Superstar wrestler Dolph Ziggler popped by Toronto recently while the WWE was in town. As one of the company’s more colourful stars, he has spent the past decade climbing the corporate ladder, 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.
In chatting with Ziggler, who shunned a career in law to roll around on a mat in his underwear, I found more evidence that while wrestling is certainly a unique pursuit, in many ways it isn’t terribly different from other jobs.
Peter Nowak: First off, what’s the holdup with launching the WWE Network in Canada?
Dolph Ziggler: 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. Many people who don’t follow wrestling don’t know or 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.
It’s also a lot like working for a regular company, where you have to do and say the right things, no? (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 as 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.
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.
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.
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 back burner 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.
But why did you decide on wrestling?
I wanted to do it since I was five-years-old. When school came around, the deal I had with my parents was that I’ll graduate college and then I’ll do this. So I found something that I loved, school-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, that’s the best way to go. That or courtroom attorney.
When it came time to develop your own persona, how did you 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. 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.
Wrestlers don’t have long shelf-lives and usually have to plan for post-careers. Have you given that much thought?
For the last few years I’ve been writing a lot, whether it’s comedy, improv or stand-up. 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.
Do wrestlers get financial planning training from the company?
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.
Is it different now from the old days, when 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. 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.
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, look at the palm trees, get a tan and just count the hours until I have to go back to work.