clock menu more-arrow no yes

Filed under:

Otis Is WWE’s Next (Really) Big Thing

With “Workin’ Man Otis” emblazoned on his trunks, the 330-pound former amateur star has bucked the historical odds against him and turned his unconventional look into Money in the Bank

WWE/Ringer illustration

Sunday night’s WWE Money in the Bank show ended with Otis Dozovic, a beer-barrel-shaped fury generously listed at 5-foot-10, clutching the Money in the Bank briefcase in his “hamming and slamming” ham-hock fists at the end of a race-to-the-rooftop ladder match. It was another outside-the-box classic, calling to mind nothing so much as a madcap chase at the conclusion of a caper movie, and most of the signature spots involved Otis: He initiated a food fight, he tossed a pie in ex–Raw general manager John Laurinaitis’s face, he broke the steps of a ladder when he attempted to ascend. In spite of his high-profile antics, I assumed Otis wasn’t going to win, because beefy boys who look like him rarely win big in the WWE. And then he did—he caught the briefcase after Baron Corbin and AJ Styles, who had been battling over it atop dueling ladders, let it slip through their fingers and into Otis’s mitts.

Perhaps there’s a swerve coming—perhaps Otis is doomed to fall back into the tag team midcard with talented Heavy Machinery partner Tucker Knight—but it seems like something bigger is in the works. Bigger than Otis and Tucker, who are already plenty big, and definitely not in line with how WWE has booked wrestlers like Otis before. It might not culminate in Otis winning one of WWE’s top two belts, but he has already won his first singles feud against former World Heavyweight champion and all-around top performer Dolph Ziggler. And going over in the main event of a pay-per-view essential to building the year’s story lines bodes well for the blue-collar brawler with “Workin’ Man” emblazoned on his booty-hugging trunks.

The past may give us some clues about where Otis is headed. He’s a big-boned, soft-bodied grappler with legitimate amateur wrestling credentials, like longtime WWF performer Gorilla Monsoon—who was an NCAA runner-up in 1959 for Ithaca College under his real name, Robert Marella—and American Wrestling Association champion Maurice “Mad Dog” Vachon, patriarch of that illustrious wrestling family and member of Canada’s Olympic wrestling team in 1948. Both Monsoon and Vachon started off as rule-abiding technicians, but quickly evolved into dangerous, uncouth characters with wild facial hair and uncontrollable tempers. Otis, who can throw a clothesline as easily as a technical suplex, certainly has the legitimate skills and the temper—but with his goofy face and weird, Minnesota-meets-Wisconsin (his hometown nearly straddles the borderline of those states) jabbering, he’s far from menacing.

There’s another strain of character in Otis’s evolutionary DNA: the fat comedy wrestler. Here I use “fat” in the derogatory way that the Vince McMahon–helmed WWE often seems to do, entirely superficially. Before McMahon and WWE’s ascendance, old-time territorial promoters had no problem booking a man like Jerry “Crusher” Blackwell—a dead ringer for Otis, albeit with about 100 more pounds spread across his short frame—as an unbeatable monster who competed at the 1979 World’s Strongest Man and hammered nails into boards with his forehead. But WWF during its national expansion had two fixed places for heavyset wrestlers. If they were lucky and rather tall, like King Kong Bundy or Kamala, they could be short-term threats to world champion Hulk Hogan. If they were unlucky and at medium height or below, they either got saddled with a goofy gimmick like Adrian Adonis, a skilled mat wrestler who was transmogrified from a leather-wearing New York City tough guy to a farcical fop known as the “Adorable One,” or just used permanently as comic relief, as in the case of 400-plus-pound Uncle Elmer. Elmer had wrestled in the territories as “Ploughboy Frazier” before getting married on a Saturday Night’s Main Event in 1985 and jobbing to Adonis in a very short, very bad match at WrestleMania II.

And this trend continued well into the 1990s: Either massive wrestlers like John “Earthquake” Tenta had their Hulk Hogan run and then moved down the card, or they showed up in a skintight singlet like Bastion Booger (Mike Shaw, master of many different gimmicks) or yellow polka-dots like former NWA champion Dusty Rhodes. One crucial fact links Earthquake, Booger, Rhodes, Uncle Elmer, Adonis, Bundy, Kamala, and even longtime company stalwart and legitimate shooter Gorilla Monsoon: none of them ever held a WWE singles title. Sure, Otis had come close to qualifying for the Olympics as a Greco-Roman wrestler, but an examination of the amateur wrestling and MMA stars entering WWE’s ranks during Vince McMahon’s tenure shows that the title runs skew heavily toward men with ripped bodies and freakish athleticism: Ken Shamrock, Kurt Angle, Brock Lesnar, Dolph Ziggler, Chad Gable, Charlie Haas, Shelton Benjamin, Jack Swagger (Bellator and AEW’s Jake Hager), Jason Jordan, and Bobby Lashley are the stuff McMahon’s dreams are made of. Otis and Tucker Knight, himself an All-American wrestler at Arizona State University, were on the outside looking in, athletically capable but stocky … doughy, even. And doughy wrestlers in the WWF/WWE, from Bam Bam Bigelow to Bubba Ray Dudley to Kevin Owens, all wrestled with their shirts on.

There was one true outlier. Yokozuna, whose weight rose from 500 to 700 pounds during his wrestling career, won the world title off Bret Hart at WrestleMania IX, only to lose it to Hulk Hogan seconds later. He would win the strap for a second time by beating Hogan at 1993’s King of the Ring pay-per-view and had a decent run with it after that, fending off contenders like Lex Luger until losing the belt to Bret Hart a year later at WrestleMania X. But Yokozuna’s extended heel run with the title, exuding mass and menace and even securing the first-ever heel champion title defense at WrestleMania, came with strings attached: Vince needed a big man to hold the belt—yet, facing a federal investigation prompted by accusations of steroid distribution in the WWF locker room, McMahon couldn’t afford to place the title on someone with a vascular, chemically conditioned Mr. Olympia body.

Mabel, all 6-foot-9 and 500 pounds of him, got an extended look around the same time, winning the 1995 King of the Ring tournament and enjoying a main-event run leading up to that year’s SummerSlam, when Kevin Nash, wrestling as Diesel, allegedly refused to wrestle him because he was careless in the ring. So out Mabel went, returning during the Attitude Era for a short run as a monstrous enforcer for the Undertaker’s Ministry of Darkness, before again coming back in 2004 in his “final form”: heavyset comedy heel, the horndog “World’s Largest Love Machine,” later rebranded as “Big Daddy V” and used throughout most of that four-year run in throwaway skits.

This is where I thought Otis was going, where I assumed the recent angle involving his crush on Mandy Rose was taking him. The on-again, off-again nature of their flirtation foregrounded Otis as a singles performer, a man whose insecurities around Rose, particularly about whether he was “good enough” for her, led to displays of hilarious frustration, with Otis pacing frantically and mumbling nervously as he second-guessed himself. Tucker became more of a background player, providing a shoulder for his friend to cry on and dispensing the typical “best friend” advice given to the protagonist of a romantic comedy—standing up for his bosom buddy when Mandy Rose seemed to be toying with Otis’s affections, and urging Otis to move on when the situation appeared hopeless. I figured WWE might just throw him to the wolves, giving his romantic rival, Dolph Ziggler, a much-needed win and push back up the card, before beginning to utilize Otis as comic relief, a horndog “Sexual Chocolate” or “World’s Largest Love Machine” who can generate a few belly laughs before putting over their opponents. Collectively, Heavy Machinery could settle into a comfortable role as this generation’s Bushwhackers, substituting fat jokes for licking each other’s foreheads and staying over with the fans while remaining outside the title picture.

Prior to l’Affaire Rose, Otis and Tucker had emerged as fun-loving, blue-collar wrestlers in NXT, wearing the typical big-guy singlets favored by the likes of Bundy, Vader, and “World’s Strongest Man” Mark Henry. All three of those men had their menacing moments in the WWE, but they also paid their penance by doing lots of degrading sketches. Bundy wound up beside Hillbilly Jim and some little people in a match at WrestleMania III; Vader went from hard-hitting bouts against Shawn Michaels and Ken Shamrock to ending by tearfully telling viewers he was a “fat piece of shit” when he lost to Kane at 1998’s Over the Edge: In Your House; and Henry spent several years wooing the likes of Chyna and Mae Young as the midcarder “Sexual Chocolate” before eventually doubling down on his own menace and winning the World Heavyweight Championship. Other big men were less lucky: Brodus Clay and Tensai (now WWE Performance Center head trainer Matt Bloom), a pair of 6-foot-7 350-pounders, wound up shaking their hips together as part of a lower midcard tag team.

And as Otis and Tucker began to alter their wardrobes, ditching the conventional big-boy singlets and wearing less and less as they progressively moved up the card, the pair appeared to be priming themselves for loads of prime-time ridicule. This would most likely spell their end, as it had for all these other performers. Otis, the shorter and heavier of the pair, seemed the easiest of targets: First he was wearing half-shirts, then he was ripping his half-shirts off, flexing and strutting in the ring before he went from dancing the worm (he calls it the caterpillar) to dropping the elbow. Rikishi Fatu—who enjoyed an extended tag-team run as part of the Samoan Swat Team in various promotions throughout the 1980s before joining WWE during the Attitude Era as a man with a large, mostly exposed posterior that he wasn’t afraid to smash in faces or wiggle around when dancing with tag-team partner Scotty 2 Hotty—offers a rare glimpse of a comedy player who had some upside. Sandwiched around a brief but notable main event run in 1999 as a monster heel fed to Steve Austin in a story line that touched on racism against Samoan wrestlers, Fatu managed to secure a few more years of prominence through a willingness to act ridiculous in various story lines.

But Otis, both in-ring and out, brings a lot more to the table than many of these other guys: He’s got a long career ahead of him, he’s an athlete, and his comedic acting chops are top-shelf. Earthquake had a legitimate background in sumo and college football, but he was about as limited in the ring as King Kong Bundy and Kamala. Yokozuna’s mobility deteriorated rapidly, Mabel/Viscera/Big Daddy V was always immobile, and the broken-down version of Vader who fans saw in WWE was nothing like the superhuman monster who cracked heads and dislodged ears in New Japan and the WCW. Otis, by contrast, is still young—he’s 28—and can work a pay-per-view-length singles match, keeping a good pace against someone like Dolph Ziggler, who is 100 pounds lighter. Owing to his background in Greco-Roman—a plodding sport, with no leg takedowns and minutes of interminable lock-ups leading to the occasional spectacular throw—he can pick up and toss most wrestlers without assistance. And while the taller Tucker is the more technically skilled of the Heavy Machinery tandem, Otis more than holds his own in that department, too.

Especially for fans who are somewhat new to the sport, Otis is nearly sui generis: They haven’t seen anyone quite like him, and there’s no easy way to categorize him. He can bulldoze guys, as when he pulverized a taunting Drew Gulak during a four-minute match on SmackDown in January, but he’s often distracted and provoked, George “The Animal” Steele–style, by his own insecurities and eccentricities. His pining after Mandy Rose wasn’t an exact parallel to Steele wishing to spend time with Randy Savage’s valet Miss Elizabeth back in the early WrestleMania era, but there were some shades of that. And, just as Steele never truly defeated Savage, who was rising into the world title picture, I figured that Otis would lose to established star Dolph Ziggler at WrestleMania 36. Good guys usually go over at WrestleMania, and this story was a bit of wish fulfillment, but hadn’t this run its course? Wouldn’t someone, perhaps even Vince himself, watch Otis out there with his tiny trunks and massive torso, and think that he either needed to lose the gut or lose the push?

Then Otis went and won that match, and now he has done it again. Tucker is too capable in his own right to be left behind, but there’s more to Otis than meets the eye. For the first time since “Crusher” Blackwell threw all those low-arcing big-man dropkicks, the sport could find itself with a short-statured main-eventer who weighs well over 300 pounds yet can actually do the work out there. Otis has said that the character he plays is himself with the volume turned up, not merely the WWE asking him to channel the physical charisma of the late Chris Farley, but it seems like there are still depths left for him to explore. Otis didn’t quite make it to the Olympics, but he still has time to achieve a loftier, far more impossible-seeming goal: to become the first blue-collar bruiser, blessed with neither six-pack abs nor rippling muscles but athleticism to spare, to win one of the company’s two most prestigious belts while clad in nothing more than skimpy black trunks. There are still many reasons why big-boy season might not come to pass, but isn’t it pretty to think about?

Oliver Lee Bateman is a journalist and sports historian who lives in Pittsburgh. You can follow him on Twitter @MoustacheClubUS and read more of his work at www.oliverbateman.com.