Pro wrestling has always had its issues with racial and ethnic stereotypes. In fact, it used to be — maybe even still is — the lifeblood of the industry. And for one Vincent K. McMahon, owner of World Wrestling Entertainment, peddling racism — whether subdued or overt — has been a consistent business model of his for roughly 40 years.
One could quickly rattle off a number of characters that were cringe-inducingly and blatantly playing on the worst racist cliches imaginable. A belly-smacking tribal headhunter? Check. Mexicans riding on lawnmowers? Check. A black manservant? Check. A spear-holding, dancing, tribal headhunter (yes, ANOTHER African savage)? Check. A black gangsta tag-team? Check. A voodoo witch doctor? Check. An Islamic jihadist (played by a white guy)? Check. The list goes on and on.
But perhaps no angle, especially in the post-Monday Night War era, felt more racist — and left a worse taste in fans’ mouths — than the 2003 Wrestlemania run-up between world champ Triple H and contender Booker T. Because this is the one in which the WWE decided to have its heel champion go full-on racist in the weeks leading up to the big match…and come out on top in the end. And not only come out on top, but made sure Booker T looked weak as a result.
After winning a battle royale to face Triple H for the championship at WrestleMania XIX, Booker T came out on the March 3rd episode of Raw to cut a promo. Shortly after he began talking, however, Triple H came down to the ring with Ric Flair in tow and proceeded to cut down his soon-to-be foe as unworthy of carrying the world title. Typically, this would all well and good, all part of a typical wrestling feud heading into a big match. But this thing took a vicious turn, and quick.
Triple H would smugly tell Booker T that “people like you don’t deserve” to be a world champion. He commented about Booker’s “nappy hair.” He told the black man standing across from him that he was “confused about his role in life.” He informed Booker T that he was only “an entertainer” and that he was only there “to make people like me laugh.” He asked Booker T to “dance” for the crowd. He brushed off the five-time WCW champ’s past accomplishments as meaningless.
In subsequent weeks, Flair would offer Booker T a job as Triple H’s limo driver while implying that Booker T had been dealt a race card. Meanwhile, Triple H would toss Booker a dollar bill in the restroom while telling him to give him a towel. There was no subtlety to the angle they were running. But it also pretty much left only one possible outcome at WrestleMania — Booker T HAD to win.
But that wouldn’t be the case, of course. And it seems like Triple H — who was then in a relationship with McMahon’s daughter and would end up marrying her months later — and WWE immediately attempted excuse HHH’s victory after running a weeks-long angle in which he went white nationalist.
During the WrestleMania press conference, Michael Cole asked Triple H if he deliberately cut a racist promo against Booker T. “Why would anybody think I am a racist?” Triple H asked. “Did I ever mention the word ‘black’?” (For his part, Booker has said Triple H “was just playing his part, however f—– up that part looked.”)
As for the match itself, it ended in a way that pretty much justified everything — in terms of the angle the company had run — Triple H had said about his opponent. Basically, Booker T wasn’t in his league, he didn’t deserve to be champ, and was nothing more than an entertainer.
After a decent back-and-forth match, Triple H hit his finishing move, The Pedigree, out of nowhere. And then fell to the mat. And laid there. Forever.
With Booker T laying across from him, apparently murdered by the blunt force of the King of Kings’ maneuver, Triple H slowly — and I mean SLOWLY — crawled over to Booker T’s prone body. After taking what felt like an hour to reach Booker T, Triple H draped a single arm over his opponent to get the three count. No hook of the leg. No cradle. No attempt at a kick out by Booker T.
No matter how you dice it, the message from the angle and the match was crystal clear — Triple H was superior to Booker T. There’s really no other way to look at it.
Now, one can look at this through the lens of that time period and give McMahon, WWE and Triple H the benefit of the doubt — this all occurred during the early 2000s when McMahon was seemingly still kicking dirt on WCW’s grave. Two years after buying the former competitor, McMahon ran angles — such as The Invasion — in which he propped up his company and wrestlers as superior and far higher-quality than WCW, primarily using the purchase to settle grudges over the Monday Night Wars-period.
But, if that were the case, why take the racial approach in the Booker T feud, especially if you were going to have Booker lose? Why not just play up Booker’s status as a WCW star and champ to drive home the point that WWE was more accomplished brand? While it would still be incredibly petty to bury one of your stars just to settle an old score, at least your champ wouldn’t come off looking like David Duke in the process.