WWE Network Legends with JBL Review: Booker T talks Hogan, prison and overcoming adversity

This past week, I managed to take Bobby Roode’s new theme off repeat for an hour and a half to watch JBL’s sit-down interview with Booker T on the WWE Network. Great sacrifices are sometimes necessary.

The Legends with JBL strand has never quite been given the same prestige billing as the Stone Cold Podcasts in the Network’s promo trails. For those coming new to it – there are likely to be some – there’s little about the concept that isn’t explained by the title, but there are still a few things to be pleasantly surprised about.

A complaint I’ve had with some of Austin’s Network interviews to date is the nagging feeling, sometimes let slip by Austin himself, that we’re seeing a conversation already covered in a previous episodes of his excellent PodcastOne show (with its added benefits of a liberal tongue and no Stamford oversight). It sometimes feels like two people going over old ground and just shooting the breeze.

Not so here. From the outset, JBL is at pains to point out the background to Booker’s extraordinary story only came as a recent revelation to him, despite he and Book going back more than 20 years. From the outset he sells the interview as the first chance he’s had to raise this stuff, then sits back as the audience’s conduit and soaks up the story with fascination. It works. JBL does incredulity very well.

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A word about JBL before we get into the meat of the discussion: Not only isn’t this the John Bradshaw Layfield of the commentary desk, but he comes out as one of the better longform interviewers in the company. He’s on hand to inject the odd bit of levity and color to anecdotes when needed, but he keeps the focus resolutely on his subject. He knows when to cajole and prod Booker forward and when to let him talk. He takes his time over key questions to carefully frame the next part of the discussion and isn’t afraid to challenge Booker on some of his responses when required.

This is all kind of essential stuff for an interviewer, but not everyone nails the balance like JBL does here. Without a “ballgame” (or a “shucky ducky quack quack” for that matter) in sight, this interview might be the perfect antidote for anyone feeling jaded by the overproduced, commentary desk versions of these guys over the past few years.

This brings us on to Booker T himself. “The fact that you’re sitting here right now,” says JBL at the beginning, “it’s gotta be a one-in-a-hundred-million chance.”

Harlem Heat

Wrestling is hardly mentioned in the first 30 minutes – and you hardly notice. The discussion takes in a timeline where Booker lost his parents young (his father at 10 months, his mother at 13 years) and had to fend for himself, ultimately dropping out of school and finding himself in the wrong crowd. It’s the beginning point for a remarkable rise to a Hall of Fame career.

Booker’s candor is present from the outset, talking aloud about the conflict between his upbringing and intentions to be a positive member of society, against a combination of circumstances and ignorance leading him down a different road. He was working in a crack den by 15, he saw people get shot and stabbed and ended up robbing 26 branches of Wendy’s around Houston. “I felt like a kid that just had no light at the end of the tunnel,” Booker notes.

The discussion about ‘The Wendy’s Bandits’ and the consequences when they were caught – two five-year terms in prison – is a fascinating study of peer pressure, bad choices and eventual redemption.

When the chat turns to wrestling, we’re on slightly more familiar ground. Booker’s journey with Stevie Ray, first as The Ebony Experience in the Global Wrestling Federation and then Harlem Heat in WCW takes in some interesting notes on backstage politics, while the extent to which Book credits his brother with helping set up his life after prison and wrestling career makes me want to go back and watch the 2013 Hall of Fame again with a new appreciation for how much Stevie Ray is a hero of Booker’s story.

Booker’s singles career is reflected on through the significance of his first Television Title win in WCW, the many world title wins, the failures and missed opportunities of the Invasion angle, his awkward WWE debut against Buff Bagwell and the enjoyment he took from the ‘King Booker’ gimmick. His fight with Batista, at a Summerslam video shoot in 2006 is also discussed in some detail; Booker explains how as a matter of respect he felt he had to get into it and that Batista and he had buried the hatchet about it since. He also explains how, coming out of it, he promised Vince McMahon he would try to walk away from the fight if something similar happened in the future. Vince’s response apparently was “only if you have to”.

One of the last big topics of conversation – before finishing on the positive of Booker’s Hall of Fame induction – was on issues of race in wrestling which, inevitably, included the events for which Hulk Hogan is currently persona non grata.

Booker says he was disappointed in Hogan, but had never known him to be a racist, pointing out that he was pivotal in bringing Harlem Heat together with Sensational Sherri, to the benefit of their careers. He notes how Hogan called him after the news broke to apologise.

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Both Booker and JBL are very judicious in rationalising Hogan’s remarks in context and note that, while what Hogan said was absolutely inexcusable, it shouldn’t necessarily be unforgivable. “I don’t think anybody should be thrown under the bus for the rest of their life for saying something behind closed doors that happened many years ago,” says Booker, noting he hopes Hogan will be given a chance at redemption down the line.

Hogan’s use of language is something where both men in the interview still have criticism, with Booker noting that when he’d spoken to Hogan he extended an invitation to come onto his radio show and to speak to kids together around the country in an effort to eradicate use of the ‘N’ word. The invitation was declined, which Booker describes as a “really really big mistake”. “I just wish he would’ve took me up on my offer, went on the road with me and spoke to kids about this word,” he says.

If there’s one limitation of the interview that slightly disappointed me, it’s here: When you’ve discussed things like death, criminal acts, company politics and backstage fights so candidly and, moving on to the subject of racism, specifically highlight Hogan’s unwillingness to help campaign against the use of the ‘N’ word as a mistake in his path to rehabilitation, some of the things you then leave out start to become more notable than the things you include.

So if you’re wondering whether Vince McMahon’s infamous promo from Survivor Series 2005, in which the scripted word brings a “tell me he didn’t just say that” from Booker, is brought up – even to be rationalised for the sake of balance – it isn’t. Maybe it was discussed but didn’t make the final edit. I can understand why that might be, but I was a little disappointed not to hear it addressed.

If anything though, this speaks volumes for how honest and expansive the rest of the interview is. Questions over race issues in wrestling (as well as other social issues like the penal correction system in America) are approached with real intelligence and nuance. This, along with JBL’s previous discussion with Ron Simmons (referenced again during this interview), is probably the best current commentary on the subject you’ll find on WWE’s output.

There’s also much more in the detail than this summary review can get over. If you have some downtime – cooking, washing the car, whatever it might be – I’d recommend watching this for yourself. Booker’s story is worth hearing.

With our cynical hats on, we’d think we can probably guess the products that will come out of the WWE’s “Studios” arm in a typical year; another installment of The Marine, another nail in the coffin of a favorite childhood cartoon, another kid-centric cheese-fest at Christmas. I could even get on board with the last of these if one of them ever centred around New Day as unicorn reindeer, dropping the power of positivity (and sphincter-themed cereal) down chimneys.

But WWE doesn’t seem to touch biopics, seemingly considering them the territory of documentaries with talking heads and archive footage. But when a life has as much drama and as many twists as Booker T’s, you wonder whether they should start considering it. After all, the traditional biggest challenge with sports biopics – capturing the on-field/on-track/in-ring action believably – should be a walk in the park for them. Booker’s life would make one hell of a film.

In the meantime, JBL’s upcoming interviewees include Sting, Alundra Blayze and Bruno Sammartino. More of this please, WWE.

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