It’s around 3 o’clock Monday afternoon. James Ellsworth, WWE’s most unlikely star, is sitting in a Baltimore airport waiting to board a plane headed for Denver. In a little over 24 hours he’ll be wrestling for the WWE World Championship.
There are no other words to describe the 31-year-old’s journey to the main event of SmackDown Live. It’s a long strange trip comprised of all the ups, downs, twists and turns pro wrestling can provide.
His recent celebrity is the byproduct of 14 years of wrestling on the independent circuit — sometimes in front of just a handful of people, sometimes less than that. And now this father of two young daughters is performing in front of tens of thousands of screaming fans in the WWE Universe.
Indeed, his is a story of hard work, perseverance and dedication. It’s also proof that any man with two hands has a fighting chance.
Six months ago, if someone were to have told you you’d be wrestling for the WWE Championship, what would you have said?
I would have just laughed at him. Like, yeah right! That’s a joke! I would have never thought in a million years that I would ever be wrestling for the WWE World Championship.
You’re new to the WWE Universe, but not new to the wrestling business. You’ve been around for 14 years. Does that give you a great appreciation for this opportunity?
I’m glad it happened now and not five or 10 years ago. I’m in a better place now than I was five or 10 years ago with my career. If this were to have happened five or seven years into my career, I don’t think I would have been as prepared for it.
Obviously, I am nervous. You’re wrestling, in my opinion, the best wrestler in the world in AJ Styles for the biggest championship in the world, the WWE World Championship. Yeah, the nerves are there. I’m trying to stay as calm and collected as I can right now at this time, but tomorrow I’m sure I’ll be very nervous.
Your path to WWE wasn’t through NXT or anything like that. How did you break in there?
Years ago I went on WWE.com and kept on sending them my resume and my pictures and videos of matches. Finally, in 2014 they called me to be an extra talent. I got to be a rosebud with Adam Rose. Ever since then, every time they were 250 miles from where I live in Baltimore, they would contact me to be an enhancement talent for their shows.
Who was the first in WWE to take you under their wing and show you how everything runs?
That is definitely 100 percent Chris Jericho. The day after I did the match with Braun Strowman he contacted me on Twitter and wanted me on his podcast (Talk Is Jericho). I went in and did the podcast with him the next time I was at TV. Ever since then we text all the time. He gives me advice and helps me out. He’s just an outstanding human being.
Jericho recently talked you up in Sports Illustrated. That’s got to be an amazing feeling to have that type of support from one of the giants in the wrestling business.
Absolutely. Especially a guy that’s one of my favorites. A guy that I grew up watching and was so entertained by. He started in ECW in 1994, I believe. I was about nine years old, and I noticed him right away. And in WCW, I was definitely a Jericholic as a teenager. He always stays entertaining. In wrestling, he’s one of the best ever. So, to have him helping me out, it’s just amazing. It just shows you what type of guy he truly is. He doesn’t have to help me out, but he does it because he wants to. It’s amazing.
Who else backstage has lent a helping hand?
Everybody is very nice. The agents like Arn Anderson have helped me a lot. He usually has my matches and helps us with everything. He’s very cool, and he’s helped me. I get treated well. They’re all very cool. I don’t consider myself to be “one of the boys.” I really think I have to earn having that title, but they’re all very nice to me.
You obviously have a very unique look. Have you started getting recognized in public now that you’ve been on TV?
Yeah, it’s been happening! Especially after this week. I went grocery shopping at Walmart and took a lot of pictures. It’s been cool. I’ll never say no to a picture or autograph when I’m in public, because I’m in the situation I’m in because of the fans, 100 percent. They’re the ones who tweeted and Instagrammed WWE and said “hey we want this guy back! He was fun to watch!” It’s all because of them, so I’ll never turn a fan down.
You’re a father. As a dad, that’s got to be kind be amazing and make you a little proud when you get recognized in front of your kids.
I have two daughters. One is four and the other is 19 months. The younger one doesn’t know what’s going on yet. But the four-year-old loves it. I’ll come in, and she’ll say “daddy, put your match on TV. I want to watch you wrestle on TV.” She thinks it’s very cool, and she’ll tell her friends “my daddy is a wrestler.” I think she’s loving it more than I am! I’m a pretty humble guy. I’m staying a levelheaded about it all. But she’s just amazed by it. I’m happy that she’s entertained by it.
You’re still wrestling on the independents each week too. How has your time in WWE affected your work there?
It’s a lot more. I’ve always stayed busy. I’ve always wrestled a lot. But now it’s a lot more inquiries for a lot more money. I’m very blessed by the whole thing. It’s taking off, and I’m going to run with it for however long as it lasts. Whether it be in the WWE or on the independent level I’m going to ride this for however long it goes and wrestle as James Ellsworth.
You’re a wrestler and a promoter. You run Adrenaline Championship Wrestling. Tell us a little about that.
We run shows in Maryland as well as Pennsylvania. I’m actually a licensed wrestling promoter in both states. I run 20 shows a year. We actually have a show coming up in Denton, Maryland. That’s our Halloween show called Halloween Heat on October 28. You can get tickets on AdrenalineWrestling.com.
What’s more nerve-racking, trying to fill the stands as a promoter or wrestling for the WWE World Championship?
[laughs] Going out wrestling for the WWE Championship, because I never in my wildest dreams thought it would be possible for me to get that far. I’m there tomorrow, and I’m very nervous, very anxious. In a lot of ways, I can’t wait to get out there. I had so much fun last week being out there in front of the crowd and listening to how they reacted to it. They reacted really well to it last week in San Jose, California, and I’m anxious to see if they do it again in Denver.
Has there been any talk from WWE about possibly bringing you back after your title match against AJ Styles?
I have an idea, but I don’t really know. I don’t think it will be the last you see of me, but I don’t know. They really keep me in the dark about everything until I get there at TV. I have a little hint that it might happen, but I really am 100 percent not sure.
That has to be nerve-racking.
[laughs] Oh, it absolutely is. I’m just trying to stay levelheaded and cool. I will say this. If nothing else were to happen after Tuesday, man, I did more than I thought I would ever do, and I’m very happy and blessed with how my wrestling career has winded up.
You need to write a book or become a motivational speaker because you have one hell of a story.
I’m going to do the best I can do to let anyone know — especially kids — that your dreams are possible if you work hard enough and you fight for them. That’s one [thing] about me, I just kept showing up and kept doing as much as I possibly can. When I got to the point when I thought I was comfortable enough to do stuff with WWE, I kept showing up there. You just never know. Just keep showing up and keep fighting. That’s what I tell everybody.
Spread the word that if you have a dream, you have a chance, because any man with two hands has a fighting chance.
About James Ellsworth:
Chuck Carroll is former pro wrestling announcer and referee turned sports media personality. He once appeared on Monday Night RAW when he presented Robert Griffin III with a WWE title belt in the Redskins locker room.
Follow him on Twitter @ChuckCarrollWLC.