What a difference a year makes.
This time last year, Dolph Ziggler was perhaps the hottest babyface on WWE’s roster coming off the heels of WWE Survivor Series. Ziggler—along with teammates John Cena, Ryback, Erick Rowan, and even The Big Show—had a good deal of upward momentum ever since becoming involved in the Authority storyline. That momentum came to a head at the pay-per-view.
In the role that many believe was carved out for Roman Reigns before he went down with a sports hernia, Ziggler thrived and ultimately scored the winning pinfall to sink The Authority once and for all (until Cena ultimately reinstated the group after being goaded into a Mexican standoff by Seth Rollins).
While it appeared Team Cena would fall victim to numbers along with Triple H’s outside meddling, this did not prove to be the case. Ziggler beat Kane with the Zig-Zag, rolled up Luke Harper, and withstood a great deal of punishment from Seth Rollins and Triple H before the debuting Sting dropped Rollins with the Scorpion Death Drop and pulled Ziggler onto the incumbent Money in the Bank holder for what was arguably the biggest rub of his career.
The WWE creative team’s booking of Ziggler in the Five-on-Five Elimination match appeared to display a newfound confidence in the then-10-year veteran. Then the next two months of programming happened, which stunted Ziggler’s overness and ultimately turned him back into the career 50-50 midcarder he had been previously.
Rather than have Team Cena go their separate ways—as most Survivor Series teams do when the angle ceases—the trio of Ziggler, Ryback, and Rowan stuck together and it couldn’t have been more random. The trio would appear in Six-Man Tag Team matches against a wide variety of former Authority members, and none of the matches overwhelmed. Ziggler did stand out in a Ladder match at WWE TLC: Tables, Ladders, Chairs… and Stairs (eyeroll), where he defeated Luke Harper for the WWE Intercontinental Championship in his home town of Cleveland.
While it was a nice moment, the fact that Ziggler overcame The Authority as Team Cena’s sole survivor at Survivor Series was hardly touched upon on Raw, if at all. Being a sole survivor in a traditional Survivor Series match is kind of a big deal in the grand scope of WWE lore. Previous sole survivors include Andre The Giant, Hulk Hogan, The Ultimate Warrior, Ric Flair, Randy Orton, and The Rock. Ziggler was even the sole survivor himself back in 2012, only this time he achieved the feat with the stakes as high as they have been since the Invasion angle.
In the last Raw of the 2014, Cena was goaded into bringing The Authority back into power, which automatically negated the work Ziggler and Cena himself had done back at Survivor Series. To make matters worse, The Authority’s first act of business was to screw Ziggler out of the Intercontinental Championship before firing him, along with Ryback and Rowan on a night they dubbed “John Cena Appreciation Night.” Two weeks later, Cena defeated Rollins, Kane, and The Big Show in a One-on-Three Handicap match to win his former teammates’ jobs back, while in the process making all three of them look like a bunch of geeks nowhere close to the level of Cena, Rollins, or anybody at the top of the card.
Flash forward to December 2015, and Raw ratings are at a historic low. Reigns is not working out as the company’s hand-picked breakout star. Sheamus, who wasn’t even on television at the time of Survivor Series 2014, is now the WWE World Heavyweight Champion. The truth of the matter is, WWE is in dire need of a babyface to step up and carry the load much like how “Stone Cold” Steve Austin did in 1997.
Let’s not get it twisted; Ziggler is and will never be a Steve Austin-type character. He is much closer to a Shawn Michaels-type, minus the over-the-top charisma and the explosive, innovative offense. As a wrestler in 2015, however, “The Zig-Man” certainly checks off all the boxes as a guy who could have, and maybe still could be, a major star in the current landscape of the wrestling business.
He certainly looks the part, having been constantly compared to “Mr. Perfect” Curt Hennig since first taking on the Dolph Ziggler persona. In addition to that, he is a terrific athlete. Ziggler is the second winningest amateur wrestler in Kent State history and has always been one of the roster’s most reliable workers. Remember when he was the “Hi, I’m Dolph Ziggler” guy? He overcame that by outworking his lesser opponents and rising to the occasion when the opportunity presented itself (see Ziggler vs Mysterio at SummerSlam ‘09).
While he may lack the mic skills that a guy like Michaels had, he makes up for it for his social-media savviness. Known for his Twitter handle @HeelZiggler, Ziggler’s online persona is that of a sarcastic, quick-witted playboy. Over time, Ziggler has worked this aspect of his personality into his character, even getting the word “heel” printed on his trunks when it was appropriate. He has also performed stand-up comedy since turning face in 2013.
A souped-up, prominently booked Dolph Ziggler could be just what the doctor ordered. The problem is, he was booked so terribly following his big Survivor Series moment and is now back to being a just another guy. At this point, it is hard to see him reaching the same level of popularity he once held.
In missing the boat on Ziggler, WWE Creative also missed out on what could have been a potential Missed 3:16 moment.
A hero comes in multiple forms. Some are like Hulk Hogan and John Cena—operating under a great set of morals to compliment their brute strength. Others come in the form of badass anti-heroes a la Steve Austin and Sting. Guys like Shawn Michaels and Ric Flair used their over-the-top flashiness and skill to get over, and Dusty Rhodes was a humble as can be “son of a plumber.” Yet in all the years of wrestling’s relationship with the mainstream, there has never really been a top guy that has fit the mold of an anti-authority character, who also happens to have a sense of humor while also being an incredibly cunning and resilient underdog (think Stone Cold meets HBK). It’s totally unique, and it’s a void Ziggler could have filled.
All that needed to happen was for The Authority to recognize Ziggler, not Cena, as the man who thwarted their attempt to have the supporting members of Team Cena fired. It would have given Ziggler separation from the lesser Ryback and Rowan while also affording him the mic time, and thus, the opportunity to shine in what would have been his Missed 3:16 Moment: A final verbal confrontation with The Authority that would have ultimately sent them packing until the Royal Rumble, at the very least.
In all my time watching him, Ziggler has never been one to squander an opportunity. As an in-ring worker, few can hold a candle to his ability to sell pain and garner a reaction. But to become a top star in the WWE, it takes proper direction in order to put wrestlers in a position to get themselves over. If they’re never afforded the space to do so, they will never ascend past a certain level, and thus, future stars of the industry will continue to be suppressed.
In late 2014, Dolph Ziggler looked poised to become the Luke Skywalker to The Authority’s Galactic Empire. To no fault of his own, he’s back to being just another guy in a WWE that is in dire need of a larger than life personality.
Wrestledelphia.com columnist Jack Goodwillie can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter at @jackgoodwillie.