Why you should care
Because he flies through the air, all 280 pounds of him.
As an African-American boy growing up in South Central L.A., Willie McClinton Jr. wasn’t interested in becoming the next Tupac, Michael Jordan or Deion Sanders. Starting as early as age 4, McClinton just wanted to be one thing: the next Hulk Hogan.
“I remember Hulk Hogan talking crap about somebody he was going to beat up at a pay-per-view [event],” the 30-year-old professional wrestler known as Willie Mack says as we peer over the crowded New York Comic Con floor from the El Rey Network booth. “It looked like they were having fun beating people up, traveling the world and people cheering them on. I knew right then that’s what I wanted to do.”
Never mind that Mack would grow up to have a heavyset physique that was less Hulk and more bulk. A quarter-century after seeing the WWE, Mack has become a crowd-owning pro wrestler on the independent scene who is making his mark as part of Lucha Underground, a weekly TV show produced by Mark Burnett (Apprentice, Shark Tank) and Robert Rodriguez’s El Rey Network and broadcast from the Temple, a slightly mythical warehouse space in East L.A. He’s had a long road through heartache, setbacks and homelessness, but here he is, signing autographs for kids who are fans of Willie Mack.
Born in St. Louis and raised in South Central, Mack has a troubled backstory. At three months old, he was placed in foster care after he nearly died in an accidental house fire started by his drug-addicted mother. Mack stayed with his foster mother until he was 14, when she passed away. Soon his father reentered his life, helping push his son’s dreams forward. The day after Mack graduated high school, he enrolled in WPW wrestling school in Anaheim.
“Once I graduated, I went straight to Big Five, bought some knee pads, some wrestling shoes and showed up,” he says. “I trained for about 11 months, then had my first match May 14, 2006.”
A promoter once told me, ‘Your gimmick should be a jungle man. … I told him, ‘Hell, no.’
Watching Mack wrestle, you think your eyes are playing tricks — only it really is a heavyset 280-pound Black man flying around the ring like a lithe gymnast. His athleticism is remarkable for a man of his size and redefines what a big man can do inside the squared circle. Getting his start on the indie wrestling scene, he wrestled in front of small crowds at gymnasiums and warehouses, building a following, but it wasn’t just his body type that held him back.
Historically, African-Americans have had a hard time breaking through in professional wrestling. For dark-skinned pro wrestlers, especially, ugly stereotypes still prevail.
“A promoter once told me, ‘Your gimmick should be a jungle man. You should grow that Afro out, come out with a loincloth and be a bad guy,’ ” Mack reflects. “I told him, ‘Hell, no. I’m just gonna go out there and be me.’ Sure enough, I go out there and instead of them booing me, they were cheering me.”
Refusing to succumb to “gimmicks” helped Mack stand out. He started tearing up the indie circuit, and he got the chance of a lifetime when he was asked to join NXT, WWE’s developmental division, in 2014. Then, just days before he was due to arrive in Orlando, he was released. Rumors swirled, pointing to everything from medical issues to the WWE’s signing of another African-American — Mack contends it’s the latter, and that the medical excuse was meant to deflect from the WWE not wanting two Black wrestlers with similar skills.
With so much invested in the move to Florida, Mack returned to California with his girlfriend, unemployed and depressed. After a couple of months sleeping in their car and crashing on friends’ couches, Mack set to working his way back into the indie scene. A call from Lucha Underground offering him a role on their Wi TV show was his chance to get back on his feet, and his opening match cemented “The Mack” as a major player for the El Rey Network.
“It was basically a ‘we‘re gonna show you’ match,” he reflects of his violent brawl with Brian Cage at Ultima Lucha, the season finale. “We did what we did and guess it turned enough heads to make them insert us into the big picture.”
When asked whether he thinks the WWE may come calling again, Mack isn’t sure, but he suspects they know what he’s up to. “I’m pretty sure they are watching by now and somebody’s like, ‘Why did we let him go?’ ” he says with a laugh.
Happy to have found a home at the Temple, the warehouse space where Lucha Underground is filmed, Mack isn’t ruling out a return to the WWE, but he knows he doesn’t quite fit the mold for the pro wrestling industry. Where some see a gradual shifting away from chiseled bodybuilder types, he’s aware that his journey would be more difficult than most.
“I do think you definitely still need to be an Adonis to take that main event leap, but there’s so much great wrestling out there now it seems like setting yourself apart from the pack is what is in style,” says Bleacher Report’s Kazeem Famuyide, who hesitates before addressing the question of Mack’s race. “I’ll just say, he will have to be extremely special to really break through.”
Whether or not he ever shows up in the WWE is anyone’s guess. But with a childhood full of pain and hardship, what Willie Mack wants is to give his fans what wrestling gave him: an escape.
“When you are in my presence — no matter if it’s for an hour or five minutes — I’m going to make sure my match is the only thing you’re thinking about,” he says. “Forget about everything else outside. Just think about what’s happening right now.”