Dolph Ziggler has returned to Monday Night Raw for a program with WWE Champion Drew McIntyre. Ziggler and McIntyre share history together, as they were either partnered up or wrestled against one another throughout the majority of 2018.
An accomplished stand-up comedian, Ziggler is Nick Nemeth, one of wrestling’s most complete performers. A 15-year WWE veteran, he has accomplished nearly every milestone attainable in the company, and the 39-year-old continues to bring an engaging element wherever he appears on WWE programming.
A former two-time World Heavyweight Champion, Ziggler enters his title match at July’s Extreme Rules pay-per-view seeking his first-ever run with the WWE title. He spoke with Sports Illustrated to discuss returning to Raw and working with McIntyre, as well as the significance of his first singles match at WrestleMania, which took place this past April against Otis, and the potential of a rematch with Edge.
Justin Barrasso: There is so much interest in WWE behind the curtain, which you were just a part of with your move back to Raw for a feud with former partner and opponent Drew McIntyre. Is this a change you wanted? Or something you were informed?
Dolph Ziggler: I didn’t pitch this, but I feel like [the program between] myself and Otis had kind of run its course. I really liked working with Otis, Mandy and Sonya. If this were the old days and we were going five days a week and doing live events, we would have had even more chemistry and a really special thing. In this day and age, where it’s just a TV show in a closed studio, as young superstars, they came along very quickly. But I don’t know where else we could go with that, so I completely understand the move to Raw.
One thing I have going for me is I’ve never been tired in a wrestling match—high school, college, or WWE. And I think a huge moment for me will be if Drew and I get into the 30-, 40-minute mark and I am an unstoppable machine of cardio and collegiate wrestling, then I really think I can make something special happen out there. I was with Drew for about a year, and we very much think alike. If you’re here just to hang around, we’re going to kick you in the ass and we’re going to stomp over you. You need to catch up with us or go toe-to-toe in the ring with us to make something special happen in the ring.
Story wise, 15 years ago, I came in as a caddy for two months. I assumed I was fired once that was over. Then I became a Spirit Squad guy, until five of us got beat up and thrown into a box, so I assumed I was fired again. As much as I like to pretend that I don’t give it a damn, I’m putting everything I have into this any time I’m out there. But I also like to screw with everybody and say, "I don’t give a damn, just pay me."
Barrasso: Your WrestleMania match with Otis was fun, and it’s very easy to imagine a crowd exploding at a couple different points. Somehow, after so much tenure in the company, it’s amazing that was your first-ever singles match at a WrestleMania.
Ziggler: I mean this in the best possible way—I’m not a mark for the WrestleMania match. I am a mark for the time put into the story that allows you to get paid, WrestleMania-style.
More importantly, I didn’t care what the match was as long as there was a real story to it. Not something like, "You’ve been here 15 years, let’s put you in a match." Sometimes things are cold, sometimes you’re in a battle royal, but we had a really cool story. Even if that’s not WrestleMania, make it a SmackDown with a live crowd where Otis gets his comeuppance, I get punched in the balls by Mandy, they embrace, that would have blown the roof off.
That was a really special thing and it and was paid off perfectly. The only thing missing were 85,000 people erupting when it happened. I really wish that could have happened, but if we keep up the hard work and keep busting our butts, we can reenact some other story or some different level of it next year.
Barrasso: Part of it is just the carefree persona you portray, but you take immense pride in your work. In a program with three emerging stars in Otis, Sonya Deville and Mandy Rose, was it strange to think that you were the only one of that group with so much WWE experience? Do you enjoy the opportunity to teach? Or are you a little more accustomed to that since you’ve been with WWE for 15 years?
Ziggler: It’s a little bit of both. I’ve been out there with young people, or I’m the middle guy on someone’s way to fight Cena and the entire machine is behind them, and I’ve also been in there with someone who is having their first match. Mandy, Sonya and Otis were not only excited to get better, they were excited for the chemistry, the moment and the work that goes into it. I feel like having me in there really helped out and I was able to say, "What about this? A similar psychology went into this 14 years ago when I was wrestling DX." As much as I like to talk trash and pretend I don’t give a damn, when I’m putting something together, I put everything into it. Whether it’s 30 seconds or 30 minutes, I have my hands on all the moving pieces. As awesome as all three of them are going to be, and as great as they were to work with, a huge part of it was having me there, giving a huge psychological edge that you can’t have without 15 years here.
I hate that I’m the guy responsible for that. I want to be the champion, the guy everyone is gunning for, but my mentality is to make my match better than the champ’s match. So it’s a blessing and a curse, and all of my bosses have told me that since day one. But as long as you stay in the game, you never know. Sometimes you’re in a title match, sometimes things go your way, sometimes a move gets made and this is your one chance after 15 years to sell in three weeks that you should be champion.
Barrasso: I know you’re working a program with Drew McIntyre, who is a former partner of yours, but moving back to Raw also brings the wrestling world one step closer to a rematch with Edge. You two wrestled some tremendous matches—the 2011 Royal Rumble in particular—right before he was forced to retire. Are you surprised he is back? Would you like to eventually continue your story with him? And what did you think of his match at Backlash against Randy Orton?
Ziggler: I’ll address them in reverse order. I don’t watch wrestling, so I didn’t see their match. But it was friggin’ amazing to be there backstage. I don’t have any ass to kiss here, I have no horse in the game, but these two are two of my favorites. One, because I know a lot of people hate Randy because he’s so damn good. It’s amazing. I’ll be watching Raw, and say, "Damnit, he does this better than anyone." It makes me so mad. There are only a handful of true naturals, and he is one, and I hate that. So when Randy messes up, I call him out on it. A lot of people are afraid to do that, and that’s fine, but he won’t hear the end of it from me. But good god, no one is as good as he is, and that really pisses me off.
And Edge, that Royal Rumble match [from 2011] we had was so cool. I was a guy that lost 99% of the time. I didn’t talk—Vickie [Guerrero] talked for me. When we got to the match, I was so fortunate to have traveled with and be friends with Adam and Jay [Edge and Christian], Tommy Dreamer and [Chris] Jericho. They’re so good, they’re so smart, and me being around them, I became almost as smart. We had this match, a guy that loses every week in a world title match against Edge, and there was no cool backstory. I didn’t cut a 10-minute promo with my life story, nothing like that. But we built this up for a couple weeks and maybe, maybe, I had a 1% chance of winning, which I’ve made a career out of over the past 15 years. I learned so much from Adam on the road during the live events we did together. I mentioned earlier that I wish I could have done a bunch of live events with Mandy, Sonya and Otis because I could have helped them even more. Getting that time with Adam meant so much to me.
I almost forget how having fans sounds, but we opened the show that night at the Rumble with a world title match and the crowd was hot. Everyone knew I was losing that match for the first 10 minutes, but the rest of the match was back-and-forth. People weren’t sure what was going to happen, and no one sat down during those last 10 minutes. As much as I try to take credit for everything I do, that was just me trying to hang with Adam. Back then I thought I was great, but I go back and watch that now and there are a million little things that piss me off. But the reaction from that crowd, going from thinking I couldn’t win that match to not knowing if I was going to become world champion, that’s a credit to how good Adam is.
I can’t speak highly enough about Adam, and that is one of my absolute favorite matches, which also has to do with our history outside of the ring. If there is a chance where him and I get to go toe-to-toe in the ring again, I would love it. Adam might be in the best shape of his life, which again, like Randy, is starting to piss me off. They’re out there doing 45-minute matches, crushing it, and looking like a million bucks. I need to step up my game.
Barrasso: Stepping away briefly from WWE, your brother, Ryan Nemeth, has created a film about pro wrestling called HEEL that is in post-production. I’m sure you are very proud that he is taking on such a serious subject, one that has been addressed recently in the #SpeakingOut movement. You and your brother are also raising money for the Center for Black Equity with your #HeelPride T-shirt. What makes the CBE so meaningful for you?
Ziggler: It’s really cool. I don’t want to make money from it, I’m excited to support the cause. It’s Pride Month, which is awesome, and working with Sonya and wearing a little Pride Flag on my wrist, I’ve seen Sonya be so outspoken and so cool about giving back. Because of the climate that was happening over the past few weeks, I also wanted to give to a Black equity organization.
I wanted to get the word out a little bit and show that I’m behind everybody; 100% of whatever we make goes to charity, and I’m going to double it. And then because we got the word out, anonymous donors said they would double it. And then a third person said they’d double it. This is going to be several thousand dollars, so I’m blown away.
My brother really helped get the word out. I’m very proud of him for making the movie HEEL. It’s behind-the-scenes stuff, it’s gritty. It shows that this is not exactly a glamorous life and it reflects some things that are taking place in society right now. He is so good at stuff like this—every couple weeks, I get an extra 30 seconds of what’s been edited down and almost finished, and I can’t believe how cool and real and excellent it is. I’m very proud of him, we’re very proud to be giving to the Center for Black Equity. We have all these followers online, and instead of showing a bench press picture, it really is so cool to give back.
Barrasso: Go figure that you and your brother, so-called pro wrestling heels, are two of wresting’s best real-life babyfaces.
Ziggler: I’ll allow it this one time, but if you say it again, I’ll block you right now on social media [laughs].
Barrasso: Before we discuss tonight’s Raw, a major world topic is COVID-19. Have you been isolating away from work? And did you test negative on your COVID test, meaning we will see you tonight on Raw?
Ziggler: You will absolutely see me on Raw. We’ve been really cautious with everything, really washing down the ring and keeping everyone isolated. When we go to work, we’re tested. If we get a negative test, then we go to work. Even several months ago, when we weren’t exactly sure what we were being told to do by the CDC on a day-to-day basis, I just wanted to play it safe so I’ve been wearing a mask wherever I can. That’s in the gym, walking into a CVS, even during my walks outside—it’s making me work on my breath a little better.
Barrasso: Drew McIntyre has put together an exciting run so far as WWE Champion. He has yet to main event a pay per view as champion, which I know he is eager to do, but his past two pay-per-view matches were compelling, first against Seth Rollins in May at Money in the Bank and then with Bobby Lashley earlier this month at Backlash. In the empty-arena era, how will you make your match with McIntyre stand out at Extreme Rules?
Ziggler: I’ve really been thinking about that—how can I go above and beyond? We have a handful of NXT students and wrestling students spaced out at our shows, but you can’t possibly get the same reaction as you would in front of a full crowd. To me, it’s very similar to when we’re backstage watching the show. The superstars sitting around waiting to wrestle, if you can get them to jump out of their seat for a split second and get them to believe, that’s my goal.
Drew deserves that main event spot. I got to be around him for a year, watching him bust his ass, and he did it the right way. I hope we’re in the main event, and I hope that we can put on a clinic similar to what Randy and Edge did, but also gut it out and make something special happen. I’ve made a career out of making people ask, ‘Maybe this is the time he does it? Is this going to be the one where he sneaks one in and changes the business?’ In this era without any fans, I have a few weeks to figure out how I can make this stand out.