God's Last Gift: How Seth Rollins became the future of WWE
The first people Seth Rollins brought to tears — before The Shield, before the WWE Universe, before anyone — were his mom and dad.
That’s a rough note to begin on, but it’s necessary because originally, we had planned to write about Seth Rollins in June 2014, and our story — his story, really — was going to be your usual underdog yarn about a guy who worked hard from humble beginnings, reached his goal, almost lost his goal, and eventually found himself sitting on the mountaintop through grit and hard work. Not entirely unlike Daniel Bryan’s tale. But that all turned on its head the night Rollins took out his fellow members of The Shield with a steel chair and set himself on a catapult career-trajectory that led to the Money in the Bank briefcase and helped him waltz right into a WWE World Heavyweight Championship Match against John Cena and Brock Lesnar at the 2015 Royal Rumble over about the course of six months.
Given all that, it seems appropriate to begin the story we’re telling now, the story Seth Rollins forced us to tell instead, with the fact that he had a penchant for defying expectations and breaking hearts —including his family’s — before he’d even formally laced up a pair of boots.I don't care if anybody believes I can do this or not.
“When I told my parents and saw the look of disappointment on their faces, it was like a real moment,” said Rollins, recalling the uncomfortable night he sat his parents down as a teenager in Iowa and told them he would be pursuing a career in sports-entertainment. “I remember walking away from the dinner table and just being like, ‘Man, I don’t care what anybody says, I’m going to do this. I don’t care if anybody believes I can do this or not.’”
About the only one who believed he could succeed was Rollins himself, a lapsed Hulkamaniac who rediscovered his passion during the Attitude Era and had already proven himself a natural boundary-pusher in mock wrestling shows with his buddies where he created a character named “God.”
“[I wasn’t] the God, not a god of anything, just straight-up God,” laughs Rollins, who based the lighting-rod persona off the controversial antics of his favorite Superstars, Shawn Michaels and Triple H. “I wasn’t descending from the heavens or anything like that. It was just one of those deals where, ‘How am I gonna [tick] people off? Oh, I’ll just call myself God.’”
The point is, even when he was pretending, Rollins was already jumping about two acts ahead in the script. Underdogs take obstacles as they come, and earn their stripes one battle at a time. But he was seeking opposition like a man who’d already proven he could take on all comers. He welcomed adversity, invited it, and fed on it. His plate filled up soon enough: Once Rollins began earnestly training alongside a friend at a Ring of Honor tryout, he quickly started hitting what has become the standard marks for any indie wrestler’s coming-up.
Money troubles? Check. (“We did the tryout, we got accepted to the class, and then it was time to fork over a down payment for the school. For whatever reason, we had no idea that living was going to cost us money.”) Solitude? Check. (Rollins’ buddy threw in the towel to move closer to his girlfriend and the guy’s aunt, who had been putting the two of them up, kicked Rollins out.) A last-minute bit of near-divine intervention to save his passion? Check.I will always take opportunities into my own hands.
“I remember one night I was bumming a couch from a guy whose ad I picked up off a college message board with a bunch of roommates listed,” said Rollins. “I was just hanging out with those guys, had a good long talk, and decided I could still go home and train to be a wrestler, I don’t have to do it out here.”
A fresh start? Big ol’ check. Rollins moved home and began training under independent veteran Danny Daniels (himself a disciple of Al Snow), who taught the Superstar the psychology of sports-entertainment. From there, the obstacles eased up a bit and a successful spell followed. Rollins wrestled wherever he could find a ring — shipping yards, bars and the like — across the frigid Chicago winter of 2004. Then came stints in a tag team with fellow independent competitor Jimmy Jacobs, who hooked Rollins up with Ring of Honor head official Gabe Sapolsky and helped bring the future Mr. Money in the Bank into the dark horse promotion.
Rollins made his debut under the handle of Tyler Black and served alongside Jacobs and The Necro Butcher (the guy who brutalized Mickey Rourke with staples and glass in “The Wrestler”) as one-third of a trio called Age of the Fall. The group was introduced through an innovative viral campaign and a gruesome attack on mainstay Jay Briscoe, who was hung from his ankles while savagely assaulted (“We didn’t anticipate the amount of blood … it was a pretty horrific scene”). Rollins’ time in Age of the Fall led to a winning streak that soon established him as the man who could carry the company into the future.
“Gabe really wanted to push me as a singles competitor, and to an extent he wanted me to be the man in Ring of Honor,” said Rollins. “I started to notice I was getting more singles matches, and I was starting to work with higher-caliber talent.”
In those years, Rollins tangled with the pre-WWE likes of Daniel Bryan, Cesaro and Sami Zayn, and it became quickly apparent that a World Title Match against reigning ROH World Champion Nigel McGuinness was in his future. Unfortunately, Sapolsky was fired before the match could be made, and Rollins found himself adrift under new management.
“The title went from Nigel to Jerry Lynn, then from Jerry Lynn to Austin Aries, and I was caught in the shuffle. Over that whole next year, I was just chasing Austin Aries for the title,” said Rollins. “As good as that first year in Ring of Honor was, the second year was really, really bad for me. In retrospect, it was great for me, but at the time it was a tough situation to be in. I didn’t have anyone around to mentor me where I needed to be.”
Still, Rollins trusted that the new bosses would ultimately do right by him, which they eventually did — sort of. By the time Rollins did win the title, a backlash had already started.
“I literally won the title a year too late,” he recalled. “[I] had gotten beat so many times that people started not to care about me. Not to say the title win wasn’t super-momentous. It was a huge deal and everyone was so happy about it, but the fans had already started to turn on me.”
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For his part, Rollins regrets nothing. The experience left him with a lesson he’d never forget.
“In life if you’re not learning from every experience, even the bad ones, you’re really messing up. That’s the marker of a smart, intelligent individual,” said Rollins. “[After Ring of Honor] I knew what it felt like to let people take advantage of me and put me in situations that were not beneficial for me. I let that happen. I told myself then that I would never let it happen again, and I would always take opportunities into my own hands.”
This, in storytelling terms, is what we call foreshadowing. But we’re not quite there yet.
Here is where Seth Rollins almost misses the mark. And Seth Rollins has no one to blame but himself.
“I didn’t know anybody well,” said Rollins of his time in the pre-NXT, Florida Championship Wrestling warehouse, where head trainer Norman Smiley attempted to break down Rollins’ skillset and rebuild him from the ground up as a WWE Superstar. The champion was being forcibly reverted back into the underdog, and he was having trouble buying into the mindset.
“I’d already had a set way of doing things,” Rollins said. “I know what works for me. Having to adjust that to fit what was asked of me was very difficult for me ... it [felt] like [I was] selling out.”
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Adding to the trouble was that communication with the FCW staff and WWE management was “nil,” and Rollins barely even knew if he was doing well enough to make the grade. By the time FCW was rebranded into NXT, “The Architect” was in such a state that he said he was nearly future-endeavored from WWE altogether.
“I literally almost lost my job,” said Rollins. “I had been there for almost two years. I was very frustrated. I couldn’t get along with anyone. I thought I deserved more than I did.”
Enter Joey Mercury, who was a head trainer at NXT at the time and a confidant of sorts to the budding Rollins, for a last-minute meeting that may well have saved the young Superstar’s career.
I was sick of the stagnation in WWE."We sat down and talked for a good couple hours,” said Rollins. “That was an eye-opener for me, I think, in a lot of ways, because it really felt like that was going to be it. And if I don’t do this now [and] make this work now, I may not get another chance.”
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What do you know, he got another chance. Not long after that fateful talk, Rollins defeated Jinder Mahal in a tournament final to become the first-ever NXT Champion. The title victory carried the implicit co-signing of COO Triple H, who masterminded the rebranding of NXT altogether and is its strongest, most passionate advocate within WWE.
“[He said], ‘You wanted this, now you got it. Let’s go, let’s do this, let’s make this thing,’” said Rollins, who came under The Game’s wing despite almost losing his job, or perhaps because of the way he rebounded. “I think he was proud to have me as the first NXT Champion.”
From there, Rollins eventually lost his title to Big E, but made his main roster impact all the same as one-third of The Shield, who were brought to the big dance at Survivor Series 2012 after a series of stop-and-starts.
By the time they did debut — as ostensible bodyguards for CM Punk and Paul Heyman — the three strangers had aligned their mentalities and WWE Universe and locker room alike were thoroughly unprepared for just what kind of havoc they’d welcomed into the henhouse.
“We came in and the idea was that we were this rogue team and we were going to fight injustice,” said Rollins. “But to us, the injustice was always the stagnation of WWE for the past five years. That’s how we took injustice, and we weren’t going to stand for it. I was sick of it.”
If there’s one thing The Shield never was, it was underdogs. Collectively, they beat up everybody. John Cena. The Rock. The Undertaker. There wasn’t a Superstar with a pedigree (or Pedigree — even Triple H suffered their wrath before assimilating Rollins) big enough to dissuade The Shield from dishing out street-style poundings that seemed more appropriate for back alley brawls than a 20-by-20 ring. Rollins, in particular, emerged as — he might argue — the most inherently gifted of the group, ping-ponging off and over the ropes and flinging his body from the highest structure he could find like Jeff Hardy in his prime, all in the name of the group’s “Three Musketeers-mentality."
“For us to be in such a prominent spot and to really not give a [crap] what anybody else thought, in the ring or outside of the ring, was a new attitude that hadn’t been seen in some time,” Rollins said. “We were going to train harder than everybody else, work harder than everybody else, have better matches than anybody else, and we weren’t going to give a [crap] about what everybody else thought about that or that attitude, you know what I mean?”
Not a bad spot for our unlikely “hero” to land himself. End scene, cut the check, send the crew home for dinner. Our underdog story is a wrap. The boy has become a man, achieved his dream and settled into a comfortable role as one-third of the most dominant team in the history of his sport. The perfect ending.
“At the end of the day, if you look where The Shield was … where else are we going to go?” Rollins said of the group’s final, dominant stretch that saw them wipe the floor with Kane & The New Age Outlaws at WrestleMania and go 2-0 against Evolution. “Are we going to share the WWE World Heavyweight Championship? I don’t think so.”
When we called the underdog for a follow-up, he didn’t talk like an underdog anymore. His answers were short, succinct, honed by the interviews upon interviews he now does as Mr. Money in the Bank and one of the No. 1 contenders to Brock Lesnar’s WWE World Heavyweight Championship. He threw around words like “pressure” and “opportunity” not as things he’s welcoming but as things he has already met, as things he has already surpassed and is now uniquely qualified to identify.I want to be the guy who's hunted.
“Being able to be the guy that took down The Shield, there were a lot of people in the locker room who wish they could have said that,” Rollins told WWE.com. “The fact that I was able to take the chance when I had the opportunity … [is] certainly a testament to me, and definitely one of my crowning achievements, especially over the last year.”
He’s calm, cool, collected, perfectly at ease. As he should be, really. His story has come full-circle in an almost ridiculously poetic fashion. Mercury, once Rollins’ rabbi-type down in Full Sail, is now part of his security detail alongside Jamie Noble. Triple H, the man who pegged him as the NXT Champion, is now his chief benefactor. Not only has he been added to what was initially the rubber match of John Cena and Brock Lesnar’s war over the WWE World Heavyweight Title, but he’s got the briefcase as well, making him a No. 1 contender twice over and, statistically, the most likely to walk out of Philly with the undisputed prize in tow.
“They’re huge names, their list of accolades and accomplishments are far longer than mine, but that doesn’t mean anything to me,” Rollins said of Cena and Lesnar. “That just means they’ve been here longer. It’s nature. It’s science. It’s just the natural course of things. They’re going to get pushed out and I’m going to take over.”
Unlike, say, Bryan, who seems both destined and yet content to spend his entire career fighting from underneath, Rollins is a Superstar whose taste of being the “little Superstar that could” seems to have left him. The only time he gets slightly testy about anything he’s done is when the notion of being a “sellout” is brought up.
“At the end of the day it’s all about improving your situation,” Rollins said. “[It was] only a matter of separating myself. If you want to call it selling out? So be it.”
It's nature. I'm going to take over.Less irksome to him, however, is the idea that his actions have put a target on his back.
“I want to be the top guy,” Rollins said. “I want to be the guy who’s hunted. It’s only going to push me and make me better than I already am. And that’s a scary thing to think about.”
This is still Seth Rollins’ story, just not the story we expected him to tell. We thought we were getting a hero, but Seth Rollins, is the villain. For what he’s done, there’s nothing else to call him. Still, he is the writer of his own story, and nothing — not John Cena, not Brock Lesnar, not WWE.com deadlines — will contain what he does next. He writes history as he goes and we, with our best-laid plans, are simply trying to keep up.