A soap opera for men, ballet for blokes; whatever you want to call it, pro wrestling is unique as a storytelling medium. It blends performance, sport and narrative in a way that no other form of entertainment manages, telling ongoing, sometimes multi-year stories involving multiple characters across a number of weekly shows.
2018 has drawn to a close and as it winds up I want to revisit and reflect on the five in ring-stories that I feel defined pro wrestling throughout the year. It was a roller coaster year of some great highs and low lows but I have chosen to focus on the five wrestling stories that I believe define the year in a positive light.
In case you missed the first two parts to this series you can find them here:
Part 1: Becky Lynch, The Man Comes Around
Part 2: Kenny Omega, If
Part 3: Johnny Gargano Learns To #DIY
Part 4 – AJ Styles, Push The Sky Away
Part 4.5 – Honourable Mentions
Today I’ve saved the best until last and will be looking at the amazing year of Seth Rollins. To help tell his story I have invited the biggest Seth Rollins fan and greatest chronicler of his career that I know, LOP’s Samuel ‘Plan to help, his stuff will have magenta for the first line while mine will have red as tribute to the man we’re talking about. Let’s get started.
If there is one thing I will remember above all things for 2018 it is Seth Rollins year in the sun. From the January Royal Rumble where he played double duty through to December’s TLC where he renewed hostilities with his great rival Dean Ambrose, Seth Rollins has been must watch wrestling. Indeed at points during this year it felt like he was the only wrestler on the WWE’s main roster worth watching.
Just by themselves the stats for his year paint an amazing picture: 191 days as Intercontinental Champion across two reigns, 12 defences against a combination of 10 different opponents, including at Extreme Rules only the second ever PPV Main Event defence of the title, Raw Tag Team Champion for 2 weeks, 65 minutes and the eliminations of Roman Reigns and John Cena in the February Raw Gauntlet Match, at least three genuine match of the year contenders and countless matches of the night on Raw and PPVs.
However even beyond those incredible numbers, one of the most compelling aspects of Seth Rollins year has been how his long term character arc has so seamlessly matched up with these in ring exploits, painting a picture of a man redeemed of past sins at the top of his game in every way. To put it in his own words, a man ‘burning it down’ at every possible opportunity.
There are two things that define Seth Rollins: success and the will to attain it. The former he craves, like an addict. The latter he possesses, in greater degree than any other man or woman inhabiting WWE’s fictional universe. In combination, these traits make Seth Rollins one of the single most dangerous entities in WWE.
From the moment he emerged in Florida Championship Wrestling (FCW) promising to “change everything you think you know about [Seth Rollins], about you and about [this business]” these traits were clear. They propelled him to an FCW Triple Crown, to the inaugural NXT Championship and to the establishment of the infamous Shield of Justice in WWE.
To the power-crazed King of Kings Triple H, these traits proved a revelation when Rollins helped The Shield go for a clean sweep against Evolution in the spring of 2014 and recast the Authority’s iron-clad grasp on power as fragile. So it was, in an act of self-preservation, these same traits Triple H took advantage of – he offered up immeasurable success to Rollins on a silver platter and for two long years The Game deconstructed, down to the soul, the one enemy he had come to fear more than any other.
At first glance 2015 was a very similar year to 2018, Rollins went on a unprecedented run early in the year, picked up a prestigious title at Wrestlemania and had a string of critically acclaimed matches against a variety of different opponents, however once you scratch the surface the two runs could not have been more different for Rollins the human. In 2015 as Rollins year wore on, he slowly lost himself in addiction to the success that was being drip fed to him: WWE Champion, an opportunity to become the first ever dual WWE & US Champion, hell the guy had a statue made in his honour.
Gone was the wide eyed rookie in FCW who fought hard but fair. Gone was the leader who formed The Shield to gain success but would dive headlong into a war for justice within this corrupt world. In this wrestlers place stood a coward who would hide behind ever increasing layers of security and a junkie desperately clinging to his fix until it was ripped away from him by injury.
Events conspired, history played its hand and once he was completely dependant on his new master the day eventually came to stab Seth Rollins in the back, to walk away with a killing blow and leave the Architect alone, bereft of brotherhood, starved of success, broken and inert.
But even a fearful and desperate Cerebral Assassin underestimated the will of Rollins. In an act of impossible regicide on the Grandest Stage of Them All, the Kingslayer opened the gate for the Architect to begin his most ambitious project of all: redesigning, rebuilding and reclaiming the best version of himself that he’d had so inhumanely stripped away from him.
This is the journey Seth Rollins has been on for the last two, even longer years of his life.
Against Triple H, Rollins’ will power transformed him into the one one-legged man who did win an ass-kicking contest, attaining success in slaying his tormenter and emancipating himself from his own personal hell. Against Bray Wyatt, Rollins learned the humility and the value to be found in his will power failing, to successfully weaken the chains of his perceived addiction and allow for his admissions of guilt. Alongside Dean Ambrose, Rollins’ will power drove him to apologise and to offer up self-flagellation as punishment for his transgressions, allowing him to successfully rebuild broken bonds of brotherhood so as to reclaim lost family.
Rollins 2018 could not have happened if he hadn’t put himself back together in 2017. The reconstruction that was completed when he reunited with Dean Ambrose was immediately met with success in the Raw Tag Team division, giving Rollins a taste of the glory he had once let rule his life but this time earnt the right way.
At the start of 2018 Rollins almost seemed nervous to strike out by himself. Wary of his previous failings when he didn’t have his brother by his side he initially clung to the tag team division in a makeshift pairing with Jason Jordan. Finally pushed back into singles competition by an injury to his second partner, it was a 20 minute run in the Royal Rumble with one elimination that would give him the confidence to declare to the world that he was ready to regain his position at the top of Raw.
Confidence restored and his iron will ready to drive him to new heights Rollins immediately made his presence felt with a record run in the Men’s Gauntlet Match, out lasting all but Roman Reigns and Braun Strowman inside the Elimination Chamber and then beating The Miz and Finn Balor to win The Intercontinental Title at Wrestlemania.
With his soul repaired, in 2018 Seth set out to regain the status he once had. But, this time, it was to be done the right way: as the best version of himself he could be and nothing less. Over the months, his will power drove him to achieve amazing and impossible things, and with those has come immeasurable success that not even the Architect, for all his prophetic vision, could have anticipated.
The contrast between the Seth Rollins that held the Intercontinental Title in 2018 and the Seth Rollins that held the WWE Title in 2015 was immense. A man who once made a joke out of an open challenge ‘but only for people under 6ft’ would put his title on the line against all comers night after night. A man who once defied and tore down the admiration of fans began to revel in their love and as the year went on he seemed to grow in stature instead of shrinking away. Even when faced with the heartbreaking loss of his brother Roman Reigns and betrayal of Dean Ambrose, Rollins has been able to keep his himself from despair.
The anger towards Ambrose was palpable immediately after the betrayal but Rollins, who knows better than anyone how easy it is to lose yourself to darkness seems to have chosen not to let himself be drawn into Dean Ambrose mind games. It is a lesson Johnny Gargano may have done well to heed when he went hunting for revenge after a similarly dark betrayal. Seth has instead shown how fully he turned his life around by rising above the hate and bitterness of Ambrose. Even after losing his treasured Intercontinental Title he has been able to move on and focus himself on bigger goals than the pettiness of his former Shield brother.
Despite ending on a bitter note, 2018 was the year Seth Rollins redemption that start in 2017 was fulfilled. With his new outlook he achieved success greater than he ever did before and cemented himself back in the top echelon of the men’s singles division.
Well almost at the top….
There is one piece of Rollins redemption arc left. Seth Rollins never came to the WWE to ‘play a part’, he didn’t form The Shield to rule the midcard and he didn’t betray it to be the go to stop gap guy. He did it all to be number one, to be The Guy in the WWE. He had that title in name alone in 2015 but now he has truly found himself he is ready to take that mantle for real this time.
Standing in his way is the same man that he stole the WWE Title from in The Heist of the Century at Wrestlemania 31, Brock Lesnar. Lesnar is the company’s ultimate yardstick, he barely needs to show up yet his shadow constantly hangs over the entire men’s division. He is The Beast in more than just name, he exudes aggression and is able to treat his challengers like playthings. Only one man from the current generation of wrestlers has been able to best him 1 on 1.
In 2015 Rollins was able to outwit him and managed to escape his wrath but never actually beat him clearly. Instead he hid, made excuses, did everything he could to get away from Lesnar and when forced into a match he escaped with his title but not without clearly being put in his place. He hasn’t come face to face with Lesnar since.
A lot has changed for Rollins since then and now not only is he confident enough in himself that he is actively calling Lesnar out, he has shown the skills and mental fortitude that he needs to beat The Beast. Rollins in ring arsenal is the perfect blend of the power of Roman Reigns, the only man to beat Lesnar recently Roman Reigns power and the speed and agility of AJ Styles and Daniel Bryan, the other two men who have come closest.
The big X-Factor for Rollins though is his iron will. When he has put his mind to it there has never been a thing Seth Rollins hasn’t been able to will his way towards, be it the unprecedented championship reign in 2015, winning an ass kicking contest with only one leg or surviving over an hour in a Gauntlet match while beating Roman Reigns and a fresh John Cena. This mental aspect has been the one thing that has held back Braun Strowman, the man who on multiple occasions looked primed to beat Lesnar.
There is also immense narrative symmetry Rollins him finally beating The Beast he never beat on the same stage he first outwitted him. In 2017 he atoned for his past since and faced his inner demons man to man, becoming the King Slayer in the process. In 2018 with all systems firing he can show that change and the success he gained by embracing his best self by becoming The Beast Slayer.
Paul Heyman likes to think Brock Lesnar is the fiercest entity alive in WWE’s universe. And why wouldn’t he? From myths like John Cena and The Undertaker to giants like Big Show and Braun Strowman, from offensive masterminds like AJ Styles and Daniel Bryan to the evolution of the business in Triple H and Randy Orton, from the Right Hand of Destruction Samoa Joe to even two thirds of The Shield itself, the Beast has conquered them all at one point or another. Nothing has proven infallible at the hands of Brock Lesnar.
Except, perhaps, one man. The man. The only man with a scoresheet that reads he defeated Brock Lesnar for a World Championship and has never been defeated by the Beast in return. It is true, in 2015 Seth Rollins successfully evaded the Beast Incarnate. It is also true that Seth Rollins remains the only man Brock Lesnar has faced since returning to the world of WWE and not yet defeated.
To some – to most, I imagine – and certainly to those possessed of a pragmatic mentality, that will be indicative of little more than the coincidence of circumstance. To others – perhaps only to me – though maybe to those possessed of a fatalistic disposition, that might just indicate something else entirely: a little touch of destiny, waiting to be fulfilled.
History may yet prove that, just as the Beast Incarnate was destined to slay The Undertaker and his Streak, Seth Rollins is destined to slay the Beast in turn. If given the chance, I passionately believe he will. That’s because Paul Heyman is wrong. Brock Lesnar is not the fiercest entity in WWE today. The will-power that created The Shield, that destroyed The Shield and that re-forged The Shield; the will-power that perpetrated the Heist of the Century and got away with it free of repercussion; the will-power that survived the best efforts of the Cerebral Assassin and fuelled the dethroning of the King of Kings on one leg; the will-power that will ensure victory in the 2019 Royal Rumble Match, that will promise a Universal Championship opportunity and that will change the WWE world for the better; the will-power of Seth Rollins, the only man to have faced the Beast and to have survived undefeated, that’s the fiercest entity in WWE today.
And change the world he will. SirSam is right. You slay the Beast, you slay the sin, and Seth Rollins is done being chained to the past – his, WWE’s or anyone else’s. Instead, we will bear witness as the Kingslayer-made-Beastslayer burns it all down to little more than a flickering cinder.
That is all in the future though so for the moment let’s simply bask in the perfect way that in 2018 Seth Rollins story and in ring accomplishments combined to add to one of the most profound and moving character arcs out there. I know that I don’t speak for myself alone when I say how inspiring he is with how he so relentlessly pursues excellence in his work, determined to be a better version of himself every day.
I’ve talked about a number of stories from 2018 but if I had to leave the year with one thing from wrestling it would simply be that from this day forward when I wake up each day I pledge to
Thanks for reading LOP. Let me know in the comments what you thought of Seth Rollins in 2018 and what your favourite story was for the year?
You can also reach me on twitter @Sir_Samuel or you could even write your own retrospective in the LOP Columns Forum where we are always looking for new writers. If you want to register just let me know so I can make sure your registration goes through smoothly (we are currently under siege from Russian bots). You can sign up here.
Thanks for reading this series, it has been a real labour of love for me and I hope you enjoyed it as much as I did. Also thanks to ‘Plan for lending his talents to this piece.