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Dolph Ziggler Is the Cleveland Sports Hero We Should Have Been Pulling for All Along

It’s time for WWE’s forever underdog to win one for The Land

WWE/Ringer illustration
WWE/Ringer illustration

On April 8, 2013, Dolph Ziggler cashed in his Money in the Bank contract and pinned an injured Alberto Del Rio to win the world heavyweight championship. Prior to the cash-in, Ziggler had developed a reputation for coming reeealllly close to glory over and over again, with seemingly every big match in his career ending the same way: with him lying in the ring, stunned at how he let another huge opportunity slip through his fingers. As a Ziggler fan, watching him go through this torturous cycle had become emotionally exhausting. All I could do was hold out hope that the big payoff was coming — that his agonizing losses would lead to a moment of triumph made all the more rewarding by enduring his years of heartbreak.

Then, on the day after WrestleMania 29, it happened: At long last, Ziggler was on top of the world. I say with complete sincerity that his victory over Del Rio was my favorite moment in WWE history.

It’s almost like that moment opened the floodgates for Ziggler, who hasn’t been the same since. He shed his underdog label, enjoyed a lengthy run as world heavyweight champion, lost and then won back the title a few times, and has been one of the brightest stars in WWE over the past three years.

No, wait — I got that wrong. What I meant to say is that not long after pinning Del Rio, Ziggler sustained a concussion, lost the title as soon as he returned, and immediately descended back into WWE purgatory, where he’s considered good enough to contend for titles, but never good enough to win. Sure, he technically had a decent title reign that lasted 69 days, which is … nice. But still: We live in a world where Dolph Ziggler has experienced life as a world champion for only eight more days than The Great Khali.

What’s so infuriating about this is that Ziggler has always had the goods. He’s a phenomenal worker in the ring; he can cut a solid promo; he’s got plenty of charisma; and he’s the best seller WWE has seen since Shawn Michaels. And that’s to say nothing of his backstory, which should be a wet dream for WWE. Ziggler won two team national titles and set his school’s career pins record at St. Edward High just outside Cleveland. Then he walked on at Kent State, won three individual MAC titles, and graduated as the winningest wrestler in university history. But because he wrestled at 165 pounds and never won an individual national championship, like Brock Lesnar, or an Olympic gold medal, like Kurt Angle, he still has that underdog aura surrounding him.

Ziggler is not a force of nature who overwhelms his opponents. He doesn’t rely on God-given ability that has paved his life’s path in gold. He’s just a guy who busts his ass and makes the absolute most out of his talent. And when he inevitably comes up short, he picks himself up and tries again with the same naïve optimism he had the first time.

In other words, Dolph Ziggler is the Cleveland sports story we should have been pulling for all along.

The million-dollar question regarding Ziggler is this: Is WWE refusing to give him a push because he isn’t hot with fans anymore, or is he not hot with fans because WWE refuses to give him a push?

Look, I get it: Ziggler is on the wrong side of 35, and the new wave of talent coming from NXT paired with the household names like John Cena and Randy Orton leaves him somewhere in that afterthought middle ground. And I won’t deny that he is stale right now. Whatever enthusiasm I used to get out of Ziggler talking about “stealing the show” or his theme music proclaiming how he’s “here to show the world” is now channeled toward rolling my eyes at the endless loop that replays in my mind of Ziggler eating pins from mid-card guys.

But if you’re asking me that million-dollar question, I’m firmly in the latter camp. Dolph Ziggler’s problem isn’t Dolph Ziggler — it’s how WWE is booking him. Just think back to his biggest moments, like when he pinned Orton to win Survivor Series in 2012, took the Big Gold Belt away from Del Rio in 2013, and had his insane comeback win over the Authority at Survivor Series in 2014. All of these reveal a common theme: When WWE fans think Ziggler is finally getting his due, they lose their goddamn minds. Because that’s what Ziggler does better than anyone — he takes bump after bump and makes it look like he’s on the verge of literal death, yet he somehow suspends our disbelief enough to make us hope that, just maybe, he could find a way to pull a win out of his ass. And when the unthinkable happens and he actually wins? That is exactly the kind of stuff that makes people fall in love with wrestling in the first place.

Here’s the problem: As great as he is, even Ziggler can’t suspend disbelief anymore because everyone — EVERYONE — knows he’s going to lose. Take his feud with Dean Ambrose for the WWE world championship in the run-up to SummerSlam in August. He cut the best promos of his career (“I AM THAT DAMN GOOD”) and showed the world that he hasn’t lost any velocity on his fastball. But something felt empty about it. I guess there may have been some who thought, WWE can’t possibly build him up like this only to have him lose again, right? But the general consensus from wrestling fans I encountered was that Ziggler was primed to add another brick to his tortured wall. And I’ll be damned, that’s exactly what happened. Ambrose was in control for so much of that match that even the most optimistic Ziggler fan never thought he had a chance.

At this point, what WWE is doing to Ziggler is sadistic. The man started his career in the Spirit Squad for God’s sake, which should have been enough punishment to last a lifetime. But then WWE made him lose his singles debut to f’ing Batista. In his pay-per-view debut, he was eliminated in the Royal Rumble after 21 seconds. He holds a career 2–15 record versus Sheamus in one-on-one televised matches; he’s never had a one-on-one match at WrestleMania; and he was once forced to have a romantic relationship with Vickie Guerrero. Worst of all, this is a real sentence that appears on his Wikipedia page:

Dolph Ziggler (AP Images)
Dolph Ziggler (AP Images)

“Ziggler, along with Guerrero, and LayCool then feuded with [John] Morrison, Trish Stratus and Jersey Shore guest star Snooki, culminating in a mixed tag team match at WrestleMania XXVII which Ziggler and his team lost.”

I could go on forever. The amount of bullshit that Dolph Ziggler has taken from WWE reached an unfathomable level long ago, way before he was pinned by Tyler Breeze and Baron Corbin in pay-per-view matches. And now he’s doing promos as Colonel Sanders and hasn’t held a title belt of any kind in almost two years? Are you shitting me? How are we, as a society, allowing this to happen?

I don’t doubt that WWE values Dolph Ziggler. I don’t doubt that the people in charge see what I see and know that there’s gold in him being an underdog who has to scratch and claw his way to the top. I don’t expect, or want, WWE to treat him like Cena and Orton. I’m not even sure that I want him to be treated like Seth Rollins and Roman Reigns, nor do I want him to become Daniel Bryan 2.0. It’s just that if Ziggler is the Cleveland story that we should have been pulling for all along, WWE’s mistake is that it’s turned him into the Browns.

Everybody loves an underdog, but only if that underdog provides at least a shred of hope. You know how Browns fans’ optimism — Chin up guys, maybe this will be our year! — gets destroyed when a rookie quarterback marches down the field for an Eagles touchdown on the opening drive of Week 1? That’s where I’m at with Ziggler. Not only is he losing every match that matters; he’s not even building momentum. There’s no sense that these losses are setting the stage for something bigger. If he were playing a board game, he’d be the guy who keeps drawing a “go back to start” card. The Ziggler I’m being fed right now is like watching the Browns in Week 13 after they’ve lost six depressing games in a row. Of course there’s always a chance he/they could win, but does it even matter anymore? It’s not like the win is going to mean anything in the grand scheme, so why bother caring?

My hope is that WWE instead realizes that Ziggler at his zenith was like the first edition of LeBron’s Cavs. He sucked fans into believing that all of his past failures didn’t matter because this time was going to be different. Your emotions ebbed and flowed with every important match. When he took a bump and lay motionless in the middle of the ring, you held your breath. When he kicked out at a 2.9999999 count, you felt like you were going to crap your pants. When he hit a superkick or jumping DDT or zigzag or Famouser, you allowed yourself to foolishly think ahead. HOLY SHIT IT’S ACTUALLY HAPPENING. And when he inevitably ended up losing, you strangely didn’t mind because you enjoyed the ride so much and knew that another opportunity was going to come soon enough.

Rewatch that Money in the Bank cash-in against Del Rio. What made it so great was that we truly had no idea what would happen. Just because Ziggler cashed in and just because Del Rio couldn’t put weight on his left leg didn’t mean anything. It was totally plausible that WWE would still dick Ziggler over. So when Del Rio kicked out of the first pin attempt, landed a kick on Ziggler, and got him in the cross armbreaker, you started thinking, Here we go again. And that’s what made Ziggler winning so much sweeter. No, seriously — watch it again:

You can’t tell me that version of Ziggler can’t exist anymore. You can’t tell me the ship has sailed and there’s no way to rediscover that magic. The fans will care again as soon as they’re given a good reason. All the elements are there. Ziggler just needs a makeover. The lazy suggestion is for him to turn heel, but I’ve got a better idea: Why not have Ziggler embrace his Cleveland roots and channel his inner LeBron?

The parallels between Ziggler now and LeBron in 2014 couldn’t be more obvious. Ziggler was born and raised in Northeast Ohio and oozed with talent from the start of his career. He initially had shitty teammates (the Spirit Squad), though, and couldn’t break through until he repackaged himself as a heel from Hollywood, Florida (which is just north of Miami). Even then, he struggled and squandered opportunities, until finally winning two world titles in ways that critics could argue were less than legitimate. (Ziggler’s first reign lasted a few minutes and only happened because Vickie Guerrero declared him champion even though he had lost three title matches in a row; his second came by cashing in the Money in the Bank contract against a severely injured opponent.) Now he’s back to losing title matches and finds himself at a career crossroads. That leaves WWE with one choice and one choice only …

BRING DOLPH HOME.

Ditch the show-stopper Hollywood act and let him be “The Pride of Cleveland” or something like that. Make his character older and wiser, a Ziggler who has come to grips with the fact his world championship window is closing and that everything he thought he cared about doesn’t really matter. What matters is finishing what he set out to do when he was a child. What matters is making one last push for something that nobody can ever take away.

WHAT MATTERS IS WINNING ONE FOR THE LAND.

It wouldn’t even be that hard to make this transition. Ziggler has already been wearing a “St. Edward Wrestling Crew” sweatshirt on camera for the past month as a nod to his high school. All he’d have to do is change where he’s billed from and better explain his motivations during his promos. This shouldn’t be difficult considering his promos are already in that “I’m just a kid from Cleveland” territory, not to mention he was quoted as saying this in a 2012 interview:

“I love going back to Cleveland. I like to go out there and let everyone know that I’m representing Cleveland when I go out in the ring and put on the best match of the night.”

Of course, he’d also have to start winning some meaningful matches. I mean, don’t get me wrong — I still want to see Ziggler lose more than he wins. I want to see him come up painstakingly short, time and again, enough to make me wonder if he’s actually going to break through. But then I want to see him get back up and keep chipping away at his seemingly impossible pursuit. And just when I think his window has closed, I want to see him win a world title in a legitimate, planned, one-on-one match in which he pins the reigning champion.

Better yet: I want to see him battle arguably the greatest champion of all time in a best-of-seven series, lose three of the first four matches, get hit in the nuts with a cheap shot in Match 4, and then, against all odds, come back to win Match 7 at WrestleMania.