“They said we’d be artistically free
When we signed that bit of paper
They meant let’s make lots of money
And worry about it later”
The Clash – ‘Complete Control’
I will never forget June 21st 2011. At the time, my favourite wrestler in the world was CM Punk, and that had been the case more or less since his stunning match with Rey Mysterio in the finals of a tournament to determine the number one contender to the Intercontinental Title at Armageddon 2008. I had seen him claim a second Money in the Bank briefcase, turn heel on Jeff Hardy, lead the Straight Edge Society, become the best colour commentator since Paul Heyman left the booth, lead the New Nexus and on top of all that, put together a library of midcard classics in the ring. And then he tweeted this:
“I knew I was gone at the beginning of the year. I just woke up one day and I knew. That’s the way I work a lot of the time. I think it’s creepy too but it’s really helpful. I knew I’d be history by July.”
I was heartbroken; this was the wrestler who had brought me fully back into avid fandom after the middle 2000s turned me away. I wasn’t sure if WWE was worth watching without him; he was the single most creative performer they possessed at that time. We all know what happened next, of course. WWE captured lightning in a bottle by using fan knowledge of his impending departure in a ticking timebomb storyline against then WWE champion and poster boy John Cena. Using Cena as the representation of everything status quo, the company managed to construct one of the most iconic plots in wrestling history. At the height of it, Punk was handed a live microphone and told by an agent to “air his grievances”. The result was the epic “Pipe Bomb” promo which birthed the Reality Era and dragged WWE kicking and screaming into a more dynamic age. At some point in the timeline, Punk decided to stay with the company, and was rewarded with a run as the undisputed 1a in the company and a 400 day plus title reign to boot. But interestingly, the thing that had arguably frustrated him the most in 2011 was never truly resolved, and therefore the whole mess repeated itself in much less satisfying fashion in January 2014, when Punk left WWE the night after the Rumble and never returned.
And what we’re talking about here is creative control.
WWF, and later WWE, since the turn of the millennium, became a company completely averse to risk taking and creativity, a trend which only accelerated after the separate but sadly forever linked tragedies of Guerrero and Benoit. The corporate image of the company took a massive hit, and therefore required rebuilding around the family values represented by Cena. The problem here was that creativity – the lifeblood of pro wrestling since it came into existence – was completely hindered. Promos began to be scripted out in advance by Hollywood writers and learned off by heart by the wrestlers. TV became a depressingly static affair divided into disparate segments that seemed to have nothing to do with each other. Even the matches began to look the same as each other, overly planned out and dependent on the same tired tropes. Where a Bret Hart or a Mr Perfect had the freedom to map out masterpieces with just the finish planned out with an agent in advance, modern talent seemed constantly hindered by restrictions and petty diktats. Podcasters like Steve Austin, Edge and Chris Jericho have all remarked with surprise at how things are backstage when they have returned. Stone Cold, one of the most brilliant off the cuff stick men of all time being presented with a script? Insanity. You don’t need me to tell you that “Austin 3:16 says I just whupped your ass” was not a scripted promo.
Pro wrestlers are creative people. As the path to WWE increasingly ran through the indies, more and more performers used to getting themselves over have found themselves faced with a system where you have to get over whatever nonsense WWE have given you. Take Cody Rhodes, probably the biggest victim of this phenomenon during his time in New York. From the various iterations of Dashing Cody Rhodes to Stardust, he got everything over, and yet he never quite ascended to the next level. When he left though, it was fairly clear that this wasn’t about whether he was getting a push or not; it was about creative control. Allegedly Rhodes had mapped out a series of new character and storyline ideas to WWE writers and management and had been given little encouragement. The rest is, as they say, history: “The List”, an insanely successful run in the indies and in Japan, and now the birth of AEW. A creatively unfulfilled wrestler took a risk for the sake of his own enjoyment and creative satisfaction, and is now on the cusp of creating the first legitimate competitor to WWF/E since the heyday of WCW. One of AEW’s first signings, of course, is PAC, formerly known as Neville, a man who singlehandedly rescued the Cruiserweight Division and 205 Live only to find that WWE only saw him existing within the confines of genre wrestling. Faced with doing the same thing for another year or more, in a division where he had already done all there was to do, it’s no surprise that the Geordie decided to walk. At the time, the line was literally “creative have nothing for you.” Having watched the King of the Cruiserweights for his year on 205 Live and on PPV, how could anyone attached to the company possibly say that to him? This was arguably the best pure character performer and all round wrestler in the company at the time. And so here we are in 2019, with WWE ironically recognising their mistake with Neville, promoting Mustafa Ali to Smackdown, and reaping the benefits. But too late to keep their former Cruiserweight King, who will grace an AEW ring instead.
All of which brings us, inevitably, to Dean Ambrose. History has a funny habit of repeating itself, and I awoke on Tuesday morning to Twitter news I hoped never to see; The Lunatic Fringe intended not to re-up with WWE at the end of his contract in April, despite being offered a considerable raise. And what was the reason? He has become increasingly frustrated by the creative direction of his character and storylines. My colleague Sir Sam wrote here about all the times the former Shield man was red hot and the company refused to put all their chips on him, but I honestly don’t think that’s a significant reason for his departure. I truly believe that as one of the most creative wrestling minds of his or any other generation, Dean Ambrose has just not found working in WWE creatively satisfying for a long time. It isn’t about titles for him any more than it was for Punk, Rhodes or Neville. Just like them at the points of their departure, he already has the decorated title history. What he wants, I believe, is the ability to shape the direction of his character, which would no doubt not include shooting himself in the rear with fake tetanus shots or reciting badly scripted promos he could better by far if given the freedom to just shoot from the lip. The report noted that a fellow wrestler had said that “Dean hates hokey shit”. Well, he’s been given plenty of that down the years, and got it over too, but there comes a point when a performer has to echo one of my favourite Owen Hart promos: “enough is enough, and it’s time for a change.”
So once again, five years after CM Punk, I’m faced with losing my favourite wrestler. When Punk walked, Ambrose was already fast catching him up as my go to guy. I’ve loved watching his old school brand of in ring work, his characterful presence in angles and skits, and his absolute commitment to his art. In a post-Reality time period where very little has connected with me, I could always rely on Dean to remind of why I love pro wrestling and why I continue to watch the WWE product. Most of all, I will always look back with great fondness on those amazing Shield six mans and tag matches, his performances in Royal Rumbles and Survivor Series elimination matches, and all of those brilliant singles matches with the likes of Seth Rollins, Bray Wyatt, The Miz, AJ Styles, Dolph Ziggler, Tyler Breeze and Baron Corbin. He is truly a modern great, and it felt significant to me that the official WWE corporate statement on Ambrose’s impending departure expressed a hope that one day he would work for WWE again. Ironically, he appears to be leaving at a time when the corporate shackles are loosening some. Mustafa Ali’s homemade documentary footage, Daniel Bryan’s new persona with a hemp title belt and no merchandise, Samoa Joe’s promos in recent weeks, all of these are signs of a company realising that it can no longer hold back its own talent. Sadly, Dean appears to have reached a breaking point that no amount of backpedalling from the ‘E can repair.
The thing that’s most intriguing is that The Lunatic Fringe may be just the tip of the proverbial iceberg. Let’s start with The Revival, who supposedly asked for their release just after new year having been constantly miscast and misused in a main roster tag division which has never got anywhere near the consistent brilliance of its NXT counterpart. They apparently have more than a year left on their contracts and have been promised a big part in a tag renaissance which is meant to be on the way. We shall see. Hideo Itami has already announced his departure, a marquee signing that WWE never used to full potential, injuries notwithstanding. How many more are eyeing up the greater creative freedom available in Japan and with The Elite? Even Chris Jericho, perhaps the greatest chameleon of all, has hit a higher late career gear in Japan than he managed in his various WWE returns between 2012 and 2017, and has signed a deal with AEW.
For my money, it is both an exciting time for wrestling, and yet also a bittersweet one. As a WWE loyalist, seeing them piss away a talent of the level of Dean Ambrose is deeply depressing, but this could also be the wake up call they need. With their employees having genuine options for the first time in two decades, WWE are going to have to work a lot harder to keep its performers happy, because a mere cheque is unlikely to cut it anymore with the exponential growth of the indies and the prospect of a well backed AEW around the corner. Many analysts down the years have diagnosed the lack of competition as the root of WWE’s creative malaise. We are about to see if the events of the past month change that.
For WWE, complete control is no longer an option. They need to let their performers flex their creative muscles, or they may well find themselves haemorrhaging talent before too long.
This is Maverick, requesting flyby.