Adam Cole has now been NXT Champion for more than a year, the longest streak in the history of the brand. That could end on Sunday, when Cole puts his title on the line against Velveteen Dream in a “Backlot Brawl” match. Should Dream score a win by submission or pin fall, he would become the second-ever black NXT Champion (of 18 champions, or 16 different men). WWE Superstar Big E of The New Day is the only black man to have held the NXT Championship, a singles title that dates back to Summer 2012.
One week later, “Raw” Superstar Bobby Lashley challenges the Scottish Drew McIntyre for the company’s top and most historic title, the WWE Championship. Should Lashley win the belt, he will be the third black WWE Champion out of 137 WWE (and WWWF/WWF) Champions, or 52 unique performers when you factor out repeat champions. One of those men is The Rock, who is half black and half Samoan. The other is Kofi Kingston, also of The New Day, who is originally from Ghana and held the coveted title from April 7, 2019 to Oct. 4, 2019.
It is important to point out here that the numbers for these two titles do not completely reflect the accomplishments of black athletes in WWE, which has a number of different championship categories. Apollo Crews is the current United States Champion, The Street Profits are “Raw” Tag Team Champions. Mark Henry and Booker T are both former World Heavyweight Champions. The New Day (which also includes Xavier Woods) are “SmackDown” Tag Team Champions. Lashley himself is a former United States Champion and Intercontinental Champion. In the women’s locker room, former champions include Sasha Banks and Naomi.
Those names, of course, do not include numerous other non-white champions in WWE’s history.
Given the newfound spotlight on the topics of racial injustice and inequities following George Floyd’s death at the hands of former Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin, we asked Cole if the best conclusion to one or both of these scripted professional wrestling storylines would be for WWE and/or NXT to end their respective pay-per-view weekends with a black champion.
“First and foremost, I know that WWE respects the crap out of [Lashley and Dream]. The reason– it’s because of their skill and because of their talent they’re in this main-event spot,” Cole, who referred to the law enforcement behavior that led to Floyd’s death as “absolutely ridiculous” and “sad,” replied. “They’re adored by the WWE Universe and they’re respected, like so many others on the WWE roster.”
“With all of this stuff going on, as crappy and as ridiculous as some of this stuff is, the best part is I know Bobby Lashley will tell you this, I know Velveteen Dream will tell you this, I know I’ll tell you this, I know Drew McIntyre will tell you this: Everyday since this has been going on, we’ll get messages from all different types of people — or tweets or Instagram comments or whatever it is — saying that with all this stuff going on they look to WWE as the escape,” he said. “And it brings a little bit of joy.”
On Tuesday, WWE released the following statement amid ongoing protests in support of the Black Lives Matter movement: “WWE supports an inclusive society and condemns racial injustice. We stand beside our Black performers, employees and fans around the world, and encourage everyone to use their voice to speak out against racism. We offer our sincere condolences to the family of George Floyd and the families of countless others who have lost their lives due to senseless violence.”
The Cole-Dream match, which NXT boss Paul “Triple H” Levesque has said will feature “cinematic qualities,” has been pre-taped. We do not know what day it was filmed. The “Backlot Brawl” is the only non-live match from this Sunday’s “NXT Takeover: In Your House.”
Generally speaking, the WWE’s singles champions are considered the faces of the company and of its individual brands. Those are the men and women you often see on morning-TV talk shows — especially if their character is a “baby face,” which is the professional wrestling term for a “good guy.” Complicating a potential feel-good moment on June 14 is the fact that Lashley plays a “heel,” or a bad guy. McIntyre, now a good guy, is a recently reformed (storyline) heel.
In the NXT match, Dream is booked as the baby face. Cole may be a heel, but he’s a fan-favorite heel — and a thoughtful one.
“For me, for example, when my parents divorced when I was young — I’m not by any means comparing that to what is going on now — that was challenging for me, and I turned to wrestling,” Cole, a Lancaster, Pa. native, said of the escapism aspect of his profession. “In a similar light, people turning to wrestling [for] that happiness, that’s the coolest thing.”
“I think regardless of the outcome, as long as people who are going through this really, really challenging time can look at those matches and say that it brought them distraction or happiness or whatever it is, as long as they feel better after watching those matches — again, regardless of who becomes champion — then it’s a win,” he concluded. “And it’s a win for everybody.”
Check back with TheWrap on Friday for more of our conversation with the NXT Champion.
“NXT Takeover: In Your House” begins streaming this Sunday at 7 p.m. ET on WWE Network. Find the card here. “WWE Backlash” kicks off at the same time on the same SVOD service one week later, on June 14. That card can be found here.