I’m going to enjoy this next one, because he’s not a wrestler who’s gotten a ton of respect from the fans, not the ones who should have known better, not from fans in general, but he was definitely good at provoking a reaction. I’m talking about:
LIV. John Bradshaw Layfield
Colloquially (never thought you’d see that word in conjunction with professional wrestling, did you?) known as JBL, at least starting in 2004 (and better known previously simply as Bradshaw), the self-proclaimed “Wrestling God” first came to prominence (or tried to) as the psychotic cowboy Justin “Hawk” Bradshaw, transitioned into the New Blackjacks (rocking a mustache), and was absorbed into the Undertaker’s Ministry of Darkness with Ron Simmons as the Acolytes, which soon enough became known as the Acolytes Protection Agency (the APA), better known for holding down a poker table with cigars and beer than their ring work (though his “Clothesline from Hell” was quickly established as midcard legendary).
Anyway, John was a minor attraction (if that) for years, a WWE mainstay who started breaking out of the pack (tentatively) in 2003 as part of the Smackdown brand. When Brock Lesnar unexpectedly quit the company early in 2004, it opened up a crucial spot in the brand. Ron Simmons went quietly into retirement, Bradshaw started becoming a braggart, starting referring to himself as JBL, picked on champion Eddie Guerrero, and actually defeated him for the title two months later.
No one really took it seriously. Some people were amused by the fresh face in the main event, many were baffled, and it was assumed that the JBL experiment would end quickly. John himself would have been the first to admit that he wasn’t necessarily at the peak of his in-ring prowess, but as a talker, he was virtually untouchable (that’s no doubt what really won him the spot). I was in awe from the moment the transition was made. I was a big Guerrero fan (still am, obviously), would have loved to see him remain champion at least as long as the late Chris Benoit at the time, but JBL was gold.
It didn’t hurt that Eddie had a fallback feud with Kurt Angle that kept getting interwoven with the JBL era in its early months. Angle was resting up at the time, spending his on-air role as Smackdown’s general manager, and proudly supporting John as a “Great American.” John Cena was supposed to be the next big Smackdown star, and I was a big fan of his, too, but he seemed to do just fine with the United States championship, biding his time until the next WrestleMania (the first of the many times Cena left fans unimpressed, unjustifiably).
Anyway, JBL kept the title. Undertaker was returning to the “Deadman” gimmick, and was his next big opponent. Undertaker was no longer as comfortable, at least at that time, in that particular role, and so it was quite easy for me to continue to root for JBL. JBL kept winning, all throughout 2004. He kept winning in 2005, too, at least until the big WrestleMania match with John Cena. After one more match, he basically disappeared.
His in-ring career resurfaced in 2006 when he picked on Rey Mysterio. He served as a perfectly awesome color commentator (“when the lights are on bright”) for Smackdown. He spent some time away, resurfaced at the end of 2007, coinciding with the return of Chris Jericho, and began an improbable comeback. It didn’t last too long, really. But he was still a “Wrestling God.”
Honestly, the man who is also a financial analyst is probably the best thing to happen to wrestling in the past ten years, and hardly anyone will ever admit it. A lot of people dismissed the JBL character as a “Million Dollar Man” knockoff, but he was more politician (with many promos making that blatantly obvious, as well as the eventual addition of his Cabinet with “Chief of Staff” Orlando Jordan and “Co-Secretaries of Defense” the Basham Brothers), a prescient image in an era somewhat besotted with the image of the politician (admittedly somewhat dubious these days).
But really, his stick skills were beyond awesome. Lots of people can play cocky, but few can pull it off quite like John Bradshaw Layfield. He looks pretty much as clumsy as an ox in the ring (but can still pull off a mean power presence), but life without JBL is always a little more dull than it should be, especially when everyone knows JBL is still around, is still capable of being a blowhard. It’s a shame fans aren’t begging him to come back and be just that. He could teach plenty of students in that blessed art. Who wouldn’t want to see Layfield’s Disciples yapping away in the ring?
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