Dean Ambrose is a big deal, and this has been forgotten. He’s been called underwhelming. He’s been labelled as a main event disappointment. He’s been held up as a prime example of lost opportunity. He has not been granted the right he has earned – to be recognised as a big deal, because he is. This is why SirSam of Sir Sam’s Court and myself have teamed up, to remind the world that the Lunatic Fringe is not some distant third in the fraternity of The Shield but remains one of the leaders of his generation’s locker room, and one of the greatest talents of his day; that is, of today.
Dean Ambrose is the man who helped Seth Rollins become one of the most hated villains in WWE history, before helping to make that same brother transform into one of the most beloved redeemed heroes of their age. He is the man who helped kick-start the renaissance of the Intercontinental Championship. He is the man who sold a WrestleMaina season headlined by a main event he wasn’t in because his brother wasn’t up to the task. He remains the only character Brock Lesnar has been visibly panicked by, and he was even the man who carried the WWE Championship into WWE’s second Brand Extension, an Extension in which he was the second overall pick.
On top of those accolades he is simply one of the best storytellers of his generation. Completely dedicated to his character and possessing the vision to tell tales that last not only months but years, alongside Seth Rollins he has redefined and rejuvenated the lumberjack match, Hell in a Cell and the ladder match and has become the generational rival for not only Rollins but Kevin Owens, The Miz and I would argue even AJ Styles. Last year, in the lead up to SummerSlam he got six straight weeks of TV out of just a fistbump and was still the most riveting part of every TV show in that stretch.
Put simply, Dean Ambrose might not be the ‘Big Dog’ or ‘The Man,’ but he is the lifeblood of both, and of the company many claim the aforementioned brothers have left him behind in dominating.
I think a large part of the problem was that Dean Ambrose was just so damn consistent, from 2014 when The Shield split up until he was injured late last year, there was rarely a time he wasn’t a huge part of whatever TV show he was on. Like the saying goes ‘fondness makes the heart grow absent’ and as good as he was it became just too easy to take his excellence for granted and get distracted by the hottest new promotion from the indies or NXT.
However Dean has been handed something special, time away and a chance to relaunch himself and remind the WWE universe just how good he is. At Summer Slam and the last two Raws he has done just that, coming back sporting a slightly tweaked and moveset look but still showing all the fire, passion and mannerisms that made him one of the top characters on the show.
But the question remains, what happens next?
The key to answering that question lies in coming to understand the Lunatic Fringe as we know him today. What makes the man tick?
Well, Dean Ambrose is an inversion. His understanding of the world puts him in diametric opposition to the societal norm. Less cognisant commentators have labelled this outlook lunacy, and limited themselves to perplexed bemusement at the man’s actions, but doing so does disservice to the depths of the most complex individual in WWE’s entire fictional universal. Ambrose is an anarchist who looks at the world the rest of us have made with our imposition of materialism, of shared shallow values and absentee empathy and is repulsed. He is a man who calls chaos what we call order, and who condemns our conception of ‘value’ as a lie.
It is in possessing this world view Dean Ambrose has found himself alone for most of his life.
Enter The Shield, and the forging of a brotherhood with two men who, alongside Ambrose, turned our orderly, quiet, malignant little reality into a world of chaos and called it ‘justice’ – a mission that broke a lifetime of isolation and, for the first time, helped Ambrose make sense of the world around him: The Shield dispensed the justice everyone else had earned. It was just, fair and, above all else, meritocratic.
Dean is a guy who embraced this crusade more than any other Shield member and was therefore the most affected by its subsequent split. His quest to pursue Seth Rollins through 2014-16 was far more about making Seth feel the hurt that burned inside him than it was ever about pure revenge.
Alongside that loyalty and feeling of brotherhood Dean has always given off the vibe of a blue collar worker, someone who takes immense pride in the product of his labours. No doubt he enjoys the rewards that come with the success he earns but more than anything else Dean revels in the fire of in ring competition, tasting the pain, agony and bonds that come with it.
The reason for that is a simple Darwinian truth: survival of the fittest. Ambrose is a man who wants to see this putrid established order of ours, that prioritises personal gain over human empathy, ‘burned down’ and there is no more naked a meritocracy than war, where each man is equal to his ability and the price of failure is often total.
That is why he debuted in a group that wanted to upend the entire WWE system and it is why he has clashed so often with The Miz, a wrestler more obsessed with material status than anyone on the roster.
And that was why the betrayal of Seth Rollins became so definitive an event in Ambrose’s life. It was a betrayal that revealed the depths of Rollins’ ability in its worst form. He had seemingly fooled Ambrose even in that naked meritocracy of war, and worst of all poisoned their bond of brotherhood, being in itself the <I>one</I> part of the world Ambrose had come to truly be able to love, so that it instead transformed into the pinnacle of everything Dean hates – Seth had used him for personal, shallow, materialistic gain; or, in Seth’s eyes, for success.
Seth’s admission of guilt last year, then, and his apology in action was the confirmation Ambrose needed that all those years spent together weren’t the lie he thought they might have been.
Perhaps most importantly, it is why, now, upon his return from a year away, there is a conflict that needs to be resolved. Rollins has stayed true to his values, and his mission to ‘burn it down’ remains Ambrose’s own. It is little wonder Dean would reunite with the Kingslayer so eagerly then. But there’s just no ignoring the fact that the people – the fans – have proven themselves to do the one thing Ambrose hates.
They stopped being entertained by him, so they forgot him. They stopped being ‘impressed’ with his ‘lack of accomplishments’ so they called him a failure. They refused to appreciate him for his efforts, for his hard work, for his relative merit and, instead, they put their personal benefit first.
And at the same time, they began to embrace Seth Rollins for his redemptive journey back to his truest, best self, who now actively pursues their adoration, their approval, and sees that approval as confirmation of his journey’s end.
So isn’t it self-evident how this might come to put the two good brothers back in conflict…?
Have you noticed just how pissed off Dean has looked since he got back? A guy who used to play up to the crowd, joked with them and celebrated with them has barely cracked a smile in the ring, let alone hit a turnbuckle to salute the crowd since his return. When else has he done such a complete about face on someone like this?
When Seth Rollins slammed a chair into his back.
This new hardened, more cynical version of the Lunatic Fringe has seen the crowd for what they are, untrustworthy, unreliable, in it for themselves alone and constantly chasing after the next shiny new thing to moonsault their way.
While things look united between the brothers now, the writing is already on the wall. For Seth Rollins the crowd’s affection is confirmation of his redemption. When they chant ‘burn it down’ it is a reminder of how he was able to burn away the sins of his past. He needs their cheers to keep him on the road he has set out before him. Yet to his brother Dean those same cheers are something to be loathed. The crowd put their entertainment before any recognition of merit, so for Dean, the mob’s cheers for his return will just be a reminder of their fickle, unreliable nature.
The day is going to come when these two ideals come into conflict, when Rollins’ need for the crowd’s affirmation in order to confirm his return to his best self pits him in diametric opposition to an Ambrose who won’t be able to see past his misanthropy bred by the masses that jilted him, and who will likely come to see, through vision skewed by angry cynicism, Rollins’ ongoing quest for self-reclamation as a choice, of the vapid people over a loyal brother.
This conflict isn’t some future thing, it is something already embedded in their relationship. When you look at what their characters believe and how they have acted in the past, conflict isn’t just likely, it is seemingly inevitable.
So to answer the question, then, what happens next? The inevitable, and when it comes Dean Ambrose is going to make sure that, this time, you won’t ever forget the truth: Dean Ambrose is a much bigger deal than we realise.