Viro Small is one of the earliest black pro wrestlers on record – perhaps the very first, although that would be impossible to prove.
Because it was so long ago, some of the facts on Viro Small conflict. Most reliable information says that he was born into slavery in Buford, South Carolina, in 1854. It is believed Small made his debut in 1870 at the age of 16. It is also known that in April of1881, he wrestled a collar and elbow match in New York against Mike Horogan as a substitute for another wrestler. He reportedly lost the match, but so impressed Horogan that the man began training Viro Small soon afterward. Many sources point to that 1881 match as Small’s debut, despite the information that he debuted in 1870. A possible explanation for this conflict is that Viro Small was both a collar and elbow wrestler and a boxer, so he might have boxed primarily until the 1880s. Again, many sources have his wrestling debut in 1870, so where the exact truth lies is debatable.
But in 1881, Small’s wrestling career definitely took off. He wrestled out of St. Albans and Rutland, Vermont, under the name “Black Sam.” He won the Vermont Collar and Elbow Championship twice, becoming perhaps the first black pro wrestling champion in the United States.
Small also traveled on the county fair circuit in New England with Horogan and challenged members of the audience to keep up with him for a set time limit in a wrestling match. He wrestled a great deal in New York City, in some of the roughest areas of town. He trained by hauling sauerkraut and beer barrels around the city. His frequent opponents in New York included Captain James C. Daley, Harry Woodson, Joe Ryan, and Billy McCallum, who was so enraged by his match against Small on September 3, 1882, that he shot Small in the neck as he slept later that night. Small survived the gunshot wound.
Small wrestled in New York at a tavern called Bastille of the Bowery, owned by former boxer Owney Geoghegan. The bar contained two rings for boxing and wrestling contests, and was notorious for crooked management, rowdy patrons and an overall seedy atmosphere. Geoghegan reportedly won a decision over an opponent in the Bowery by having his henchmen aim a gun at the referee’s head post-fight. It was at this bar where Small’s match with McCallum ended in a no-contest after a major conflict broke out between the two, causing McCallum to attempt to murder Small later that evening.
No less an authority than the legendary Lou Thesz has proclaimed the greatness of Luther Lindsey (born Luther Jacob Goodall). In his book Hooker (available on Amazon.com), Lou says the following:
“[Lindsey was] without question, the best black wrestler ever. Luther had a fantastic body and limitless energy to compliment his skill. Like many other industries, wrestling was not open to African-American wrestlers during his career, so it was an amazing accomplishment for Luther to even learn his craft. His place in history is not because he was black; it is in spite of the fact he was black.”
Just like countless black baseball players of his era, Lindsey was relegated to wrestling black opponents, and competing for “Negro” championship titles in many areas. Lindsey once claimed to have known Shag Thomas better than any other competitor, because in many territories, the two men had to wrestle each other because they were both black.
But in the territories where Lindsey was allowed to compete on the same level as the main event white wrestlers – such as Stampede in Calgary, Hawaii, or the Pacific Northwest – he fast became a major star. Lindsey wrestled Thesz to time limit draws for the world championship many times.
Lindsey was a four-time Pacific Northwest Heavyweight Champion between 1961 and 1969, and held the tag team titles on eight different occasions – four with Shag Thomas, and once each with George Dussette, Bing Ki Lee, Herb Freeman and Pepper Martin. Lindsey also counts the Hawaiian Heavyweight and Tag Team Championship (with Bobby Bruns) among his prizes. On a tour of Japan in 1962, he scored the All Asia Tag Team Titles (with Ricky Waldo) with a win over Rikidozan and Toyonobori in Tokyo. Besides Thesz, Lindsey’s many opponents included fellow legends “Iron” Mike DiBiase, Bronko Nagurski, Kurt Von Poppenheim, Buddy Colt and Mad Dog Vachon.
Stu Hart shared Lou Thesz’ high opinion of Lindsey, who was one of the first black superstars for Hart’s Stampede. In 1967, a match between Luther Lindsey and future WWF Champion Stan Stasiak (with boxing great “Jersey” Joe Wolcott as special referee) drew the largest wrestling crowd in Calgary’s history up to that point.
Tragically, Luther Lindsey died after a match on February 21, 1972, due to heart failure. He was 48.
Also known as “King Toby,” Shag Thomas was a trailblazer from the same era as Luther Lindsey. The two men worked many of the same circuits, and often wrestled each other in segregated venues. Shag Thomas was a very prominent babyface in Don Owen’s Pacific Northwest territory in Oregon, winning the Heavyweight title twice (in 1960 defeating Ed Francis, and in 1966 defeating Tony Borne).
Thomas also held the Pacific Northwest Tag Team Titles a whopping 16 times, with partners Lindsey (four times), Pepper Martin (three times), Tony Borne (twice), Bearcat Wright (twice), Billy White Wolf, Danny Hodge, Dan Manoukian, Armand Hussein, and Rene Goulet.
Standing a mere 5’6″ and tipping the scales at 255 lbs., Shag Thomas was a former football standout for Ohio State. As a wrestler, he established himself as a likeable performer with a knack for entertaining matches and getting the crowd behind him. Like so many other black wrestlers through time, Shag Thomas counted the head butt as one of his trademark maneuvers.
As Luther Lindsey did, Thomas made a stand in NWA Hawaii, winning the Tag Team Titles with Robert Duranton in 1963. His dominance of tag team wrestling is further evidenced by his reign as NWA Canadian Tag Team Champion with Mighty Ursus in 1959.
James “Shag” Thomas died on July 25, 1982, following a heart attack.
JIM “BLACK PANTHER” MITCHELL
It’s not what you think: Jim Mitchell was famous as wrestling’s “Black Panther” long before the activist Black Panther Party gained fame.
In fact, it is believed that Mitchell made his official wrestling debut some time in the late 1930s, starting a lengthy career in which he sparred with stars like The Masked Marvel and Earl Wampler (in South Carolina), Gorgeous George (in California), and “Mr. America” Gene Stanlee. Because of prevailing racist attitudes of the time, he was limited to wrestling other minority opponents for a while. But Mitchell persevered, and today claims a place among pro wrestling’s early great performers.