Braun Strowman lumbered down the entrance ramp on a recent episode of Raw. The 6’8 wrestler’s hulking frame partially blocked the Jumbotron brandishing his name. Visualize a Sons of Anarchy extra with an “even badder side.” His opponent Chase Silver – with an unshaven face similar to Christian Bale but the physique of a melted action figure – never took his eyes off his stalker during a pre-match interview.
The small talk with announcer Byron Saxton lasted almost as long as the match. Strowman, dubbed “The Monster Among Men,” made short work of his adversary, another decimation in the recent string of squash matches designed to establish the former Wyatt Family muscle as an immovable object to a babyface force to be named later.
For fans unfamiliar with the current WWE roster, Silver isn’t a can’t miss talent from NXT – WWE’s developmental – or a recent signing from competitors Ring of Honor or TNA. Chase Silver made his first, and probably last, appearance on WWE programming on Raw, but he played an important role in the longest running episodic program in TV history, one that not long ago was as critical to the company as heavyweight champion.
He was the jobber.
Enhancement talent dominated WWE TV programming throughout the 1980s and early 1990s. The wrestlers known as “jobbers” – an insider term used to designate performers routinely defeated by main event stars or promising newcomers being elevated to the top of the card – these men were essentially paid to “do a job.” That job was to lose.
“When we were doing syndication,” explains former WWE writer Bruce Prichard, “we had several one hour programs that aired in various markets. These shows had two main objectives – to highlight the superstar talent and to plug the local live events. These were one hour commercials to get wrestlers over.”
Prichard worked with the WWE in several capacities for more than two decades. A majority of Prichard’s tenure with the company was spent behind the curtain as a writer, and behind the mic as a color commentator, but his most notable work came as the cardinal-faced heel evangelist Brother Love. Today, Prichard is the host of Something To Wrestle, a popular weekly podcast in which Prichard, along with co-host Conrad Thompson, travel back through the WWF’s expansion of the eighties and nineties.
Jobbers, a term Prichard admittedly hates, played a vital role in the wrestling hierarchy and were as recognizable as the top stars. The task usually fell on the brawny lats of wrestlers at the tail end of their careers or the guys unable to connect or get over with the crowd. Mat technicians like Barry Horowitz and “The Brooklyn Brawler” Steve Lombardi.
“Barry (Horowitz) was a hell of a talent,” admits Prichard. “He was able to take a guy the company was high on, but didn’t really have the best skills in the ring, and get in there and almost put the moves on himself to make the guy shine and look better than his skill level.”
Enhancement talent were portrayed as being not quite of the caliber of a Hulk Hogan or Randy Savage or just too small to really give a gargantuan like Yokozuna or the Big Boss Man a real scare in the squared circle. Those were merely caricatures. Just like John Tenta, who wrestled under the name of Earthquake, wasn’t really a walking natural disaster, grapplers like “Iron” Mike Sharpe weren’t really pushovers.
Sharpe is one of the more fascinating enhancement talent faces in the sport. A wrestling legacy – his father and uncle were a successful tag team throughout the 1950s – Sharpe cut his teeth in Canada and the NWA. A 6’4 brawler with a steelworker’s frame, Sharpe was a two-time tag team champion, the Pacific Coast heavyweight champion and two different title reigns in the Mid-South Wrestling. Like many of his comrades at the time, Sharpe made his way north to the WWE (then the World Wrestling Federation).
Upon his arrival, Sharpe was paired with manager Captain Lou Albano, ran through the mid-card competition, and earned a shot at Bob Backlund’s heavyweight title. Sharpe lost the match and slowly descended back down the ladder. He spent the next decade as formidable heel foe to WWF mid-card babyfaces like Tito Santana and Koko B. Ware.
“When we launched Raw live on Monday nights on USA network, we wanted to present a little bit different of a product. We wanted to show fans a more competitive product with longer matches involving top stars against one another. Raw had to look much different than the syndicated shows.”
By the height of the Monday Night Wars between WWE and chief rival WCW in the mid-1990s, grapplers like Sharpe, Horowitz and others faded from our television screens but never from the memory of wrestling fans. When Sharpe passed away in this past January, at the age 64, he trended on both Twitter and Facebook for over 24 hours. Not bad for guy who never held a title in the WWE, never had his image on an ice cream bar, or his body shaped into an adorable wrestling buddy pillow.
Enter James Ellsworth and the new era of jobbers in the WWE.
The Internet Wrestling Database lists four professional matches in the last ten years for Ellsworth – a tag team match at the CZW Tournament of Death in 2006, a Battle Royale at the 2009 CZW Who’s The F’n Man benefit show and a 2016 match against Braun Strowman on the July 25th edition of Raw, and the most recent one, a match against AJ Styles on SmackDown that didn’t go so well.
Yet for a guy who has been in so few matches, his influence is quickly growing.
“Any man with two hands has a fighting chance,” Ellsworth stammered into the mic during his pre-match interview before he went up against Strowman. With that soundbite, and the squash that followed, the jobber role was reestablished in the WWE universe.
The WWE is smart to bring back enhancement talent. The first reason is obvious and immediate – find enough warm bodies for competitors like Braun Strowman and women’s division superstar Nia Jax, to roll over on the way to an eventual high level feud with a top babyface without sacrificing lower card wrestlers or incoming NXT talent.
The second reason is to keep the rest of the roster healthy. Far too many WWE Superstars spent significant time on the shelf in 2016. Several WWE championships were vacated due to injury. Finn Balor, the first Universal Champion in federation history, relinquished his belt just one night after winning it from Seth Rollins at SummerSlam. Rollins returned not long before that match from a torn ACL, MCL and meniscus that forced the former Shield member to hand over the WWE World Heavyweight Championship.
Prichard is adamant about the resurgence of the role in modern day wrestling. “There’s a place in wrestling today for these guys, without a doubt. It’s a better way to introduce new stars. If you’re trying to get someone over with the crowd, you need to make them look great. Get them a dominant win. If you put a new guy in the ring with another guy the company is still high on, and they’ve got to go 50/50 in a match, no matter who wins they both lose.”
With a recent brand split and the road to WrestleMania 33 – the most important months on the WWE calendar – kicking off in January and culminating at the 70,000 seat Citrus Bowl in Orlando, Florida, the WWE can ill-afford losing superstars due to injury.
In a Reddit Ask Me Anything after his major TV appearance, Ellsworth stated that Vince McMahon asked to see him after the match. Ellsworth said of his encounter with the chairman of the WWE. “He extended his hand and said, ‘you killed it, kid’. It meant a lot to me.”
“Everyone can’t be the star,” admits Prichard. “Someone has to be on top and someone has to take the loss.”