The accidental Superstar: How Dolph Ziggler and the WWE Universe created a comeback hero
I. Pull This Off
Well, what do you know? It’s Sunday night in St. Louis and Dolph Ziggler, record-setting collegiate state champion, two-time World Heavyweight Champion, three-time Intercontinental Champion, one-time United States Champion and 2012 sole survivor, is nervous.
Survivor Series 2014 will be the first time in nearly two years he is in the proper main event of a pay-per-view. He’s been in “main event matches” since, granted: a Money in the Bank Ladder Match, two World Heavyweight Title masterpieces against Alberto Del Rio, and the occasional Royal Rumble here or there. But in the classic main event sense — the match that closes the show — this is the first time since 2012 he’ll have the honor.
WWE Network: Dolph topples Cena in Brooklyn
“Career-wise, you don’t think every [match] is big for your career, but [with] this one, I thought if I could pull it off, I can go to another level. I went, ‘This has to happen, this has to be perfect, this has to be done just right,’” Dolph will say a couple of days after the match. “I was nervous every step, because there were several big steps. We got lucky, combined with a lot of professional Superstars who are [really] good at their jobs.”
None, it can be said, more so than him. The match — ostensibly a battle for WWE’s soul between John Cena and The Authority — has been built not around Cena’s flag bearer rank, but rather Ziggler and his cult hero status. As the most beloved member of Cena’s coterie, it’s Dolph who’s been taking the brunt of The Authority’s attacks and it’s Dolph who will rally the battered troops to their captain’s side as the big day approaches.
It’s fitting, almost. If Cena is WWE’s “Face That Runs the Place” — a Terminator of a man who flies the flag, can win the big one on a whim and is beloved by kids of all stripes, plus more adults than are likely to admit it in public — then Ziggler is its chugging heart: a nonstop machine humming at its core that is as unheralded as it is essential. You hardly notice it when he’s there, but without him, something just seems off about the place. He’ll end up turning in a Survivor Series performance that could and should be talked about for years to come, emerging (once again, and with a little help) as the sole survivor, which is an apt description for him.I went, 'This has to be perfect.'
Not only is Dolph’s personal story an interesting one, he’s a living, breathing example of just how damn hard it is to become a champion. His transitions from beloved bad guy to underexposed good guy have almost become a meme, and not just because of his social media mastery. He’s clawed to the top of the ladder ( literally) only to have fate kick him in the face (again, literally) and cover him in a pile of proverbial crap (yet again, literally). He’s pulled himself up by his bootstraps more times than the cliché will allow, and if he screws up at Survivor Series ( he won’t), his last shot could slip away.
It’s been thrilling, entertaining, heartbreaking, and, if you’re a wrestling prospect, ultimately kind of terrifying. Because if Dolph Ziggler, record-setting collegiate state champion, two-time World Heavyweight Champion, three-time Intercontinental Champion, one-time United States Champion and (soon to be) two-time sole survivor, can’t make it, then who the hell can?
II. I am Perfection?
The narrative, in both sports and sports-entertainment, is an established one: Young kid has a dream, does the work, gets his foot in the door and with a little elbow grease and a little more luck, wins the big one. A few false starts aside, that’s how the script goes, for everyone from Rocky Balboa to Rocky Maivia. Struggle, succeed, and then ride out as a legend among men. Maybe you even get the girl. Scratch that. You definitely get the girl. The end. Roll credits.
That’s the story. Here, as they say, is the reality.
“There are a million factors,” said Ziggler of what it takes to be a star. “You could have every gift there is known to man and you could be that guy who is 6-foot-7 and somehow is like me in every way — only taller — but there has to be a connection … There is a glass ceiling for everybody until you find a way to get that connection that Cena has.”
Without that connection, a Superstar risks being broken down to a single descriptor. You are “good in the ring,” you’re a “body guy,” but never the whole package. For Dolph, his descriptor was “workhorse,” which negates a bit too many of The Showoff’s natural gifts for his taste.
“Nobody works harder than me in the ring, no one steals the show more often and no one gets better reactions for a guy who’s not even part of huge storylines,” Dolph said. “People can pick and choose what they want out of it, but I feel like I’m a modern day Renaissance man of anything you could want me to do … except be six inches taller."I don't know what happened in 2013. I have no idea.
Despite all those gifts, Ziggler has been a sometimes-disheartening illustration of the struggle to get that connection and make it in sports-entertainment. He’s had more stops and starts than a bottleneck on the freeway. Early stints as a valet and then a faction foot soldier led him to a hokey reintroduction that mocked the time-honored wrestling tradition of the backstage handshake. (The Showoff would walk up to anybody with a pulse, palm outstretched, goofy smile plastered across his face and intone “Hi! I’m Dolph Ziggler.”)
It wasn’t a countdown clock to the new millennium or anything, but it wasn’t a giant egg on Thanksgiving night, either. It put Ziggler on the map and that, at least, eventually took him through the thicket toward the promised path to stardom. One by one, Dolph hit the predetermined beats. An Intercontinental Championship came soon, followed by an impressive run as United States Champion and a stint with Jack Swagger that orbited but never landed a tag team title. A Money in the Bank contract followed a year later, and that big 2012 victory over Cena in the main event came next. And then, finally, there was a reign as World Heavyweight Champion that lasted only a month, thanks in no small part to a concussion that nearly ended Ziggler’s career and fast-tracked the title’s return to Alberto Del Rio.
And then … nothing. Once the residual high from that World Title victory ebbed away, The Showoff found himself in a never-ending series of entertaining if inconsequential matches that ran about the length of your average webisode.
“[I felt like I was] at the bottom of the list,” explained Dolph, who discussed his 2013 as something of a lost year. It didn’t help that his supposed status in the proverbial doghouse turned into a running joke on TV, and that he was being put in matches he had “no chance of winning.” Ziggler still brought the same intensity, got the same cheers, and watching him, say, “El Kabong” a guitar to smithereens over Damien Sandow’s head certainly had its pleasures. He slowly became a Superstar whose future seemed uncertain, but whose former glory hadn’t faded so bad that a win over him wasn’t a noteworthy notch on your belt. It became a boast to say you beat Dolph Ziggler, and an upset to say Dolph Ziggler beat you.
He wasn’t exactly thrilled about it.
“It’s really funny to me that I get called a workhorse or somebody who’s really good at making other people better in the ring. I feel like I’m good at every aspect of this,” Dolph said. “I feel like I’m a great talker, I feel like I’m a great representative of the company. I broke records in college. I have an amateur background with fighting skills. I can do anything you want.”
It says more for the sports-entertainment business than Ziggler himself that he had to prove his bona fides all over again. The top slot in wrestling is a cyclical thing. One “top guy” excepted, Superstars aren’t so much entrenched as rotated through the 1A slot until something big sticks. It’s the both advantage and the disadvantage of a crowded playing field. The more marquee players you have, the better for business as a whole, but unless one of those next-guys-up catches on to something big that breaks him from the pack — see the “YES!” Movement — he risks becoming lost in the shuffle or, worse, slamming up against the dreaded glass ceiling.
Even so, this was bad.
“I don’t know what happened,” Dolph said of his year in the doldrums. “I have no idea.”
The answer likely isn’t so simple, but a distillation — to crib a phrase from another guy’s theme song — would probably be that his time wasn’t now.
III. It's Too Bad ...
The timing can be perfect, but there’s an aspect to achieving stardom that is, to a degree, even more elusive: You gotta be good. Luckily, Dolph Ziggler is good. It’s not showing off if you back it up, and all that. But, again, timing is everything, especially when it comes to the application of said abilities. Change comes slowly, and must be enacted with great care. For Dolph, realizing his true colors was something of a painful process, one that required a complete re-wiring of his personal perception of himself.
“I see myself as this awesome Superstar and I [had] to understand that I guess I’m more of a humble Superstar,” Dolph said. “It’s hard to deal with. Your whole life you think you’re Ric Flair from age five on, and you have to understand that you are this grassroots, built-up from the WWE Universe kind of guy.
So Dolph Ziggler began to play into his hidden, folk hero notions. A switch from ironically beloved bad guy to underdog good guy was enacted and Dolph went from cocky, would-be world-beater to scrappy hero on the side of the angels in the span of a single match. The problem was, he didn’t have unlimited opportunities on Raw or SmackDown to reinforce his transition from the swaggering jerk that had showboated his way through the past two years.There are very few who are down on me.
Much as a certain kind of wrestling fan might cry foul, it’s not an uncommon problem. Luckily, there are outlets to make up for it. Oftentimes The Showoff was left to ply his verbal craft for the Universe in brief segments on the WWE App or WWE.com that had become his chief outlet to establish that long-elusive connection.“Backstage people know [what I can do]. They know. But the WWE Universe has to know,” Dolph said. “What’s this guy’s deal? He has good matches. I’ll cheer for him, but I’m not gonna blow the roof off. [You don’t know] what [my] background is unless you follow me on Twitter, you knew me growing up, or you watch the WWE App exclusively for my interviews. And if you don’t, all you know is, ‘I don’t know if this guy can say anything except for ‘showoff.’”
Ziggler took a particularly old school approach to his interviews, hyping every doomed matchup as the one that would finally right his ship and make him a star again. He would talk about his work to entertain “every single night” until he was literally pink in the face, vocal chords shredding by the second and skin mottling the tone of one of his (pretty fantastic) T-shirts.
“I tried to make it old school-style of, ‘Oh, I have The Miz tonight? The Intercontinental Championship is on the line? I’ve lost 100 matches in a row? I am fired up! This is my break!’ And whether I whispered or yelled, I tried to take it on a little bit of a ride to where you’re focused and listening and understand.”
It was powerful stuff, if a little bit overwhelming. (Ziggler describes it as, “I got away from myself.”) His in-ring work had hit a roadblock as well. Seizing upon a wave of self-made, rebel Superstars who stepped outside the box and hit it big, Dolph had initially attempted to kickstart his success by making what he calls “executive decisions” to switch up his in-ring performance in the heat of the moment. It usually worked for the fans, but earned him a reputation as a renegade that he says wasn’t quite merited.
“I haven’t really been selfish in my career, even though it seems like it,” said Ziggler of his motivations. “It’s always been about, ‘how does this match steal the show’ and not, ‘how do I become the best?’”
This, by the way, is the part where we tell you that, yes, it certainly does not hurt a prospective World Champion if people like you. It also doesn’t hurt your chance of an office-job promotion if the boss likes you, either. This is nothing new, nor is it unique among the sports-entertainment industry, and it is absolutely not essential to achieving success. And while the favor of the sports-entertainment Illuminati can be fickle, Dolph says that any animosity he’s attracted is greatly overblown among the chatter of Internet wrestling fans.You have to understand you're a grassroots Superstar.
“There are very few who are down on me,” he said of his supposed detractors behind the curtain, “And I hope in the long term they are down on me because they want me to be the best ever, like I do.”
The interviews and his in-ring audibles may have caught some flack, but they reinforced Ziggler’s passion for sports-entertainment and garnered him a name among the WWE Universe as a first-class athlete who deserved more than he was getting. All that still didn’t crack the code and earn him the long-elusive connection that makes a Superstar go supernova. Dolph Ziggler was respectable, Dolph Ziggler was likeable. Dolph Ziggler was a hell of a wrestler. Nobody could deny that, not even his biggest boo birds.
But Dolph Ziggler was not relatable.
IV. It's Not Showing Off ...
Here’s another secret. That glass ceiling? It’s real. And (cue DDP grin) that’s a good thing, because it’s not some nameless guy in a suit-and-tie holding it down over Superstars’ heads: It’s the WWE fans, and to break it, all you have to do is convince them to let you.
The downside of that hurdle is obvious, but the upside isn’t just that it weeds out the pretenders; it gives motivation to those who keep coming up against it to figure out ways to break through. Dolph was ultimately forced to compromise in a way lots of Superstars do when they find themselves a cog in a much larger machine. Natural instincts must be tempered, though not outright suppressed, and funneled into something that’s both in line with the Superstars’ personal goals as well as the company’s as a whole.
“What you need to do, and I’ve been doing this very recently, are backstage segments here and there,” said Dolph, who has tempered down his emotional rollercoaster into something more palatable. “I’m just trying to be myself,” he added. “And I’ve worked on that more than anything.”
As for those executive decisions? “I didn’t do anything differently,” said Dolph of the in-ring work he put in to pull himself out of the recent mire. “I continued to do everything to the best of my ability and steal the show whether it was four minutes or 30 seconds, and the nonstop cheering for me made The Authority, or whoever’s backstage go, ‘We have to do something. He does what we ask and steals the show.’”
But why back a guy if he wasn’t, as Dolph said, relatable? Well, the WWE Universe knows talent when they see it, and they’d seen it in Ziggler for a long time, even when it seemed no one else did.The WWE Universe brought me out of the ditch.
“This is mind-blowing to me, because I [only] have a handful of close friends in the business. I do everything on my own. I don’t do tag partners, I don’t do managers,” Ziggler said. “Somehow — this is real — the WWE Universe being behind me for so long brought me out of the ditch.”
The opportunities came slowly at first. A spot in the final two of a Battle Royal for the vacant Intercontinental Title at WWE Battleground in July 2014, wherein Dolph fell to a cheap shot from The Miz. Then, a lengthy back-and-forth over that same title with Miz that saw the title trade hands three times total, culminating with a formidable run as champ for Dolph as Miz splintered off into the tag division alongside Damien Mizdow. As always, Dolph grabbed the opportunity with both hands, defending his championship in impromptu, Authority-mandated matches with increasingly outrageous stipulations, and the dividends — both for his image and the title’s — were immediate.
“With that title, it was funny. JBL would go, ‘I can’t believe he is complaining he has to defend his title!’ I would never complain! I wrestle every Monday, every Friday, every Wednesday, all the weekends. I love defending it!” said Dolph of the Intercontinental Championship, long considered the prize of the next man in line and WWE’s de facto senior title. “This is how you make it that prestigious title that it was, by defending it. I loved doing that! It was my favorite thing to do. [The Authority kept] trying to stick it to me … but I kept fighting through it and [it] kind of built up more of a reputation for me as someone who wouldn’t go down so fast, but also made it like, ‘Oh, wow! We care about this title again [because we didn’t want to see you lose it].’ So hopefully I get it back and get to continue what I was just, just getting going with doing.”
Even Triple H — part of that same cabal that supposedly has it in for Dolph — had to pony up and give his props, singing The Showoff’s praises in a microphone segment on Raw that was almost as impassioned as one of Dolph’s previous App interviews.
“I don’t believe there’s anything about you that’s a failure, Dolph,” The Game said. “You bust your a** harder than probably any Superstar in the back. That’s a fact.”
If that wasn’t an endorsement, nothing was. Turns out the key to breaking the glass ceiling isn’t to ram your head against the pane until it shatters. It’s to have the people crack it and pull you through to the other side.
“[My current success] is better because it’s organic,” he continued, sounding nothing like the cocky showboat who crooned about how you wished you could be him all those years ago. “The fans helped me get here. I didn’t kiss someone’s a**, I didn’t spot somebody in the gym and have them give me a thumbs up in the meetings. This was organic; listening to people who have been there, taking their advice, listening to the boss, then combining it with your natural instincts and slowly burning your way into an organic, up-and-coming Superstar that could be the next Cena.”
V. Here to Show the World
Becoming the next Cena is a goal that has been attempted, and missed, by a number of Superstars. The road is littered with the trunks of mooks who came at the king and missed, and at one point Dolph’s might have been among them. But shouldering the lion’s share of the load in the Survivor Series match after Cena was KO’ed by Big Show at the halfway point and eliminated certainly gives him a leg up in this latest attempt. In fact, Dolph’s performance — a 3-1 comeback that saw him overcome a future Hall of Famer, the guy who took his title and The Authority’s handpicked “Future of WWE” — throws the entire perception of the match into question.You're damn right I'm ready.
“It’s cool [between me and Cena] because we both have totally different ideas and sometimes we can help each other out,” said Dolph of their friendly rivalry. “So even though I go, ‘John, I got your back no matter what,’ in a non-jerk way, I was like, ‘It’s Team Ziggler. Come on.’”
All of which wasn’t to say that he thought he’d breeze through his first main event in two years. In fact, going back to St. Louis moments before the bell, Ziggler reiterated what we said at the top: He was nervous. Hard to blame him, really. After all, this was the pinnacle of two years’ struggle, a trip up and down the ladder and back again. Cena will probably be in the main event again. If Dolph blew it at Survivor Series, he might not.
“[Breaking through] is very hard to do, otherwise there would be 10 or 20 Cenas. We have one,” said Dolph. “But he’s also earned the right to be in certain positions at certain times. Not everybody has earned that right. I believed five years ago, I had earned that right, and I was wrong. I believed three years ago I had earned that right, and I was wrong. I believed two years ago I did and I was kind of close. And do I believe now? You’re damn right I’m ready to go.”
Dolph’s dominance was so astounding that a certain subset of the Universe didn’t entirely know how to handle it.
“Immediately, I knew it had to be good [that night], because the next morning my dad was sending me Internet articles on how [some fans had] already turned on me,” said Dolph of his against-the-odds win. For a certain kind of fan, who supported Dolph simply because he wasn’t John Cena, having him pull off one of the 15-time World Champion’s trademark impossible comebacks simply did not compute. And while Dolph doesn’t quite agree with the comparison (“I’ve lost 10,000 matches in a row!!!”), if you ask him, it’s not the worst thing in the world to have a divided crowd response. Just ask John Cena.
“I must be doing something right because I’ve pissed off half the people,” he quipped. “That’s kind of my thing.”
Hey, sometimes you just can’t win. And then sometimes, timing, ability, and all the other fates align just right, and the skies open up. Then, maybe, you just end up becoming Rocky Balboa and getting the big win. Maybe you do become a legend (along with the girl). For Dolph Ziggler, who’s been to the bottom and the top and back again, been locked in a crate and doused in slime, kicked in the head and carried to victory, it feels like he might actually make it this time. And he won’t even have to grow six inches to do it.