”The Doc” Chad Matthews has been a featured writer for LOP since 2004. Initially offering detailed recaps and reviews for WWE’s top programs, he transitioned to writing columns in 2010. In addition to his discussion-provoking current event pieces, he has written many acclaimed series about WrestleMania, as well as a popular short story chronicle. The Doc has also penned a book, The WrestleMania Era: The Book of Sports Entertainment, published in 2013. It has been called “the best wrestling book I have ever read” and holds a worldwide 5-star rating on Amazon, where it peaked at #3 on the wrestling charts.
QUESTION OF THE DAY: True or false – The Shield members are the leaders of this generation in WWE
Inevitable, change is and always will be; and, as in life, change is one of the great constants of professional wrestling. Five years ago, few would have predicted that WWE’s roster would be heavily populated by talents who made their names initially on the independent scene, but WWE altered its talent recruitment strategy after a successful few individuals showed them the error in their previous ways of trying to turn random meatheads at the gym into the next big things in sports entertainment; five years before that, few would have predicted that the only stars on WWE’s active roster anywhere near as vital to the week-to-week product as John Cena would be CM Punk and Ring of Honor’s Bryan Danielson, but a series of events occurred in combination with a shift in what the diehard audience wanted and it sparked immense success for the former so-termed “indie darlings” in an environment not previously kind to their brands or styles. Things changed…
The members of The Shield – Dean Ambrose, Roman Reigns, and Seth Rollins – have been at the forefront of the most recent period of change in WWE. Their ascent helped off-set Punk’s abrupt departure and Daniel Bryan’s unfortunately-timed injury woes, The Architect’s chair shots during his heel turn to join the Triple H-led Authority blasting the so-termed “New Era” into existence, essentially. It was as if the execution of Seth’s turncoat moment served as the launching point off of which all three Hounds of Justice, though fractured on-screen, quickly smashed through the glass ceiling together. A year later, the Reality Era was basically over, Bryan’s cathartic WrestleMania XXX proving the end of the period after just a few years; and The Shield brought the sword that cut off at the pass any inkling that WWE might have had about plunging back into its pre-Reality reliance on the OVW Class of 2002.
Through consistent booking as he integrated himself into and solidified himself as the focal point of the decade’s most evil faction and, later, through a series of amazing performances that prompted the nickname, “The Evolutionary Shawn Michaels” from yours truly, Rollins really was “The Man” until his knee caved under the weight of carrying the company for a year and a half in 2014 and 2015. Ambrose began his career peak right in the middle of Seth’s WWE Title reign, confirming himself as a generational rival for no less than three of his top modern peers and generally demonstrating his strengths as the Swiss Army knife of WWE, capable of doing anything needed at any place on the card and doing it all very well. Reigns has been the steady riser of the group, with immense highs (three straight WrestleMania main-events) and noteworthy lows (outright fan rejection, a wellness violation that cut short his only real run with the WWE Title, creative inconsistency) averaging out to a comfortable lead over his contemporaries with twenty PPV headlining bouts, an ever-improving reputation as an in-ring performer, and an elite status as the face of WWE when the brand overall is pulling in record revenue.
Their self-expressed desire to “take over the business” manifested into the trio becoming the foundation upon which the WWE product has been built for much of the past four years; and, when you look at The Shield today and re-check that their ages are all between 31 and 32 years old, it is difficult not to envision that they will one day be thought of – good, bad or otherwise – comparably to the Cena, Lesnar, Batista, Orton foursome, which stimulated WWE’s transition fully out of the Attitude Era. Remembering that their achievements reaffirmed the long-term viability of the movement toward signing diverse talents from various wrestling backgrounds for which Punk and Daniel Bryan were most closely associated and that their success provided a considerable return on WWE’s investment in Triple H as the head of talent development, allowing The Game to further obliterate the silly restrictions that Vince McMahon had placed on prospect acquisition for most of the 2000s, Rollins, Ambrose, and Reigns are going to be working with a far greater pool of much better talent than three-quarters of the famed OVW class got to work with in the latter half of the 2000s; so, it is plausible that we may actually regard The Hounds more like we do the 1995/1996 WWF class featuring Hunter, Austin, The Rock, and Mick Foley on account of more impressive bodies of work built during a more heralded era.
More justice needs to be served to maximize their potential; there is still big-picture business that they need to take over. Today, they collectively stand on the front line of a philosophical war between WWE’s past, present, and future. The WWE Network’s nostalgic flair has spilled deeply into the modern approach to the way WWE thinks about its product, evidenced most notably by heavy dependence upon part-time stars from yesteryear to sell its self-proclaimed most important events.
The part-timer problem’s emergence during the same period when The Shield has risen to prominence as individual headliners conjures confusion in some fans, who perceive the proliferation of fifty year olds wrestling numerous matches every year at peak periods to be a continuation of the unrelenting slight toward them that so many talents from the lost generations endured. Rollins, Reigns, and Ambrose, though, should never be mistaken as Carlito, Mr. Kennedy, Bobby Lashley, Dolph Ziggler, John Morrison, Wade Barrett, Cody Rhodes, or Ryback; there is only one word to describe those guys by comparison to The Shield and nobody should need to spell it out for you.
From their earliest days on the roster, they forged the kinds of strong backstage relationships with Vince that the boss has gone on record as saying he misses about the superstar generations of old. It may have gotten them in hot water occasionally, especially in their rookie year, but it also allowed them to blow by wrestlers like Barrett, who has at least never acknowledged any sort of zealous argument with Vince over the Summerslam main-event result that killed his main-event career before it could ever get started or like Ziggler, who a decade into his WWE tenure could honestly only say, “It’s getting a little bit better,” when asked about his rapport with the Chairman. When dumb decisions were being made that could have derailed The Shield’s momentum, they gave McMahon an ear full of sound reasoning for why he needed to change his tune; not an ounce of trepidation did they show in standing up for themselves.
Rollins, Ambrose, and Reigns have verified themselves to be hungry like the wolves that Punk and Bryan proved to be, similarly drawing a bold, distinct line in the sand that separates them from less driven wrestlers who never quite made it as far as they possibly could have. Of the many subsequent benefits of winning over Vince McMahon in the process, tops on the list for The Hounds have been their indisputable positions on the WWE’s hierarchical ladder and runs of success thereof not seen on equal levels across such a long stretch since the OVW Class of ’02 first hit it big. So, it is one of the great conundrums of the decade that the trio could have been so successful and yet not have been able to kick WWE’s increasingly worsening habit of focusing every Showcase of the Immortals on talents whose career peaks were no less than a decade ago. Given their longevity and their prosperity, though, The Shield are best equipped to relieve the retirement home of its duties in restocking the yearly special attraction portion of WrestleMania Season, plus finally give the McMahons reason enough to feel they can cut themselves loose of the obscenely over-priced Lesnar contract.
While they spearhead the effort to move the part-timer brigade back to the sparingly utilized complimentary roles that they played before WWE became obsessed with the “Then is Now…Forever” mentality, The Shield will be fighting a war on another front too. Rising tides lift all ships, and their internal competition to see which one of them could get to the top and stay at the top fastest has been the catalyst for the influx of other hungry, purpose-driven stars.
WWE newcomers like Styles, Kevin Owens, Finn Balor, Shinsuke Nakamura, Braun Strowman, and Samoa Joe, the revolutionaries from the women’s division, and even veterans from the lost generation desperate to improve their historical standing like The Miz have been galvanized by The Shield’s modern standard-bearing success. The Phenomenal One stole Ambrose’s thunder in mid-to-late 2016, Balor became the first-ever Universal Champion and Kevin Owens was given the honor of establishing the newly christened title’s reputation at the expense of Rollins, and Strowman used Reigns as his whipping boy in order to set himself on a path of long-term destruction, each instance exemplifying that The Hounds will have to work their tails off to maintain the spots that they remorselessly attained in 2014/2015.
Nevertheless, the bottom line is that, for the foreseeable future, all of their contemporary peers will be playing catch-up to their sports entertainment CVs. Reigns, Rollins, and Ambrose rank first, second, and third, respectively, in pay-per-views headlined since June 2014, each way ahead of any of their contemporaries and even slightly ahead of Brock Lesnar and his basically built-in, “I’m on this show, I’m the main-event” clause; Rollins is a two-time WWE Champion, owner of one of the longest title reigns of the decade, a tag team division revitalizer twice over, a former US Champion, a borderline undisputed consensus MVP of WWE in 2014 and 2015, and the second greatest (at worst) Mr. Money in the Bank in the concept’s nearly fifteen year history; Ambrose is a former WWE Champion, owner of perhaps the most emotionally engaging Money in the Bank cash-in of the decade, the longest reigning US Champion under the WWE umbrella, a renowned gimmick-redefiner, and the best utility headliner (highly impactful top star spot-duty) since Mick Foley; Reigns is a three-time WWE Champion, a Royal Rumble winner, and the most polarizing figure of his generation, which by itself makes him The Guy to whom more column inches and podcast segments have been dedicated in the last half decade than anyone in the entire business.
They are just getting started too. Rollins was thought by some to have had a down 2017, but closer inspection reveals that The Kingslayer actually had a phenomenal year. He has become a masterful storyteller, as cognizant of the little things that make professional wrestling a performance art as anyone since Bret Hart. Instant gratification mindsets might temporarily prevent Rollins from cashing in immediately the goodwill that he has been building since re-injuring his knee last winter, but it will eventually pay-off; remember the lessons taught to us by Bryan, who himself did not blast into the stratosphere of all-time popularity quickly, but whose persona was cultivated gradually until the right spark at the right time lit the fuse that became the Yes! Movement. The sympathy gained from his genuinely relatable injury story leading into WrestleMania 33, the emotion he was able to conjure from the fanbase when furthering his redemption tale by earning Ambrose’s forgiveness, and the role that he played in parlaying the emotional resonance of the Summerslam Shield-ish events into a full-on reunion of all three Hounds this past Autumn have put Rollins on the cusp of an organic top babyface run. There is always a potential return to the dark side on the table, as well.
Ambrose has done everything as a babyface (scrappy underdog, supremely confident brand leader, comedic goofball, etc.) – everything except for truly be given the ball and be allowed to run with it until he got tired. That option could be pursued when he comes back from the injury that ended his highly impressive ironman run, which had him wrestling more matches per calendar than any peer for about four straight years. Of course, the diehard fanbase anxiously awaits The Lunatic Fringe being fully unleashed as an antagonist, as it almost universally accepted that heel Ambrose would own the wrestling world, perhaps equaling or bettering what heel Punk was able to achieve. There ought to be plenty of motivation from which he can draw when he makes that personic shift; he has had an awesome run, but in historical comparisons to other eras regarding roster positioning, Dean is always the Jake the Snake, Razor, or Orton to Roman’s Hogan, Diesel, or Cena and Seth’s Piper, Hart, or Edge. He is the group’s third wheel, but he might be the most talented of the bunch. With such a self-aware generation as theirs, there is no way a wrestler with Ambrose’s scrappy attitude is, in the prime of his career, going to settle for anything less than at least getting the chance to become a Macho Man, Heartbreak Kid, or CM Punk.
Reigns is already a fascinating case study, but his evolution is probably going to end up the story of his era. As much about him defies conventional wisdom as embraces it. In the size and shape melting pot that WWE’s roster has become, a former All-Conference linebacker with a WWE Hall of Fame bloodline, innate intensity to spare, and looks that drive the girls wild may as well have been designed in a genetics lab by scientists on Vince McMahon’s payroll. However, his prototype babyface attributes in the eyes of the Chairman do not jive with his natural charismatic strengths. In wrestling, you can either create an unconventional babyface by making him too bad not to love (see Austin, Steve) or you can create an unconventional heel by making him too good not to hate (see Cena, John). Reigns runs afoul of both principles, as he constantly (often within the same quarter year!) fluctuates between character traits of both heel and babyface, the cocky elite jock who hits the game winner and winks at your girlfriend in August and then the glad-handing, silly joke-telling modern take on the archetypal protagonist by October. One day, whatever we end up calling what WWE has done with Reigns will have its own chapter in the Wrestling 101 textbook because, in some weird way, it has worked out reasonably well for him.
The Big Dog’s case file is so complex that you could a write a book about his singles career to date, but it is highly likely that he has barely scratched the surface of what he will do by the time all is said and done. So vast are the possibilities for the product with Reigns leading the charge as the top heel, creating various artistic takes on the twenty-first century us vs. them arc that Cena made famous against Bryan and Punk; and, even if he wound up a controversial career babyface like Cena, Reigns can manage if WWE flexes its creative muscle and, for instance, books him like its version of Marvel’s Wolverine, who may not be the most overtly charismatic persona of the Marvel Universe, but who is a complicated, brooding badass with a deeply affecting back story.
And so it is that The Shield enters the latter part of this decade as, simultaneously, both hunter and hunted. Perhaps Ambrose can bludgeon Cena within an inch of his life at WrestleMania 35, cementing his status as the most maniacal villain of the era and vaulting into the pantheon of all-time heels while Rollins has his Y2J-HBK of this decade against AJ Styles and Reigns puts Our Olympic Hero’s career out of its misery in another powerful reminder of whose collective yard the WWE ring has become by the spring of 2019. Clearly, their work as agents of change is not yet complete, but once the part-timer problem has been vanquished, their youth suggests that they may end up sticking around long enough to find themselves becoming the vanquished. After all, change is inevitable.