When WWE returns to the Nassau Coliseum Monday for a live, three-hour edition of Raw, it will be a particularly special night for one WWE superstar — Merrick native Zack Ryder.
Although he’s worked for WWE for five years now, it’s only in recent months that Ryder, 26, has developed a rabid fan following. Signs showing their support for Ryder have begun popping up at arenas, and his T-shirt has been selling out at the stands.
Ryder’s recipe for success: A spikey-haired, fist-pumping goofball character that he’s dubbed “The Long Island Iced Z,” and a low-budget Youtube show that’s become an underground sensation, having gotten more than a million views.
The man who calls himself the WWE Internet Champion (and has the title belt to prove it) recently talked about his newfound popularity, and his excitement over his homecoming Monday night.
Alfonso Castillo: I’ve been wanting to talk to you for a while. Obviously, we’re your hometown paper and you’re getting the Long Island name out there. I wrote a story about NYWC (The LI-based New York Wrestling Connection) years ago when you were a student there. I don’t know if we got a chance to meet back then.
Zack Ryder: Yeah, I was there. I started there in 2003. So that’s definitely where I got my start.
AC: Why don’t we start there? Tell me a bit about the training you got there. I think you’re probably the most successful student to come out of NYWC. What do you think are some of the skills that you picked up there that allowed you to go as far as you have?
ZR: I wanted to be a wrestler my entire life, so right out of high school I found NYWC, which is in Deer Park. And, Mikey Whipreck, from the original ECW, was the trainer. And I just learned all the basics, learned everything I needed to know. Myself, Curt Hawkins, Trent Baretta—We’re all the WWE and we all came out of that school. So it’s definitely a good place to learn the ropes, so to speak.
AC: Mikey obviously has some big league experience. Did he help prepare you for the lights, and the audiences and all that?
ZR: Yeah. He taught us everything from headlocks to paying your taxes. He knew everything. And he was the perfect teacher because he actually experienced it, as opposed to other people who don’t know anything and are training people and are basically stealing people’s money.
AC: I wanted to talk to you in particular because Raw is coming to Long Island. And not only are you from Long Island, but Long Island has become an increasingly big part of your character. Can you talk a bit about that? Do you look forward to every time WWE comes back to Long Island. What’s it like for you? Do you have friends in the audience, family?
ZR: Wrestling in front of my hometown crowd on Long Island is unbelievable. I’ve been too so many shows there. As a kid, I slept outside the Nassau Coliseum trying to get tickets to Raw once. And going back Monday is going to be incredible. I’ve got my friends, my family, my girlfriend. It’s going to be awesome. And hopefully the Zack Pack is going to be cheering me on.
AC: I wanted to talk to you about the web show (Z True Long Island Story), which has become a real phenomenon. It gets more than 100,000 hits. And even though, on TV, you’re not the most prominent characters, every time you’re out there, there are signs, there are T-Shirts. There’s this whole ground swell of a Zack Ryder following. What do you think about all that?
ZR: That’s what I call the "Ryder Revolution." What happened was that about three months ago I was sick of just not being on TV, sick of just sitting in the background on the sidelines. So I created my opportunity. I created my own Youtube account. My parents got me a Flipcam for Christmas. And I started to make my own shows. And 16 episodes later, more than a million views, it’s starting to pick up.
AC: There’s been some thought that maybe you could get in some trouble with that, because it’s not WWE-sanctioned. Can you tell me anything about how it’s been received? Are they happy that you took the initiative and put that together, or has there been any heat?
ZR: At first, I was afraid too. I thought, “Am I going to get in trouble?” But I’m not trying to cause any problems. I just want to get my name out there and create my own opportunity, and make some money for the company and for myself. Now they’re really getting behind it. Like you said, there are signs every single week. My T-Shirts are selling out, and I’m not even on television. It’s unheard of. So, I think they have to get behind it.
AC: I want to talk a bit about the “Long Island Iced Z” character and how that came about. It was really the Jersey Shore character before there was a Jersey Shore. How’d you carve out that character?
ZR: Like you said, it was way before The Jersey Shore. I was with Curt Hawkins as the Edge Heads—a long haired blonde kid. And I needed a change. I needed something different. So I just took my real personality, turned the volume way up, cut the hair, went to all the clubs on Long Island, like GLO, and fist pumped with all my broskies until I finally found who I really was, and portrayed it to the world, throwing up the “LI” hand signal. And “Woo-woo-woo” is taking over.
AC: I guess there’s different ways to take it. As a fellow Long Islander, it’s fun seeing a character on TV that embraces Long Island. But I imagine some people could be a little sensitive about it, thinking you’re making fun of Long Islanders. How do you see the character? Do you mean it as affectionate and complimentary, or are you poking fun and having fun at Long Islanders’ expense.
ZR: I’m definitely not mocking Long Island in any way, shape or form. I love where I’m from. I love Long Island. It’s supposed to be showing the world about Long Island. I’m walking out there throwing up the “LI” hand signal. Everything’s Long Island. It’s showing it off. It’s not mocking it in any way. So I hope no one feels that way. If they do--Oh well. I’ll send them a T-Shirt.
AC: Not all comedy in WWE works with everybody. But I watch the web show, and I’m rolling at how funny it is. The best thing I saw was the Superstars General Manager, which I thought was hilarious.
ZR: All my days off is basically doing that show. It’s thinking of things and messing around with my friends. They’ll help me film stuff, like the Superstars General Manager—just things to create controversy in a funny, light hearted way.
AC: What’s been the feedback? Obviously you haven’t been given a ton of TV time to show off your personality, but you’ve shown on the web show that you do have a personality. You’re a funny guy. Have people been surprised to see that dimension of your personality?
ZR: I think so. I think I had no creative output before, so they really didn’t know who I was. I had a couple matches here and there, but I never really had a chance to show who I really was, my personality and show how charismatic I was. Now this show has taken off. Guys like John Cena, The Miz, “Stone Cold” Steve Austin, Chris Jericho are all praising me on Twitter and stuff like that. I wrote the bonus forward to Chris Jericho’s book. It’s just unbelievable. I think everyone is starting to notice.
AC: What’s your relationship with John Cena? I’ve heard some talk that he’s a big booster of yours, a fan of yours. He’s interacted with you on TV over the last couple of weeks.
ZR: John Cena’s been great. He’s definitely one of my supporters. He’s a broski. He’s trying to get me on Raw as possible. We just pass each other by and do a little fist pump or something like that. He’s done a couple appearances on my show and made the hits go up a little bit. So I thank him for that. I think we have a pretty good relationship.
AC: I know you kind of poke fun on the show at your relatively low place on the card. But what are your thoughts about it? On one hand, I’m sure you’d like to be WWE champion and headlining WrestleMania and all that. But on the other hand, when you think of how many guys pursue this for a living, you’ve got to be happy to just have a job and be on TV and be part of the biggest company in the world. How do you see your role? Are you grateful for it?
ZR: I guess I am grateful that I have a job in WWE, but that was my plan my whole life. So, it’s kind of expected for me. So I’m not satisfied with my spot on the card. I definitely want to move up. And that’s what I’m going to do. Or at least I’m going to try my best and go out swinging. I’m not going to just sit back and say, "Oh, I should have done that," or "I should have done this." When my time comes to an end, I know I’ll have no regrets.
AC: You’re still a pretty young guy. You could be doing this for another 15 years or more. So do you have a mind set of, "There’s still plenty of time"? Or are you starting to get anxious, because you already have, what, four years in WWE now?
ZR: I’ve been under contract for five years. I’ve been on television for four. So that’s a pretty long time. So many people come and go in four years. But I have all the time in the world. I’m only 26. I’m one of the youngest guys on the roster. I’m not going to stop until everyone in this world knows who Zack Ryder is.
AC: How do you think you’re perceived by the people making decisions there? Do you think they notice you? Do they see your potential?
ZR: If they didn’t notice me before, they definitely notice me now with all the Zack Ryder signs. Those weren’t there before the Youtube show started. And the number don’t lie—over a million views. That’s just a fact. So people are watching the show. People want to see Zack Ryder. I’ve been saying on Twitter, this Monday it’s going to be Ryder or riot.
AC: Again, just to revisit this—I remember reading something on the Wrestling Observer where either Dave Meltzer or Brian Alvarez wrote that the worst thing a fan could do is get behind this campaign that you have going on, because you’re going to get punished. Is any of that happening? There was talk of WWE confiscating signs. Is there any truth to that, or has WWE been letting your pretty much do what you want and happy with the results you’ve been getting?
ZR: As far as I know, I haven’t been punished. But before I started the Youtube show, I was at the bottom of the card—the bottom. How much worse of a position could I have dropped to, you know? So it had to go up. That was my mind set. I was just sick of being at the bottom, knowing I could be so much more. It was all or nothing, basically.
AC: Let me ask you about a couple of career highlights. One was winning the tag team title with Curt in Nassau Coliseum a couple years back at The Bash pay per view. I’m sure you grew up watching tag teams and people wearing those titles. What was it like to win those titles in your hometown, in Nassau Coliseum. It must have been just a big thrill.
ZR: Yeah, you couldn’t have wrote a better story. The guy who I started wrestling with, my best friend, and winning the tag team titles in front of my family, in front of the rest of my friends, in my hometown. It doesn’t get better than that. I have a replica of the title framed above my TV at home. Thinking about that night still gives me goose bumps. Hopefully this Monday I’m going to have another opportunity to create a moment that’s even better than that.
AC: How about WrestleMania XXIV over in Orlando? I was there and I remember thinking this has got to be such a cool moment for these two local guys from Long Island—to be part of the main event of the biggest show of the year when you did the run in [during Edge’s match against The Undertaker.] What was that like for you?
ZR: I mean, the main event of WrestleMania. It doesn’t get any bigger than that. And running in. I didn’t even know how many people were there. I remember looking out. Tons of people, it felt like. I remember theramp was just so long that night. And just running out there and getting chokeslammed off the ring from The Undertaker. That’s another moment they’ll never take away from me—the main event of WrestleMania.
AC: You came in with Curt, then you kind of went your certain ways. I think it’s fair to say that you’ve moved ahead of him and gotten some more TV time. There was a while when he wasn’t on TV, and you still don’t see him turn up much on Smackdown or Raw. So, what does that do to your friendship? Are there any hard feelings there, or do you think he’s just happy to see you’ve gotten as far as you have?
ZR: I hope there’s no hard feelings. I don’t think there is. We knew our time as a team was over, and we knew we were going to split up. And it’s unfortunate that the WWE doesn’t realize his potential either, because he’s one of the youngest up and coming guys in the company, too. I hope that one day we’ll both get the chance to make it to the top together or separately, and maybe cross paths again in a different way.
AC: This is a question that my editors wanted me to pass along. I think there are still those in the journalism business that don’t totally understand this business. Do you see yourself as an entertainer or as an athlete?
ZR: Definitely both. How can you not be athletic and do what we do? We’re on the road four times a week if not more. What other athlete is doing that year round? I don’t think anybody. We’re sure entertaining, but we’re definitely athletes. And I challenge anyone who says that we’re not, because I’ll beat them at any athletic contest they want—except maybe baseball, because I suck at baseball.
AC: What do you think of the whole direction WWE has taken since you’ve arrived—the family-friendly approach, moving toward entertainment? Do you embrace it?
ZR: I definitely embrace it. I think it’s a great idea, because we’re not pigeon-holed as a company. We can venture out into movies and music and all different forms of entertainment. That’s the idea—to get the WWE brand and all the superstars out there so we’re not just wrestling. We’re entertainment. Everything you could think of, that’s what the WWE is, and that’s what the WWE can be. People who come to our shows will realize that.
AC: What are your long-term goals in WWE? Is it pretty much what anybody would want—to headline WrestleMania, wear the WWE championship, all that?
ZR: Yeah. I think if you’re not in the WWE to be the World Heavyweight Champion or WWE champion, then you shouldn’t be in WWE. You’re just wasting everyone’s time.
AC: Do you think the fact that you’ve been in this slot for as long as you have and sort of defined as a lower-card guy, does that necessarily ruin your chance of climbing much higher? You’re perceived as this type of competitor. Or do you think it’s possible for you to break through the glass ceiling and become a main eventer?
ZR: Well, I hope that I can break the glass ceiling. History shows that anybody can beat anybody on any given night. So anything can change at the snap of a finger, and I hope that’s what’s going to happen.
AC: Even in the role that you’re in, there’s certainly a value and an importance in being that guy at the bottom of the cards who’s putting everybody over. Steve Lombardi, “The Brooklyn Brawler,” had a long, long career, and I think still does, in the WWE, and was an important guy. Johnny Rodz is a hall of famer. So I think there’s something to be said for being that kind of guy. Do you take some pride in having that role and maybe being the go-to-guy to help make someone else look good?
ZR: I can have a good match with anybody in the company, because I believe in my skills and I believe I’m one of the best on the roster. I think if I’m given a true opportunity, a fair chance, everyone’s going to see that I am one of the top superstars in the WWE.
AC: What was it like getting a WWE title shot on Raw?
ZR: Well, it only last like ten seconds. But it’s pretty cool to say that I went for the WWE championship. I think the bell rung, I got my face kicked off and that was it. But I’m a former number one contender.
AC: So, again, what are you looking forward to on Monday? Where will this land in your career? It’s a three-hour Raw. It’s a big show. You’re character is really hot right now. Do you expect this to be one of the highlights of your career this Monday?
ZR: I mean, it’s set up. I don’t really believe in fate or anything of that stuff, but I’ve been doing this show for like three months and my popularity is as high as it’s ever been. And now we’re at the Nassau Coliseum. Something’s got to happen. If it doesn’t, it’s just a missed opportunity. So I’m hoping this is my big chance, my big break, to show everyone that I am the Long Island Iced Z.