It's easy to fail in the business of professional wrestling. Spots at the top of the sport are limited. Competition is cutthroat. It's an industry that demands talent seize the brass ring. If you wait for it to be handed to you, the only thing you'll be given is a pink slip and a one-way ticket to obscurity.
Charles Wright, better known to WWE fans as The Godfather, will be inducted into the WWE Hall of Fame during WrestleMania weekend because he understood this. And when the time was right, he grabbed ahold of an opportunity and never let go.
After nearly a decade in the business, Wright was still searching for that role that would help him break out from the pack. He was discovered by a pack of wrestlers working on the movie Over the Top and soon enough was learning the ropes at Larry Sharpe's Monster Factory in New Jersey. A brief run on the independent circuit and a tryout match in Arizona arranged by his friend Mark "The Undertaker" Calaway were enough to secure WWE's interest.
"They told me when they came up with something they'd give me a call. I was working at the club in Vegas when the call finally came," Godfather told Bleacher Report in an exclusive interview. "They told me 'we want you to go rent the movie Live and Let Die.
"It's an old James Bond with a voodoo character named Baron Samedi. And that's where Papa Shango came from. As we got into it, I came up with that name. Papa is the surname and Shango means keeper of the grave. It's actually pronounced 'Shane-Go,' but I thought 'Shon-Go' sounded cooler."
It was an idea that probably sounded cool in the writers' room, but was harder to pull off in real life. Papa Shango, wearing elaborate face paint and carrying a stick capped by a skull that emitted smoke, would mutter curses and opponents would collapse in agony. He joined The Undertaker as the only wrestler capable of controlling the arena lights with the power of will alone.
"It was colorful. It was visual and just different," he said. "The lights would go out and Papa Shango would go into a trance and start shaking and convulsing. It was a real scary gimmick. At least it was scaring kids."
As Shango, Wright worked with every top star on the roster, from Hulk Hogan to Bret Hart. But, after an initial run on top, something just didn't quite click. Wrestling was changing, with smaller, more athletic stars replacing the monsters of the 1980s, cartoons giving way to a more gritty and realistic presentation. Most of all, Wright, still new to the business, wasn't quite ready to work as a top star.
"I wish I hadn't been so green at the time," he said. "We probably could have pushed it further. But I had a lot of fun with it."
Kama, the Supreme Fighting Machine, was next, WWE's response to the growing phenomenon of mixed martial arts. Though big and intimidating, Wright lacked the martial prowess to really make the role work and after a brief run that lasted less than a year he was pulled from television again.
By 1997, Wright was back in the fold, this time joining Ron "Faarooq" Simmons in the "bigger, badder and blacker" Nation of Domination. As such, he was on television multiple times a week working across the ring from some of wrestling's biggest stars—and learning from veterans who had seen almost anything the business can throw at you.
"Being the elder statesman of the group, I took it upon myself to be a big brother to all of them and to nurture them in anyway I possibly could," Simmons, who along with JBL will induct Godfather into the Hall of Fame, told Bleacher Report. "He took the time, when he was bewildered about something, he would ask me. No one knows everything in this business. You're always learning. And he was one of the guys who always wanted to know more."
As Kama Mustafa, he and his friend D'Lo Brown stood behind the Nation's leader Simmons and rising star Rocky Maivia as the two bickered over leadership of the group. It was a chance to grow as a performer, but Wright could see that it was also a role with built-in limitations.
"All I did in the Nation was say 'Power to the Nation,'" he said. "At that point, me and D'Lo, we had some tag team matches but they weren't doing too much with us. Everything was The Rock and I said to myself, 'I've got to come up with something.'"
The biggest stars of the late 1990s, known as "the Attitude Era," were pushing the envelope in a major way using exaggerated versions of their own personalities. The Rock worked because he really was the cocky-but-lovable scamp he played on television. "Stone Cold" Steve Austin was convincing as a paranoid redneck butt-kicker because it was an extension of his own personality.
That, Wright's mentor Simmons told him, was the key to making people care.
"Things resonate with people when they are real," Simmons said. "When you portray something that exists in the world, it becomes very easy. When you look out at all the characters in wrestling, sometimes it's hard for them to work because some of them are so fictional and over the top, the people are like, 'Oh, come on. My God. Are you kidding me?'"
Looking to make a chance for himself, Wright began growing out his hair and wearing his own flashy clothes to the ring, including his trademark derby hat. Out of the blue one day a wrestler called him "The Godfather" and said "you look like a pimp." It was a simple beginning to something great.
"I told Rock one day, 'When you address me in the ring, call me the Godfather.' He was like 'what?' And I said 'just do it.' And I was called The Godfather from that point on. And I started slowly developing that character. It got some legs underneath it and it took off."
"It's an edgy and touchy character with so much sexual innuendo," Simmons said. "But it was done at the right time and in the right manner. He had to do it in a way that was entertaining and must-see character without getting underneath people's skins. And it takes a lot of hard work to do that. You must have the charisma, the vocal skills, the physical skills. You couldn't give that character to just anyone."
Using girls from local gentlemen's establishments, The Godfather would lead his "Ho Train" to the ring and the crowd would chant along with his catchphrase "Pimpin' ain't easy."
"You could actually feel the breath from 18,000 people as they repeated it," Godfather said. "It was crazy. Vince (McMahon) told me, 'Charles, you ought to be paying me.' And you know what? He was right. That was the best thing to ever happen to me.
"Of all the personas I've had in wrestling, The Godfather is as close to me as you could ever get. That's my personality, that's my silliness. That's my colorfulness. Those are my clothes. I am The Godfather. That's just Charles Wright playing Charles Wright and being called The Godfather. And that's why I think it took off so well. It wasn't an act. It wasn't pretend. It was me. Not trying to be a voodoo guy. Not trying to be a Supreme Fighter. It was me being me, entertaining people and having fun."
Success is often a matter of timing. In today's more family-friendly WWE, The Godfather would never make it to the screen. But in an era that saw wrestlers communicate via middle finger and crotch chop, it was just one of many gimmicks pushing television censors to their limits.
"It was entertaining. It was fun. It was over," Godfather said. "People were a little bit looser back then and sponsors were a little bit looser back then. It was just a different time. Now you couldn't do that. Back then I didn't have to convince anyone to go with it. You'd have a hard time convincing them now."
More than a decade removed from the spotlight, Wright says people still approach him daily to reminisce about The Godfather and his other wrestling exploits.
"Godfather is legitimately one of toughest guys to have ever been in this business, but more importantly one of the most talented," former WWE champion JBL said. "He took several different characters and got them all over, which is an amazing feat. He is an incredible individual, and I couldn't be happier for my dear friend. The days of us riding together in a car with Ron Simmons all over the world are the stories that should be told at his induction."
And though fans may do a double take when they see his slimmed down form, the product of a cardio routine that has helped him drop 80 pounds from his wrestling days, he will be proud to stand before his public as a newly inducted Hall of Famer.
"I can't wait to see the fans and tell them how much I appreciate them. They don't forget. I really appreciate everything WWE has done for me and I really appreciate all the fans," he said. "It's such a big honor. I never expected to be in the Hall of Fame. Brother, that's for eternity man."
Jonathan Snowden covers combat sports for Bleacher Report.
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