Professional wrestling has long been a spectacular performance that has drawn people from all over the world to witness the spirit of conflict resolved in the arena of a squared ring. Centuries of competitors have walked the long aisle in several avenues to forge legacies that would be remembered long after they have looked up at the bright lights and taken that last walk to the locker room. From the originators of yesteryear, such as Frank Gotch and George Hackenschmidt, to the headliners of today, such as Roman Reigns and Sasha Banks, fans of this great entertainment will tell their children about the heroes that paved a part of their childhood in great detail.
This series, however, is the story of the untold heroes that don’t get their recognition.
Viro Small: The Pioneer
Origins of wrestling are often a battle of searching and fact-checking. Some eras, such as the 80s and 90s, are commonplace with just a few clicks on the WWE Network and YouTube. Even footage dating back to the 50s is available at our fingertips through a willingness to learn the ins and outs of the industry. Footage of the end of the 19th century and the beginning of the 20th century, however, ranges from nonexistent to rarity on the vast availability of the internet. Unless you are a historian of professional wrestling, the interest at the beginning of this form of entertainment we watch is a non-necessity due to the ever-growing of evolution in our society. Why would you be interested in who wrestled for the world championships at the Casino de Paris in 1901? History stops at your interest point and does not need to go any further than that.
But it should.
When we do admire the pioneers of the past, it is often seeing the common template of an athlete that dominated the top of the sport at the start of the century: the white, muscular submission-based who did his speaking in the ring in all parts of the world. Students of Olympic wrestling who would stretch their opponents for hours in front of packed crowds. For me, that wasn’t what I was interested in when I started learning the foundations of this industry. Sure, it was important to know, but as with any form of knowledge, I want to seek the pioneers of my race and while I appreciate the contribution of a legend such as Bobo Brazil, I knew that Black people’s influence in wrestling was rooted in the beginning stages and that led me to the discovery of Viro Small.
To put in context for the time from Viro Small’s entry into the business, we have to understand the dark relationship between wrestling and African-Americans during slavery. Black people were used by their white slave owners as barbaric sportsmen who were forced to compete against another slave in a literal battle to the death. Life was waged from profit as the countless men and children had no choice to kill their opponent to survive or they would kill themselves on their own. Viro, being born into slavery in 1854, was no different. He learned the style of boxing along with the “elbow and collar” technique of wrestling that proved to be quite effective in his training and ultimately led him to migrate from South Carolina to Vermont in a quest to better his studies.
With chiseled good looks and constant competitiveness, promoters knew they had an instant cash grab with Small. Billed under the moniker Uncle Sam, Small saw himself in wrestling and boxing matches throughout the Northeast, often going against crowd members in saloons and clubs as professional wrestling was not the larger than life spectacle that it would become. Ironically, Viro saw his biggest success in New York City as he competed in the first known integrated matches and while that would be a huge accomplishment, he was still regulated to only wrestle against other Black men in the back of clubs and bars.
Viro Small’s last documented match took place in 1885 and that’s the last bit information on him. There’s only one documented picture in existence of him. There’s no record of his passing and there’s no record of his life after wrestling but his story does not end on that note. His story continued in different forms as years went on. His presence was felt as the pioneers such as aforementioned Brazil, Bearcat Wright, and Luther Lindsey broke the barriers to having officially sanctioned interracial matches. His presence was felt when Ron Simmons became the first Black man to win the World Heavyweight Championship. His presence was felt when Kofi Kingston took his redemption to MetLife Stadium and won the WWE Championship. His presence is felt in locker rooms that have diversity and equality. The same walk that every African-American wrestler took to those hollowed ground in the squared circle, was the same walk that Viro took.
Viro Small changed the wrestling industry without knowing the influence that he would create. Being Black in an industry that has long tried to discourage and stereotype many that entered the locker room has been a frustrating visual. The barriers have continuously been broken with each passing moment – from the competitors of old and the competitors of young – and it all starts from the moment Viro ventured into the sport. When I turn on the television to see stars that look like me, I see the image of Viro Small in all of them.
Pioneering for the next generation without them even knowing.