Sports

The Return of the Jobber

Jobbers—those wrestlers who are paid to lose and in doing so enhance a promotion's stars—fell out of favor in the late 1990s, but they appear to be having a resurgence. Enjoy it, because it won't last.

by Ian Williams
Oct 26 2016, 1:30pm

WWE/YouTube

Every golden age of pro wrestling (and there have been several) has been defined by the popularity and drawing power of its stars, from Bruno Sammartino to Hulk Hogan to Steve Austin and The Rock. And most of the time, those stars were created on the backs of the marginal talents we call jobbers.

Jobbers lose for a living, hence their name. Their job, more specifically, is to make their opponent look like a million bucks. When pushing a particular wrestler, a promotion will give him or her a win over a parade of quasi-anonymous jobbers, often locals tapped for a one-off payday. This is harder than it sounds: it takes a real talent to make the other person look good, especially when a promotion is trying to make a wrestler look like a strongman or a monster, requiring a foil who's more ragdoll than human for the distinction of being thrown around or out of a ring.

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The art of jobbing has long been part of wrestling's fabric, with promotions keeping a couple dozen regulars on hand for the task. Some jobbers became legendary for their status, usually after a fluke win. Duane Gill, a career jobber in the early-1990s WWE, became Gillberg, a spoof of WCW's dominant Bill Goldberg. He won a light heavyweight title in WWE as a sort of archly ironic joke—we all realized he was a jobber, see, so we all knew it wasn't real—before the gimmick became more annoying than funny.

If you could engineer jobbers in a lab, they'd look like the tag team of Bill and Randy Mulkey, the greatest of jobbers in wrestling history. Real-life brothers from Tennessee, the Mulkey Brothers had bleached-blonde hair, as wrestlers did in the 1980s South, but instead of buff, tanned bodies to go with their glorious white locks, they had pasty, sallow skin and physiques closer to tube socks filled with liverwurst than Ric Flair.

There was something utterly hapless about the Mulkeys, and they just got their asses whipped so thoroughly, with heels nearly always going back for more after the bell, that you just wanted to hug them. And because of this, a weird thing happened: they started to get popular in their stomping grounds of North Carolina and Georgia.

They had one win, in a qualification match for a tag team tournament. It was, as jobber wins tended to be, a fluke. As the (apocryphal) story goes, the Mulkeys didn't know they were going to win—only the referee and their opponents did—and so the shock on their faces, and those of the announcers, was real. Unlike jobbers done good like Gillberg, the Mulkeys were presented without irony; it was a brief feel-good story, and it legitimately surprised wrestling fans at the time.

Jobbers strangely fell out of favor around the time of WWE's late-90s blood feud with WCW. They didn't disappear entirely, but they were mostly banished from flagship shows and relegated to what were considered B-quality ones like WCW Saturday Night, Sunday Night Heat, and so on.

In WCW, they were replaced mostly by the cruiserweights in vogue at the time: high-flying stuntmen, often from Mexico's luchador ranks, putting on athletic exhibitions. Outside a few high-profile feuds, it tended to feel like it didn't matter who won those midcard filler matches because the action was so good that nobody really cared.

In WWE, meanwhile, jobbers fell by the wayside as the writing evolved. No longer was the anonymous wrestler paid to lose an emphasis. A new paradigm was established, in which everyone had to have a storyline. Once that happened, even wrestlers who were jobbers by most definitions became something more simply by virtue of having character and personal drama. This approach allowed a guy like Al Snow to job repeatedly but never really hit jobber status, and it was a strange and good thing to see.

After nearly 20 years of virtual absence, however, jobbers are back—and it's wonderful.

It all started with WWE's brand split and Braun Strowman's push as an unstoppable leviathan. Strowman is a legitimately terrifying-looking man, a former power lifter who stands over six and a half feet tall. In the wake of the brand split, WWE needed to fill out its roster on a week-to-week basis. They also needed to push Strowman as a monster. Jobbers could fill both those demands.

All of a sudden, part-timers were trotted out to challenge Strowman, and the old-school ass-kickings worked. Strowman looked amazing, local wrestlers got paydays, and the crowd loved it. It was the oldest storyline in wrestling (older even than good guys versus bad guys), and the world had supposedly moved on, but something still clicked.

One of those jobbers is now an integral part of Smackdown's current world title storyline. Dean Ambrose has been tormenting champion AJ Styles by helping eternal jobber James Ellsworth beat him. Ellsworth's appeal is very real: he currently has the best-selling shirt in WWE's store. He occupies the perfect middle ground between the Mulkeys and Gillberg, a pro wrestler you can root for without irony, while still recognizing that the irony involved is part of why you love it so much.

So jobbers are back, but probably not for too much longer. There are too many wrestlers in NXT waiting in the wings, too much raw athletic talent on the rosters of WWE and the indies, for this new wave of jobber love to last. Enjoy it while you can.

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