Matt Riddle's journey to WWE superstar has always felt improbable, transitioning from an ugly end to his UFC career after multiple failed drug tests for marijuana to a breakout run as an independent wrestler and finally to WWE. That journey hit another milestone at SummerSlam with Riddle winning the Raw tag team championship alongside his RK-Bro partner, Randy Orton.
The championship is Riddle's second on the WWE main roster, following a run as United States champion that ended at WrestleMania. The fact that his latest victory came at the most successful SummerSlam in history -- an event that set revenue, viewership and attendance records -- was all the sweeter.
Despite Riddle's earlier title run, teaming with Orton is what has helped Riddle break through to a new level of stardom, serving as someone whose storylines can anchor a major part of WWE programming.
"I'm feeling pretty good, you know," Riddle told CBS Sports. "I'm feeling even better that it happened at SummerSlam in front of 51,000 people, breaking records on merch and everything else. Not only did I become a Raw tag team champion, but I did it with my best bro, my best bud, my stallion compadre, Randy Orton. For me, it's been a marvelous, amazing ride. SummerSlam, with all the people and the merch and seeing RK-Bro shirts everywhere. It was insane, bro. It was awesome. It was sick. It was cool."
Riddle and Orton follow in a long tradition of "odd couple" tag teams in WWE, pairings with two very different personalities who somehow make for a perfect team. Riddle's relentless optimism pairs with Orton's rough edges and aggression in ways that call back to classic tag teams like The Rock and Mankind.
The idea for the team stemmed from an off-handed joke from Riddle that blossomed when both men were free of any other storyline obligations.
"A couple of weeks before WrestleMania, I made a joke and said, 'How awesome would it be if me and Randy teamed up and called ourselves RK-Bro,'" Riddle said. "The writers and everybody laughed at me. Sometimes you just have to plant that seed and eventually, it happens. I lost the United States championship at WrestleMania and Randy beat The Fiend, so we were already done with our particular stories and kind of found each other. I think it was originally not supposed to be what it is today, but we were both pushing for it. We both wanted to work together and at the end of the day when two people are passionate about something, it's really hard to tell them no.
"With the odd couple dynamic, I look at it like this, in real life, that's how relationships are. They're usually not two people that are identical. Most tag teams are, 'Oh, we're two guys and we're exactly the same and we do the same stuff and we're the team.' Well, in my reality, most teams, couples or groups fill in the gaps for each other. I think me and Randy are so different but so similar and we can fill in each other's gaps. Whatever I'm lacking, he fills in and whatever he's lacking, I fill. Together, it makes a perfect unit."
Riddle's UFC career came to an end in 2013. He had won four consecutive fights, though two were overturned to no contests after Riddle's failed drug tests. Riddle was legally prescribed medical marijuana at the time, but the drug was still banned by athletic commissions. At the time of Riddle's release, UFC president Dana White said Riddle was released because he was "a moron" for his continued marijuana use.
Once Riddle transitioned to professional wrestling, quickly becoming a star on a then-booming independent wrestling scene, many fans believed his lifestyle would prevent him from a run with WWE, with worries that Riddle would run afoul of the company's "wellness policy." Instead, Riddle has thrived, both in WWE's NXT brand and as a member of the Raw roster.
"For me, it's one of those things where it felt for so long like people wanted me to change who I was and change who I am and be a certain way and act a certain way and dress a certain way," Riddle said. "I could have done that and I did conform here and there. But at the end of the day, I was either going to be happy and be myself or be miserable trying to make everybody else happy. Honestly, the day I stopped caring about what other people wanted from me and focused on myself and my happiness is the day I became super successful and got where I wanted to be.
"For me, it was hard because I got fired from the UFC for my lifestyle and got punished. I had a lot of people that stopped talking to me, like, 'Oh, you're a loser. You got fired.' It was brutal but for me, it was like a filter. I tend to deal with certain things and filter out certain people. There were people I thought we were cool and that's happened with the UFC and with my lifestyle and everything. Now, to be at SummerSlam in front of 51,000 people and to see the merchandise flying off the shelves -- when I got to the merchandise table and I can't even get my own shirt or hat, because they're already sold out? Bro. To know it's my hard work that did that and that I didn't give up on myself and believed that I wouldn't let people tell me what to do. People were saying, 'You're wrong. You're wrong.' No, I'm not wrong. I'm right and you're wrong trying to tell me how to live my life.
"Now, I live my life the way I want to and kept living my life the way I wanted to. Now, I'm on top of this game. Just be yourself and it will all come in time. For me, that was it. It was a grind and a journey and there were times where I thought I should change who I was, but I would have been miserable. The more I'm myself, the more people like me and can relate to me. It feels amazing staying true to myself even if it got me fired from the UFC or if I didn't get jobs earlier in my career. The juice was worth the squeeze and I proved I was right."