Heath Slater, James Ellsworth and Why 2016 Was the Year of Cinderella in WWE

Ryan Dilbert@@ryandilbertWWE Lead WriterDecember 31, 2016

Credit: WWE.com

Heath Slater wasn't supposed to be here—lifting a championship title above his head at a WWE pay-per-view, shouting in glee, the central figure in a major storyline on SmackDown.

The One-Man Band occupied one of the WWE's lowest rungs. He was a comedy act, a roster filler and a wrestler intimately acquainted with defeat.

But 2016 didn't follow the script.

In WWE, this was the year of the underdog and the everyman. This was a year of Cinderella stories, of unexpected rises, of the company redefining what a wrestling star looks like.

Slater went from perennial loser and frequent benchwarmer to one half of the inaugural SmackDown tag team champions. 

James Ellsworth began the year as an unknown and somehow morphed from jobber to full-time member of the roster. TJ Perkins went from TNA reject to the king of a division.

In each case, the WWE embraced a far-from-prototypical performer.

In-ring narratives unfolded with slender, smaller stars at the center: Ellsworth, the wrestler with your middle-aged uncle's physique; the boyish, video-game fanatic Perkins; Slater, a West Virginia native with a molasses-thick accent.

WWE experimented and took chances. It embraced the tale of the hardworking dreamer. And that approach bettered the product in a big way.

2016 proved to be a year of diversity for WWE, where the circus in the squared circle had a wide range of attractions. The strapping, tattooed Samoan badass Roman Reigns practiced the same art form on the same stage as Ellsworth.

A Fighting Chance

Ellsworth's stay in the WWE spotlight was supposed to be momentary, just long enough for the behemoth Braun Strowman to devour him on Raw.

The Maryland-based independent wrestler had spent his career in wrestling's minor leagues, entertaining a few dozen fans at a time. WWE brought him in to serve as a weakling for Strowman to victimize during his stretch of wins over tomato cans.

No one would have been surprised if Ellsworth's WWE tenure ended that night in July, after only a minute and nine seconds in the ring.

After all, Ellsworth was 5'9" and looked more like a guy who should be running cables for the company, not stepping between the ropes. Doubters always had a long list of reasons why he would never make it.

"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," Ellsworth told Bleacher Report about what critics said to him.

But it was his odd look, his barely there chin and nu-metal haircut that helped catch fans' attention.

Online, fans buzzed about the jobber. They made mock video game covers with Ellsworth as the star. Eventually, WWE picked up on the audience's interest and began to showcase him on SmackDown.

Soon, Ellsworth found himself the most unlikely of WWE Championship contenders. A pawn in the feud between AJ Styles and Dean Ambrose, he fell into a title shot.

WWE played up his status as an unexpected member of this world.

His rivals and the announcers took shots at his looks. Styles said he belonged in the land of misfit toys, John "Bradshaw" Layfield called him everything from an evolutionary missing link to a turtle without its shell.

Insults or not, success kept coming to Ellsworth.

He pulled off three fluky wins against Styles. He served as Team SmackDown's mascot at Survivor Series. He defeated The Phenomenal One in a ladder match to earn a SmackDown contract.  

Ellsworth was the nerd who somehow became prom king.

The WWE got behind him, placing him in a strange, entertaining tale of a long shot defying the odds. When SmackDown began to establish itself as the more compelling WWE brand, Ellsworth was in a high-profile spot.

He earned as much airtime as Ambrose or Styles, wrestling in the main event several times over. And no one could have seen that coming when Ellsworth was Jimmy Dream, competing in community centers and gyms along the East Coast.

Underdog Among the Underdogs

Early in the year, it would be hard to find a WWE fan who knew Perkins' name.

The Los Angeles native had stints with promotions like TNA, Pro Wrestling Guerrilla and Ring of Honor, but his WWE experience was limited to a 2009 appearance as a jobber against Sheamus and a brief stay in the company's old developmental-territory Florida Championship Wrestling. 

In January, Perkins competed for Pacific Coast Wrestling at the Oak Street Gym in Torrance, California. Fast-forward nine months and Perkins wrestled at the WWE Clash of Champions pay-per-view in front of over 13,000 people. 

Perkins' celebrity ballooned in the summer as he charged through the inaugural Cruiserweight Classic tournament. 

Looking to celebrate smaller wrestlers, WWE compiled a collection of 32 top talents, 205 pounds and under, from around the world.

Perkins was far from the favorite to win the single-elimination event.

The CWC boasted indy darlings like Zack Sabre Jr., Japanese stars like Kota Ibushi and familiar faces from the WWE's past like Tajiri. But WWE chose to crown Perkins, for the fleet-footed, dabbing grappler to advance again and again.

Perkins looked tremendous along the way. He put on a good showing against Johnny Gargano, delivered a thriller opposite Rich Swann and shone the brightest on the tourney's final night.

TJP ousted both Ibushi and Gran Metalik in the semifinals and finals to win the revived Cruiserweight Championship. Each of those clashes was electric. Perkins helped assure the Cruiserweight Classic was a major success.

Rather than go with a more established competitor as the cruiserweight's first representative on Raw, WWE chose to back Perkins.

The story the company told of his rise from that point mirrored reality in a big way. Announcers talked of the period when he was homeless. They told the audience about Perkins' uphill climb, about the years and years he has spent in this business.

There was no need for fiction; Perkins' actual path was intriguing enough.

Perkins told Blaine Van Der Griend of Slam! Wrestling: "I kind of viewed wrestling as an internship. I would often have to ditch school on Fridays to be able to make the weekend loop of shows, and then I would get dropped off again on the following Monday."

WWE harnessed this narrative to help fans connect with Perkins. He was no superhero. He was a scrapper.

Perkins went on to defend the cruiserweight title against The Brian Kendrick at both the Clash of Champions and Hell in a Cell PPVs. He was the leading man in the division in its early months.

Audiences watched a man's dream realized as a real-life story of hard work paying off played out on the screen.

Dreaming of a Double-Wide

When Raw and SmackDown divided into distinct brands in July, a draft determined which Superstars went to which show. Slater never heard his name.

Raw took Curtis Axel and Bo Dallas. SmackDown selected Eva Marie and Fandango. Slater, meanwhile, waited alone in the green room until someone turned out the lights.

Slater could have been an irrelevant end-of-the-draft pick, but WWE chose instead to draw out every drop of drama from this situation. The perennial loser popped up on Raw and SmackDown, begging for a contract.

Each show's head honchos turned him down.

He grew more desperate, more grating, more persistent. He was a down-on-his-luck guy asking around the neighborhood if anyone needed any odd jobs done. That dynamic combined with his country charm made it hard to not pull for Slater.

SmackDown general manager Daniel Bryan told him he'd win a contract on the blue brand if he could find a tag team partner, enter the tag tournament culminating at Backlash and win it all.

His prospects seemed bleak. He couldn't even get anyone to partner up with him at first.

But then the unthinkable happened. The man fans were used to seeing taking a beating each week joined forces with Rhyno and went on a winning streak.

The duo beat the returning Headbangers, The Hype Bros and eventually, at the Backlash PPV, The Usos to claim the brand-new SmackDown Tag Team Championship. This was the wrestling equivalent of the University of Maine going on a deep run in the NCAA men's tournament. 

Slater had more wins in the span of a few weeks than he had all year in 2015, per CageMatch.net.

Along the way, Slater revealed he had a whole litter of kids at home. He was fighting for them, for glory, for the money he needed to upgrade to a double-wide trailer. 

We saw into his home and his heart. We saw his partner draw faces on crackers with Cheez Whiz. And the story resonated deeply. 

A good number of those watching Slater battle to improve his life and provide for his family could relate. 

When he and Rhyno finished off the Cinderella run at Backlash, the new member of SmackDown exploded with emotion backstage. Slater howled: "My kids are ready to party. I'm ready to party. Momma's ready to party."

His exuberance was infectious. His victory felt like our victory.

Slater had won the tag titles before, but this was different. He was the star of a drama. He had his own T-shirt, and as WWE on ESPN pointed out, this run with the gold was more substantial than his previous ones:

Like with Perkins and Ellsworth, this was not the story of an invulnerable gladiator knocking some other titan aside. This was a man proving his doubters wrong, a dreamer who never stopped dreaming. 

A bottom-feeder made it to the top, and his ride there was one of the best things WWE produced all year.

Few would have predicted so much success for Slater, Ellsworth or Perkins when 2016 began. But this ended up being the year of the dark horse pulling away from the field.

And wrestling should be that unpredictable, heterogeneous and strange, a drama filled with all sorts of protagonists.

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