This has nothing to do with James Ellsworth, the 31-year old Northeast-based Independent wrestler whose outlandish appearance has given him the chance of a lifetime in sports entertainment. Outside of nearly killing himself by forgetting the fallacy of tucking the head during the Styles Clash, he's been fun to watch. A few months ago, he debuted on RAW as the victim of a Braun Strowman squash. His look was everything WWE hates, but because of that, it made him the ideal comedy figure. It’s also made him easy to root for and it’s made him sympathetic, in that most Gillberg of ways.
The problem with the Styles-Ellsworth television fiasco relates to something I’ve been writing about for weeks here at Cageside. It’s about credible heels at the top of the card. This situation is concerning because of the AJ Styles side of the equation.
Styles has done a nice job here, and that would be true even had he not saved Ellsworth’s life last Tuesday. He seems to be willing to do anything he’s asked in WWE, which can be a good or bad thing, because outside of very rare occasions, the promotion isn’t the one looking out for an employee’s best interests.
James Ellsworth cut a great promo (fake hand-trembling aside), and from a story standpoint, everything made pretty good sense. Except for this pesky little reality that none of this makes any sense, whatsoever.
An underdog story is the easiest good vs. evil story to tell, and it’s been successful in all forms of entertainment for centuries. From David and Goliath to Harry Potter and Voldemort, those pairings draw money and interest. The question isn’t whether it was a mistake to use Ellsworth, because generally speaking, it wasn’t. What everyone needs to ask is whether it was smart to position him with the WWE Champion.
And the answer is no.
Kevin Owens and AJ Styles both have been placed in angles that revolve around at least partial levity, and neither has been Champion very long. Owens was a dominant heel in NXT, started along the same path on the main roster, but because much of what he says was “real talk,” it was tough to fault him. Add to it what a great worker he is and how well-spoken he is as a promo, and all of a sudden your dominant heel becomes at best a 50-50 proposition for many fans.
For AJ Styles, he came in and worked with Jericho and Roman Reigns, then turned heel at the outset of the John Cena program. Upon arriving on SmackDown, he’s primarily been matched with Dean Ambrose, with Cena also nearby when his schedule allowed him to be on television. There’s virtually no question that he’s the in-ring MVP of WWE in 2016. I’m not even sure there’s a close second.
But, this Ellsworth angle has pushed the cheese-ball quotient through the roof, even more than “Champ That Runs the Camp” did last month. The WWE Champion has become fodder for Dean Ambrose’s jokes, and he’s been involved in a pair of bad finishes. It’s certainly made Ellsworth into a name we’ll remember, but what has it done for AJ Styles?
The goal here is to keep AJ strong, to ensure Dean remains near the top of the SmackDown card, and that’s really it. James Ellsworth isn’t a WWE Superstar twelve months from today, or if he is, it’s random appearances in storylines with Santino Marella-like depth. I don’t see Sean Waltman in him. Do you?
If you agree with me, you have to wonder why Vince would choose to put this short-term character in with his World Champion. Would Triple H have worked Ellsworth if he was champ? Would Randy Orton? Would Shawn Michaels? What’s the benefit for them? The only one that gets anything out of it (other than the obvious) is the party associated with Ellsworth’s cause. Meanwhile, all the men I just mentioned have bigger global names than AJ Styles. If you exclude New Japan Pro Wrestling fans and those who haven’t watched TNA or Ring of Honor, you still have a major swath of the WWE Universe.
All this angle has done is bring AJ Styles down a peg and put a “meh” stamp across his title reign, which is barely even out of the blocks. As I mentioned earlier, James Ellsworth does have value here, and the overall idea isn’t bad. Here’s how this should have been done:
Replace AJ Styles with The Miz.
It’s that simple. The Miz cuts his brilliant Talking Smack promo, with a tinge of reality behind the veneer, and instead of immediately moving to Dolph Ziggler, how about WWE brings James Ellsworth out right then and there? Miz does an in-ring interview demanding main events and real competition, takes a few more shots at Daniel Bryan in the process, which brings out the SmackDown commissioner. DB uses Ellsworth to show Miz that he has the power to wreck his stardom in a heartbeat.
Miz dominates Ellsworth, but slips on the proverbial banana peel and gets rolled up and pinned. After the bell, humiliated and incensed, he attacks the ever loving shit out of Ellsworth. In my version, he busts James open, hits him with the Skull Crushing Finale in the ring, on the floor, on a chair on the floor, and finally on the announce table. He wears Ellsworth out with the aforementioned chair, to the point everyone in attendance and everyone watching at home is extremely uncomfortable.
SmackDown ends with a psychotic Miz standing over the carcass of James Ellsworth. Then, infuse Dolph Ziggler into things the following week, possibly by cutting a Talking Smack “real” promo of his own. You have him play the role of Dean Ambrose, all the while winning a few nondescript matches here and there. His main purpose is to align with Ellsworth, for the sole purpose of shutting Miz’s mouth. Even though DZ isn’t a great promo, he can tell the same bad jokes Ambrose can, and after Ellsworth is kept off TV for a few weeks, he returns. At the same time, with Ellsworth selling the injury, Miz takes liberties on other no-names, and Ziggler loosely interjects himself.
Dolph brings Ellsworth back onto SmackDown, just to be in his corner, but through some crafty storytelling, we end up with Miz and The Chin one more time. Do the count out, do the disqualification, whatever you want, but Ellsworth wins again, and this time after the bell, he runs into the crowd and escapes DDP-style through the people. Miz demands a rematch, with Ziggler barred from ringside, and eventually he wins convincingly, getting the three count.
He commences another vicious beating during the afterbirth, because he’s still embarrassed, and after a few minutes, Dolph does his run-in. Here, Ellsworth powders out of WWE, and then we flip back to the very beginning of the Ziggler/Miz program, which runs in exactly the same manner Vince ran it originally, but with the real blow-off match happening in December.
Here’s the point. The 1-2-3 Kid didn’t get his initial fluke wins over Diesel, Shawn, Bret, or The Undertaker. He beat a willing participant on the midcard, where the angle didn’t have the potential to scar the main event, but also gave Scott Hall a chance to show some range as a performer. Miz has that same sort of range, and him losing, but developing a mean streak inside the squared circle that matches the ferocity of his words to Daniel Bryan would only have helped that character grow even more.
Miz isn’t the worker of Styles, but he’s a better actor, and a more polished talker. AJ has come a long way, but it won’t ever be his primary strength. I wouldn’t have enjoyed this story playing out any less with the switch, and in fact would have appreciated it more. Also, Dean Ambrose has looked like a goon since it began, and that spot feels far more appropriate for the Dolph Ziggler of two months ago.
At the end of it all, James Ellsworth still ends up with a t-shirt, still ends up next to Renee Young, but AJ Styles is working main event level talent, in important matches, as he builds his WWE Championship resume. Nothing changes, except a few of the players. The Ellsworth angle might be compelling, but it has no business atop these shows. It’s just not logical. It’s completely insolvent. The concept is a lot of fun, but you can’t keep doing this with your stars, or those on the verge of becoming your stars.
Bill Goldberg vs. James Ellsworth never would have happened. AJ Styles vs. James Ellsworth never SHOULD have happened.
Don’t forget, just prior to the start of this angle, we all watched Styles tap out to John Cena and Dean Ambrose at No Mercy, then inexplicably win the match in a confusing triple threat. He goes directly from that visual...to this angle. That’s 47,962 kinds of bad booking from WWE.
I’m happy for James Ellsworth. We can all enjoy watching someone handed such an absurd opportunity, especially when it’s temporary. But, you can’t leverage your main event heel for an awkward sideshow, and that’s unquestionably what this has been.