15 Years Later: JBL’s Rise to the WWE Main Event

For a very long time, John Layfield was known in wrestling as simply, Bradshaw. Then in 2004 when the APA finally ended as Ron Simmons disappeared from WWE TV, Bradshaw got his chance. He would be rebranded as John “Bradshaw” Layfield, the character that would lead him to main event glory as a part of SmackDown. On June 27, 2004, JBL did the unexpected and won the WWE Championship from Eddie Guerrero. The rise of JBL was not expected, but it was a rise he earned through plenty of hard work and just a little bit of luck.

Photo: WWE

JBL began his career in the Global Wrestling Federation (GWF) in 1993. He spent his years on the independents tag teaming and performing as a singles competitor. In 1994 and 1995, Layfield joined the Catch Wrestling Association, wrestling in Germany and Austria. He also competed in the NWA prior to signing with the WWE, winning the NWA North American Heavyweight Championship. The big Texan caught the eye of the WWE soon enough after earning it on the independent scenes.

JBL Starts in WWE

JBL signed with the WWE at the end of 1995 after his time on the independent circuit finding himself. He would debut on the January 23rd edition of 1996 on an episode of WWE Superstars. In the match, he debuted as Justin “Hawk” Bradshaw, defeating Tim Patterson. He would have Dutch Mantell by his side, under the persona of Uncle Zebakiah. It would be almost a month later where he would make his Monday Night Raw debut, defeating Hakushi. He would enter a rivalry with Savio Vega, a rivalry that would compete at In Your House: International Incident and In Your House: Mind Games.

Following his rivalry, he would enter one with The Stalker that would include a 20 minutes battle at In Your House: Buried Alive where The Stalker would win. For those who do not know, The Stalker is more so known as Barry Windham or Blackjack Mulligan. The following year in 1997, they would team up to form The New Blackjacks. The team lasted into the beginning of 1998 before disbanding.

Photo: WWE

Re-branded as Bradshaw, he would wrestle as a singles performer until the 1998 Survivor Series where The Acolytes would finally form as a team, as he was paired up with Faarooq (back to his original name Ron Simmons). Whether it was being apart of the Corporate Ministry and their darker vibe or going off on their own to be the hard-hitting team that would play poker in the back and beat the hell out of their opponents, JBL had found his true spot in the WWE. The team won their first pair of tag team titles in May 1999, defeating Kane and X-Pac to win the WWF World Tag Team Championships on an episode of Raw.

The APA (Acolytes Protection Agency) became one of the most popular acts in all of wrestling as the bar brawling, cigar-smoking, poker playing tough guys continuously beat the snot out of anyone in their way. The setups in the back of their poker games in the middle of nowhere was another key part of the act getting over so much. Bradshaw and Faarooq quickly became fan favorites and two of the baddest dudes around in the WWE. They went on to win two more pairs of tag team championships together before being split up in 2002 because of the brand extension draft.

He clearly proved he could be a singles star when he won the WWE European Championship at the end of 2001. While it was just a 9-day reign, they were soon broken which may prove this idea. As a singles competitor, in 2002, he briefly helped out “Stone Cold” Steve Austin in his fight against the nWo before joining the Hardcore division. As a member of the Hardcore division, he became the WWE Hardcore Champion a total of an absurd 18 times. At the end of the year in September, he would get injured, missing six months.

When Bradshaw returned, it was in 2003 when he would team with Faarooq once again to make the save, helping the Undertaker. The APA reunion would last through the rest of 2003 into 2004 before Faarooq would be taken off TV in a firing angle where Bradshaw would hesitate. With Faarooq gone, it would be known that the SmackDown brand saw a lot of potential in Bradshaw. This would mark the time of the “Wrestling God” being born.

John “Bradshaw” Layfield was here to stay. The new heel persona was developed as the top heels on the blue brand were injured and Brock Lesnar left following WrestleMania 20. He would quickly go into his memorable rivalry with the WWE Champion, Eddie Guerrero. Their blood bath at Judgement Day helped make it possible to believe in JBL. At the Great American Bash on June 27th, 2004, JBL would defeat Eddie in a Texas Bull Rope match to win the WWE Undisputed Championship for the one and only time in his career. So much of his championship run would be JBL doing all he could to avoid losing that championship with the help of The Cabinet.

The Cabinet was the stable created by JBL to help him keep his WWE Championship. Orlando Jordan, The Basham Brothers, Jillian Hall, and Amy Weber made up The Cabinet that helped run the reign of JBL. Until AJ Styles’ WWE Championship reign that ended last year, JBL was the longest reigning WWE Champion in the history of SmackDown. JBL survived the likes of The Undertaker, Booker T, Big Show, and Kurt Angle in any way possible to remain the champion.

His rivalry with John Cena is the one that got Cena over as the main event star and the face of the franchise when he had his crowning moment at WrestleMania 21. From JBL helping screw Cena out of his United State Championship in March of 2003. He even tossed the custom United States Championship created by Cena in the trash and destroyed it. Ultimately, Cena would get his revenge at WrestleMania 21, but this was a special rivalry and much of Cena’s beginnings of a main event star can be credited to JBL. The “I Quit” match between Cena and JBL was a brutal war that mirrored a match between he and Eddie the year prior at Judgement day was well put a rest to JBL’s main event run, but it was an incredible run, nonetheless.

JBL’s final years of an active competitor ranged from him retiring twice, winning the Intercontinental and United States Championship to become a Grand Slam Champion, and commentating all the way in 2006 and continuing to come back for special appearances in the booth. JBL’s reign to the main event scene and ultimately the WWE Championship was an unexpected one but a hard-deserved run. Many compared Jinder Mahal’s instant main event run to JBL’s, but it is nowhere near the same. “The Wrestling God” did all he could to help get over a star like John Cena and has said his run in the main event may have included some luck. 15 years later, it leaves plenty of good memories as JBL was a perfect prototype to the scared heel who would do anything to retain his championship.

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