From the moment he steps through the curtain, Devon Monroe inverts every convention in professional wrestling.
Since its days as a circus sideshow, American professional wrestling has always been a tournament of machismo. Today’s fans grew up during the steroid era of the '80s and the testosterone car crash of the '90s and '00s, rooting for barrel-chested gladiators. Monroe meets none of those expectations.
The 22-year-old performer comes to the ring draped in a gay pride flag, his cheekbones polished into gems. At 5’11” and 155 lbs, he's bird-chested and sharp around the shoulders. He gambols to the ring like a Drag Race contestant, flaunting his ass to the crowd. When the bell finally rings, he flitters from turnbuckle to turnbuckle, a smirk drawn across his face.
Monroe was born in St. Paul, and grew up on Minneapolis’s north side. His older cousin introduced him to wrestling through video games, toys, and WWE Monday Night Raw. Monroe was entranced by the spectacle of it, imagining himself in those main events--even if he didn’t look like anyone onscreen.
“It was always something that, in the back of my mind, I wanted to do, but I never really thought that I could,” says Monroe. “Being Black and gay, it wasn't really something that I saw on TV.”
Though he never played organized sports (“My parents didn't want to put me into sports because I misbehave,” he says, “which is kind of true”), Monroe displayed a preternatural athleticism from a young age. But more than that, he was unflaggingly confident. He was on the dance team at Coon Rapids High School, and only months after graduating in 2017, he bundled those two things together and enrolled in The Academy: School of Professional Wrestling to train under former WWE star Ken Anderson.
On his first day, Monroe posted a picture of Anderson lecturing him and the other recruits. “Room full of talent,” he captioned the Instagram post, “but I was born to stand out.”
At the Academy, Devon excelled, developing his fast-paced, lucha libre-inspired style almost on instinct. Three months in, he started crafting the Devon Monroe persona. Monroe is arrogant, reveling in his vanity. He calls himself Black Sexcellence. This level of cockiness is typically reserved for heel wrestlers, but Monroe is a crowd favorite, another pro wrestling institution he turns on its head.
“Wrestling has kind of always been just like a macho, big, white man's sport,” Monroe says. “I'm gay, I'm Black, and I'm not the only one who's Black and queer who can do this. Let me show you that I can be one of the hardest hitters out there.”
Gay characters have always been used as a comedic counterpoint to wrestling’s hypermasculinity. In lucha, there are exóticos, or male wrestlers who dress in drag and portray comedic weakness to their more macho opponents. In the 1940s, Gorgeous George emerged as the first world-famous flamboyant wrestler, often cheating to win. Goldust is probably the most popular take on this trope, being presented during WWE’s Attitude Era of the 1990s as a “bizarre” sybarite who other wrestlers refused to grapple with because of his seething sexuality.
Monroe is all these characters at once, but without a single apology. If wrestlers are intimidated by him, it’s because of the ferocious snap in his arm drag. Yes, one of his signature moves is a second-rope hip attack that ends with an opponent taking an ass to the face, but the power is not rooted in gay panic. Monroe’s superpower is his ability to supersede decades of pro wrestling programming.
“Devon Monroe is really just myself turned up to 100,” Monroe says. “Devon Monroe, on a charismatic level, on a star power level, is just everything that I want to be. A star. When I come to that curtain, it comes alive.”
A national spotlight
Prior to joining the Academy, Monroe didn’t even know independent wrestling existed in Minnesota. In fact, he was mulling a move to Texas to begin his training. That was when he reached out to Darius Martin, who formerly wrestled under the ring name Air Wolf. He suggested he come out to Wrestlepalooza.
Monroe did, and a month later, he enrolled at the Academy. That December, he graduated; he was the first openly gay wrestler to do so. On Friday, he’ll wrestle in his third Wrestlepalooza. By this point, Monroe is a house favorite, and fans of Minneapolis’s F1RST Wrestling expect to see him show up on the card. And when he saunters down to the ring, they're elated.
“I am generally well received, which I'm very grateful for because, someone like me, you never know,” Monroe says. “I enjoy the love I get from the audience and it's very reassuring that I'm doing the right thing.”
It’s not just the folks in the building who have come to appreciate Monroe’s talent. In 2020, City Pages named him the Best Pro Wrestler in the Twin Cities. That year, he debuted on Pro Wrestling Illustrated’s industry-defining PWI 500 list at number 413. This year, he jumped 103 spots to number 308, beating out fellow Minnesota mainstays like Arik Cannon, JDX, and even Martin, who now wrestles for major television promotion All Elite Wrestling.
“It's so surreal every time I think about it,” Monroe says. “I never thought that I would get to where I am.”
Though Monroe is deferential and soft-spoken outside the squared circle, you can feel his inherent showmanship simmering just below the surface at all times. He knows that, at just 22, he’s reached a level that most pro wrestlers never do. He’s got his eyes on Wrestlepalooza, but also bigger national promotions like Pro Wrestling Guerilla and Ring of Honor. He knows he deserves it. He’s known since he was a kid slamming action figures together with his big cousin.
“Three years ago, I was on the other side of that guardrail, just being a fan,” Monroe says. “I have 100% faith in myself. I think I can go all the way, and I will, but I gotta keep grinding.”