A number of the most popular stars of wrestling in the last decade, both in the WWE and worldwide, have tapped into people feeling angst, frustration and apathy. What's often lost in that feverish dedication to the "cool" bad guy is the value and the richness of having the widest spectrum of colors on which to paint on the blank canvas that is professional wrestling.
It's in that space that Jervis Cottonbelly -- "The Sweetest Man in the World" -- exists.
"I think that when you look at the world and you look at that state of things, being crude is sort of mainstream these days, to say it delicately," Cottonbelly said, in a recent interview with ESPN.com. "I think being nice is punk rock, and I am Sid Vicious."
Sporting a breezy English accent, a bright yellow mask, a bowler hat and a high propensity for fainting at inopportune times, Cottonbelly is an enigma within the world of independent professional wrestling. Rather than courting attention through death-defying moves off the top turnbuckle, a chiseled physique or a razor-sharp technical focus, he instead connects with fans on a very human level.
It consists of a wide variety of acts, both traditional and otherwise. As fans file into events he's wrestling on, Cottonbelly meets and embraces them. During his recent stretch as WrestleCircus 24/7 champion, he allowed many fans to pose with the title, which was especially appropriate since he later lost the title to an entire wrestling community -- Reddit's "Squared Circle", though he continued to represent them (and that in itself is a story for another time).
Cottonbelly is also an active contributor to both Reddit and a variety of social media accounts, spreading a similar manner of cheer and positivity wherever he goes. It reaches well beyond wrestling: Cottonbelly uses his own life experiences with sadness and depression to offer comfort and compassion to those who suffer.
They are acts of kindness, for those who seek it out, but it also helps him to bring some of that happiness back into his own life.
"When I'm interacting with friends and well-wishers on social media, it's very much therapy for me," said Cottonbelly. "It allows me to see the world through a sweeter point of view. I don't like everything that I read on social media -- not everything I read makes me feel nice or happy or excited, and some things quite frankly get me down. But I found that you can find the light in every dark corner.
"I want to be a beacon of light on the internet, and I feel in order to do that, I must also navigate the dark crevices and bring out the light in the situation. I try to be nice with everything I do and say, and I think that's translated to my physical life, my real life. My digital life and my digital personas are very sweet and kind, and now my physical persona has assumed that form as well. You have to put out the niceness and create the light that you wish to see reflected upon you."
A natural question to ask would be what set Cottonbelly upon this path of duality, melding the typically violent and gratuitous world of professional wrestling with his approach of pure, unadulterated kindness. In reality, it was a moment in which, while living in Pennsylvania, Cottonbelly got to meet one of the most legendary wrestlers in the history of the business, and see the power he carried.
"I remember the first time I met The Rock. I remember meeting him and thinking to myself, first of all, 'I want to faint.' But secondly, when I met The Rock, there were so many people lining up to meet him and just to hear his message. I think I was most attracted to The Rock spreading his message so strongly using professional wrestling as his platform. When it comes to what I'm doing in the ring and why I'm there, I suppose I'm there because I want to spread my message and my message is that, 'Being nice is cool.'"
Without the physique or platform that Dwayne Johnson carries with him wherever he goes, it's obviously been a different path. By taking the Jervis Cottonbelly persona and so wholeheartedly embracing a singular message, he's made the mask and the character bigger and more impactful than he could have been as a man. Like Batman, or other masked comic book superheroes, Cottonbelly draws power from an anonymity that allows him to present himself as a symbol for all that is right and good in the world.
Taking that persona into the ring can often present a challenge, but the fun, playful nature that matches tend to take on often more than makes up for some of the silliness that transpires.
"I'm not much of a fighter," said Cottonbelly. "If you [haven't] seen me, I faint a lot and I'm not really strong and I'm scared to jump off the top rope. But I often try to disarm others through other methods like hugs, and tickles and more hugs. Sometimes I tell jokes, and other times I try to evade and use pinning combinations that don't hurt my opponent but simply render them motionless for a few seconds. I try to end every fight that I can in the sweetest way possible. Why, I even try to rock people to sleep, instead of choking them to sleep."
For someone who learned under sharp technicians such as Drew Gulak and long-time CHIKARA owner Mike Quackenbush, and independent star Chuck Taylor, it might seem an unusual approach. But in looking at that almost cartoonish, vintage 1980s approach of CHIKARA in particular, where Cottonbelly honed his craft earlier in his career alongside long-time running buddy the Estonian Thunderfrog, among many others, it starts to make a lot more sense.
Interestingly enough, Cottonbelly draws a lot inspiration from a most unusual source -- his friend Joey Ryan, he of the famous genital-based offense. They are opposite poles of the same approach, though, and through a great deal of effort each has sought to allow fans to look at the world of professional wrestling in a completely different way.
"In order for the audience to suspend their disbelief, and play along and participate actively in the story, that's where we get into a very tricky territory," said Cottonbelly. "Because you cannot know that you're suspending your disbelief and participating in the story. You must be completely present of mind. You cannot be deep thinking about what you're doing -- you just have to be in the moment and reacting."
Cottonbelly's ultimate goal, every time he steps into a ring, is to connect with fans on a level to which they're able to lose themselves in a child-like whimsy. In his mind, it is the purest form of fandom and enjoyment, and the way that most any other form of media and entertainment used to be embraced.
"Think of it this way," remarked Cottonbelly. "When fans of the Beatles in the '60s and '70s, right in the thick of Beatlemania and the British invasion -- when those people showed up to a Beatles show, they weren't complaining afterwards. They were just talking about the things that they liked -- it was unconditional love and support."
Before you get out your pitchforks and angry comments, Cottonbelly is fully supportive of fans of all kinds, their right to react in whatever way they choose and even their choice to micro-analyze things however they see fit. Heck, he even wrote a love letter to the modern wrestling fan.
For Cottonbelly himself, and the audiences he most appeals to, positivity and happiness have created a place within the world of wrestling in which he can thrive. He's moved from Pennsylvania to sunny California, where he now appears regularly on "Championship Wrestling From Hollywood," but Cottonbelly reached his largest audience to date as part of WrestleCircus, a rapidly rising company that launched in October.
Cottonbelly has become one of the faces most closely associated with WrestleCircus and its early successes, alongside a number of the most coveted independent wrestling stars in the world -- and it's all happened while he's stayed on message and true to himself.
"It's been remarkable and wonderful," said Cottonbelly. "The first show that I was invited to, I saw the card and the talent, I thought to myself, 'I better do whatever I can to make as nice of an impact as I can, so that Mr. [Al] Lenhart keeps bringing me back.' He told me point-blank that the reason he got me to the first show was because he thought I had good marketing.
"I think a lot of people may take exception to that, but for me that was a very high compliment, because my marketing is simple. It's the same thing that I've been saying all along. Be nice. Be kind to others. Spread warmth and love and good feelings. And being noticed for that, and booked for that, was a true victory for me."