Zack Ryder was the most important wrestler of last decade.
I don’t care how many matches he lost. I don’t care about the lack of titles. I don’t care about his lack of storylines. And I don’t care that he is rarely on television. None of that matters, because Zack Ryder — in a way no one has since Vince McMahon put wrestling on closed circuit television in the ’80s — fundamentally changed professional wrestling in 2011. How?
Zack Ryder changed pro wrestling by plugging his Twitter.
Zack Ryder brought social media to pro wrestling when he debuted Z! True Long Island Story. It was a low-budget, poorly produced, instant classic YouTube series that elevated Ryder out of the depths of his obscurity within the WWE roster and forced the WWE powers that be to fashion his name alongside the likes of John Cena, CM Punk, Triple H, and The Miz on a weekly basis in 2011-2012.
Zack Ryder did nothing for an entire year prior to the show’s debut. He had previously enjoyed brief stints of exposure as one half of the “Major Brothers,” a lackey for Edge, and as a cocky heel in the final days of the ultimately doomed ECW revival. And while he performed well in all of these roles, he was quickly lost in the shuffle after the ECW brand folded in early 2010. So Ryder figured if WWE wasn’t going to put him on their show, he’d make his own.
And so, Ryder shot, produced, and edited 100 episodes that he released weekly while working a full WWE schedule. Videos that consisted of a brief monologue, skits featuring his friends and John Morrison-obsessed father, thinly veiled yet hilarious jabs at his employer, and a look into who Zack Ryder was behind the spray tan and hair gel. The series struck a chord with the WWE faithful who began chanting his name at shows, buying his branded products and memorabilia, and engendered within them a dogged devotion to the “Broski” that pulled Ryder from the brink of unemployment and propelled him to the WWE United States Championship. Sadly, missed opportunities, could-have-beens, and terrible storyline decisions befell his character and Ryder’s time in the spotlight was all too shortly lived. But Ryder’s legacy endured by means of his show’s closing signature.
“Like me on Facebook. Follow me on Twitter. And take care; spike your hair,” is how Ryder ended each episode of Z! True Long Island Story. WWE quickly ventured into the social media realm shortly after Ryder’s efforts. By this point in 2011, WWE had official Facebook pages for their company and their talents, mandated that their performers create Twitter accounts, and had even created a failed social media platform. Remember WWE Universe? That Facebook clone that only The Miz would post on? It’s OK, no one else does either, but let WWE’s failures highlight Ryder’s success.
Ryder utilized social media more than any performer before him and used it to its fullest extent by offering his fans a means of connection to him and a means of supporting his cause. Ryder frequently held Twitter and Facebook-based promotions urging fans to buy his merchandise. He urged his followers to tweet using hashtags to get the attention of the WWE brass. And, more than anything, he was able to successfully weave social media into the WWE machine as clips of his show were featured on Raw and SmackDown — he progressed feuds and highlighted storylines by including his cohorts in social media conversations, and began promoting upcoming events and matches on his feed, thereby proving that social media can be used to reinforce the WWE product.
WWE immediately capitalized on Ryder’s epiphany. Suddenly, every performer had their Twitter handles promoted on their name-plate graphics during entrances. Each match and segment was given a hashtag that viewers could use to discuss the product on Twitter. Pop-up graphics appeared in the bottom-left corner of television screens whenever one such hashtag began trending. News and promotions began to be dispersed via Twitter and Facebook. And viewers were even prompted to vote — during live broadcasts of Raw — for matches and segments they wanted to see on Twitter.
Ryder had created a new master for professional wrestling to serve. A master that permeated to all levels of every reputable wrestling promotion as wrestlers and promoters saw a new means of advertising themselves, their means, and their ends.
Two former tag team partners on the independent circuit, Kevin Steen and El Generico, were embroiled in a typical “barbershop window” feud that saw the dissolution of their union. The featured brilliantly brutal matches that saw Steen banished from his then home promotion, Ring of Honor (ROH). Of course, it was only a matter of time before Steen returned for revenge, but Steen and ROH had begun to notice the importance of social media and used those platforms to give Steen a viral presence in their product without having Steen physically appear. The feud was elevated and Steen and Generico then enjoyed an increased prominence in the wrestling world as they continued their paths that led to them becoming Kevin Owens and Sami Zayn.
The Young Bucks were accused by Booker T on Twitter in 2011 of not respecting locker room etiquette. Booker, specifically, noted that The Bucks did not introduce themselves to, shake the hands of, and seek advice from veteran wrestlers and that they would never be successful because of this. Rather than shy away from this or try to defend themselves, the Young Bucks made hashtags and used social media to capitalize on their newfound notoriety and spoofed the incident in order to elevate their careers. This led to the Young Bucks finding their way into New Japan Pro-Wrestling (NJPW), ROH, and other promotions around the world, selling more merchandise they ever had before, a little faction named Bullet Club, and being referenced in conversations regarding the greatest tag teams of all time — in part, thanks to Booker T and bunch of tweets.
WWE had the bright idea of ignoring Daniel Bryan’s momentum in 2013. Bryan, after spending several years as a perennial upper-mid card act, had earned the love of fans with his tough, gritty wrestling style, minimalistic charm, and his production of a catalogue of wonderful matches and moments. Fans were clamoring for him to ascend to the top of the card, much to the chagrin of the WWE powers that be due to their plans on rehashing a feud between Randy Orton and Batista for the next WrestleMania. Fans vehemently rejected WWE’s plan and took to — where else — social media to voice their frustrations. This played a large factor in WWE calling an audible and giving Daniel Bryan his rightful spot in the main event of WrestleMania XXX.
A fateful, 30 second match that saw the Bella Twins take on Paige and Emma in February of 2015 drew the ire of WWE fans as they all in unison tweeted #GiveDivasaChance. The hashtag persisted for three days on social media and triggered the promotions of Becky Lynch, Sasha Banks, and Charlotte Flair to the main roster. What ensued was a renewed emphasis of women’s wrestling within WWE under an initiative termed the “Divas Revolution.” This “Revolution” quickly became the “Women’s Evolution” as the Divas Championship became rebranded as the WWE Women’s Championship in 2016. Since that time, the women of WWE have more than proved their mettle by virtue of their grit and dedication as their talent has forced WWE to place them on equal, and often greater, footing than their male counterparts as they are now able to compete within all types of matches — including cage matches, Hell in a Cell matches, Elimination Chamber matches, and their own yearly Royal Rumble Match. Women have main evented multiple pay-per-views, including WrestleMania, and, arguably most impressive of all, they’ve normalized their inclusion on WWE programming. The Women’s Division is no longer a “side-attraction,” they are a vital portion of the show without which WWE cannot stand.
Dave Meltzer, a wrestling pundit, flippantly replied to a fan’s tweet affirming that no independent wrestling promotion could sell 10,000 tickets in May of 2017. Cody Rhodes, son of the legendary Dusty Rhodes, took that tweet to be a challenge and achieved exactly what Meltzer said couldn’t be done when he funded and promoted what would become one of the most successful independent wrestling shows in history, All In. The success of All In led to billionaire Tony Khan approaching Cody Rhodes about starting a new wrestling company that would go on to be called All Elite Wrestling. AEW is currently airing a weekly show on TNT that has been met with much critical acclaim, was recently renewed by TNT through 2023, and is giving WWE its first appreciable competition in the marketplace since 2001. All because of a f***ing Tweet.
Becky Lynch was in a pre-show match at WrestleMania 34. This match highlighted a criminal under-utilization of her talent and this moment did not go unnoticed by her fans. They began to clamor around her, hoping to rectify this injustice, but it wasn’t until SummerSlam 2018 that “The Man” began to emerge. After a heartbreaking loss to Charlotte, Lynch lashed out and brutally attacked her friend — much to the approval of WWE faithful — and began to use Twitter to highlight her newfound aggression by verbally victimizing anyone who dared to appear in her news feed. Lynch filled entire burn units with her savagery as she propelled herself to the Smackdown Women’s Championship, a Royal Rumble victory, and the main event of WrestleMania 35. Becky Lynch is currently and deservedly the top star in the entire industry, thanks in large part to her ability to draw blood with a hashtag.
These anecdotes, and many others of which I am glossing over, edify the symbiotic relationship between professional wrestling and social media. Understanding that professional wrestling is produced in a near real-time fashion, viewers are able to exert an immediate influence upon its production via social media in a way that few other avenues of entertainment can enjoy (or suffer through). And these anecdotes prove that progress and achievement have been found because of this sybiosis, but it is time to recognize Zack Ryder as the person who fostered that relationship.
Zack Ryder’s efforts as the “Internet Champion” have given viewers a voice in professional wrestling, wrestlers a platform to promote their brands, and promotions to gauge and embetter themselves. Ryder has been, sadly and bafflingly, overlooked by WWE despite his talent, personality, and passion. He, tragically, may not be remembered for his victories and accolades within the squared circle but he must be remembered for being the first to weaponize social media within professional wrestling.
Of course, it would be a discredit to claim to these aforementioned performers would never have found success whether it not for social media — I’m not an idiot. But their journeys, and so many others, would have been different were it not for social media and for its patron saint from Long Island. Zack Ryder was, truly, ahead of the curve in his industry and it is time we gave him his due.
So, like him on Facebook. Follow him on Twitter. And take care; spike your hair.
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