Zack Ryder's battle cry--"Woo Woo Woo"--could conceivably offend pro wrestling purists who recognize that chant as belonging to one "Nature Boy" Ric Flair.
"It's a little different, it's my own little flavor," counters Ryder.
And there you have the dilemma that faces today's WWE Superstars: Can you capture what made past competitors iconic without coming off as a cheap facsimile?
To many the jury is still out on Merrick native Ryder, one of 30 entrants in Jan. 31's Royal Rumble (8 p.m., pay-per-view). But for a guy who endured countless snide remarks in the hallways of Calhoun High School for wearing wrestling T-shirts, holding up a WWE Tag Team Championship belt less than five years later and six miles away gives him the right to declare victory.
That magic moment came in July of 2008, when he teamed with Glen Cove native Curt Hawkins at Nassau Coliseum during The Great American Bash. His family was there, along with the friends he played wrestling video games with--the ones who didn't smirk when he entered Deer Park's New York Wrestling Connection in 2004 to train for the dream. (You can still go to YouTube and watch Ryder being gently admonished by announcer Joey Styles after his suggestive comment about enjoying the title belt with his girlfriend.)
For the wrestling business it was a meteoric rise, albeit one that came with a catch. Ryder and Hawkins got their big break in 2007 as doppelgängers/partners-in-crime for multi-time world champion Edge. It allowed the pair to jump into main-event feuds against legends they were barely old enough to drink a beer with. But it was also a complimentary role with a limited shelf life.
"I knew eventually I would have to create a fresh start, but at the time I was able to wrestle guys like the Undertaker, Shawn Michaels, Ric Flair, and that was not even two years into [my career in] WWE," says Ryder, who is still amazed that he faced guys whose action figures once adorned his room. "So the guys I got to wrestle in such a short period of time, it was definitely worth it. [And] to be with Edge, who was our leader, and guided us not only in the ring, but backstage, and life on the road and everything like that... I wouldn't trade it for the world."
He's now less than a year into his singles career, sporting the first one-legged tights in an athletic arena since Florence Griffith-Joyner, aka Flo-Jo, went there more than two decades ago. Throw in a cocky, ladies man persona that could have him moonlighting as an extra on Jersey Shore, and Ryder is one of the mainstays of ECW (Syfy, Tuesdays at 10 p.m.).
"When Curt Hawkins and I split up I knew I couldn't just be a regular guy," Ryder explains. "I needed something to stand out. And it's obvious looking at me, I don't look at all like anybody else."
This would be a pretty good time to stand out. WWE newbies like Drew McIntyre and Sheamus are getting a shot at carrying major singles titles as the company looks to find its next "Stone Cold" Steve Austin or The Rock. Ryder has enough on his plate coming from the same island as Mick Foley, which is equivalent to making your own mark as a pianist in the place that produced Billy Joel.
But Ryder isn't intimidated. When he marvels about seeing Shawn Michaels take on Razor Ramon live at Madison Square Garden during their classic WrestleMania X ladder match, it has the same spirit as another Garden attendance tale--Jimmy "Superfly" Snuka flying off a cage onto Don Muraco and setting Foley's life path.
"It just helps me to work harder," says Ryder of Foley. "To even be compared to someone like Mick Foley is an honor, to even be in the same sentence. So maybe one day eventually when my career is a little farther along there won't be such a difference between Zack Ryder and Mick Foley."
Ryder makes sure not to let ambition get in the way of fun, though. It blows his mind that he could be part of a new "Monday Night War" with WWE rival TNA, after wearing out the picture-in-picture on his TV watching the initial skirmish while in elementary school 15 years ago. He swears he's just a big kid who made it, and a recent WWE Magazine survey that ranked him the biggest fan among the wrestlers backs that up.
Ryder gives all the credit to his father, Bob Cardona, who took him to all the shows, bought him those T-shirts, paid for wrestling school when many parents would have balked, and to this day plays the proud pop who makes sure everybody knows that his boy, despite being born Matthew Cardona, is Zack Ryder.
While Ryder just moved from his hometown to Long Beach so he could step straight from his apartment to the sand, he's still close to those Merrick friends who will get together for the Rumble and guess what number he draws to enter the fray.
"I always had friends over, we always put bets on what number would win the Royal Rumble," says Ryder, who doesn't even turn 25 until May. "And this year I know my friends are going to be home watching it, and one of them them is going to pick my number. And I'm going to come out of the curtain and it'll be crazy for them to see me on TV. And it'll be crazy for me out there knowing that I could possibly win the Royal Rumble and go on to WrestleMania."