Dolph Ziggler Isn’t Going to Stop Pushing Himself

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Before WWE’s most patriotic show of the year, Tribute to the Troops, airs on Thursday, December 14th on USA at 8 p.m. ET, Dolph Ziggler chatted with me about the state of his career, if there’s anything about it he would change and why he thinks Naomi has the best “comeback” in the business.  

Give me one word to describe your career this year?

“Wow one word? OK you tell me how your career has been this year in one word.”

Ummm …. That’s a good question (laughs)

“See it’s not that easy.”

I would say winding. Where I’m at now as opposed to where I was in January is drastically different.

“OK that’s fair. I would say solid. I’m pretty reliable no matter what situation I’m in at work and also solid in that I’ve been pretty busy doing things beyond wrestling.”

On Edge and Christian’s podcast you opened up about your unhappiness with the placement of your character right now ….

“That was a sentence in an hour and a half discussion. I know it makes for a great click-bait article where I’m like ‘yeah it sucks!’ But they left out the part where I talk about how I want to be better and here’s why everyone should be working to be better. That’s the part people leave out, which is fine.

If you’re … you’re at NBC Sports right?

Yeah.

“OK if you’re doing great work for the last 10 years and you want to be in the top position at your job and you’re scratching and clawing, wouldn’t you be unhappy if there was no movement? You would go ‘Sure, yeah I want to be on top!’ But not everyone gets to be on top at once. Of course I hate not being the champion and not having the show revolve around me, but I love it. That chip on my shoulder drives me to keep going and keep proving how good I am, until somebody somehow shows me some instance where I wasn’t great at my job.”

What I was going to ask was, is there a certain point in time that you can point to where you say “this is where the downward turn started” or was it a gradual process?

“It was very gradual. It went from ‘Wow, we have something special here with Dolph. The crowd is feeding off of him whether he’s a good guy or a bad guy.’ But after a while, a really good match here and there or a special moment here and there is not enough to create a star. So after a big match and then just going back to being Dolph, it’s hard to not be Dolph.

I’ve been very lucky in that I’ve been able to make the most out of those situations. Anytime people see me or the character, you can kind of see how they mesh together and I’m pretty sure there’s nobody who blends that gray area with the character better than me. And that’s a fact.”

I was going to ask this a bit later on, but it fits perfectly here. A few months ago when your entrance gimmick started I thought it was a bit odd, but then I started to realize that a meta-type character who understands his placement on the card and understands what the crowd pops for is perfect for this era. What are some things you’re looking to explore with this character in the coming weeks?

“We’ve opened the fourth wall a lot with this business and we’ve let reality become a huge part of it, which is awesome. Being able to interact with fans every single day gives them the ability to know what’s going on behind the scenes a little bit and you can actually use that as part of your character.

It would be stupid to let them in on all of these different aspects of the show and then pretend that I win every night because then we’re basically calling them stupid for believing that. But if I go ‘Hey I don’t win all of the time, but I’m really good and you know this and I know this’ and one of the nights could be the time that we go with it and that’s very realistic in this world.

It’s one thing to joke around with fans, but to disregard huge aspects of a career would be a mistake.”

Is there something that you would change about your character right now?

“Yeah I’d be about three inches taller, so I could be a 10-time world champion (laughs).

I’m a big 80s hair metal guy, like a David Lee Roth or someone like Nikki Sixx or Vince Neil to where I could put on a big show and be awesome at wrestling, but in this character right now where I focus on throwing that all away because I see the transparency in characters and my character hates on them.

It’s a special place that I get to go and I walk to the ring with disdain for the fans knowing that they sit there and bury everything that we do, but then they cheer for who their supposed to because their such hypocrites it’s so great.”

If I could give you a time machine to go back and change any part of your career, what moment would you go back to?

“Ummm … you have anything in particular off of the top of your head?”

Well I was thinking about the period of time after you cashed in Money in the Bank the night after WrestleMania 29 against [Alberto] Del Rio and it felt like you had so much potential, then the double turn happened at Payback. It felt like the right move in the moment, but in hindsight I wonder if that decision was a mistake.

“Hmm.”

And you’ve talked about this before. The curse of the start-stop push. Every time it looked like you finally had momentum, it was killed. I just think that moment specifically began the downward spiral that I asked about earlier.

“I could see how you would think that, but what was I going to do? It’s pretty clear that there wasn’t long-term plans with me as champion.

I’m so proud of that match with Del Rio because it was … if I was an artist, that was a masterpiece I painted. I always enjoyed being in the ring with him because he brought it every time and we beat the hell out of each other and we got to do something special that night by switching things around.

When everyone says how much better the attitude era was just because more teenagers watched it then and I say well we did something special here, when I was someone who wasn’t in the championship picture until basically a couple weeks before that. I was always in the middle of the card … losing and all of a sudden it changed in one night.

It’s hard because you either go with it or you don’t and sometimes you deal with the cards your dealt and you go ‘OK, well if they’re not going with me as the champion, this top guy, how do I make another opportunity down the line?’

You can switch around any one day and it really doesn’t change 12 years.”

What do you “pop” for now that you’ve been in the industry for this long?

“Let’s see … I like watching Naomi work. She’s one of my favorites to watch.

Ahh … there’s a million things … what do you like?

Oh man …. This is going to sound generic, but watching AJ Styles work is one of the reasons why I still look forward to tuning into WWE programming every week.

“That’s great!”

It’s just the little intricacies of how he sells and his offense, which always stands out. I’m curious as to why you said Naomi.

“I remember a couple years ago, she was just a smiling athletic performer and she became a member of [Team] B.A.D and I was like there’s no way in hell she’s going to pull this off.

And then I saw her first day and I was like I don’t know how she’s doing this. Her offense is amazing and she has the best comeback in the business. I’d even rival hers to your boy AJ.”

I would agree with that.

“She has such a cool, fun, unique, explosive comeback that no one else can do.”

She also has one of the best hot tags in the business.

“Oh yeah.”

Going back to the Del Rio discussion for a minute, who are some people that you felt amazing in-ring chemistry with?

“I used to give this other answer all of the time, but it’s been years. Kofi and I for about four years wrestled every SmackDown, every Raw, and every live event. We had a best-of-500 series that I love 497-to-3.

We were wrestling so much that we were trying to think of counters to counters of counters to make it interesting and different every time. We had so much fun.

My favorite part is, the Dudleys came in and were like ‘we know you and Kofi do all of the high-flying stuff’ and I was like no! Kofi does the high-flying stuff.

I love when people throw a little amateur wrestling background into their stuff. Just modifying the most basic of all moves is really fun for me to see. Gable and Jordan will throw in a little stutter step or fake that no one else is doing and I’m like oh that’s nice.

Have you worked with Gable yet?

“A little bit during a live event in a triple threat, but we haven’t gotten in there to do anything big yet.”

Let’s talk a bit about visiting the troops in San Diego, I imagine that has to be one of your favorite events of the year.

“Yeah it’s great. We love doing it. It’s a long day for us, but we love it. We get to give this tiny percent back to these brave men and women are doing for us every single day. Anything we can do, we’ll bring in singers, comedians, we’ll shake hands, we’ll talk about wrestling, we’ll talk about high school football, we’ll talk about anything they want just to take a few minutes to thank them.

It is so rewarding to us and it means the world to us to put on our most patriotic show of the year. When we get to perform for them in person, nothing is better than that.”

Twitter: @ScottDargis

Q&A: Natalya on WWE’s Mixed Match Challenge, Nakamura, and why she didn’t want Sami Zayn as her partner

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WWE’s Mixed Match Challenge debuts tonight and will stream live in the U.S. exclusively on Facebook Watch at 10 p.m. ET.

The first match of the inaugural Mixed Match Challenge will be Shinsuke Nakamura and Natalya vs. Finn Balor and Sasha Banks. I had the chance to chat with Natalya about why she’s so excited to team with Nakamura, the first-ever women’s Royal Rumble and why she was thrilled that Sami Zayn wasn’t her teammate.

How is your relationship with Shinsuke Nakamura? This is someone who you haven’t worked with on television before, so I imagine you have to be excited to have the opportunity to share some on-screen time with him.

“I’m so excited to be working with him. When we first found out that there was a group of girls and a group of guys who were going to be competing in the Mixed Match Challenge concept, he was one of the first people I wanted to team with because he’s very quirky, he’s very unusual, he’s very different.

It’s hard to explain exactly what Nakamura is like. His persona on TV is kind of like how he is backstage. He has this mystique about him. He’s very, very charismatic. He leaves people talking and guessing and wondering.

He’ll walk through an airport and grab attention in a different way than say somebody like Braun Strowman. Obviously their proportions are different (laughs).

He’s really cool. He’ll wear like really weird shoes, or a really cool hat, or a really big scarf and you’re like he’s so cool.

Nakamura embraces his own unique eccentricities and that’s what we, at WWE, want to express, especially when we’re talking to kids about bullying and having goals and being different in this crazy thing called life.

We talk to kids about being different and embracing it and Nakamura totally embraces that. It’s very important to be different. I don’t want to be like the person next to me and nor should anyone. When I see Nakamura, he loves to be unique. He is proud of it.

It’s so funny, we’ve been filming a lot of these backstage vignettes on my phone and yesterday I showed him a gift I got for Finn [Balor] and Sasha [Banks] when they lose to us because I don’t want them to feel sad.

So I was explaining this to Nakamura and he’s like ‘a present? Why did you get them a present?’ And I was like, when they lose, they’re going to be sad, and we don’t want that. So I showed him the present was and it was magnets with cats’ bottoms. I saw them at the dollar store and thought they were so stupid and funny at the same time.

I showed them to Nakamura and he was like ‘I want them!’ And I was like no you can’t have them, they’re for Finn and Sasha when they lose. He was fighting with me about wanting to keep the magnets for himself. We got it on tape and I was like Nakamura these are presents for them! And he was like ‘oh yes, yes, yes, yes, we will give them presents.’ He just cracks me up. That’s why I think partnering with him will be so great.

The charity aspect of the Mixed Match Challenge is the cherry on top of this whole thing. Yeah we’re doing this for fun and it’s a great thing for the superstars, a great dynamic for us backstage, and a great way for us to perform. It’s a great way for the WWE Universe to see a different concept because you don’t always see girl and guy tag teams and it’s so cool to see inter-branded tag teams matches.

But then you throw in the charity aspect and there are so many charities the WWE is working with from Connor’s Cure, to Make-A-Wish [Foundation], to Rescue Dogs Rock and so many more. It’s really cool.

Make-A-Wish is the charity that Nakamura and I are representing and it’s one that is really close to my heart because I have granted wishes. And when you can change a kid’s perspective or change their quality of life, even if it’s for a few moments, you realize what the worth of your actual career is. I want to make people happy and lift kids up who don’t have that much time left.”

The use of cats in the promos you’ve done with Nakamura has been hilarious. Was there any thought of having 2pawz as the manager for your team?

“I thought about it and then I thought well, I don’t want PETA coming after me because 10,000 people are yelling as I walk down to the ring with my cat (laughs).

You know, 2pawz doesn’t get out of bed for just anyone or anything. I truly had thought about it because that would be so cool if he came down with us. My mom actually made him a costume that matches Nakamura’s ring costume.

We will reign victorious in the first ever #WWE #mixedmatchchallenge! #NAKAMEOWA

A post shared by 2pawz (@2pawz) on

We filmed some videos and posted them on my account. 2pawz has posted them on his Instagram account. He’s very into Nakamura’s music, his costume and Japanese culture. He’s very ready to do this!

But like I said, I thought about him, but I just think it might be too much for him. I don’t want to traumatize the cat.”

Nakamura does strike me as someone who would have a cat.

“Yes. Now I know he has a dog, but he definitely has cat-owner-like qualities because cats are … Cesaro is a cat owner and he’s kind of like a cat. My husband, TJ, is kind of snippy. They’re like cats. Everything is on their terms.

Whereas dog people … dog people are like Mojo Rawley and Bayley and Becky Lynch. They’re happy. They want to hug you. They want to play and jump. They want attention (laughs). But us cat people, we make you work for it.

Your reaction to Nakamura being revealed as your teammate for the Mixed Match Challenge was noteworthy because of how excited you were that Sami Zayn wasn’t your partner. Why were you so excited that Sami wasn’t standing behind you in the selfie?

“What’s so funny about this is that I actually forgot I said that because I have such spontaneous reactions. The WWE producers were like we need to film a video for you because soon you’re going to find out who your partner is, but it’s not today. So I was doing this interview and then all of a sudden they were like do you want to take a selfie because you’re going to need a selfie for the Mixed Match Challenge and all of a sudden I see these red teeth behind me and it was Nakamura wearing a mouthguard and I was like oh my God, Nakamura is my partner! Like it just clicked to me that this was the reveal.

 

I was so excited, but I had this feeling that I was going to get Sami because he and I were both bad guys on TV. I was like I’m going to get Sami and I don’t know if I have chemistry with Sami, I don’t know if it’s there. It wasn’t that I don’t like Sami, I just couldn’t see us gelling together in the ring. In order to have really compelling and great matches, you need to be able to gel with your partner.

So my first reaction was to jump up and down and yell ‘I didn’t get Sami!’ And then later on that day Sami walks up to me and goes ‘are you and I OK?’ And I go yeah, why? And he goes, ‘because you jumped up and down and said you were so happy that I wasn’t your partner and WWE aired that on Twitter to like 12 million people.’ I was like, ‘I don’t recall doing that (laughs).’ Of course it was like the first thing I did (laughs).

It was so funny because Sami thought I was mad at him. He was like I love you and TJ so much that I didn’t know if I ticked you off and I was like, ‘No!’ I just wanted Nakamura.”

With the first women’s Royal Rumble coming up quickly, I was wondering how much you’ve thought about the potential impact of the match on the division as a whole.

“The WWE is really putting their money where their mouth is. They’re really pulling out all of the stops for this. It’s not just 20 girls in this Royal Rumble. They’re trying to, as much as humanly possible, make it as equal to the guys as they can.

We can try to be as equal to the men as we possibly can, but there are some things that … look you’re not going to have girl who is the same height as Braun (6’8”). There are reasons why different is good. There are a lot of things that the women bring to the table that the men can’t do and there’s a lot of things the men bring to the table that the girls can’t do.

WWE has gone above and beyond in every way, shape, and form to make this first-ever women’s Royal Rumble feel equal and that to me is huge. We have 30 women competing and it’s over-the-top-rope.

It’s all about us girls standing out and showing that we’re equal and WWE has been awesome about embracing that.

I have thought a lot about what I’m going to do in the Royal Rumble. I’ve thought a lot about who could possibly be in the match. There has been a lot of speculation and that’s really the fun part. Who is going to be a part of this? Am I going to see Trish Stratus? Am I going to see Michelle McCool? Is there going to be someone who isn’t even a female superstar come and be a part of it?

I was thinking about the girls from G.L.O.W. like what a shock that would be to see one of the girls from the show because it’s so popular. Anything and everything can happen and there’s this huge element of surprise.

The crowd in Philadelphia will let you know … they’re one of those renegade, rowdy, wild, awesome, amazing powerhouse of a crowd. They’re going to let us know what they love and they’re going to let us know what they hate and they’re going to put the pressure on us more than ever.

I think you’re going to see some magic for sure.”

Twitter: @ScottDargis

Mick Foley on advice he gave to Braun Strowman, Raw’s 25th anniversary, Jericho vs. Omega

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The 25th anniversary of Raw will be celebrated on January 22nd with a special broadcast from the Barclays Center and the Manhattan Center live at 8 p.m. ET on USA.

I had the chance to chat with Mick Foley about the event, the first-ever women’s Royal Rumble match, the advice he gave to Braun Strowman and what he thought of the build for Chris Jericho vs. Kenny Omega.

Is December 26th the saddest day of the year for you, or does Christmas never end for you?

“As long as I’ve got my Hallmark movie stockpile, I can continue in the season for the next few weeks.”

Those don’t get old for you?

“Nah, we know how they end. It’s a nice way to escape the real world. I also made it a point to see a great production of ‘A Christmas Carol’ on December 30th. I love the season, but it’s nice to get a little break from it. I’m looking out of my window and a foot of snow is mounting and so it still feels like the holiday season.”

You joined WWE after Raw left the Manhattan Center, do you have any memories of working in the building, or have you never had the chance to work there?

“Is it still called the Manhattan Center?”

Yeah it is.

“I guess not. I wrestled in the Penta Hotel in 1990, but I guess I never worked the Manhattan Center.”

The Raw 25th anniversary show is another chance for WWE to celebrate their past by bringing back some of the all-time greats, but when thinking ahead to the future, I don’t know if something like this will be possible when say, the Raw 50th anniversary show happens, because none of the stars on today’s roster, besides John Cena, seem to be able to break through the glass ceiling and reach that next level of super-stardom. What has to change in order for there to be more household names like there were during the Attitude Era?

“Well that’s more of a societal change. I don’t think we can go back there. I think WWE did what they had to do to become more successful than ever on a global basis. I would love to say, ‘Hey, things were much better back in my day,’ but the company just turned its biggest profit ever. They knew that we were in a wave, so you can either let the wave subside and complain about the way things used to be, or move forward in every area possible and that’s what they did.

So I’d say that on a global basis, the superstars are just as big, if not bigger, with the exception of you know, a Rock or a Stone Cold. I think they’re doing just fine.”

As a huge advocate for women’s wrestling, I’m sure you were thrilled to find out about the first-ever women’s Royal Rumble. What are some challenges that the women will face in having to do that match for the first time?

“I guess it depends on the positioning of the match on the card. I’m guessing that it’s going to be first.

Just trying to live up to the lure of rumbles in the past will be a challenge. It is almost always the highlight of the show. The match really gains due to the anticipation during it.

I’ll be rooting for the women. I’ll be glued to my TV set and just hoping that it goes as well as possible for everybody. I hope they have a couple of surprise entrees. Both from the past and a couple of new names.

The women are so determined. Through sheer force of will, they’re going to have a very good match, but the one thing you can’t ever … you can’t book magic. I hope there’s that element of magic in the air when they take to the ring.”

Outside of working with Stephanie McMahon on screen during your time as the general manager of Raw, what were some of your favorite moments during your run last year?

“I loved doing work with The Bar (Sheamus and Cesaro), especially putting them together and then interacting with them after they teamed up.

I loved interactions with guys like Sami [Zayn]. Anyone who I was able to kind of get in and try to make a difference with, I really enjoyed.

I tried to bring a certain element of fear to the way I handled Braun Strowman. I had a major talk with him about the importance of throwing things backstage. [laughs] I told him about a legendary basketball game between the Philadelphia 76ers and the Portland Trail Blazers in 1977, when Darryl Dawkins was ejected. I never saw the dressing room after he was done with it, but I heard about it and it was legendary in my mind and I said to him that he had a chance to be Darryl Dawkins after that game.

He had the physical presence to do it. He was the one guy who had the strength to throw things around in a way that would be meaningful and I think he really took that lesson to heart. Anytime I see Braun Strowman throwing items backstage, I smile.”

His growth last year was one of the more shocking developments in the past few years. Obviously you see the potential based on his look, but it seemed like he really sunk his teeth into the advice he was given and understood how to use it to his advantage.

“Yeah, I put out a post one day on Facebook and I don’t think I quite hit it on the sweet spot of the bat, but it was basically Baron von Frankenstein saying, ‘Oh, that’s how you build a monster.’

I think it’s one of the most impressive builds I’ve seen a long time. Everybody has benefited.”

For sure. He’s one of the few guys on the roster who feels “protected,” and that’s something I was trying to hit at earlier about the lack of superstars on the roster. So many characters just don’t feel like they’re being protected. He’s someone who has been and the crowd understands that and is reacting to him as a top level star.

“Well, the guys go out there and do their thing with the great matches they have and there’s a feeling that the fans respect that and any guy can win at any given time.

Believe me, it’s tough when you have to have good, competitive matches for three hours [every week]. It was much easier in the days of ‘WWE Superstars’ or before that with the wrestling I saw once or twice a week where a decent match every six weeks was considered a treat.

It’s really difficult to have dominant characters when they have to be competitive so often. When you have a chance to build someone like Braun in a different way, it really stands out.”

And that’s why I feel like whoever can show their personality using the microphone or in a backstage segment, will standout even more so than in the past because we see 20 minute matches every week with extensive selling from both guys. I look at someone like Adam Cole, who can get himself over by just using facial expressions, and think that’s someone who will immediately standout to the audience because he’s expressing his character without selling a body part for 60 percent of a match or making a move look cool.

“There’s a guy who came up in an airport, almost combatively saying, ‘I’ll tell you what’s wrong with Raw these days!’

Oh boy.

“And I’m like all right, what is it? And he goes ‘How can you have a three hour show without someone like The Miz?’

And he’s right. When someone is that entertaining that regularly, you miss him when he’s gone. So it shows that there’s room for someone else to step up.

It’s like hey guess what, Jason Jordan is entertaining. Now Drew Gulak is entertaining. Now Rusev is on the other show, but he’s entertaining. Guys find ways to step up and they find a way to make the best out of mediocre situations. They show what they can do and then they get a couple key people believing in them and then they get the ball.”

You’ve said people always come up to you and ask about Hell in the Cell with The Undertaker, but what are some of the more underappreciated moments/matches from your career that you wish people would ask you about more often?

“I was thrilled to be on Edge and Christian’s podcast where Shawn Michaels and I talked about our match at ‘In Your House: Mind Games’ for over an hour. It was amazing how vividly both of us remembered that match.

Some of my matches tend to blend together, but that was really different. A lot of outside of the box stuff.

The stuff that I did to set up the matches with The Rock that resulted in I think five consecutive Pay-Per-View matches, all of which were good.

The non-cell matches with The Undertaker, including the first-ever Buried Alive match.

Every once in a while someone will show the clip of the Big Show throwing me from the stage into a grave on a short hop.

I forget about a lot of the things I’ve done over the years, but I think I was fully appreciated.”

I assume based off of this media tour you’ve done this morning that you haven’t had a chance to watch Chris Jericho vs. Kenny Omega yet.

“No! It’s shame because last night I was going to put a post out wishing those guys luck and I guess I confused the time zone changes and thought it would be taking place later today. I hear they did a tremendous job though.”

Oh, it was excellent. A great blend of new school and old school. I was not expecting it to go over 40 minutes …

“Woah!”

It was fantastic. What did you think of the build for that match?

“I thought it was great. I’ve been a big fan of Kenny’s work for a long time. During the beginning of their feud, I reached out to him and was like, is this something you guys are working on? Is everything OK between you two? And he was like don’t worry about me, just having some fun.

I thought Jericho isn’t just going to go after a phenomenal athlete like Kenny Omega and reduce him to being a curiosity. And then as soon as the match was announced I was like, ah that Jericho, he knows what he’s doing.

The article that I was going to write last night … I just happened to find a cool photo of Chris and I backstage and I was going to point out that for all of the fun and shenanigans, Jericho is a very competitive guy. Very driven. Stands up for stuff that he believes in. He wants everything he does to be the best and I had no doubt that when this thing was announced that they were going to steal the show.”

Twitter: @ScottDargis