Written by Daniel Donnelly, all quotes are direct from Charles Wright.
Over the course of his pro-wrestling career, Charles Wright brought to life two unforgettable characters that have since become iconic among wrestling fans. Not only is each gimmick a perfect representation of it's respective era, but the gimmicks are such polar opposites of each other, that it's funny to think that they were played by the same guy.
Papa Shango was the first to arrive, back in 1991. In an era of "cartoon gimmicks", Shango was promoted as a creepy Voodoo Master, casting spells on opponents that caused them to vomit, burst into flames, and most memorably - ooze mysterious black liquid from various body parts. As animated as it may sound, it was all delivered with a legitimately scary vibe. I was both entranced (no pun intended) and terrified as I watched an opponent lying unconscious in the ring, his face smeared in a thick black oil while his boots burned like torches in the night, all while Shango stood over him, laughing a deep guttural laugh. Shango then rolled his eyes into his head and fell into a quivering trance, as the arena plunged into darkness and the show faded to black.
Fast forward towards the end of the 90's, and one of the most recognizable faces of the risque Attitude Era was a multi-colored pimp named "The Godfather". With his trademark smile, cigar, and bevvy of beautiful women named "The Ho Train", he was one of the most over and beloved stars of the show. The fans chanted along with all of his catchphrases, and it was a weekly tradition to hear crowds of 20,000+ yelling, "It's time....once again...for everybody...to come aboard the...HOOOOOOOOO TRAIN!"
Charles Wright brought both of these personalities to life. And throughout 2012, I was fortunate enough to spend some time with all three guys - Charles himself, The Godfather...and even Papa Shango.
For the second year in a row I was lucky enough to attend Wrestlereunion's "Breakfast With Champions" in Los Angeles. At this event, fans were able to attend a breakfast buffet and take a seat with a wrestling legend for an hour or so of stories, memories, and the answers to those nagging questions. There were some stellar guests that year including Kevin Von Erich, Vader, Kevin Sullivan, Finlay and many others. The Godfather was always my first choice, and he did not disappoint.
Arriving at the table with his wife and son, it would've been somewhat of a typical Sunday morning if not for Wright being dressed in full pimp gear - lime green suit, matching hat and flashing blue shades. Indeed, Godfather's personality was as bright as his gear, and he had all of his guests entertained as he shared all kinds of stories and memories.
At the end of the breakfast, a classic wrestler from a bygone age (I won't name him, but if you were there, you'll know!) delivered a speech to the audience. Despite everyone's best intentions to be respectful and attentive, the speaker's monotone voice, never ending anecdotes and wandering memory eventually made it an unbearable experience for everyone, until even a bored looking Godfather leaned over to us and asked "How long is this old fart supposed to talk?" As everyone looked at their watches, the famous smile snapped back onto his face, he grabbed the lapels of his green jacket and said "Shit, they shoulda let me make the speech. I'd wake everyone's asses up!" We all bust out laughing and other tables turned to look at us with disapproving scowls and calls to "Shhh!" It was like being sat at the naughty table back at school as Godfather grinned and gave us a wink.
During the course of the breakfast, Godfather told us so many fascinating things about his lengthy WWF/WWE career, including many unique insights into his gimmicks. Many of these have never been shared publicly before, and are direct from the man himself:
“I took Papa Shango extremely seriously. The reports and rumors of me hating the gimmick are true – it’s because Shango is so dark, so demanding, and it took so much out of me, that it was exhausting. I’m a happy guy, man. I love being happy. I’m The Godfather! I love smiling. But Papa Shango, man…I had to go to a real dark place to make him so convincing.”
"I used to read books on voodoo, in fact I built an entire voodoo library. Everything I said in my promos was real and legit. All the props were from voodoo stores. It was totally authentic. The effects guys worked with the staffs and sticks so that they all did something different. I had a bunch of them - some would shoot sparks, others had smoke and lights that came out of them."
“I was the first wrestler to do the “lights out” gimmick. Arena owners and building management didn’t want to do it in case somebody got hurt. Now of course, it happens every week, but back then it was a huge deal. The funny thing is, as impressive as it looked, the only reason we did it was so that the effects guys could get into the ring and light the guys boots on fire without being seen!”
"Papa Shango was supposed to last much longer in the main event but Sid fucked it up. It was supposed to be Sid and Warrior headlining SummerSlam , but Sid didn't want to do it and he quit. He had his own issues, he said Vince had brought him in under the promise of replacing Hogan as the top babyface and it wasn't going the way it was supposed to. So Papa Shango was fed to Warrior instead. The problem was, with a character like Papa Shango, once the losses piled up, the character lost a lot of that mystique and invincibility, and it was all downhill fast from there."
“People were jealous of Warrior because he did his own thing, he was smart and he was successful. People don’t like that. He was stiff with me in the ring, but he wasn’t as stiff as I was with him, I’ll tell you that much right now.”
"That [Wrestlemania 8 run-in] was not my fault! I was told to go too late and they underestimated the length of the aisle. Even Warrior said later that night that he had to haul serious ass to get there on cue. Watch his run. He used to run to the ring every night, but never like that!"
KAMA “The Supreme Fighting Machine”
"KAMA stood for “Kick Any Man’s Ass” and was an attempt to capitalize on the rise in popularity of underground fighting and the early days of UFC. I got to ride Harleys, train, and I loved every minute of it. It was something different and I got to grow some cool hair!”
“I almost went to WCW to be Hogan’s enforcer in the NWO. I named my price, the contract was being drawn up, and then at the last minute, I got a call saying the contract was being retracted and there was no longer an offer for me. I was stunned, man, just stunned. I asked why, and it turned out that Virgil offered to do it for a third of the price because he wanted to be back on TV so bad. That dumb mother fucker cost us both."
The Nation of Domination
"A lot of people don't know this, but Papa Shango was going to return in 1997. It was going to be a more gritty, realistic version with a mask instead of paint.They created the costume and the new entrance. But what happened was, the decision was then made to do Kane. I guess they felt there wasn’t enough room for two dark, supernatural characters, and so I became Kama Mustafa and they put me in The Nation. I've still got some 8x10 promos of me in the new mask and gear."
"The Rock was put into The Nation to protect him. Vince had big plans for The Rock from day one and was worried that he had been getting bad advice from the wrong people. Some jealous dudes had been getting into his ear. So Vince put Rock in the Nation so he could benefit from the guidance of Ron [Simmons] and myself. It was the same thing with Mark Henry. Mark was a big long term investment that was getting some bad advice, learning some bad habits, and so Vince put him under myself and Ron for guidance. Both those guys were struggling.”
“Ahmed Johnson almost killed The Nation. He wanted to be ‘Stone Cold’ Steve Austin and he would go off script, he’d shoot, he did whatever he wanted out there. He was also pushing backstage for #2 Guy money. He didn’t understand. So…Ron made him understand. Ron beat his ass and that was it for him.”
“I used Rock being in The Nation as an opportunity for myself. One night, Rock was going to go out there and cut a promo. I was going to debut a new look, and I was holding the hat in my hands before we were due to go out, and I noticed the brand – “Godfather”. So I asked Rocky to refer me to as “The Godfather of the Nation”. He did, and it caught on with the commentators and some of the crowd. Then it was shortened to just “The Godfather”. Next week, I started coming out with some chains and a cigar. Then a girl. Then a girl on each arm. Then eight girls. It just got bigger and bigger every week.”
"The Godfather was originally going to wear all black suits, maybe with some grey mixed in here and there. It was my wife who told me to try the bright, flamboyant colors. She created the entire look – the vests, the pants, the hats with the feathers, the sunglasses. Every last piece came from her. At first I was against it, like man what you trying to do to me?! But I got it pretty fast."
"We would try out things on the road. I remember at a house show, we had a spot where I’d offer Bradshaw a night with the ho’s rather than take a match. As he’s leaving the ring with the girls, I’d call him a coward, and he’d hit me with that big lariat. Then I’d crawl over the mic and say “Pimpin’ ain’t easy…” and stagger back up the aisle. The fans would pop, and I knew I had something."
"The Ho’s came from local strip clubs. I'd go out with Taker and some other guys in our crew and ask who wanted to be on TV. We didn't have to ask twice!"
"I got away with talking about weed so openly on TV because the network executives had no idea what I was saying. They didn’t understand the slang. They had no idea what a “fatty” or a “blunt” was, so I was able to say all this stuff and they had no clue. My friend in Cypress Hill said he was amazed at the shit I got away with."
"Vince loved the gimmick. Loved it. He used to go to bat for me so many times – fighting the networks, fighting the executives. He did everything he could to keep the character as a central part of the show. Vince used to come to me and say, “Charles – he always called me Charles – you’re having too much fun out there. You should be paying me!” And that didn’t surprise me – Vince is the biggest pimp of them all!"
"You wanna know the funny thing? I hate pimps. I can't stand pimps, man. In fact, I've had pimps come into my club and I've knocked them out and thrown them back out onto the street. Can't stand them."
"I hated that whole RTC thing. I hated every part of it – Goodfather, Stevie Richards, the whole thing. Eventually they brought back The Godfather and tried to clean him up, legitimize him, whatever they called it. It became a legal escort service. It just wasn’t gonna work anymore, the magic was gone and it was done.”
The Present Day
"My best friend is Taker. We haven't seen each other in a couple of years you know, we both have kids, lives, you know...but we text all the time and Taker's feeling better than ever."
"I have a pet dog, a pit bull. You know what his name is? Shango."
"I love dirt bikes. They're my big thing now - I build them, take them apart, work on them and ride them. It was my oldest kids, man. They encouraged me to try one for the first time a few years ago and now I'm just obsessed. My wife even calls my storage shed my “crack den” 'cause she says I'm addicted."
“Something that drives my wife absolutely crazy is that I’m…what’s the opposite of a hoarder? A trasher? I throw everything out, man. It drives her nuts because she says I could sell it or auction it all, but I just throw it in the trash with the garbage and the leftovers. All the Papa Shango gear – the hat, singlet, boots – when I knew the gimmick was done, it all went into my trash can. I freely encourage people to go through my trash as you never know what you’ll find in there. I keep nothing.”
"I only work when it’s fun. My club makes good money, and I do good without being on the road. If the motivation isn’t there to leave and get back on the road, then I won’t go. If it won’t be fun, then there’s no reason for me to wrestle, and Vince knows it."
"I stay in shape. I'm still working out, but it's more cardio and no more weights."
* * *
There's a funny anecdote to finish off my Charles Wright experience. Later in the year, I was at the 'Legends of the ring' convention in New Jersey, and Wright was appearing in the Papa Shango gimmick one more time. I approached him and introduced myself, and he said he remembered me from the breakfast. "Man, that old bastard that was putting us all to sleep...damn. But I had a good time, bro. I had a good time at that thing."
It was a strange juxtaposition. I was looking at the ghoulish skull-like face of one of my childhood terrors, complete with top hat and smoking skull in his hands, and yet behind the make-up was the happy, grinning face of The Godfather, gently elbowing me as he thought back to the breakfast and the speech from hell. Such a great moment, but a strange one!
Things came full circle later in the day when my buddy Nate and I stepped into the elevator to go back up to our room. As the doors were gliding shut, we heard a familiar voice call out "Hold the elevator". We hit the button to open the doors, and from around the corner comes the big man himself - still fully dressed as Papa Shango. So now we're in an elevator with a Voodoo Priest. Then things got more surreal.
"Man, my guy just gave me this room key so I can use his bathroom. I'm heading to the airport and need to get this stuff off my face. But if he's already checked out then this key ain't gonna work. You guys mind holding the elevator while I try it? If not, I'm using your bathroom."
Sure enough, his key didn't work and moments later, the three of us are back in the hotel room of Nate and I. The two of us headed to the living room area and gave each other a look that said we were quietly marking out. Meanwhile Papa Shango headed to the bathroom and commenced the act of scrubbing off the same white skull that once struck terror into my young psyche. As he was doing so, he was calling out stories and jokes.
I sat down on my bed to begin sorting through some of the merchandise that I'd purchased throughout the weekend. At the very top of the pile was a July 1999 copy of WWF Raw Magazine, with a huge headline that said "Ho Train" and a bold head shot of The Godfather himself on the front cover. I smiled to myself as I stared at the cover and listened to the symphony of scrubbing and splashing, interspersed with comments of "This shit better come off."
We decided against asking for pics (for fear of acting like bigger marks than we already were!) and Godfather finally emerged from the bathroom with a clean face and big handshakes to show his gratitude.
And so, another crazy and surreal wrestling story went into the books. In May/June 1992, I was a scared little eleven year old boy, sat in front of my TV watching Papa Shango stalk my favorite wrestler The Ultimate Warrior and cause him to collapse and violently vomit after a match. And exactly twenty years after that very episode, Shango was getting washed and dressed in my hotel room. The life of a wrestling fan.
It ain't easy!