John Bradshaw Layfield. One of the most divisive names in the history of professional wrestling. A man lauded for his tag team tenure as well as being one of the most vilified heel champions of all time, while also earning a name for himself as a fairly unpleasant person behind the scenes. Regardless, JBL bas carved out a legacy worthy of a hall of fame spot.
It's sort of surprising now that he's one of the most beloved personalities in WWE, but JBL did not have much of a sustained prime with the company. He's been a WWE employee for a very long time, but he peaked from spring 2004 to spring 2006 before leaving on somewhat of a whimper. He would take some time off following a severe back injury, but on his return JBL never recaptured his form and was clearly at less than 100%.
It's arguable that his time out of the ring is what solidified his legacy in WWE. Seemingly much more enthusiastic and committed to his heel persona than fellow color commentator Jerry Lawler, he was easily the best announcer in WWE on and off for several years. His back and forth with his fellow commentators was always a highlight of the show and you genuinely weren't sure if he was playing a role, or being a genuine piece of trash.
This period took him from being a hated heel to a universally appreciated legend who became as close to Lawler's level as anybody else, as far as WWE is concerned.
Before all of that? He was as close to a journeyman as someone who spent most of his career in WWE could possibly be.
His pre-WWE career isn't especially notable. Starting out in 1992 in his native Texas, he almost immediately had national TV exposure with the Dallas based Global Wrestling Federation, which aired a mix of new and old programming on ESPN on weekday afternoons. He spent most of his time in Texas, but made some international trips as well: In Germany, he teamed with future WWE cohort Fit Finlay and the two went on to win the Catch Wrestling Association Tag Team Championships. In Japan, he worked a few shows for WAR as "Death Mask", very much a poor mans Undertaker. His biggest success throughout these esrly years came in Mexico, where he was a top guy in Carlos Elizondo's local promotion based out of Monterry.Vampiro Americano, as he was known, was the foil of Vampiro Canandiense (Vampiro from WCW), who was one of the top stars in the country at the time.
WWE came a calling and hired him in early 1996, but he didn't do a whole lot for quite some time. Managed by Uncle Zebekiah (Zeb Colter), he was right down at the bottom-of the card, often losing on TV to local talent and unknown robbers. 1997 didn't go much better.
Bradshaw was thrust into a tag team with Barry Windham as the New Blackjacks, a throwback to the legendary tag teams champions of 1975. Windham is legitimately the son of Blackjack Mulligan, while Bradshaw was merely billed as "a relative of" Blackjack Lanza. .
In early 1998, Windham turned on Bradshaw and left the company not long after. Bradshaw was still pretty low on the card, but he did start to appear on PPV events and had a few good matches with stars like Jeff Jarrett, Vader and Kaientai, as well as a short lived pairing with Terry Funk. He would finally find some form of a push in his team with Faarooq (Ron Simmons). They were repackaged as The Acolytes, new henchmen/bodyguards for the Undertaker as he became more evil and embraced seemingly Satanic rituals.
While they were simple henchmen who didn't get to talk, it was their most high profile role to that date, leading to a tag title win over Matt and Jeff Hardy. After losing the titles to Kane and X-Pac, Undertaker's Ministry of Darkness was disbanded, seemingly leaving the Acolytes in a state of flux, with bo immediate creative direction.
Instead, they got the gimmick that put them on the map and got them over in a big way. Based on their real-life personas as beer-drinking tough guys, they transitioned into the now legendary Acolytes Protection Agency. If a wrestler needed backup or needed someone to rough up their opponent, all it took was a bit of beer money for the APA to take the job. It was a great time for Bradshaw and Simmons, with the duo beginning firm fan favourites and getting plenty of exposure.
The only slight negative? An unfortunately worded T-shirt: "APA - Always Pounding Ass".
They were split up in the first annual WWE Draft in 2002. Bradshaw went to RAW, where he became a mainstay of the Hardcore division, winning the Hardcore Championship 17 times (R-Truth would he proud). After six months off to heal a torn bicep, the APA would return and pick up where they left off. Their popularity had worn off a little, but they were a steady pair of hands and still good, reliable workers never destined for anything more.
Little did we know, that it was all about to change in a big way.
SmackDown desperately needed to be rebuilt in 2004. Eddie Guerrero was the new WWE Champion, dethroning Brock Lesnar, and had no challengers in line. Lesnar left the company shortly after, Kurt Angle had to take time off to heal his neck... SmackDown was in disarray.
That was until Guerrero himself suggested that his good friend Bradshaw was perfect for the role. The people in charge listened and JBL was born. Faarooq was taken off TV and Bradshaw remade himself as John Bradshaw Layfield, a cocky, self made millionaire who was billed as being from New York. It was well-known that he was great at playing the stock market in real life, so the character wasn't a huge departure for the audience, even if buying into Bradshaw as a main eventer was.
Guerrero was right: JBL took the bull by the hints and ran with it. They had tremendous matches together during a vicious feud, starting with an incredible brawl headlining Judgment Day where Guerrero bladed to the point he lost enough blood to go into shock. JBL's promos were fantastic, and he got to shine in a memorable angle where he scared Eddy's mother into having a heart scare in her home town as well as skits where he stood guard at the border and chased Mexicans out of Texas (Trump would be proud). Unfortunately, SmackDown was suffering at the box office.
Guerrero had gone from popping business and ratings to the point he was seemingly ready to be "The Latino Steve Austin", to struggling with a barely established challenger. The pressure was getting to Eddie, to the point that the decision was made to switch the title onto JBL. In the middle of all this, JBL was filmed goose stepping at house shows in Germany during a European tour, the idea being that he was mocking Germany by saying they were no better than the Nazis that they hated. Normally in wrestling, it probably wouldn't be a huge deal, but Layfield was working as an analyst for CNBC in his spare time and lost the job as a result.
As far as WWE was concerned, it didn't matter and he still got the title by out-maneuvering Eddie in a bullrope match. It has always been the case in WWE that money is the most important thing. Sure, German fans were unhappy, but until it was reflected in his bank balance Vince didn't care.
As good as his wrestling and promos were, SmackDown business got even worse, to the point that JBL officially rose above Diesel as the worst-drawing WWE Champion in the company's history. There are a few good reasons why that can be attributed to WWE and JBL. As good as he was, he was still Bradshaw. If the company had instead tried to build the character for a year or two before becoming champion instead of a few months, he would've come across as less low-rent to fans and much more believable.
He didn't have any opponents who matched up with him as well as Eddie did, and when his fans came to SmackDown to see him perform, it was often in undercard feuds against guys like Luther Reigns or tagging with his much less popular nephew Chavo.
Thankfully for WWE, a young John Cena was waiting in the wings, and he won the title from JBL in a surprisingly mediocre and uneventful match at WrestleMania 21 in 2005. To JBL's credit, he delivered his second great Judgment Day main event in a row in the rematch, losing to Cena in a fantastic "I Quit" match, which helped put Cena over better as the top guy en route to Raw, where he was about to be drafted.
JBL was still the top heel on SmackDown, where he soon became the top contender for newly drafted Batista's World Heavyweight Championship. It would be an understatement to say they didn't click in the ring. He would quickly change course by feuding with Chris Benoit and Rey Mysterio, who were both a much better fit for him. JBL was very much like Lesnar in the way that he worked much better with a smaller opponent - David vs Goliath is always money. Throughout all this, he was still a tremendously entertaining personality.
The Mysterio feud ended with a match where JBL promised he'd leave SmackDown if he lost, which he did, as he had suffered a terrible back injury. He resurfaced a few weeks later to start his commentary career, announcing at One Night Stand that he would replace Tazz on SmackDown since Tazz was leaving for the new WWE ECW brand.
JBL's combination of old sports references, a knack for delivering impressive-sounding trivia about the wrestlers, and a habit of comparing everyone to obscure Texas wrestlers made him a delight to listen to. He was not your usual cookie-cutter WWE announcer in the least, and it helped him to stand out in a big way.
He tried to make a return at the end of 2007 after about 18 months off for a feud against Chris Jericho, who had just returned after two years off. Unfortunately, it quickly became clear that the injury had gotten the best of Layfield. His promos were as sharp as ever, but the Jericho feud was a disappointment in the ring, as were renewed rivalries with Cena and Finlay. He looked a little sharper and more like his old self in a feud with CM Punk, while his promo skills saved a bizarre storyline where Shawn Michaels became his manservant to combat a financial crisis, but he was clearly getting ready to wind down.
He won the Intercontinental Title from Punk in early 2009, lost it merely weeks later at WrestleMania 25 to Mysterio in under 30 seconds in a quick match clearly designed to protect his back, and immediately announced he was "quitting" WWE, which was received with glorious applause from the attending fans.
The truth was, he was really retiring due to the back injury, and aside from sporadic appearances, he was gone from WWE until about a year ago. When Jerry Lawler suffered an on air heart attack, Layfield returned to WWE for what looked like a temporary run as a fill-in. Instead, everyone was reminded just how good he was, and he was re-signed to do color commentary on SmackDown and not before long he was also back on PPV's. When the announcers come out before shows, he would be cheered almost as loudly as fan favourite Lawler.
At the top of this article I referenced JBL's behind the scenes issues. Known for his brash attitude, Bradshaw has become known for giving his colleagues a hard time. Over the years there have been many reports, confirmed by multiple sources, of him being a nasty piece of work. Without going into too much detail, we have heard -
• Reports of him hazing the younger members of the roster
• Bullying his colleagues - Mauro Danello being the most notable
• Sexual harassment claims from Edge and Steve Blackman
• The previously mentioned Nazi salute
• Purposely busting open The Blue Meanie during a brawl
The list goes on, and on, and on. Probably the biggest takeaway though is that Bradshaw has never shown any remorse for almost any of the above, the only occasion being an admission that he was in the wrong regarding Blue Meanie. Let's get one thing straight - Bradshaw is a horrible piece of work. Not a nice man in the slightest.
So, with that in mind, should he even be going into the hall of fame? The answer is a resounding, Yes. The hall of fame is there as an indication of a person's contribution to the business. You don't get in there on being a nice guy alone. Despite his questionable decisions outside of the business, there is no doubting that John Bradshaw Layfield is fully deserving of his HOF spot next month.
JBL will be inducted next month alongside Batista, the Bella Twins and nWo members Hulk Hogan, Kevin Nash, Scott Hall and Sean Waltman, exclusively on the WWE Network.