Dolph Ziggler showers and goes looking for his rental car. The former WWE world heavyweight champion may be alone or with his two best friends in the company, The Miz and Zack Ryder.
A generation earlier, a group of fans—regulars on the circuit—would be waiting to chauffeur the guys to a series of clubs and buy all the drinks. A few hours later, there might be a call to the front desk of the wrestlers' hotel—from an irate guest disturbed by the sound of a woman’s shrieks reverberating through the hallway—followed by a visit from the police.
But, to hear Ziggler explain it, the road has become a very different place.
“It’s boring,” he says boastfully. “And that’s the way I like it.”
Today, Ziggler only considers 5 percent of the WWE dressing room his close friends. He estimates another 5 percent are friendly acquaintances—guys he’d chat with on a long flight, but not necessarily people he’d visit on a day off.
“Everybody else,” he notes, “you just say hello. Not everyone’s friends with everyone else. You see them at the gym, you see them backstage, you see them when you’re checking into the hotel. But that’s it.
“I’m very happy with my alone time.”
Titus O’Neil equates the relationships he enjoys with most fellow WWE performers with the associations he has with members of his extended family. “We all have cousins we don’t like and aunts who cook food we can’t stand,” he says.
“But you have to sit there and act like it’s the greatest thing in the world. It’s like anything else. There are people you work with—even work well with. But you’re not going to have them at your house, hanging around your kids.”
On the road, few after-hours scenarios satisfy Ziggler more than an empty, 24-hour hotel gym—without a fellow WWE Superstar in sight. “I live a very quiet, very normal life,” he maintains. “When I’m done for the day, I don’t want to see anyone from work. I want to work on my cardio, go on Twitter. Sorry, man, but that’s what I like to do.”
But Brutus “The Barber” Beefcake claims today’s wrestlers are missing out on the road experiences that bonded the talent of his generation. “In the ‘80s, the boys liked each other,” he contends, overlooking the fist fights that occasionally erupted backstage and in hotels. “We trained together in the gym, hung out together after the show. There were no video games or Twitter or Facebook. We actually talked to each other.”
Still, because of the way wrestlers depend on each other in the ring, Jimmy “Superfly” Snuka believes the intimacy transcends eras. “You’re wrestling each other every day,” says the Fijian native who made his debut in 1970 and, even at 70 years old, considers himself only “semi-retired.”
“No one wants to hurt anybody else, and no one wants to get hurt. So when you give a person your body, when you trust a person like that, you become family.”
He claims that even when wrestlers go years without seeing one another, there’s an unspoken understanding that an outsider could never fully comprehend. “Locking up with a guy means you listen to him,” Snuka explains, “you read him, you know him. That’s one thing about the wrestling business. You communicate like this.”
He taps his temple.
“I can walk backstage at any show. It’s an incredible feeling. I go around and I shake everybody’s hand. I shake them all. There’s the love that’s just there, brother.”
At Least We Get Paid
When Fred Ottman—later known as Tugboat and Typhoon in WWE—was starting his career, shortly after the advent of Hulkamania in WWE, the industry was still divided into regional promotions, where performers would stay for months at a time. Because of this, road life and home life became interchangeable. In addition to working and socializing together, groups of wrestlers rented apartments in the various territories.
“There wasn’t a lot of money,” Ottman says. “So you’d have three guys sharing a one-bedroom. The guy with the girlfriend got the bedroom. And if she happened to work for Budget Rental Car, you could rent a nice, spacious Lincoln, and pack everyone in. When I was working the San Antonio territory, there were a lot of dry counties in Texas, so it was good to have an experienced, older guy with you who knew all the beer stops.”
With no Internet, wrestlers would rely on Dave Meltzer’s Wrestling Observer Newsletter as a source of inside information. “It was kind of funny,” Ottman recalls. “All the boys said they hated Dave Meltzer. Hated him. But when someone had a copy of the dirt sheet, they’d all crowd around it like a bunch of little old ladies at a coffee klatch.”
Before wrestlers were known as celebrities with crossover appeal, they were often perceived as overmuscled brutes who tended to destroy property.
Says Ottman, “You never told the hotel clerk you were a wrestler because wrestlers liked to trash the room. A lot of guys actually believed the stuff that was on the marquee. When you mix testosterone and attitude—and your family’s living in another part of the country—you get into some precarious situations.”
The destructive road stories from that era have become engrained into wrestling folklore. Beefcake claims that, by the time he joined WWE in 1984—as Vince McMahon was putting the other promoters out of business and expanding internationally—the demands on its athletes were overwhelming.
“There was so much stress,” he says, “and guys overcompensated by overmedicating. A lot of them aren’t around anymore to talk about it. But it’s not because of failure. It’s because of success. We were making so much money that a lot of people were spending it on the wrong things.”
By contrast, he argues that today’s schedule is less conducive to meltdowns: “It’s a piece of cake. I mean, we were working double-shots and matinees. In a 30-day period, you’d wrestle 45 times. How do you explain that to these guys now?”
O’Neil has heard the tales, and he salutes the talent who came before him. But there are other pressures today—particularly with live television each week, monthly pay-per-views and an international fanbase that can communicate its displeasure by tapping an iPhone. “The stress is mental as well as physical,” he insists. “But at least, we have doctors and trainers at every event to look after us, and you don’t have to worry about not getting paid.”
Serious Road Time
By Beefcake’s calculation, for a dozen or so years, he spent more than three-quarters of his time on the road. Early in his career—around the time he worked as Hulk Hogan’s brother, Dizzy Hogan—there was a tour of Asia that lasted six weeks. “That’s some serious road time there,” he says.
While wrestling in the old Mid-Atlantic territory, as well as Cowboy Bill Watts’ Mid-South promotion, “Bushwhacker” Luke Williams claims he logged an average of 3,500 car miles a week. “When you’re driving like that,” he opines in his New Zealand accent, “that’s a job in itself, mate.”
In those days, he adds, a 100-mile road trip felt “like a night off. The cops knew when the wrestlers were coming from the arena, and they’d be waiting for you. You’d go through their little town at 55, and they’re sitting there, so they can ticket you for speeding in a 35 mile-per-hour zone. Sometimes, in some of these places in North Carolina, they’d get the judge out of bed in the middle of the night in his dressing gown. He’d go next door to the courthouse and fine you on the spot.”
If Ziggler knows any similar anecdotes, he’s not going to reveal them. That’s not the side of the wrestling business he chooses to examine or romanticize. He describes his peers as a breed that wouldn’t entertain the thought of hurling a handful of contraband out the window while outracing the local constables.
“The biggest difference,” he says, “is that WWE is now a public traded company with college-educated athletes who are worried about getting in their cross training and weighing their chicken breasts.”
Regardless, Snuka idealizes the uninhibited nature of the bad old days and the relationships he formed with his fellow wrestlers. “After the show, we’d all go out and try not to repeat what we did the night before,” he says. “That was our attitude. ‘Today’s a different day.’”
According to O’Neil, the friendships today are just as deep, if not deeper, since pro wrestling is no longer closed off from the greater society, and the current performers may have been raised to be more introspective.
Last year, O’Neil’s tag team partner, Darren Young, made the decision to become the first active professional wrestler to go public with the fact that he was gay. As the Prime Time Players, O’Neil and Young had spent hours driving down highways, discussing Darren’s sexuality, among other issues.
“It was never my role to talk about it with other people,” O’Neil says. “If he wanted them to know about it, it was his job to tell them, not mine. I had one responsibility, and that was to be his friend.”
In fact, if O’Neil had any reservations around Young—with whom he recently began warring in WWE storylines—it involved their respective experience in the business. “In terms of wrestling ability, Darren can run circles around me,” O’Neil claims. “He started seven years before I did. So I didn’t want to be perceived as the weak link because I didn’t start wrestling until 2009.”
He avoided this classification, he continues, by exhibiting humility and hard work. “I think you can win over more people with attitude than talent. If you act like you just want to make money and leave, no one’s going to help you.”
Often, there’s a divide between the younger performers and the veterans, who tend to view the business according to the codes of another age. But the more ambitious newcomers seek out mentors who can educate them on the rules of the game.
In Ottman’s case, he learned from Dusty Rhodes—the two were brothers-in-law for a period, when they were married into the same family—Bruiser Brody and members of the storied Guerrero clan. And it was the influence of their cumulative wisdom that helped Ottman recover from one of the most embarrassing angles ever televised.
In 1993, after his first stint in WWE, he was brought to rival WCW to debut as the mystery partner of Sting, Dustin Rhodes and Davey Boy Smith in an eight-man tag team match. Playing a character called The Shockmaster, he was wearing a Star Wars Stormtrooper helmet painted silver and adorned in glitter.
Earlier in the day, he’d realized the glitter was getting into his eyes. To remedy the dilemma, he borrowed a pair of panty hose from a female WCW employee and placed the material in the eye holes. As a result, he could barely see.
When his name was announced, The Shockmaster was supposed to bust through a sheetrock wall. But someone had hammered a piece of lumber into the frame of the set. While a live audience watched, Ottman crashed through the wall and tripped over the wood, his helmet sliding across the floor.
On television, viewers could hear Ric Flair, the host of the segment, utter, “Oh God.”
Said Smith, “He fell on his arse…he fell on his f----n’ arse.”
Ottman grabbed the helmet and firmly placed it on his head, aware that if he lost his composure, he might never earn back the respect of his peers. And that would mean long, lonely trips on the road, being ostracized as a buffoon or pariah.
“It was the hardest thing for me the night it happened,” he says. “But sometimes, the bloopers are the best part of the whole movie. So I jumped back up and did the deal. It’s the struggling that makes you a better person.”
It’s that type of ethic that Ziggler maintains unites him and The Miz backstage. “It took years for us to develop our friendship,” Dolph says. “Even though we’re fighting for the same position, we’ll make suggestions about each other’s matches, throw out ideas about developing the other guy’s character. It could be cut-throat between us, but it isn’t. There’s a closeness that comes from being in the same place.”
It was different for Luke Williams when he was wrestling in the San Antonio and Puerto Rico territories while simultaneously working as the booker, determining storylines and suggesting talent acquisitions.
“You’d be out drinking,” he recounts, “and then, at three in the morning, there’d be a knock on your door. ‘Hey, mate, I have all these ideas. Why don’t you do this angle with me? We can sell out everywhere. I’m telling you.’”
As a result, he and his partner, Butch Miller, tended to travel alone, only allowing Jack Victory and Johnny Ace—future WWE vice president of talent operations John Laurinaitis—into their circle when each was part of the tandem’s ensemble, prior to the creation of the Bushwhackers. “We didn’t want anybody else’s problems,” Williams says.
While they were doing their Prime Time Players gimmick, O’Neil says he grew accustomed to Young’s obsessive-compulsive travel quirks. “He gets anxious about being late. If I’m five minutes late, it’s like it throws his whole day off. For a 6:15 flight, with the airport 10 minutes away, he’ll still want to leave at 3:15. If I say we don’t have to leave that early, he’ll go, ‘Well, I’ll just take a cab.’ Then, if the plane is delayed, you see him pacing all over the airport, going, ‘Oh man, this is terrible.’”
The one aspect of road life that appears to be fading is indoctrination through ribs—practical jokes that can be playful or extremely malicious.
“In my day, it’s was ribs galore,” Williams reminisces. “You’d put sugar in someone’s pockets when you’d be out with him, then arrange for some local cops to pull over your car. Of course, they’d find the sugar and say it was drugs. They’d put you in the car and cuff him to a post in the middle of the country. ‘We’re just taking these guys to the station. We’ll come back for you.’ Then, we’d leave him there.
“That’s the way you got rid of people who were a pain in the ass. Sometimes, you’d never see them again.”
The worst perpetrator of ribs, at least during the Hulkamania period, was Mr. Fuji, who played an evil manager, hurled salt in the eyes of his adversaries, and dressed in a black suit and matching derby.
“Fuji’s the worst,” Snuka says, a grin spreading across his face. “He’s always doing stuff. But not to me.” His smile drops and he raises his eyebrows, a trifle menacingly. “He knew better.
“What Fuji would do is go to the bathroom when you’re out and pick up one of the poops, then come out and smack a guy on the back. ‘Hey, brother. Everything’s okay?’ And the bar would start to smell, man.”
When Beefcake was teaming with Greg “The Hammer” Valentine, Brutus noticed that his partner was partial to a $2,500 gold chain. So one night, Beefcake took the gleaming item and FedEx’d it to The Hammer’s house in Florida.
“Greg was hot,” Brutus says. “He thought one of the boys or somebody from the ring crew stole it. But it was OK ‘cause it was waiting for him when he got home.
“That’s the way it was back then. You’d fall asleep and someone would shave your eyebrows or paint your fingernails. If you were in the ring wrestling, you’d come back and find your bag chained to the locker or super-glued shut. But everyone was friends. So you had to take it in stride.”
Williams' favorite stunt was known as the Mabel Rib, a caper he first discovered while working for Stu Hart’s Stampede Wrestling promotion in Calgary. “A new guy comes into the territory and thinks he belongs on top,” Luke begins.
“So the boys tell him, ‘We’re having a party after the show, and there’s this girl, Mabel, who wants to meet you.’ Well, Mabel’s one of the regular girls on the circuit, and you set things up so she takes him into the bedroom and gets his clothes off. Then, you have another guy bang on the door, pretending to be her husband. ‘Mabel, what the hell do you think you’re doing?’ And he fires a gun in the air.
“The idea was to get the wrestler to run outside, naked, in the snow and, if he’s a real a-----e, leave the territory.
“The new guys today, they’d be crying, mate, if you put them on the road for a $25 dollar payoff, and all those ribs.”
Dolph Ziggler agrees, but contends that the changes represent an elevation of the industry. “There’s no hazing,” he says. “There’s no craziness. It’s ‘Do I trust this guy to put my body in his hands?’”
From Beefcake’s perspective, the business is a lot less fun. Yet—despite the prevalence of more daring maneuvers between the ropes—road life has become significantly safer.
“I think the guys today know how to moderate,” he observes, “so they can live to fight another day. And maybe that’s because everyone has learned from our mistakes.”
All quotes obtained firsthand.