Sam: Welcome back to part 2 of Dean Ambrose Top 10 WWE Matches with myself and Maverick. The origins of this series date back to when the details of Dean’s impending departure from the WWE were leaked in February. Since then Dean has become Jon and with his debut in AEW, podcast appearance and now NJPW work is arguably the hottest wrestler in the world. However as fans who discovered him in the WWE, from the moment we heard he was leaving we both wanted to pay tribute and draw to a close his WWE career by chronicling his best work in the company.
Mav: Absolutely Sam – it’s far too tempting now that Mox is winning massive critical acclaim across the world to look down on his WWE work as somehow inferior, and it’s certainly not. It’s just different, reflecting the differing style of wrestling in the world’s biggest company. Although arguably less creatively free then than now, Ambrose had plenty of license to splash his characterful touches all over his matches, and we’re looking at some belters today!
Sam: If you missed the first half of the countdown then you can find numbers 10 through 6 here but without further ado let’s get stuck into the top 5.
5. Dean Ambrose v AJ Styles (Backlash 2016)
Sam: This will always be a bittersweet match for me. While it is undoubtedly one of the high points of Dean’s career, it was also the match that cut short his run as the WWE Champion before he really got to make his mark as The Man on the newly split Smackdown. If his championship reign had to end though, what better way to end it than in a technical classic that also ranks as a high point for AJ Styles WWE run. The match starts with a lot of back and forth and you can see how motivated both men were by the way they sell for each other, going to increasing lengths as things wear on to make the other man look amazing.
As with so many Dean Ambrose matches sadly the commentators really let Dean down, simply talking about how he is a brawler throughout, despite him going lock step with the so called Phenomenal One. As this match works to its climax both men’s frustration beings to wear through and the chops and violence gets particularly gnarly. You can see Dean’s influence on the match as it hits its ending right as the crowd is chanting ‘This is awesome!’, not overstaying its welcome as some of AJ’s matches are prone to do. Ultimately what made this a joy was the contrast but undoubted skill of both men. Indeed Dean’s old school technicality v AJ’s new school flashy offence gives me major Hart v Michaels vibes.
Mav: The match came at a strange time; Styles was white hot as a heel and clearly being positioned as the face of the brand, so the title change was inevitable. Dean had been hurt by his stalled momentum after Lesnar, and a less than juicy feud with Ziggler, but he rallied here to put Styles over in a quite wonderful old school match. Bret and Shawn only actually wrestled one major match with the traditional heel/face dynamic, at Survivor Series ‘92 (Wrestlemania XIII was face/face, Survivor Series ‘97 was technically heel/heel in storyline, but the Canadian crowd obviously warps that a bit) and you can certainly see some influence from that bout bleeding over here. Ambrose is, as ever, gritty and tenacious, while Styles is more prone to taking risks and shortcuts, as the brilliant low blow finish demonstrated. These two had great chemistry; it’s a pity they only wrestled once more, in a TLC match that I also think was one of the better examples of the genre over the last decade.
4. Dean Ambrose v Triple H (Roadblock 2016)
Mav: I think the biggest compliment one can pay this match is that it felt like a match Triple H booked just because he so desperately wanted to wrestle one of his protégés in Ambrose, and to be quite honest, it’s the best latter day Triple H performance by quite a large margin. As a match it feels like an elaborate chess match, a wily veteran matching up with an instinctive and dangerous technician. It has a very late New Gen/early Attitude feel to it, and the methodical pacing helps build to a crescendo, with Ambrose having left everything on the 20×20 canvas in his attempt to wrest the championship from The Game. Why isn’t this match talked about more? Well, I guess its placement on a minor PPV/glorified house show is one reason, and the fact that the Roman Reigns vs Triple H feud that this was a diversion from is something everyone tries to forget ever happened is another. But if you want to really understand what Dean Ambrose brought to the table in his ascendant babyface run, you really need to watch this match. Just make sure to watch it on mute as the commentary is dire.
Sam: In a parallel universe instead of being at Roadblock this match was the main event of Wrestlemania 32, crowning the hottest wrestler in the world at the time and cementing Dean Ambrose at the pinnacle of the industry both in the ring and out. It would not have taken much, his rivalry with Triple H would have been much more natural than Roman’s was, and as well as setting up Dean, Roman could have had his rematch against Brock close enough that people could remember how good their first match was. Of course that is all nothing but a vain daydream of a Dean Ambrose fan, however given the incredible pop the false finish received in the ending stretch it is hard not to wonder what could have happened if Vince McMahon’s singular focus on promoting Roman Reigns was tempered even a little.
All of that of course doesn’t take away from the match itself where Dean Amrose went move for move with the ‘Cerebral Assassin’. Dean was most often cast as a wild, unpredictable brawler but as with the AJ Styles match, this outing with Triple H showed exactly how technical he could be. His body language throughout showed a sole focus on executing the game plan he knew could take down his opponent and if it wasn’t for a late cheap shot by a desperate Game, he very nearly could have. I agree completely with Mav, this was Dean at the peak of his popularity and for good reason, at the time he was doing it all, from technical, incredibly paced ‘big match’ main event to the next match in our list, a wild banger.
3. Dean Ambrose v Kevin Owens, Last Man Standing (Royal Rumble 2016)
Sam: Yes, yet another 2016 Dean Ambrose masterpiece, how good was he that year? This one kicked off the first PPV of the year with a mix of eye popping violence and character work that I believe makes it one of the best Last Man Standing Matches ever. The match pits two polar opposites against one another; while their scrappy exteriors may make Owens and Dean look alike, when it comes to the humans under the clothes, they could not be more different. On one hand you have Owens, who is willing to do anything to gain respect and infamy in the eyes of those around him and on the other hand a man who couldn’t care less what someone else thought of him. The one thing that unites them is their desire to hold the Intercontinental Title, Owens, the Prizefighter, for the prestige the historic title will bring him, Dean, the blue collar worker, as validation of the hard work that has taken him to the top of the industry. It is a desire that sees both men do horrendous things to each other in this match; as Byron Saxton says in one of his rare great moments, “they bring out the worst in each other”.
In a fight so full of spectacular spots and character colour, the highlight for me has to be Owens screaming at full voice “I hate you!” and “Stay down!” as Dean yet again pulls himself to his feet at the end of the match. KO’s increasing frustration with Dean’s resilience is ultimately what causes his end as he falls prey to his own sadistically created structure.
Mav: I think the rawness of the action, comparatively rare for a WWE gimmick match, allows for genuine emotion to come through the performances of both men, and that emotion was, as Sama alluded to, absolute hatred of each other and what they both stood for. The spots, though relatively intricate, are put together naturally enough that they’re not jarring, and both men go through the kind of war that you’d want a feud ender to be. Dean’s resilience often became a commentary cliché, unfortunately, but as a defining characteristic of his storytelling, it’s used to great effect here. While you do get the impression that they could’ve done even more with the handcuffs off, this is one of the matches which created the great renaissance of the Intercontinental Championship, and it is one that both men should be fiercely proud of.
2. Dean Ambrose v Seth Rollins, Lumberjack Match (Summer Slam 2014)
Mav: The choice of an unfashionable match type for the first singles match between Ambrose and Rollins turned out to be a genius one for several reasons. Not only did it give two uber talented men the chance to reinvent the genre, it also played into the long term story of The Shield by surrounding the ring with all the men they built their kayfabe reputation on, creating a chaotic, frenzied atmosphere perfect for the revenge narrative Ambrose’s character intended to author. In the most exciting twelve minute match anyone is ever likely to see, the two former Hounds pulled out all the stops to achieve their goal of re-defining the lumberjack match.
In a volcanic start, both men were thrown to the outside early and thrown straight back in by lumberjacks doing their job in a traditional way…at least to start with. Ambrose, after establishing dominance in the brawling game, focused on inflicting pain and humiliation on his former stablemate. When Ambrose got tossed out he attacked the lumberjacks before they could attack him, which was great character work on The Lunatic Fringe’s part. In a cerebral move, Seth then threw him out again for vengeful lumberjacks to beat him down, which meant that the technician Rollins could go to work once Dean was tossed back in the ring, and I love the scientific portion of the match that follows. Eventually though, the bad blood turning rabid means they get into a huge brawl around the arena and back into the ring, which almost becomes a mini Royal Rumble, with Ambrose last getting rid of Harper and Rowan, but inevitably turning into a briefcase to the face! The story of Ambrose’s chaotic style causing his eventual downfall was fantastic, the Authority influence was felt, and the Attitude Era was channeled brilliantly. Wonderful stuff; is there anything these two couldn’t do together?
Sam: So much of the logic of this match hangs on the typically excellent promo by Dean where he lays out, “If you try to run, you’ll run into a wall of bodies. The same bodies we built our reputation on. The same bodies we used to stack one by one. We made a lot of enemies Seth.” Setting the scene like that was a stroke of genius and added so much to what could have been a very unappealing gimmick.
Once this match gets going the thing that is most impressive is how flawlessly all the moving parts fit together. It could have felt terribly contrived when the action spilled over to the outside of the ring and then into the crowd but the way Seth and Dean pace out this match means the complete chaos that eventually erupts as Rollins escapes the brawling lumberjacks and rushes out into the crowd feels completely organic. The ending is also perfectly executed as Dean almost looks sad as he Curb Stomps his brother. An underrated element of this match is how well the crowd plays their part and add to the explosive atmosphere. It gets multiple “THIS IS AWESOME” chants and the crowd positively explodes as the lumberjacks give chase to Rollins through the Staples Centre. Going into this match we all knew these two were capable of something great but what a way to just blow the doors off the midcard. It only goes for a touch over ten minutes but you had better believe this match used every single second it lasted.
1. Dean Ambrose v Seth Rollins, Ladder Match (Money In The Bank 2015)
Sam: I think for us it was always going to come down to these two Mav. For me it was almost a toss up, do I go with the balls to the wall punk rock song that is the Lumberjack match or the double side concept album that is the Ladder Match? How do you even compare two things that are so different but equally great? Ultimately the reason I chose this match is the level of skill these two craftsmen displayed in laying out and then executing this thirty-five minute masterpiece.
Firstly there is yet another amazing promo to set the tone and story for the match, a story which is further reinforced with Triple H’s pep talk to Seth Rollins just before The Architect walks out. This of course all stemmed from the match the pair had the PPV before where The Authority interfered, had Ambrose’s win overturned but Dean left with the WWE Championship Belt nonetheless. Putting the championship on a ladder after that was logical thing to do and let them ask the question that had been swirling since Rollins and Ambrose first locked horns: one on one which one of these seeming equals could rise highest?
Once the action kicks off it is clear this is a match being wrestled between two men playing a high stakes game. Both know all too well how dangerous and driven the other man is so every move is calculated to take a step up the figurative ladder towards that championship belt and knock the other man down a peg. While this sounds like a recipe for something slow and banal, as with all their matches it builds to an absolutely barn burning crescendo that has the audience hanging off every move.
The final mark of genius in this match is the ending which sees both men grab the championship, fall to the mat grasping it and fight on the mat over who will take possession. The degree of difficulty to pull that stunt off is incredible and the potential for something to go wrong ever so high and yet these two pulled it off to stunning effect. I rate the story of Rollins and Ambrose relationship as one of the greatest multi-year stories ever told in wrestling and in this match we see that level of excellence so clearly. Even after this thirty minute battle both men reach the top at the exact same time and still cannot be split, a fitting metaphor for their careers up to that point as well as a fitting end to that chapter of their history.
Mav: It should not surprise anyone that Seth Rollins and Dean Ambrose took an overwrought match type and turned it upside down. For long years, the psychological dimension to ladder matches had been sadly ignored, with illogical spots and boneheaded risk taking ruling the day. Ambrose and Rollins shut out that white noise of the past decade and looked to far better role models; Jericho and Michaels from 2009, Benoit and Jericho from 2001, The Rock and Triple H from 1998 and the classic pair of matches from Razor and Shawn in 1994. Even so, I make the comparison with those matches for one reason and one reason only: all of them were wrestling matches that just so happened to contain a ladder, matches where the gimmick did not obnoxiously dominate the action. What Dean and Seth did, for me, eclipses all of those great bouts I just mentioned. What they achieved at Money In The Bank is nothing short of remarkable, a completely immersive wrestling match which does not let the viewer take their eyes from the screen. It sucks you into their world and keeps you there, inside one of the most epic stories WWE/F have ever put together.
The restraint shown by the two men in wrestling a straight singles match at the outset is commendable, and psychologically sound too, as one needs to incapacitate one’s opponent before the climb to the gold is possible, and in an interesting storytelling touch, Ambrose stares up at the gold even as he tortures Rollins in a submission, demonstrating the evolution of a character who once lived out of a desperate need for revenge, but now desires the title, as if he realises that his stablemate might have been right about placing ambition over brotherhood. Interestingly, many critics have retro-fitted an idea that the match is too slow, but this is, in fact, nonsense, as even a cursory rewatch illustrates that they wrestle crisply at quite a fast clip. What they don’t do is go for the ladder all the time, a daring subversion of the gimmick’s recent history, which some may have been unprepared to see the value of. However, it is this patience, this restraint, this cerebral approach, that, in my opinion, makes it a masterpiece. I suppose one could see it as the type of match Owen and Bret would have had at Summerslam ‘94 had they been given a ladder match rather than a steel cage match, another masterpiece which sometimes gets scant credit for its brilliance. Even when they go for the ladder, the two are constantly stopping each other from getting near the instrument of success; we are made to wait for the first climb, we are made to wait for the finish, and it’s all the better for that. I’ve made my peace with the fact that like the Ironman Match from Wrestlemania X, this match is not for everybody, but it’s certainly for me – my personal match of the decade, and a fitting way to see out our tribute to Dean Ambrose in WWE.
That wraps things up for the countdown. What did you think of our top five picks and what do you think should come in at number one? You can let us know in the comments below or find us on Twitter @Neil_Pollock79 & @Sir_Samuel.
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