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The Bahamas Wrestling Association: Black Wrestling and the Birth of a Nation

This is the untold story of how pro wrestling made its way to the Bahamas

BWA/Ringer illustration

“I’d never heard of that until you told me!”

The fact that Omar Amir—four-time Ohio Valley Wrestling heavyweight champion—had never heard of the Bahamas Wrestling Association is an indictment of wrestling history’s preservation shortcomings. After all, as the first authentic Bahamian national to make any sort of appreciable headway in the U.S. wrestling scene, Amir personally embodies the culmination of a 50-year-old dream that Bahamians might one day interact as peers with the wrestlers who visit them from the United States.

As such, Amir also serves as the living legacy of the first pro wrestling organization in the Western Hemisphere that was created by a mostly Black leadership team, and had an almost exclusively Black roster, to cater to the entertainment desires of a majority Black nation.

Unsurprisingly, the first “Bahamian” wrestlers had sprung up in the United States out of a desire to communicate the Blackness of those wrestlers in an exoticized fashion without specifically mentioning it. During a swing through the Rocky Mountain region in the 1960s, Bud Richardson and Willie Love were billed as Bahamas natives, even though both were of Black American descent. It was certainly a safe bet that neither of them would be called out on the carpet by an authentic Bahamian so far from home in that era.

The path to the Bahamas Wrestling Association’s birth was blazed in 1960.

It’s important to immerse ourselves in a 1960s interpretation of the world from a Bahamian standpoint. The sports scene of the Bahamas was boxing mad, with the youth of the country closely following the international success of a pair of Bimini-born fighters, William “Yama Bahama” Butler Jr. and Gomeo Brennan. Gyms throughout the island were jam-packed with fighters hoping to become the next to achieve a semblance of international fame and to make appearances in elite American fighting venues like Madison Square Garden, as both Butler and Brennan had proved was possible.

Bahamians were accustomed to departing from the islands to chase down success on a grander stage. With the exception of the Bahamas Speed Week racing event held at the Oakes Field Airport, international sports competitions of significance did not take place on Bahamian soil.

Therefore, you can only imagine the tremendous intrigue and confusion that resulted when local boxing promoter Douglas Carey announced that a professional wrestling event would be held at his Wulff Road venue, the Bahamas Boxing Stadium, on September 23, 1960. From its opening contest of Ella Waldek versus Bonnie Watson to its main event showdown between Eddie Graham and “Killer” Buddy Austin, this first wrestling event represented a seminal moment in Bahamian sports history, where accomplished athletes appeared to be making themselves available for firsthand Bahamian viewing. It was a welcome departure from a pattern in which the best of the best rarely set foot in the Bahamas, and certainly not with the intent of showcasing their skills for the consumption of the locals.

Bahamians immediately became obsessed with wrestling, and events continued apace for the remainder of 1960. Then, at the beginning of 1961, a new component was added to the equation when Sweet Daddy Siki’s unmistakably Black image was advertised in The Nassau Guardian for a bout scheduled to take place on January 18 between him and Austin. Not only would Bahamians get to indulge in their favorite new curiosity, but they would be privileged to see one of the foremost Black wrestlers in the world pummel a white American in the process. Siki was further advertised locally as a “world eastern champion,” although there is no evidence that he held any such championship title at the time.

To further ingratiate himself with the Black West Indians in attendance that January night at the Oakes Field hangar, the Texas-born Siki had himself introduced as hailing from Kingston, Jamaica, thereby strengthening the perceived kinship between himself and the fans, who now believed they were witnessing a fellow British subject from a land in the greater Anglophone Caribbean.

As the match progressed, Bahamians in attendance witnessed the unthinkable: A wrestler perceived to be a Black West Indian manhandled a white American so soundly and with such superior skill that the American was forced to cheat repeatedly simply to remain viable during the match. The audience was seemingly willing to countenance Austin’s cheating as long as Siki remained on the precipice of victory, but when Austin grabbed a chair and sought to assault Siki with it outside the ring, the fans in attendance considered it a step too far.

The crowd members surged forth, brandishing chairs of their own, forcing Austin to retreat to the dressing room, lock the door, and take refuge until the police could be summoned to disperse the rioters. Afterward, local officials quickly acted to prevent such actions from taking place again; they founded the Bahamian Boxing and Wrestling Commission, thereby legally linking the oversight of the legitimate and spurious forms of combat. More importantly, it formed an unbreakable tie between inbound wrestling promotions from the United States—of which there was one—and local Bahamian boxing promoters, of which there were several.

There were several boxing figures involved with the promotion of wrestling in the Bahamas, including Douglas Carey, Nelson Chipman, and Marty Goldstein. There were also several venues linked with professional wrestling hosting in Nassau, including the Bahamas Boxing Stadium, the Oakes Field hangar, the Cat & Fiddle club, and the Birdland Arena. However, the promoter-venue pairing most frequently cited in reference to professional wrestling in the Bahamas is Charlie Major Sr. and his Nassau Stadium.

Charlie Major is easily one of the most important sports figures in Bahamian history. As a world-class track-and-field star, he was one of the first athletes recruited from the Bahamas to attend a major American university. He was an elite performer in the high jump for St. Bonaventure University during the 1920s, and he returned to Nassau with a dream of starting his own multipurpose restaurant and sports venue. In the culmination of that dream, he constructed Nassau Stadium on the site of his childhood home on Fowler Street. The stadium’s arched shape was a nod to Butler Memorial Gymnasium at St. Bonaventure, where the competitive running track would later be named in his honor.

From 1960 through 1970, the Florida office of the National Wrestling Alliance enjoyed unchallenged access to Bahamian wrestling rings, with appearances ramping up in the mid-1960s to the point where multiple appearances each month were the rule rather than the exception. Under the direction of Eddie Graham and Lester Welch—both of whom were pilots—wrestlers with Championship Wrestling From Florida made frequent appearances in Nassau, as well as stops in Freeport on the island of Grand Bahama.

What ensued was unprecedented: A regionalized American wrestling promotion absorbed an entire crown colony into its territory.

Two unique characteristics of the CWF presentations in the Bahamas were the relative dearth of appearances by the regular Florida champions and the elevation and promotion of certain wrestlers, which seemed somewhat incommensurate with the way those wrestlers were pushed back in Florida. Specifically, ethnic babyfaces who were often billed as second or third from the top during certain eras of their Florida tenures—most notably, Hawaiian Sammy Steamboat and Venezuelan Ciclón Negro—routinely main-evented in Nassau. Bahamian fans seemed to amass considerable joy from watching white heels tortured and defeated by non-white babyfaces, even if those non-white heroes weren’t Black.

When Black wrestlers did appear in the Bahamas—like Dory Dixon, Bearcat Wright, and “Sailor” Art Thomas—their images were almost always included in the promotional materials to suggest that they were attractions for the shows, even if they weren’t featured in any of the shows’ foremost bouts.

Both world and local politics played out inside Bahamian wrestling rings. Worldwide controversy over the South African apartheid system was represented in a January 1966 match between South African “Jungle” Jim Starr and Sammy Steamboat, which promoters said was of such interest that Nassau Stadium’s seating capacity had to be increased to accommodate the crush of fans.

Four months later, Sputnik Monroe appeared in a heel capacity when he teamed with Don McClarity, and the tandem faced Lester Welch and José Lothario. In the buildup to the match, Monroe had himself billed as Freeport’s Adopted Son, an appellation of racially tinged significance that would likely be lost on most Bahamians alive today.

By the mid-1960s, Freeport was steeped in controversy, as it was often viewed by native Bahamians as the epitome of everything about the Bahamas that needed to be overturned if the rightful citizens were ever going to thrive. Fueled by the Hawksbill Creek Agreement, which guaranteed that businesses with a presence in Freeport would essentially pay zero taxes of any kind—including income, death, and inheritance taxes until 1990 and excise taxes or customs duties until 2054—the city was in the midst of explosive growth, with its name portraying precisely what it was intended to be: a free port. Businesses establishing any sort of presence in Freeport enjoyed access to an unparalleled opportunity.

Hidden among the usual suspects in Freeport, including real estate developers and casino magnates, was the tiny Bahamian business office of Championship Wrestling From Florida, occasionally staffed by Lester Welch’s longtime girlfriend, Sherri Lee.

“Lester would fly all of us over to Freeport right from Nassau,” Lee said. “We would stay at a place called the Freeport Inn. The city of Freeport had a nice outdoor stadium called the Tropical Sports Arena. It was away from the small building set aside from the stadium that we had an office in. Other than that, the stadium area was just land, with a place to park and nothing else around it. I would do work out of the nice office we had fixed up in there. I would take all the money we made in Nassau and handle the banking over at the Freeport office.”

As innocent as the CWF scenario sounds, the idea that international businesses could establish offices, import their own employees, and pay zero taxes on any money earned in the Bahamas was galling to the administration of inbound Bahamian prime minister Lynden Pindling, which sought to rein in the practice of issuing work permits to primarily white non-Bahamians who were employed in the Bahamas, at the perceived expense of Black Bahamians. And, as Bahamian self-governance loomed, Pindling issued a famous decree to Freeport:

In this city where, regrettably, almost anything goes; where, promisingly, some economic opportunities have come to Bahamians, Bahamians are nevertheless still the victims of an unbending social order which, if it refuses to bend, must now be broken.

Virtually overnight, the Florida-based wrestlers who had graced almost all of the prominent boxing venues on the islands for more than a decade were denied entry into the Bahamas for the purpose of plying their trade as grapplers, at least with any regularity.

One of the stated purposes of the “Bahamianization” processes imposed by the Pindling administration and Pindling’s Progressive Liberal Party was to prioritize Bahamian access to employment. By the dozens, non-Bahamian employees working for Bahamian businesses with foreign roots were stripped of their work permits, including professional wrestlers.

In a pre-kayfabe era in which Bahamians believed wrestling to be legitimate combat, the sport was construed as the equivalent to prizefighting. In the eyes of the Bahamian government, if a prize was being generated through the sales of tickets that Bahamian wrestling fans purchased, then Bahamian athletes needed to have the ability to earn a sizable share of that money.

To justify the position that CWF’s wrestlers should be allowed to return to earn additional Bahamian money in that political climate, Eddie Graham would have needed to make one of two compelling arguments, neither of which was likely to yield a desired outcome. Graham would either have to contend that, for some ineffable reason, only non-Bahamians would ever be capable of wrestling professionally, or he would be forced to disclose that professional wrestlers are skilled tradespeople working in a cooperative and semi-theatrical enterprise, and their most marketable and valuable skill is one of deception.

Trapped between the options of insulting the island inhabitants or exposing the theatrical heart of the professional wrestling business, Graham withdrew CWF from the Bahamas and closed his office in Freeport.

In the public forum, these events played out in shocking fashion. Less than two weeks after a showdown between José Lothario and Dick Murdoch, which had Nassau Stadium rocking and reeling, a figurative bombshell was dropped on Bahamian wrestling fans. A professional wrestling product consisting exclusively of Bahamian wrestlers was suddenly being substituted for CWF.

“Taking the places of the Lotharios, Grahams, Malenkos, Briscos, and others will be Alex Hall, Curtis Cartwright, Tommy Burrows, the Bruiser, Rugged Gubber, Edward Penn, and many more,” stated an article in The Nassau Guardian.

The description of the event revealed that the first organized group of Bahamian professional wrestlers had been training behind the scenes for more than three months in preparation for the big reveal on May 4, 1971.

“These guys are good,” said an onlooker interviewed by the Guardian. “If I didn’t know they were Bahamians, I would think they were some Americans practicing.”

Charlie Major, who was promoting and backing the event at Nassau Stadium, said, “This is good for the Bahamas, and I think that these boys should be encouraged. I don’t really know how well the wrestling public will take it when they hear about the show, but I’m sure that if they were to see the show, they would forever support these youngsters.”

In the background, Arnsel Tyrone Johnson and the members of his Bahamas Wrestling Club had been training in the style of their American heroes for months.

“I got into wrestling by watching Jack Brisco and all of those fellows who used to come in here and wrestle at the Nassau Stadium,” said Johnson.

Johnson had a strong desire to emulate the wrestlers he had been watching on Saturday evenings, but he was unable to do so because of the physical limitations related to his asthma.

“I went to Mr. [Hubert] Wong’s gym, and he taught me how to lift weights and stuff like that,” said Johnson. “I built up my strength, and I found that the asthma started to leave me, and my breath started to get a little longer. Mr. Wong told me the more I worked out, the better it would be for me.”

Once his body filled out with muscles and his endurance improved, Johnson built his own wrestling ring on Balfour Avenue, with only a plywood mat. Within his rudimentary wrestling ring, Johnson would train with his brother Bradley, along with his friends Alex Hall and Joe Goose.

Bahamas Wrestling Association members in action

“We would go through the format together,” explained Johnson. “Joe would put me in a hold, and I’d have to work my way out of the hold. I’d put him in a hold, and he’d have to try to do the same thing. We worked through all the holds that we had known about, and we’d practice falling by throwing ourselves down on the mat. We also did jogging and conditioning exercises around R.M. Bailey Park for about an hour every morning.”

Before too long, the group of friends was joined by others, like Ed Penn from Freeport and Andy Ifil. Their daily activities were certainly out of the ordinary, and the group was quickly discovered by a local promoter named Marty Goldstein.

“Marty Goldstein saw me, and he liked the way that I was moving around with my team,” said Johnson. “He came there, and he saw who all was there and how we were working out and stuff. I didn’t know he was a promoter. He told me that I must get my boys all together, and we could do a little island-hopping.”

With Goldstein providing the financial backing, Johnson and his neighborhood wrestling club became the Bahamas Wrestling Association. Just like that, the predominantly white, American CWF organization was replaced by a troop of Black Bahamian locals. This marked the first instance of a majority Black Western nation being treated to a wrestling card of exclusively Black talent, sourced in grassroots fashion from its own populace.

While reviews for the first all-Bahamian wrestling event are difficult to come by, there are reasons to suspect that it was not as successful as its backers had initially hoped. When wrestling did make an eventual return to Nassau Stadium on Saturday, August 28, 1971, the spots on the card were not filled with competitors from the Bahamas Wrestling Association but with wrestlers from the Miami-based outlaw promotion known as the International Wrestling Association, which had also been operating in opposition to CWF in the Sunshine State.

The bulk of the matches that evening featured IWA wrestlers like the Golden Gladiator, a.k.a. CWF veteran Ronnie Hill, who was joined by Dr. Mike Gordon and the Mummy. One match was advertised as a special Bahamian undercard contest between Arnsel “The Grappler” Johnson and Joe Goose, the two founding members of the Bahamas Wrestling Club.

Goose and the Grappler therefore became the first Bahamian wrestlers to appear at an event hosted by an American wrestling company.

Johnson remembers having an animated exchange with one of the American wrestlers at the stadium while an event was being held there.

“I went in the back, and one of the wrestlers came to me and said, ‘Show me a hold; they say you’re a wrestler,’” Johnson said. “I put him in a hold with my hands around his neck, and I flipped over him. They said, ‘No, no, no, no, no! You can’t use that! You can’t use that! That’s too dangerous!’ But all of them liked the way I was moving around.”

In late July of 1972, an article published in The Nassau Tribune accentuated the looming problems wrestlers seeking to work in the Bahamas faced as the country neared full-blown independence. A wrestler going by Manuel “Manny” Gonzales, who also claimed to have been the world light heavyweight wrestling champion, sat for an interview where he claimed he was seeking employment as an instructor to the young wrestlers of the “Bahamas Wrestling Alliance.”

“I investigated the matter to find out whether I could be of some help,” said Gonzales. “I got Mr. G.R. Brennan to write the Immigration Department on my behalf, but a few complications have stopped me from instructing the boys.”

In all likelihood, the wrestler being interviewed was Speedy Gonzales, the active IWA Caribbean heavyweight champion. Gonzales said he was told that the Bahamas Wrestling Association would need to advertise an opening for a wrestling instructor, and if no qualified Bahamian professional wrestling trainers came forward, the BWA would have to seek permission from the Immigration Department to hire a dedicated wrestling instructor from outside of the country.

“I guess I should be angry about the whole thing, but I’m not,” continued Gonzales. “Actually, the matter was clearly explained, and laws are laws. I’ve been here (Nassau) since June 30, and I was only able to see the local wrestlers in a short workout, and I must admit that there is a lot of talent here in the wrestling field and I would like to be the one to bring out the better part of this raw talent.”

With CWF effectively booted from the Bahamas, the Miami-based IWA—which was entirely devoid of recognizable stars and featured a dramatically reduced level of in-ring quality compared to CWF—established a major foothold in 1973, the year the Bahamas gained true national independence.

Instead of providing Bahamian fans with international stars like José Lothario, Jack Brisco, Sammy Steamboat, and Ciclón Negro, the IWA (which operated under a variety of alternative names, including the “Florida Wrestling Association”) imported Florida wrestlers to the Bahamas, such as Black Angel, Speedy Gonzales, “Li’l” Abner Collins, and “Wild” Bill Williams. These wrestlers’ complicity in working for an outlaw organization meant they had little hope of ever acquiring gainful employment anywhere the NWA held sway, and certainly not in Florida.

Elsewhere on the island, the Bahamas Wrestling Association kicked off 1973 with some exhibitions at events like boxing matches at Nassau Stadium and the Mr. Bahamas international bodybuilding contest. Then, in May, Bahamian pro wrestlers like heavyweight Ed Penn, the Sensational Bahamian Grappler, Super Plus, Black Eagle, Chris Rolle, Little Bugs, and the Question—who was also Arnsel Johnson working under a mask—made a major comeback to the local wrestling scene with a show at the Arawak Auditorium at Oakes Field Airport.

A promotional excerpt taken from The Nassau Tribune on May 31 reveals one of the ways the wrestlers of the BWA suffered from the comparisons to the Florida-based stars who had both inspired and preceded them. The weights of several of the Bahamian wrestlers were disclosed, and Ed Penn, who had been previously listed at 240 pounds, was the only identifiable competitor on the BWA roster to clear the heavyweight limit.

The excerpt from the Tribune also listed Chris Rolle at 135 pounds, Sydney Stuart at 145 pounds, Super Plus at 175 pounds, and Joe Goose at 200 pounds. To a public used to seeing powerhouses like Bob Roop, who easily topped 270 pounds, or Ron Fuller, who stood at 6-foot-8 at minimum, most of the Bahamian newcomers looked downright diminutive, with perhaps a few exceptions like Penn and Johnson.

In late June, the IWA held a show at the 1,200-seat Birdland Arena—a local boxing gym—featuring the Black Angel against Count Von Hess in the main event and an undercard that included Speedy Gonzales, Prince Kukukaya, Miguel Serrano, the Black Panther, and the Golden Gladiator. Not to be overlooked, reigning Bahamas heavyweight boxing champion Leonard “Boston Blackie” Miller was the special guest referee for the show. In addition to training at Birdland, Miller also directed the fighting events there, so the IWA’s affair at the Birdland Arena capitalized on Miller’s influence to attract Nassau residents.

“Birdland couldn’t hold the people that Nassau Stadium could,” said Johnson. “Nassau Stadium was also a more famous name. Everyone used to go there for boxing, wrestling, and any kind of sports. Birdland was a much smaller venue.”

Apparently, the local Bahamian wrestlers had difficulty competing against their Floridian counterparts for the hearts and dollars of Nassau’s wrestling fans. Just one week prior to the Bahamas gaining independence, promoter Leslie Fox lashed out against “totally foreign wrestling shows” in an article published by The Nassau Tribune on July 3.

In that article, Fox threatened to lodge a formal complaint with the Immigration Department, the Ministry of Education, and the Ministry of Finance in an effort to motivate the government “to do something to protect the sport of wrestling in the country.” It was an indication of how politicized the hosting of professional wrestling events had become in the Bahamas, with fans who turned up in support of shows featuring foreign talent committing an act Fox might have equated with treason.

“If there was no competition from foreign wrestlers, then the Bahamians would support the local talent,” Fox told Tribune reporter Gladstone Thurston, clearly blaming the IWA, and possibly the specter of the NWA, for the BWA’s comparative inability to attract fans. “I hope that the last wrestling show that was put on will be the last totally foreign show.”

Fox went on to say that most of the proceeds from foreign-run wrestling shows had left the country without Bahamians reaping any sort of financial benefit. He also said that all wrestling cards should be mandated to feature Bahamian performers and offered a parting shot: “If foreigners don’t want to compete with the Bahamian wrestlers, then the government should not grant them their work permit.”

Fox’s gripe was with foreign-run wrestling events indirectly competing with Bahamian shows by being held weeks removed from the BWA events—as opposed to head-to-head on the same evenings. As a result, his accusation that foreigners didn’t wish to compete with Bahamian wrestlers implied that they didn’t wish to physically compete with those wrestlers.

If Fox knew that wrestling matches were predetermined affairs as opposed to legitimate sports contests, his protectionist appeal to fairness would have been simultaneously brilliant and underhanded.

In the eyes of wrestler Kevin Sullivan, who spent several months living in the Bahamas during the heart of his wrestling career, Bahamian wrestlers were tempting fate simply by placing themselves in a scenario where everyday citizens would have been tempted to challenge their toughness.

“The idea that these guys were trying to operate a wrestling territory on such a small island where anyone could get to them at any time, they must have been crazy,” said Sullivan. “They had to be absolutely nuts.”

Modern Bahamian wrestler Omar Amir agrees with Sullivan but also commends the ambition of his predecessors.

“For these guys to try to get something going out of absolutely nowhere, without having any access to high-level training or anything like that, I have to take my hat off to them,” said Amir.

Despite an uncertain road ahead, the first crop of Bahamian professional wrestlers had been produced. Simultaneously, new symbols of Bahamian identity had been established. The red, white, and blue colonial ensign bearing a union jack, which had flown over the islands for more than a century, had been replaced by a tricolored flag of black, aquamarine, and gold. Likewise, the coat of arms that had eulogized the expulsion of pirates from the Bahamas in the early 18th century had been replaced by the slogan: “Forward, upward, onward together.”

No matter how misguided Leslie Fox’s efforts to regulate professional wrestling may have been, they were not in vain. Eleven days after the promoter’s demands were made public, the wrestling card for the Birdland Arena announced the debut of the Bahamian Grappler, a.k.a. Arnsel Johnson, as he teamed with Speedy Gonzales and Jan Marsch to take on the Raiders and the Interns.

Thus, Arnsel Johnson became the first Bahamian to directly participate in a match with and against non-Bahamian wrestlers.

A few weeks later, Bahamas heavyweight wrestling champion Ed Penn was also fully integrated into the IWA shows. The August 4 edition of the Tribune described how he kept his Freeport fans on the edges of their seats at Independence Arena while he demonstrated a fine array of body slams.

During the same event, Speedy Gonzales defeated the Cave Man, and Black Angel teamed with Florida heavyweight champion Li’l Abner Collins in a losing effort. The joint IWA-BWA shows seemed primed to replicate (and replace) CWF’s scheduling pattern, right down to the consecutive nightly performances on the nation’s two most populous islands.

No professional wrestling events were prominently promoted in the Bahamas during the remainder of 1973. Then, advertisements appeared in the newspapers for a wrestling event at Birdland Arena on February 2, 1974, likely causing a great deal of both excitement and confusion for any Bahamians who previously watched local wrestling events.

Unmistakably, the promotional materials advertised wrestling stars Bahamians were accustomed to seeing; the advertisement plainly said “Florida T.V. Stars Wrestling” at the very top and had no fewer than three photos of the popular NWA wrestler Ciclón Negro.

Curiously, Negro was not mentioned by name, while several of the listed wrestlers were easily recognized as performers who had previously appeared on IWA wrestling cards promoted in the area. Three of the wrestlers were members of the Bahamas Wrestling Association, including the Bahamian Grappler.

As it turns out, “Florida T.V. Stars Wrestling” merely alluded to the stars of the IWA, who had acquired a television deal limited to Miami. The advertisement may have used a bit of misdirection to dupe the Bahamian public, but it also seemed to indicate the full-fledged partnership between the BWA and IWA.

With all due respect, none of the IWA wrestlers involved in the presentation were heralded as stars anywhere in the United States. Moreover, the practice of labeling wrestlers as Bahamian (albeit sometimes falsely) in the advertisements for the shows was a clear indication that Leslie Fox and others had successfully pressured the IWA and Birdland crews into hosting wrestling events with a nearly 50 percent rate of Bahamian representation.

Despite the IWA’s cooperation with Fox’s wishes, they had evidently not been made mandatory, nor did everyone adhere to them. Just two weeks later, Charlie Major would announce an appearance by Florida’s real television wrestling stars. CWF made its return to Nassau Stadium on March 16, boasting a main event between Dusty Rhodes and Jos LeDuc and an undercard of the Alaskans against Louie Tillet and Paul LeDuc, “Cowboy” Bill Watts versus the Texan, and one other “all-star match” yet to be named.

Back in Florida, Dusty Rhodes had just completed a babyface turn and was in the process of rebranding himself as the American Dream. Swept up in the swell of Rhodes’s popularity, CWF would be carried to loftier heights than the organization had ever seen before.

CWF’s return to the Bahamas was momentary, but its seeming reemergence may have startled its unwary and ill-equipped opposition into immediate retreat. The next wrestling show to take place at the Birdland Arena featured no involvement from the IWA, and the roster was composed entirely of Bahamian wrestlers.

Less than one year after his public appeal to impose limitations on wrestling companies with rosters composed entirely of non-Bahamians, Leslie Fox was about to see his work come to life. A wrestling company with a talent roster formed exclusively of Bahamians would now be able to conduct business without regular competition from outside companies.

Birdland had renamed itself as the House of Champions just prior to April of 1974, and its all-Bahamian show would feature Bahamas heavyweight champion Ed Penn in a contest with Joe Goose, who had recently defeated the Bahamian Grappler for the middleweight title.

By the next month, another obstacle to running a local wrestling company in a place as small as Nassau became glaringly obvious. Without also having a television program as a conduit through which rivalries and fan interest could be cultivated, the shows became extremely repetitive; the same wrestlers competed against each other every week without story lines to drive them and without any allusions to local, regional, or world rankings.

In the world of Bahamian athletics, fans were consistently apprised of the progress of boxers like Leonard Miller and Elisha Obed on the world stage. In particular, Obed was in the process of smashing through every American who dared step in the ring with him en route to the North American Boxing Federation Light Middleweight Championship. Fittingly, the local Nassau newspapers were rife with coverage of the first Bahamian boxer to so much as sniff world championship gold as he ascended the ranks of world-class boxing.

In comparison, the Bahamas Wrestling Association was not connected to any reputable governing bodies that could lend credence to its championships, nor could it dangle additional forms of motivation in front of its wrestlers. There were no Caribbean or Pan-American championships for Bahamian heavyweight wrestling champion Ed Penn to aspire to win since his local promotion was cut off from the established wrestling organizations of North America that offered championships with greater prestige.

As unconventional as the BWA may have been, it did manage to extend the reach of professional wrestling to previously untouched islands of the Bahamas, including Great Exuma and Inagua, which had population totals in the hundreds at the time.

Beginning in late May, the standard Bahamian practice of selling naming rights to local sponsors made its way into the BWA’s outings. At the May 25 event, the Bahamas Beverage Company offered up the Pepsi-Q Trophy to the winner of the tag team encounter that pitted the Bahamian Grappler and Iron Man Destroyer against Joe Goose and Alec Hall.

In June, newcomer Coca-Cola Flash debuted, a name choice that would certainly be legally actionable in many other nations and that would likely baffle outsiders who were unfamiliar with the sponsored naming practices in organized Bahamian sports.

The acquisition of Bahamian sports sponsors on a local level has led to some naming practices that would shock non-Bahamians, which is perhaps best exemplified by the “Kentucky” basketball team of the 1970s. Playing in the top division of the Bahamian Amateur Basketball Association, the Kentucky team was sponsored by the local Kentucky Fried Chicken affiliate.

This directly overlapped with the existence of the highly successful American Kentucky Colonels basketball organization: a team that actively played in the American Basketball Association and that had come close to winning a second championship in four seasons.

On June 18, Marty Goldstein, cited by The Nassau Tribune as the Bahamas Wrestling Club director, made a public plea in the paper for Bahamians to support the all-Bahamian wrestling cards hosted at the House of Champions.

“At present, six amateurs are hard at training, trying to join the pro ranks,” Goldstein told the Tribune. “However, if the fans don’t realize what they are missing and lend their support, the fellows will just have to quit.”

It was a frustration that Arnsel Johnson and the rest of his team were forced to contend with constantly.

“At that time, people didn’t pay much attention or concern about the Bahamian wrestlers,” said Johnson. “They thought we just didn’t have it. ... There were some people who used to be there all the time. Sometimes you had to tell them, ‘Ain’t nothin’ happenin’ today.’ The children around the time really enjoyed the shows. The mothers and fathers used to come around us and tell them it was time to come home because we would be up wrestling and training until 11 p.m. or midnight.”

In fact, Johnson had hoped to teach children how to wrestle, at least in the legitimate Greco-Roman style.

“I was asking the big officials in government if I could teach wrestling in the schools after 3 p.m.,” said Johnson. “The people told me straight and plain, ‘That is too dangerous, and you shouldn’t be doing it because you could break somebody’s arm or break somebody’s leg.’ After they told me they couldn’t do it because it was too dangerous, I lost all interest in it.”

Johnson was also eternally grateful for everything Goldstein had done for him and the rest of his friends in the BWA.

“Marty Goldstein was one of the best and nicest men I’ve ever met,” said Johnson. “If you wanted something and he had it, he was going to give it to you. He would come to you and ask you questions, and he would sit down and actually listen to you. He would do everything he possibly could to look out for you.”

By the time the middle of July rolled around, Goldstein and his crew had made an effort to address one of the perceptible shortcomings with their presentations. In a July 13 Tribune article that called the Bahamian Grappler “the Elisha Obed of wrestling,” it was announced that the Grappler would become the first Bahamian to compete for an international wrestling title when he challenged “the United States middleweight champion.”

The Grappler, the article went on to say, had waited five years for this opportunity, likely starting the clock at the time when Johnson had first been inspired by the presence of Jack Brisco in Nassau Stadium. Unsurprisingly, the identity of the U.S. middleweight champion that the Grappler would be challenging went undisclosed; middleweight championships in pro wrestling were virtually unheard of outside of Mexico and Great Britain.

Wrestling at the House of Champions continued sporadically beyond 1975, but most of the active participants of the BWA began to develop other interests, and their events began to receive less notoriety.

All things considered, for a neighborhood wrestling club that sprouted up spontaneously in the middle of Nassau to have blossomed into an interisland touring organization was a remarkable achievement. Johnson and his team had done an admirable job of keeping the spirit of professional wrestling alive after performances by major American wrestling companies had essentially ceased.

“We did the best we could at the time,” Johnson stated. “The most important thing I think you should take away from a person who was trying to do the best they could at the time is to continue it.”

In the aftermath of the BWA’s dissolution, which Johnson believes to have been formalized around 1978, wrestling entered into a second golden era on the islands. With the restrictions of Bahamianization efforts loosening, CWF and Charlie Major Sr. were once again able to easily acquire work permits.

The push to increase performances in the Bahamas in 1982 was led by Dory Funk Jr., the CWF booker at the time. After seeing how Black babyface wrestlers Sweet Brown Sugar and Butch Reed became instantly popular with Nassau Stadium audiences, Funk commissioned the creation of the NWA Bahamas Heavyweight Championship and had Sweet Brown Sugar defeat him on July 3 to become the inaugural holder of the title.

“It was our desire to have the Bahamas as a part of the Florida territory, and we thought Sweet Brown Sugar was the guy to get the job done,” said Funk. “That’s why we put the belt on him. On a business scale, it was good business going into the Bahamas.”

Also riding the wave of wrestling’s surge in popularity with a new generation of Bahamian fans were local boxing promoters Kevin Smith and Charlie Thompson. Cycling through a host of upstart wrestling organizations and promoters—including the Fabulous Moolah, Boris Malenko, and Burt Baum—the Poinciana Sports Arena, which Thompson owned, hosted several independent wrestling companies throughout the early 1980s. Several of those shows featured former wrestlers from the BWA, although they were typically relegated to curtain-jerking duties during the shows’ opening contests.

Tiger Conway Jr. and Tyree Pride

Moreover, nearly all of those companies included Black wrestlers in main event roles, including a Saint Lucian by the name of Samuel Peter, who first appeared in the Bahamas for the Malenkos as Tyree Pride, wrestled as the champion of Burt Baum’s International World Wrestling Association, and then changed his national affiliation to become a top draw for CWF in the Bahamas and southern Florida as the Haitian Sensation.

While the Bahamas Wrestling Association did have an inauspicious end, it was followed by an era where Black professional wrestlers were heavily featured in the island nation. However, to the Bahamian public, the importance of having Black faces in wrestling was lessening because Bahamian athletes were achieving increasing success in mainstream sports. In the 1970s and 1980s, Bahamians were treated to their countrymen’s first victories at the highest levels of American team sports, from Ed Armbrister of the Cincinnati Reds to Mychal Thompson of the Los Angeles Lakers.

Consistent professional wrestling had been phased out of Nassau completely by the time World Championship Wrestling made its second and final appearance in Nassau in 1994: The event advertised Sting and Rick Rude competing for the WCW World Heavyweight Championship and Ricky Steamboat and Steve Austin competing for the U.S. title.

At the same time, the island nation was coming into its own as an international track-and-field powerhouse—at least in a per capita sense—and was gaining ground as a tropical outpost where high-level sports competitions could be staged. This arguably began with the World’s Strongest Man competition of 1995 and evolved with multiple early-season NCAA basketball tournaments, along with the Bahamas Bowl, which served as one of the many postseason bookends to the NCAA football season.

Still, as far as wrestling history is concerned, the takeover of Nassau by the Bahamas Wrestling Association represents a brief and rarely mentioned moment in wrestling history, where a grassroots pro wrestling organization—created by the people, of the people, and for the people—rose up and did its best to fill the void left by the exodus of the beloved wrestlers from Florida. It was bold, it was boisterous, it was Bahamian, and it was unmistakably Black.

Ian Douglass is a journalist and historian who is originally from Southfield, Michigan. He is the coauthor of several pro wrestling autobiographies and is the author of Bahamian Rhapsody, a book about the history of professional wrestling in the Bahamas, which is available on Amazon. You can follow him on Twitter (@StreamGlass) and read more of his work at