FRIDAY, FEB. 10: How would you feel going to work every day knowing thousands of people would be booing you? For John Layfield that was all part of the job of being a ‘bad’ character on the WWE circuit.
Layfield, who lives in Bermuda and is helping organize the Beyond Rugby programme for Middle School students, talked to Don Burgess about life on the pro wrestling circuit.
How did you get involved in pro wrestling?
I was playing pro football and I couldn’t pass the physical after my third year. I had always been a wrestling fan so it wasn’t like a last ditch option for me. It was something I grew up loving. My earliest memory was watching wrestling with my grandfather. When I got hurt I had the opportunity to get in to wrestling — It was a childhood dream for me.
Who did you play football for?
I played with the Los Angeles Raiders for a cup of coffee in 1989 then I played in the World League of American Football for San Antonio.
Which of your wrestling personas did you enjoy the most?
JBL was my favourite. I enjoyed the Bradshaw character — the beer drinking character from Texas. It was just fun. For Ron Simmons and I, that was us. The WWE saw two old football players sitting around drinking beer and they wanted to put that on TV. We had a blast with that.
The JBL character came along. Vince McMahon will deny this because he didn’t see any parallel with the JR Ewing character (from the TV show Dallas), but in my mind it was a JR Ewing character. It was my idea.
I had wanted to be this JBL character for some time, but I was doing so much for the troops and going to Iraq for Christmas and doing shows for the troops.
Because of this Vince didn’t want me to be a bad guy. A confluence of factors happened. Big Show got hurt, The Undertaker got hurt and Brock Lesnar left the company and they needed a guy to face Eddie Guerrero. Vince asked me if I wanted to do the JBL character and I said ‘I’d love to and said let’s give it a whirl’.
Did you rehearse your matches ahead of time?
The best way for me to explain how it works is like two ad lib comedians. You get up on the stage and you don’t know what the audience is going to buy or not to buy. The ad lib comedians don’t have a set plan and the best way to do it in wrestling is not have a set plan. The finish is orchestrated — who is going to win and who is going to lose, but as far as how you get there you have to figure out what the crowd is buying and what it’s not buying.
How many matches would you wrestle in a year?
When I first started out I remember wrestling 117 straight days and that was wrestling matinees on Saturdays and Sundays and then an evening performance. So when I first started it was about 250 nights a year. The older I got the less I could do so I had to pick my spots.
Being a big time WWE wrestler seems glamorous, but what’s it like getting to that point?
I wrestled in the carnivals in Europe for two years and that’s as bad as it gets. I had a 16 ft long trailer that was 6 ft wide and that’s what I lived in for two years. I had no running water and lived on a campground with travelling gypsies. In the winter I literally lived on the parking lot next to where I would wrestle. If I had to go to the bathroom I had to go inside or in the hall or the shower— it was not a very glamorous lifestyle.
How did you move up to the ‘big leagues’?
WWE had found me somehow. They told me they wanted to hire me when I was done with my tour, pending a trial match. It was freezing cold in Germany at that time so I was ecstatic.
So what was your first WWE persona?
Justin ‘Hawk’ Bradshaw. Vince McMahon wanted me to be Bradshaw and I don’t know why. He wanted me to be a country character. I wanted to be John Bradshaw because people didn’t last too long and I wanted to take my name with me. To do that, I had to have a name that was real. If they create it, they keep the name. That’s why wrestlers change names so many times. I was using the name John Hawk and it ended up being Justin Hawk Bradshaw so that backfired because all my autographs had to be Justin Hawk Bradshaw.
How much of the autograph signing and other publicity stunts did you have to do?
What was so great was when I was a champion for so long I was a bad guy. You don’t want the bad guy out signing autographs because you don’t want people to start liking him so I never had to go to autograph sessions as a bad guy. Because you didn’t want to see in the paper the bad guy holding a kid because then people would think “Oh, he’s really a good guy”. You want to keep up that image that is a bad guy.
Did it bother you playing a bad guy?
I understood it was theatre. To me, it was never a problem being a bad guy. You would have people say something nasty to you in the airport, we had some that bothered them and couldn’t be bad guys in wrestling because it bothered them too much. To me, that was a kind of certification you’re doing the right thing. That never bothered me because hopefully one day that person would come to watch me lose and be entertained and go home happy. I was much more successful as bad guy than I was as a good guy.
What was the best thing about playing a good character?
Being a good guy is easy. I had a wrestling match in Bagdad. They were all booing me. As soon as it was over they would all rush the stage and say ‘Thanks for coming. That was great. Did you hear us booing you?’ They all understood that was part of the show. When you’re a good guy you get to interact with the fans a lot more.
Who did you like wrestling against?
The Undertaker was far the best. He and Eddie Guerrero — who was probably the most popular Hispanic character of all time — and those guys were just magicians. Those guys were so good and so professional and talented. With some guys, I wrestled hard, they wrestled hard but there was no chemistry. It’s frustrating because you’re wanting people to be happy because they’re spending hard-earned money. You want them to enjoy the show but I walked away thinking ‘I just didn’t do my job.’
How much time did you spend working on your wrestling moves?
I was trained as a proper Greco-Roman wrestler. It all comes from knowing the proper art and then adding a few theatrics to it.
What was your favourite move?
The Clothesline. Every character who has done a cowboy did The Lariat, which is just a clothesline. I remember when I was in Japan and to finish a match I did a clothesline and the boss said to me ‘I’ve got to hit him harder.’ So I finally developed this unique clothesline move that didn’t actually hurt people but looked like I was killing them. That came from weeks and weeks of tinkering on the Japanese tour.
How much of it is real wrestling?
It depends on the match. When I used to wrestle Kurt Angle, who was a legit Olympic gold medallist, a lot of real wrestling moves were involved. I couldn’t wrestle with him as he was the best out of six billion people, but we did a lot of pure wrestling moves because that was what was expected of him.
What do you miss the most about the WWE?
I miss the boys. I got into Twitter six or eight months ago and I love it because I’m sitting watching the Super Bowl and Stone Cold Steve Austin is watching it. They’re sending me messages and its fun. That’s’ the appeal of social media. Most people miss the dressing room. We had some very entertaining chracters and guys could sit around and tell stories for hours and have fun. I also miss the crowd. When you get it right and they leave happy, that’s pretty cool.