Darkness shaped Dean Ambrose. On his trek from indy star to WWE United States champion, Ambrose has infused the chaos of his real life into a mesmerizing in-ring character.
Born Jonathan Good, he morphed into Jon Moxley, a brash, vicious fighter before making his most recent transformation into one-third of WWE's most dominant team The Shield.
He grew up in Cincinnati's east side, a place about which Ambrose told Slam! Sports, "It was easy to get the feeling like all the garbage from the city ran down and washed up there." In a neighborhood as violent and unsafe as his, Ambrose could have given in to the wickedness around him. He could have ended up as a thief, a drug dealer or just a victim.
Instead, he found an escape route in wrestling.
It was a path that went from real violence to scripted violence. It's as if Ambrose injected all the aggression and hatred around him into his veins, and that is now what powers him as he continues to carve out his career path, to succeed at every level wrestling has to offer.
Whether it was watching tapes of Bret Hart or falling in love with ECW's edgy product, he has long been a student of the business.
In an interview with Phil Strum of the Poughkeepsie Journal, Ambrose said of ECW, "There was volatility and anger and it really connected with me as a young fan." It doesn't take a psychologist to understand what attracted Ambrose to ECW's violence. Here was a place as chaotic as his neighborhood, but here there were victories, and here sometimes the good guys won.
He wanted entry into that world.
He was 16 when he went to promoter Les Thatcher's office, begging to be a part of the crazy, violent circus that is pro wrestling. Thatcher told Ambrose that he was too young. The kid took to hanging around the business, getting involved anyway he could from working security to helping set up rings.
That love for the industry, the singeing passion that he held onto would help him climb the ranks of the independent promotions at a tremendous pace.
Cody Hawk started training him, and Ambrose (then known as Moxley) soon showed glimpses of greatness with Cincinnati-based Heartland Wrestling Association. It was here where he won his first tag team titles and singles championship. He and Jimmy Turner formed Necessary Roughness and won the HWA tag belts in 2005.
More importantly than the gold he attained, Ambrose immediately made folks take notice with his sadistic and enthralling style.
It wasn't just his pink hair that made him stand out; the bubbling belligerence inside of him felt real. He told Alan Wojcik via OnlineWorldofWrestling.com, "I just wanna come in and wreck everything" and "I love adrenaline. I like senseless violence."
It was this attitude that made Ambrose comfortable, at home even, in something as brutal as a dog collar match.
His comfort amid that kind of chaos made a transition to Combat Zone Wrestling a logical one.
CZW isn't just about blood and weapons, but that promotion is certainly famous for that side of the business. Ambrose's flesh suffered as he fought in battles amid broken glass and thumbtacks, from his Four Corners of Fun Dog Collar match with Thumbtack Jack and competing in CZW's Tournament of Death.
Ambrose was about more hardcore matches and bloodshed though.
He worked to become a complete wrestler. Working with men like Nigel McGuinness and BJ Whitmer early on helped him do that, as did matches against Daniel Bryan.
More than his willingness to take brutal spots, holding the CZW World Heavyweight Championship for over 350 days and putting on exciting matches in the process, Ambrose began to make a name for himself because of his ability to draw an audience in with just his words.
(Note: The following video features some brief profanity.)
Ambrose delivered the same aggression on the microphone as he did in the ring.
His interviews and promos were unsettling poetic experiences. When he said something like, "I want to know what Mike Quackenbush’s blood smells like" it was not only a disturbing phrase, but Ambrose delivered it without pretense, as if he was exposing the darkest corners of his heart for the world to see.
He took that skill with him everywhere he went.
Ambrose worked for Dragon Gate USA, Evolve in Puerto Rico and in lesser-known promotions like Insanity Pro Wrestling and Full Impact Pro.
He won titles in most of these places, but more importantly he left audiences stunned. Many fans must have had a sense that this shadowy, fiery man was not going to stay in the indies forever.
Ambrose was destined for a bigger stage.
That was clear in his match against Tommy Dreamer at DGUSA's Mercury Rising show that PWInsider.com's Stuart Carapola called, "awesome on many levels." That was clear in his 2010 feud with Jimmy Jacobs in IPW.
That rivalry teemed with intensity. Jacobs and Ambrose did well to compose a story of hatred, but it was Ambrose who shined the brightest, coming off as an arrogant, sinister outsider, a psychopath who was equally fearsome and charming.
It couldn't have been a surprise to fans when word got around that WWE had signed him to a developmental deal. The emotional moment that was his farewell match against Austin Aries was inevitable. You can't keep a shooting star from streaming across the sky.
His time in WWE's developmental Florida Championship Wrestling (now NXT) was highlighted by his feud with William Regal.
In many ways, the veteran and the prospect mirrored each other. They were tough, gritty performers with a punishing in-ring style. Here was a chance for Ambrose to prove to WWE officials that everything they heard about his work in the indies was true.
Ambrose met his future teammates Seth Rollins and Roman Reigns at FCW. Ambrose and Rollins were often opponents, both showing great promise in their battles for the FCW 15 Championship.
In that previously mentioned Phil Strum interview, Ambrose said, "We all had the attitude that we wanted to get out of there as soon as possible."
That desire to move up has seemed to propel Ambrose throughout his career. He went from HWA to CZW to FCW to WWE in quick succession. Upon arriving to the major leagues, Ambrose joined Reigns and Rollins in spreading chaos and making an immediate impact.
Just six months after arriving to WWE, he drove Kofi Kingston's head into the mat at Extreme Rules 2013 to win the United States Championship.
Expect Ambrose to continue climbing, to continue to bolster his resume with both championships and unnerving words. He is a man crafted by chaos who found a way to take real-life pain and turn it into great theater.