For most pro-wrestling fans, their first real glimpse of Dean Ambrose in action came on December 16, when he and his colleagues in The Shield won their WWE on-screen debut in a six-man Tables, Ladders and Chairs (TLC) match against Kane, Ryback and Daniel Bryan. It was, without question, one of the most impressive “debuts” in the recent history of the sport. For three “rookies” to not only hold their own, but to win in decisive fashion against two former world champions and a likely future champion in Ryback demonstrated the great value WWE has put on Ambrose, Seth Rollins and Roman Reigns.
That said, a certain percentage of the wrestling audience that night was able to put that match in broader context, to see it not only as the brilliant arrival of three new characters, but also as the present culmination of the individual journeys all three young men have taken to reach that point. In the case of Ambrose, that journey is all the more remarkable: Over the course of the past decade, he has worked his way up from the very bottom of the industry to a place that is, if not quite yet the very top, certainly someplace a little bit higher and far more special that the oft-maligned WWE mid-card, which for many talents has proven to be the functional equivalent of the Bermuda Triangle. That Shield were able to basically leapfrog so many guys on the roster in their first month on the air shocked many observers, but it was hardly any surprise to those of us who’ve followed Ambrose’s path to success.
A 2011 DVD release in Smart Mark Video’s “Best On the Indies” series helps put all this in context, offering a pretty comprehensive look at Dean Ambrose when he was known as Jon Moxley on the independent circuit. The “Dean Ambrose” character was born upon his arrival at FCW (now a rebooted NXT), the WWE developmental territory in Florida run by Dusty Rhodes and Steve Keirn. This DVD shows the viewer what WWE saw in Moxley when they signed him in April 2011. It would be imprecise to say that Ambrose and Moxley are the same character, although they are portrayed by the same guy. Both are wild and unpredictable, their promos laced with menace, but Ambrose’s fury is much more contained, focused, directed.
Jon Moxley could’ve never been in The Shield, because he didn’t trust anyone. He entered FCW with a head of steam after running wild across the indies in 2010, and set himself apart immediately with the most intense promos ever cut in that company, augmented with a series of game-changing bouts against Damien Sandow and future Shield teammate Seth Rollins (who, as Tyler Black, was Ring of Honor champion for seven months).
What really put him on the mainstream wrestling map, however, was his two matches against William Regal, widely-viewed as one of the greatest pro-wrestlers of all-time. It was a “passing of the torch” kind of angle, which played out over the course of a year: Ambrose baited Regal into a match, which he reluctantly accepted despite a suspicion that Ambrose would end his career someday; Regal beats Ambrose in brutal fashion, giving him a shoulder injury that would allow Ambrose to steal the ol’ Martin Riggs “pop it back into socket” gimmick from Lethal Weapon; Ambrose broods for a year, getting increasingly unhinged as Regal refuses to grant him a rematch; then, finally, he gets it, in the last match of the last episode of FCW, and destroys Regal. Between the stuff with Regal and the stuff with Rollins, Ambrose exposed himself as one of the versatile and convincing workers anywhere, and it’s hardly surprising that WWE saw fit to bring him to the main roster in such strong fashion.
Much like the Sara Del Rey DVD reviewed here last year, this box-set begins with an interview with Moxley; it runs over two hours, and finds him detailing some of his personal background, as well as his entry into pro-wrestling, his experiences in various places along the way, and his overall views on the business. Such features are always interesting, but especially so in this case, because one of Moxley’s drawing-cards in the ring has been his exquisite sense of ring-psychology. Born in Cincinnatti, OH, the six-four, 225-pound Moxley was never a high-spot artist who dazzled the crowd with somersaults, nor was he a suplexing MMA acolyte. Like fellow WWE stars Wade Barrett and Antonio Cesaro, Moxley was a throwback to the old-school; his style was all about aggression, energy and logic. Even when his character was depicted as basically a full-on lunatic, one always had the suspicion that he hadn’t lost nearly as many brain-cells as he would have us think.
Years later, that suspicion would be borne out at TLC, where Ambrose took the finishers of all three of his opponents, yet still somehow managed to leave the ring on his own two feet. Watching the announcers express their shock at Ambrose’s casual facility with the items of plunder laid out for the match was a laugh-out-loud moment for smart marks nationwide; “Of course Dean Ambrose knows how to use a chair,” they might say; “Have you ever heard of Jon Moxley? Duhhh!” Moxley, you see, was a two-time former CZW Heavyweight Champion. His two reigns had a combined length of 357 days, broken up only by a seven-day reign by Nick Gage; during that time, Moxley competed in some of the most brutal matches held in this country in recent memory. What elevated these hardcore bloodbaths from the common, boring “garbage wrestling” shtick was Moxley’s persona.
The 14 matches included in this set are drawn mainly from his run in Combat Zone Wrestling (CZW) in 2009 and 2010; there are also matches from his early years in the Heartland Wrestling Association (HWA). Sadly, there is none of his work as leader of Kamikaze USA in Dragon Gate USA, nor his matches from Evolve, though one suspects that material will be packaged for wider release soon enough. There are also none of the promos on which Moxley made such a big part of his reputation. He is, without question, one of the best talkers in wrestling over the last few years, and his work in FCW/NXT/WWE so far offers just a glimpse of what he can do. It’s unclear what specific stuff drew the attention of WWE, though he notes in the interview that he’d already wrestled some dark matches against MNM and the Big Show some years ago, so maybe they were always following his career.
Moxley’s CZW title defenses against Nick Gage and “The Ego” Robert Anthony were incredibly brutal, as well as a barbed-wire match against archrival Drake Younger from WXW; they are among the highlights here. The Death Match style can be widely-seen in the US and Japan, and most of it manages somehow to be boring despite the extreme gore. Moxley’s work in that genre is more reminiscent of a Terry Funk-type, in the sense that all the crazy spots are used to punctuate the psychology, not to define it. It becomes less about “When will Moxley hit the wire?” and more about “Will Moxley hit the wire at all?” It’s a crucial distinction, in terms of keeping the audience’s attention. This creates a lot more narrative tension early on, while nicely offsetting the violence that comes later. The match with Anthony, in particular, belongs in any serious anthology of the modern-day Death Match style.
Watching this material certainly helps give last year’s brief, aborted Ambrose-Foley feud some needed context. But what also comes through quite clearly is that, like Funk, Moxley didn’t need weapons to sustain the crowd’s attention; that, of course, made his usage of them all the more compelling when it happened. Two matches feature Sami Callihan, who himself has also become a huge name on the indie scene. As the Switchblade Conspiracy, they were one of the dominant stables in CZW. In this set, they team to face Cheech and Cloudy (aka Up In Smoke) in a tag match where, in a fairly rare occurrence (outside of Dragon Gate, anyway), Moxley is actually the biggest guy in the ring; watching him doing power spots as the heel makes for hilarious viewing, which presumably was the point. Later, they face each other in an excellent match for Moxley’s CZW title.
Personally, my favorite match in this set is a time-limit draw with Davey Richards from HWA in February 2010; it’s only 15 minutes, but could have easily gone much longer. Richards, a trained paramedic who studies Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu on the side, is one of the best wrestlers in the world today—a former world champion for Full Impact Pro (FIP) and Pro-Wrestling Guerilla (PWG) who’s also held tag-team gold in New Japan. He’s best-known, of course, for his work in Ring of Honor. Out of 17 ROH World Champions, his 321-day reign (which paved the way for Kevin Steen) was the fourth-longest in ROH history; only Bryan (462), Nigel McGuiness (545) and Samoa Joe (645) held that belt longer. In other words, Richards is as technically-adept as it gets these days, and Moxley’s ability to hang with a guy of that caliber with no gimmicks or tomfoolery surely turned some heads, because he won three world titles in the next six months.
Whereas the indie scene and its plugged-in fanbase was once the stuff of ridicule on WWE TV, recent years have seen a massive influx of talent from that very realm. Not only were the talents ready to perform on that level, but social media, YouTube, podcasts and other web-based platforms proved that they were verifiably marketable. That logic has proven spot-on in the cases of CM Punk, Daniel Bryan, Sandow and Cesaro, with more coming on an almost weekly basis. As nominal leader of The Shield, Dean Ambrose is the next stage in the evolution of this business model, and he’s already demonstrated his ability to run with the ball. The man’s been calling himself the future of wrestling for years now, and it appears increasingly possible that he may be correct. Stories From the Streets shows us how that future began.