I conducted a phone interview earlier this week with Intercontinental champion Dolph Ziggler. Ziggler will be among the WWE stars appearing on Friday’s live episode of Smackdown, as the show makes its debut on SyFy.
Do you and the other talent look at Smackdown moving to a new network as a chance to make a first impression?
Of course. Moving to SyFy is exciting for the Smackdown brand itself and also to us. Every time something new comes up like this or a pay-per-view – Hell in a Cell is coming up Oct. 3 – you get a chance to make a name for yourself. We’re moving to a new network and possibly a new audience. I, being the ham that I am, always want people looking at me. I want to show off on a regular basis, but the live show this Friday is a big chance for a lot of guys to step up. I’m really excited and I want to be the one that people remember from this move.
You had an outstanding amateur wrestling career, including at the collegiate level at Kent State, and you also were a big pro wrestling fan growing up. How did your desire to be a pro wrestler go over with the amateur wrestling community, and do you get any grief now about being a pro wrestler from your old amateur wrestling friends?
Actually, back then I got it a lot more than I do now. I was a big fan of amateur wrestling and I loved it and dedicated my whole life to it for 20-something years, and it’s not really a glory-getting sport. But it does toughen you up and I have a lot of respect for all those guys and the time we all put in, and it really helped me develop my career now. But I used to get a lot of grief then – “Yeah, you want to do that phony stuff, that fake stuff.” I don’t get it as much now because whenever I get a chance I recognize what I did to get here and how hard those guys sacrificed. I have more respect for amateur wrestlers, especially collegiate ones, than anyone else. It’s a gutsy sport with no real payoff except for knowing that you were better than someone else. It doesn’t have big crowds, it doesn’t have big money, but it is fun going one on one. You can’t put the blame on a team – it’s on you to be the best or not be the best.
Coming into pro wrestling, you obviously had the athletic background. Was it a challenge to pick up the entertainment aspect of it?
Honestly, I could see some other guys having that problem when they make the transition from sports. Me, I’ve always been a big fan and supporter of the entertainment part. That’s what I tried to do in high school and college – make entertaining matches. I tried to somehow have the opposing team hate me or be a jerk. I loved it. Everyone’s watching you and you stand out, and I love standing out. I live for everyone watching me and watching me do something I’m great at, and that was amateur wrestling and now sports entertainment.
Who were some of the wrestlers that you liked growing up?
When I was 5 years old, Hulk Hogan was the world to a lot of little kids. I even got the weight set with the sand in it. Even though my mom didn’t want me working out at 5, my dad let me do pull-ups, pushups and sit-ups. As I became a fan and studied – not just watched and enjoyed but actually studied the wrestlers and their matches – I became a big fan of Shawn Michaels and Ric Flair. Those two guys would orchestrate a 40- or 60-minute match and they had total control, total presence, and they were so smooth and great in the ring that you always wanted to see what they were going to do next no matter how many times you had seen them in the ring. They were so great at what they did, and that’s how I want people to view me one day. It’ll be like, “Oh, we didn’t like him, but damn it we had to watch him.”
How frustrating was it to get a couple stints in WWE – with the Spirit Squad and as Chavo Guerrero’s sidekick – several years ago only to get sent back down to Ohio Valley Wrestling? Did you ever begin to doubt whether you’d make it?
I never doubted that I would work hard and put it all on the line and get my shot, but it is a cut-throat business. It’s about entertaining fans, and sometimes you get one shot, sometimes you get two, sometimes you get three. You never know what’s going to happen. The first two times – when I did the caddy with Chavo and the Spirit Squad – those were all six months and a year into just learning how to wrestle. I always thought if I got another chance, I’m going to make it worth my while. For years I was going to two and three practices a day trying to catch up, and those experiences I drew from. Man, I got a little taste of what it’s like – I want to be a main guy. That drove me to work harder, and honestly, I thought I worked harder than everybody else – and it still doesn’t guarantee that you’re going to get a shot. But the harder you work, the luckier you get sometimes, and that’s how it’s panned out for me.
When you first came on WWE TV as Dolph Ziggler, you were doing the bit where you kept introducing yourself to everyone. Was that some kind of a rib or an inside joke?
I don’t think it was a rib or an inside joke, but it was a way for me to get noticed, and I’ve always been kind of big on getting noticed and getting my name and my face out there, and that was the perfect way to do it. It just slowly put me in the back of the casual WWE Universe viewer’s mind. It was, “Let’s see what he’s going to do,” and then finally build up to a match. Honestly, the character is me in my real life, if not turned down a little bit. I’m a little over the top; I love when everyone looks at me; and I love beating people. I just love showing that I’m better than everyone else, and it’s not even being cocky, it just that’s how I am and sometimes I have to tone it down a little bit.
That’s different. Most guys usually say their character is them with the volume turned up, but you’re saying that character is you turned down.
I feel like I am the only person on our roster that tones down his real-life persona for his character.
You are one of quite a few young guys who are jockeying for spots in WWE. What is that like – is it a friendly competition? Obviously, there are only so many spots there.
That’s true, man. There are only so many spots and there’s a bunch of guys training in [Florida Championship Wrestling] and you’ve got the whole Nexus – at some point they’re all going to be on their own. The young guys have made their move and made their point, but, technically, I’m still a young guy even though I’ve been here for five and a half years. I’m 30 years old, and a lot of our top guys who have been world champions, they’re in their mid-30s, late-30s or older. So I think I’m on pace to be a great world champion in the next couple years. The competition is friendly, but it’s also not. It’s like, hey, we’re buddies, and a lot of us have trained together and worked hard, but when it comes down to it, I want the top spot, not you.
Do you view your program with Rey Mysterio last year as sort of a turning point for you, something that really put you on the map?
It really did. It showed that I can go with a top guy and not have all the responsibility be with him. I can actually hold my own. That’s something that I thought for a long time and they actually believed in me that we could go. We had several pay-per-view matches and I was really proud of almost all of them. I really thought that I deserved a shot at being Intercontinental champion. Some people would be like, “Oh, it’s cool. I had a shot.” I wanted to be champion, and on my schedule, I was prepared to win it a year ago. It just drove me that much harder to make sure that I got it this year.
Who is the one person in WWE you’d like to have a program with that you haven’t yet?
I wish Shawn Michaels was still around. I think he’s the best ever and I honestly think I have the gas in the tank to go 60 minutes back and forth and show that I could hang with the best ever. As far as guys on Smackdown right now, I’ve never even been in the ring with The Undertaker. It’s honestly a little chilling to think you’d be standing across from him in a match on TV. When it puts shivers up my back thinking about it, then that means that it’s a very special thing that I’d like to do one day.
Photo courtesy of World Wrestling Entertainment