Ziggler, Ambrose and Booking WWE’s Babyface Underdogs by Max Grieve

Before I dive into scene-setting, there’s one thing I absolutely have to say first: It’s a pleasure to have an opportunity to write at TJRWrestling. I’m very grateful to Owner/Editor/Commissioner/General Manager John Canton for picking me up as a free agent; consider me a sort of British Heath Slater. Without the wrestling ability. Or the musical ability. Or the ability to draw a robust simile.

Scene-setting, then: We’re two weeks away from Summerslam and the top of the card is looking pretty gosh-darn good.

When deciding what I was going to write for my first column, I originally promised myself I wouldn’t rehash the piece I submitted for the TJRWrestling writer search last year. But re-reading it the other day, with one eye on this month’s big event in Brooklyn, there was a part of it I just couldn’t let slide.

That piece was about how a significant number of memorable storylines – the Summer of Punk, Bryan at WrestleMania XXX, Benoit and Guerrero ten years earlier, Dreamer/Raven, Bayley/Sasha, Zayn/Owens – required someone popular to be downtrodden (either portrayed as such in front of the camera or, even better, perceived as being overlooked behind it) to really, really catch light. At its heart, it argued that Dolph Ziggler, mired at the time in soap opera nonsense with Rusev, Lana and Summer Rae, could benefit from being totally steamrollered in and by that feud. It argued that Ziggler’s alleged status as a card-carrying member of the WWE Backstage Doghouse, even if that carried any truth, was no bad thing. It also argued that actively stalling and undermining babyface pushes might actually result in bigger long-term payoffs.

As fans, we live for those payoffs. Often despite our grumbles. So when I revisit Daniel Bryan’s Wrestlemania moment and our euphoric reaction to it, I wonder whether the lesson many of us at the time thought WWE should learn – we should’ve committed to the Bryan storyline earlier – was in fact less seductive than an alternative lesson: We should tell more stories this way.

“WWE should start stockpiling candidates for those stories,” I wrote in August 2015, running with the idea. “The more they have in reserve, the more seminal moments we, the demanding audience, will have to look forward to. Ziggler is one. Dean Ambrose should be another – they’ve already done a ‘Dusty finish’ at Elimination Chamber this year to tease us with an Ambrose title reign…. This isn’t about fantasy booking; this is about taking whatever booking WWE decide will exist and making the little things around it work.”

So yeah, a year later we find ourselves two weeks away from Summerslam, where Dolph Ziggler is challenging WWE Champion Dean Ambrose. How did we get here and what does it mean?

dean ambrose triple h roadblock

I’m really happy for Ziggler. With the brand split we should expect to see more fresh faces in main events, but Summerslam is a marquee occasion and he has totally earned this spot.

Ziggler has been solid, reliable and entertaining for a few years now. He’s diligently worked through feuds that have been narratively uninspiring and repetitive as hell, but throughout all that he’s always been hugely watchable in the ring. Even before he switched to full-length tights and started using a superkick finisher over the Zig-Zag, before Kevin Nash discussed the parallels on a recent edition of Vince Russo’s podcast, the Shawn Michaels comparisons weren’t without merit. And I know it’s something of a trope now, but Dolph Ziggler could sell ice to eskimos. Whatever position he’s found himself in, he’s tried to make what he’s been doing look like a million bucks.

Ambrose may not have had quite as rough a journey up the card in WWE, but he’s spent his time as the bridesmaid while his Shield brothers were taking their big solo moments as champions. He’s also had his false starts; that finish at Elimination Chamber last year, his Roadblock match with Triple H this year – times when it looked like he was about to become The Man. Now he finally has the company’s most prestigious title around his waist, the depth of goodwill at his back is only greater.

The result is a WWE Championship match at Summerslam between two popular superstars the audience are genuinely happy to see there. Both men are well capable of putting on a show, while virtually any outcome – even a feud-extending schmoz finish – feels laden with positives.

The question now, for me at least, is where the next generation of these stories may come from. Zack Ryder’s frankly bizarre Intercontinental Championship win at WrestleMania was the start of an intriguing few months where he made the final four of a couple of battle royals, was one of two survivors in the giant elimination tag match on the July 4th episode of Raw, pinned Sheamus clean and had a reasonably competitive US Title match with Rusev at Battleground. Ryder is suddenly an overachieving underdog again. Will we see more of this? Or are the Hype Bros the immediate future for the Long Island broski?

Sasha Banks, too, has been taking a strange path. Of course she was going to figure in the title match at WrestleMania. Of course she was going to face Charlotte at Summerslam. Looking back, it’s hard to see how there could’ve been any other plan. But she spent a surprising of time in the past year totally out of the picture on TV, despite the We Want Sasha chants. Possibly because of the “We Want Sasha” chants? How long can people be kept hungry?

Without question though, Cesaro is the next big candidate for one of these stories.

A lot of people’s curiosities were piqued by a backstage interview on the night of the Draft, buried away on the Network, where the Swiss Superman went off on one about how late he was drafted, his preference for wrestling over talking and his concerns about Raw being the type of show where the in-ring action would take a back seat to melodramas around authority figures. There was an unmistakable whiff of legitimacy about it. What was most interesting was that WWE then put the whole interview on their YouTube channel, before giving him a guest slot on the Battleground Kickoff show to gripe about not being on the card, ostensibly through commenting on the feud between Kevin Owens and Sami Zayn. Say what you like about Vince McMahon’s brass rings, but very little happens on his show without him being okay with it. And nothing of that sort happens twice.

If we want to get excited by this turn of events, our response might be “finally, they’re doing something interesting with Cesaro”. However the question that inevitably follows is what the something will be. WWE are surely aware of the previous response of hardcore fans when Vince went on record suggesting Cesaro hadn’t quite put all the pieces together yet. They’ve seen the Cesaro Section signs at live shows. But what’s the logical next step in the story? Could it be denying him chances, making him talk rather than wrestle and have authority figures meddle in his affairs? Until he’s eventually traded to SmackDown, where Daniel Bryan finally lets him beat the snot out of people?

The sensitive among us may need to make our peace with how Cesaro could be booked for the short-term future, should WWE follow through with this angle to maximum effect. Be prepared to tell yourself it’s for the greater good.

I’d love to know whether you think I’m completely barking mad on this. I realise stories like Daniel Bryan’s and CM Punk’s worked in spite of themselves, but there’s only so many times you can succeed by accident before you try to achieve the same outcome by design. It strikes me that in an era when there are more ways than ever for WWE to hear what people think about characters and storylines, the ability to subtly mess with people’s hopes and expectations is much, much easier and very, very tempting.

Will Dolph Ziggler complete his climb back up the mountain by becoming WWE Champion at Summerslam? At the moment, my gut says probably not – but the nearfalls will be awesome. Redemption has always been currency in professional wrestling; don’t for a moment believe the WWE doesn’t know the power of it. And they’re arguably more aware of it now than ever.