Tom Büdgen – better known as Malakai Black – is one of the world’s most celebrated professional wrestlers. He is a one-of-a-kind performer: his ring style is a combination of graceful, kinetic movement and fierce strikes, and his visual presentation owes much to his lifelong metal fandom. Black spent five years with wrestling juggernaut WWE but recently left for the upstart national promotion AEW. Since arriving, he’s found the creative freedom that was lacking during his WWE stint. He recently came out on top of a feud with AEW’s top babyface Cody Rhodes and is poised to be one of the company’s centerpiece “heels” (bad guys) moving forward.
When Black was working on his AEW entrance he looked to the world of extreme metal for inspiration. His entrance song is “Ogentroost” from our cover stars Amenra’s latest album De Doorn. Black views both wrestling and metal as disciplines that lend themselves to almost limitless creativity. “Wrestling always gave me more than you vs. me,” he says. “The emphasis is always professional wrestling – two guys trying to best each other. But it has to tie in creatively with story arcs and things people remember. I love when people remember a visual or a moment I created. The moments make professional wrestling.” Black talked to Decibel about growing up as a metal fan in The Netherlands, his lifelong love of Fear Factory, and how he teamed up with Amenra.
First off, congrats. It seems like you fit in very well in your new home, and you’re in a good space creatively.
BLACK: That’s exactly how I would describe it – a good space. In terms of my creativity, this is the most fruitful time in a long time. The creative process has always been there, but the execution hasn’t due to forces outside my control. In AEW, it’s completely different. I run stuff by Tony (Khan, AEW president) and Tony tells me what he likes about it. We have an open, honest conversation about it. For the most part, Tony has been ok with what I’ve pitched. I’ve been almost in complete control outside of running it by Tony. It’s not like I take matters into my own hands and do what I want to do. It needs to be approved. But there is room for many things in AEW, and I’m thankful there is room for how I think and see professional wrestling.
It seems like AEW has taken a page from wrestling’s past. Wrestlers live or die on their ability to put together a promo and character.
BLACK: That’s a good way of looking at it. I think there is something to be said for both ends of the spectrum. I will say that for me, as a professional wrestler, this works. This is where I’ve found my drive and calling and where I feel most comfortable.
Were you a big metal fan growing up?
BLACK: One hundred percent. I grew up with a lot of guitar music. My Dad was into Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young, Fleetwood Mac, and Dire Straits. My brother had a childhood friend named Bart, who was heavily into Iron Maiden. Bart was one of the cool guys. My brother came home with a tape that said “Iron Maiden/Metallica.” I popped it in one day and heard “Bring Your Daughter To The Slaughter” and “One.” That’s how it started. As I got older, I got into hardcore and black metal. The first album I ever bought when I was 12 or 13 was Fear Factory’s Demanufacture. I got big into Biohazard and Immortal and then transitioned to Dimmu Borgir. I started tasting everything from alternative music. It wasn’t like I was into music genre A or music genre B. Anything with guitars and loud noises was good.
Everyone who gets into metal gets into it through a troublemaker older brother, or friend.
BLACK: My brother was a good straight-A student, and I was the troublemaker!
Has wrestling and metal always commingled for you? Were you into both from a young age?
BLACK: Wrestling came before metal. I was five or six when I was exposed to pro wrestling. There’s something about pro wrestling and metal — they both strike a chord with people. Alternative music and wrestling have a lot in common. Independent wrestling has an underground feel you find at hardcore or metal shows. There’s a DIY vibe, especially in those gritty indy shows.
When you mulled coming to AEW, how did you know Amenra was the right band for your entrance music?
BLACK: I’ve known Amenra for quite a few years. They have a lot of ties to the Netherlands, and they sing in Dutch. I like their atmospheric approach. I’d almost describe listening to them or watching them live as a deep, religious experience. They are such unique individuals, and the music is acquired taste. Even if it’s not your taste, you can still appreciate what they do. That aesthetic is always something I wanted to put forward.
Ogentroost is a herb used for the eyes. It’s medication. When I heard that song, it overtook me, and I said: “This has to be it.” But I didn’t know how I would pull it off. I know the guys but didn’t know if what I do is something they’d see themselves associated with. They are very talented and deep thinkers. Somehow, when I showed them the character and the aesthetics, they got it. It was also a good way to get some footing in the US. Hopefully, when people can start traveling, I can help them get exposure. They are a band you have to see.
Did you hear from them the night you debuted?
BLACK: They loved it. The frontman was actually on holiday in Mexico and was able to see it live. They were all very excited, and they all messaged me. It was a good feeling. It’s nice when you’ve been in a position where you felt creatively up against the wall to have these moments. Even though it took ten months to get there, everything paid off in the right way.
Tell me about the visuals of your ring entrance and the mask.
BLACK: The mask is based on the Celtic god Cernunnos. There’s not a lot known about him. He was referred to as the horned god. Anyone who knows what I did with the Tommy End and Aleister Black characters knows there are always ties to the occult and mythology and alternative history. I thought this was a good presentation because Cernunnos was worshipped in low Celtic lands like the Netherlands back in the days of Julius Caesar. It felt very cool to introduce this Celtic tribal lore that a lot of people don’t know, but that plays a big part in the history of Europe. I’m working on several different masks that will affect the aesthetics and presentation of Malakai.
How many fans pick up on all the symbols and hidden meanings you put out there? Do many fans just say that it sounds and looks cool?
BLACK: We did these cult-like promos when I did the Tommy End character and the (tag team) The Sumerian Death Squad. I’ve always had a knack for theatrics. When I got released from WWE, I did a video to explain some of the artistic and more detailed parts of my character. Since I couldn’t express myself I tried to say it in the linings of my promos or even in my wrestling gear. After that, people started dissecting promos and even making videos. I get a lot of satisfaction out of people wanting to decipher what I do.
Your colleague Chris Jericho (also of Fozzy) recorded several Nasty Savage tracks with death metal legends to raise money for charity. Have you talked about metal at all?
BLACK: Jericho is no slouch. I was wearing a Death shirt, and he came up to me and talked about it. Jericho’s love of music goes a lot deeper than people think. Just because his music has more of a mainstream flare, people assume he isn’t into darker metal, but he is. But we haven’t gotten into the nitty-gritty because the conversation diverges into wrestling, travel, or even family life.
What metal do you listen to when you train or work out?
BLACK: It differs so much. The other day I was listening to Power Trip and thought to myself, if I ever played in a metal band, I’d play in a thrash metal band. I love the feeling I get when I work out and listen to thrash. But I’ll also listen to Immortal or Watain when I train. It kind of depends on how I’m feeling. The other day I listened to No Turning Back, one of the Netherlands’ best hardcore bands. I wouldn’t say I have one style of music for workouts, but it’s usually thrash, black metal, or hardcore.
BLACK: Absolutely. That’s where we headed. I think the fans want it. I’d love to tie up with both of them. They are both staples of modern pro wrestling. I don’t need to do much to keep myself relevant except keep innovating and wrestling the way Malakai does. Over 21 years and five years in WWE, I’ve proven myself enough.
You can only bring two metal albums with you for six months. What are they?
BLACK: Oh, God. That’s not fair. The first one is Demanufacture because it’s the first album ever bought, and I still listen to it. I’d also take Watain’s The Wild Hunt.