At only 35-years-old, the Orangeburg, South Carolina-bred wrestling star has also held titles in Ohio Valley Wrestling and World Wrestling Council, in addition to being recognized by Black Athlete Sports Network, Pro Wrestling Illustrated and the Wrestling Observer Newsletter Awards, who befittingly called him the "Most Underrated Wrestler."
This past April, Benjamin was released from his contract with World Wrestling Entertainment. Since then, the superstar – who passed on trying to qualify for the 2000 Summer Olympics to pursue his professional wrestling career – has been working the independent wrestling circuit in the United States and abroad.
BlackVoices.com caught up with Benjamin – who phoned us from his home in Spring, Texas – and he talked about the state of Black superstars in wrestling; having comedienne Thea Vidale play his mother in WWE; whether he would return to WWE; and what he thought about Jennifer Hudson's fiancé, David Otunga.
Since you left WWE in April, you've done some Ring of Honor matches with Charlie Haas. Will you do more?
We're currently in negotiations to do more stuff with Ring of Honor. A lot of people think I'm signed with them, but I'm not contracted. We did that one show and it was a lot of fun so right now we're looking at possibly doing some more work with them.
How has the transition from being affiliated with WWE to working as an independent been for you?
So far it's actually been pretty fun. I came right out of college straight into the WWE, so I basically won a lottery ticket. I didn't have to deal with a lot of the trials and tribulations of paying your dues on the indie scene because I went straight to making money. Now that I'm on the independent scene, because of my WWE exposure I still think I have it so much more easier than a lot of guys who are trying to make a name for themselves on the indie scene. It's enhanced me to expand and grow as a performer and it really makes you appreciate where you're from. I believe it makes you a better businessman in the long run.
Why did WWE let you go?
Honestly, I'm still wondering that myself. What I think it boils down to is that I'd been there for so long and they had such high hopes for me. For me to continue in the position that I was in I would have gotten to the point where family would have lost faith in me. I think while I'm still young every now and then you need to completely disassociate yourself from the company to freshen yourself up. It would be one thing for me to say I am gonna leave and take three months off and when I come back I'll be fresh and new, but it's a total other thing to disassociate yourself from the company completely. The point that they didn't resign me doesn't really bother me because I felt like I needed to go and near the end of my career work for me wasn't fun. I remember when I first started I could not wait to get to work. Near the end, I couldn't stand when I had to wake up and go to the airport. It was one of those things where we were both in agreement that I needed to step away. Do I believe that's a permanent departure? No. If you have watched the history of the WWE or if you have ever worked there and you were ever any good; you don't have just one run with the WWE. The door is open for me to come back. We parted ways on good terms, but as far as a lot of the decisions they made with my career, I'm still dumbfounded.
Wrestlers travel nearly 300 days out of the year. Was that schedule grueling for you?
In college I was just hoping to get a break, so when I actually got called to the main roster, a lot of what carried me through was excitement. Every week I was going somewhere new and seeing something different. Over time it just becomes a lifestyle. I hear people say all the time that they don't know how we're able to keep the schedule that we keep. At least when you're young and coming in you keep it because there isn't another choice. With the WWE, the more you work the more money you make. I went five years straight on the road four days a week and that's not counting the international tours, which could have extended two or three weeks. I did that for five years with no vacation or anything before my schedule got cut back a little. It became a lifestyle.
Nowadays, I really don't know. It doesn't make any sense to me and it never has. I guess back in the 70's and 80's you have to look at the times and consider that. They were catering to their audience and mostly to the paying audience, which was White or Italian, but the Black demographic was not paying to go see wrestling. They would watch the pre-show and obviously if you want to make money you play to their demographic. That's the only thing I can come up with for why you didn't see it a lot years ago. These days, I don't know. When I originally got into professional wrestling – because I watched professional wrestling all my life and I loved it – the only thing I was aspiring for was a tag team title because that's all I saw a Black man with. Once I actually got there and started winning titles I was officially overachieving what I originally set out for. It wasn't until much later that I started having world title aspirations. For whatever reasons, I just noticed the patterns of Black guys. Don't get me wrong because I made a lot of money and I had a great career and a lot of memories with the WWE. I don't want to make it sound like I'm dogging them or bashing them; I'm just stating the facts. Most Black guys are built to be secondary superstars because talent wise not everyone is gonna be The Rock because he's phenomenal. Not everyone is gonna be a Booker T, but he wasn't really made in the WWE. He was made in WCW when they were separate. He actually came in as a world champion. They felt like they already had a built-in Black champion so it was easy to put the title back on him because he had already been the champion for the major competition.
What about now?
These days I look at some of the guys who are on the roster and current and I believe there were guys who were close but for whatever reason things went south almost immediately. I look at the Ahmed Johnson in the 90's and it seemed like he was on the way to the championship and for reasons I don't know fully, it never happened. I believe most recently Bobby Lashley would have been a world champion but he decided to leave. The only really crowned world champion that I remember is Ezekiel Jackson, but he was the ECW champion. Everyone looked at the ECW champion as the third in line. That's why I feel like Black stars are built to be secondary superstars.
If you had to make one of the Black superstars on the WWE roster now the World Champion, who deserves it?
The first person that comes to my mind is MVP. If you look at his career, at one point it looked like it was going that route. For whatever reason, it just stopped. I felt like fans were accepting him so he would be the first on my list. I believe Kofi Kingston is on the cusp. I won't say he's quite ready yet but people put the title on guys who aren't ready all the time. Those two would be first on my list. Most of the other Black guys are just inexperienced right now and none of them have shown me anything that would validate putting the world title on them and that's not to say they won't be later. I forgot about Mark Henry and I don't want to leave him out of there.
Jennifer Hudson's fiancé David Otunga is a WWE superstar now. Some people feel as though he's getting a push because he's Jennifer's man. What are your thoughts on him?
No, I don't think he's very good. My guess would be probably, but at the same time whether he's any good or not this is a show. Just by him being in the WWE makes news. People are gonna tune in just to see David Otunga – just to see if he's good or bad. Jennifer Hudson's husband is a pro wrestler. That's gonna draw and it will be foolish on the part of WWE not to take advantage of that. Do I think him being married to Jennifer Hudson helps? Without a doubt. He still has to go in there and perform. Just because he has the job and they're using him doesn't mean that it's gonna stay that way. No disrespect to David because he's a great guy and I've worked with him. I expect him to improve, but if I was running a wrestling company and David Otunga was signed on my company, you're dammed right I'm gonna put him in everyone's face. That's the proof for me.
Thea Vidale played your mother on WWE several years ago. Some people thought you were being punished with that storyline. What was the real deal?
I absolutely loved it. I don't know how this happened but somehow it circulated that I had a problem with that like I was being punished or demoted and that's the most ridiculous thing I have ever heard. Mr. McMahon and I sat down and discussed the whole character and everything and I was up for it. At the time I was at a point in a really low point in my career and I needed something. It is what you make it and when he presented me with the idea I was all for it. It's one of my more popular personas as the mama's boy. People still remember it and they ask me about it all the time and that's the type of thing I want to do. I want to be remembered for my work in and out of the ring. Working with Thea helped boost my resume because to this day I'm still remembered as "Mama's Boy." I have people ask me where my mama is. As a performer that's the type of thing I like. People got into it, people bought into it and people remembered it. You have to be remembered in wrestling.
Is there anyone that you would love to wrestle that you have not faced yet?
I have pretty much wrestled everybody. I have always wanted to work with Sting. Because he is still in TNA, it's still that chance. That's the first guy I would like to work with. I have been in the ring with everybody that I have dreamed about wrestling – Sean Michaels, Triple H, Kurt Angle, Rick Flair and Hulk Hogan. I have been in the ring with all those guys. My own personal dream matches I have already had.
For additional updates on Shelton Benjamin, visit him online at Shelton-Benjamin.net.
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