Heel Honor Roll #13 - John Bradshaw Layfield
At the heart of capitalism there is necessarily desperation. Built into the very idea of the market paying an individual for their value is the starting point of that individual creating value. We demand that people make something out of nothing for the sake of their survival. More accurately, we demand that people compete to create and sell value, pitting people against one another for a piece of the pie, a piece they need. Centuries of the process playing out, repeating itself, producing winners who expand the system, burying the losers who fall outside of the system, the time glosses over what goes into perpetuating that system; the churning desperation is always there, the fear that pushes the competitors passes unspoken from generation to generation. In the end, we live with, and indeed generally benefit from the capitalist system, but we never, for fear of the distaste of it all, acknowledge that desperation. But anybody who talks about the American Dream, even if they don't want to acknowledge it, is talking about desperate, sometimes distasteful choices.
This disconnect between what we know and what we acknowledge makes for fascinating tension between our ideals and the realities that allow those ideals to exist, and, at a time when that disconnect was at the center of George W. Bush's America, all of the ugliness of that tension was embodied by John Bradshaw Layfield.
What made JBL so detestable was inextricably tied to what had made him an enjoyable, if not beloved, staple on WWE television as a member of the APA tag team. There, teamed with shoot good friend Ron Simmons, he was cast as a rough and tumble type, the kind of blue collar grunt esthat would play cards, drink beer, and kick ass because that's what people do in the trench. Hell, the team's whole gimmick, for a time, was being mercenaries for hire, using their limited but brutal skillset for higher-ups with the money to pay for them.
When Paul Heyman fired Ron Simmons, but not Bradshaw, who had then become something of a mini-celebrity (by WWE standards) thanks to his financial success and his work as something of a finance guru for CNBC and in print, the door was cracked open just enough for Bradshaw to see the way up. Watching the moment when the APA officially split is as good an example of conflicted betrayal as you'll find on WWE programming. Ron Simmons, jobless, looking first expectantly, then almost pleadingly at his tag team partner of almost a decade, begging him to resist the chance to leave behind the desperation that comes from working in the trenches.
Bradshaw, visibly torn, knowing that windows of opportunity like his shut on the indecisive every day and never reopen, knowing that choosing security over loyalty is the despicable choice, hating himself for thinking it's still the right choice for him, if not for his team. It played perfectly; where most team breakups involve more outward expressions of betrayal, this one felt like a real crisis of conscience, one in which Bradshaw was torn between his friend and his career, and, in a moment that changed the direction of Bradshaw's character forever, he chose to take hold of the opportunity to get out of the trenches he had dominated for so long. Leaping through the window of opportunity, Bradshaw emerged on the other side as JBL.
Audiences were astonished and repulsed by just how quickly Bradshaw changed into JBL, and just how drastic that transformation was. Not only had JBL transcended the trenches, he now actively despised them. He was a titan of industry now, and in making the decision he had and reaping the rewards that came with it, he learned that the "right" choice is always the smart choice, and refused to apologize to people who decried choices that they would have made if they had the opportunities he had. Formerly a man who made fighting into a business, JBL became a man who was a business. He was capitalism made whole, an undeniable success story built on hard work and brutal, desperate and distasteful decisions.
Audiences loved to hate JBL, and their loathing only served to justify his perspective as having risen above the masses. This played well in his feuds, particularly with Eddie Guerrero, from whom he won the WWE title (en route to holding the title for almost a full year), and with whom he sparred over the ideas of what made an American, with JBL acting as the privileged captain of industry at the top and Eddie representing the unseen masses that make industry run with their work on the ground.
JBL's feuds all tended to play well off of his status as a conniving corporate behemoth, whether he was escaping from beneath the ring in a cage match with Big Show or giving then underdog John Cena the rub at Wrestlemania 21 that would launch him into iconic status. He was a hulking specimen in the ring, and his battering style became symbolic of the pounding oppression of the elites against the proletariat. He was the physical manifestation of the power that comes from having, and the sort of brutality required to become one of the "haves". He became the glass ceiling that he once, in his own moment of crisis, seized the opportunity to pass through, and on the other side of that opportunity he immediately became the watchdog denying others the same opportunity to rise, fearfully protective of his newfound piece of the pie.
My personal favorite JBL promo took place shortly after his firing from CNBC for an a controversial (and politically insensitive) heel promo on an overseas tour in Germany. Returning to the states shortly before his title match against Eddie Guerrero at the Great American Bash, JBL lit up the crowd and the entire media machine with uncharacteristic vitriol. Watching the pit bull growl in defense of his territory was another excellent example of nuanced heel work from a character who did it as well as anyone, but the best moment comes later, when he snarls at the crowd "I wonder why you people hated me, and now I know: Because I expose you for what you are…I am a window, a mirror that makes you look into your own souls, and you don't like what you see; you hate me because I reveal what you are." Could anything be more perfect coming from the man who embodied everything horrible about capitalism, about the American Dream, about American Exceptionalism itself?
We despise JBL because we know that he represents what we can, and what many of us would become if given the chance in this capitalist system. He flaunts in front of us the reality we would rather ignore: That in order for someone to become great in our competitive society, there have to be losers, people thrown aside, trampled on the road to success. We're afraid that we'd be the heartless juggernaut, the one doing the trampling, and maybe, just maybe, in our darkest hour, we'd seize the opportunity to do so gladly. With his American made money and cowboy hat, JBL was no less of an ethnic heel archetype than the Iron Sheik, except the Iron Sheik had to wave an Iranian flag to remind us what or whom we were supposed to root against.
With JBL, we didn't need a flag; the image of what we hated was one we saw all around us, one that we allowed ourselves to surround us every day, one that we were ashamed to say represented the worst of us, but one that we were more ashamed to say we may have, in some small, desperate was, wanted for ourselves.