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  • Iestyn Withers

Why Zack Ryder WILL Succeed in AEW

The stench and depression from WWE's 'Black Wednesday' cull remains present after two days of reflection. Whether disgusted by the lack of empathy or writhing at the cynical actions of the company's head honcho, it is tough to comment on the wrestling industry in the immediate aftermath. Numerous people lost their jobs - whether on-screen, backstage or corporate employees - during a global situation that had already caused a deluge of anxiety and fear worldwide.

In a continued attempt to look at the situation from a viewpoint of Pollyannaism, we are going to take a deeper look at one particular WWE release, Zack Ryder. Following a 14-year stint with the industry leader, Ryder - real name Matt Cardona - is in a position that few thought he would ever be in; Cardona is WWE-less.

Though unlikely to ever be regarded as an upper-echelon in-ring worker, Cardona still has a lot to offer in the wrestling industry. Having been consistently held down and stifled during his career, the former Long Island Ice Z has been waiting for an opportunity and a platform. In a Covid-19 free world, superstars should have more opportunity to shine. With the growth of independent wrestling promotions and opportunities outside of WWE, talents should be able to get the exposure they so desperately crave and deserve. So, why should Ryder be one of these 'talents'?

To the casual wrestling fan, Zack Ryder is an undercard level talent who was probably lucky to be employed by WWE for as long as he was. But that's because WWE has conditioned its audience to think that. WWE has willed that into existence. In reality, Ryder has the charisma, 'the look' and the potential to be a top star in the wrestling business.

Though it is very easy to forget, the New York native was an Intercontinental, United States and 2-time Tag Team Champion during his WWE tenure. Therefore, Ryder had some semblance of success. But it is Ryder's success outside of the ring that bodes well for his future prospects.

In February 2011, Ryder launched a YouTube series entitled 'Z! The True Long Island Story'. Not being utilised on WWE television, Ryder devised/found his own platform to promote his character. Through his own volition, Ryder managed to gain a cult-like following; a dedicated fandom started to crave more Zack Ryder. Despite not being on TV, his t-shirt sold out. Despite not being on the card, fans chanted "we want Ryder".

In the social-media savvy society of 2020, it is easy to shrug this off. After all, social media is many companies' primary route of advertisement and marketing. However, Ryder was the first WWE Superstar to use social media as a way to expose his name. Amassing a loyal following, Ryder continued to get himself 'over' through his own ingenuity and innovation. Not going to use me on TV? I'll start a YouTube series. Not going to give me a title? I'll crown myself the first Internet Champion. Zack Ryder sought to create opportunities for himself, rather than settle into the role the company had given him.

First and foremost, All Elite Wrestling are a modern day wrestling promotion. Capitalising on the disinterested WWE fans and the internet "smart marks", AEW give superstars a platform to reach their potential. Whether it be the lack of scripted promos, or the fact that wins and losses matter, AEW is seemingly a playground for wrestling creativity. And that's not it. Birthed by the members of The Elite (Cody Rhodes, The Young Bucks, Kenny Omega), AEW understand both its wrestlers and its audience. Whilst WWE wrestlers have appeared helpless in terms of their character, All Elite Wrestling encourages the use of social media and alternative platforms by its performers. Whether its the aforementioned Elite, Sammy Guevara or Chris Jericho, the likes of YouTube and Twitter have become a constant source of character exposure and development. Zack Ryder would thrive in this environment. Not content with his previous YouTube endeavour, Ryder has also launched a podcast - alongside Curt Hawkins - in which he is able to showcase his childlike obsession and wonder with wrestling figures. To the uninformed this may not seem relevant, but through The Major Wrestling Figure Podcast Ryder has again established a keen following that are "chomping at the bit" to see him succeed. A fandom that will likely follow him to his next destination. With all that said, a keenness for social media is not a guarantee that Ryder will join nor flourish in AEW. Success in the wrestling industry can often be jumpstarted by who you know. In Ryder's case of "knowing someone", having Cody Rhodes as a very close friend is likely very beneficial. Having worked for the WWE at the same time, both Cody and Ryder have become closer as the years have gone by. In fact, Cody introduced Ryder to his fiancee, Chelsea Green. But if the fact they are friends isn't enough, it likely helps that Cody is a Zack Ryder fan.

In December 2018, Ryder tweeted that he hadn't appeared on Raw for that whole year. Cody responded by reminding his friend that the greatest wrestling start of all time, The Rock, once stood in the ring whilst the fans chanted "We Want Ryder!".

Upon establishing All Elite Wrestling, Cody was asked what one performer he would bring from WWE if he could. Cody said Zack Ryder.

Fast forward to this week, and 'Black Wednesday', and Cody went above and beyond for his friend. Posting on Instagram, Cody wrote:

""I'd like to take a moment to say how proud I am to be a friend of Zack Ryder - In a world of weekend warriors and "play wrestlers", this dude exudes passion and drive for pro-wrestling like no other. Through 14 years to see him CONSISTENTLY try to better himself( whether that be his in-ring work, or watching him physically mould himself and his body into such a specimen DRUG FREE with hard work and will). I have a little rule, and that's that if you've ever "gotten over" in can always do so again. That rule being fully applicable to Matt (Cardona) now. At 34 years young, his best wrestling days are ahead of him. Cheers to a great start and 14 years of unrelenting blood, sweat, and tears. Future endeavors are limitless when you actually endeavor. I chose this picture because it was one of my last days at WWE, watching 80,000+ people applaud as Matt won gold was an eruption not only live in the arena but in the locker room as well. Hearing Dolph coordinate for his father to come over the rails (meanwhile I was ass deep into a broken ladder and stuck but had the best seat in the house) and seeing father/son embrace, I thought I'd be jealous or bitter, but I was truly happy and proud for one of my peers. Congratulations my friend, and good luck!"

Of course it is easy to say "Zack Ryder will go to AEW because he is friends with Cody Rhodes", but there is clearly a professional respect there as well. Cody has had no qualms about recruiting under-utilised WWE talent that he thought deserved more. Whether Shawn Spears, Brodie Lee or his brother Dustin. Whether referee Aubrey Edwards or ring announcer Justin Roberts, Cody has allowed professional respect to influence business decisions. But would Ryder want to join AEW? A lifelong WWE and WWF fan, Zack Ryder's ridiculous figure collection or affections for hallmark WWE moments are a close sign that his employment with the company was his dream job. As unlikely as it seems now, the Coronavirus pandemic will come to end. And with o pandemic, there is a WWE locker room belief that many of the released superstars will be offered returns. Given the length of his tenure, you would assume Ryder would be one of those superstars. The decision is not easy at the best of times - let alone in a Covid-19 world - but Ryder has the opportunity to take a chance on himself in the same way Cody did in 2016. Perhaps, Ryder can join Cody in AEW for the "too sweet" life of Zack and Cody. Regardless of why Ryder should or will join AEW, there should also be a focus on why he will succeed. Perhaps it would be easy to say that Ryder's popularity has diminished since he got himself 'over'. But upon his WWE release, Ryder's latest t-shirt was the top seller on the Pro Wrestling Tees website. Having pushed the hashtag 'Still Here' for months on end, Ryder used social media to his advantage again and his 'Not There' tee sales hit unprecedented heights. #StillHere took on a life of its own due to Ryder’s loyal fanbase, an inside joke that both mocked Ryder's TV absence as well as the higher-ups choosing not to utilise him, and #NotThere continued in the same vein. Let's tick things off as we go. In-ring ability? Tick. Marketability? Tick. 'The look'? Tick. Popularity? Tick. Potential? Tick. So, what could possibly stop Ryder from moving forward despite his adversity? In 2019, Bubba Ray Dudley - Bully Ray outside of the company - discussed the idea of Ryder joining AEW on Busted Open Radio. He said: "So if he wanted to stick around and stay and just make that money, that’s fine. But if he wants to make comparable money and get out there and wrestle and be the version of Zack Ryder that he knows he can be and be the version of Zack Ryder we know he can be, ala the Z True Long Island Story or whatever his YouTube channel was in which he got over to the moon, then he needs to go to AEW." And that's just it. What Zack Ryder does he want to be? In fact, what and who does Matt Cardona want to be? With the obsession Cardona has for the wrestling business, was his childhood dream to become a staple of the undercard? I doubt it. 'The Michael Jordan of Wrestling Figure Collecting' has all the tools to be a "main player" in the professional wrestling industry, and under the All Elite Wrestling banner that ̶c̶a̶n̶ WILL happen.

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