Historically Significant Disasters of Wrestling (#98): The Rollins/Ambrose Feud of 2018/19


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Booked from the real Lunatic Fringe...

If we are going to look to a MVP for the first three years of AEW, there are a lot of players that would come to mind. Chris Jericho, Kenny Omega, Hangman Page, MJF, the Young Bucks, FTR and Britt Baker probably all have a claim to it (incidentally, the fact I could rattle off eight men to one woman does point to an issue with Tony Khan's company...). However, for me, pound for pound the answer lies in this guy:


Moxley led the company through the doldrums of pandemic wrestling, putting on great matches and promos to virtually empty rooms. He has then helped the fans to get behind the massive talent that is Eddie Kingston, before helping to make a star out of Wheeler Yuta and establish the Blackpool Combat Club. In other words, Moxley has become something that WWE had never envisaged Dean Ambrose would be.


Rewind four years and it's easy to see why...

In August 2018, Dean Ambrose came back from injury to a massive pop. Looking meaner and bigger, the Lunatic Fringe helped Seth Rollins win the IC Championship at Summerslam from Dolph Ziggler, then reunited the Shield with Rollins and Roman Reigns to feud with Braun Strowman, Drew McIntyre and Ziggler. However, tensions start to bubble between the Hounds of Justice as Ambrose began to feel like the other two were taking him for granted.

However, then everything was turned upside-down.


Roman's leukaemia changed everything, with the Universal Champion being retired, and Rollins and Ambrose on the same October 22nd Raw challenging ZIggler and McIntyre for the tag titles and triumphing.

And that's when this happened.

Sometimes in wrestling reality and kayfabe can combine for an opportunity for a swerve that is, while perfectly logical, still shocking. This was one of those moments. The crowd was ready to soak in the feel good moment with Roman's brothers, only to have it ripped from them by the guy whose resentments were simmering under the surface. This was helped by the fact that both workers played their part perfectly, with Ambrose in particular looking like he was unloading years of issues in one night on Rollins.

And I would love to say that this was the fuse that began an explosive feud between two of the mainstays of 2010s WWE. But that would be an egregious lie.

The first issue is that WWE couldn't really surmount the fact that they had to make Ambrose unlikeable, while at the same time creating a simple motivation as to why he turned. And that's led to a situation where Seth had to keep on questioning Dean...and Dean not giving answers. And that would be fine...but the thing about trolling like this is that it essentially brings stories to a screeching halt. So the WWE needed an additional ruse to keep everything going.


Look, I understand that WWE don't give a shit about the Tag Division. That's fine. But would it kill them to portray characters that give a shit about the tag titles? Two weeks after Ambrose's turn, Baron Corbin decided that Seth had to defend the tag titles (having seemingly now had ownership of both of them) against the Authors of Pain, which he lost. And I know that this was a way to show the effect of Ambrose, but it really took a shit on the tag division and in particular AoP, who had to somehow begin a reign after winning the belts in a friggin' handicap match. And afterwards Ambrose trolled Rollins again. And for the second week in a row after a killer beginning, the feud felt like it was treading water.

Finally then, on the November 12 episode of Raw, Ambrose would come out to explain his actions. Unfortunately he did it on the go-home show of Survivor Series.

A good way to sum up the issue is with a picture from the night:


That is the iconic photo of Becky Lynch who, despite the major hurdles of a totally constructed 'brand warfare' and a botch by Nia Jax, came out of this looking like she had pride not only in her brand, but in a way that enhanced her own stock as well because her beef was with Ronda Rousey.

Ambrose and Rollins, on the other hand, had a bitter personal feud that needed to be put on hold for said 'brand warfare', with Rollins starting by saying that he wasn't really worried about Shinsuke Nakamura at Survivor Series. Instead he wanted Dean Ambrose to come out and face him in the ring. But instead Ambrose gave an answer to why he turned on Rollins.


I have a funny feeling that WWE was still trying to find a way to make Ambrose heel, while not overtly alluding to Roman's leukaemia. And Ambrose does make some compelling points about how he was talked down to by Seth Rollins and caring for Seth and Roman made him weak. But all of these points don't really link together in a way that makes for a compelling turn. Yes, Seth talked down to him and yes, he spent a lot of time having Seth's and Roman's back, but it doesn't feel like a promo where the reasons escalate the feud. This isn't helped by the fact that in the promo Ambrose begins the shift from Rollins in particular, to "you people" (the fans). And while the WWE would soon have a fantastic heel doing great work against the fans (Daniel Bryan), this felt way too personal to suddenly turn to the audience and try to involve them.

Unless you were trying to use them to make points by proxy...

Throughout the past four years of television, the WWE had used the members of the Shield in every sort of way to get Roman over and the results could be at best described as 'middling'. The amount of times Dean Ambrose was primed for the big push only for Vince and co to say "can we get you to hang with Roman for a few weeks?" as if he was a rock star in some by the numbers 90s comedy who had to suddenly look after their nerdy brother.


My apologies, Tribal Chief...

In all seriousness, when Roman tagged with cool babyfaces, he was seen as a millstone over the other guy by many. And when he faced compelling heels, he was seen as being a one-note performer who couldn't really hold their end of the feud outside of the ring. And this is not a fair assumption, but it was one that was certainly prominent. So... I wonder if this feud was dragged deliberately, as the precursor to an Ambrose/Reigns Wrestlemania feud, where Roman could come back after hearing Ambrose shoot his mouth off about his status and the WWE Universe to a monster pop. And I don't really have much hard facts to back this up, but...I don't know if "we have to wait til Brand Warfare finishes" is enough of a reason for the WWE to take a white hot angle...and turn it down to a simmer.

And you'd think, you'd think that if you wanted Ambrose to be seen as a loose cannon who didn't give a flying f**k about anything but the destruction of Rollins, you'd get him to cost the match against Nakamura at Survivor Series!!! It would help position Rollins as a guy who is trying to hold everything up (Brand, title, his legacy) and Ambrose being able to exploit him for it. But no, Rollins wins clean and then we're back to trying to reheat a feud for the next PPV.

Now this feud badly needed a next gear, because what was essentially going on was 'Ambrose ambushing Rollins and DDT-ing him. Rinse and repeat for four weeks'. So the obvious and correct thing to do would be to change something about Seth's approach, as he was the one that was being laid out Monday after Monday. And you could! Rollins could say that for the last couple of months he has been trying to do too much but now he is focused on squeezing the head off of Ambrose's shoulders. And- shock horror- it would allow for a babyface to change a little bit, God freakin' forbid!

So what did we get instead?

This feud needs a shot in the ass - Cageside Seats

There's something so...tragic about this promo on the 26th November 2018. Not the material although it is absolutely idiotic- turning one of the most down and dirty fighters in the whole of the WWE into...a germaphobe that seemed more positioned for laughs than anything else. It's also not the sad fact that when Ambrose is delivering his money lines at the end of the promo, he literally has a syringe in his tushy. It's the fact that you can see that Ambrose has gone from one of the most passionate and unique promos in WWE to a vanilla one. The promo he delivered could have been done by at least a dozen guys on that roster because WWE treated this feud like any other on the roster. This promo is about the best example of Ambrose's frustration of working under Vince, as he decided that the best thing for this feud between brothers that had hearkened back for years, was laughs and crazy capers.

So I've heard some say that this new germaphobe gimmick change was a way of kinda, sorta alluding to Roman's condition without actually saying it. If that's the case, I don't know why you'd play it for yuks. Secondly, why- in the name of Freya- would you turn Dean into a bargain basement Bane?! Complete with dollar store riot henchmen?! The best thing about this feud was that it seemed like Ambrose was engaging in guerrilla warfare with Rollins, getting into his head and showing Rollins how he was being held back. Now, more and more guff was being laden onto it and the feud was sinking under its weight.

And while this was happening, Rollins was still acting like he was some sort of leader for the resistance against Baron Corbin's tyrannical regime. And it just made everything on the way to TLC seem...jarring. And I know that Rollins was a really important cog in the Raw machine, but he had an IC Title!!! Get him open challenges or get others to compete for the freakin' thing! Rollins had a match with Corbin on the go-home Raw, rather than really sell the damn PPV feud with Dean!

All of this, plus the fact that Ambrose himself had probably begun counting down the days before he was splitsville was visibly hurting the feud that WWE had hoped could carry Raw through Christmas.

Well at least they could finally get to the match where they could get to beat the piss out of each other and show that fantastic chemistry.

The first thing that needs to be said are the entrances. Ambrose is just so beaten down by creative at this stage that he is doing very basic trash talk to the crowd ("Watch what happens"). But Rollins is even weirder. After eight weeks of beatdowns and allusions to himself, the Shield and even Roman, Rollins does a formulaic entrance as opposed to, oh I don't know, being pissed off!!! It also doesn't help that the announcers are trying to use Renee's real life relationship with Ambrose as an angle, because it doesn't really add anything to the match. But it does speak to an...insecurity around the agency of this match that WWE are somehow afraid that this feud isn't spicy enough already in a way that feels exploitative. It almost feels like Vince is asking Corey in his headset to make Renee feel uncomfortable in order to try to put her off. It's...uncomfortable to listen to. And having Michael Cole essentially tell Renee that her husband is nuts because he is talking to himself is also...icky.

And what's worse is we start this match with a feeling out process- complete with lock-ups, running the ropes and shoulder blocks. This is supposed to be a blood feud between two guys who would know each other inside-out and you start it like this?! In fact, one thing you would not call the match is 'wild'. 'Methodical' may be a more apt adjective or even 'plodding'. Most of the reason for this is the simple fact that the match is trying to tell the story that Dean has Seth scouted, so Seth is the one who will be making the mistakes by letting his emotions get the better of him. But frankly, there's not enough offense from Seth for this to really hit home for most of the match. Instead Dean mostly slowly picks apart Rollins and the pace doesn't really move past a crawl. And then Seth makes a comeback which feels like an ordinary Raw main event, which doesn't finish the match. And when we get to the big hockey punches spot where both put all their hatred on the a) feels too late and b) really artificial. And then, after that, there's still another 7 or 8 mins of match! Don't get me wrong, the in-ring action is fine as far as moves go- it's just that the story is all over the place and doesn't gel. This can be seen in the ending, where Seth goes nuts when Dean gives the fist bump (sure, he dishonored The Shield and Roman when he had cancer, but this crossed the line!). And so Seth beat him up a bit, and then got caught by Dirty Deeds in a way that apparently was supposed to show that his emotions got the better of him, rather than just being a pretty banal finish for a match that could have been eight minutes shorter.

Now, I reckon that the IC Title of Ambrose was an attempt by Vince to try and appease one of his workers who had (legit) gripes with the company- to the point that he wasn't re-signing. This can be seen by the fact that as soon as Vince saw that this was not going to change Dean's mind he took the belt off Ambrose and gave it to Lashley in a Triple Threat that also included Rollins in the go-home Raw to the 2019 Rumble. This was no doubt because Rollins was due to win the Rumble, but it also meant that Rollins was going into the Rumble 0 and 3. And if there was any other evidence that Creative were done with this feud, Rollins and Ambrose had their rubber match on the next Raw so they could move Ambrose on to...being confronted by Nia Jax.

At no point did it seem that there was a tonal consistency to this feud, nor did it feel like a feud of two workers who once loved each other and now hated each other. Instead Vince and co. managed to botch this open goal so much that it convinced Ambrose to walk out the door and forced them to dump this ASAP when they earmarked Seth as the next world champion.

And that's why Jon Moxley succeeded where Dean Ambrose did not. Because if you book a character consistently, with clear motives and good feuds, they have every chance to be seen as a dependable part of your roster. Ambrose was never given that chance.

And in Part 2, we'll see what we can do to change that...

#1 Owen Hart vs Stone Cold @ SummerSlam '97
#2 December to Dismember 2006
#3 The Fingerpoke of Doom
#4 The Scott Steiner vs HHH Feud
#5 Ryback vs Mark Henry @ WrestleMania XXIX
#6 Bret Hart vs Vince McMahon @ WrestleMania XXVI
#7 The Jerry Lawler/Michael Cole Feud
#8 The Curtain Call
#9 Bash at the Beach 2000
#10 Royal Rumble 2014
#11 Warrior/Hogan II @ Halloween Havoc
#12 The Cena/Laurinatis Feud
#13 The Firing of Ric Flair From WCW
#14 The Brogue Kick of Doom
#15 Lesnar vs Goldberg @ WrestleMania XX
#16 Immortal Revealed @ Bound for Glory 2010
#17 Sting vs Hogan @ Starrcade 1997
#18 Triple H vs Booker T @ WrestleMania 19
#19 The Corre
#20 The Undertaker vs Big Boss Man @ WrestleMania 15
#21 Jeff Hardy vs Sting @ Victory Road 2011
#22 Road Wild 1999
#23 The John Cena/Kane Feud of 2012
#24 Hulk Hogan's Mancow Interview of 1999
#25 CM Punk vs the Rock @ Elimination Chamber 2013
#26 The Reign of Bill Watts in WCW
#27 The Claire Lynch Affair Part One And Two
#28 Triple H vs Kevin Nash @ TLC 2011
#29 The Cactus Jack Amnesia Angle
#30 Hulk Hogan Leaving TNA
#31 HBK vs Hulk Hogan @ SummerSlam 2005
#32 David Arquette: WCW Champion
#33 Katie Vick
#34 nWo Souled Out 1997
#35 The Vampiro/Sting Feud of 2000
#36 Once in a Lifetime, Episode II
#37 The Angle/Jarrett Feud of 2010/11
#38 The McMahon/Lashley Feud
#39 The Shockmaster
#40 CM Punk vs Ryback @ Hell in a Cell 2012
#41 Hulk Hogan vs Roddy Piper @ Starrcade 1996
#42 The WWE Championship Reign of Diesel
#43 Cena vs the Wyatts
#44 The Main Roster Run of Emma
#45 The WCW Run of Bret Hart
#46 John Cena vs the Miz @ WrestleMania 27
#47 The Lone Wolf AJ Styles
#48 Alberto Del Rio vs Jack Swagger @ WrestleMania 29
#49 The Transition of Mike Awesome from ECW to WCW
#50 The Dolph Ziggler Conundrum Part One, Part Two, Part Three, Part Four, Part Five
#51 The Rise and Fall of Damien Sandow/Mizdow Part One and Part Two
#52 DDP & Jay Leno vs Hollywood Hogan & Eric Bischoff @ Road Wild 1998
#53 Triple H vs Randy Orton @ WrestleMania 25
#54 Lord Tensai
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#56 Sid Vicious vs Scott Steiner @ Starrcade 2000
#57 Bret Hart vs Yokuzuna (feat. Hulk Hogan) @ WrestleMania 9
#58 Royal Rumble 2015
#59 The Crucifixion of the Sandman
#60 Brock Lesnar's First Year Back in WWE
#61 Bo Dallas' Main Roster Run
#62 Vince Russo vs Booker T for the WCW World Heavyweight Championship
#63 Randy Orton vs the Big Show @ Survivor Series 2013
#64 AJ Styles vs Abyss @ Destination X 2010
#65 EV 2.0
#66 The Summer of Punk Part 1; Part 2; Part 3
#67 The Lex Express
#68 Goldberg's first WWE Run
#69 Paige's Main Roster Run 2014-2016
#70 Seth Rollins' First World Title Run
#71 Hulk Hogan vs Sgt Slaughter @ WrestleMania VII
#72 Sting vs Abyss in a Last Rites Match
#73 The Undertaker vs Big Show in the Punjabi Prison
#74 Ric Flair vs Hollywood Hogan @ Uncensored 1999
#75 Roman Reigns' Road to WrestleMania 32 Part One, Part Two. Part Three
#76 Hulk Hogan vs Sid Justice @ WrestleMania VIII
#77 Muhammad Hassan
#78 Sheamus' World Heavyweight Title Reign
#79 The Ghastly Match
#80 Bray Wyatt vs Randy Orton @ Wrestlemania 33
#81 Goldberg vs Steiner vs Nash @ New Blood Rising'
#82 The Lesnar/Angle/Big Show feud of 2002
#83 Aces and Eights
#84 Dean Ambrose vs Brock Lesnar @ WrestleMania 32
#85 Jinder Mahal: WWE Champion Part One, Part Two, Part Three.
#86 DDP & Karl Malone vs Hollywood Hogan & Dennis Rodman.
#87 Triple H vs Sting
#88 The 1992 Run of the Ultimate Warrior
#89 Jenna Morasca vs Sharmell
#90 The Lesnar/Reigns Feud of 2018 Part One, Part Two, Part Three
#91 The Higher Power Revealed
#92 The Brawl for All
#93 The 2019 Title Reigns of Seth Rollins Part One, Part Two
#94 The Main Roster Run of Karrion Kross Part One, Part Two
#95 Fiend vs Goldberg @ Super Showdown Part One, Part Two, Part Three
#96 Hulk Hogan Poached from AWA by WWE
#97 Cody Rhodes vs Anthony Ogogo Part One and Part Two

The InVasion Saga

Article One: Shane has a surprise for Daddy
Article Two: Booker T vs Buff Bagwell and the Temple of Boos
Article Three: Daddy's little Girl Gets in on the Action

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