The road has been long for Zack Ryder.
Signed to a developmental deal within two years of his debut for New York Wrestling Connection, he and tag partner Curt Hawkins (possibly in line for a return soon!) were called up to the main roster at breakneck pace, debuting the next year on WWE's ECW revival before being drafted to Smackdown and brought into the loving arms of La Familia. As Edge's lackeys they won the WWE Tag Team Championship, in fact the youngest team to hold that title, both men being 23 years of age.
But after just two months as champions, in their first title defense, they dropped the title to the Colóns. Not for the last time, the bottom fell out from under Zack Ryder. A few months later he was drafted back to ECW and his team with Hawkins split. For a lot of guys, that would have been it. Good little run, hang on until you get released, hit the indies and try to carve a spot out for yourself.
Not for Zack Ryder. He reinvented himself, crafting a character that would be reminiscent of the dorks on the Jersey Shore if he hadn't debuted it a full six months before the show first aired. Styling himself the Long Island Loudmouth, he pumped his fist to a title shot against ECW Champion Christian before scoring a feud against Tommy Dreamer that saw him evict the Innovator of Violence from WWE.
But then ECW ended, and he was drafted alongside onscreen love interest Rosa Mendes to Raw. He still appeared on TV regularly, but mainly as a prop for the weekly guest host to bat around. Infamously, he lost a WWE Championship match to Sheamus in 11 seconds one week, Sheamus trying to get around defending his title against a "legitimate" contender. Again, the bottom fell out.
From Internet Champion to United States Champion
And again, Zack Ryder put his nose to the grindstone. Streaming video was hitting it big, so he started his own web show, Z! True Long Island Story, and developed a following of rabid internet fans who felt Zack deserved another chance. Slowly but surely he picked up steam with the general audience as well, and "We Want Ryder!" chants rang out at arenas across the United States.
So it was that he won the United States Championship from Dolph Ziggler at TLC: Tables, Ladders & Chairs 2011. The next night, Raw opened with WWE Champion CM Punk welcoming the new champions from the night before to drink in the adoration of the crowd, two beloved underdogs that had clawed their way to singles gold-- Zack Ryder and World Heavyweight Champion Daniel Bryan. It was a good night. And then the bottom fell out once more.
The Dark Ages
Rather than enjoying his singles success, Ryder was immediately put into a romance angle with Eve Torres and the two were made third wheels to John Cena's feud with Kane. After sustaining rib injuries at Kane's hand, Zack would lose the United States Championship unceremoniously on Raw to Jack Swagger. He never so much as got his rematch, suffering increasing abuse from Kane instead, culminating with having his wheelchair ran off the stage.
Even the story with Eve ended poorly for Zack, who wrote a terrible novelty song entitled Hoeski after Eve revealed that she never had feelings for him and was just using him to get close to Cena. His WrestleMania match, a twelve-man tag to determine whether Johnny Ace or Teddy Long would reign supreme as General Manager of Raw and Smackdown, ended with Eve distracting Ryder and kicking him in the testicles after he lost.
From there, Zack's career essentially seemed over. He had a stop/start feud with Kane that never really paid off and just generally sank into obscurity, being lucky to wrestle on Superstars any given week. But Zack Ryder never gave up hope. He never quit working, and in May of last year he answered John Cena's United States Championship Open Challenge, hoping to regain the title and the relevance that he lost. He put all he had into that match, and it showed when he went for a 450 splash and it cost him the title.
But as they say, it ain't over 'til it's over.
A lot of folks, myself included, assumed that was it for Zack. A nice little chance to show what he could do but it'd be ultimately meaningless. But the next month he made his way to NXT, teaming with the untamed ball of energy that is Mojo Rawley as one half of the Hype Bros. They never won any gold, but they carved out a nice space for themselves in the tag division and had some quality matches.
Meanwhile, Zack, wonder of wonders, continued appearing on the big shows semi-regularly. Mostly losing, of course, but his profile was higher than it'd been in years. And then, on the Road to WrestleMania 32, he found himself earning a spot in the Intercontinental Championship ladder match at the Grandaddy of Them All. More incredibly, he won!
Zack Ryder, only a world title away from his Grand Slam, years after it seemed like his career was dead and gone. Sure, he lost the title the next night to Miz, but since then he's been a fixture on Raw and Smackdown. It seems like he finally earned his spot. In May, he outlasted 13 other men in a battle royal for a shot at Kalisto's United States Championship, only falling to eventual winner and future US Champion Rusev in a thrilling final stretch.
He and Big Show were the sole survivors of Raw's July 4 Team USA vs. Team Multinational Alliance 16-man elimination tag match, and as a proud representative of the United States, after beating Sheamus later that week on Smackdown, he challenged the Bulgarian Brute to put his title on the line at Battleground. The next week on Raw after a devastating attack, Rusev accepted the challenge.
All of this brings us to Sunday night.
Rusev has claimed that he'll be champion of these United States for seven years. He may well be, he has every tool you need to hang onto a title for that long. Indeed, he's already successfully defended it against a murderer's row of potential champions, from Kalisto to Titus O'Neil to Cesaro. Hell, last time it took no less than ace of the company John Cena to unseat Rusev, and even he didn't succeed on his first try. It's an uphill battle for anyone to win the title from him.
But Zack Ryder has heart and determination like few others and while this may not be his last chance at redemption since his fellow Hype Bro got drafted to Smackdown alongside the Broski, it is a fantastic opportunity to silence the doubters and say to the world that Zack Ryder is here to stay.
Woo woo woo, you know it.
Be sure to join us back here at Cageside Seats on Sunday at 8PM for all the news and discussion from Battleground that you can handle!
Who will win?
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