Dolph Ziggler and the Professional Wrestling Hero’s Journey

Being a fan of any athlete can be an emotional rollercoaster.

From the beginning of their career until they’ve managed to achieve some kind of major success — either personal accolades or team championships — there will inevitably be trials and tribulations. Injuries. Setbacks. Painful losses. Personal failures. But in almost any sport, there exists an inherent promise that with proper dedication and training, anyone has the ability to rise to the top. It’s simple arithmetic. If you work hard enough to be one of the top performers in your chosen field, then success and recognition will almost always follow. It takes an iron will and a tireless work ethic, but it can be done. Professional wrestling makes no such promise. Mastering all the various elements that make someone an elite pro wrestler is only the very beginning of a long journey that has absolutely no guarantee of a happy ending.

Throughout modern wrestling history, there have been countless figures who possessed all the tools to thrive as the performer at the very top of the industry, but for whatever reason, were never given the opportunity. Ted Dibiase. Curt Hennig. Rick Rude. William Regal. These are just a few examples. Becoming a fan of these types of performers can be extremely frustrating because no matter how great they may be, there is a glass ceiling in place that they can never hope to break through. They’re the man who elevates the often-inexperienced musclebound ubermensch to stardom. They’re never just the man. But sometimes, one of these perennial midcarders and “solid hands” does manage to transcend this paradigm and break through. And when they do, the years of frustration and disappointment melt away in one glorious moment of pure catharsis. When we look back on Dolph Ziggler’s career years from now, we very well may look at his performance at last Sunday’s Survivor Series PPV as his breakthrough moment.

He has had brief flirtations with the main event in the past. An hour-long World Championship reign on an episode of Smackdown. A Royal Rumble WWE Championship match against CM Punk. And of course, his several month run as the Money in the Bank briefcase holder, which brought his followers on an emotional journey through countless teased cash-ins — from crushing disappointment when he failed once again to take advantage of the guaranteed title shot on the biggest show of the year, to a moment of concentrated, transcendent wrestling bliss when he defeated Alberto Del Rio the following night in what was arguably the greatest MITB cash in ever and one of the most purely entertaining matches of 2013.

This was the moment where it seemed Ziggler had just dropkicked his way through the infamous WWE glass ceiling and had officially joined the upper echelon of wrestling talent. Reality immediately crashed down in the form of an errant, concussive kick to the head by Jack Swagger. Ziggler missed a few weeks of action, and immediately dropped the title back to Del Rio in his first match back. Despite the loss, it seemed like he was positioned to become one of the top babyfaces in the company after he and Del Rio pulled off an ultra-rare midmatch alignment switch. But Ziggler never got his revenge. His popular and entertaining stable with AJ Lee and Big E Langston was disbanded, and Dolph tumbled back down into midcard purgatory for the better part of a year. Glass ceiling: intact.

This feels different. Unlike his last push, when it was made painfully, abundantly clear that Cena was the better and more important wrestler time and time again, at Survivor Series Ziggler not only outlasted, but outperformed the face of the franchise. Not just in the match, but in the story of the match. This is not just highly unusual. It’s basically unprecedented. Cena, who is the centerpiece of every single major WWE storyline always, barely even participated in the match, and was once again embarrassed and double-crossed by Big Show, despite years of verifiable video evidence (and personal experience) proving that the guy shifts allegiance once or twice a year and clearly should not be trusted. Ziggler meanwhile, eliminated three guys clearly being positioned as future major players and one hall of famer in a spectacular ironman performance that had him Rising Above Hate™ and Never Giving Up™ in a much more convincing and believable manner than the guy who has to wear that stuff on a t-shirt in order to sell it to little kids at K-Mart. Ziggler was also involved in, and got a huge rub from one of the most significant events in recent WWE memory when Sting returned to make the timely save. Again, not John Cena. This cannot be overstated. All of this seems to indicate that at long last, after years of squandered potential and a rollercoaster of stop-start career progress, Dolph Ziggler seems to finally be getting a huge push. For those of us that have been following his career for the last few years, it was an unbelievably satisfying moment.

So where does Ziggler go from here? If you’ve been watching wrestling for a significant period of time and have been burned before you are most likely trying to keep your expectations in check. This is perfectly understandable. But check out the subtle shade Dolph throws at Cena when John interrupts him in the promo for their tag team main event on Raw:

Are they building to something here? Perhaps some kind of meta-storyline about Cena’s predilection towards stepping in and siphoning off heat from upcoming superstars? The very thing that many Ziggler fans constantly complain about? Who knows. Maybe they’re just setting up some more odds for Cena to eventually overcome, which would be incredibly disappointing, but not at all surprising. However, no matter what the future holds, for Dolph Ziggler and his supporters the present is looking pretty damn great. And that’s a step in the right direction.

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