One of the most difficult and frustrating things a person can do in their lifetime is find their identity. We often will ask ourselves who we are and where we fit in society. What is our purpose? The same is true of professional wrestling. Men and women all looking to carve out their names in the annals of sports entertainment are constantly trying to find a way that makes them stand out. This mentality actually stands to serve both the master and servant, as those companies that have a variety of characters tend to thrive, and even produce a golden age of wrestling.
A great example of this formula is the lightning in a bottle time period in World Wrestling Entertainment as the Attitude Era. From 1997 to the early 2000’s, WWE fans could tune in and see a multitude of personalities, each with something unique and special to offer. Those who wanted to look up to an anti-authoritative rebel had Stone Cold Steve Austin. Fans of the macabre and gothic would watch The Undertaker. If you liked your sports entertainers to be electrifying with charisma, then The Rock was your man, and if you wanted to see a human stunt show, you looked no further than Mick Foley.
It is undeniable that Mick Foley was and is a unique individual. These days you can point to any number of things that make him a special attraction, but for years prior to his time in WWE, and during those peak years of the Attitude Era, the thing that separated Mick Foley from the pack in WWE was Mick’s uncanny ability to absorb punishment, and dish it out in return. He popularized the Hardcore style in WWE, and influenced countless men and women in the generation of wrestlers who would follow. Men like Dean Ambrose.
In an ironic twist of fate, Dean Ambrose would follow a very similar path to superstardom as Foley. Both men started their careers learning from excellent ring technicians. For Foley it was Dominic Denucci, while Ambrose was trained by Les Thatcher at the Heartland Wrestling Association. Foley followed the path of a typical wrestler in the 1980s before realizing he had a unique skill that allowed him to take on more punishment than most. Although considered a bit of a rough neck wrestler, Dean Ambrose days of taking and dishing out extreme forms of punishment would soon follow.
In the late 2000’s Ambrose (wrestling as Jon Moxley) would find a home in several ultra violence wrestling promotions such as Insanity Pro Wrestling and Combat Zone Wrestling, where maniacal beatings and death defying stunts were the norm. Dean quickly found himself atop this extreme mountain, gaining popularity with the same style Mick Foley had used to change the face of WWE. That was not where the similarities ended however. Praised as he was for his rough antics, Ambrose was finding even more praise for his work on the microphone, a quality that also followed Mick Foley around in his career.
These similarities were not lost on WWE creative when Ambrose finally got the call up to join the company in 2011. A short two years into his stay with the company, even before making his debut on WWE television, Dean Ambrose found himself embroiled in a feud with the Hardcore Legend himself, Mick Foley. Sadly, the feud was short lived and eventually scrapped when Foley was ultimately not cleared to wrestle by the WWE staff. Part of that angle would have seen Dean blame Mick for influencing a generation of wrestlers to mutilate themselves in order to garner popularity, something he could speak to from experience.
Eventually, Ambrose would get the call up to the main roster of WWE, along with Seth Rollins and Roman Reigns to form The Shield. They would run rough should over the entire locker room for nearly two years before Seth Rollins joined The Authority, effectively putting an end to the trio. Since the split, all three men have taken very different career paths, and that it likely by design. WWE is smart enough to remember that they need stars with unique draws to make their product better. Seth Rollins is the cowardly sell out, Roman Reigns is the heroic gladiator, and Dean Ambrose is Mick Foley.
Ever since breaking off from his Shield partners, Dean Ambrose has taken on the persona of the Lunatic Fringe. His gimmick is that of an unstable madman, willing to do whatever it takes for justice. The character, played to the hilt with Ambrose’s charisma as the foundation, has become a huge hit among the WWE Universe, and it isn’t difficult to understand why. While others still play the crazy card in WWE, only Ambrose demonstrates the authenticity of his by engaging in the kind of dangerous behavior not seen since the attitude era.
Since developing this persona, Dean Ambrose has competed in high profile pay per view encounters that featured the following gimmicks: Ladder Match, Lumberjack Match, Hell In A Cell, Tables Ladder and Chairs Match, and a Chicago Street Fight. It seems like every other big event WWE has, Dean Ambrose is putting his body on the line. He offers something unique to the viewing audience that they just don’t get from anyone else. An unbalanced madman with obvious intelligence lurking behind a set of crazy eyes. Sound familiar? Perhaps that is by design.
Dean Ambrose has found a way to appeal to a wide demographic of the WWE Universe. He appeals to the new generation of fans because he is something they’ve never seen before, and appeals to 90’s nostalgic fans because he reminds them of something they miss. If WWE is in fact trying to make Dean Ambrose into the next Mick Foley, the question that needs to be asked is if it is fair to put such a burden on the shoulders of Ambrose, and whether or not he can in fact carry it. More intriguing, in order to answer those questions, do we need to revisit an old idea from 2012? Or is this simply a matter of evolution? We hope to answer these questions and more in part two of our examination.