Before WWE Superstar Dean Ambrose went into surgery to repair a torn triceps tendon, he was told to expect a three- or four-month recovery period. Once his doctors saw the extent of the damage, they upped the timetable to six. And about six weeks after that, Ambrose said a routine checkup quickly escalated into a second surgery to combat an infection. All in all, Ambrose describes the eight months he was off television as “one nightmare after another.”
Ambrose made his return to WWE Raw last month, and today he will be part of a WWE Live event at Bert Ogden Arena in Edinburg. Ambrose will team with Seth Rollins to take on Raw Tag Team Champions Dolph Ziggler and Drew McIntyre — a preview of their championship match scheduled for Sunday’s Hell in a Cell pay-per-view in San Antonio.
In advance of WWE’s first ever appearance in Edinburg, Ambrose caught up with The Monitor prior to the Sept. 3 episode of Raw from Columbus, Ohio. Ambrose detailed the excruciating pain he worked through before finally taking time off due to injury and the grueling recovery process that followed. He also discussed his diet and training routines, his new style in and out of the ring and his goals going forward — which certainly do not include regaining the title of WWE Ironman.
Q: How has it felt to be back on Raw the past couple of weeks?
AMBROSE: It’s good to get back out in front of people. I had a lot of frustration I needed to really get out that built up over the last eight months. It was a long, long period of time. Much longer than would have been anticipated.
It was just one nightmare after another. It was a pretty challenging period of time to go through. I ended up having two different surgeries. I had this MRSA, Staph infection. I nearly died. I was in the hospital for a week plugged up to this antibiotic drip thing, and I was on all these antibiotics for months that make you puke and crap your pants.
So it was a pretty rough time. My arm wasn’t healing correctly, and my triceps. It’s kind of an indeterminate period where I initially hurt it. I thought it was, we call it Dusty elbows. It’s a pretty typical wrestler thing. You just get this bursa sac of fluid on your elbow from banging it on the mat or whatever. I’ve had that dozens of times on both elbows. It usually just goes away. It was kind of disguised. By the time I finally went and got the first surgery, my triceps was already starting to atrophy and look weird. I wasn’t able to flex my triceps for a really long time. And then the first surgery didn’t really, something went wrong in the process. Probably due to that infection. It’s kind of hard to say when that really even got in my body. This is a long answer to your question. But for a minute there, it was getting scary. By the time I got that second surgery, it was March, I think. My arm was so shrunken and skeletal that it was weird. I hadn’t been able to move it or flex it in so long that I was starting to get scared I wasn’t ever going to get it back. To go from not being able to eat my Froot Loops, to being able to get back in the ring and throw people around and throw punches and do everything back to normal, it was a very gratifying feeling.
Q: How long after the first surgery did you realize you had the infection and would have to have another surgery?
AMBROSE: It looked good. Before I went in for the first one, they were like, ‘OK, yeah, this is going to be a three- or four-month thing. You’ll jump right back.’ Once I woke up, they were like, ‘Oh man, this is going to be six months minimum. Because we went in there, and that thing was messed up. You beat it to death. It’s going to be a lot harder than you initially thought. But still, not so bad.’ They said they found traces of an infection during the first surgery, but they cleaned it out. I don’t know if it was in there previously, or if it came after. It could’ve been with me for years. I don’t know. But it was about six weeks or so after that I was like, this is not healing correctly. I didn’t have anything to compare it to, because I had never been hurt before. So I ended up going back for just a checkup. I thought I was just going to turn right back around and get on a plane and go home, and they were like, ‘No, you have to go in again for surgery like right now.’ I was like, ‘Oh, no.’ I had just kind of got through all of the stitches and all of that stuff. It was a giant mess. I just kept having to start back from square one. I ended up just moving to Birmingham just to play it safe and be with the doctor and best rehab guys. As soon as I got out of the second one, I was flying home, grabbing my dog, turned right back around, got in the truck and drove to Birmingham. I just stayed there for two and a half or three months until they felt like I was pretty good. Once the MRSA really got out of my system, I was working out twice a day. Rehabbing twice a day on top of that in Birmingham. Doing everything possible to try to get my arm working again, and once I started to come back, I started to make a lot of progress over the summer. So I’m feeling good now.
Q: Was the second surgery entirely for the infection or did you still have structural damage to the triceps?
AMBROSE: The tendon was attached when I went in there the second time. But there was all this goo. The environment wasn’t letting it heal correctly, I guess. I’m not a doctor. I don’t know. But they just had to scoop out all this gooey stuff. I didn’t realize how bad it was. If I hadn’t gone in for that checkup, I could’ve gotten seriously sick. It could’ve been even more dangerous. But it all worked out.
Q: It sounds like you could tell something was wrong because you weren’t able to move it normally or work out at the level you wanted to.
AMBROSE: Yeah, I didn’t really have anything to compare it to. I was rehabbing it where I live in Vegas and was just doing what they were telling me to do. But I just kind of, in my mind, knew something wasn’t right. I was like, ‘I don’t know. Something is weird here.’
Q: You mentioned how hard you hit training after you got through it, and people are seeing the difference now that you’re back on TV. What was your routine like once you started feeling healthy again to get into the shape that you’re in now?
AMBROSE: Nothing fancy. Pretty basic. Just basic powerlifting. Bench, squat, dead lift. It’s a lot easier when you have the time to just recover and stuff. Being on the road 280 days per year, you’re working 30 minutes per night and traveling all around the world, recovery is a lot harder. But nothing fancy. Just super basic, heavy-ass weights.
Q: Does your diet change at all when you don’t have to travel?
AMBROSE: I can pretty much eat whatever I want. For me, it’s just, you have to eat a ton to make sure I keep on size. I especially eat tons late at night. Everybody tells you you’re not supposed to eat late at night. I’m the opposite. I’m stuffing food in my face 24/7. I eat generally a pretty clean diet anyway, just regular stuff. Steak. Stuff like that.
Q: How much of a challenge have you found it throughout your career to maintain being muscular and that level of fitness while on the road? Have you learned anything about how to manage that or changed your approach over time?
AMBROSE: I’m always doing different stuff. I go through different phases where I’ll get bored of one style of stuff and do other stuff. I’m a very physical person. That’s why it was tough to be stuck being inactive for so long. I don’t necessarily enjoy sitting on the couch watching TV. I’m all for that, sometimes. You need to relax. But generally, it doesn’t keep my attention very long. I like to be out doing stuff. Everything I do is some kind of physical exertion that’s relaxing to me. I’m always doing different stuff for fun. Whether that be mountain biking, running, running on mountains, training in wrestling and grappling. I’m just doing whatever I think is fun. I’m always doing all kinds of different stuff.
Q: When you were injured and away from TV, were you keeping up with the program weekly, or was that tough to watch?
AMBROSE: I entirely mentally checked out. I kind of had to. I had been in so much pain for so long when I left, that I was going through some stage-five-level burnout. I needed to just mentally check out of the whole thing. Seeing anything on TV probably would’ve just annoyed me anyway, since I’m out and can’t do anything. Even so, my brain, my level of patience for anything, just from being in pretty severe, my arm was hurting so bad, just this radiating pain 24/7. I wasn’t able to sleep at night for quite some time until they finally figured out what was wrong. That was a relief to finally have an answer. But I was just dragging my fist. Trying to find the fortitude to go to the ring every night was starting to get hard. So when I had the opportunity to step away, I just full-on stepped away and mentally checked out.
Q: How long were you struggling like that before you finally decided to step away and take some time off?
AMBROSE: It was maybe as much as two months before we finally found out what was wrong.
Q: When Seth Rollins had his injury, he said in his “WWE 24” documentary it was nice to be able to reconnect with friends and family for a time and take a breather. Did you experience anything similar or find any positives going through this experience?
AMBROSE: Yeah, there definitely was some time. Normally, people will be like, ‘Oh yeah, I’m going to come visit.’ And I’m like, ‘Well, I’m not going to be home like, ever.’ If I’m in a town that one of my friends is in, we’re in and out and we’re out on a plane the next morning or that night. So it’s a quick hello, maybe. But I was able to have some people over for a few days. I was able to, my sister bought a new house, and I never got to go out and see it, so I got to go out and see it. Stuff like that. There was definitely some time to hang out with normal humans doing civilian stuff. It’s weird to try to remember how to do that.
Q: You came back with a very different look, with a short haircut and changed facial hair. How did you settle on that look specifically or why did you want to change direction?
AMBROSE: Right after I got hurt, I cut my hair really, really short. Like, all the way. After it grew out a little bit, I liked it. So I was like, I’m just keeping this. I wanted to do that for a long time, actually. I said, ‘I’m just keeping it like this. I don’t care what anybody says.’
Q: In the ring, I think there’s been a difference in how you’ve wrestled your first couple of televised matches. How do you describe the changes to your in-ring style, and what led to that?
AMBROSE: I was able to go back to Ohio, where I started, a few times over the summer, and get in with my guys that I’ve trained with and I started with. I brought in some guys specially to work with, guys who like wrestling and know me. I’m really just at a mental point where I’m just like, ‘I just want to take guys down, beat them up, pin them and go home.’ Hard-nosed, straightforward, aggressive wrestling. Nothing fancy. Nothing confusing. Your brain gets so melted being in the circus that is WWE for so long, you know? Sometimes it’s nice to just get back to super basics.
Q: Before you went out, you were the Ironman of WWE and had wrestled the most matches for the past couple of years. Is that a title you’re interested in reclaiming, or has the injury changed your perspective on that?
AMBROSE: I heard that, and that was nice, but that’s a title that’s worth exactly zero dollars. So I’ll let somebody else have that. I’m ready to move on.
Q: Do you have any other goals now that you’re back in the ring?
AMBROSE: Yeah, I’m just going to have to let all that play out and so forth. My mindset is a lot different, probably, than a lot of the other WWE superstars as far as what I want and what makes me happy and the things that are rewarding to me. I have some stuff left on the table that I want to do. I’ll let it all kind of play out. Right now, I’m just enjoying being back in the ring, which is nice, to be back traveling again. Last night, we got in from Shanghai, China. Right after Raw last week — this is a Monday, obviously — we left for the UK and London. We did London, went to Osaka and did Japan, went from Japan to China and came back around and now we’re in Columbus, Ohio. I literally just went around the world. It was actually kind of fun. It’s a brutal tour, but it was nice for me to just jump back in. It was weird going from so much inactivity to now I’m right back in the grinder again. But it’s really addictive when you get the mindset that you have to keep moving all the time. Being in one spot is very hard for me to adjust to. Because I’m the type that once every day or two, you feel like, I have the gypsy mindset where I just want to pack up and leave. I can be a place for a day, and then it’s time to go. It’s nice to be back in the swing of things.
Q: It was interesting to hear you say you think you value things other guys don’t, or that you have different priorities. What are some of those things that you think resonate with you more than other wrestlers?
AMBROSE: At this point, money or any kind of quantifiable statistics, titles or whatever, or any kind of validation from anybody is not really important to me any more at this point. The most important thing, the thing that makes me the happiest, is just being happy with a piece of work. Like an artist makes a watercolor painting or whatever, and they sit back and go, ‘I’m really happy with that.’ The thing that I value most in my past and my career at this point, I realize they’re just the stories that I’m more proud of that were told, that still stand up. Just good pieces of work. I want to be happy with the finished product. Whether that’s one match, or a longer story, or if that’s one interview, or whatever. Whatever it is. That’s the most important thing to me at this point. Because I’ve had all the other things. Out of every thing that there is, that’s still the most rewarding thing and the only thing that drives me or gets me really excited other than just the live performance and being in front of the crowd, is that artistic, creative satisfaction.
The event is expected to feature Superstars Roman Reigns, Braun Strowman, Alexa Bliss and more.
WHEN 7 p.m. Friday
WHERE Bert Ogden Arena, 4900 S. I-69, Edinburg
COST Tickets start at $25 at ticketmaster.com