WWE's Nowhere Man
Dean Ambrose is always close to breaking through, but never fully has.
Screen capture via YouTube/WWE
We keep waiting for it to be Dean Ambrose’s time. It keeps not happening. WrestleMania season is drawing near and another Royal Rumble, on January 27th, kicks it off. Ambrose, a star in waiting, is once again adrift, his storylines wrapping up with him as the loser and nothing obvious in sight.
Ambrose is a talker, but WWE is a place where even the best talkers are constrained by writers, production directives, and homogeneity of the heel/babyface dynamic—babyfaces are kind of dumb, heels blame things on “you people” while pointing to the crowd. The system swallows you up unless you’re John Cena, who embraced the WWE’s idea of a babyface at a deep level and ran with it for a decade and a half, or you’ve proven that you can make enough money that you can do something different, like Chris Jericho.
That last bit is a terrible bind. If your best skills are character building and mic work, and they won’t let you do it because you haven’t proven you can draw, how can you ever prove you can draw? It’s the thing about WWE which scared the All Elite Wrestling crew away for years. Cody Rhodes lived that life, telling stories about taking ideas to the writers and having them dismissed almost immediately. It’s not about art, but money: if your strongest skill is self-creation, why make less money by giving it up?
Good question, in the case of Ambrose. He turned heel the same night that Roman Reigns announced his cancer had returned, a remarkably clever bit of work by WWE. Reigns, Ambrose, and Seth Rollins were, of course, The Shield, a dominant faction from the early part of the decade which split up when Rollins betrayed his “brothers.” Ambrose and Rollins reunited to win the tag titles as a feel-good closer to a night which began with the cancer announcement. It was to send the fans home happy and to serve as a tribute to Reigns.
Watch the faces in the crowd when Ambrose beats Rollins up after the match. The shock and even dismay in the audience is real. This was fire, the clear launching pad for Ambrose to become the company’s top heel. And, initially, that was the case, as he was ruthlessly booed for the next couple of weeks.
But it dissipated in the aforementioned lockstep of how a WWE heel behaves. Ambrose cut a kind of cool promo in a darkened parking lot, but that mostly faded to the standard arena promos where the heel runs down the audience. He started dressing like Bane from The Dark Knight Rises; whoever’s idea that was—and few ideas have zero input from the WWE wrestlers working them—going to the well of a seven year old cultural reference is always a mistake.
Ambrose and Rollins had a fine but nothing special feud, partly because, again, Ambrose is at his best as a talker, not an in-ring performer. What started as a terrible betrayal, not least of the stricken Reigns, became just another feud, with just more promos and just the same moves. Ambrose won the Intercontinental title from Rollins, held it for a month, then lost it to Bobby Lashley, who will go on to feud with someone else.
It didn’t have to be this way. If the original Shield promos have faded from your mind, go back and watch them. Reigns looms in the background and Rollins is uncomfortable but passable. What kicks The Shield off is Ambrose’s promo skills. He’s magnetic, with a cadence and believability the others, both far more successful since, lack. In the earliest promos, the three are in “undisclosed locations”: boiler rooms, basements, utility closets, and the like. The scenery feels menacing, but only Ambrose is menacing.
That’s what Ambrose could have, should have, made his career on. Being in the middle of a well-lit arena isn’t menacing. Being a babyface in a capital-A anarchy shirt isn’t menacing. Darkened rooms and threats of violence which you can believe if you relinquish your disbelief is menacing.
It’s amazing that Ambrose hasn’t been able to do more in this vein. Ostensibly, this is why WWE signed him at all. In his indie days, he was a brawling, ranting marvel. If you didn’t sign him to play to his strengths, why sign him at all?
As it is, Ambrose is always close to breaking through, but never fully has. His hottest run was in 2016, when he won the WWE championship. In the months leading up to his win, he was hot. The crowd roared when he’d show up. But WWE never quite seemed to trust him in the way they do Reigns or Brock Lesnar and, to a lesser extent, Rollins or A.J. Styles. The reactions slowly cooled because, at some point, you pull the trigger or a wrestler can’t be the top person without a complete rebuild; see the disastrous way WWE has handled Braun Strowman’s rise and fall for a more obvious example.
The heel turn was supposed to be that rebuild for Ambrose. After the pitch perfect timing of the turn, which also betrayed audience sympathy for him after a triceps injury shelved him for most of 2018, this was it. And it’s simply petered out, just like the other ones.
It could be better for him and it seems pretty simple: cut him loose. Let Dean Ambrose be the next Brian Pillman, a ranting, unpredictable loudmouth who can needle the audience like nobody else. He has the chops. He just needs the opportunity.