There was no more uplifting wrestling narrative in 2016 than career outlier James “Pretty Jimmy Dean” Ellsworth Morris’ rise through the ranks of WWE while performing as enhancement talent-done-good James Ellsworth. And a little over a year after his inauspicious debut against Braun Strowman, the company issued its most bittersweet goodbye of 2017 when it released the underdog fan favorite.
But lo, the 33-year-old Maryland native has not gone anywhere. In fact, he’s busy as ever running the indie promotion he founded in 2009, Adrenaline Championship Wrestling. He’s also generally capitalizing on his newfound name recognition by shilling merch and making himself widely available for bookings.
The only lingering mystery is why his WWE gimmick ran out of steam to begin with. So as a proper button on the year in sports entertainment, we caught up with the man who briefly but gloriously personified what makes pro wresting so compelling. Ellsworth spoke with us over the phone from his home in Maryland about unfinished business, life before and after WWE and being more than a jobber.
Was your contract status with WWE always tenuous?
I feel like I understand the business, and when I signed, I said I’m going to enjoy every moment. I was hoping and praying it was going to be five or 10 years, but I was like, “This is probably going to have a short shelf life, so I’m going to do the best I can to stay here as long as I can.” But I felt I was looked at as short shelf life from the beginning, which I’m not bitter about.
Did it feel like the gimmick with Carmella was running out of steam?
With the briefcase, I felt like we were biding time until she cashes in, which she still hasn’t. Which is understandable. It got a little weird at the end, but they were just trying anything to keep it going. Right after Money in the Bank, we were at the height of what we were doing together. We had a lot of heat. And then they did the angle where I got suspended for 30 days. You come back, that heat we had was not there and then we went in a different direction.
In retrospect, would you have been better off remaining a fan favorite?
Yes. When they turned me heel, I thought, “Whoa, that’s happened quickly, but now I’ll get to show what I’ve got as a heel.” I feel like the opportunities I got to speak on the microphone as a heel, I really showed I can do it. I thought after the Carmella thing, I would go back to being that underdog babyface. I thought there was still something left with that. I was only a babyface for three months, so I thought we’d get back to that, but I guess it wasn’t in the cards. I have fun doing either/or. I just like using the art form of professional wrestling to entertain people.
Before you officially signed with WWE you were juggling indie dates with SmackDown. What was that whiplash like?
I would wrestle A.J. [Styles] on SmackDown on a Tuesday, and then I would go do an indie on a Saturday. You can imagine how happy everyone you know is for you and fans are looking at you differently. I try to be a humble guy. If I’m wrestling the world champion on a Tuesday, I’ll go into an independent show and put forward the effort I put in that Tuesday.
You’ve had an irrepressibly positive outlook on this whole journey, but were there any emotional lows?
The whole thing’s bittersweet. I appreciate every opportunity WWE gave me. That’s the sweet part. The bitter part is I just don’t feel like I finished. Maybe I just didn’t finish now. Maybe I’ll finish there later, but I don’t think it was time to go. But it’s up to them, and they’re the ones who have taken this industry and made it into a global phenomenon, so they know more than I do I would imagine.
You could pull a Jinder Mahal, get really ripped, come back and be champ.
[Laughs] You never know. I’m at 90 days going to the gym twice a day just to have something to do.
And hey, in your last WWE match against Becky Lynch you finally got to show you know how to fundamentally wrestle.
The funny thing about that is I hadn’t wrestled a real match in a while. Even the A.J. stuff, I didn’t get to show what I had. But with Becky, yeah, I had the nice takedown on her. I mean, I’ve been wrestling a while. I just never got the opportunity there to show it, because that wasn’t my job there. But hopefully, in the future, if I do get back there, I can show that I can go in the ring a little bit.
One rumor that swirled upon your exit was that Vince mulled having you compete in the women’s division as a transgender wrestler. Any truth to that?
All I can say is Vince never talked to me about it. If that was an idea, I surely didn’t know, and Vince and I never had a conversation about it, so I have no idea. [Laughs] Being in WWE, I can tell you a lot of the dirt sheets is just people guessing. I’m not saying that was, but it’s people guessing and hoping they’re right, and it gives their dirt sheet a reason to pay attention to it I guess.
Are you at least making ends meet post-WWE more smoothly than before?
Oh, of course. WWE television is a powerful thing. I do signings at stores, I get recognized, so it makes your independent bookings easier. They released me at a point where people were still paying attention to the character. If the fans and the promoters look at you and it brings back memories, it helps.
For the record, despite your beginnings with WWE, would you rather not be ultimately categorized as a jobber?
The thing with that is when I wrestled Braun Strowman, I was 100 percent a jobber. First impressions are everything. That doesn’t bother me. Now do I want to prove I can wrestle a little more? Yeah. But I don’t mind being remembered as a character either. I want to be remembered as somebody who entertained them, no matter what I was doing.