Dean Ambrose leaps over the ropes. Not onto his mortal enemy, his former brother-in-arms in the Shield, Seth Rollins. Rollins is out past the fan barricades. He’s escaped Ambrose repeatedly and may escape again. No, Dean jumps onto the mass of wrestlers that had just separated him from Rollins. This isn’t how the lumberjack match, designed for order and an unimpeded fight inside the ring, typically goes. But Dean Ambrose doesn’t care, and doesn’t care is sometimes the right place to be.
I’ve had panic attacks since I was a kid, with no pattern and no reason. You wouldn’t know it if you saw it. You might see me tapping my foot to a machine-gun beat or clenching and unclenching my fingers. Not still, but not frenzied. Alone, I’m less controlled. I’ve run naked from the shower across my house, singing furiously, a tangle of unrelated songs. I’ve screamed out names of family and friends while driving, begging someone to materialize in the passenger seat. If you push out enough breath, that trembling flame in your chest will extinguish. But in public, I can only smolder.
I don’t want to run naked down the road. Not usually. But a life of constraint and shyness hasn’t improved things. When you’re apt to turn over small failures like a puzzle box, screaming in public is unfathomable, let alone hurtling yourself over the ring ropes. Instead you can develop a verbal sleight-of-hand, handwaves and catchphrases, build a persona like a pro wrestler. A recent WWE.com article lists the editors’ favorite Ambrose quotes, from wild-eyed threats, strange anecdotes (Mexican jails feature prominently), half-ironic swagger, and unfiltered self-truths, offered without vulnerability. “I’ve never been one to make a New Year’s resolution,” Ambrose admits. “I don’t need to become a better person. That’s a lost cause anyway, right?” It’s a shrug by a lifelong smartass. But shrugs aren’t meaningless. They equal the weight they toss off.
My first favorite wrestler was Bret “The Hitman” Hart, 90s WWF champion and Canadian hero. Son of legendary wrestler Stu Hart, Bret was heir to a grappling legacy that stretched back decades. I was a serious child and needed a serious hero, who steadily built his career match by match. I took on unnecessary weight: guilt for situations that weren’t my fault and embarrassment over unnoticed mishaps. I kept this up through high school as the lone straight-edge in a debauched small town, and through college as the working-class cynic among privileged idealists. A serious man needs serious obstacles, and the biggest in my life couldn’t be myself.
When Ambrose debuted with Seth Rollins and Roman Reigns as a stable called The Shield, he preached the necessity of sacrifice in the name of justice. It was a feint. They were mercenary heels, clad in riot gear like Blackwater soldiers and at the service of the highest bidder. My discarded identities weren’t quite so fascist, but the template’s the same: a pretense to lofty ideals masking contempt and bitterness.
As the audience took to the Shield, the mercenaries became a band of brothers, stressing their loyalty to one another and turning against a tyrannical authority. They built better selves, found a better fight.
Rollins sold out, of course. Someone always does in revolution stories. But while Reigns kept the old gear and Rollins bragged endlessly about creating and destroying the Shield, Ambrose changed dramatically. He discarded the riot vest and black gloves for a wifebeater and jeans and taped fists. No more talk of justice. He was now “The Unstable” Dean Ambrose, the “Lunatic Fringe,” with his initials scrawled into an anarchy symbol on his shirts. But he was also the one affected the most by the collapse. He pursued Rollins relentlessly, attacking him in arena after arena. Rollins scrambled through weeks of narrow escapes, delaying Ambrose but never fully discarding him.
All three Shield members have both defined themselves by and rejected their old group, and all three have found success and adversity in doing so. Ambrose may be the least successful of the three, post-Shield. Both Reigns and Rollins have held the WWE World Heavyweight Championship. Ambrose, meanwhile, has careened from feud to feud while never quite getting his full measure of revenge against Rollins. Despite this, he remains the most popular of the three.
Watching the lumberjack match, you can see why. After taking out a half-dozen wrestlers, Ambrose emerges from the junkyard he’s just created and climbs to the top of the announcers’ table, where he spots Rollins and dashes across the fan barricade to reach him. Later in the match, as the lumberjacks crowd-surf Rollins back to the ring, Dean splashes the entire group from the top turnbuckle. After standing up, he makes a rolling, swaggering arm gesture worthy of ZZ Top. Somehow embracing your disaster feels like the only sensible reaction.
It’s that whiplash between resolve and impulse that draws me. Ambrose hasn’t figured it out yet, the balance between the two. Sometimes he pursues tenaciously, sometimes he makes a point of leaving the arena mid-show to go get a Coney Island hot dog. Sometimes his doggedness gets him ambushed and put out of action. And sometimes his recklessness pushes him to ends that no one else would take and wins him matches. With no plan, resolve and impulse rebound off each other like a panic attack. I’ve ended mine shaking, and ended them serene. No telling if you’re going to end up better or worse than you started.
Ambrose loses the lumberjack match. As it falls apart, a collapse he’s engineered, past enemies storm the ring and attack. Ambrose fights them off, but we can’t answer for everything we create. Seth Rollins blindsides him with a weapon and pins him. Another evasion, another missed goal.
None of us get a win-loss record, and our own statistics are skewed. So you look to the moments that tell. On the February 22nd Monday Night Raw, Brock Lesnar, furious over the outcome of their previous night’s match, put Dean Ambrose through a car windshield. Ambrose was taken to the hospital. But he came back later that show, driving his own ambulance, and staggered to the ring in a neck brace to challenge Brock to a WrestleMania match. It’ll likely be a hell of a brawl, but the winner doesn’t matter to me as much as this: Dean Ambrose will fight just to get to the fight. No matter how hard he gets put down, he’s still taping up his fists for next time. And if I have to punch my embarrassments in the face, run my losses down in the street, dive onto my panic from an unscalable height, I will. I have no illusions that I’m bound to be a wild, swaggering brawler anytime soon. But I’m taping up my fists anyway.
- Joel La Puma