It's sort of surprising now that he's one of the most beloved personalities in WWE, but John "Bradshaw" Layfield (better known as JBL) did not have much of a sustained prime. He's been in WWE for a long time, but he peaked from spring 2004 to spring 2006.
After that, he suffered a severe back injury, took a year-and-a-half off to work as an announcer, and came back for a little over a year and was clearly less than 100 percent.
It's arguable that his time out of the ring is what solidified his legacy in WWE. Seemingly much more enthusiastic and well-prepared than fellow color commentator Jerry Lawler, he's been the best announcer in WWE on and off for several years. It took him from being a hated heel to a universally lauded legend who's close to Lawler's level as far as WWE is concerned.
Before all that? He was as close to a journeyman as someone who spent most of his career in WWE could be.
His pre-WWE career isn't especially notable. He started in 1992 at home in Texas and almost immediately had national TV exposure via the Dallas-based Global Wrestling Federation, which aired a mix of new and old programming on ESPN on weekday afternoons. These are the same shows that just starting being re-aired last week on ESPN Classic.
He spent most of his time in Texas, but he made some international trips as well: In Germany, he crossed paths with future WWE rival Fit Finlay when they teamed up to win the Catch Wrestling Association Tag Team Titles. In Japan, he worked a few shows for the WAR promotion as "Death Mask," a thinly veiled Undertaker knock-off gimmick.
His biggest early success came in Mexico, where he quickly got a big push in Carlos Elizondo's local promotion based out of Monterrey.
As Vampiro Americano, he was the foil of Vampiro Canandiense (Vampiro from WCW and WSX), who was one of the top stars in the country, and they feuded over the FILL Heavyweight Title.
While Vampiro did business with Elizondo in this feud, the Monterrey promotion was also the home of unauthorized knockoffs of fellow national star Konnan, like Konnan 2000 (Scott Putski), Super Konnan, Konnan King, Konnan Big and even Konnan Gay.
WWE (then the WWF) hired him at the start of 1996, but he didn't get to do much for a while. Managed by Uncle Zebekiah (Zeb Colter/Dutch Mantell/Wayne Keown), he was decidedly bottom-of-the-card talent, even losing a TV match to Freddie Joe Floyd (Tracy Smothers), who was brought in specifically to be a talented job guy.
1997 didn't go much better.
He got repackaged into a tag team with Barry Windham as the New Blackjacks, the second coming of a team that had been tag team champions 22 years earlier. Windham is legitimately the son of Blackjack Mulligan, while Bradshaw was billed as "a relative of" Blackjack Lanza.
Again, they were strictly bottom-of-the-card fare, with their most notable matches being when they were loaned to All Japan Pro Wrestling for their annual Real World Tag League tournament at the end of the year.
In early 1998, Windham turned on Bradshaw and left the company not long thereafter. Bradshaw was still pretty low on the card, but he got to appear on pay-per-view events and have some fun matches during the year with Jeff Jarrett, Vader and Kaientai, as well as briefly teaming with Terry Funk.
He finally found some semblance of a push in his team with Faarooq (Ron Simmons). While The Jackyl (Don Callis) put them together, he was gone within weeks. They were repackaged as The Acolytes, new henchmen for the Undertaker as he became more evil and embraced seemingly Satanic rituals.
While they were henchmen who didn't talk, it was their most high-profile role to date, leading to a tag title win over Matt and Jeff Hardy, ending their first title reign.
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.
Instead, they got the gimmick that put them on the map.
Based on their real-life personas as beer-drinking brawlers, they were now the Acolytes Protection Agency. If a wrestler needed backup, he or she could give them beer money to get help.
For the next few years, the idea that a wrestler could buy their help was always in play, most famously in Triple H's WWE Title defense against Taka Michinoku. They were mainstays in the tag team division, picking up a couple more title reigns.
The only negative? An unfortunately worded T-shirt: "APA: Always Pounding Ass."
Anyway, 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 and won the Hardcore Title 17 times (don't ask). After six months off to heal a torn bicep, the A.P.A. was reborn and all was right in the world. It was a little long in the tooth, but it was a nice, steady gig.
Little did anyone know that Bradshaw was about to get the biggest break of his career.
SmackDown badly needed to be rebuilt in 2004. Eddie Guerrero was the new WWE Champion and had no challengers in line. Brock Lesnar left the company, Kurt Angle had to take time off to heal up his neck, and everything was in disarray.
Guerrero suggested that his good friend Bradshaw was up for the role, and they ran with it.
Faarooq was taken off TV and Bradshaw remade himself as John Bradshaw Layfield, a cocky millionaire who was billed as being from New York. It was well-known that he was great at playing the stock market (WWE even published a book about it), so the character wasn't a huge stretch for the audience, even if buying into Bradshaw as a main eventer was.
Guerrero was right: JBL ran with it. They had tremendous matches together, starting with an incredible brawl that headlined 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.
Unfortunately, SmackDown suffered 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" (as he was called internally) to struggling with a barely established challenger. The pressure was getting to Eddie (who was very public about being a recovering drug addict) to the point that the decision was made to switch the title onto JBL.
In the middle of all this, JBL goose-stepped at house shows in Germany during a European tour, the idea being that he was mocking Germany by saying they were like the Nazis 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.
As good as his wrestling and promos were, SmackDown business got even worse, to the point that JBL usurped Diesel as the worst-drawing WWE Champion in company history. There are a couple reasons that can be zeroed in on as the most likely culprits:
- As good as he was, he was still Bradshaw. If he was champion after doing the new character for a year or two instead of a few months, he would've come across as less low-rent to fans.
- He didn't have any opponents who matched up with him as well as Eddie did, and if fans came to SmackDown to see Eddie, he was often in undercard feuds against guys like Luther Reigns.
Thankfully for WWE, John Cena was waiting in the wings, and he won the title from JBL in a surprisingly anticlimactic 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 wild "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 reversed course by feuding with Chris Benoit and Rey Mysterio, who meshed much better with him. 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 ECW brand.
JBL's combination of old sports references, a knack for delivering impressive-sounding trivia (sometimes real, sometimes not) 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 he stood out in a big way.
He tried to make a return at the end of 2007 after about 18 months off for a feud with 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 rivalries with Cena and Finlay.
He looked a little closer to his old self in a feud with CM Punk, and his promos saved a bizarre storyline where Shawn Michaels became his manservant to combat the financial crisis (really), but he was clearly getting ready to wind down.
He won the Intercontinental Title from Punk in early 2009, lost it weeks later at WrestleMania 25 to Mysterio in under 30 seconds a match clearly designed to protect his back, and immediately announced he was "quitting" WWE.
He was really retiring due to the injury, and aside from sporadic appearances, he was gone from WWE until about a year ago. When Jerry Lawler suffered a 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.
It wasn't long before he was also back (with Lawler and Michael Cole) on Raw and PPV events as well. When the announcers come out before shows, he's cheered almost as loudly as Lawler, and chants for him during the Raw after WrestleMania this year showed him to be a favorite of the hardcore fans as well.
While he's had a fairly odd path to both wrestling stardom and financial success, his devotion to charity may be his most notable achievement. Now making his home in Bermuda, much of his time is spent bettering the lives of children across the islands. Most famously, raising money for these projects was the goal of his campaign to climb the highest mountain on every continent on Earth.
That his run on top went as poorly as it did just isn't his fault. He was too good for that to be the case. He just had bad timing. He still got to prove to the whole world what type of talent he was, something that the wrestlers knew for years.
On top of all that, he parlayed his success as a wrestler into the type of financial security that allows him to devote his life to a higher cause. Most wrestlers never get that far.
Not bad for a guy whose previous main event run was as Vampiro's evil doppelganger.