my questions were answered; they really did want to see me win.”

Booker T admitted to dealing with anxiety and stress while worrying if he would be cheered upon winning the world title, noting that there were scarce examples of African American men winning the world title for him to view as a reference.

“I wrestled once already that night, and then I was told to get ready for another match,” said Huffman. “I had about 10 minutes to prepare to go out and become world champion.

“Preparation is the only luck you’re ever going to have in life. If you’re not prepared, someone else is going to take that spot. I remember my first pay per view in WCW. I was in the ring in the main event with Vader, Sid Vicious, Dustin Rhodes, Sting, and Luger. I remember Vader asked me, ‘You ready for this?’ The night I won the world title, more than anything, I was prepared.’”

Race did not deter Booker T in wrestling, as fans embraced his charisma, work ethic in the ring, and overall ability. He eventually wore the title on five different occasions, and credits former WWE and WCW creative writer Vince Russo for first believing in him as world champion.

“Vince Russo stuck up for me in WCW when it came down to who should be world champ,” said Huffman. “From what I’ve heard, there was a meeting and Russo stood up for me. I would not be six-time world champion if it were not for Vince Russo. I would not even be one-time world champion if it weren’t for Vince Russo.”

Outside of wrestling, Booker T is 52-year-old Booker Huffman. In addition to his wrestling pedigree and commentary every week on Raw, he is also a husband and father of three, including twins, and has set his sights on capturing the 2019 mayoral election in Houston.

“I want the citizens of Houston to see my heart,” said Huffman. “The parts of life that drive me are getting that homeless person off the street and helping people receive the education they deserve. I want to be able to help the ones that want the help, but also guide the ones who don’t so they are also in a better position.”

Huffman is not the favorite to win the election, but he is comfortable with his role as the perpetual underdog.

Part of this status was his own doing; Huffman grew up in a difficult South Park neighborhood in Houston and was arrested at the age of 22 after pleading guilty to armed robberies at Wendy’s restaurants in Houston. He served 19 months for his crime.

“I want the citizens in Houston to know that you might be in a tough situation, but that does not determine whether you will always stay in that situation,” said Huffman. “I found myself committing a crime, getting convicted and going to prison. There are dues to pay after that. I had to gain trust all over again and rebuild myself.

“You need to be able to pick yourself up, and I learned about resiliency and perseverance. How do we tackle life, day by day? I want to help people tackle another day for their family, and our future generations need us to learn how to resolve problems.”

Huffman shared that his goal is to involve the youth of Houston in his campaign.

“How many times have you heard, ‘Respect your elders’?” he asked. “Quite a lot, I certainly hope. But how many times have you ever heard, ‘Respect the young people’? Now that’s a problem.

“Young people can solve problems better than a lot of the old guard, and we need to tap into it. I want to create a ‘Young Person’s Summit.’ What changes do we need to make? I want young people to also be part of that process.”

Huffman would be dynamic in a public debate, as he refuses to shy away from often-difficult topics, including race and inequality. He believes that sunlight is a disinfectant and shining a light on issues opens the way for dialogue.

“I’m the source of strength people can draw from,” said Huffman. “That all starts with the fact that I do not stereotype myself.”

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Shining a light on racial inequalities, which stood as a critical issue in the United States even decades before President Abraham Lincoln delivered the Gettysburg Address in 1864, is also an important part of Huffman’s platform.

“You go back to the North and South in the Civil War–it was all about race,” said Huffman. “Race and racism are topics we are going to discuss until the end of time. Racism is something that is taught. We, as a people, need to work to get past that.”

Huffman noted that he was lucky throughout life to have a brother in Stevie Ray who also had his best interests at heart, as well as a mentor in Vince McMahon. Huffman would like to be that same advocate for the people of Houston.

“I never had to worry about watching my back, so I could go out and focus on performing at the highest level I possibly could,” said Huffman. “My brother was always there to watch my back. I remember Mike Awesome gave me a power-bomb one time that took me out for three months. I heard about my brother cornering him in the shower; he wanted to kill him. That’s the kind of brother I have. He’s always been pushing for me.

“I’ve also learned a lot just by watching Vince McMahon conduct himself. Vince is also a father and a grandfather, but people rarely see those sides. He’s been a father figure and a mentor to me over the past 15 years. I want to protect the people and serve as a mentor, just like people have done for me.”

Looking back on his career, Booker noted that another highlight of his career took place at the 40-man Royal Rumble in January of 2011 when he returned to WWE after a sojourn in TNA.

“It wasn’t about coming back to win the Rumble, I haven’t won any of those,” said a smiling Booker T. “Those matches weren’t my forte, but this was one of those moments that reminded me of when I first won the world championship. Fans were so happy.

“My hand was trembling like crazy when I came out of the curtain, and there was a huge pop. I was like, ‘Is Rock behind me or something?’ It was one of the best nights I could have ever had. Totally unexpected, but I loved every minute of it.”

****

While preparing for tomorrow’s Zero Hour show, Major League Wrestling CEO Court Bauer took a moment out of his schedule to fantasy book the upcoming Royal Rumble.

Bauer, who worked with the WWE creative team from 2005-2007, noted that a wild card for this year’s Rumble is its location in Philadelphia, home to an often demanding and unforgiving crowd.

“The Rumble is the beginning of a really interesting year for WWE, beginning with Brock Lesnar in a contract year,” noted Bauer. “The Rumble is also back in Philadelphia, which is a crowd that rejected Roman Reigns in 2015 even with The Rock giving him the biggest endorsement you can get. So I don’t anticipate Roman Reigns winning, but I see Batista returning as a surprise, winning the Rumble, and setting his course for WrestleMania in New Orleans.”

Bauer, who has been remarkable in his ability to bring WWE-like sponsors to MLW, including Totino’s and Lagunitas Brewing Company, noted that the timing is serendipitous for a Batista return.

“He’s done really well with some of his recent movies, with roles in Guardians of the Galaxy and Blade Runner 2049, and he has a window here to return,” said Bauer. “Six or eight months ago, given how outspoken he was about WWE, this would have been very unlikely–but the Royal Rumble would be a really interesting place to see the return of Dave Bautista.”

MLW’s Zero Hour, which takes place tomorrow in Orlando at the Gilt Nightclub, is a show ripe with main-event caliber matches.

“It’s a card filled with the old Gorilla Monsoon proverbial, ‘This match could be a main event anywhere in the world,’” said Bauer. “If you look at the ‘Death Match’ featuring Jimmy Havoc vs. Shane Strickland, that is our main event and could also be a main event in London. Penta vs. Rey Fenix could be a main event in LA or Mexico City, and then there is Low Ki vs. MVP, which is a match between two guys who were both in New Japan and WWE, so there is a lot of star power.

“There is also Matt Riddle and Matt Lawlor in a six-man tag, and these are two guys who could have main-evented a card from the UFC. Riddle is also a perennial main-eventer around the world today. This is the most stacked card we’ve ever put together, and that goes back to when I put cards together from 2002 to 2004 with Terry Funk, Steve Corino, CM Punk, and Daniel Bryan.”

The lineup of the Zero Hour card and its match quality is extremely compelling, and MLW’s storylines are continuing to build through Bauer’s nuanced booking.

MLW provides the satisfaction of a great match, as well as the next chapter in a saga that will start the road to the MLW championship tournament that is set to begin in February.

“We want this to be a living, breathing world,” said Bauer. “It’s part of the connective tissue of MLW and our podcast network. Our slogan is, ‘The world of MLW never stops,’ and we really, truly want that for our league. Every day, our YouTube page is full of new content from guys like Darby Allin, MVP, Stokely Hathaway, and Jimmy Havoc. We’re trying to create something that is distinctly different and use our resources to our advantage.The fusion of MLW wrestling styles–from finesse to Lucha Libre to brawling to super heavyweights to strong style–will be aired on MLW.tv 72 hours after the event on Thursday.

“We offer variety, which is missing from wrestling,” said Bauer. “Plus, Tony Schiavone is calling the action. For $4.99, how can you go wrong?”

In other news…

• EVOLVE champion Zack Sabre Jr. has returned to the United States and will defend his title against Darby Allin this Saturday at EVOLVE 98 in Queens, New York.

Sabre Jr. is so prolific on the mat that he is known as the “Technical Wizard,” but he is also multi-dimensional in matches, willing to lock up with brawlers and mix it up with those who specialize in aerial assaults.

NXT’s William Regal challenged Darby Allin to have a breakout 2018, and Sabre was asked if Saturday’s match-up with Allin, who can be unpredictable in the ring, worries him.

“I think some of my most exciting bouts are against high flyers and Darby is a fascinating individual,” said Sabre. “Obviously he has a self-destructive element to his style but he’s clearly very dedicated and focused, so I’m very intrigued to see how that translates in the ring, especially against a wrestler with my style. I’m really going to push him on the mat and I really want to see when what’s left after you strip away the danger. I have high expectations that he’ll impress me.”

The 30-year-old British superstar is one of the most highly-sought wrestlers on the indies, and EVOLVE also has him booked in a “Battle of the Best” non-title match against super heavyweight WALTER on Sunday in Brooklyn at EVOLVE 99.

“I’ve known WALTER for a long time, and consider himself a close friend as much as a fierce rival,” said Sabre. “Despite our size differences and career journeys, our philosophy and tastes towards pro wrestling are very similar. He’s someone whose opinion I value and respect. He’s also one of my absolute favorites to watch as a fan. We’ve pushed ourselves every time we’ve competed and that only increases year by year as we grow as performers. There’s no prepping for those bloody chops so you just have to dig down and take it and I love that physical element to our matches, wrestling is its purest when it’s that physical.”

Sabre Jr. has starred across the world, from Mexico to Japan to the United Kingdom. He is an emerging star in New Japan Pro Wrestling, as well as an integral piece of WWE’s Cruiserweight Classic. The opportunity to see him perform on back-to-back nights this weekend on Club WWN is appointment viewing for wrestling fans.

Sabre remains steadfast in his goal for the weekend EVOLVE shows: continue paving a road toward wrestling greatness.

“My mind is only focused on progressing bout by bout,” said Sabre. “I try not to rest on previous achievements, and always critique my own work in an effort to remain on an upward trajectory. I’ve been given great trust and freedom as EVOLVE champion and I am pleased with what I’ve been able to do so far, but I have a lot more to accomplish in 2018. There’s a diverse and interesting roster here and I think I can create bouts with real substance and depth.”

• Jim Ross’ broadcasting performance this past Saturday night of New Japan’s Wrestling Kingdom 12 on AXS TV served as a reminder that the 66-year-old is still as sharp as ever in the broadcast booth.

“I love the stiffness and physicality of the New Japan brand, it’s almost like a throwback,” said Ross. “I’m thrilled to call Wrestle Kingdom on AXS TV with Josh Barnett.”

AXS TV continues to air the full Wrestle Kingdom 12 card over the next five Friday nights.

“AXS TV has a lot of skin in the game, and they’re a big, big asset to New Japan,” added Ross. “I don’t know that New Japan fully understands the impact that AXS TV has had helping New Japan to build a bigger footprint in North America.”

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Ross shared that Mark Cuban, who is the chairman of AXS TV, is an incredible resource and advocate for pro wrestling, revealing that he also has a very humane side to his business dealings.

“I can tell you this about Mark Cuban; when he found out that my wife Jan got killed in March, I got an email from him saying, ‘If there’s anything you need, including the best neurologist in America, I’ll put them on one of my planes and we’ll fly them to you in Oklahoma,’” said Ross. “That’s the kind of guy he is. You don’t forget that, and I’ll always respect him for that gesture.”

Ross’ book, Slobberknocker: My Life in Wrestling, which is going back to press for the fourth time, has been a literary success.

“The demand is kicking the ass of the supply, and that’s a great problem to have,” said Ross. “I really believe my wife is looking out for us, and people are responding to our story.

“People can identify with a story like mine. You can’t identify with Kurt Angle and Brock Lesnar, they’re one-of-a-kind athletes. I grew up a fan and got in the game in an unlikely way, and I’ve lasted 40-plus years.”

Ross returns to the road with a live Slobberknocker Sessions show in Philadelphia at Citizens Bank Park, which takes place on the day of the Royal Rumble on January 28. He noted that the highlight of his live shows is the meet-and-greet, which run famously long because Ross refuses to rush anyone through the line.

“I know what it meant for me to follow wrestling and meet my favorite wrestlers,” said Ross. “I would have loved to meet the guys I saw on TV. The business is about the fans, not about egos. People should get their money’s worth.”

• Chris Jericho is extending his stay with New Japan.

Jericho is a very worthy investment for New Japan. The company may have kicked the tires on others, but Jericho fits well and has history with the booking regime at New Japan, as well as a friendship with New Japan World broadcaster Don Callis, who has a podcast on the Jericho Network. Jericho’s run in New Japan will certainly provide content for another book, which fans would devour, as well as a premiere match at New Japan’s upcoming Long Beach, California show in March against Tetsuya Naito.

The No DQ match against Kenny Omega at Wrestle Kingdom allowed Jericho to stray from his customary athletically-based match. At the age of 47, which is three years older than Hulk Hogan was in his match against Sting at Starrcade ‘97, Jericho is constantly battling Father Time, in addition to 27 great years of wrestling that have taken their toll on his body.

Jericho is also extremely smart in the opponents he is choosing. He has chosen two workhorses in Kenny Omega and Tetsuya Naito, and the only other opponent I have heard discussed down the line from those close to NJPW operations is a dream match against IWGP heavyweight champion Kazuchika Okada.

• As for Wrestle Kingdom 12, the card was spectacular, and Jim Ross also considerably enhanced the four matches that aired on AXS TV this past Saturday night. Tokyo, Japan is 14 hours ahead of New York, so the time difference would complicate the matter, but next year’s Wrestle Kingdom would do well on pay per view with Ross calling the show and with backstage interviews to highlight storylines and wrestlers.

For those who reached out to express disappointment that neither Okada nor Hiroshi Tanahashi lost their title, look at it from this framework: Tanahashi and Okada are the New Japan equivalent to John Cena and Roman Reigns. Just like Vince McMahon would never book both Cena and Reigns to lose at a WrestleMania, New Japan will also never allow Okada and Tanahashi to both lose at WrestleMania. Ideally for the company, both stars are victorious at the biggest show of the year.

• ​Something to Wrestle with Bruce Prichard and co-host Conrad Thompson return this Friday at noon ET with a new podcast, looking at Marty Jannetty and Shawn Michaels during their time together as the Rockers.

“It’s not how you start, it’s how you finish,” said Thompson. “Shawn Michaels finished the number one or number two wrestler of all-time, but it didn’t start that way. We’ll look at his beginning in the Rockers, and who in WWE thought the real star was going to be Michaels and who thought it was going to be Jannetty.”

The Rockers were hired and fired by Vince McMahon in 1987, and subjects explored on the podcast will include the sudden firing.

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“We’re going to cover all the controversy,” confirmed Thompson. “That includes the first firing, and all of the subsequent firings of Marty Jannetty. Very seldom do you see someone given so many opportunities, and I don’t know if we will see something like that ever again. We’ll also cover the breakup and the entire singles run of Marty Jannetty, which was a start-and-stop run with the company.”

Michaels regarded Jannetty as an older brother, until the two drifted apart permanently when Jannetty embarrassed Michaels in a fight after prodding from “Rowdy” Roddy Piper in a Denver hotel room in 1991.

“That’s part of the story,” said Thompson. “What if that didn’t happen? Why wasn’t Marty Jannetty part of The Clique? How might his life been different had he been part of it? We’ll be discussing all of those questions.”

Thompson and Prichard return to the road for a live show in Brooklyn, New York at the Barclays Center following the Nets-Heat game on Friday, January 19.

“We’re going to have the biggest guest we’ve ever had, and we’re going to make that announcement on our show this Friday,” said Thompson. “We’ll have some surprise guests too, but we’re pulling out all the stops for Brooklyn.”

Tweet of the Week

I’m not going to lie: I’ve watched this clip a dozen times and still can’t get enough.

Justin Barrasso can be reached at JBarrasso@gmail.com. Follow him on Twitter @JustinBarrasso.

 

 

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