On Saturday night, Dean Ambrose wrestled in a "Los Angeles Street Fight" in the middle of an untelevised house show card. On Sunday night, he won the WWE world heavyweight championship. That’s a long way to come in just 24 hours.
I was at Staples Center to watch that WWE house show. In many ways, it was wrestling the way it should be: stripped of the technicolor bombast, lights dimmed like a stage show, and jabbering on the microphone kept to a minimum. The matches were mostly rehashings of feuds I had seen on TV any number of times, but that only mattered for the backstory. The stories that night were told entirely in the ring, without the explanatory sidebars of the announce team or camera cuts to backstage high jinks. Rather than play to the cameras, the wrestlers played to the guy in the 50th row.
I haven’t seen a wrestling crowd that into a show in a long time. Sure, there are crazy crowds at big WWE shows in major cities. There are insane crowds at PWG and NXT and other smaller operations that build die-hard fan bases too. But this crowd was reverent. Forget the dictatorial chants of contemporary wrestling fandom. Saturday’s crowd cheered at the right time. And it booed at the right times, too.
Roman Reigns entered the main event to the snarky boos of the Never Reigns movement that has enveloped the entire WWE fan base, but he eventually won over the crowd by the end in a way that makes you understand what WWE thinks it has in him. Becky Lynch got a huge pop — a bigger reaction than I was expecting for any of the women that night, especially given her second-tier usage over the past several months. And the match between Kevin Owens and Sami Zayn absolutely brought the house down. Maybe that shouldn’t come as a surprise since those two have been fighting each other on untelevised cards for years, but it never ceases to amaze me how seamlessly they’ve both transitioned to the major leagues.
The biggest cheer of the night, though, came during the intros to a "Los Angeles Street Fight" match midway through the card. Chris Jericho, ageless superstar and lover of the life on the road, got his share of boos, but it was his opponent, Dean Ambrose, who the crowd loved most of all. You might have thought that he was the biggest star in the company.
There have been signs that he was closer to Reigns in terms of popularity than WWE let on. Gate receipts from the two WWE touring shows — one headlined by Reigns, the other by Ambrose — were identical during the last tour, according to Dave Meltzer. Throw in how the "B-show" that Ambrose headlined worked smaller markets, and how the A-show numbers were down 30 percent over the same month last year with Reigns atop the card, and you have the signal of a change.
Even outside the numbers, it was clear that Ambrose was poised to make this leap. When The Shield debuted, he was the most polished of the three, and when they split up in June 2014, even though he was leapfrogged by Seth Rollins (who would become the heel standard-bearer) and Reigns (who was shoehorned into the Hulk Hogan Memorial Top-Dog-Playing-Underdog role) on the depth chart, Ambrose could get the crowd going like nobody since Daniel Bryan.
There’s no question that Ambrose is a capable world champion, but if this was the plan, why did WWE always seem content to let him wallow in the midcard? Why did he often feel like an afterthought in the ongoing Shield psychodrama? And, drama aside, why wasn’t he already scheduled to be in the main event on Sunday night?
The build to Money in the Bank was about three things: (1.) the title match, pitting incumbent superhero yawn Reigns against former champ Rollins, who had just come off a lengthy stint on the DL; (2.) John Cena vs. AJ Styles in an establishment vs. outsider tussle; and (3.) the titular ladder match, in which the winner climbs a ladder and grabs a Halliburton briefcase that earns him a title shot, anytime, anywhere. Ambrose was one of six competitors in the ladder match. The MITB match was given a lot of attention in the weeks leading up to the show, but the six guys in it might have all ranked below the ladders in the pre-match power rankings.
In the opening segment on last week’s Raw, Ambrose interviewed Reigns and Rollins. He suggested he would win the briefcase and cash it in that same night, and then he got into fisticuffs with them to cement the deal. "I made it pretty friggin’ clear what was going on," Ambrose said on last night’s Raw, but it was an awkward misdirection because that’s what Money in the Bank is all about. The best thing about MITB’s "anywhere, anytime" title shot is the element of uncertainty it brings to the proceedings. The worst part about MITB is that fans spend every moment until the cash-in hoping for the cash-in. It’s started to become an untenable situation, with fans disappointed over something that was never going to happen not happening at the end of most PPVs.
On Sunday night, Ambrose won the MITB match. Then, after Rollins defeated Reigns for the title, Ambrose cashed in the briefcase, DDTed Rollins, and took the title for himself. WWE managed to solve two problems at once: it eliminated the MITB hangover of expectations, and it put Ambrose on top of the company, where he took his rightful place (for now anyway) over Reigns. WWE ended the Reigns experiment with minimal fanfare; now, if he regains the title, it will be absent a lot of the vestigial pressure that came with his two-year slog to the top. The company also avoided placing similarly outsize expectations on Rollins, who is great but whose legend grew to messianic proportions in his absence. Instead, Ambrose becomes the champion of realistic expectations.
I mean that as a compliment, too. Much of his shtick harkens back to the Attitude Era, but he’s an older soul than that. As much as he’s a child of the ’90s, he’s a callback to the ’70s, when wrestlers were average-looking dudes who got in the ring and scared us with their grit and fearlessness. He’s the antidote to the WWE hype machine; he tells you what he’s going to do, and then he does it, or he gets mauled trying.
On a night already filled with rip-roaring, unlikely victories (Cleveland over Golden State and Jon Snow over Ramsay Bolton), Ambrose’s surprise ascent from the midcard to the title was even more unlikely — and maybe even more fulfilling. He may be from Ohio, but he’s never had the pedigree of a LeBron James. ("This isn’t the NBA," Ambrose said on Monday as he prepped to defend his title five weeks from now. "You don’t have a championship match and then an offseason.") And he’s certainly not the messiah that Jon Snow is made out to be — though he’s every bit the WWE’s bastard.
He was the unwanted child in the Shield divorce, and by choosing the guy who was the last pick in the Shield draft, WWE finally got it right. He’s the stripped-down, house-show version of a world champion. He’s not The Guy — not yet anyway — he’s just a guy who won the world title. Right now, that’s good enough.
With the brand split looming, WWE has reportedly reached out to a number of former stars about coming back to fill out its roster(s) — guys like Kurt Angle, Jeff Hardy, Rey Mysterio, and Goldberg. There have been talks about calling a lot of the NXT talent up to the pros soon, too. But what WWE really needs — especially at a time when some of its biggest stars are aging out (Triple H, the Undertaker), injured (Randy Orton, Bray Wyatt), or risking legitimate disgrace in a real cage fight (Brock Lesnar) — is wrestlers who are perceived as championship material. WWE desperately needs believable headliners, and so it desperately needs Ambrose.
Ambrose could lose the title to a teenager in a Jell-O match next Monday, and the WWE announce team would still hype him as one of the greatest champions who’d ever laced up his boots when it suited them. Their current form of bombast entails dubbing every big match a "WrestleMania-caliber match," which, I mean, OK — The Red Rooster vs. Bobby "the Brain" Heenan was a WrestleMania match. But they’re serious about it — and with the run they’ve been having recently, for once they’re not that far off. John Cena vs. AJ Styles at Money in the Bank this past Sunday? Yeah, that could be a big-time ‘Mania match. Roman Reigns vs. Seth Rollins in a WWE championship match? Sure. But when Raw ended on Monday night with the announcement that next month’s Battleground pay-per-view would be Ambrose vs. Rollins. vs. Reigns in a triple threat match, "WrestleMania-caliber" couldn’t have been more true. The Shield showdown was penciled in for this past ‘Mania until a Rollins injury put a snag in that plan, and there was once a pervading theory inside WWE that a match of that magnitude was to be saved for a WrestleMania and WrestleMania only.
But that was then, and this is now — and the prevailing philosophy now seems to be "go for broke and come up with something else next week." That’s a good thing. Practically, it’s silly to hold onto big matches when you never know if the wrestlers will be available or healthy enough to have the match. (See: The Rock vs. Brock Lesnar, failed headline match at WrestleManias 29, 30, 31, and 32.) And more importantly, it brings some of the excitement of the Monday Night Wars back to the product. If anything is on the table, there’s a lot more reason to watch. (Once SmackDown goes live on Tuesday nights, and if, as is rumored, the company starts running two PPVs a month, well, WWE is going to need to come up with a lot of reasons to watch.)
Case in point: Dean Ambrose, WWE champion. Nobody predicted it. A few months ago, if you had told me that Ambrose would either be champ or unemployed come June, I would have had to think about it. But on Sunday, when Ambrose celebrated with the belt, it felt right. Ambrose has a habit of rising to the occasion. And when he held that belt aloft, the crowd did a funny thing — the fans didn’t boo spitefully like they do with Reigns, or ironically like they do with Cena. They didn’t cheer out of turn like they sometimes do with Rollins, or accidentally cheer like they sometimes do with Styles. They just cheered. They cheered at exactly the right time, in exactly the right way.
Welcome to the Ambrose Era, when you don’t know what to expect, but you know how to react when it happens.