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?
“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.
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.
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.
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.”