From the Celtic headpiece he wears to the ring to his satanic tattoos, Malakai Black’s All Elite Wrestling character is the personification of darkness.
And the man behind the character? Black has his own dark side.
The 36-year-old Central Florida resident provided a tour of his bookshelf during a phone interview earlier this week. Alongside “The New Encyclopedia of the Occult,” Black found “Beautiful Death: Art of the Cemetery” and art books depicting skulls, various tattoos and Japanese samurai from the 19th century. He also collects antiques.
For Black, art imitates life.
“I take my art into my wrestling and my character,” said Black, a Dutchman whose real name is Tom Büdgen. “I do not draw, but I’d say my thought process is art-based. It’s where my brain goes as a person.”
Black will face Cody Rhodes in a main event of AEW Dynamite, set for this Saturday at UCF’s Addition Financial Arena and live on TNT. Tickets are available at aewtix.com.
Growing up in the Netherlands, Black said his first exposure to professional wrestling was through Japanese promotions, including New Japan and Frontier Martial Arts. He said his first favorites were daredevils Hayabusa and Jushin (Thunder) Liger.
“Once you watch wrestling, if the bug catches you, it absorbs everything in your system,” Black said. “It’s such a unique thing. I saw one glimpse and I was sold. In my head, watching two guys competing in a ring was no different from watching a Jean-Claude Van Damme movie. I got it immediately.”
Black, who has lived in Central Florida for the last five years, has hit several career milestones in this state. After 15 years wrestling around the world as Tommy End, his debut match for WWE happened at Amway Center in 2017 when he took the name Aleister Black.
He worked for nearly four years in WWE, wrestling on NXT, Raw and Smackdown, but was released this past June; the company cited budget cuts for his dismissal.
One month later — back in Florida, this time in Jacksonville — Malakai Black made his surprise debut for AEW on an episode of Dynamite.
AEW was founded in 2019 as a free-spirited alternative to the more traditional WWE, but it has quickly established itself as a competitor in what is becoming a heated wrestling war. Black said he’s been able to reach a new level since making the jump.
“That [AEW debut] was pivotal, to be able to make such an impact right away, and being allowed to make such an impact my way,” Black said. “My conversation with [AEW president and creative force Tony Khan] about what I wanted to do with my character wasn’t any longer than 10 minutes and he was sold.
“Even before [in WWE], when I had handcuffs on [stylistically], my body of work stood for itself, but there’s a lot of trust here in what I can do.”
Black has a firm grasp on the character he has created, citing the influence of occultism, pagan tribalism and Celtic lore.
“He’s sadistic, but thoughtful,” Black said of his on-screen persona. “He isn’t careless. He’s capable of showing respect and emotion, but he’s very particular about it. He gets cheered sometimes, and I think that’s because deep within everybody, we all have a violent nature when we draw more on the negative side of things.”
Black said there have been times in his career that he has hated wrestling but pushed through to the next step. Now, he said, AEW has given him a fresh start.
“The saying about seeing the forest for the trees really shines in this business,” Black said. “I’ve come to appreciate the small points of light: the pat on the back from a mentor or the match you always wanted to have. The small victories really propel you. If you’re only focused on ‘Why do I have this?’ or ‘Why do I not have that?’ you’ll drive yourself crazy.”
The match Saturday against Rhodes, one of AEW’s co-founders, could mark the end of a monthslong rivalry that has established Black among the top stars in the business.
“If I’m going to do something, I might as well do it with the biggest diamond of the company,” Black said. “As a wrestler, I can’t say I have anything but respect for him. But to get ahead, you have to cut off the head of the dragon, and he was one of the biggest dragons.”