You might have tuned in to E!’s Total Divas to see the inner workings of the women of World Wrestling Entertainment. Las Vegas resident Renee Young, a popular announcer and interviewer, is one of those featured, and her boyfriend, WWE superstar Dean Ambrose, sees his share of screen time.
Five years ago, it was improbable, to say the least, that Ambrose—then wrestling under the ring name of Jon Moxley—would be on a show called Total Divas. Ambrose had dropped out of high school to pursue his dream of wrestling professionally, training at Les Thatcher’s Heartland Wrestling Association. He made his in-ring debut in 2004, finding success in several smaller “indie” promotions. In 2009, he started wrestling for Combat Zone Wrestling, an indie that features “death matches” in which, although no wrestlers have actually perished, thumbtacks, barbed wire, cutlery, fluorescent light bulbs and even the odd power tool are fair weapons. Ambrose excelled at CZW’s bloody mayhem, winning the championship twice and establishing himself as fearless.
Then the biggest wrestling promotion in the world called. Ambrose signed with the WWE in April 2011. After a stint in the developmental Florida Championship Wrestling, he debuted on the main roster as part of a faction called The Shield. Since splitting with The Shield, Ambrose has been a fan favorite in the WWE, bringing intensity to a number of feuds. At last May’s Money in the Bank pay-per-view, held in T-Mobile Arena, Ambrose did what many thought was impossible: He captured the WWE World Heavyweight Championship, the top accolade in the wrestling business. He’s since dropped that title, but is currently featured, alongside Young, on Smackdown Live, where he is the reigning Intercontinental Champion.
It’s a path that shows the world really does work in strange ways. Six years ago, Ambrose was getting forks jammed into his forehead until he was streaming blood and powerbombed on thumbtacks in front of a few hundred fans. This year, he won the business’ biggest prize in front of 19,000 Las Vegas fans and hundreds of thousands watching on the WWE Network. But what probably means more to him is that the intensely private Ambrose snared something even more valuable: a rewarding life and someone to share it with.
Ambrose and Young talked with Vegas Seven about what he does and why he does it, with Young sharing her own perspective.
What’s it like being where you are now?
Dean Ambrose: I made a pretty good name for myself before I got here—hustling and working every single possible indie promotion and all over the world for years, and through YouTube, creating the biggest buzz I could for myself. I figured then that WWE wasn’t something I was destined for; I was gonna be a little cult hero in my own little niche. And at the time, I was totally happy with that, even though I always knew in the back of my mind that I wanted to be over there. So I think it’s a cop-out when you go, “Oh, well, I don’t wanna go there.”
Back then, nothing came of it materially, but I felt like I was as good as anybody in the world and I’d never get to prove it. Once I got here, it was about climbing the ladder. But that was all just icing on the cake.
By then, I wasn’t seeking validation or approval from anybody. The successes for me aren’t championships or any of that kind of shit. It’s that I get to do what I love and get paid for it, and it’s fun. And we get to do Make-A-Wish, meet kids and be an inspiration to people, and that’s such a blessing. How many people would love to be in that position? I was able to pay my mom’s house off, I have a home for myself, and another bonus was I was able to meet the one woman on planet fuckin’ Earth that could ever put up with me.
I feel like all the stars aligned. I’m one of those “I think the whole universe has a plan” kind of guys. And if you put enough good karma into the can, it’ll come back to you in the end. I feel like I’ve been able to put enough in by doing enough of the right thing …
Renee Young: Your karma can is looking good.
What do you have to do to get to where you are?
Ambrose: When I was a kid and first started wrestling, I would go to practice—they gave me a key to let myself in—I’d go in there and lift weights for a couple of hours and then roll around and practice. It’d be three hours of conditioning, wrestling, running, and then I’d stick around for another hour and wrestle. Then I’d go to my job and work at this factory from 11 at night till 7 in the morning Sunday through Thursday, which was the perfect indie wrestler job, because you got the weekends off. I’d get off at 7 in the morning from lifting these metal things onto hooks or whatever.
Then I’d get home and just put in wrestling tapes. I’d have guys make me tapes, like, “Give me a six-hour tape of the Rock ’n’ Roll Express,” and I would sit there and watch wrestling all the time, trying to learn. I’d see somebody do a move, and I’d head to the school and I’d try the move. I feel like I’ve watched every match that ever happened anywhere, ever. But still, you’re constantly looking at it and surrounded by it.
My first two years on the road, I did Friday, Saturday, Sunday, Monday, Tuesday—every single week for two years. I was home for 36 hours a week, if that. A lot of times I wouldn’t even go home, ’cause it just didn’t make any sense to fly from Allentown, Pennsylvania, or Philly or whatever on a Wednesday morning just to fly back on Friday morning to New Jersey. So I [would] just kick it in New Jersey for a couple of days.
What about people who say wrestling is fake?
Ambrose: We let everybody go behind the scenes and we make no effort anymore as a business to make it seem real. I don’t take myself too seriously. It’s 2017, [and] if you say wrestling’s fake, I’m not gonna flip out or whatever—you’re just uninformed. To me, there’s nothing fake about the miles that I’ve put on my body or the actual work that goes into perfecting this as a craft. I put in the same hours to get good at this as a surgeon who went to college. It’s just a much less important job in the realm of society. But as far as the man-hours you put in, it’s hard to do. And there’s nothing fake about the injuries, the risk and how dangerous this is. It’s extremely dangerous. But I won’t be offended by [the comments]; people say it all the time.
How about fan fiction?
Young: You know what I saw the other day—it must’ve been on my Instagram or on Twitter or something, but somebody tagged me in it—it was a shirt that was a picture, obviously a fan-drawn cartoon thing of just you and Roman [Reigns, a fellow WWE Superstar] in … a deep embrace. I wanted to buy it. [Laughs] It was a thing on Etsy, a real thing that I could’ve bought. It was hysterical.
Ambrose: There are psychotic fans.
Ambrose: Especially, like, I think I draw a certain … I think a lot of my particular …
Young: Fan base?
Ambrose: I have a particular demographic. I think I appeal to a lot of people who might have problems of their own [and] they relate to me. It’s cool when you can help and inspire people and stuff, but sometimes people just attach to you for strange reasons, [and] their behavior is not the best.
Ambrose: I’ve been stalked, I’ve been—
Young: I get many a death threat.
Young: Well, I mean, there’s a lot of anti–Renee Young pages out there.
Ambrose: It’s actually good to make this point. But without going into too much detail, I’ve been stalked on the phone and my home and hotels, to the point where it’s a little Single White Female scary, though I’m pretty sure I’m not gonna get beaten up and kidnapped by a 15-year-old girl.
Young: I don’t know … there are a lot of steroids in foods now.
Ambrose: I’ve been stalked fairly regularly for the last two years. I have to go to great lengths to keep that shit at bay.
What if you hadn’t become a wrestler?
Ambrose: I have nothing to offer you. I can’t remember a time when wrestling wasn’t the only thing that I thought about or cared about or did or had any intention of doing. But if I would stop wrestling now and had to do something else, I think I can make a hell of a park ranger.
Young: Or a private eye.
Ambrose: I like getting into stuff; I like investigating. I’m a big outdoorsy person who fell in love with Vegas, and I’m huge into mountain biking, hiking and rock climbing. I love being outside. I love being able to see the mountains every day. So to work here … that’s not a bad job. Sit out in Red Rock all day just saying hello to people. That ain’t that bad. I’ve Googled this before, actually. That seems like a decent job, just hanging out in the park, going around, counting flowers, freeing raccoons from traps and stuff.
Young: Check out the flora and the fauna. I think that there’s definitely something to be said that when you don’t have a fallback plan, you have to just do it. It does really require all of your attention to get it off the ground, right?
Ambrose: Having a fallback plan isn’t a bad idea, but if you ain’t got one, fuck it. Just go for it and see what happens. Because if you don’t have one, that probably means you’re so single-minded that you’re gonna have the drive necessary to make it happen for yourself.
Young: You have to make it work.
Ambrose: Because if you’re like, “Well, you know what, my fallback plan is to be a nurse, but I’m gonna take a shot at this wrestling thing.” You won’t have the urgency to really go for it.
Young: It needs your full focus. I read that in a Janis Joplin book one time, and it stood out to me so much when she was saying that she didn’t want to have a fallback plan. I was like, “Oh, yeah, of course.”
Ambrose: I never looked at this as a job or a career until I got to the big-time. Then it was, “Oh, this is how I pay my bills.” Before that, I didn’t really have any bills. Maybe some rent, because I did a lot of couch surfing and being a vagabond; wrestling was just what I did. Now it’s a job because now I actually make money out of it. You gotta have that mentality.
And now you’ve starred in a movie. What was that like?
Ambrose: I knew nothing about acting or how movies were done. I had no intention, but for whatever reason, they thought I’d be good in this movie, the 12 Rounds franchise, which John Cena and Randy Orton—two of the biggest stars of this generation—had done. For the third installment, they asked me. I said, “Hell, yeah, I’ll be in a movie. Are you kidding me? Let’s do it.” And it was hard work. I got off the road, went straight to the set—14-hour days, every day for five weeks. And I got off the set, got right in a plane and was back in the ring the next day.
It was a cool deviation, something new. I found the fight scenes were so much fun. “OK, punch, kick, punch, throw him on the ground, pick him up, duck the knife, hit him in the gut, grab the glass bottle, hit him over the head.” And it was a 10- to 12-move thing; I picked it up instantly. Because I’m a professional wrestler, a choreographed fight scene might come easier to me.
The thing is, WWE performers are the Navy SEALs of entertainment. You might go out there on Smackdown Live with no net, talk for five minutes and then wrestle for 20 minutes, and at the end of it, plummet off a 20-foot ladder and through a table. You might have to do dialogue, a 20-minute fight scene and a stunt that you do yourself, all in the span of 30 minutes, all live, one take, on TV.
Young: Like entertainment boot camp.
Ambrose: We’re doing all these things live on the fly and bing, bam, boom, we’re so used to the high pressure of it.
Young: When I came to WWE, I was almost an outsider because I don’t wrestle, and I did TV shows prior, but I think the stigma that comes with WWE, of people thinking that they’re bad actors or whatever, it’s bullshit, because they have to go out on a drop of a hat. There’s no rehearsal. There’s nothing even close to it anywhere else.
What about when you have to do something you don’t necessarily believe in?
Ambrose: I’ve gotten asked to do things that, sometimes, I think, “That’s stupid.” If you do anything a hundred percent, if you commit to it, even if sucks, it’ll at least suck a hundred percent. One my favorites was when Vince [McMahon, the driving force behind WWE] wanted me to carry this little red wagon full of weapons around the ring in Brooklyn, the hardest audience that we have. And I’m getting ready for a fight with Brock Lesnar. So I’m like, “I’m about to go into a match that will be a fight to the death with the beast incarnate, who’s going to probably kill me—this is not a time for laughs. If I come out there with a little red wagon, they’re gonna laugh at me.” But he’s like, “No, you’re not even gonna look at Brock. You’re just gonna pull that wagon, put your weapons in it, walk around, go to the back.”
Young: And it was great.
Ambrose: He said, “Because it’s not a joke to you. This wagon is serious”—and in Vince’s mind, he saw it a certain way, and I went, “All right, fine, OK. I’ll drag the little red wagon, and I’m gonna drag the shit out of that little red wagon.” And I went out there, was mean-muggin’ with this little red wagon, and it was so ridiculous, but I took it seriously. They loved it, and I was like, “I cannot believe that worked.”
What’s the reality of reality TV?
Young: Doing reality TV is a different beast. He and I, we’ve always been very private about our relationship for the most part, so for us to have that on a reality show. … I’ve been doing television for over a decade. I’ve never been nervous for something to air. And I [was with Total Divas]—you’re so vulnerable. I [was] excited for people to see Dean and I and the shit that we get up to. There [were] nine cast members [and] a lot going on, but I think just delving into the relationships of so many of the people at WWE [was] really cool.
Ambrose: I hated it at first—hated the idea of it, hated the thought of it. I was like, “Hell, no.” But it’s just like any other television show. It’s entertainment.
Young: If I’m at a TV broadcast, the cameras are gonna be there and they’re following you. They’ve come to our house and filmed. We’ve been lucky enough to go on really great vacations with Total Divas. They will catch you in your moments, definitely. I think the biggest thing that tripped me out when I first started doing the show was that I would fall asleep and I’d wake up and still think that the cameras were on me. It was a very bizarre experience of always being on camera—I got over it, but it took me a couple of weeks.
Ambrose: I did a 180 on it. Once I saw how it works, I was like, “Oh, well, this is just entertainment. It’s fun.” So I was like, “I’m gonna have some fun with this.” And it turns out Total Divas is superfun. You do fun activities. I act like a goofball on TV, and even if they tried to sneak up on me and film me when I didn’t know they were there, I’m like a ninja. I can sniff a camera; I’m like a freakin’ bighorn sheep in the desert. I can sniff a camera from a hundred yards away. Nobody’s filming me when I’m not allowing it. So I don’t feel like there’s an invasion of privacy or anything weird like that.
Why do you wear a shirt when you wrestle?
Ambrose: I said, “What I’m going to do is dress as plain as humanly possible.” I’m not going to wear anything fancy, I’m not going to have fancy music, I’m not going to have fancy pyro—I’m literally just going to be a dude walking into the ring. I’m going to look like I just got off work from a construction site and I am now punching you in the face. That was my goal—be as simple as humanly possible. I pretty much stick to Hanes or Fruit of the Loom. You can wear large, you know, but you like to make it a little snug sometimes, shape the contours. It’s best to leave a little bit to the imagination, then at a certain point in the evening, in the match when the intensity is high, you get to rip off the shirt.
Young: He is a secret stripper.
Ambrose: You get a big pop for that. And then you can throw the shirt to somebody. It gives you another prop to work with. You can get your shirt ripped off or halfway ripped off, and then you look like you’ve been beaten up a lot more than you really have.
Young: You’re just a piece of meat.