I remember reading Mick Foley singing the praises of Dean Ambrose along with the rest of the internet wrestling community. I didn’t know which one was more impressive at the time, Foley or the largely negative internet wrestling community singing from the hilltops that this guy was the next big WWE superstar.
So when he debuted with his fellow Shield members Seth Rollins and Roman Reigns, I was ready to see what all the fuss was about. I was already a Seth Rollins fan from his days as Tyler Black in the indie promotion Ring of Honor (ROH), I didn’t know anything about Reigns besides he is Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson’s cousin, and I knew even less about Ambrose besides the aforementioned Foley comments and the chatter from the internet wrestling community.
And I must say, I wasn’t very impressed with my initial introduction to Ambrose. It wasn’t that he was bad, on the contrary he showed a lot of promise, but it seemed his fellow Shield members were getting over just a bit quicker. Rollins was flying all over the area with risk taking aerial maneuvers, and Reigns had the “look” that WWE wanted in their superstars including a two move combo the fans popped for every Monday night, The Superman Punch leading into The Spear. I felt like Ambrose was being lost in the shadows of his partners, not because he wasn’t good, but it looked like he was still trying to figure out his character. Even when he holding US Title, he didn’t stick out from Rollins or Reigns who continued to take the lead in the group. His promos were the only part of his character that stood out, but even those brief moments he got to speak didn’t do much to separate him from his running mates.
Then came the inevitable break-up of The Shield as Seth Rollins took a steel chair to both Reigns and Ambrose to join forces with Triple H and The Authority. It wasn’t a surprise it happen, in wrestling groups breakup all the time, but it was the timing that was a bit of a surprise.
The Shield was the most popular, or “over”, group in WWE at the time and it was surprising the WWE didn’t ride them for a bit more before breaking them off into solo runs. As said before, Reigns was already in-line to become WWE’s new “Golden Boy” with the notion cemented with his performance in the 2013 Royal Rumble, and Rollins automatically became the top heel in the company by a comfortable margin due to his dastardly heel turn. But what about Ambrose? How would the guy that seemed to lose the most from the breakup fair on his own? Would the long shadows casted by Reigns and Rollins continue to bury Ambrose? Months after the demise of The Shield, it seems that Ambrose wasn’t being buried by those shadows, but rather he was hiding in them waiting for his opportunity to take the spotlight. Now he has it and it’s not shining on anyone else anytime soon.
Ambrose became the “Lunatic Fringe”, showing up out of nowhere to attack Rollins at any given moment. Chasing him from the ring through the stands and back again. And with every seemingly impromptu attack, the fans cheered more and more, and Ambrose continued to flash his crazy eyes and demented smile that could quickly turn into a psychotic blank stare at a drop of a hat. He became the most entertaining part of the Raw with both his persona and in-ring work.
As I’ve seen Ambrose evolve in to a fan favorite psychopath, my brain started cycling through which past wrestlers he reminded he of. Much like professional sport and Hollywood stars, comparisons are inevitable in pro-wrestling as well and it’s just as fun. I started listening to his already above average promos morph into some of the best on the WWE roster. He reminded me of “Rowdy” Roddy Piper on the mic as he had this carefree style that didn’t sound scripted, but he added the quiet and menacing tone that Jake “The Snake” Roberts’ used to draw the audience to each and every promo he delivered. Ambrose mixed both styles into something that sounded new and interesting to go along with his own chaotic, brawling style he brought to the ring.
As I continued to rifle through the wrestling rolodex I keep stored in my head, one name jumped out at me. A name that I hadn’t thought of in years, but might be the foundation that Ambrose’s “Lunatic Fringe” character was built upon. That guy was the late Brian Pilman.
Now before all you smart wrestling fans rise from your seat and fill the arena with “Aaron Sucks” chants, let me explain myself. No one, I repeat, no one will ever be as insane as Brian Pillman.
There were times in his career where his in-ring persona seemed very much real, and to be quite honest, if you asked any wrestling fan that remembers this talent we lost way too soon, you will find someone conflicted on whether or not Pillman was an actual lunatic. He was that good. He broke wrestling’s fourth wall, or what they call in wrestling “kayfabe”, by calling Kevin Sullivan “booker man”, exposing the business as pre-determined on a live WCW pay-per-view. He even played the three major wrestling promotions in the 1990s against each other (WWE, WCW, and ECW) to further his “loose cannon” reputation, and parlaying that into a contract with WWE. That was a dangerous game, and Pillman didn’t mind one bit to play it.
Ambrose seems to, at least in the ring (and I hope that is where it stops as Pillman had his fair share of personal demons outside of it), harnessed that “loose cannon” character and rebuilt it into the PG-era WWE. Even though he can’t get away with any of what Pillman did in his short run with WWE, like pulling a gun on “Stone Cold” Steve Austin or his feud with Goldust that was nothing more than grown men wrestling in drag for the services of a valet (don’t ask), Ambrose has effectively brought crazy back into the ring . Which might make what he has done even more impressive with the family friendly box WWE has decided to put it’s product in. He can’t do any of Pillman’s “edgy” antics mentioned above, but he has taken the “loose cannon” spirit of Pillman’s in-ring persona, ground down the edges a bit, added a much more refined promo technique than Pillman, and has put himself in a situation to be one WWE’s top stars for years to come.
The most telling parallel between Ambrose and Pillman is the way Pillman waited for his time to shine. Pillman was always a talented wrestler, but it took a bit for him to develop his character. Much like Ambrose with his “lunatic fringe”, Pillman took a bit before he became the “loose cannon”, and finally broke out of the shadow of arguably the most elite faction in wrestling history, The Four Horsemen, and became his own memorable character. Even their marquee feuds in WWE have been physical confrontations with former friends and partners: Ambrose with Rollins and Pillman with Austin. And Ambrose’s rivalry with Rollins has been nothing short of spectacular, much like the Austin and Pillman. I would argue it has been a bit better due to the matches and the lack of reliance on over-the-top theatrics that Pillman and Austin had at their disposal. Ambrose is on his way to building his own in-ring legacy having navigate the new family friendly mind field the WWE has created. Something I don’t believe Pillman could do if still around.
I don’t want to imply that Ambrose is trying to be Pillman, because it’s obvious he isn’t attempting to be a carbon copy of any of the wrestlers I’ve compared him to above. But much like we see in music, bands are still influenced by other bands that has came before them, and it’s up to the band to take those influences and build their own sound and style. Ambrose is showing what it looks like when you can take what came before and make it new for a much different viewing audience. And even though I haven’t heard Ambrose say what wrestlers he was influenced by, I can’t help but feel that Brain Pillman is mixed somewhere in the concrete that was poured for
Ambrose’s “Lunatic Fringe” foundation. Ambrose may not be a complete “Loose Cannon,” but I’m having an awful lot of fun watching him perform on the “Lunatic Fringe.”