James Ellsworth squirmed under the spotlight while he awaited his opponent. His eyes darted around the ring. His hands slid up to a defensive position.
The skinny, pale Ellsworth stood a foot shorter than Braun Strowman, the man assigned to beat him into the mat that July night on WWE Raw. As Strowman stared at his foe, he looked like a grizzly bear eyeing a rodent foolish enough to stand in its path.
It was Ellsworth's job to showcase this bearded, massive monster. He was to take a pounding in order to highlight Strowman's destructive power.
That's the duty of a jobber, a low-level wrestler scripted to lose time and time again. These grapplers are also known as enhancement talent and occasionally ham-and-eggers.
It's a vital role in the circus that is pro wrestling.
Playing another man's easy prey may not seem like a treasured opportunity to an outsider, but Ellsworth badly wanted to make the most of it.
"I thought to myself, 'I need to do a good job,'" he told Bleacher Report. "This is Monday Night Raw. This is the big leagues. This is WWE."
Ellsworth opened the bout by throwing two ineffective punches that bounced off Bowman's chest like darts off a brick wall. Strowman clobbered him, barreling into Ellsworth and hurling him around the ring. The match ended in just over a minute.
And Ellsworth nailed his part in that short bit of violent theater.
He was a cartoon victim. He flailed. He moaned. And WWE owner Vince McMahon loved it.
The boss stuck out his hand to Ellsworth backstage and told him, "You killed it, kid."
Losing that night was his greatest victory.
Before facing Strowman, Ellsworth wrestled as Jimmy Dream for small-scale promotions such as American Championship Pro Wrestling and Big Time Wrestling. In his 14 years in the business, he has wrestled in high schools, armories and the Delaware Auto Exchange in Felton, Delaware.
He pulled double duty for Adrenaline Championship Wrestling in Maryland as promoter and performer. He handed out fliers and stapled posters to light poles for shows that brought in just a few rows of fans.
Not even the most ardent of WWE enthusiasts knew his name.
Ellsworth, a fan of Raw since its inception in 1993, heard doubts from every direction. "Nobody gave me a chance of being on WWE ever," he said.
On what critics would tell him, he recalled: "You're too small. You don't have the look. A lot of those guys look like they belong on GQ magazine, and you don't look like that."
Little did they know Ellsworth would wrestle on Raw. And little did he know WWE would come calling months after that first match, asking him to be a key figure in the marquee storyline on SmackDown. The Strowman match was supposed to be a one-time appearance, a means to increase his name when he returned to the independent circuit.
But he left an impression while being caught in the jaws of a fearsome predator, and things snowballed.
"I never thought people would remember it," he said.
They did. In part, that was because of his look. Ellsworth has the build of a video game store employee. He has a nub of a chin.
Or as he put it, "I don't look like everybody else."
Ellsworth also made the most of his minimal airtime. He mastered the art of being a jobber, changing the course of his career forever.
'A Spirit of Unselfishness'
Salvatore Bellomo excelled at the jobber role.
The Belgian powerhouse wrestled for WWE when it was still the World Wrestling Federation. He didn't begin as perennial prey. In 1982, he was one of the stars the company fed enhancement talent.
Bellomo beat up his fair share of no-name wrestlers. He moved on to challenge The Iron Sheik for the world title and The Wild Samoans for the tag team straps. After he had enjoyed 18 months of winning on TV, the tide turned.
WWE asked The Wildman to start lying down for the competition.
Bellomo took a businesslike approach to the shift. "I smile," he said. "I do what I have to do there. I'm an entertainer."
An element of the gig was to look the part. McMahon apparently told him, "I don't want you to look like Tony Atlas." Atlas was a chiseled powerlifter with melon-sized biceps. The average-looking Bellomo was to offer a contrast in physique.
In his mind, it didn't matter whether he was out there to deliver a long, competitive match or to get bowled over in a few minutes. His goal was the same—to "satisfy the crowd and the promoter."
The art of getting another wrestler over is one that Brutal Bob Evans practiced early in his career.
The Ring of Honor trainer and performer earned a freelance spot with the WWE in 1993. Evans was essentially unknown at the time, just a kid looking for a chance on wrestling's biggest stage.
He drove 75 miles to a WWE TV taping in Lowell, Massachusetts. Indy wrestlers flocked to these shows, hoping to be among the guys the company used as fodder for its stars.
"Usually, you didn't get it, and they sent you home," he explained.
The same fate awaited Evans at first. The company said there was nothing for him but to come back three weeks later.
When he did, just days before his 21st birthday, the company pitted Evans against Adam Bomb, a massive, musclebound behemoth billed as being from Three Mile Island in Pennsylvania. Evans' job was to be on the wrong side of as one-sided a match as you will see.
Years later, he returned to take a beating from others, including Gangrel in 2000. Evans wasn't sure whether he wanted to enter the wrestling life full time.
"I'm a pretty square guy," he continued. "I don't go out a lot. The road-warrior mentality was a little much for me."
Beside, for most wrestlers, the cash doesn't exactly flow in. Evans had steadier work elsewhere: "I was managing a record store at the time, and the money was decent."
He has since grown his name with ROH, as a late-blooming career picked up in his late 30s.
As both a trainer and performer, he has added insight into what it takes to succeed as the guy taking the beating.
"The art of professional wrestling is like being an actor in a movie who's the bad guy who gets killed in the end," Evans explained. "There has to be a spirit of unselfishness to it."
And a wrestler has to be patient. Success rarely comes in a hurry. Stardom isn't often handed over to rookies.
"Our first day in wrestling, we all want to go to WrestleMania and win the belt," Evans said. "That's everybody's dream. There's going to be a time for you. But right now, it's not your time. If they're the money right now, then you have to be the Brink's truck driver."
He tells his students that showing vulnerability in the ring is key to winning over fans.
That's something Ellsworth has in spades. He exudes the aura of a long shot.
Before Ellsworth's bout with Strowman, announcer Byron Saxton asked him what he thought his chances were against his unsettling opponent. Ellsworth delivered a promo in which his voice shook, issuing his now famous line: "Any man with two hands has a fighting chance."
He explained his role that night: "I had to be confident and scared at the same time, which is very hard to do."
The audience hooked on to him from that moment. Ellsworth credits the crowd more than anything for his career's taking off post-Strowman.
"Fans know that without them, I'm nothing," he said. "That's why they're fighting for me so hard."
'I Knew What My Spot Was'
An outsider may worry that a career's worth of losing affects one's psyche over time. It doesn't. Wrestlers see the bigger picture—that they are key elements, be it as a jobber or the hottest thing going.
Ellsworth understood that from the onset.
On being asked to not only lose but to be a human punching bag in the ring, he said: "It doesn't bother me at all. I'm going to do my best with whatever they give me."
Rather than worry about how a scripted finish was set to go, Ellsworth was appreciative of being in that spot at all.
"Wrestlers: We're pieces of the puzzle that is the show," he said. "To be a piece of the puzzle of Monday Night Raw that night was an absolute dream come true."
For Bellomo, the right attitude about losing is a sign of being a professional.
"That was my job," he said. "I didn't have a big head. I knew where I came from. I knew what my spot was."
When he slid from the midcard down to the bottom rung, losing 109 of his 174 matches in 1984, he accepted his fate with no issues.
"I knew one day it was going to happen," he said. "I was a jobber. Before I was a jobber, they put me over. You have to know what it's all about."
Beside, the wrestling machine needs a variety of pieces, enhancement talent included. As Bellomo put it, "If you have no jobber, you have no champion."
Tattooed, steely-eyed indy wrestler Johnny Knockout has a similar philosophy.
WWE brought in Knockout in August to be another of Strowman's victims. In 2009, WWE had asked him to play a similar role as the man falling to Vance Archer. The New Yorker had no qualms about either experience.
"It's a performance," Knockout said. "It's a show. Every aspect and element of the show is very crucial, very important. For that night, on those occasions, that was my role."
He talked of how thrilled actors must be to get walk-on roles on The Walking Dead, even if they are cast as zombies who get killed seconds into the episode. This time, Knockout was that zombie and Strowman was a club-wielding survivor.
"I saw something special in him," he said of the emerging big man. "I was happy to make him look even better."
The enhancement talent aggrandizes the rising star. The losers elevate the winners. The wrestling structure wouldn't exist otherwise.
Knockout said that without foes for him to topple, "Stone Cold [Steve Austin] wouldn't be who he is."
For guys like Knockout, these chances to perform for the largest wrestling company in the world are gold. His resume looks a lot like Ellsworth's, with plenty of work with independent promotions and matches in places like Gleason's Gym in New York City.
Tenacity has helped him land gigs with WWE.
Knockout moved to Florida early in his career, looking for a wrestling school to bolster his in-ring education. As he put it, he hadn't been properly trained the first time around. "It was the blind leading the blind," he said.
After the bout with Archer, he kept buzzing in WWE's ear, explaining: "I'm very diligent. Each time I worked with them, I stayed in touch with them."
When WWE officials called him in to take on Strowman, it was a step closer to working for the company for a longer stretch.
"Maybe that could be me one day being built up," he thought as he took his latest defeat.
'8 or 9 Years Just to Get That 1 Match'
Ellsworth's story took turns no one could have predicted.
His first WWE experiences were as an extra. He began as one of the many faces in the costumed posse following around the flamboyant, party-happy Adam Rose. The company often hired local talent wherever it traveled to fill out Rose's Rosebuds.
These were nameless faces, human backdrops.
Any time WWE came back to Maryland, Ellsworth inquired whether it had other work for him. He sent in his resume online. He kept the phone warm by calling the company.
For a long time, the answer was no. But then it needed someone to feed to Strowman. Ellsworth so connected with the crowd in that brief contest that WWE couldn't help but take notice.
One month after falling to Strowman, he emerged on the entrance ramp on SmackDown, set to be world champion AJ Styles' mystery tag team partner.
This would have been the equivalent of Russell Westbrook teaming with the balding middle school teacher at the local gym. But it didn't happen. The Miz attacked Ellsworth and forcibly took his spot.
Fans buzzed about Ellsworth afterward as they had done after he took on Strowman. WWE picked up on it and found a new role for him.
"The WWE Universe, the fans, they made me," he said.
Soon, Ellsworth played the ultimate underdog, taking on Styles. He won thanks to Dean Ambrose's bias while refereeing and some classic wrestling shenanigans.
That led to his WWE World Championship shot, something that even now is a surreal occurrence to think about.
Ellsworth became a featured part of the Ambrose-Styles rivalry. He was involved in SmackDown's main event scene for weeks, netting more TV time than promising superathlete Apollo Crews and former world champion Jack Swagger.
He soon had his own official WWE T-shirt. He served as Team SmackDown's mascot at the Nov. 20 Survivor Series pay-per-view.
And just before that marquee event, Ellsworth announced at a Big Time Wrestling show that he had signed a full-time WWE deal.
It's a good thing he didn't listen to those who said he would never make it.
Ellsworth said he lets negativity wash off him: "It's in one ear and out the other. I kept doing my thing. I kept fighting."
His story is not typical, but being a jobber for WWE often leads to added opportunities. The smallest of roles on the biggest stage is invaluable.
For Bellomo, it contributed to his longevity.
He was a part of WWE when it was first taking off as a global powerhouse. He was in the mix during the heart of Hulkamania. That elevated his name even as an enhancement talent.
Bellomo went on to wrestle for a variety of European independent promotions until 2014.
While with WWE, he had the chance to work with some of the top names in the business. He battled Paul Orndorff, Randy Savage, Greg Valentine and Jesse "The Body" Ventura, among others.
He had always dreamed of performing at Madison Square Garden, where Muhammad Ali once fought. Bellomo lived that dream more than 25 times.
And he was doing what he loved.
"I love wrestling itself," he said. "They put me in there with these names to wrestle every night. That's all I was looking for."
Today, he runs a wrestling school in Belgium.
Knockout's WWE appearances gave him a taste of the major leagues, of performing in front of tens of thousands of people. It's a taste he wants more of.
"It's where I want to be," Knockout revealed. "It's the top echelon of what we do. It's everything I could imagine I want my career to be. I feel like I could thrive there."
He has worked hard to get there. He is happy to do the marketing side of the business, sending out 8x10s, contacting companies and getting his name out via social media.
"I put a lot of work into what I do," Knockout continued. "I'm very passionate. For me, it's my life."
In 2015, WWE offered him a spot at a tryout. He gave it everything, even when his body threatened to fail him.
"I was 100 percent pleased with my performance," he said. "I trained really hard before it. I almost passed out a few times, and I didn't. I almost ripped my groin during the tryout. And I didn't care if I did because I may not get the opportunity again."
Chances in the spotlight are to be treasured. Knockout has been a wrestler for nearly a decade. And he's wrestled for WWE just three times.
Losing to Archer and then falling to Strowman with little resistance were peaks in a journey that is not yet over for him. "That was eight or nine years just to get that one match that some guys may never get," he said.
Ellsworth gives him hope that WWE may bring him in again down the road. Until then, he will grind on the independent circuit, putting everything into bettering his craft.
"True success comes from having a goal and working hard toward it," Knockout said. "That's where you're successful. Everything else that pans out is up to the universe."
James Ellsworth is a promoter for Adrenaline Championship Wrestling and an independent wrestler. Salvatore Bellomo is a former WWE wrestler who runs the Belgian Wrestling School. Johnny Knockout is an independent wrestler based in Tampa, Florida. Brutal Bob Evans is a wrestler and trainer for Ring of Honor.
Ryan Dilbert is the WWE Lead Writer for Bleacher Report. All quotes obtained firsthand unless otherwise noted.
Match statistics courtesy of CageMatch.net.