There is perhaps nothing more American than professional wrestling.
More so than baseball or even apple pie, professional wrestling encapsulates the often subtle but equally pervasive elements of pageantry, tongue-in-cheek melodrama and competitive athleticism that define so much of American culture. No one better combines those elements into raucous entertainment than America’s premier and longest-running professional wrestling organization, the WWE.
Founded in 1953 by the McMahon family, the organization as it is known today started with a father-to-son buy-out in the early 1980s by the recently retired Vince McMahon Jr. In the years since, the WWE has grown into the largest wrestling organization in the world, broadcast to over one billion homes in 30 different languages. Combined with extensive merchandising, a film company and wrestlers like The Rock and John Cena, who’ve become A-list celebrities, WWE remains the powerhouse wrestling entertainment company.
One wrestler who has been with the company for nearly two decades, through its various iterations and fluctuations, is Dolph Ziggler. A Cleveland, Ohio, native and wrestling fanatic since an early age, Ziggler wrestled through high school and as a collegiate wrestler at Kent State University before entering the WWE’s fabled ‘squared circle’ in the early aughts, where he’s risen in the ranks ever since.
“I’ve watched [WWE] go from almost a little hokey to very serious and intense into more of sports with an entertainment factor, and now, most of these [wrestlers] have to be renaissance men and women—you got to be able to walk the walk, talk the talk, ring the bell of the stock exchange and talk Wall Street, talk lawyers, talk to little kids holding balloons because it’s their birthday,” Zigglers says, “and then you got to steal the show and talk on the mic.”
WWE operates and derives much of its ongoing momentum from its own internal mythos, ceaseless arcs of character development and stories of tragedy or triumph that evolve from one match to the next.
“We fly by the seat of our pants. Even though there are some longtime storyline things that are happening, for myself for the most part, week to week, I never know what’s going to happen,” Ziggler says.
Wrestlers variably serve in different protagonist and antagonist roles. Over the years, Ziggler’s character has gone through multiple makeovers, sometimes beloved by fans, other times serving as the villain or “heel.”
“I’ve been around long enough that I can just be me. Sometimes it’s a gray area, someone who is a jerk but maybe I’m our jerk, so the audience knows me and they know I can steal the show at any given time,” Ziggler explains. “For the moment, I’m being cheered, but for 15 or 16 years I was booed out of the building.”
As Ziggler notes, the wrestlers keep to a pretty consistent—if not grueling—schedule. Each weekend, WWE puts on a multitude of shows starting with Smackdown! on Fridays, live events on Saturdays and Sundays, and Monday Night Raw on Mondays.
“We have no off season. We go all year round. We have television 52 weeks a year and 300 live events around the world every single year, one way, shape or form,” Ziggler says. “We don’t stop and we don’t quit.”
If a wrestler is injured or hurt, they do get some time off. But for the most part, it is non-stop. Ziggler is currently suffering from cauliflower ear after a punch to the head at a recent match, but it won’t stop him from competing in Monday Night Raw at the HP Pavilion with the likes of Riddle, Seth “Freakin” Rollins, Bianca Belair, and more.
“We are constantly in what are basically car crashes in the ring four nights a week,” Ziggler says.
Across his illustrious career, Ziggler has seen the organization transform as much as himself.
“You see cycles of fans come and go, you see different ways of doing things come and go, but the basic analysis of a good wrestling show, the 101 of wrestling, that always stays no matter what,” he says. “You know what type of things get fans out of their seats, you know what things matter for the show.”
Monday, 4:30pm, $20+
HP Pavilion, San Jose