The biggest news in pro wrestling this week probably should have involved in-ring, canonical storyline fallout from WWE’s Royal Rumble weekend in Phoenix. And there was indeed news made there, or at least the set up for the next round between Ronda Rousey and Becky Lynch, which will likely be pushed as the first-ever women’s main event at a WrestleMania. There were other things to talk about, and wrestling fans talked about them: the Rumble event being way too long, the return of WWE Superbowl halftime specials, albeit on WWE Network. But when Pro Wrestling Torch editor Wade Keller reported that Dean Ambrose has given notice to WWE that he’s leaving the company effective the expiration of contract at the end of April, it made news in a way that the Rumble did not. Citing three sources, Keller wrote that Ambrose gave his notice to WWE management, including Vince McMahon, over the Rumble weekend. In so doing, he reportedly turned down a raise that he was offered “weeks ago.”
“Dean Ambrose (Jonathan Good) will not be renewing his contract with WWE when it expires in April,” WWE confirmed in a statement to Deadspin on Tuesday. “We are grateful and appreciative of all that Dean has given to WWE and our fans. We wish him well and hope that one day Dean will return to WWE.”
If this all seems more interesting than it might have a year ago, thank the Khan family’s All Elite Wrestling promotion. Before All Elite, the inference would most likely have been that Ambrose was frustrated and looking to pick and choose select dates as an independent. But with the new promotion in play, Ambrose’s move comes off differently—maybe a frustrated star looking to the open market, but also perhaps an underutilized talent opting to hop to a new promotion where he might be more creatively fulfilled. Given that Ambrose has been subject to some of the more egregiously bad WWE creative decisions in recent memory, that would be easy to understand. Any wrestler who lost a match after falling victim to an exploding TV could hardly be faulted for considering other options.
Ambrose also hasn’t had much in the way of memorably good singles matches in the company, with his best work coming in trios matches as a member of The Shield. In what should have been the biggest match of his career, at WrestleMania 32 in Dallas, Ambrose got completely squashed by Brock Lesnar in a no-rules street fight. That was not exactly out of the ordinary for a Lesnar match, of course, but the build-up suggested that Ambrose might get to shine by breaking Brock down with weapon shots. He got no such chance, and had to settle for looking like a chump.
Ambrose is a big enough name, and still popular enough with both male and female fans, to be a good pickup for AEW. As it happened, there was more news where that came from.
Just before midnight on Tuesday, Fightful.com reported that Hideo Itami, previously best known as KENTA in Japan’s Pro Wrestling NOAH, had requested and was granted his WWE release pending the expiration of a 90 day non-compete/severance period. (As of this writing, WWE has not confirmed or denied this one.) That news came on the heels of reports that The Revival (Dash Wilder and Scott Dawson) and the married couple of Maria Kanellis and Mike “Kanellis” Bennett had been denied similar requests in recent weeks. Even for a roster as densely packed with talent as WWE’s, that’s a lot of wrestlers moving towards the exits.
Under the best possible creative, it would be easy for wrestlers to get lost in the WWE shuffle. These weren’t the best of circumstances, though. The Revival have generally been mired in directionless booking without much of a push on Raw after a brilliant NXT run; the Kanellises only recently returned to TV after extended periods in limbo due to both Maria’s pregnancy and standard WWE creative inertia. While they’re now back on TV in a sense, it’s on the WWE Network-exclusive 205 Live program, which spotlights a cruiserweight division for which Mike was not necessarily a good fit for, both physically and stylistically. (He did lean out his physique noticeably before the move, though.)
Itami, for his part, was hyped as a major signing in 2014, but was later derailed by consecutive injuries less than nine months after his WWE debut. After being out for close to two years, he never regained his spark or momentum. He had been doing perfectly solid work on 205 Live for a little over a year, but it was something of a dead-end role that seemed unlikely to deliver anything like the spotlight envisioned when he first signed. As with The Revival and The Kanellises, Itami clearly has legit reasons to want out of the company. As of this writing, though, it’s unclear why Itami’s release was granted. It’s easy to speculate about—maybe there was a pledge to move back to Japan, or at least not sign with an American company—but WWE is not exactly in the business of giving out early releases in the current landscape. They weren’t plentiful before AEW emerged as competition, and will likely be even harder to come by in what’s no longer a unipolar wrestling scene.
The considerations here aren’t just domestic, though. Pro Wrestling NOAH is on good terms with WWE, as he got to go back there in September as longtime partner and rival Naomichi Marufuji’s opponent in the main event of the latter’s 20th anniversary show. It’s hard to believe that whatever relationship exists between the two companies didn’t play a role in Itami/KENTA getting his release when everyone else who wants out of WWE gets shut down. Japan is also an obvious future site for WWE’s expansion of its developmental system, which has only hit the United Kingdom so far. WWE also needs political allies in the region to serve the same purpose that PROGRESS Wrestling and Insane Championship Wrestling do in the UK. This could very well be part of a bigger story.
A new influx of talent headed towards WWE won’t do anything to ameliorate a crowded creative situation, either. Former impact Wrestling X Division star Trevor Lee took the rare step of announcing his arrival in advance, which is something WWE normally frowns upon; ACH, a high flyer with experience in ROH, MLW, Evolve, NJPW, and numerous independents, had one of those ill-defined indie farewells that always signifies a WWE contract. Reportedly, those two are being joined by many others, with notables including past WWE Mae Young Classic entrants Karen Q and Rachel Ellering, Australian standout Jonah Rock, and former Impact Wrestling star Sam Shaw. Given that the buzz has long been about how huge the new class at the WWE Performance Center will be, it’s certain that there will be more.
AEW has, if anything, been just as busy. Chuck Taylor and Trent Barreta, the “Best Friends” tag team in ROH, NJPW, and some independent promotions, are reportedly AEW-bound, as are some of the best prospects on the indie scene, most notably Kylie Rae and Sammy Guevara. Jungle Boy, the son of actor Luke Perry, officially signed with the startup last week. That last one is a particularly interesting development, because while Jungle Boy has shown a ton of athleticism and a knack for playing the likable underdog, he’s still pretty green. A wrestler at that stage of development isn’t normally getting signed to a full-time contract off a bit of indie buzz and a celebrity connection.
And yet it fits with Cody Rhodes’s claim that AEW wants “fresh” talent. It also makes you wonder about Chris Jericho’s since-deleted tweets from Sunday night about AEW only wanting to sign six to eight wrestlers that are currently with WWE, ROH, and Impact. Jericho’s goal isn’t unrealistic, but how well it works depends a great deal upon who becomes available. We’re still figuring that part out, but this week already hints at how another big promotion might shake things up at the top of the sport. If AEW is making things this interesting before it has even run a show, imagine what it will be like once they’re active and have a TV deal.
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.