On the Barthesian Bodily Genius of James Ellsworth (by guest contributor John Dvorak)

New friend of the blog John Dvorak is making his debut guest post with a Barthesian reading of James Ellsworth, how great is that? This jobber who came out of nowhere becomes valued for that which is the opposite of traditional value in wrestling, what a perfect emblem of these strange times. Take a look:


On Tuesday I had the enjoyable opportunity to take my ten-year old son to the SAP Center in San Jose for Smackdown Live.  This particular show came with one major, built-in storyline hook:  Just two days earlier the desperate, beaten-down, and generally discredited Dolph Ziggler shoved all his chips to the center of the table, putting his career on the line for one last Intercontinental Championship match opportunity vs. the newly rejuvenated, molten-hot heel The Miz in (what I considered to be) the main event of No Mercy.  WWE of course noted in the hours preceding the show that the “official” main event of the Styles/Cena/Ambrose Triple Threat would curtain-jerk the evening.  But in a practical and especially emotional sense—and even despite its questionable placement in the middle of the PPV card—Ziggler vs. Miz undisputedly served as the show’s climax.  This fact is not insignificant since the IC Title Match hasn’t served as the emotional center of gravity of a PPV since the legendary transatlantic 1992 SummerSlam bout between Bret Hart and the British Bulldog in front of sold-out Wembley Stadium.  Now, with Ziggler emerging victoriously and the Miz seething over the loss of his championship (fear not Miz, as even larger stages now await your return) my son and I would be there first-hand to witness all of the fallout.

And the fallout was, for the most part, pretty good.  Dolph got a decent pop to open the show, and the crowd politely congratulated him on his championship victory (“YOU DESERVE IT CLAP CLAP, CLAP CLAP CLAP”).  The Miz and Maryse then quite expectedly interrupted Dolph’s celebration with the fans.  For his part the Miz vowed that, as the real hero of this story and as the one who “already got the girl,” he would win back the IC title to give this story the ending it rightly deserves (to which the crowd chanted “YOU WERE CRYING, CLAP CLAP, CLAP CLAP CLAP). While hardly the hottest wresting crowd I’ve ever seen (and that’s a charitable assessment, given the many milquetoast collections of fans associated with the PG era…the non-pop later on for the otherworldly AJ Styles was frankly embarrassing) their nonetheless natural rapport with Miz and Ziggler reflects the latter pair’s particularly outstanding work in this feud.

Still, despite the high-level efforts from both of these performers—currently strong enough to earn a well-deserved break from mid-card purgatory—the real show-stealer (Sorry Dolph) was comedy-jobber James Ellsworth.  I suppose I’ll offer the disclaimer on the following analysis that I grew up, and remain, a huge fan of enhancement talent.  Like Charlie Brown focused on one day kicking the football, I’d religiously tune in to WWF Superstars each week in hopes that Barry Horowitz would somehow score an upset.  Horowitz always, always lost, and I delighted in the abject futility of rooting for a preordained loser. That is, until he didn’t, when in 1995 he shockingly pinned established midcarder Skip (the late Chris Candido) of the Bodydonnas.  I lost my mind.  Little did I know that twenty-one years later I would see another seismic jobber upset in James Ellsworth’s pin of WWE World Champion AJ Styles.

Now of course, Horowitz’s upset was remarkable in that it was totally clean without any outside interference, whereas Ellsworth’s victory depended on the open, egregious, and constant interference from Styles rival and special-guest referee Dean Ambrose.  One way to understand this is that Ambrose’s prodigious interference in the match was proportional to the utter lack of threat posed to AJ Styles by his hand-picked opponent.  Here although never explicitly stated, every fan instinctively knows that James Ellsworth must not and will not go over the WWE Champion cleanly.  And for good kayfabe reason, too, as Ellsworth has never won any matches of consequence, let alone ever having put up any kind of a serious fight along the way.  Compare this to Horowitz in his prime, when he would typically get in some decent offense before ultimately succumbing to the finisher of whichever star he was trying to put over.  Ellsworth, on the other hand, occupies the very bottom rung of the jobber ladder:  He exists solely to get thoroughly and purposefully smashed by his opponent.

How and why, then, does WWE establish these distinctive roles within its population of enhancement talent?  Roland Barthes can offer some important insight here, offering that, “It is therefore in the body of the wrestler that we find the first key to the contest” (15).  To compare the bodies of Horowitz and Ellsworth is to gain the first insight into their disparate in-ring performances.  Horowitz was tall and possessed an even, athletic wrestler build.  On offense he could execute a crisp body-slam or a timely, convincing arm-drag takedown.  Horowitz would run the ropes without fear and jumped to a respectable height on his drop-kicks.  Ellsworth, conversely, wears a tentative, rubbery physique to the ring.  His stance is awkward and uncertain, the kind made by the skinniest kid in school when directed by the class bully to “Put ‘em up!”  When Ellsworth landed an arm-drag takedown on Styles, he feigned shock that mirrored the crowd’s legitimate surprise and delight.

In his analysis, Barthes takes great care to focus on the most iconic part of a person, dedicating chapters in Mythologies to “the Brain of Einstein” and “the Face of Garbo.”  Were Barthes alive today to experience the comedy jobber styling of James Ellsworth, he would doubtlessly zero in on his meek and distressingly diminished chin.  Ironically, Ellsworth’s unqualified absence of a chin establishes his greatest strength as a performer; indeed without it he stands as what the great Bobby Heenan would describe as a thoroughly unremarkable “Ham-and-Egger.”  But that chin.  My God.  This singular bodily feature dramatically underscores his  total hopelessness as a WWE singles competitor, yet cements his status as a must-see character in the company.  To paraphrase Enzo Amore, “You can’t teach that…chin.”   Ellsworth’s chin stands as all the more remarkable given that it may have prevented a serious injury during AJ’s rare botched execution of his signature Styles Clash, as any normal chin would have taken a seriously stiff bump in that moment.

In our discussion of the bodies and physiques of Barry Horowitz and James Ellsworth, we can conclude two things. To defeat Horowitz (the expected outcome notwithstanding) is to conquer an average yet physically legitimate opponent.  But beating Ellsworth is tantamount to squashing a bug.  It is thus primarily through the latter’s body, mannerisms, and especially chin that the crowd viscerally ascertains James Ellsworth’s role in the performance.  Or as Barthes similarly observes in the crowd’s reaction to the physically revolting body of the French heel Thauvin, “the passionate condemnation of the crowd no longer stems from its judgment, but instead from the very depth of its humours.”   In short, Ellsworth’s body is absolutely central to his non-threatening wrestling persona.  And Ellsworth effectively leveraged this projected harmlessness to establish that Dean Ambrose remains a very real threat to recapture his WWE World Championship.  In effect, Ellsworth’s perceived dearth of competitive legitimacy stood in direct proportion to the level of dastardly hijinks that Ambrose sunk to in order to humiliate his real rival AJ Styles.   And while a cursory examination of the match’s results suggests that Ellsworth, despite himself, ostensibly went over in the non-title bout, this understanding would betray the fundamental and inviolable role of enhancement talent in a wrestling company.  Despite the victory, Ellsworth never went over.  Ambrose did.  And Ellsworth, through “the essential viscosity of his personage” that all begins with his body (and chin!), put him over brilliantly.

Us smarky fans love to rage on Internet forums that Vince insists on only pushing guys with the right “look” while holding back performers who don’t immediately pass his eye test:  I mean, how else absent McMahon’s apparent body-builder fetish can we possibly explain why mediocre yet otherwise chiseled big men like Sid Vicious, Lex Luger, and Roman Reigns all got monster (and indeed stubborn) pushes over the years, while elite in-ring performers like Daniel Bryan were left for so long to toil on the mid-card.  But maybe the Carny-in-Chief understands Barthes better than we do.  Despite likely reservations, Vince has indeed at times put the main title on smaller guys and jobbed the hell out of his bigger ones.  He’ll always do, whatever is in the end, “best for business.”  Yet if the wrestler’s body is as Barthes argues the “first key” to the match—and by extension the audience’s willingness to pay to see it—then maybe we fans need to chill out a bit and let these wrestlers’ bodies tell the stories they were meant to tell.


John Dvorak acquired his life-long love of professional wrestling from his Slovak-Catholic immigrant grandmother, who rode the bus to the Pittsburgh Civic Arena to watch local legend Bruno Sammartino with the same religious fervor that she took to Mass each weekend. It was real to her until the day she died. John watches and writes about wrestling in between nugging computer code, running marathons, reading Thomas Pynchon, and playing mid-stakes poker. He regularly thanks the head booker upstairs for his incredible shoot wife and three boys. Say hi on Twitter @JohnNDvorak

Image Credit: wwe.com

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