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          1. WWE
            Michael Wonsover 100d

            How two WWE superstars created their own path to success using action figures

            HICKSVILLE, N.Y. -- Before Zack Ryder and Curt Hawkins became the youngest WWE tag champions in history, traveled halfway around the globe together, and grew to be as close a pair of friends as you will find in the wrestling business, they were bitter enemies.

            When they started training at ECW veteran Mikey Whipwreck's wrestling school in 2003, Ryder and Hawkins were the same age (18), had practically identical looks, were both born and raised on Long Island, and wanted to outcompete each other on a daily basis. Their relationship would stay that way until one day they were paired up as a tag team -- against their wishes -- forcing the rivals to coexist.

            They quickly learned they shared a lot in common, including a passion for pro wrestling -- but it was a more niche common interest that quickly helped them make the switch from bitter rivals to best friends.

            "The icebreaker was the wrestling figure thing," Hawkins recalled, just before a live podcast event at the Create A Pro Wrestling Academy he co-founded in 2014. Their bond, forged through collecting figures -- from LJNs in the '80s, to Habros in the early '90s, to Jakks Pacific from the mid-90s to 2009, to the modern day Mattel line -- has never been stronger.

            "We realized, 'Woah, wait, you're 18 and you play with wrestling figures too? So do I, let's be friends," Ryder said with a laugh as he sat next to Hawkins.

            To this day, at 34 years old, Hawkins and Ryder figure hunt while on the road, scouring Walmarts, Targets and thrift stores across the country searching for new additions to their mountain-sized collections. Their obsession spilled out into social media, which helped connect them with fans, and evolved to include a weekly podcast.

            Hawkins and Ryder-- born Brian Myers and Matthew Cardona, respectively -- signed with the WWE together in 2006, and then debuted together as a team on the revived ECW brand in 2007. Early in their WWE careers, Hawkins and Ryder weren't quite so open about their collections with the rest of the locker room.

            "It was weird back then, because the business was so different," Hawkins said. "We were so young -- we made it to the main roster at 22-years old -- so we were the first guys of our generation to make it there. Our generation grew up with wrestling cartoons and toys and bed sheets and video games, and it was all geared towards kids, whereas a lot of those hardened veterans on the roster when we got called up, it wasn't like that when they grew up. I think they thought we were weird or immature, and now everyone on the roster ..."

            "Everyone collects something," Ryder chimed in. "Xavier Woods has his very successful video game channel, UpUpDownDown. Everyone's into comic books. Now the long bus rides overseas, everyone's on their iPad playing a game or watching a movie. Everyone's into something. We're into wrestling figures.

            "I wasn't proud about it. I wasn't bragging. I wasn't like, 'Hey [Under]taker, look at this new Titantron line figure I got.' Now, we'll go toy hunting on the road and I'll bring my bags into the locker room. I don't care."

            Ryder had been thinking about ideas for how he could branch out creatively when the thought of expanding his daily conversations with Hawkins into something more crossed his mind.

            "I wanted to do a podcast, but I knew that I wanted it to be different," Ryder said. "I knew if we did it, it would have to be about something within wrestling, and that just happened to be wrestling figures. We're so passionate about it, we talk about it every day anyway, so why not talk about it and try to get some other listeners to listen?"

            In April 2018, as part of the Superstar Shakeup, Ryder moved from SmackDown to Raw, where he was reunited with Hawkins. With their work schedules (and collective free time) lined up, they officially launched the Major Wrestling Figure Podcast -- a callback to their first tag team name in WWE. Over the past nine months, the podcast has provided a creative outlet for Ryder and Hawkins outside of the direct backing of the WWE machine.

            At that point in their WWE careers, Hawkins was in the midst of a historic losing streak -- a storyline he says "transformed my career" -- but many of those losses took place at house shows or Main Event tapings far away from the majority of WWE's viewing audience. Ryder, similarly confined to Main Event, didn't make his first appearance on WWE television until that December.

            But even as they couldn't find time on WWE TV, Ryder and Hawkins made time every week to chat for an hour and a half about wrestling figures.

            Hawkins and Ryder also began to build up their profiles as figure heads within the WWE. Their obsession made them the perfect WWE representatives to talk about new WWE toy releases in a variety of YouTube appearances, including a visit to Mattel headquarters.

            They didn't have ulterior motives or grand visions of a return to prominence when working on these projects -- like Ryder had with his YouTube series Z! True Long Island Story in 2011 -- but the visibility didn't hurt.

            Despite Ryder being one of the longest-tenured stars in the WWE, dating to his and Hawkins' debut and their run to the tag team titles in 2008, he struggled to remain on TV as a featured player. With a few notable exceptions, like his Intercontinental championship win at WrestleMania 32, Ryder had to fight for any TV time he got -- even going to Orlando, Florida, and teaming with Mojo Rawley in NXT to try to change the equation.

            Hawkins similarly experienced struggles to remain on TV despite several attempts to rebrand his character. He was released from WWE in 2014 and made a run through a variety of different independent organizations, all while establishing the CAP school and training the next generation of wrestlers. Shortly after his return to WWE in 2016, Hawkins began a losing streak that would carry all the way into 2019.

            As their following grew on multiple platforms, Hawkins and Ryder were officially reunited as a team on Raw in January, for the first time since 2008. The timing felt like more than just a coincidence.

            "Maybe the podcast did have something to do with it -- I think in the fan's eyes it definitely did," Ryder said. "They saw us together again, they saw the natural chemistry that we had, and I think it was just a perfect time where he's in the middle of this incredible losing streak and he needs someone to get him out of that -- and me on the other side, I hadn't had a match on Monday Night Raw all year. I need some help getting out of my rut and, oh s---, there you are. The Major Brothers, back again."

            Ryder and Hawkins started to appear on Raw regularly, often in backstage segments playing up each other's struggles. They had matches together as a team -- all unsuccessful, which continued Hawkins' prolific losing streak -- but as WrestleMania drew near in April, they still weren't involved in any plans for WWE's biggest show of the year.

            As they prepared themselves to watch WrestleMania from the sidelines, in what was essentially their hometown venue at MetLife Stadium, Hawkins and Ryder were told on the Thursday before the event that they'd have a match after all.

            Four days later, Curt Hawkins and Zack Ryder beat The Revival at WrestleMania to become the Raw tag team champions, a decade after their first title win.

            "We've been around long enough that we know this is a roller-coaster ride. You can't be the world champion every single day," Ryder said. "I've been doing nothing, and then a month later won the Intercontinental title at WrestleMania. Things just happen, and that's how my career's been, that's how his career's been."

            Hawkins also ended his 269-match losing streak, and while most would be happy to throw that kind of weight off, but in retrospect, Hawkins is able to put it all in perspective.

            "I try to pull the positives out of any situation. I mean, that's how the streak was born," Hawkins said. "Everyone can't be Roman Reigns. Would we want to be? Yeah, of course. But that's just not the way the world works. At the end of the day we're living our childhood dreams, and being paid very well for it and very fortunate."

            Ryder and Hawkins could be tag team champions for six weeks or six months, but they're both happy with where their journeys have led them today.

            "I don't necessarily believe in fate, but it was meant to happen," Ryder said. "These two kids who grew up 15-20 minutes from each other their whole lives and never knew each other, and then they meet at wrestling school. Then we get signed together. At the time, they weren't really signing tag teams together. Exact same day, same tryout. Went through developmental together, debuted on TV together."

            Said Hawkins: "We could both never wrestle again and I could look back and say, 'Wow, I think I've already went above and beyond my childhood expectations and dreams of what we've been able to do.' That being said, we're never satisfied. My current goal is to keep people invested in Zack and I as a team. At the end of the day we don't really have a gimmick anymore. We're just Brian and Matt, two kids that like wrestling and our fans are the same. They see themselves within us, and I think that's a really cool connection."

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