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Photo courtsey of WWE.
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Photo courtsey of WWE.
For nearly 100 years, the WWE and its predecessor organizations have successfully blended the incomprehensible drama of a Univision telenovela with the over-the-top showmanship of Buffalo Bill Cody's Wild West Show.
Toss in a healthy dose of the flawless athleticism of an extremely raucous men's gymnastics team — albeit one whose members have a predilection for beating one another with cinder blocks and metal folding chairs — and that's wholesome, family-friendly entertainment, WWE style.
The Wackiest Show on Earth returns to the Richmond Coliseum on May 21, and helping drive this powerhouse stable of pile-driving, super-suplexing stars is Dolph Ziggler, the man who held the WWE's 2009 Intercontinental Championship title and more recently took the 2011 WWE United States Championship and World Heavyweight Championship (holding the latter title for a bit less than 10 minutes).
Richmond magazine gave Ziggler a call recently to talk about life in the "squared circle," his past as a mathlete and whether or not the late comedian Andy Kaufman belongs in the WWE's hall of fame.
RM: So the WWE descends on Richmond soon. It used to be that when wrestling came to town, the "Superstars" would take a minute to experience the local scene — particularly the nightlife and pubs. Any plans while you're in Richmond?
DZ: It's actually a really awesome wrestling town. That used to be the way it was, but these days, we get in and read a book and do some nerdy working out in the morning. I'm not a big partier. There used to be a Gold's Gym there I like.
RM: Your online bio says you caught the wrestling bug when you were 5, yet you are also clearly very academic — Kent State grad, preparing to go to law school when you signed your first pro contract. How does pro wrestling satisfy your cerebral side?
DZ: I've always enjoyed reading and trying to be more educated. I tell fans and kids to read and do your homework — to have more options. I've always wanted to be the best possible person I could be. I always thought if I was a great athlete and a great academic, one day I would be a superstar.
RM: So what books are on your nightstand?
DZ: I'm in the middle of The Hunger Games. We had a rare few days at home, and I always leave a few books around my home. I have a couple different books out. I read a few different books from Dan Brown. I've got [actor/comedian] David Cross's book [ I Drink for a Reason ], I'm about a third of the way through.
RM: You were a political-science major in college. What American politicians might fare well in the WWE's over-the-top political pressure cooker?
DZ: I've always been a huge [Sen. John] McCain fan. It would be the nostalgia of all those war heroes that go out there and defend us. He's always campaigning to get money out of politics as much as you can. I've always admired people who go against the gain as long as it's something you believe in. Keep the money and the big businesses away from influencing laws.
RM: What about the current crop of presidential hopefuls?
DZ: I don't know, they seem sort of nerdy. Mitt Romney, he seems almost like a robot. Santorum's no better, he's slightly less robotic. Newt Gingrich is hilarious because he shoots from the hip, but he's almost like a villain — I can sort of communicate with that. Ron Paul is great, he has different ideas, and he's out there. Ron Paul is not a villain, He's a favorite, but just not of enough people. I appreciate that. I like to think I'm out there doing my own thing. One day, hopefully, we'll be able to get away from the two-party system. I'm a big fan of just knowing what the hell's going on in the world.
RM: It's turned out to be a pretty good gamble for you, but wrestling isn't necessarily a sure-thing career; it's like betting the farm on becoming an astronaut. Do you have any interest in going back for your law degree?
DZ: I've always thought about that. I tried to do some courses online, but we have such a busy schedule. I'd be happy to have it. We're constantly on the road, five or six days a week. ... I usually have one day off a week. I love entertaining more than anything, [but] I still go back and check out a couple of law books. I've always thought — this is not a sure thing, and every day there's a target on your back, and I appreciate that. One day, maybe in the future, I would love to get back somehow to … doing something with the law or political science. That's my second love.
RM: You also list "mathlete" among your credentials. Is this that bravado and résumé padding that wrestlers are famous for?
DZ: Heck yeah! No, but really, I didn't make that up. We don't have an official mathletics club here at the WWE. But in my high school … I was on our team and I was officially a mathlete. A long story short, we had a lot of kind of nerdy guys running stuff at our school. I ran for student council ... just to be in there, just to have non-nerdy kids represented. I don't mean nerd in the bad sense and being good at school.
RM: I was recently reading a remembrance of Andy Kaufman's famous turn between the turnbuckles. It noted that he's blackballed from the WWE Hall of Fame, in part for his insulting of fans, in part for wrestling women and presumably in part for just being a terrible pest. But most of those attributes, in today's WWE landscape — including wrestling against women — are written intentionally into ongoing storylines. Is it time to rethink Andy?
DZ: I am a huge fan of his. I've read several of his books and seen a lot of his specials. He did things his own way when it didn't make sense. In the WWE these days, Superstars and Divas, they wrestle each other separately. We keep women wrestling separately. They have interactions as they should, but in these days it's very family-friendly.
Still, what Kaufman did, he furthered the sport. He was a legitimate pest who really made you angry and made people think. That would be cool if one day he made it into the hall of fame. But we want the whole world to see our message and be entertained. We have to be very family-friendly — it's fun for the whole family. The whole [hall of fame] thing shouldn't be about what it should be like these days. It should be about what you contributed. What he was doing was he was flipping everybody's lids ... he was doing what he did to get more eyes on it. He did his part.
RM: Can you explain the blurred line between Kaufman, who apparently was too over the top, and some other celebrity guest wrestlers whose antics are equally ribald, like Snooki or Hugh Jackman, who once helped you lose a match thanks to a punch the referee missed?
DZ: That is along the lines of, it is about spreading our message and getting out there more and more. And if we can bring in people from different genres and different medias [to] come and watch our show, and if it brings one or two people who wouldn't normally come in and see our show ... then we've done our part. That's our whole goal, is to keep expanding and get our message out there that, "Hey, this is a fun show."
RM: Did Mickey Rourke's dramatic turn in The Wrestler stir any emotions for you?
DZ: Yeah, I know a lot of people out there in the independent [wrestling] circuit. Even though that movie isn't representative of WWE or our company, I know a lot of people who are out there in front of 15 people and risking their health and performing because they love it.
RM: Did The Rock's dramatic turn in Tooth Fairy stir any similar emotions?
DZ: I never saw the Tooth Fairy, I'm sorry.
RM: So you have some skills with sign language — your bio says you're fluent. Could you say a few words?
DZ: [ Long silence ] Oh! Ha, that's great!