When it comes to betting on himself outside of the ring, Ryan Reeves, better known in the wrestling world as Ryback, has made a career out of it. Now, one month after being granted his request for release from WWE, at the peak of his pro wrestling prime at age 34, the self-proclaimed "Big Guy" is ready for his true all-in moment.
The former Intercontinental champion began the process in recent weeks to legally change his first name to Ryback, and he's ready to find out the true power of his own brand after a series of creative disagreements led to his abrupt departure from WWE. Reeves admits he's taking "one hell of a risk" by venturing out on his own, but free from the demanding travel schedule and entrepreneurial restrictions he says became an issue for him as a WWE superstar, he couldn't be any happier about his decision.
"Life is not fair and everywhere you go there is politics and you are going to be lied to, that's why I'm taking control of my life as a creative human being," Reeves told ESPN.com. "My success is on me and my failure is on me. I have no doubt that I will be successful no matter what I do because I always have been and I have always overcome."
Reeves, who first caught the attention of WWE in 2004 as a contestant on "Tough Enough," has persevered through myriad career hurdles that followed, from being sent home in 2007 to overcoming a career-threatening ankle injury in 2011. Along the way, he butted heads with WWE's creative throughout a series of inconsistent pushes he believes were designed to bury him.
Twelve years after beginning the journey to become a pro wrestler, Reeves has finally attained the one thing he has coveted most: an opportunity to control his destiny and succeed or fail on his terms.
"I'm so happy because I'm not being told no and I am reaping 100 percent of the rewards," Reeves said. "I'm also not getting less than $1 for a $30 T-shirt."
Reeves has been a busy man of late, launching a website featuring his personal line of merchandise, workout apparel and nutritional supplements. Last month, he started a podcast with wrestler and promoter Pat Buck called "Conversations With The Big Guy." In November, he plans to release a motivational book. He also signed on to be a brand ambassador for the El Pollo Loco restaurant chain.
With recovery from recent ear and nose surgery complete, Reeves plans to return to the ring in October, working weekends for various independent promotions, including a tour of Europe in December. But it's the ability to share his message at an even deeper level with fans that remains the biggest motivating factor for Reeves, who says his walking away from a three-year, $1.5 million contract offer was never about the money.
"I believe I am the baddest f---ing guy in the ring when I am out there and that is all that it takes [to get over with fans]," Reeves said. "I live my life like that, with that intensity and passion, with everything I do. I have a growth mindset, I don't have a fixed mindset. I thrive on challenges and pushing myself."
Raised in Las Vegas, Reeves grew up an accomplished athlete, excelling in football and baseball in high school. Both his uncle, Randy St. Claire, and grandfather, Ebba St. Claire, had Major League Baseball careers. But Reeves' dream had always been to be a pro wrestler and he developed an insatiable work ethic at a young age.
"It all stems from my childhood when I learned to start competing against myself and not trying to compete with others and just try to be my very best each and every day," Reeves said. "No matter what I do, I'm bettering myself. Whether I love something or I don't, I have enough pride and enough respect in myself where I'm going to give it everything that I have."
Reeves created the Ryback character while still in WWE's developmental territory in 2008 as an extension of his personality. He calls his obsession with fitness and self-improvement not so much a disease as a gift, driving him to wake up hungry.
But for as over as Ryback has been since debuting on SmackDown in 2012, there was a limit to the depth of his character WWE was willing to portray. The more Reeves, an avid reader, attempted to transition Ryback away from a "cookie cutter" monster to expose multidimensional layers, he was met with resistance from WWE chairman Vince McMahon.
"Vince has that old school, tough guy persona," Reeves said. "I have had many talks with him where he said, 'Well, they don't want to hear you talking about books.' Well, why not? I can go out there and talk about whatever I want. But when that red light goes on and I'm out there fighting, you're never going to question me. You're not going to go, 'What a dork, that guy reads books. What a sissy.' No, I kick ass."
If seeds of discontent had been planted inside of Reeves for years, it was a backstage conversation with McMahon early in 2016 that watered his desire to leave. According to Reeves, McMahon told him he's the hardest-working guy in the company, but added that "hard work doesn't always pay off here."
"That was all I needed to hear," Reeves said. "That to me was him telling me that no matter what I did there, it wasn't going to matter. I wasn't fitting in and I wasn't in that little circle."
Reeves, who says his WWE career was a series of missed opportunities for the company, walked away for good on May 3 when he asked to be pulled off television, convinced his dwindling TV time and consistent placement on pay-per-view pre-shows was WWE's way of burying him despite his strong merchandise sales. Ultimately, for the success of his character, wins and losses mattered to Reeves.
"I would go get myself over with their TV time and then on the big moments when I needed to win, they never let me win," Reeves said. "The name of the game is winning, point blank. It doesn't take a genius to realize that and looking at me with my style and that intensity, if you don't win the big ones from time to time, it's really hard to get some momentum.
"But when I am given two minutes to go out there and lose? You can't have a guy look like me go out there and lose in two minutes. You can't do it. You are telling [the fans] that he is a piece of s--- and they know that."
While Reeves credits WWE for building and maintaining a strong brand, he feels that crossover superstars like John Cena are a dying breed and will never be allowed to grow to that level again because of the individual control their popularity provides them.
"Cena was the last marquee guy we will ever see where [WWE] will give somebody that much power because I feel they have been burned in the past," Reeves said. "Probably because of how they treat people, where it comes back to bite them in the ass, rather than just treating people with respect and dignity."
Reeves believes that NXT, WWE's developmental third brand, was created, in part, to counteract that problem from a company standpoint.
"They have a breeding ground in NXT where essentially they have wrestling robots," Reeves said. "They have that manufacturing line that they can bring up at any time. They run you into the ground and then you can be replaced by somebody who is not making a lot of money, who they can just plug him back in. The WWE brand is as strong as ever but I've always said their goal should be to get each individual brand over as much as possible. That's not the case and they know that."
While Reeves isn't looking to burn a bridge with WWE following his departure, he's also not willing to remain silent about the current conditions that wrestlers compete under. From lack of time off and no offseason ( which he says creates injuries), to being forced to pay for travel and hotel costs, Reeves says WWE needs to hold itself accountable.
"I want to make this better for future wrestlers," Reeves said. "[WWE] needs to evolve. Just because they got away with it in the past doesn't make it right. We are in 2016 and we are real-life human beings who are the core of the brand."
While Reeves says he understands why so many current and former superstars are unwilling to speak up out of fear of losing a payday, he's past that point and isn't concerned about whether he one day returns to WWE. Instead, he's motivated to help make sure things are different for future generations.
"Every talent there feels the same way and I take pride in challenging Vince to do the right thing," Reeves said. "I don't mean this as a knock to WWE or Vince McMahon, but as a challenge to evolve the business and leave it in a far better place not only for himself and his family, but for the men and women who dedicated their lives to the business.
"It just takes one moment to make a change for the better and investing in the health and wealth of each individual brand will create more loyalty and a better work atmosphere amongst the talent."
Reeves looks back on his WWE run with full belief that he was never going "to be their guy" and was never supposed to get over to the level he was able to. He did pretty damn well for himself, he says, and is excited to see how much of an impact his message can have upon fans now that he's free to be himself.
"It's so touching to see how much I've been able to impact and influence people," Reeves said. "I'm hoping they stay with me because it goes way deeper than with pro wrestling. Now, with the motivational stuff, I get to do what I truly love and hopefully influence people. Even if it's just one person out of the millions, hopefully I have done my job."