Before he was the general manager of SmackDown, a delusional King of the Ring winner or five time (five time, five time!) World Championship Wrestling World Champion, Booker T was a kid finding his way on the heated streets of Houston. One of eight siblings, things got rough for Booker after the death of his mother, when he was left to fend for himself while his closest relatives exposed him to drugs, prostitution and other criminal activities. But even in his darkest moments, Booker was able to find ways to enjoy himself as is chronicled in From Prison to Promise: Life Before the Squared Circle. Co-written by Andrew William Wright, From Prison to Promise follows Booker’s life of breakdancing (and the first time he did the spinaroonie), dealing drugs and other hardships up to the point that he and his brother Lash first tasted success in the wrestling ring. With the book recently on store shelves, Booker T talks to Wrestling with Pop Culture about the hardships he faced and his hopes that From Prison to Promise might help others avoid the setbacks he had to overcome.
This book reveals some pretty funny things about a young Booker T, such as your love of country music and Richard Petty. I think a lot of people will be surprised by some of the things you were into.
Yeah, I grew up on that kind of stuff. The Doobie Brothers, Crosby, Stills and Nash, James Taylor – you never would have imagined some of the stuff I listened to. Still today I’m a music connoisseur. I love music, but today’s music is a little bit hard to grasp.
Throughout the early part of your life, you make references to wrestling here and there and emulate its stylings in various ways. But the book doesn’t talk much about how influential wrestling was on you until the point where you actually started training to wrestle. Did you follow wrestling very closely when you were younger or was it something you got into more as you got older?
I was always a fan of wrestling, but I never looked at wrestling the way most kids do, I guess because of the way I grew up. So when I watched wrestling, I always watched it from a purely entertainment perspective – I always knew the guys were out there performing and entertaining for us. So I watched it and liked it, but I also watched All My Children, General Hospital and The Three Stooges. I watched everything when I should have been studying my books. It’s all just part of my makeup of who I am.
Even when you were doing things like robbing Wendy’s, selling drugs and going to prison, the book still portrays you with a sense of humbleness and uncertainty. How hard was that struggle for you to decide what was right and wrong, especially considering the influence of those around you?
I wasn’t a bad kid. There are a lot of kids out there that aren’t bad, but there’s a lot of bad kids out there, too. So it’s hard for the system to decide who should get a break and who shouldn’t. But I think they should be able to see some stuff like that because I was a first-time offender and that was the first time I had ever been in trouble. But kids from better neighborhoods perhaps would have gotten probation or would have gotten out of it with a slap on the wrist. Where I was from may have played a role in it, but one thing I always try to tell young people is that life isn’t fair. So you can’t blame yourself for what happens after you get in a situation. You’ve just got to try and steer yourself away from getting into those situations, first and foremost, and you won’t have to figure out whether the system is being fair to you or not. It was my choice to get in that position. There’s no gray area between right and wrong and I knew I was part of something that was wrong. I knew I had to pay for it somehow and if it was going to prison, then I had to go through that. And I went through it and after I came out of it I put it behind me and never went that route again.
Between going to prison and your brother’s influence after prison, that’s oddly what got you into shape and interested in pursuing wrestling.
I always followed my brother around and wanted to be like my brother, even before we got into the wrestling business. When we lived together, he worked out and had all the girls while I was a skinny guy and had no girls. So my brother has always been an inspiration in some form of my life. He’s always been the guy I looked up to and wanted to emulate. So he definitely helped me follow my passions and I think it helped out a lot.
You started training to wrestle in 1991 and it wasn’t long after that that you were already on WCW television. What do you attribute that rapid progression to?
Wrestling, for me, was like déjà vu: it seemed like I had been there before even though I hadn’t. It came very, very easy for me, but I had some great teachers as well. I watched a lot of Bruce Lee movies as a kid, so I tried to create my own style and put something different out there. But it was all pretty easy for me.
I don’t know if it was your doing or that of your coauthor, but I loved the King Arthur reference, which sort of foreshadowed the King Booker persona we’d see you take on years after the events in the book.
I gave him a little bit of creative levity, but that’s what’s good about working with a team. I put all my thoughts down, so everything in the book is my thoughts. And towards the beginning, before I was getting in trouble, it almost feels like a feel-good story. But it was actually the beginning of my demise before I saw the light at the end of the tunnel. But it’s very in-depth and tells my whole upbringing. I didn’t have a lot of education, but I have a lot of street knowledge. That’s what enabled me to figure my way out in this life.
How much of what you learned during that time would you say you still use today in your role as SmackDown general manager and other roles you play in life?
Well, you always got to have street knowledge. One thing I’ve always been willing to do is handle things diplomatically, but sometimes you’ve just got to take the gloves off and fight. That’s one thing I’ve always been pretty good at because I’ve been fighting my whole life. A lot of people didn’t know my background until now and it’s really hard to judge a book by its cover, no pun intended, when you don’t know a guy’s background.
What kind of reactions have you gotten from the people you talk about in the book?
Everybody’s given me positive insight on the book. It’s real, and my family didn’t even know a lot of the stuff that happened in the book with myself, with my sister’s struggles and how things really were when we were young kids. For those who’ve had a chance to read it, they may have a better understanding of the person I am today and why I don’t back down from nothing or take no for an answer. I just don’t do that as a man due to what I’ve gone through. I accept no excuses from the young kids at my wrestling school because of what I went through as a young man, having to go out there and not be on welfare, not take government assistance and still struggle and find my way through. I always say, “If I can make it, anybody can.” I give breaks here and there, but not very many.
From Prison to Promise follows your life up to the point that you started to get big opportunities in wrestling. Do you plan on writing another book that picks up where this one ends or that gets more into your wrestling career?
Everybody’s asking for it and the publisher is already talking about it. But I want to make this book special, get it into the right hands and focus on it first. This is the beginning of something for my life and career after wrestling. Now it’s time for me to roll my sleeves up, put my hard hat on and go to work to start really helping some people in this life. So I want to make this thing special and reach out to the prison systems, the schools and everybody that might be in a similar position I was in.
Before I started recording, you joked about seeing this story on the big screen, but with all the movies WWE Studios has been cranking out, do you think a film adaptation might be a possibility?
It’s definitely a possibility, but I don’t know if WWE could handle that kind of a movie. It might have to be somewhere else, to be honest, because I don’t know if the WWE audience is ready to see Booker T from that perspective. It needs to be real, it can’t be sugar coated. There was this movie back in the day that I watched when I was a kid called The Mack. It was a blaxploitation movie, but it was my life as a young man getting his education. Life is life and we move on and I’m in a better place now.