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Kingdom Come: Booker T’s Influence Will Be on Full Display During WrestleMania Weekend

With almost 40 years in the sport, WWE Hall of Famer Booker T brings a lot of experience to the table. Lucky for tomorrow’s superstars, Booker is eager to teach.

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Booker T has worn about as many hats, both physical and metaphorical, as you can in professional wrestling. He’s been a trainee, eager to learn his craft. He’s been a tag team specialist, the lightning to older brother Stevie Ray’s thunder as the decorated WWE Hall of Fame unit Harlem Heat. He’s been a hungry young challenger, competing against the likes of Fit Finlay and Perry Saturn for the WCW World Television Championship. He’s worn a camouflage cap as G.I. Bro, the paramilitary hero of the Misfits in Action. And, of course, he’s worn that gold-dipped, ruby-encrusted crown as King Booker, WWE World Heavyweight champion. But heading into NXT Stand & Deliver, it’s the dad hat he’s reaching for: His experience, coaching, and wisdom will resonate across Los Angeles the entire week.

It’s February 3, 1997. Booker T and Stevie Ray are taking on Rick and Scott Steiner. At this point, Rick is still decorated in his Trapper Keeper graphic–style singlet, while pre–“Big Poppa Pump” Scott opts for an all-black vinyl one with a metallic belt. The match isn’t much different from their previous contests: The Steiners are employing suplex after suplex while Harlem Heat shows off style-bending kicks inspired by martial arts that are uncommon for men over 6-foot-3 and 250 pounds. As Harlem Heat starts to get the advantage, Booker T shoots Rick off the ropes, goes under him as he passes, then attempts to leapfrog him. Rick, familiar with the sequence, catches Booker midair and drives him to the mat with a modified suplex/spinebuster. These are the types of things that stick out to a man with a career that’s just entered its 30th year. “[Rick and I] invented that,” Booker says, reflecting on his time against the Steiners. “Me and Scott, we went out and we wrecked shop many a time. Really great matches. Me and Rick as well. Me and Rick, we actually invented the spot where [you] leapfrog into the powerslam.” He immediately sees the parallels between his wars, both solo and tag, against the Steiners and Stand & Deliver’s main event: challenger Carmelo Hayes taking on current NXT champion—Rick’s son and Scott’s nephew—Bron Breakker. Hayes, much like Booker, doesn’t come from a wrestling background or lineage. After catching fire on the independent circuit, Hayes’s brash attitude and otherworldly athleticism have him at the forefront of the next generation of WWE standouts. Breakker, like his uncle and father before him, was a collegiate standout, averaging over 8 yards per touch his senior year as a running back for the Kennesaw State Owls. An imposing figure, Breakker continues his family’s legacy of blazing speed and unmatched power once harnessed in a wrestling ring.

Booker T and Scott would feud over the WCW World Heavyweight title during the latter days of the promotion, but it’s hard not to imagine what could have been if they were put in that position closer to the heights of the Monday Night Wars. Booker doesn’t think Bron and Melo will face those same hurdles. “Bron Breakker’s actually out there doing it. But those guys, they have a chance. They have an opportunity to go out and deliver. Absolutely deliver in the biggest way. I mean, they’re going to have the crowd. They’re going to have the people there pushing for them. They’re going to have everybody in the back pulling for them to go out there and really shine like new money. I’m talking about put the rocket on them and send it straight to the moon. Those two guys, Carmelo and Bron Breakker, they are the pillars here in NXT. And to see those two mix it up one-on-one for the first time, it’s going to be awesome, man. So I hope they’re ready. Like I say, preparation is the only luck they’re ever going to have. … When you have a moment, it could be there; in the next moment, it could be gone just like that. So take advantage of it.”

Booker isn’t pulling for one guy or the other, so he’s always willing to offer advice to either competitor. Hayes has said that some coaches’ explanations don’t always add up the first time, but Booker T can relay the same information in a different way, and the light will go on. “[Hayes is] going to gravitate to me because he’s a young brother just like me once upon a time. And I always talk about young Black kids getting into this business. And for me to be the one that tried to give them that blueprint to what it was going to take to make it to the next level, I mean, I’m not talking about just being on the card. I’m not talking about just traveling around the world and having fun. I’m talking about leaving a legacy to where you’re going to be thought of one day as, ‘Man, he was one of the greatest that ever put on a pair of boots; his name rings with the greatest that ever did this.’ That’s what I was thinking about when I was doing it. So to have me around for Carmelo Hayes is awesome.”

While Hayes and Breakker will highlight NXT’s ’Mania event, it’s still up in the air if Booker’s most accomplished Reality of Wrestling student, Roxanne Perez, will be involved in the show. She was forced to take some time away from the ring after collapsing following her successful title defense at Roadblock. When you see Booker gush over her success or hover, straight-faced, as she’s tended to by a medical team, it’s that idea of “gone just like that” playing out in real time. “She’s been amazing as far as catching that rocket, lightning-in-a-bottle effect. It’s been so cool to see it up close and personal as well, being here at NXT, so it’s been awesome. … She did catch on pretty quick. She started at Fantasy Camp. … It’s a five-hour day, and you get a chance to test your mettle. And she was only 16 years old when she did that, and she was like a natural. She definitely was rapid as far as someone that young picking the business up so quickly.” So when you hear him at the NXT commentators’ desk loudly fawning over the young talent, that’s coming from a place of coaching, experience, and appreciation of hard work. And he’s not just rooting for “his kids.” Across the board, Booker T has his eye on the NXT roster. “But even for Pretty Deadly [Kit Wilson and Elton Prince], those guys, to be around for [the former] Toxic Attraction right now, to be around for Tiffany Stratton, it goes deep. And I think the coaching, for me, is something I love. It’s something I really gravitate to. Working with young people is something I really gravitate to.”

One of the biggest matches of WrestleMania proper is Sami Zayn and Kevin Owens challenging the Usos for the Undisputed WWE Tag Team Championship, in a bout that could shape (or shatter) the future of Roman Reigns’s Bloodline. Teams like the Young Bucks, FTR, and the Usos have provided tag team wrestling with a new spotlight, one that shined the brightest, in television visibility numbers, in the mid-’90s. For Stand & Deliver, the men’s and women’s tag team titles will be defended in a standard tag bout and a triple threat, respectively. From a physicality standpoint, the reverberations of Harlem Heat, the Steiners, and the Faces of Fear are echoed through the likes of the Usos, the Creed Brothers, Gallus, and others. And much like two-time WWE Hall of Famer Booker T (as well as Scott Steiner and Meng/Haku before him), performers like Jey Uso and Julius Creed show promise of potentially attaining singles stardom. “It’s about trying to find your niche, find your way into the game. And for me, it was through tag team wrestling. I don’t know if I would [have] ever made it to the point where I did if I would have started out as a tag team wrestler, getting a chance to go out there and hone my craft from a tag team perspective and then having that chance to break off into a singles perspective. … As far as tag team wrestling being back, I’m loving the direction that we’re going right now because I remember the days of my tag team run with my brother, [Marcus] Bagwell, and the Patriot. I remember the Nasty Boys, Road Warriors, the Steiner Brothers. I mean, it was so many tag teams that we had a chance to mix it up and become who we became. So I’m loving seeing these young guys right now trying to recreate that tag team division.”

Time’s been good to Booker T in a way it rarely is to someone with so many city miles on them. At 58, he’s wrestled 25 of the last 30 years. If you’ve followed him since his WCW days, you’ve seen his high-top fade grow into twists, his twists turn into dreads, and his dreads extend past his waist (though they’re usually put into a bun), complete with a Doc Holliday–inspired handlebar mustache. He’s still every bit of 6-foot-3, hovering around his prime weight and waistline, and he can still hit his signature Spinaroonie without needing to lie down at the end. But over the last three decades, he’s spent nearly 19 years coaching and training. He’s been world champion in both WCW and WWE and held multiple titles in TNA, so the idea of needing to train for any financial reason is far-fetched. You’ll normally see wrestlers who are considered legends, especially those at the world title level, step away for outside opportunities or just live off the riches they worked for. He loves this game because the game has been so good to him. “I wasn’t that kid who was getting a pat on the back. I wasn’t that kid that was being told, ‘Hey, man, you could do this.’ I wasn’t that kid that was being told, ‘Man, you’re going to be the greatest NBA player in the world.’ … And I remember being that kid and feeling that way at the same time. So now, I’m in a position to where I can be that beacon, that light, to where I give that kid that pat on the back and tell them, ‘Hey, man, you could do this.’ Not just wrestling. … Life is more than wrestling. For me, it’s about trying to create a utopia where young people can come and get that knowledge that they’re going to need for this journey that they’re getting ready to go on. … I’m just in that position right now, and I’m giving back. My wife [former WWE talent Sharmell] and I, we’ve been in this position with our school now for 18, almost 19 years, and we asked ourselves all the time, ‘Why do we do it?’ But we never stopped doing the work.”

That work is changing lives on the grandest stage and on those that are still being built. Bryan Keith, the only wrestler to date sponsored by the house that Michael Watts built, will face living legend 2 Cold Scorpio in the main event of Game Changer Wrestling’s third For the Culture event. Hyan (who also did the motion capture work for the WWE 2k23 video game) faced fellow Booker T student Athena on Ring of Honor’s revitalized TV show. Tag team Fly Def and standout female wrestler Danni Bee have recently appeared on AEW Dark. Booker—who could go move for move with the cruiserweights one minute and slug it out with the superheavyweights the next—has lasted this long and produced this much talent with a very simple philosophy: “There’s no wrong way of doing this as long as you do it right.” It sounds like a cop-out, but you can check the tapes for proof of him living his raps. The spinebuster he popularized during his WCW TV title days was often referred to as a “sidewalk slam” because of the way he’d pick his opponent up, almost into an Alabama slam, then lay out face forward upon impact. His Harlem Hangover, a somersault leg drop from the top rope, saw him turn his body about 30 extra degrees mid-flip to give the move a bit more speed. So when he sees variation in wrestling, he encourages it, as long as it’s done with crispness and with emphasis. “As long as it works. I remember when I first went to wrestling school and the trainer tried to teach everyone in the school how to work the exact same way, and it was like he worked, and I didn’t like that. I didn’t like it at all. I got in a lot of trouble when I went to wrestling school. I almost got kicked out of the wrestling school a couple of times just because I would go against the grain and because I knew what I liked just because as a kid, when I watched it on Channel 39 in Houston, Texas, man, I knew the good ones from the bad ones. … So for me, I’ve always been a fan of this game, and to be able to do it a little bit different is something I tell my students all about. One thing about wrestling: All the moves are taken. OK. So you got to figure out how to do the same thing everybody else is doing a little bit different. Now, that’s very hard, but that’s the ultimate goal.”

Cameron Hawkins writes about pro wrestling, Blade II, and obscure ’90s sitcoms for Pro Wrestling Torch, Pro Wrestling Illustrated, and FanSided DDT. You can follow him on Twitter at @CeeHawk.