Dolph Ziggler is finally one of WWE’s top champions.
It is not the WWE or universal championship. Ziggler is the reigning NXT champion (and no, it isn’t the famed, Triple H–led black-and-gold era of NXT), the new face of the eclectic, splash-colored-logo, 2.0 era of the brand.
And you can include Ziggler among those who did not see that coming.
“I am comically surprised to be the NXT champion right now,” Ziggler says. “I went to NXT to do some scouting, to see who had that twinkle in their eye or if anyone would be ready in a year or two, and check out Bron Breakker. A few weeks later, I was NXT champion. I didn’t expect this.”
Ziggler is 41-year-old Nick Nemeth. Long known as one of WWE’s young rising stars, he is only two years away from reaching two decades with the company. And while the charismatic, funny Ziggler has performed in clubs throughout the nation as a comedian during his rare time away from the ring, he is very serious about his craft in between the ropes.
“Realistically, 16 or 17 of my past years with the company haven’t worked out,” says Ziggler, who could—or perhaps should—have enjoyed a lengthy run as world champion at some point during the past decade. “Let’s not even discuss my win-loss record. But I know who I am. I’m barely six feet tall and barely 200 pounds, but I am constantly growing as a performer.
“Sometimes I’m not on TV for weeks. Sometimes I’m in quick matches. But I’m always ready to go 30 minutes in the main event for the world title. And now that I’m the champion, I’m not in a position where I need to do a little more cardio and get in even better shape. This was already my life. I was ready and I still am ready. I’m not here trying to turn it up. I’m shredded as hell and already ready turning it up.”
Ziggler will headline NXT’s Stand & Deliver on Saturday, a rare matinee show, defending his title against Breakker, who is 24-year-old wrestling wunderkind Bronson Rechsteiner. Ziggler shares that he has already heard, multiple times over, from friends and fans that his role must be to drop the belt back to Breakker at Stand & Deliver. Babyfaces like Breakker typically shine in situations where they have to chase the title, making Ziggler’s role as antagonist pivotal to this story, but he claims that his title reign will extend far beyond Saturday.
“Everyone is telling me I’m only here to help make Bron Breakker better, that I’m here to be a great opponent for him when he wins the title back,” Ziggler says. “Are you sure about that? I don’t plan on being champion for three weeks.
“Breakker has a hell of a lot of potential. Sure. But so does everyone else here. He’s an explosive athlete. We have a lot of those here, too. I’m a real veteran. I’m now associated with 2.0 NXT. I’m 2.0 DZ. You know who I am, and I’m here to bring extra eyes to NXT.”
Ziggler is also willing to defend the title again at WrestleMania 38. With Seth Rollins still in need of an opponent (in story line), Ziggler sees nothing but magic if they were to share the ring on Sunday, even if that is not the current plan.
“I would prefer to do nothing more than to do double duty on WrestleMania weekend with one of the greatest NXT champions of all time—me—vs. Seth,” Ziggler says. “We had so many battles together that we used to go to Vince and say, ‘We can’t do this match again,’ yet we always turned it around—and that reminds me of a couple years ago where Kofi and I had a best-of-500 series together, by accident, where I believe Kofi won 497 of them.
“Seth is special, and I’d like to think I had something to do with him reaching a different path when we got to go head to head nonstop for two years. If anyone is pulling double duty for WrestleMania, you better believe it’s me.”
Ziggler is partnered with Robert Roode. The two tag together as the Dirty Dawgs, even having a run as Raw tag champs in 2019 and SmackDown champs in ’21, but lately Roode’s role has shifted to primarily served as Ziggler’s de facto bodyguard.
A former Impact star and former NXT champion, Roode is extremely talented in the ring. In an alternate universe, where Impact Wrestling rules the domain and WWE is among a handful of other players operating in the space, their roles could very well have been reversed.
“If this were Impact, I would definitely be cornering him, and I would be happy to do it,” Ziggler says. “He has my back, and I have his. When he was in Impact, Roode was doing much better than me. I complain all the time I don’t have a great win-loss record, but he is taking so many losses for me. He doesn’t get nearly talked about enough, and WWE has so much talent that it’s easy to slip between the cracks. But he’s better than me. He’s more ripped than me. He’s extremely smart, too. At some point, I hope he throws me through the barbershop window and we get to beat the hell out of each other.”
With Roode by his side, Ziggler is ready for a bona fide main event Saturday. Breakker will need to be at his best to last with Ziggler, who has long hungered for an opportunity for significant time to showcase himself in a world title match.
“You could tell me at 8:01 p.m. on Raw that I’m going out there against an opponent I’d never seen in my life, and I could still make it happen,” Ziggler says. “There about five others who can do that. No one else can. As much as people might say they have potential or that they’re good, they can’t. That’s why I’m still here.
“And this Saturday at Stand & Deliver, I don’t plan on losing and being a three-week transitional champion. I want help build this brand long term. This isn’t going to be some 45-second match on Raw, and I can’t stress that enough. I’m going to bust my ass. Everyone is going to see that chip on my shoulder. When people leave, they’re going to say, ‘Holy s---. I hope WrestleMania is as good as that.’ So see you at Stand & Deliver on Saturday.”
Justin Barrasso can be reached at JBarrasso@gmail.com. Follow him on Twitter @JustinBarrasso.