The Devil and Dean Ambrose: How The Lunatic Fringe became WWE's most dangerous man
Oh look, there’s Dean Ambrose, right in the middle of a bombed-out wrestling ring set up in some nondescript Northeastern field. Could be Pennsylvania, but who knows: Civilization is nowhere to be found in any sense of the word. Glass, barbed wire, a cheeseburger deluxe and spots of red pepper the scene — the remnants of a 15-minute bar fight posing as a wrestling match, while a sparse but energetic crowd foams at the mouth for the carnage to continue. You half expect Caesar to appear and give the thumbs-down at any given moment.
The Lunatic Fringe himself — his face already looking like he went bobbing for apples in a can of red paint — is currently experiencing the most uniquely traumatic of head injuries following an assault by electric saw. The crowd goes nuts as it happens, and Ambrose jolts to his feet when the deed is done, limbs flailing like he’s been struck by lightning. A few moments later, a dazed Ambrose will be forced to his knees and suffer a second attack from the saw. He’ll win in a few minutes with a roll-up that seems incredibly underwhelming given all that preceded it and he’ll stumble through the grass in search of an ambulance or makeshift triage unit, whichever he finds first, leaving a trail of crimson in his ungainly wake. And it’s only his first match of the day. And, it’s not even the worst thing that’s happened to him.
“[There was one match] where I literally started doing the mathematical equation of like, ‘I’m bleeding way too fast and I have another 15 minutes or so left in this match, and at this rate I will probably pass out and I might die, so I better hurry up and get this match over with,” said Ambrose to WWE.com.
I was a little bored of regular old wrestling.Only three years before he’d appear on the scene in WWE, matches like this were a typical day at the office for The Lunatic Fringe. One of the last — and, potentially, most notorious — deathmatch veterans still standing, Ambrose came to WWE by way of a path of destruction usually reserved for Biblical plagues or one-man wrecking crews.
There are, to be perfectly honest, a lot of genuinely unsettling things about this part of the Dean Ambrose story. But perhaps the most disquieting aspect is that Ambrose — trained at the reputable Heartland Wrestling Association in Cincinnati — didn’t need to do any of it. He had the tools, he had the skills, and if he wanted to, had the opportunity to avoid rolling around in barbed wire for $20 a night — a practice he refers to in conversation as “that” or “all that” — a free hot dog and a piece of the merch stand.
So why, Dean Ambrose, did you do it?
“I was a little bored of regular old wrestling,” said Ambrose. “I started dabbling my foot in that because I was bored.”
What followed plunged the Cincinnati native into a self-made bed of in-ring depravity and near-death experiences, but also forged him into the competitor the WWE Universe sees today. Yet despite all he has to say about his time in the hardcore scene — and he has plenty to say — there is one thing Ambrose maintains from the start:
“I never had any intention of taking things as far as I did.”
Here’s how far he did take it.
Three missing teeth in the back of his mouth. One nipple lost in the heat of competition and personally sewed back on afterward — “And did a fine job, I might add,” he says — a countless number of scrapes, scratches and scars, those two slashes from the saw, and, sometimes, multiple matches in a single day.
“I always take pride in the fact that nobody can mess with me and I never let anybody mess with me my entire life,” he said. “I may not be the biggest guy in the world or strongest guy in the world. I don’t have those gifts. But I will take more punishment and I’m willing to withstand more abuse. A lot of people say, ‘It takes a lot to beat him’ or whatever. I’m trying to show you in the most literal terms, my body is indestructible, whether its glass or fire or barbed wire.”
Apart from Ambrose himself, there was Drake Younger, a lean, Kobe-beef looking guy who once attached himself to Ambrose at the neck with a dog collar and hung The Lunatic Fringe over the top rope with it like a third world traitor of the state. There was also Brain Damage, a burly goon who carried a broadsword to the ring and operated the aforementioned power tool. Then there’s Thumbtack Jack, an AFI lookalike who walked into a match against Ambrose while wearing a Michael Myers mask – one that would, horrifyingly, be later affixed to Ambrose’s face via staple gun.Wrapping yourself in barbed wire is an easy way to get noticed.
These guys weren’t exactly the Malenkos or the Guerreros. While Ambrose maintains CZW did have some great wrestling apart from its extraneously hardcore scene, his opponents were mainly beefy brawlers with a love of the sport and, in some cases, criminal tendencies (a former Ambrose rival was sentenced to five years for armed robbery) who had little or no hope of making it to the big leagues (ironically enough, however, Younger is currently signed as a referee at WWE NXT). All they had to give was their bodies, which made the classically-trained Ambrose’s choice to suffer alongside them all the more chilling.
“[Hardcore matches] were the environment that fit my personality perfectly,” he said. “And I used that forum to show that personality and that character to the world.”
Ambrose’s run in the indies quickly became an addictive game of one-upsmanship with himself. Less an experiment of seeing what the crowd would respond to than discovering the limitations of his own body.
“That became a really slippery slope, and once I started going in that direction, I was going in that direction,” said Ambrose. “[I would think] ‘well, I did this and I didn’t get hurt, so next time I’ll try this. I’ll try jumping off a ladder this high, or I’ll go through two tables. Or I got hit with a chair, so next time I'll wrap the chair in barbed wire, or I went into barbed wire that was set up in the ropes, so next time I’ll just take down the ropes and replace them with barbed wire.”
I'm trying to show you my body is indestructible.Listing the by-products of Ambrose’s — can’t stress it enough — chosen, pre-WWE career path would take too long, and, save for that nipple incident, he doesn’t seem too interested in delving into the particulars. Suffice it to say, the man has bled on at least two continents. The old idiom about Superstars leaving body parts across the world has applied to few people more literally than Dean Ambrose.
“You go to the hospital in Germany or Spain or whatever, you give a fake name, have ’em stitch you up. Nobody speaks English and you’re bleeding half to death, trying to explain your problem,” said Ambrose of his more grisly adventures. “‘Yeah, I got this piece of glass stuck in my eyeball, this barbed wire is somewhere around my kidney, I swallowed a nail or something,’ Who knows?”
The upside of all this was it built The Lunatic Fringe the kind of reputation independent wrestlers would give an arm for. The downside was that it made him understandably short-sighted where his career goals were concerned.
“In the back of my mind I always knew WWE was where I should be and were I would end up. Or where I could end up. Where I deep-down wanted to end up,” Ambrose said. “WWE was the ultimate goal, but I didn’t know day to day what was gonna happen next … I couldn’t look too far ahead because I had too many weapons flying at my head to look too far into the future.”
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At least he wasn’t bored. Yet for all the blood Ambrose lost, it bought him something invaluable in return: He got some — so to speak — buzz.
“I won’t say I never got hurt, but I’m really lucky that I survived all that and made it to where I am with my head on my shoulders,” said Ambrose, “[But] when you’re wrapping yourself in barbed wire, or if you’re getting attacked with a skill saw and somehow you survive … that’s an easy way to get noticed … it created this aura around me that got people’s attention I was able to capitalize on and eventually make it to WWE.”
In other words, risking life and limb turned out to be, in the long run, the best long-term decision Dean Ambrose ever made. He does, however, offer one piece of advice to anyone looking to follow in his footsteps: Don’t.
“I wouldn’t recommend that route to anybody.”
That Ambrose ultimately did get the invite from WWE to report to Florida Championship Wrestling, then their developmental territory, was both a no-brainer given his training — Bill DeMott is among HWA’s alumni — and a surprise to Ambrose given his anti-establishment reputation.
WWE doesn't know what they just got."I kind of slipped through the back door of developmental here because some guys like Joey [Mercury] put in a good word for me. Guys who saw the total package that I brought, which is just way different than anything they had in FCW at the time,” said Ambrose.
“WWE is a certain brand of sports-entertainment and they just hired one of the gnarliest, most extreme guys with one of the most controversial reputations that they could have found. I don’t know if anybody knew that I was walking in the door down in Florida until I did, you know?”
“I’m thinking in my head, ‘The office doesn’t know what they just got.’”
Ambrose maintains transitioning out of his hardcore mentality was as easy as slipping into it, which is somewhat terrifying in and of itself (“I realized I was walking into a completely different world and it was time to let all of that stuff go.”).
“I learned everything the right way and was [a] very technically proficient professional with experience by the time I started getting into that,” said Ambrose, “Which is kind of weird.”
Yet the supposed departure from the depravity of his past hasn’t necessarily turned him level-headed.
Even now, no two Ambrose matches are the same, and his missives on the microphone span from measured and pensive, like a Bond supervillain at the head of a boardroom, to wild and skittish, like an amped-up street punk who’s been bitten by a rabid dog. He wrestles, to hear him tell it, in the clothes he has on when he enters the arena. Daniel Bryan’s unlikely path to WWE as the conquering underdog is the stuff of legend by now, but truth be told, there are fewer competitors out there who carry themselves less like a WWE Superstar — a title synonymous with meticulousness, poise and perfection — than Dean Ambrose.
All of which is to say, it’s absolutely nuts that Seth Rollins picked this guy as his enemy. But that’s exactly what Rollins did by shattering The Shield — Ambrose’s first, last and only stint in a team, which he refers to as a “magical” time in his career — and now that The Aerialist has Ambrose nipping at his heels, for the first time, WWE fans are starting to get a glimpse at the madman who terrorized the independent scene all those years ago.
Granted, Ambrose still maintains that “all that” is firmly in his past, but the experiences he picked up among the shattered glass and barbed wire have certainly served him well in any case.
For what it’s worth, he’s getting his share of threats, from both Rollins — currently the Money in the Bank contract holder — and The Authority, who have placed The Lunatic Fringe into several matches against his precursor in insanity, Randy Orton. Once again, he finds himself unable to see down the road thanks to the obstacles flying into his path. And once again, he doesn’t mind in the slightest.I still feel indestructible.
“I’m at the point where I kind of feel a little bit backed into a corner and I’m completely comfortable in that position, because I will bite and scratch and claw and throw punches until I can’t anymore,” said Ambrose. “Whatever obstacles stand in my way of getting to where I need to go are of very little worry to me, you know?”
And while Ambrose still doesn’t necessarily have a plan, per se (“It’s hard for me to tell anybody what to expect because I don’t know what to expect”), he does have at least some semblance of a goal in mind.
“I would rather burn out than fade away,” he said. “Whatever road I go down, it’s not gonna be pretty because it’s gonna be the Dean Ambrose way, and that’s my life story. It’s not gonna be rainbows and Skittles, you know? … [But] I know that no matter what happens, everything is gonna be fine.”
And why, Dean Ambrose, is that?
“I still feel indestructible. More so than I did back then.”
In other words, they’re gonna need a bigger saw.