So I had a chance to sit down with pro wrestler Dolph Ziggler for an interview the other day while the WWE was in town. But before we get to that, some back story is necessary.
When I was a kid in the 1980s, I loved wrestling. Saturday mornings were the best – I’d wake up, pour a bowl of cereal and watch the Macho Man Randy Savage and Mr. Perfect beat the crap out of the likes of Hulk Hogan and Ricky Steamboat, or vice-versa. But eventually, us kids grew up and moved on while the business itself became mired in steroid scandals, which led to the near bankruptcy of the World Wrestling Federation in the mid-nineties. By the end of the decade, however, wrestling as a whole bounced back thanks to newfound competition from Ted Turner’s World Championship Wrestling. The company hired away many of the WWF’s biggest stars and began airing more contemporary and risque programming. The all-American Hulk Hogan – who used to preach to kids to train, say their prayers and take their vitamins – ditched his good-guy yellow-and-red ring gear in favour of black and went bad.
The WWF, which was forced to abandon the “federation” in its name for “entertainment” after losing a court battle to the World Wildlife Fund, raised its game and went full-bore into edgy content to compete. The violence and profanity were cranked up, the women wrestlers routinely posed nude in Playboy and a host of new anti-hero stars from Stone Cold Steve Austin to The Rock arose. For a few years heading into the 2000s, wrestling rode a massive wave of popularity during this “Attitude” era – it was a new golden age, bigger than even Hogan’s hey-day. Those of us who had watched as kids were amazed at the changes – it was like the PG cartoon we grew up with had morphed, much to our delight, into an R-rated movie.
As an adult who had once again become hooked, I found myself in those days trying to explain wrestling a lot to non-fans, many of whom still viewed it as low-class trailer-trash entertainment. They couldn’t understand how quasi-intelligent or educated people could find appeal in a “sport” that was so obviously fake and that appealed to such base emotions. My go-too explanation was that wrestling was simply a physical way of telling stories. If you knew what to watch for, you could see classic stories unfolding in every match and feud: here’s a tale of the underdog finally getting revenge, or here’s one of a guy battling through the odds stacked against him. Granted, the stories were and are often simplistic and somewhat limited in scope, but they are there and can be entertaining if you can get past some of the silliness.
I also often related my appreciation of the tremendous physical condition and artistry needed to excel in the business. Sure, the matches have pre-ordained outcomes, but much of what happens before the final bell is improvised or plotted very loosely. I’ve always marveled at how the wrestlers are able to do that without killing themselves or each other, which is something they can do because they’re incredibly skilled.
Despite such explanations, a good number of people will still always consider wrestling to be low-brow entertainment, and that’s fine. The late, great announcer Gorilla Monsoon had a saying for that: to the people who get it, no explanation is necessary, and to those who don’t, no explanation will do.
That said, I don’t watch much these days. WCW was eventually bought by WWE and the competition with smaller rivals just hasn’t been at the same level to bring out the best in any company. WWE also went public in 1999, which inevitably brought an end to the edgy “Attitude” era. Today’s product is PG again, which makes for more family-friendly fare, but it’s not as interesting anymore, at least to me.
Earlier this year, however, the company raised eyebrows – including some in the tech/media/entertainment fields – with the announcement of the WWE Network, a sort of Netflix for wrestling fans. For $10 a month with a six-month contract, fans can now get access to the company’s huge back catalog of content, including footage purchased from former rivals such as WCW, as well as live streams of monthly pay-per-view events. It’s a great deal that has reportedly done well in the United States, with one analysis pegging it as already the second-most popular live-streaming service in the country, after video-game site Twitch and ahead of the likes of Major League Baseball and ESPN.
With television in the process of an online revolution, all eyes are on properties such as HBO and the various sports leagues with expectations that they’ll all eventually move to an internet-based delivery system and away from traditional cable. In this sense the WWE is the veritable canary in the coal mine – the test case for making the transition.
Aside from that, I think I’ll also always be interested in peeking behind the curtain; in telling people the stories behind the television product, because those are often more fascinating than two guys pounding each other over the head with steel chairs. Which brings us to Ziggler, and why I jumped at the chance to chat with him. As one of the company’s more colourful stars, he has spent the past decade climbing the corporate ladder and verging on big breakthroughs on a number of occasions. Despite having held the company’s World Championship title twice, Ziggler – real name Nick Nemeth – has so far fallen just shy of getting that real push as a top guy.
I’m still curious about how things work backstage, the ordeals the average wrestler has to go through in order to succeed and the post-wrestling future that they must inevitably prepare for. In chatting with Ziggler, who shunned a career in law to roll around on a mat in his underwear, I found more evidence that wrestling is simultaneously a unique pursuit, but also one that isn’t terribly different from many other jobs. Much of what he said during our interview, below, can be applied across many fields.
First off, what’s the holdup with launching the WWE Network in Canada?
I’m not sure. Everyone in the States who has it says it’s fantastic. We watch it on our drives. I think they’re hoping around 2015 to have something, one way or another.
Fair enough. The thing I really wanted to ask you is about how many people who don’t follow wrestling don’t know or don’t believe that it’s basically a meritocracy in terms of who gets to the top. How much of a meritocracy is it?
It depends. It’s a business at the end of the day. It’s a soap opera and so many of us are actors like in a movie and we put so much into our characters, so even though it’s a business you have to find a way. Sometimes someone gets hurt and you step into a role and sometimes you scratch and claw for 15 years and don’t get a chance at that role. In that way, it’s very much like the entertainment industry where you hope to catch a break here and there. I’ve been lucky to catch a couple of breaks and hopefully catch one more.
It’s also a lot like working for a regular company, where you have to do and say the right things, right? (Ziggler was reportedly held back last year after he made disparaging comments about fellow wrestler Randy Orton)
Well, we had the Attitude era and now we have this “reality” era that we’re calling it, where we’re blurring the lines of reality – it’s mixed with our characters and our TV shows. So, if on TV, Randy Orton is being protected by Triple H and some of us can’t get our hands on him, you find a way to blur the lines [and say in an interview], “Hey, I could beat him in a fight somewhere if I got the chance.” It’s trying to not just make a good story, but to get some truth in there. That’s what makes it interesting and why, on social media, people are throwing things back and forth. It is safer to tow the company line and that’s what makes businesses great, but it’s also fun to blur people’s reality and have half the people hating you and saying, “You shouldn’t have said that,” and half the people saying, “Yeah, it’s great, he’s standing up for the people who are being pushed down right now.”
So you’re going back to the days of kayfabe, where you’re trying to blur the lines between reality and storylines?
It’s not really my call, I just try to follow the flow of the business right now. We use Twitter to enhance storylines – I’m in the middle of one right now. I’m coming up with realistic insults on Damien Sandow because I want to get under his skin and see where he can go with it so that we can make the best possible product for the fans.
What do you think Twitter’s role is in terms of your interaction with people?
When I was a kid you could maybe write a letter to Pro Wrestling Illustrated and maybe it gets there and maybe they read it and maybe they pass it on to this guy and maybe he sees it, and he’ll never get a chance to write anything back to you. But with this, you can basically send out a text message and within seconds, me or some other superstar can write you back if they happen to not be busy. For me, at least maybe once a week, I’m on a treadmill for an hour and I’ll go, “Okay, Q&A, what do you guys want to know?” and you get to write right back. I think it’s amazing. WWE uses it to see what’s trending and what’s going on in the world right now. I get half my news from CNN’s Twitter feed. It’s fun, it’s something to waste time on and I don’t take it too seriously and I usually use it throughout the day to try out stand-up comedy bits. You’re throwing out your garbage into everyone else’s garbage and you find a way to have some fun with it.
To go back to before your wrestling career, you were accepted to law school. Why did you choose wrestling instead?
It was wrestling all along. The plan was to train while I went to Arizona State law school but I was lucky enough to get a tryout with the WWE right before the semester started. I ended up not going, also luckily before I paid. Even though I didn’t get hired, I did well enough to say, “Okay, let me put this on the backburner for a while.” I was going to do both at the same time which, by the way, never would have worked. Law school – you don’t go to sleep. To find a way to go in and out of wrestling practice, it never would have worked. I found a way to train a bit more before my second tryout and once I got hired I said that if a couple years down the line my schedule lightens up, I’d love to go back to it, but our schedule is over 300 live events a year. I’m usually home for 36 hours a week on a good week. I still keep up with it. I had a pre-law minor from Kent State and I’m very interested in it, but I can’t possibly do both at once right now.
But why did you decide on wrestling?
I wanted to do it since I was 5 years old. When school came around, the deal I had with my parents is that I’ll graduate college and then I’ll do this. So I found something that I loved, school-work-wise, which was political science and pre-law, and did all those classes and loved them so much, I thought I could do both for a little bit. But I always thought as someone who is outspoken and entertaining and always looking to be the centre of attention and people looking at me, that’s the best way to go. That or courtroom attorney.
So when you were brought up to the main stage, as a cheerleader in the Spirit Squad, what was your mindset? Was it a case of playing the role that was given to you and not rocking the boat?
Yeah, the boat rocking happens like seven or eight years in when you realize, now I have to stand up for myself and say some things. But at that point, I was crushed. First of all, I had broken records in college as this wrestler and they said, don’t get any tattoos because we like you as this clean-cut guy who did well in school. And then they go, “You’re going to be a cheerleader,” and I just went, “Oh god, really?” It’s bittersweet because this is your big break and I didn’t know the business very well and some people don’t even get that chance. So I just went, “Okay, I’m crushed, but let’s make this work somehow.” You have to listen to everyone, do everything you possibly can and try to be the best cheerleader you can, which still kills me to say. I was lucky in that learning process to be in the ring with [legends] Ric Flair, Roddy Piper, Dusty Rhodes, Shawn Michaels, Triple H on a regular basis. To get that learning experience, it was mind blowing, but it is mouth shut, ears open at that point. You are brand new, so learn as much about this business as you can.
When it came time to develop your own persona, how did you think to differentiate yourself?
At that point, everybody was going reality-based. Everybody wanted to just be tough, everybody had black trunks, short black hair and meant business the whole time. So I said let’s find a way to be different from that. A year or two in, I believed I was good enough at the basics so I knew I needed a way to stand out. So I started wearing pink gear, dying my hair and growing it out long. I did everything I could to stand out and if people were mean about it, I’d laugh and smile, and when it came down to doing business, you got it done one way or the other. You have to work that much harder because people don’t know if they can invest in you – they don’t know if they can take you seriously. But this business is all about standing out. I had to cut my hair a long time ago and I dyed it black to get a different look and I found it just didn’t work, it just wasn’t me. It was too similar and too normal and I hate normal.
You’re known as being a good “seller.” Is that part of what you think sets you apart?
Absolutely. In the psychological aspect of this, in the art of this, I have watched boxing knockouts, MMA fighting, and I’ve tried to apply everything I can in different ways to make it as real as possible. Whether that involves me getting hit for real or hitting a turnbuckle for real to get that reaction, I pride myself on my work. I enjoy that the selling stands out but I pride myself on the psychology of it – being in the best shape, having the best stamina, standing out selling-wise because maybe [other] people don’t do it as well.
Wrestlers don’t have very long shelf-lives and usually have to plan for post-careers. Have you given that much thought?
Yeah, for the last few years I’ve been writing a lot of different things. Whether I’ve been doing comedy shows or improv shows or stand-up shows, I love the entertainment aspect so much that I want to be affiliated one way or another. I was told when I was first hired that I’d be lucky to get three good years – that was the average for all the superstars. I’m going on nine-and-a-half years with WWE and six on TV, so I’ve been very, very fortunate, but I’m constantly thinking first of all how to adapt to be better at my job every day, but also to have some other option that shows me to be a double or triple threat to the entertainment business.
Are you a student of (former wrestler turned author/comedian) Mick Foley with the stand-up comedy?
A little bit, yeah. I’m a fan of Mick’s. He’s another one who put his body on the line and had a reputation for it, so I’ve always kind of seen myself in that aspect also. Mick does more of telling stories and having fun – I’ve seen his show and it’s fantastic. I got to do a couple of minutes in his show too, and that was kind of cool. But I’m doing more along the lines of straight-up stand-up comedy. I’ve been writing for a few years, but that aspect of microphone skills – which Mick is amazing at – and transferring it into stories with a comedic twist, it’s a great show. Hopefully in the next couple of weeks and months I should be joining him for a show or two.
Do wrestlers these days get financial planning training from the company?
Yeah, we’ve had some short seminars. It’s all about how much you save and not what you make. That’s the only thing the old timers used to know in the old days. We’ve been very fortunate where, if it’s insurance or whatever, if it’s not offered right away, they can find a way to either get someone to talk to you or give you a phone call. I’ve always been very solid with my money and investments because you work so hard for it, you want to hang onto it.
Is it different now from the old days, where people like Ric Flair would be spending their money faster than they could earn it?
Not only have we grown up in it, but now we know the stories and see these guys on a daily basis and go, “Okay, let’s learn from their mistakes.” Flair and the [Four] Horsemen – I can’t imagine what those guys would have made. The way we work, we have these guys telling us don’t do this, don’t do that. It’s great to have the people who actually experienced it helping us out.
Do you find it unfair that pro athletes make so much more money than wrestlers (whose salaries are generally in the hundreds of thousands of dollars)?
I know that it’s part of the deal going in. It reminds me of wrestling in college, even in division one at Kent State, we’d have 30 people in the crowd, mostly parents. We get it, but in this situation where the guys have pads and off-seasons, it’s like “Arggh.” But we are unique to sports and entertainment and sometimes you hear about a guy and his $50 million contract and think that would be nice, but that’s not what we do. We do a totally different product. We do it well and we work hard for it.
What do you do in your spare time?
I love sitting in my backyard quietly.
Do you have a family?
I don’t and I can’t imagine how a lot of the guys [who do] do it. I miss my couch sometimes so I can’t imagine having a child at home. I love sitting in my backyard, whether it’s writing jokes or reading, just hanging out. We travel so much, I just want to sit in the back and look at the palm trees, get a tan and just count the hours until I have to go back to work.