Ryback’s abbreviated WWE career saw him achieve great heights, but it ended as unceremoniously as you could imagine. He won the Intercontinental Championship at Elimination Chamber in May 2015, but he was out of WWE less than a year later. He spoke with SI.com about his departure, his post-WWE career and much more.
Ryback—known behind the scenes as Ryan Reeves—overcame larger-than-life challenges in the WWE ring, but was also met with immense pressure behind the curtain, especially when he was dealt a major blow by CM Punk.
“Those Punk comments did a lot of damage to me,” said Ryback, referring to Punk’s negative statements about him in November of 2014 on the Colt Cabana podcast. “CM Punk has a tremendous following. When you have as many followers as he has, and you say something about somebody, they’re going to believe everything you say. To this day, I don’t know why Punk tied me in with his whole thing against the WWE. I feel like part of it was he was his unhappiest with the company when he was working with me, and I kind of got tied into all of it.”
Although Ryback did receive support from his colleagues, like future WWE Hall of Famer Chris Jericho, he was severely disappointed that the company did not back him.
“I was always upset that the WWE never went out of its way to say, ‘That’s not true about this guy,’” said Ryback. “Guys like Jericho, who have been in the ring with me, went to bat for me, and I can’t thank them enough for that – but why couldn’t the company do that, especially when I took the hit on that? That always bothered me that they never tried to clear that up.”
Ryback was aware of the irony that his last WWE match took place at Payback, which was in Punk’s hometown of Chicago.
“It’s funny that my last match was at Payback in Chicago where I mocked Punk,” said Ryback. “I was very upset that myself and Kalisto were put on the preshow of ’Mania, which was never supposed to happen, and then again on the preshow of Payback. We were having great matches at live events, but I had no TV time the whole month before that pay per view and no build up for the match.
“So I decided I would mock Punk to get some heat from the Chicago crowd, and it worked brilliantly. I knew, at the end, Kalisto was going over – and the bigger heel I could be in the match, then the bigger the babyface will be at the end of the match once he goes over on me. After the match, they were furious with me that I was doing anything to get heat. It was so unprofessional on so many levels. I asked, ‘What do you want me to do? I’m a heel, let me go out and make the babyface in the best way I can.’ It’s ironic that Chicago was the last place I wrestled before I left the next night. Punk and I are two entirely different human beings, but I think we shared some of the same viewpoints toward the WWE as far as business.”
Ryback, who exited WWE before Raw on May 2 and officially parted ways with the company in August, is extremely busy with his own health line, motivational book, and “Conversation with The Big Guy” podcast. Ryback has also signed on with El Pollo Loco as a brand ambassador to promote their restaurants with his “Feed Me More” catchphrase, and is embracing the newfound freedom to pursue his own goals away from Vince McMahon’s WWE.
“In one of our last talks, Vince told me, ‘You’re the hardest working guy that I have here,’” said Ryback. “I just said, ‘Thank you.’ Vince said, ‘But hard work doesn’t always pay off here.’ I looked at him and said, ‘Well then, I need to go to a world where my hard work will pay off.’
“Vince has created that world, that bubble he lives in with the people he has surrounded himself with, and I need to go out and create my world. My beliefs are entirely different than his. No offense, we just didn’t see eye-to-eye business-wise, and I’m going to tell the people why. I’ve taken a lot of s--- over the years for things I had no control over. I do have control now, and I’m not going to live in fear. I know the way things work there, and if I want to talk about it, then I’m going to.”
Ryback is not afraid to speak out, and he expressed his frustration over the way McMahon booked him over the past five years.
“Vince used to say all the time, ‘I have nobody else like you,’” said Ryback. “So I’d ask him, ‘Then why do you use me like everyone else then?’ It always drove me crazy, and then he’d just laugh. That’s how he dealt with things.”
Ryback had the look and worked extremely hard to deliver in the ring, but, as he explained, there were no plans to ever elevate him to a higher spot in the company. And there was nothing he could do to change that.
“The WWE is not just run by Vince McMahon anymore,” said Ryback. “They are a publicly traded company and have shareholders. The company’s goal is to make as much money as humanly possible. I’ve said, from day one, they’ve done a phenomenal job of building up the WWE brand, but they’re very stubborn and hard headed. If you’re not in that little inner-circle of guys, it does not matter what you go out there and do. That should not be the case.”
Ryback started off red-hot with WWE in 2012, even producing successful buy rates while main-eventing consecutive pay per views with CM Punk.
“Before they booked me to lose seven pay per views in a row, I was number two in merchandise in WWE,” said Ryback. “I was beating John Cena on certain nights. I had half the amount of merchandise that he had, but would beat him in shirts, chains, and photos on some nights and be right there with him the rest. From a business standpoint, if you see a guy who is red hot and the crowd is behind him, you should be going out of your way to make merchandise and book and protect this guy because you have lightning in a bottle. But that was not the case, and instead they had to go out of their way to make me look bad.”
The culmination of that, Ryback noted, took place at WrestleMania 29 in a match against Mark Henry.
“I will never forget that day,” said Ryback. “My numbers kept climbing even though I was losing these big time matches. I was under the assumption that I was going over on Mark Henry at WrestleMania and then turning heel the next night on John Cena. When I found days before that I was not going over, but that they wanted me to fall on my face with my finish and look like an idiot, I said there was no way I was doing that. I asked, ‘Why are we doing this?’ I went to Vince and spoke with him for thirty minutes in ‘Gorilla’ [the staging area right behind the curtain] and he lied to me how this was the reason for my heel turn – that I fell on my face and tripped, I just couldn’t cut it, and that’s why I’d turn heel.
“Ultimately, though, they were just trying to run me into the ground and ruin my brand forever, and that happened time and time again. As you saw with that finish, it made zero sense from a booking standpoint to book me to fall flat on my face, and then the next night to turn me heel. The reaction to my heel turn was louder than ever, and then what did Vince do? He came to me personally and said, ‘We’re taking away all your merchandise. I want your merchandise to tank and no more ‘Feed Me More,’’ which was the thing that put me on the map. So instead of giving me an edge as a heel, you’re stripping me of everything, having Cena go over me, and then you saw how my career fell after that. I lost the momentum, and I never got it back again.”
Every wrestler in the history of the business has lobbied that they would be successful if the company simply booked them properly, but Ryback had the pay-per-view buys and merchandise numbers to back up his claim.
“Everybody wants to be pushed,” said Ryback. “My argument was that when I was used in a good capacity, I was the number two merchandise seller in the company. I could have been the number one merchandise seller had they given me all the merchandise we should have had. When I was used in a good fashion, people believed in it. A lot of it was my work and the way that I look, as well as my believability and me believing in myself, so why would you throw that away? They had a guy who can make them numbers, and the name of the game is making money, so that always frustrated me.”
Despite the grievances, Ryback remains grateful for the opportunity to perform in WWE.
“I’ll say it time and time again: I’m thankful for my time in WWE,” he said. “I love professional wrestling, I’ve loved it since I was a kid. Working hard allowed me the opportunity to showcase my talent on their platform. I have a lot of the things I have in my life because of that, so that’s never been a question. My decision to no longer work there comes down to business. Having the opportunity, hitting a home run time and time again, and not having the other end reciprocate the effort I was putting in was my issue.”
Ryback broke his ankle in a tag team match in 2010, and did not return for nearly a year-and-a-half after undergoing three surgeries. Nerve damage still exists in his ankle, and the incident created a great deal of tension between himself and WWE.
“On a future episode of my podcast, I’ll talk about what happened after I broke my ankle,” said Ryback. “There were a lot of bad things that happened from the WWE’s standpoint with me that essentially—and they can deny this all they want—affected me for the rest of my time there from a creative standpoint.
“People talk about that glass ceiling, but mine was an entirely different situation that I was never going to be able to escape from, so I had to leave there to do what I wanted to build with my brand, Feed Me More, and I had to get out of that environment to thrive and have the kind of success I know I can have.”
Ryback generated interested with his new bully gimmick in August of 2013, but he noted that those plans were quickly scrapped.
“When I started doing the bullying angle as a heel Ryback, that was the first time I started getting momentum again as a heel,” said Ryback. “That was the first time that the crowd really started to boo me since my ‘Feed Me More’ transition. What did they do there? Rather than follow through with it, they pulled me out because Paul Heyman needed a guy. They needed a guy to put with Heyman because his time with Curtis Axel had run its course, and they needed a guy for two or three months to keep him busy with Punk until Brock was ready to come back. So they threw me back in there with Punk for no other reason than to put Punk over again, and that ended the bullying gimmick.
“Then I had to start all over again, and I did with Axel—and I loved my time with Axel. But none of our work was seen on TV. We didn’t even get a televised entrance. Most of the time, they’d only use our backstage work on the dot com. I had to take some time off for a groin injury, and I came back when guys were hurt and they needed a babyface. It was a situation of circumstance, and they brought me back as a babyface in San Antonio. The reception that crowd gave me is something I’ll never forget. Then the Survivor Series came, and they built me up as this red hot free agent where no one knew what team I was going to go on, Team Cena or The Authority. I go with Cena’s team, and what do they do with me? Eliminate me first from my team in the match, which made me look like a piece of s---. No one believed I was a big time free agent any more. They never went out of their way to protect me, and when that happens year after year, I knew I needed to get out of there before any damage was done. They went out of their way to run me into the ground. I couldn’t stay there anymore.
“Ultimately, I take the entire blame. I allowed the damage to happen to live my dream, but when that dream started becoming a nightmare, I knew I had to get away. Things happened and now I’m thankful for them because I will now have control in making negatives into positives.”
As for highlights during his run with WWE, Ryback admitted that winning the Intercontinental title at Elimination Chamber in 2015 remains atop his list, though not because there was a belt around his waist.
“The match itself was nothing to write home about,” said Ryback. “If you remember, Mark Henry’s pod broke open, which threw off the entire match. A lot of things had to be changed on the fly, and it’s one thing when there are two guys in the ring and you can communicate and adjust, but there were six guys in the Elimination Chamber. It was all-out chaos trying to communicate with that many people when things were horribly wrong with the pod breaking open.
“I got the 1-2-3 over Sheamus, and I’ll never forget the crowd’s reaction. I said to myself, ‘Holy s---, that match was horrible, but no one cared,’ which was very special for me. It was a really cool moment, especially with Daniel Bryan there, who is one of my good friends. That, I’ll never forget. There were a lot of guys waiting for me at ‘Gorilla’ clapping, and that meant more to me than anything else. Those are the guys who see your effort day in and day out, and that moment with those guys was the best thing that ever happened to me. I was very touched by the moment.”
The Intercontinental title run, Ryback explained, was merely a negotiating tactic by Vince McMahon.
“They gave me the title just so I would re-sign a contract,” said Ryback. “That is not uncommon and they do things like that all the time. Outside of live events where I was able to get a microphone and say whatever I wanted, which always worked well, I didn’t enjoy my title run because I hated reading the WWE promos.
“The promos were atrocious during my whole last run. I delivered them exactly as I was supposed to deliver them, but the writing was so out of touch. I remember Jericho went up to me and asked, ‘Who’s writing this?’ And I said, ‘Vince. I’ve tried to get it changed but he wants me reading it word for word.’ Vince wanted me to read his promos word for word, and I never enjoyed that and I never will.”
The writers, and many other WWE employees, work in fear of Vince McMahon, Ryback explained.
“The problem with these writers who work for Vince is that they’re scared,” said Ryback. “Everyone is scared. I used to tell Vince that all the time. I’ve told him, ‘You have all these people who are scared around you. They can’t truly do their job. They’re always going to play it safe and nobody is going to take chances.’ That’s why you see these promos with guys, week in and week out, playing it safe, staying within the guidelines, keeping the sponsors happy, and keeping it PG. They don’t want to take a chance with anybody saying anything that could create controversy, and that’s why you see the product the way it is today.”
Ryback’s finest moment in WWE occurred during his Payback match with Kalisto, when the luchador was headed for imminent injury after misjudging a jump outside the ring, but Ryback made sure he was there to protect his opponent.
“I was just doing my job,” explained Ryback. “He would have done the same for me, as would anyone else in the WWE. People criticized my conditioning. I am insane about my conditioning, and I take pride in being a machine out there and going no matter what. If you’re blown up in the ring, you’re not thinking clearly, so I’m grateful that I’m able to think clearly and make sure whoever I’m in the ring with is OK.”
One match that escaped Ryback’s grasp was a one-on-one encounter with Goldberg.
“I wanted that match with Goldberg from the beginning,” said Ryback. “Me and Goldberg would have a phenomenal match, and it would surpass any expectations. I take a lot of pride in having a great mind for this business. I would love to wrestle Goldberg and it would be huge money. I remember, early on, somebody high up said, ‘You don’t want to wrestle him. Trust me, I have. You don’t’ want to.’ I said, ‘No, I want to,’ and I was told, ‘Trust me, you don’t want to.’ And that was as far as the conversation went.”
Ryback worked with Kevin Owens during his Intercontinental title reign, and he has plenty of respect for the newly minted Universal champion.
“I like Kevin a lot,” said Ryback. “I’m still frustrated that we weren’t given more time together in our program to wrestle, but I’m extremely happy for Kevin. I got to be around Kevin and his son Owen quite a bit, and he is a really good kid, which says a lot about how he was raised. Kevin has been wrestling on the independents for years and has a really strong following, and I’ll never hate on another talent for having success. He’s proven himself. He goes out and does his job very, very well. Hopefully there can be some more champions there that normally wouldn’t have been champions.”
Away from the demands of constant travel, “The Big Guy” is happy to report that his brand is revitalized.
“I have all these things that I want to do, and it’s all about building my ‘Feed Me More’ brand,” said Ryback. “That’s nothing against the WWE, but you have very little time to do anything else with their work schedule unless they get the work for you.
“I have all these dreams and ambitions, and I asked [WWE Senior Director of Talent Relations] Mark Carrano, ‘Could we let my contract run out so I can start working on some of these other things?’ Then we could have kept the door open for me to come back, but this is how unprofessional they are, he threatened me and said they were going to bury me and then take me off TV and see my value drop. That was his professional reply to me after asking a serious question about my life and taking some time off so I could get this stuff started. I was met with that reply, which does not help my case with how I feel about them.”
The 34-year-old Ryback launched the “Feed Me More” website, which is the core of the brand.
“I’m launching a workout apparel line, which is still in the works,” said Ryback. “I started merchandising myself, essentially everything WWE does for the talents but were limiting me on. I’m now doing all of that myself. I don’t have that television exposure, but I have my podcast and I’m going to be working a full-time schedule in October on all the independents every weekend.
Ryback also wrote a motivational book entitled Wake Up! It’s Feeding Time, and he is excited to share his passion with “Feed Me More Nutrition”.
“Self-help books have helped me so much in my life, and I feel like I can relate to a lot of wrestling fans,” said Ryback. “This is a culmination of a lot of things I’ve learned throughout my lifetime. The podcast has also given me a platform with my best friend, Pat Buck, and we talk about wrestling and life. We’ll talk nutrition and we’ll talk about steroids, things that WWE don’t necessarily want you to talk about. But I’m very open about it, and people want to know the real side of you. The only way they’re going to know is by telling the truth. The absolute biggest thing I have moving forward is ‘Feed Me More Nutrition’, which launches in November. I’ve got great partners with that, and we’re moving forward.”
Ryback revealed he has suffered from testosterone issues dating back to when he first used steroids, which is why his passion outside of wrestling is creating quality nutritional products like his all natural testosterone booster.
“This is something you never really hear people talk about in wrestling, but I had low testosterone for ten years, starting five years before the WWE,” revealed Ryback. “That all stemmed from experimenting with steroids at a very young age. People react differently, and it shut my body down and never came back. The WWE has the Wellness Program, and I will applaud them time and time again for bringing that in and saving a lot of lives with that program. Through that program, you’re allowed to have, through a board certified endocrinologist, testosterone-replacement therapy. You need to have all the blood work with multiple samples showing that your body is not producing adequate levels of testosterone. Through that, I was able to have a normal, regular testosterone replacement therapy dosage during my time there to keep me within the normal range. It was monitored by WWE and my doctor, as well as the Wellness Program tests and blood tests and urine tests.
“Coming off the road with that, knowing I was coming out with these nutritional products, I needed to see how this testosterone booster worked. And, for the first time in years, I have normal testosterone levels without any supplementation, which I’ve never been more excited about. For men who suffer from low testosterone to have an alternative outside of an injection or a putting a cream on your body, and have your body naturally produce its own testosterone, that’s where my heart and soul is.”
Although it is possible that Ryback will soon be seen wrestling with New Japan Pro Wrestling, Ring of Honor, or TNA, he admitted that it is unlikely to occur any time soon.
“I’m at a point where I’ve done very well for myself financially and I’m very thankful that I don’t have to sign a contract with just anyone,” said Ryback. “Right now, I just have so much going on. I’m booked from October to January, including a nine-day UK tour. I’m going to get my fix of wrestling and do what I love to do. Until I have a full team in place to help me with my supplement company and Feed Me More, I need to be home more days than I’m gone.”
Rumors have persisted that Ryback was headed to New Japan, and he is willing to do so – permitting the dates allow him to return home to get back to work.
“As far as going to New Japan for an extended period of time, it’s kind of out of the question right now,” said Ryback. “I’m more than open to going over there and working a match, and I have no problem going anywhere to wrestle and show people that I am the best big guy in the universe. There is nobody in the world like me, and I would more than welcome going anywhere and meeting the fans. I’m looking forward to getting out there and being a part of it.”
The return to the ring is so meaningful for Ryback, as he remains grateful for the opportunity to interact with the men, women, and children who support pro wrestling.
“I love our fans,” said Ryback. “I always joke around when I say, ‘F------ marks.’ There is a very small percent of negative wrestling fans, and we all get it as wrestlers. Those are the ‘f------ marks’ I’m referring to that on my snapchat and podcast, and that’s me firing back at the ones who are extremely rude. All the others are great fans. I got the P.O. Box for fan mail, and I’m mad I didn’t do it sooner. I’m thoroughly thankful for the fans that support wrestling. They’re the ones that make us.”
Justin Barrasso can be reached at JBarrasso@gmail.com. Follow him on Twitter @JustinBarrasso.