When we last discussed Dean Ambrose in this space a few months ago, news had just broken that he had given WWE his 90-day notice and would not be renewing his contract. That Ambrose was parting with WWE was, at bottom, a sound business decision; with All Elite Wrestling and other promotions bidding for talent, Ambrose and any other high-profile wrestlers would do well to weigh their options. More surprising was how WWE handled the news. The promotion swiftly and uncharacteristically confirmed it, then sent out a mass email to reporters with the statement that they had given to Deadspin and others after the news first broke. This sort of outreach was not the WWE’s usual approach to say the very least.
It got weirder from there. Instead of the usual memory-holing and ambient bitterness, announcers made numerous references to Ambrose’s impending departure on TV. The multiple warm farewells were uncharacteristic enough to raise the possibility that Ambrose was not really leaving. While it’s still unknown why WWE went this route, the questions surrounding a possible return were answered last week. On Wednesday, the wrestler now formerly known as Dean Ambrose tweeted a promo video announcing that he’d be returning to non-WWE wrestling under his pre-WWE ring name of Jon Moxley. It has 2.66 million views as of this writing.
More importantly, the video is good, and successfully spins a guy who seemed to have lost his edge into one who feels like both a major star and a wrestler dangerous enough to maintain his indie cred. It’s so well-produced, in fact, that popular conspiracy theories in the fan scene have included Moxley either secretly working for WWE or with Joey Janela, the indie star who built a following on the back of similarly cinematic viral clips that were mostly produced by creative partner Giancarlo Dittamo, who has since moved over to WWE. (Janela worked with a new crew for the videos he did to promote his WrestleMania weekend “Spring Break” shows last month.) That Ambrose could very easily have hired a video crew on his own either never occurred to the conspiracy theorists or just wasn’t as fun to speculate about.
This over-the-top parsing has extended to the video itself, which contained a lot of very self-conscious imagery, all of which has been duly analyzed in turn. The message behind that imagery was so obvious that it was almost impossible to miss: In his original independent run, Moxley frequently performed in “death match” wrestling, full of sharp objects and heavy on bloodletting; a shot of him holding barbed wire and bleeding hints strongly at a return to that style. The larger prison break theme of the clip should be obvious as well; the dog chasing Moxley might well be a reference to the “Big Dog” nickname of his former Shield teammate Roman Reigns.
Other signs are more ambiguous. Are the hash marks on his wall supposed to look like “5/25,” the date of AEW’s debut show? Are the pair of dice displaying a two and a five also a hint at that...or was that just part of the video showing the sign for The Viper Room in Los Angeles? I will stop here but please rest assured that there is more of this out there.
Some of this is clearly excessive, albeit in some familiar wrestling-fan ways, but it’s also not without precedent. The videos teasing Chris Jericho’s various returns to WWE were filled with 7th Guest or Myst-inspired non sequitur puzzle nonsense, and Bray Wyatt tweeted on Saturday that he built his own puzzle into a series of promos from 2015 that nobody ever noticed, let alone solved. (Wyatt, it should be noted, may entirely be fucking with us.) It’s probably unwise to spend too much time on this, and not just because such esoterica doesn’t really feel like it’s Moxley’s style. That said, the hint that Moxley may be returning to death match wrestling is a promising one.
It’s been known by many names over the years, including “extreme wrestling” and the more derisive “garbage wrestling,” but the term “death match wrestling” really took hold in the late nineties and early aughts to describe what was by then a burgeoning niche in Japan. Under wrestler turned politician Atsushi Onita, the subgenre started by embracing the wild, all-over-the-building brawling of old school Tennessee wrestling, then expanded to include the regular use of barbed wire and eventually all sorts of matches based around spectacular-looking explosions. Barbed wire had been used as part of big grudge matches on and off for years, but Onita started using it all the time, with the “explosions”—they were usually just loud fireworks going off around the wrestlers—becoming the escalation for the biggest matches. Onita’s matches became a huge success despite not being on TV—it turned out that all that blood attracted plenty of print media attention—and smaller promotions picked up what they could before eventually taking the style in an even more dangerous direction. Onita’s matches were very much a matter of smoke and mirrors, and worked because of how artfully they teased the lead up to occasional explosions or skin tearing. The next generation of death match wrestlers took things in a very different and notably more explicit direction.
The version of death match wrestling that Moxley participated in, and which has been the industry standard for the last two decades or so, is much more about actual gruesome punishment. What the Onita formula used as a payoff became something like the norm, with wrestlers embracing getting cut up by the barbed wire and, after they were introduced by current New Japan Pro Wrestling staple Tomoaki Honma, fluorescent light tubes. In Japan, at least, the quality of the average death match specialist also shot up; the best death match workers were often great wrestlers who just happened to be into some really sick shit and who could build drama with a more traditional Japanese style before switching to carving each other up. In North America, the talent level of death match specialists has always been much more hit or miss, but in the hands of a legitimately skilled performer like Moxley and in appropriately small doses, a death match can be a nicely barbaric change of pace.
That said, it’s not the next logical career step for a brand-name star who has only recently left WWE television, even if that wrestler has done it before.
The decision does get to something that the staunchest critics of death match wrestling generally miss, though. For many years, the Americans doing the style were talentless hacks looking for a style they could do easily, but today’s deathmatch wrestlers are generally at least competent and often very good to great performers. For their own reasons, be they artistic or stemming from a desire to self-mutilate, these wrestlers just happen to really enjoy doing this fucked up shit. Masashi Takeda, for instance, is both the consensus best death match wrestler in the world right now and a truly skilled and special performer. He started as an MMA fighter and had a winning record on the Japanese regional scene before transitioning to (semi-)simulated combat. Moxley, meanwhile, had done his best work, even in WWE, as a brawler. Given that he was not going to be doing death match things in WWE, his most immediately intriguing matches outside the promotion are, if not death matches, ones that could pair him with similar performers.
The up-and-down, ultra-athletic technical exhibitions that helped fuel the indie wrestling boom aren’t Moxley’s biggest strength, although he’s capable of carrying them off. But that’s not the only style out there for Moxley to explore, now, and matches with guys like Nick Gage and Mance Warner, who excel in wild brawls and also do death matches on a regular basis, make for intriguing pairings on paper. (Gage and Moxley faced off years ago, but Gage was not nearly the performer or indie cult hero that he is now.)
In AEW alone, Moxley could pair with Jimmy Havoc, who can work various styles but is best known for death matches, or the similarly versatile Joey Janela, although he has pledged to stop doing death matches aside from big budget feud-enders. This isn’t to say that, say, Moxley vs. Kenny Omega in an AEW headliner wouldn’t be interesting, because it would be. But it doesn’t quite reach the Something That Needs To Happen status of any number of potential pairings between Moxley and a number of death match guys.
And, of course, Moxley could be fucking with us. The barbed wire imagery in the video could mean nothing, or nothing beyond the fact that he thought it looked cool. But whatever happens next to Jon Moxley, it will surely be better than the time in WWE that he lost because he forgot to unplug a TV.
David Bixenspan is a freelance writer from Brooklyn, N.Y., who co-hosts the Between The Sheets podcast every Monday at BetweenTheSheetsPod.com and everywhere else that podcasts are available. You can follow him on Twitter at @davidbix and view his portfolio at Clippings.me/davidbix.