For most of the professional wrestling fans who grew up on the WWE's "Attitude Era" (a.k.a. that period of edgy white hot-ness that ranged from late 1997 to the first half of 2002), you probably know the name Ron Simmons in a few ways: you might remember his Faarooq gimmick, with his run as the head of the Nation of Domination (right before a man named Dwayne "The Rock" Johnson became the most electrifying man in sports entertainment), or as one-half of the APA, where he drank beer, played poker, and f*cked people up with Bradshaw on the regular. Or you might recall his time spent being practically mute... except for dropping a well-placed "DAMN!" on a crowd of people.
It would royally suck if true professional wrestling fans would forget what truly made Ron Simmons a WWE Hall of Famer: becoming the first African American in professional wrestling to become a world heavyweight champion. And that's no bullsh*t; this is an official recognition.
Twenty-three years ago today, Ron Simmons defeated Big Van Vader in Baltimore to become the WCW World Heavyweight Champion—the first black man to ever achieve that accomplishment—after winning a raffle that night to become the no. 1 contender (after the previously-booked Sting vs. Vader match was called off after Jake "The Snake" Roberts injured Sting).
It's not like Simmons was a part of a new class of black professional wrestlers; Viro Small was the first black wrestler, debuting in 1870, while Bobo Brazil was technically the first African American to hold a world heavyweight title: in August of 1962, Brazil's defeat of "Nature Boy" Buddy Rogers for the NWA World Heavyweight Championship came under some contention, as Rogers said he had a groin injury, forcing a stoppage of the match and a declaration of Brazil as the world champion. Brazil was announced as the champion the following September, after doctors found that nothing was wrong with Buddy Rogers, who ended up getting the title back from Brazil that October, but the NWA doesn't recognize Brazil's title reign. Other black performers, like Koko B. Ware in the WWF, might have been much flashier (and to some fans, more memorable), but Ron Simmons winning that world heavyweight championship, during a long stretch of time where world heavyweight champions were predominantely white, was no small feat.
Was Simmons' five-month reign as the world heavyweight champion super-exciting? No, but it couldn't be: World Championship Wrestling in 1992's fiercest non-Vader competition included The Barbarian, a pre-superstar Cactus Jack, and "Dr Death" Steve Williams, with Simmons ultimately losing the strap back to Vader that followed December. Did you see that crowd react, though? As a young, black lifelong professinal wrestling fan who wasn't used to seeing too many wrestlers who looked like him being more than singing, dancing caricatures of people I've seen in the movies, this felt like it meant something.
In 2014, ABC 2 News in Baltimore asked Simmons about winning the title and getting his name etched in the history books, and he remembered the crowd's reaction as well: "That feeling on that night was so special and the way the fans celebrated with me is something that I will always remember. Being able to share that historic moment with the fans that supported me through everything meant more than you'll ever know."
While Ron Simmons had tasted championship gold before as a member of Doom with another classic black pro wrestler in Butch Reed, and ended up being a three-time WWF Tag Team Champion with Bradshaw, we imagine this moment in his professional wrestling career was his biggest, and a true crowning achievement in his pro wrestling hall of fame career.
So the next time you see Simmons' face, and you want to hit him with a low and impactful "DAMN!," remember that this man was once on top of the WCW pack, and helped give hope for the black wrestlers that'd follow him to achieve their goals, whether it's the Prime Time Players and The New Day battling for the WWE Tag Team titles, Booker T being the last WCW World Heavyweight Champion (winning his fourth title on the last Monday Nitro before the organization merged with the WWE), or The Rock climbing that mountain and becoming one of the most important wrestlers in the history of the industry.