Most of the people who end up in the world of professional wrestling got into the business because they loved it from the first time they saw it. They spend years training and working as hard as they can to get their big break, and for a fortunate few, the dream of realizing a WWE career becomes a reality.
But what happens when the lights turn off? Depending on how that career ends, some continue to ply their craft outside of the WWE, or transition into training or a producing role behind the scenes. For Adam "Edge" Copeland, however, those options really weren't on the table with the way his in-ring career abruptly ended in 2011. After successfully defending the World Heavyweight Championship at WrestleMania XXVII in what would ultimately be his final match, Edge stepped into the ring on Raw the next night and announced that the effects of a previously broken neck would prevent him from being cleared to wrestle ever again.
Copeland was no longer a world champion, no longer a WWE superstar. He faced the realities of his future. What would be next for a man who turned his lifelong fandom into a career pursuit at age 17 and became one of the biggest stars of his era?
By the end of 2011, a light began to form at the end of the tunnel as Copeland began making recurring appearances on the SyFy show "Haven." However, in those moments, he didn't see it as much more than a temporary gig.
"I had no aspirations after wrestling. I truly just assumed I would retire, grow a big beard, sit on my deck and figure out what was next," said Copeland to ESPN.com. "If it was nothing, I was OK with that. I pretty much immediately did 'Haven,' but still had no kind of false aspirations that this was something that I'd be good at, or would want to do outside of just a couple episodes. It'd be fun, and that will be that."
Copeland went into the WWE Hall of Fame in 2012, and outside of a few one-off appearances and "The Edge and Christian Show That Totally Reeks of Awesomeness," a short-lived skit-based show on the WWE Network alongside longtime partner in crime Jay "Christian" Reso, Copeland put his wrestling career behind him. He became a cast regular on "Haven" and began a relationship with fellow former WWE superstar Beth Phoenix that led to their marriage and two daughters.
Along the way, he realized what acting could mean to him in his life.
"I got the bug. I really started to enjoy the creative process, and realized that I needed a creative outlet," said Copeland. "Otherwise, I would probably go insane because that's the way my mind works. I like to be doing something creative. Once the second season of 'Haven' rolled around, I really started to attack this acting thing and finally admitted, 'OK, I'm an actor now. This is what I'm doing. This is my new career.'"
As "Haven" wrapped in 2015, Copeland shot a WWE Films feature, Interrogation, but stepped back in mid-2016 as he and Beth welcomed their second child. He enjoyed the chance to be at home with his daughters and have no other demands on his time, but continued to build a mental list of challenges he wanted to tackle in the world of acting.
"One of the things that I wanted to do post-'Haven' is go after some shows I was a fan of already, and 'Vikings' was on the list," said Copeland. "We had our second child, Ruby, and I was waiting for Beth to give me the okay to audition for stuff again. Six weeks after we had her, she said 'You know, go. Audition again.' And the first audition that came through was 'Vikings.'"
"Vikings," which kicks off its fifth season on the History Channel on Wednesday night, is a historical drama following the lives of fictionalized versions of Viking chieftain Ragnar Lothbrok and other Norse characters around the eighth century A.D. It's a dramatic departure for Copeland, whose character Ketill Flatnose debuts in the fifth episode of the season.
"It's a period piece, it's a drama," said Copeland. "There are accents. There are a lot of different challenges that went into this -- challenges that, from an acting perspective, I'd never had before. I wanted to see if I could do it. It's been a blast."
Not only did Copeland have to grow out his beard and wear period-appropriate clothing, he was also pushed to his physical limits while filming the production -- and, in Copeland's mind, therein lies the hook for wrestling fans who haven't yet discovered the show.
"It seems like a natural fit, honestly. A lot of people that like wrestling would like the physical aspect of this show," said Copeland. "If you see us rowing these Viking longships, we were rowing them in the Irish Sea or on lakes in Ireland. If you see fight scenes and battle scenes, it's because we were doing them."
Even as he's spent the last few months filming "Vikings" in Ireland, Copeland has continued to build the profile of another recent venture -- E&C's Pod of Awesomeness. After largely remaining outside of the pro wrestling bubble over the last five years, Copeland and Reso reunite for a weekly wrestling-based podcast that caught on in a hurry. But once again, it took Copeland a little while to figure out what it could be.
"It was one of those deals where Christian had approached me, because the company had approached him," recalled Copeland. "I said I didn't know -- there's like a thousand podcasts out there, what can we do that's different? How do we make ours different than the other hundred out there?
"It's different because it's us," Copeland continued, "Because of our banter and our chemistry, and the fact that we've been best friends for 33 years. You can't manufacture that. I think you can tell from listening to us that we're just two idiots having a good time, shooting the breeze like we would anyway, just more wrestling centric."
Their chemistry has always been a big part of the equation and the format which draws in both Beth and long-time friend Tommy Dreamer for occasional appearances have caught on unusually well. But the biggest drawing factor for the E&C Pod of Awesomeness has been the level of guests from WWE and elsewhere, and the candor they've had.
In back-to-back weeks they brought in John Cena and Randy Orton, WWE superstars with whom they had long-standing relationships, and they had drastically different but incredibly candid conversations on topics in wrestling that neither man had ever really discussed in such detail. They were open, honest and direct in a way they almost certainly wouldn't have been with almost any other interviewer.
The first time the podcast truly went viral, however, was when WWE superstar and current SmackDown general manager Daniel Bryan came on for more than two hours and discussed his hopes of one day competing in the ring once again despite failing to get cleared by WWE doctors due to concussion-based issues.
"We've just ended up talking, and what has come out has been what you've heard," said Copeland. "I think the only instance so far where I was surprised with how candid he was, was Bryan talking about the concussions. And a lot of that I didn't even know, so it was really eye-opening and interesting to see all the steps that he's taken with that.
"Everything else, that's pretty much what you get if Jay, Randy and I were in a car. Or if we sat down with John and just specifically talked wrestling."
For now, as Copeland enjoys his wrestling fandom from some distance and looks forward to an increasingly bright post-WWE future, he hopes that opportunities like Vikings continue to present themselves. Just as he gave everything he had to his in-ring career, he's thrown himself entirely into being the best performer he can be in a different arena.
"I think wrestling fans understand that I'm going to try other things and will give it a shot because of that. I think if they give this one a shot, if they aren't already fans, they will be," said Copeland. "I can say, for me personally, it's the most rewarding work I've done in acting so far -- and it's the biggest challenge."