It's an unusually warm mid-October afternoon in New York City, and WWE superstar Dean Ambrose (real name: Jonathan Good) has an uncharacteristic window of time off, which he's choosing to spend at his girlfriend's place in the Big Apple. Otherwise, the 28-year-old rising phenomenon currently calls Las Vegas home – he's originally from a low-income section of Cincinnati's east side – though most nights he's traveling coast-to-coast, plying his trade at TV tapings and non-televised house shows.
The latter coliseum and county-center events are where Ambrose – who's on a red-hot run as one of the company's top faces, just months after his villainous faction the Shield disbanded – really experiments with the so-called "unstable" aspects of his in-ring persona. ("I'm the only normal person here," he counters.) Without the added boundaries of a broadcast production, he might take a couple extra suicide dives through the ropes or elbow drops off the top turnbuckle, or maybe not enter the squared circle whatsoever.
"I'm trying all kinds of crazy stuff at house shows just for my own amusement and to see what the people are gonna do," he says. "Ya know, start a match, jump me in the aisle, and I'll just fight from underneath the whole time. I don't need a shine. I don't need to arm-drag you four times. They know who I am."
Fighting from underneath is an apt enough metaphor for Ambrose's career. At just 16 years old, the scrappy Ohioan, obsessive ECW fan and Bret Hart admirer dropped out of high school to train under local wrestling legend Les Thatcher. In the ensuing several years, performing under the name Jon Moxley, Ambrose garnered acclaim and myriad title belts hitting the mat for indie promotions including Heartland Wrestling Association, Combat Zone Wrestling, Insanity Pro Wrestling and Dragon Gate USA. He went toe-to-toe with fellow future WWE superstars Daniel Bryan and eventual Shield partner Seth Rollins (a trio rounded out by the currently injured Roman Reigns), gaining notoriety for his in-ring volatility (picture a feral pit bull with innate finesse) and loose-cannon promos. By spring 2011, WWE signed Ambrose to a developmental deal, and come late-2012, he and the Shield were laying waste to John Cena, the Undertaker and just about every major name on the roster. Ambrose had distinguished himself via acquiring the U.S. Championship, but risked getting overshadowed by Reigns' matinee appeal and Rollins' daredevil talent.
Then, in May 2014, WWE creative executed the fateful decision to split up their "hounds of justice," designating Ambrose for a surprising babyface turn in a feud against ex-indie rival Rollins.
"It's still a bit strange," he admits. "I never pictured myself being liked by anybody. I've always fed off negativity and wanting people to hate me. That attitude really fueled me for my entire career. So being a guy that people like and want to cheer for is the weird part."
And cheer they have. In a few short months, both Reigns and Daniel Bryan went on the shelf with long-term injuries, leaving a vacuum alongside Cena as the WWE's top young anti-hero. Ambrose's mug not only graces the promo poster for this Sunday's Hell in a Cell event (available on WWE Network and pay-per-view), but he'll take on Rollins in the night's most anticipated match. Seems his decade of toil has, very quickly, led to an unreal opportunity, one he's seized despite any ambivalence about where the story was headed. "Having that main event load to carry is very comfortable for me," he says. "Anything less is uncomfortable."
Confidence notwithstanding, the challenge as fan favorite will be maintaining his performance edge without succumbing to clichés. "I think we've trained the audience that it's, 'Good guy does down, good guy starts shaking, crowd starts clapping, good guy claps his hands three times, hits his move, finish,'" he laments. "Everybody's got a formula for their comeback. And no offense to anybody, but John Cena has his comeback, Kofi Kingston has his comeback. I've got a little formula too, but I keep it much shorter. I'm like, 'Why does everything have to be so locked into a box?'"
That renegade spirit, which he exudes in each "lunatic fringe" workout on the mic and chaotic flurry of fists, has earned him comparisons to kindred spirits like the late Brian Pillman, ECW icon Raven and even WWE Hall of Famer Jake "The Snake" Roberts (who recently victimized Ambrose with his pet snake Damien on an episode of Monday Night RAW). And it would certainly meet with all their approval that Ambrose came of age looking up to what he calls "those outlaws, those crazy, coming-in-the-building, throwing their bag down, walking straight to the ring, raising hell, ass-kicking old-school workers." He name checks Dusty Rhodes, Terry Funk and Bruiser Brody, hoping to fashion himself in their image as "just a wild man," adding, "I have that anti-romantic image in my head. I was kind of living in my own little mini-version of that."
It's a good thing Ambrose has that in perspective, because as he himself recognizes regarding his current stature, "Who knows how long that will last? All the people who love me right now are probably gonna hate me next month." Not to mention the imminent returns of Bryan and Reigns, leaving one to wonder how much room there is at the top.
"I'll be fine," he says reassuringly. "There's no, 'Oh my God, somebody else is gonna come back and take my spot.' I wanna have a spot that's my spot, that nobody can take away, because nobody else is me."