To reach the pinnacle of any profession, you need a certain clarity of purpose. WWE wrestler Ryan Reeves, known by his stage name, Ryback, found that purpose at the age of 13. Already an obsessive fan of professional wrestling, Reeves won a radio contest that allowed him to ring the opening bell at a wrestling event. After experiencing the excitement of the sport at close range, he was sold.
“It was something that I loved watching on TV, but getting to feel it and walk into the ring and just see it up close, it was like I knew I wanted to do that,” he says. Though he admits, “I didn’t know how or what steps I needed to take.”
An avid athlete, the 33-year-old gravitated toward baseball and football, wrestling occasionally as a means of off-season conditioning. His passion for physical activity led him to the University of Nevada-Las Vegas’ fitness management program, which he intended to complete before pursuing WWE.
People are also reading…
But when he pitched a successful audition for “$1,000,000 Tough Enough,” a reality show that trained aspiring WWE wrestlers, he dropped out of school and never looked back. After the show ended, he began working his way through wrestling’s developmental leagues, which gave him a crash course in the grueling life demanded by WWE.
“They push you really hard, mentally and physically,” he says, “and it toughened me up even more than I was and prepared me to live life on the road, to be able to perform in front of live crowds four to five nights a week ... doing interviews, doing meet-and-greets and being pulled every which direction and still having time to work out and eat healthy.”
He began his career with an early prototype of the Ryback persona inspired by the Terminator, before creating the character, country bumpkin Skip Sheffield, that would earn him a promotion to WWE.
A broken leg soon sidelined Reeves for more than a year, allowing him to abandon the Skip Sheffield moniker and reintroduce Ryback. In 2012, his original character returned without the Terminator gimmick.
“I was very angry, had a chip on my shoulder, and that came across on camera,” he says.
With his retooled persona came a resurgence in his professional fortunes. But after being placed on the losing end of multiple bouts for the World Heavyweight Championship, Reeves’ star began to wane, and he seemed destined to close his career as a mid-card time-filler at WWE events.
“I felt we had lightning in a bottle very early on, and we let that go,” he says. “And I had to take a few steps back and regroup, and I’ve come back at this thing with a whole new game plan. This is the first time I’ve had some really, really good momentum on my side.”
Ryback has since become more than a vent for Reeves’ frustrations. As the character has established itself as a WWE mainstay, Reeves has found new shades by continuing to merge his real and fictional selves, opening himself to fans in the process.
“The intensity and the anger, that is all who I am, but there’s so much more than that,” he says. “It just takes time to let people in, because if you let them in too soon, they might not understand it, but then over time, it just has a much better feel and pace to it, and it has been much better received that way.”
In May, Reeves claimed the Intercontinental Championship, a second-tier belt that has historically served as a launching pad to the World Heavyweight Championship. Though the Intercontinental Championship’s luster has faded in recent years, Reeves hopes to restore its prestige by finally claiming WWE’s highest honor.
How does he plan to clear this last hurdle? Through attention to detail and a series of small, steady improvements.
“It’s watching one more match when I’m home every day than I was doing before,” Reeves says. “Instead of doing 100 burpees for my conditioning, I do 125 or 150. So it’s just making small improvements upon everything that I was already doing, and I’m already seeing the difference of that.”
If Reeves plays his cards right, those incremental changes may earn him the ultimate payoff.
What Ryback vs. The Big Show vs. The Miz at WWE Battleground • When 6:30 p.m. Sunday • Where Scottrade Center, 1401 Clark Avenue • How much $35.15-$469.90 • More info Ticketmaster.com