Jon Moxley is a funny guy.
Some of the things he says are objectively funny, like referring to a recently excised bursa sac attached to his elbow as an "alien head" or describing himself as being "particularly bad" at coping with the inertia of injury. But what makes him funny is his droll delivery, as if he's simply searching for the right words and not even thinking about being cute or quippy. Because that's precisely what's happening.
Over two separate phone conversations this summer and fall, the 33-year-old All Elite Wrestling main eventer and star of its weekly two-hour TNT show Dynamite—not to mention former WWE world champion—never chuckled nor betrayed any real emotion other than some residual frustration over false starts and matter-of-fact recognition that these are exciting times. In the context of catching up with a journalist he hardly knows, he could best be described as ambivalent, which translates as roguishly charming in a Paul Rudd in Wet Hot American Summer kind of way.
The truth is, things are going really well for the Cincinnati-bred brawler. If he expresses wariness during interviews, that's a symptom of his own superstitious tendencies, shaped by 15 roller-coaster years of highs, lows, questionable contracts and infected elbows.
Moxley is one of the biggest names in the most popular new wrestling promotion to launch in two decades, is happily married to WWE correspondent and commentator Renee Young and—minor health snags notwithstanding—is primed to steal the show against vaunted adversary Kenny Omega at AEW's Full Gear PPV on Saturday. Ironically, that burdensome case of bursitis helped boost anticipation for their confrontation, which was originally scheduled to go down August 31 at the company's All Out event.
"It's more of a white-whale kind of thing now," says Moxley (real name: Jonathan Good). "I don't think anyone would have put us in the same universe in an obvious dream match, but 10 seconds after I walked into AEW, I'm throwing him off a 15-foot thing, and all of a sudden, you want to see it really bad. Now it's had time to brew and have a few more confrontations and promos and be in front of a new audience sampling the product on TV.
"There's an undeniable spark when me and Kenny Omega are in the ring nose-to-nose. I've been doing this long enough to know when it's not there, and I think November 9 is gonna be money. It was a big match two months ago. Now it's a huge match."
It's been a pivotal seven months all told for the volatile, reluctant superstar. Moxley—who stormed the indie circuit for several years with his current persona before signing with WWE in 2011, where he was re-branded as Dean Ambrose, one-third of disruptive faction The Shield, en route to ultimate singles success—left Vince McMahon's big tent of his own accord in April.
On May 1, a cryptic video premiered on his Twitter account, making plain that the Moxley persona—one marked by violent and unpredictable charisma—was back in some form or fashion. Fast-forward less than five weeks, and Moxley had laid waste to Omega at Double or Nothing, debuted in New Japan Pro-Wrestling by wresting the United States Championship from Juice Robinson, and set off on a summer slate of appearances for promotions including New Jersey-based Game Changer Wrestling and upstate New York's Northeast Wrestling.
It's all a blur in retrospect, but he does vividly remember how he and Young went for a hike on New Year's Day, and that "it was one of those clear-your-mind days, and I was like, 'Well, I'm leaving [WWE] in a few months.' My plan was to go to the indies and Japan, to take myself off-Broadway, so to speak, completely disappear from the national consciousness and revamp my style, look, find a new character, just disappear for a year to wherever. And then the AEW thing happened and Double or Nothing happened and [New Japan's] G1 [tournament], and I was almost like, 'F--k, I need to go away for a long time and come back later,' but timing is everything."
That impulse to go off-grid reared its head again once he started making the media rounds in what's become an ostensible rite of passage for WWE ex-pats looking to sedate the gossip mill while building buzz for what's next. Amid a wide-ranging appearance on Chris Jericho's eponymous podcast in late May, Moxley openly lamented his former employer's overly scripted approach to the business. The resulting blog-driven clickbait threatened to overshadow the fact that Moxley was back, blazing a global trail in the ring with his preferred method of gonzo storytelling and physicality. He was, at best, bemused.
"I could have a conversation on a radio show about, 'What's your favorite sandwich?'" he deadpans when thinking about the period immediately following his WWE departure. "And I'll be like, 'Oh, I love peanut butter sandwiches,' and then the headlines will be, 'Jon Moxley shoots on peanut butter sandwiches.' I just tell it like it is. I don't have any need for any drama."
And so Moxley lowered his media profile a bit as the dog days wore on, not necessarily walking back his criticism of WWE's approach and his tenure there, but insisting he was merely blowing off steam, bore no ill will and was single-minded about the future with AEW. (Moxley forfeited his NJPW title after failing to appear at a rematch with Robinson in October, purportedly due to travel-related issues.) He stayed the course in our talks, commenting at different points that, "I just want to wrestle, promote the wrestling matches, talk about AEW and the life that I'm living" and, "I'm just trying to roll with the punches and focus on myself, just enjoy matches and promos."
That's what made his infected elbow, and the operation to have that bulging bursa sac excised, so infuriating. At the time of our second interview, it was just shy of two months since he announced the injury and nearly three weeks removed from his return to action, but he was still stewing over the cosmic crappiness of it all.
"I was f--king bitter," he assures, lest anyone thought he was missing his match at All Out for some nagging but manageable ache (he rues not being able to share photographic evidence while on the phone).
"It took me a full day to process it. I was like, 'Of all times, of all stupid things.' Basically, that thing started trying to crawl out of my elbow. The first doctor could tell I was in denial. My wife was in there with me, and it was almost like he started talking to her, 'cause I had the wrestler eyes. He was like, 'This isn't getting through. This is not registering.' But if that s--t gets in your bone or blood, you could lose a limb. That would be one of the all-time dumbest ways to die, to put off something cause you wanna have a pro-wrestling match. There was nothing I could do, but it was hard. Ultimately, what are we talking about? One wrestling match? Big deal. Now everything's looking good."
And such is the paradox of pinpointing where Moxley's head is at these days. On the one hand, he's energized by revisiting wrestling as blood sport, but he's also seasoned with age and is able to put his professional twists and turns into perspective.
"For lack of a better term, I'm a grown-up now," he surmises, though it's hard not to imagine him shrugging with Doug-from-The State-like unease. "I have a house and a wife and dogs and s--t. Back then, I had a lot of rocket fuel and unworked-out, deep-seated emotional issues, and that went into a lot of character stuff. It was cathartic. Now I'm a pretty stress-free adult."
However, he does warn against mistaking his maturity for vulnerability.
"Now I can be more dangerous 'cause I have more experience," he emphasizes. "My style is still very aggressive. When I say violent, it means intent. When the bell rings, if you are my opponent, you are in danger. Afterwards, we can f--king shake hands and have a beer, but during this match, I'm going to try to physically hurt you."
Case in point: On the October 2 premiere of Dynamite, Moxley—largely healed from his bursitis procedure and lying in wait for the most of the show—brought the house down by sabotaging main event competitor Omega and crashing him headfirst through a backstage coffee table.
In subsequent weeks, he and Omega have teased the brutality to come at Full Gear by taunting each other with barbed wire-wrapped weapons, with Moxley flipping off and beating down his own tag team partner, Pac, for good measure. Dynamite is a two-hour powder keg, and Moxley is its quintessential loose cannon.
"That freedom to be yourself now on a national platform is super exciting," he says, calling back ever-so-subtly to his eight years assuming the character of Dean Ambrose. "The fans are gonna notice a difference. They're gonna see stuff that's not canned f--king horses--t. I think you're already seeing it in the shows we've already had."
Moxley is as surprised as anyone that this soon after earning his free-agent wings, he's already a willing and vocal ambassador for the upstart company that signs his checks. But it's that very newness, albeit sweetened by the vast resources of billionaire owner Tony Khan, that Moxley credits with the consensus good vibes.
"Everybody from the production people to the referees, the whole team is in their first few weeks of their jobs," he points out, audibly hyped by the razor's edginess of it all. "To be on a frontier, part of a team that's making their first expedition, like we're f--king Louis and Clark, is really exciting, because we have no idea what we're going to encounter."
He takes a stab at conveying what the atmosphere was like as that first episode of Dynamite closed out, though it's discernibly difficult to recreate.
"When we hit 10 p.m.," he recounts, "everybody backstage was high-fiving and was like, 'We did it. We did a two-hour show. We got one. It happened.' It was a celebration, like we won the game. The crowd knew, too, because they were booing the guys in the ring, and as soon as it hit 10 o'clock, all of a sudden the crowd started cheering. Now it's like an addictive thing to put TV together and make sure your deal comes off good. It's more in the hands of the performers than other places where it might be in the hands of 30 people who are coming up with this s--t in some office somewhere and you have to figure out how to make sense of it as a wrestler."
The question of how long Moxley plans on living life as a professional wrestler is a mystery even to him. As he reminds, "A few years ago, I was like, 'I wanna retire when I'm 35, f--k this s--t.' And now I'm like, 'Damn, I wanna wrestle till I'm 50.'"
He knows full well that an aura of death and decay colors his industry, and that his decision to re-embark on a more punishing style of performance will compromise his cognition and physical condition. Yet this unlikely and open-ended new chapter in his life and career feels less like a fresh start than the dawn of what he always set out to do. Picturing his sunset is the last thing on Moxley's mind.
"This is just my life," he concludes with more gratitude than resignation. "This is the thing I'm most passionate about. I don't see any end to the road until maybe one day the body breaks down and we gotta take him out back and put a slug in the back of the horse's head and put him out to pasture. I truly made it, not 'cause I made money or cause I'm some f--king star. I made it 'cause I don't have to have a real job. I get to do what I love for a living, and it's a hell of a blessing."
Kenny Herzog covers everything from wrestling to politics for outlets including The Ringer and Vulture, among many others. More on Twitter @kennyherzog.
(For more on the genesis of AEW, click here)