WWE: Is The Shield's Dean Ambrose a Wrestler of the Year Candidate?

Rich KraetschCorrespondent IJune 7, 2013

At first glance, it seems ludicrous. Ambrose is just a stable mate with Seth Rollins and Roman Reigns as a part of The Shield. He’s just an upper midcarder who hasn’t even reached main event level status and may not until the end of the year. Lastly, for god’s sake, he’s only the United States champion. We all know what the level of that title is currently.

However, when you weigh the criteria and the impressive year Ambrose has had, the choice doesn’t seem so ridiculous. In fact, Ambrose is a legitimate contender for Wrestler of the Year.

Before I begin making Ambrose’s case, I should note that I am using the Wrestling Observer’s award criteria. This is important for two reasons:

  1. The voting period runs from December 1, 2012 through November 2013. Obviously, in this case, we’ll end at June 6, 2013, but the point remains the same.
  2. The Wrestler of the Year Award (better known as the Lou Thesz/Ric Flair Award) takes into account not only in-ring performance, but box office draws, notoriety, etc. The main takeaway is that this award is all-around, not only in-ring or actual performance.

Let’s talk about contenders before we go back to Ambrose. Two of the obvious choices reside overseas in the form of New Japan Pro Wrestling’s Kazuchika Okada and Hiroshi Tanahashi.

Tanahashi, of course, has held the honor two years in a row (2011 and 2012), but is, in my opinion, on the outside looking in for 2013. While he’s had a great year by most standards, Tanahashi doesn’t get normal standards. For the NJPW legend, it’s been a relative down year highlighted by an IWGP heavyweight championship loss to Okada at April’s Invasion Attack iPPV. Tanahashi has also seen his stock fall with a move slightly down the card. He still holds a huge role in NJPW, but he’s not the Tanahashi that dominated the previous two voting years.

He still might have a chance, but it’s likely going to move into new hands in 2013.

Those new hands very well may be his NJPW-mate Okada who, as mentioned, defeated Tanahashi for the IWGP Championship in April. This match has extra importance, given it was tagged with the infamous 5-star rating from Dave Meltzer (the only such rating given out this year). This gives Okada a clear advantage over most of his Wrestler of the Year competition.

Since that victory, Okada has been on a relative hot streak, wrestling above-average to great matches every time out and has officially sold out two straight shows with relatively weak (again, by NJPW standards) opponents. While that could be the power of the NJPW brand, credit still has to go to the 25-year-old champion.

The contender pool dries up when you come to America, frankly, nobody stands out from the pack, which validates the Ambrose argument. In my mind, there’s only a handful of actual contenders in North America.

The first, Daniel Bryan, has a small case, but I don’t think he’s anywhere near that level yet. He’s still stuck in a comedy team with Kane and has had a tremendous down year until the past few weeks. There’s a lot of momentum in Bryan’s favor, but until we see him back towards the top of the card or removed from the Team Hell No situation, I have a hard time giving him any type of recognition here.

There are some that also believe Ambrose doesn’t differentiate himself from his other Shield members. I think this is pretty off base when you consider just how good Ambrose has been this year.

He’s officially taken over the alpha-dog/leader role of The Shield via his natural in-ring charisma and his outstanding promo ability. When all three men are in the ring, despite Reign’s size, the attention is on Ambrose.

Likewise, Ambrose has done something Reigns and Rollins haven’t—put together a stellar single match. Ambrose’s United States Title victory over Kofi Kingston at WWE Extreme Rules in May wasn’t anywhere near match of the year contender, but the 2 1/2-3-star affair differentiated himself from his Shield counterparts. Rollins and Reigns had an equally great tag match on the same pay-per-view, but, again, tag team versus singles. If we’re talking about a Wrestler of the Year, that type of difference matters.

TNA’s Bully Ray is a legit contender only because the angles he’s been involved in and his overall standing in TNA has vaulted him towards the top. I have a hard time believing he can be in the running because the in-ring is just not there. He had one 3-star match with Jeff Hardy at March’s Lockdown, but otherwise it’s been an uneventful in-ring year for the current TNA champion.

The only wrestler in the independent ranks I could see legitimately getting some rub is Dragon Gate USA/Evolve’s Johnny Gargano. Not only has Gargano continued to have a stellar in-ring year, his heel turn at the WWN Live WrestleMania weekend shows catapulted his character to a new level (his Match of the Year contender against Shingo helped too).

Thus far, he hasn’t drawn a ton of attention towards the WWNLive stable, but I won’t put that on Gargano solely. However, box office matters in this award, which makes Gargano, or any independent wrestler, a tough sell for Wrestler of the Year.

Due in large part to his recent absence, one contender that doesn’t seem to be getting a ton of buzz is CM Punk. I understand a lot of people haven’t been blown away by Punk’s year thus far, but I think that has more to do with standards than how good Punk has actually been.

None of us were entirely happy with the build towards WrestleMania’s match against The Undertaker, but in-ring that thing was damn near perfection (4 1/2 stars). In February, Punk had arguably the best Raw match of the past five years in a 4-1/2 star battle with perennial foe John Cena. January’s Royal Rumble was headlined by another 4-star match with The Rock, and it was followed up with a 3 1/2 star rematch at Elimination Chamber.

Sure, Punk’s been out of the limelight for a few months, but let’s not let that cloud our judgment on his status as the literal best in the world. He appears to be on the comeback trail for next week’s Payback pay-per-view, and if he picks up where he left off, he’s one of the more accomplished contenders in America.

Which brings us back to the original point of the piece—is Dean Ambrose the Wrestler of the Year?

I should clarify that any stance on Ambrose is purely speculative. With that being said, Ambrose sure as hell has a solid claim to the honor. The Shield has had a spectacular in-ring year, highlighted by a 4 1/2-star match at December’s (remember that counts) Tables, Ladders and Chairs pay-per-view against Ryback and Team Hell No. They’ve followed that with an awesome six-man at Elimination Chamber against Ryback, Cena and Sheamus and a stellar, if not great, opening six-man to WrestleMania 29 against Sheamus, The Big Show and Randy Orton.

Out of the ring, The Shield has been the most interesting act in WWE. It’s not even close. They’ve been protected to an extreme level losing only one television match (by DQ), and their promos, run-ins and overall screen presence has become must-watch television.

It hasn’t translated into a ton of business quite yet, but over the next few months that may come to fruition. Ambrose has World Title contender written all over him, the real question comes when? Tentative plans have Cena and Bryan meeting at the Money in the Bank pay-per-view in a WWE Title match, perhaps it’s time for Ambrose to stake claim to the briefcase and become the next No. 1 contender?

We also shouldn’t forget which wrestler The Undertaker handpicked to face in a singles match before his departure. Don’t think someone TOLD Undertaker he had to face Ambrose, he chose Ambrose. That little decision means a lot. The match wasn’t anything unbelievably remarkable, but that type of rub will go a long way in getting Ambrose to that next level.

Dean Ambrose is a Wrestler of the Year contender. It’s all speculation at this point, but there’s no doubt he’s vaulted himself into the competition. Just how far he goes this year, we’ll just have to wait and see, but don’t laugh when you hear mention of Ambrose’s name. The former Jon Moxley may come out of nowhere and surprise us all.

Rich Kraetsch is owner and executive editor at VoicesofWrestling.com. Voices of Wrestling is an intelligent wrestling fan's blog featuring columns, interviews, show reviews and podcasts.