THE RIGHT CHAMPION
(The one where the REAL future of the company was crowned)
The year was 2014 and Marty Jannetty just tossed Shawn Michaels through a window.
But let's back up...
Colby Lopez began wrestling in and around his home state of Iowa with a little indie promotion called "Scott County Wrestling." Within two years (2005) he was the heavyweight champion, though he was green as grass and barely 200 lbs. Upon winning it he spray-painted the title black (a play on the Tyler Black name) and launched into the first strong heel run of his career. His combination of daredevil maneuvers and stiff kicks made him a popular regional attraction and a certain star-to-be.
He was the right champion at the right time.
For the next two years he danced around various promotions (Full Impact Wrestling, Pro Wrestling Gorilla, NWA Midwest) and crossed paths with Jon Moxley, before finding stability in 2007 as competitor in Ring of Honor. If you're looking for perspective: Around the time Seth Rollins (as Tyler Black) debuted in ROH, John Cena (a then-three-time WWE champion) had just gone down with an injury and Randy Orton was awarded the title to start his first WWE championship reign. Almost a decade later Cena would be defending the mid-card title and Orton would be chasing Rollins for the WWE title. I doubt any of those three guys would have believed that back in 2007.
In Ring of Honor, Tyler Black made an impact immediately, debuting as part of a three man group called "the Age of Fall." The trio's first act was to hang Jay Briscoe from the rafters in a display so shocking it was banned from ROH recordings. Later he and AoF stable-mate Jimmy Jacobs would beat the Briscoes for the ROH Tag Titles before dropping them to Davey Richards and Rockey Romero (in a match also featuring the team of Austin Aries and some nobody named Bryan Danielson). After that, Black set his sights on the Ring of Honor World Championship, losing his challenge to the champion Nigel McGuinness. He recaptured the tag titles briefly before losing them again to the team of Kevin Steen and El Generico.
He continued striving for the ROH World title but fell short several times, including in a brilliant four-man elimination match in August 2008 alongside Danielson and Claudio Castagnoli. Finally, in 2010, he won the ROH Championship. By this point Danielson had moved on, Aries was on his way out, ROH was cutting its roster to save money, and Black was the best viable champion they had.
He was the right champion at the right time.
And a few months later he signed a deal to join WWE.
The babyface Black immediately turned heel and launched into a program that was criticized by some as being a repeat of the Summer of Punk angle from 2005. It wasn't. The Summer of Punk featured Punk spitefully gloating that he had the title, no one could take it from him, and he was going to leave for WWE as the ROH champ. In 2010, Tyler Black announced that he would take the title to WWE, but that's where the comparisons end. Instead of being spiteful like Punk, Black played a different card: innocent and wronged. The fans called him a sell out, but Black declared that he didn't sell out to WWE, he bought in to their offer of a better life. That didn't make him a bad guy, so shame on ROH (he would say) for attacking him for it. His naked ambition and greed drove the fans crazy to see him lose the belt which he finally did just before his WWE debut in September of 2010.
In Florida Championship Wrestling, Seth Rollins thrived right away. He won the inaugural FCW 15 title, a championship defended in 15 minute Iron Man matches. He teamed with Richie Steamboat to win the FCW tag titles from Damien Sandow and Titus O'Neil. He and Steamboat later lost the belt to Calvin Raines and Big E Langston. Looking back at the arc of his career, it's amazing how many future WWE superstars he crossed paths with. Only a few people he feuded with ended up disappearing. Most of them went on to become big stars in their respective promotions. But while those other guys ended up plateauing or failing to reach their potential, Rollins' career trajectory kept climbing.
He and Dean Ambrose had what is perhaps the greatest feud in FCW's history, a lengthy battle over the FCW15 title. Looking back on those matches is like watching Bret and Shawn fight over the Intercontinental title, or like going back to watch Triple H and D-Generation X feuding with The Rock and the Nation of Domination. It just felt like watching the future before it was the present. In the end, Ambrose helped Sandow win the title from Rollins and Seth went on to challenge for the FCW championship, winning it from Leo Kruger (the future Adam Rose) in February of 2011. In the six years since he began wrestling, his work in the ring had improved considerably, and he was already pretty good to start with. He was never much of a talker, but he had a natural charisma and carried himself like a star, something that many in "WWE Developmental" never learn to do.
Previous FCW heavyweight champions were more in the traditional WWE mold of what a main event guy should look like. The future Jack Swagger, Sheamus, and Mason Ryan all had lengthy runs with the title but it wasn't until Rollins that a real workhorse held the belt.
He was the right champion at the right time.
Soon after his win, plans were set in motion to dissolve FCW and relaunch the NXT game show into the new development brand.
Who better than Seth Rollins to be NXT inaugural champion? Though he only held title for a few months before debuting with The Shield on the main roster, his climb through the NXT title tournament and his title defenses started the promotion off on the right foot. He was fast, skilled, able to work a mat-based match and a high flying contest. Every potential challenger on NXT was sure to have their best match with him.
He was the right champion at the right time.
Then came The Shield.
What's funny is between the three of them, Seth was obviously the star of the group coming in. He had the most accolades, the best pedigree, the best all-around skills. Though Ambrose was a much more dynamic character and Reigns (the former Leakee) clearly had "the look," it was Rollins that was the total package of the group. Yet he was the one often overlooked.
During their year-and-a-half tear through the main roster, the big discussion about The Shield was what to do with poor Seth Rollins. In their wonderful six-man matches, Ambrose was the guy to start the affair, since he was the most magnetic personality, Reigns was the hot tag who cleaned up with his flurry of powerful offense. Rollins...poor Seth Rollins was the workhorse in the middle, who had to take the brunt of the offense and, if necessary, eat the pin.
But it worked. It shouldn't have worked, but it did. It should have been nothing more than a star-making vehicle for Roman Reigns. The group should have been "Roman and his two buddies" because that's the way those things always go. But a combination of good booking and some backstage unity among the trio allowed the group to become a single unit, where each of them played an equal part. I can't recall a stable whose members were as equal as The Shield. The nWo had Hogan. DX had Shawn and later Triple H. The Freebirds had Hayes. The Four-Horseman had Flair. Heck, even 3MB had Slater. There's always someone who takes the spotlight. Someone is always the centerpiece.
Not with The Shield. They were one. An unholy trinity of butt-kicking goodness. And when they were working in harmony they were unstoppable.
"Look at them and tell me who was the leader. They all were."
Feed them to Cena, Sheamus, and Ryback on PPV? Nope. Win. Put them up against Orton, Sheamus, and Big Show atWrestleMania and you'd think this would be the time when the vets put down the upstarts. Nope. Victory. Not even an ultra-rare appearance by Undertaker on Monday Night Raw (teaming with Kane and Daniel Bryan) could stop them. It was only because of miscommunication and in-fighting that they lost to CM Punk at TLC 2013, and later to the Wyatt Family at Elimination Chamber 2014 (in the best six-man tag match in the history of ever). Once they got back on the same page, they resumed being the most unstoppable force in WWE. They totally squashed Kane and the New Age Outlaws at WrestleMania XXX, then engaged in a main event feud with Evolution. At Extreme Rules they won as a team and at Payback they won as individuals, with each member scoring an eliminating pinfall on an Evolution member.
Again, back when The Shield was still "The Shield" it seemed all anyone wanted to talk about was which of the three would be the breakout star and which would be the Marty Jannetty. Roman Reigns was clearly the future main-eventer if Vince McMahon would get his way (and he does...and he did). Ambrose was a bundle of energy and raw charisma that made him an instant star and favorite among the more hardcore fans of WWE.
Rollins continued to be the best worker of the trio and certainly had the most impressive resume coming into WWE, but mic skills mean a lot more on Raw than they did in Ring of Honor. When Seth picked up a mic as "The Architect of The Shield" he was as good as NyQuil. He had the unwanted ability to turn a three-sentence promo into a ten-paragraph speech. Meanwhile, Ambrose could spin a yarn that kept you hanging on every word; Roman was good (in those days) of just grabbing the stick and saying "Believe that...believe in the Shield" and peacing-out.
Poor Seth Rollins was the presumptive odd man out. Liked by management but not as much as Roman, liked by fans but not as much as Dean. Everyone assumed, even if they didn't want to admit it, that whenever The Shield finally split, poor Seth Rollins would be reduced to a life of meaningless tag matches and throw away mid-card title opportuniWHOA WHAT IS THAT, WHAT JUST HAPPENED TO MY HEART, WHY IS IT BREAKING?!
Before our very eyes "poor" Seth became THE breakout star of The Shield. If you want a kayfabe explanation, this was Seth Rollins: The same guy who "sold out" to WWE when he left Ring of Honor because he didn't want to be saddled to a company in the midst of a downsizing. Now he was one third of the WWE's hottest act, "selling out" to the Authority because he heard the whispers that he was the guy soon to be forgotten as a single's star.
This was a guy taking the future into his hands. He might have stood back and thought "before too long Roman will be the guy Triple H and co. come calling for to be the next future of WWE." So he beat him to the punch. And just like when he was in Ring of Honor, he felt totally justified in his actions, and shame on you, WWE Universe, for besmirching a man just trying to control his own destiny.
He didn't sell out.
He bought in.
In reality, Seth becoming the new golden boy of the Authority was the perfect move. He was the right guy to turn at the right time. While Dean will always be adored by fans, and while Roman will always have the protection that comes with being Vince's current pet project, Seth was the guy who needed the rub, and not only did he get it, he took his opportunity, grabbed that stupid proverbial brass ring, and blossomed into a real superstar before our very eyes.
Look at the trio now.
Which one looks like Marty Jannetty now?
Not this guy.
Just look at that face. Who would have thought one year ago that it would be so punchable?
Before you say it, yes: He's a cowardly little turd of a heel. But that's par for the course for almost every heel in WWE, and certainly for every heel that's not as protected as Rusev, as mystical as Bray Wyatt, or as unconquerable-by-gimmick as Brock Lesnar (who isn't even a heel anymore).
Forget the way Rollins does his heeling; look at how he went toe-to-toe with Brock at the Royal Rumble this year. He owned that match. It was a triple threat but this time John Cena was the odd man out. That fight was Lesnar vs. Rollins and fans could not wait to see Rollins get his comeuppance in the weeks building up to the fight. When it was over the fans respected how tough he looked in the middle of it (before ultimately getting his comeuppance at the end of it). It was a clinic on good heeling.
His WrestleMania feud with Orton was hampered by odd booking decisions but through it all Seth looked every bit like he belonged on Orton's level. Again, take away the cowardly heel tactics: When you see Seth and Randy in the same ring, do they not look like equals? Certainly, and Orton is a 12-time World champion, and again, was winning his second world title back when Rollins debuted with Ring of Honor. That's how quickly and smoothly he's transitioned from upper-card tag team act, to main event top star attraction.
As his career unfolded people kept trying to peg him as the next this guy or that guy. Who is he?
Is he the next Jeff Hardy? He's got the moves. But no. The chairshot heard 'round the world proved he was willing to be sadistic in a way Jeff never could be.
Is he the next Edge? He's got the same hyena-like instincts to pounce on a hurt enemy. But No. Edge was the ultimate "opportunist." He just waited for a time to strike and took it. Not Rollins: Rollins didn't wait. He wasn't passive; he was active. He chose when to turn.
And though skeptics and cynics tried to say he was the next Marty Jannetty, he proved that wrong too. Whereas Marty struggled to grow and evolve past the Rockers, Seth not only survived on his own, he thrived.
So who is he?
He's the first Seth Rollins.
Which takes us to the main event.
Let's not even go into the drama leading up to WrestleMania 31. It doesn't matter. None of the Lesnar contract stuff or the Roman Reigns rejection matters. What matters is what happened. Lesnar re-signed and entered Levi's Stadium a bonafide hero. Very likely, had he elected to return to UFC he still would have been cheered and thanked by the audience for the great work he did over the past few years. But since he decided to stick with WWE, there was no way he wasn't going to be the hero going into the match.
If you want to say "poor" anybody, it's "poor" Roman. He was marginalized in his own main event. He was the hand-picked guy to dethrone the beast and ascend to the top of the mountain but the fans couldn't care less about that. They wanted to see Lesnar the conqueror beat down Vince's golden boy.
And that's exactly what we got.
Sure it was spun later that, before Rollins cashed-in, the match was essentially a draw, but that's revisionist history. The match was as one-sided as it gets. Lesnar nailed a dozen viscous suplexes (Germans, Fishermans, Exploders, Verticals, Delayed, etc), several stiff shots, and multiple F5's. It was a clinic on pain.
I had spent the weeks leading up to it thinking and saying that the match would be a dud. I was going off the assumption that it would be an evenly matched fight that saw Reigns going over in the end.
In my wildest dreams I never thought they'd do a repeat of the SummerSlam 2014 match. But for two-thirds of it, that's exactly what we saw. The crowd was the most energized I've ever been a part of, cheering on every Lesnar suplex, but when Roman hit his third superman punch and then back-to-back spears you would have thought a riot was about to break out.
Then the real future of the company showed up.
Being there live I can tell you that 90% of the people who were cheering for Lesnar (which was about 75% of the crowd) immediately shifted their allegiance and started cheering for Rollins. How much of that was because they wanted to see a title change, and how much of it was they wanted to see ROLLINS win the title, I don't know. All I know is we were cheering like madmen and when he pinned Reigns to win the title it was pandemonium.
The finish to this match is one of the best I've ever witnessed. So much electricity in the crowd, on commentary, all three guys played a part in pulling it off; it was wonderful. Reigns and Lesnar are both laid out. Rollins runs in, cashes-in, and immediately kicks Roman out of the ring. Why? Because he witnessed first-hand at the Rumble how quickly Brock can recover from a finisher. He's playing with cheat codes. So he kicks Reigns out and hits a curb stomp on Lesnar. Again, he doesn't even try to cover him. He's been in this position before. So he waits, and sure enough just a second later Lesnar is back to his knees ready for a second curbstomwoops, Lesnar has him up, ready for the F5 and the victory when SPEAR OUTTA NOWHERE! Lesnar goes down, Rollins doesn't even bother covering the beast (because, cheatcodes); he hits a quick Curb Stomp on Reigns and steals the win.
It wasn't his main event. It wasn't his WrestleMania. But he was the guy who deserved it. This was always supposed to be Seth's WrestleMania, the way last year was always supposed to be Bryan's, even if the guy in charge was too myopic to see it until the last minute.
With his win, Rollins becomes the right champion at the right time. It was never Reigns, because Reigns winning would have kept Brock a heel, and he hasn't been a heel since the Royal Rumble buildup. He's a babyface, and probably the most exciting babyface since Austin. This should always have been the finish to WrestleMania 31, Vince was just too enamored with Reigns to realize it. He kept trying to book Lesnar as a heel and Reigns a face. but fans WANT to cheer Lesnar.
That's why Rollins is so perfect to be the guy right now. It's why the buildup to the Rumble title match was the best Lesnar has been since his first feud with Cena in 2012. Cena, Triple H, Big Show, Undertaker, even CM punk: Those are all veterans who know what Lesnar is capable of. Cena fought him in his first run. Triple H was on Raw back then but he knew how dominant Lesnar was on SmackDown. Undertaker and Big Show used to be rag-dolled by him back then too. They understood The Beast, so when they faced him in his post-UFC run, they did so with the right amount of temperance and respect for his power. Punk may not have had that kind of first hand experience, but he was the OTHER Paul Heyman guy, and he certainly understood what Lesnar was.
With Rollins you get the sense that he's an entitled little punk kid, too full of youthful ignorance to realize the sort of bear he's poking. He keeps getting away with it thanks to his posse of cronies and that only fuels his overconfidence. It makes you want to (pay to) see him get his tail thoroughly whipped.
Who better to put the belt on and have the now-babyface Lesnar chase after?
In studying Rollins career trajectory, I am amazed at how this guy has worked his way up the ranks, alongside so many future WWE superstars (Ambrose, Bryan, Zayn, Owens, Cesaro, Sandow, Big E Langston, Roman Reigns), and along the way was always thought to be a notch below them all, either in skill or in potential. Instead, he busted his tail and outworked everyone else to achieve what most thought was impossible just a year ago.
So where does this WrestleMania main-event rank, among the show's previous thirty?
I mean come on: It was never going to be a top four main-event. It wasn't going to surpass the perfection of Austin vs. Rock II, the drama of Undertaker vs. Michaels, the timelessness of Hogan vs. Andre, or the emotion of Bryan vs. Orton vs. Batista.
If you want to put it above Hogan vs. Savage or Hogan vs. Warrior, I'll listen to your arguments, but I'd argue those main events came off of much better stories, were much more epic, and lacked a lot of the fiasco that this WrestleMania buildup had. If you want to say it's better than Benoit vs. Triple H vs. HBK, I'll listen to your arguments, but I'd argue that the journey of Benoit rising up the ranks to become the heavyweight champion of the world is one of the best "career arcs" in all of wrestling. I'll listen to you argue that it was better than Lesnar vs. Angle, but I'm biased in favor of that match because Angle is my favorite of all time, and he and Lesnar never failed to impress every time they wrestled. I love that match to pieces.
I put this one just below those seven matches, for a few reasons. As said, the buildup was trash. Rollins barely was involved in it mainly because he wasn't supposed to win the title until the last minute. Reigns and Lesnar barely interacted because the former was getting booed as a face and the latter was getting cheered as a heel. The story they wanted to tell couldn't be told because the audience wasn't having it.
The match itself had a lot of energy and some stiff shots but in the end it was 13 minutes of Lesnar squashing Roman, two minutes of Roman making a comeback, and one minute of Rollins swooping in to steal the title and all of our hearts.
It's not a bad match; it's not like when you watch WrestleMania 13 you stop watching after the submission match, or when you watch WrestleMania 25 you stop watching after the Taker/Michaels match. But I don't think it's a main event so good that you go out of your way to search for it and watch it on a rainy day. It's not Hogan vs. Warrior. It's not theWrestleMania 20/30 triple treats. It's not a wrestling clinic like Angle vs. Lesnar was. Besides, that match ended with the babyface triumphing. This one ended with the heel standing tall; that takes away the kind of finality you want with aWrestleMania show-closer.
It told a good story in the ring, but not the best (and certainly not in the build-up). It had a great finish (one of the best), but not a definitive one. It's a top-ten main event.
Now, my hopes and dreams are that Rollins keeps squirming away from Lesnar from now until next year's WrestleMania. Give Lesnar a title match at SummerSlam and Survivor Series (triple threat with Orton and Rollins and with Reigns and Rollins), have him win the Royal Rumble and then challenge Rollins 1-on-1.
THAT would be a great story and a great main-event match (fingers crossed).
But this? This was a main event that seemed doomed when it was announced at the Royal Rumble. It seemed doomed leading up to it, when no one in creative knew how to write it. It seemed doomed on the go home show when the two competitors -- a legit fighter who could kick the butt of everyone in the company, and a kayfabe tough guy who could kayfabe kick the butt of everyone in the company -- played tug of war with the belt.
It all looked doomed, but it was saved at the 11th hour by the right guy at the right time. The guy who earned his big championship moment at WrestleMania, the guy who stepped up his game since leaving The Shield, the guy who has become a great talker to compliment his amazing ring work, and the guy who has become the best pure heel on the roster today.
This guy deserved to be the champ.
The right champion, at the right time.
This article never had a chance to measure up to the one I wrote last year about Bryan's title win. That one came from the heart, because it was about a babyface I loved triumphing over obstacles both scripted and real. This is about (kayfabe) a heel winning through underhanded tactics, and while in reality there was a lot of hard work that went into it, and I'm very happy for Seth Rollins, there's no way to be as emotionally invested in his win the way I was last year with Daniel Bryan. So, I'm sorry this article is not as emotionally-charged as the ones I wrote about Warrior's death, Taker's streak, the Bryan victory or the whole emotional roller-coaster that was Mania 30 week. I'll probably never top that string of four articles, but I thank you for your interest in this one.
See you next year with what I hope is a look at Lesnar's journey from ultimate monster who killed the beloved streak to ultimate hero who defeated the hated champ!
The completed list, now updated to include the above match:
- Ranking Mania main events #1: Steve Austin vs. The Rock II
- Ranking Mania main events #2: Shawn Michaels vs. Undertaker
- Ranking Mania main events #3: Hulk Hogan vs. Andre the Giant
- Ranking Mania main events #4: Daniel Bryan vs. Randy Orton vs. Batista
- Ranking Mania main events #5: Hulk Hogan vs. Macho Man Randy Savage
- Ranking Mania main events #6: Chris Benoit vs. Shawn Michaels vs. Triple H
- Ranking Mania main events #7: Hulk Hogan vs. Ultimate Warrior
- Ranking Mania main events #8: Seth Rollins vs. Brock Lesnar vs. Roman Reigns
- Ranking Mania main events #9: Brock Lesnar vs. Kurt Angle
- Ranking Mania main events #10: Triple H vs. John Cena
- Ranking Mania main events #11: Steve Austin vs. The Rock
- Ranking Mania main events #12: Shawn Michaels vs. Bret Hart
- Ranking Mania main events #13: John Cena vs. The Rock
- Ranking Mania main events #14: Shawn Michaels vs. John Cena
- Ranking Mania main events #15: Undertaker vs. Edge
- Ranking Mania main events #16: Steve Austin vs. Shawn Michaels
- Ranking Mania main events #17: Batista vs. Triple H
- Ranking Mania main events #18: Mick Foley vs. The Rock vs. Triple H vs. Big Show
- Ranking Mania main events #19: Bret Hart vs. Yokozuna II
- Ranking Mania main events #20: John Cena vs. The Rock II
- Ranking Mania main events #21: Randy Savage vs. Ted DiBiase
- Ranking Mania main events #22: Hogan & Mr. T vs. Piper & Orndorff
- Ranking Mania main events #23: Triple H vs. Chris Jericho
- Ranking Mania main events #24: Hulk Hogan vs. King Kong Bundy
- Ranking Mania main events #25: Triple H vs. Randy Orton
- Ranking Mania main events #26: Hulk Hogan vs. Sid Justice
- Ranking Mania main events #27: John Cena vs. The Miz
- Ranking Mania main events #28: Undertaker vs. Sycho Sid
- Ranking Mania main events #29: Hulk Hogan vs. Sgt. Slaughter
- Ranking Mania main events #30: Bret Hart vs. Yokozuna
- Ranking Mania main events #31: Lawrence Taylor vs. Bam Bam Bigelow