Dean Ambrose is dead. Long live Jon Moxley.
They’re the same person, but that fact has been easy to forget as the former WWE champion has reached wild new heights in his first months of independent freedom. Moxley has been busy since leaving WWE at the end of his contract on April 30, competing both in All Elite Wrestling and, more notably and excitingly, in New Japan Pro Wrestling. More importantly, he has been a revelation, not just because he’s been booked like the star that he is, but because of how thrillingly he has stepped his game up inside and outside the ring. It wasn’t easy to get excited about Mox during his WWE stint, but those days are gone. He’s delivering the best performances of his career, and is hotter than any other wrestler working.
Right now, Moxley is taking part in the G1 Climax, the best and most important wrestling tournament in the world. He is 3-0 so far, with wins over dastardly bad guy Taichi—he attacked Moxley before their match, a proper introduction to the tournament for the large American—fellow gaijin Jeff Cobb, and most recently Tomohiro Ishii, New Japan’s second-tier fan favorite, on Friday. The match with Ishii was almost certainly Moxley’s best singles match ever, under any name, but it felt significant in another sense. It was good, brutal fun to watch, but it also pointed a way forward for Moxley not just as An Attraction, but rather as a brilliant and brilliantly violent wrestler.
As Dean Ambrose, Moxley was regularly chided for his boring and safe style; he was supposed to be the Lunatic Fringe, but his actual in-ring style was built around soft strikes and even softer suicide dives to the outside of the ring, and grounded by a general understanding of exactly how much risk he needed to take to create a passable match. He rarely went much further than that.
Against Ishii, though, that all went out the window:
I can’t say that I remember Ambrose hitting a single dropkick in his nearly seven years in WWE, and yet not only is he doing that, but he’s landing it on the money against the much-shorter and stouter Ishii; Mox had some of this in his match against Joey Janela at AEW’s Fyter Fest, but it was even more noticeable against Ishii that Moxley is an absolutely massive human being. The man nailing that drop kick is 6-foot-4 and at least 230 pounds.
It wasn’t just the dropkick, either. Moxley’s strikes have definitely leaned into the whole “strong style” tradition of Japanese wrestling:
I won’t embed them here because they were vile, but he and Ishii also traded headbutts in their match. They were pulled, and so not as violent as possible, but not commendable risks to take.
Moxley hasn’t fully abandoned Ambrose as a character, at least in certain mannerisms and actions; for one example, he took Ishii out into the crowd for a good ol’ fashioned WWE-style brawl, slamming him all over Korakuen Hall. But the old risk-averse style is gone, and what was normal for Ambrose is about three notches below the level at which Moxley is currently operating. His post-match promo against Ishii made it official, definitively burying the Ambrose Era while borrowing some of the same cadences and yell-talking that made him the most exciting member of The Shield way back when:
He’s also clearly just having fun. That’s not a particularly scientific piece of analysis, granted, but you know it when you see it. That joy of performance is in Moxley’s work in the ring, but it’s particularly palpable in the post-match press conferences that New Japan always does. Those promos are almost always excellent, and give wrestlers a platform on which to get as weird as they want; I’d like to give a special shout-out to Zack Sabre Jr., who has really embraced his innate British hilariousness for all four of his.
My favorite of Mox’s post-match orations came after his win over Taichi. Some quick context: Moxley’s second match in New Japan was against Shota Umino, a Young Lion in the NJPW dojo—in other words, a trainee. It was a fine enough match but Moxley took a storyline liking to Shota, and started having the Young Lion carry around his IWGP U.S. championship belt for him. It’s a cute odd couple situation, and is elevated further by the revelation that Shota, whose nickname is “Shooter,” also acts as Mox’s butler:
Moxley has six more G1 matches left—and maybe one more, if he wins the B Block, which I once would have considered unlikely but which now seems like a highly possible course of action. New Japan is smart about pushing hot talent for the most part, and Moxley still has a few other talented marquee opponents lined up. He’ll face Shingo Takagi, one of the better “small” wrestlers in the company, on July 24, with superstar troll Tetsuya Naito, fellow foreigner Jay White, hard-hitting Hirooki Goto, and a rematch against Juice Robinson, off of whom Moxley won the U.S. belt, still to come. He also has a match against comedic mastermind Toru Yano, which I spotlighted in my tournament preview, but that’s likelier to be more like performance art than conventional wrestling.
Regardless of how the rest of those matches go, Moxley’s demeanor during the tournament has suggested that he knows he stands at the center of the wrestling universe. He might not be the best talker, or the most talented performer, but what he’s putting together since being freed from WWE points to a future as an indie mainstay and a steady source of good matches. That’s something like a superstar, which is something Moxley has never quite been over his long career.
His late rise has been so dramatic that it’s hard not to wonder about other wrestlers currently floundering in the WWE mid-card. Moxley was always a star with charisma, but never the most technical of wrestlers; it turns out, however, that he can put on matches that rank among the best in the damn G1, where every match is good-to-incredible. What other wrestlers lost in WWE’s shuffle could deliver on a similar chance in Japan, or at AEW, or even just working the independent circuit? I for one would love a return to the indies for Cesaro, a damn good wrestler who has never been given a real shot at being a top-tier star in WWE. Moxley’s success has been great for his career, of course, and very good for the promotions that he calls home, but it could wind up being good for wrestling as a whole if he inspires other performers to make a similar escape.
By erasing the disappointment of his last few years as the middling Dean Ambrose, Jon Moxley has become the hottest star in wrestling. It was a difficult future to imagine for a guy who sounded so miserable talking about his WWE tenure just a couple of months ago, but if you’ve seen him, you’ve seen how true it is. Moxley is finally free to wreak havoc, on his own body and that of any opponent that his promotions throw at him, and the mess he’s made has been something to behold.