The Shield were a faction that dominated the decade for the WWE. No three wrestlers in ring or out would embody the WWE experience of the decade more than Dean Ambrose, Seth Rollins and Roman Reigns.
From the glass ceiling shattering debut, meteoric rise up through the midcad and genre bending athletic matches that blended indy styling with sports entertainment storytelling, to the mistimed pushes and audience backlash. Between these three brothers is writ a story inside and outside the ring of what it was to be a wrestler in the WWE this decade.
“I’ve been sitting down here stewing, waiting to get the call up. I get it the office is afraid, the superstars are afraid, fear is an injustice, an injustice we have started to rectify”
Seth Rollins – 2012
When The Shield debuted on the main roster in 2012 they struck like a bolt of lightning. Ryback, Kane and Daniel Bryan would fall in their first match and soon they would carve through the WWE locker room like a hot knife through butter. No one was sacred, it didn’t matter if you were John Cena, the top guy on the roster, the most dominant faction of the past decade, Evolution or the most revered wrestler in modern lore The Undertaker, Dean Ambrose, Roman Reigns and Seth Rollins would systematically target you, isolate you and take you down.
The trio separated themselves from the rest of the WWE Universe, entering through the crowd wearing black combat fatigues, they swore allegiance to no one and in grainy, shaky backstage videos they shot themselves on a handheld camera spoke in riddles of justice and ambition.
In a decade that had already seen other factions like The Nexus or The Straight Edge Society promising lots but failing to make a lasting impact, the merciless destruction of the idols of past and present would truly set The Hounds of Justice apart from anyone else that had come before them. Despite the WWE pulling every trick in the book to keep them heels, eventfully the fresh feel they brought to the WWE would have the crowd right behind the three fast rising rookies. All of it peaked in an incredible stretch of matches at the start of 2014 where the crowd would beg for Roman Reigns to upend Dave Batista at the Royal Rumble and the faction would explode as faces, facing off against first The Wyatt Family and then Evolution in some of the best six man matches ever wrestled.
Backstage the trio would also represent a new dawn for the WWE, the beginnings of a new recruitment strategy that would see the focus moved from the body builders of the early to mid 2000s that the WWE would find and train from scratch, to the focus on recruiting already established talent from the American indy scene to be used as their top talent. While CM Punk and Daniel Bryan were the forerunners of this strategy, the rise of Seth Rollins and Dean Ambrose from exciting underground prospects, through FCW/NXT and onto the main roster paved a road that the WWE would turn into a four lane highway by the end of the decade.
“Seth Rollins crossed me, he’s my brother but I can’t live with myself until I set this right”.
Dean Ambrose – 2014
This is a wrestling story though and boy did The Shield tell a great one. For me it was the long term story arcs of the trio that originally drew me to them. In The Shield you had three defined characters, Seth Rollins, the athletic brains of the outfit, Dean Ambrose, the wild heart and Roman Reigns the stoic brawn. All three men devoted to the brotherhood and their mission to rise to the pinnacle of the pro wrestling business.
However after the trio reached the pinnacle of their careers in June 2014, having clean swept Evolution in an Elimination Tag Match at the PPV Payback the original architect of the faction, Seth Rollins, would turn his back on their brotherhood. With the swing of a chair into the back of his brothers, Seth would let his ambition trump his better self as he sold out to Triple H and The Authority for the chance to be the face of the company.
It was a schism that would come to define so much about the characters of Dean Ambrose and Seth Rollins and also have a profound effect on the career trajectory of Roman Reigns.
Dean, a man who grew up as a loner and finally found something to believe in with The Shield would pursue the betrayer relentlessly. The pair would throw each other off ladders at Money In The Bank, wade through a human cage of lumberjacks at Summer Slam and even the fires of a Hell In A Cell in the first PPV main event of the decade exclusively between two wrestlers who debuted this decade, could not quench Dean’s thirst for revenge . After Rollins had risen to the very top of the company, cashing in his Money In The Bank contract at Wresltmania 31, Dean would be there waiting to remind him of his past sins as one of the first challengers for Seth’s new title.
Ambrose and Rollins in particular possessed the kind of in ring chemistry that evoked memories of pairings like Bret Hart and Shawn Michaels. Those who had seen their FCW matches knew how good they were together but once unleashed on the main roster the pair tore their way up the midcard in 2014 and completed a trio of championship matches in 2015 that rank amongst the best WWE Championship matches of the decade.
As the months went on Seth kept winning but as his psyche wore thin he would surround himself with more and more lackeys and demand even greater representations of his own ego. Soon a WWE Championship alone would not satisfy his hunger for success, he needed a celebration of his championship, he needed to be the US and WWE Champion at the same time, he needed a statue made in his honour. Like rubber band being stretched and stretched eventually he would break. His knee would give way while the company was on tour in Europe, buckling under the weight of his own ego and sense of self importance as much as Roman Reigns weight.
When Seth finally returned a year later and won back the championship he had sold himself for, who was there to cash in and win their first WWE Championship? In a moment of perfect narrative symmetry Dean Ambrose would complete his own rise to the top of the company by beating Seth Rollins to win the WWE Championship and in the process become the first Grand Slam Champion of the current generation of wrestlers.
A year later the pair would run into each other again, having both gone on their own journeys. After losing the championship Rollins was forced to finally confront his worst self, confront his ego, his addiction to success and face Triple H, the drug dealer who had fed him the poison that left him broken and ruined. At Wrestlemania 33 Seth would channel the skills and power of will that made him so successful to beat Triple H and symbolically reclaim the soul he had sold to The Authority three years before.
For his part, after winning the WWE Championship Dean Ambrose became the top draft pick for Smackdown in the 2016 brand split. Alongside AJ Styles he would build the historically neglected blue brand up to rival Raw, the WWE’s traditional flagship show. In the ring though, time and time again this lone wolf would fall prey to Styles cheapshots or get betrayed by yet another guy he allied himself with in James Ellsworth and then succumb to the numbers game employed by The Miz when the pair squared off for the Intercontinental Title. Despite surviving by himself for three years it was clear what Ambrose needed was a brother to watch his back.
“I’m sorry, I never said that before so I’ll say it again, I’m sorry alright. But you think I forgot about that, I lived with that every single day of my life… But that is all in the past, I’ve moved on, what is it gona take for you to move on.”
Seth Rollins – 2017
It is a testament to the work of Seth Rollins and Dean Ambrose that a simple fist bump could come to mean so much. How is it that such a small hand gesture could hold such weight that arguably one of the biggest pops of 2017 would accompany these two wrestlers placing their clenched fists side by side for the first time in three years?
The answer is context. For four summers straight this story of Dean Ambrose and Seth Rollins would grow and evolve, from brothers, through betrayal, to rivals, to revenge and then in 2017 these two men with so much history stood across the ring from one another trying to work things out. Deep down they never stopped being brothers but just like any relationship burdened with the weight of misdeeds neither could fully trust the other.
The ongoing weeks of would reveal a deeply conflicted Dean Ambrose who probably never stopped loving Rollins as a brother but felt entitled to a grudge no matter what. Ambrose would launch himself into battle for Rollins but then reject Seth’s pleas for forgiveness. For his part Rollins would remain contrite, apologising to his brother outright and emotionally presenting Ambrose with a chance to reenact on him, the famous chair shot that split them up so long ago. In that moment Ambrose face was utterly torn as he chose between being the better man he knew he was or taking out all the pain that had built up inside him.
A relationship that was created and destroyed in battle was not one that would be healed with just words, neither man wanted to admit how much they needed the other and neither would match the other when given the chance to open up. What Rollins and Ambrose needed to sort it out was a fight and the tag team champions Sheamus and Cesaro would prove the adversaries they needed to finally get on the same page.
On the final Raw before Summer Slam Dean Ambrose and Seth Rollins would first argue with each other, then fight each other, then finally unite to fight back after being beat down one too many times by the tag champs. After everything that had been said, after three years of dragging each other through hell, the duo would clear the ring together and finally put bump their fists in a sign of solidarity.
It was a fitting finale to one of the greatest long term story arcs the WWE has ever written. Two brothers, reunited and reborn. The reunion would take Seth Rollins game, in particular, to yet another level. Now the man who had fallen to his worst instincts and destroyed a brotherhood for his own selfish ambition was whole again, he was ready to climb back to the top of the company.
“I’m not a bad guy, I’m not a good guy. I’m the guy.”
There was a third brother though. A man whose path as a singles wrestler through the middle of the decade did not go anywhere near as smoothly.
Roman Reigns was always different to Seth Rollins and Dean Ambrose. Where those two came from the American indy circuit, Reigns was a product of the WWE pipeline, while he did grow up in the business, the son of Sika Anoa’i, part of the famed Anoa’i wrestling family, he came to wrestling after failing to secure a roster position in the NFL. When The Shield debuted Seth and Dean only needed to put the final touches on their skills whereas Roman was still very much learning on the job and as they developed as a unit Seth and Dean would usually do the leg work in their matches, leaving Roman to put on the high impact exclamation mark at the end.
Coming out of The Shield he was also clearly the guy that both the office and fans had earmarked for the main event, he had the look the WWE always craved in their top guys, he was a company made commodity through and through and he favoured the big power moves typical of the WWE main event scene. At least initially fans were also onboard with Roman being given the proverbial rocket to the top. In the final months of The Shield he had generated huge pops when left to hit hard and fast at the end of their matches particularly against They Wyatts and Evolution. However after a brief run in the main event scene an injury in September halted his rise up the card and the Roman Reigns train started to come off the rails.
Upon returning in December he was handed the Slammy Award for ‘Wrestler of the Year’ and then at the Royal Rumble became the 2015 iteration of ‘The Guy Who Isn’t Daniel Bryan’. The Philadelphia crowd decided everything was coming too quickly and easily for Reigns and booed him mercilessly. This was despite him being booked in the match as an underdog hero and completing the night wtih an endorsement from The Rock.
To put it simply the crowd wanted Daniel Bryan and wanted the WWE to know. In 2014 the booing worked and with the support of the crowd, Daniel Bryan was given his spot in the main event of Wrestlemania, it wasn’t to be this year though. The WWE would persevere with the Wrestlemania main event between Reigns and Brock Lesnar, a match designed to certify Reigns as the top guy of the company, right until at the last moment when they pulled out the rug from underneath him, handing Seth Rollins the championship with a last minute Money In The Bank cash in.
This would set a precedent for Reigns, he would be set up by the company to be an all conquering hero and the crowd would reject him. It was a formula that John Cena made work but instead of realising Cena was probably the only wrestler that could have ever made it work, the WWE refused to relent, refused to tinker with Reigns character and plowed onwards. By his win in the main event of Wrestlemania 32 against Triple H it didn’t matter what Reigns did, the crowd was against this iteration of Roman Reigns, the WWE was refusing to change him and that was just how it was going to be.
The problem this created though was that because the crowd refused to accept Reigns as the face of the company and the WWE was so steadfast in pushing him as that, the WWE got stuck in a pattern of constantly having to coronate Reigns to justify him as their top guy. There are only so many hugely historical events to hand out so it ended up coming at the expense of any other wrestler ever truly getting a shot. Wrestlers like Braun Strowman, Samoa Joe, Finn Balor, Kevin Ownes and even Seth Rollins and Dean Ambrose were held back from getting their chance as on the biggest stages because for years those historic moments were constantly being saved for Roman Reigns in the blind hope he might finally earn a cheer.
Then to cap it off, once they gave Reigns these supposedly ‘historic’ moments such as ‘destroying The Authority’ at Wrestlemania 32 or ‘retiring The Undertaker’ at Wrestlemania 33, the WWE went and undid them, robbing them of any real significance. The pinnacle of this insanity came in yet another Mania Main Event at Wrestlemania 34 where Reigns was finally set to beat Brock Lesnar. At the time The Beast had reigned over the main event for years, beating everyone and was supposedly being saved for Reigns, then just as the WWE were ready to finally pass the torch, they changed it at the last second and let Lesnar win so the pair could have a match in Saudi Arabia.
The mishandling of Roman Reigns career by the WWE has to rank as one of their greatest creative failures of this decade. The end result of the project was a wrestler who the majority of the crowd disliked, who the WWE had failed to truly make a star on the level they wanted and the collateral damage was a generation of other wrestlers who had also missed their moments to transcend to the pinnacle of the industry.
All of this was grossly unfair on the man himself who did everything he could trying to get over lackluster material he was forced to read out on the mic and who busted his arse in the ring, all while getting little to no recognition for it.
“We are the three work horses who run this business and you can believe that.”
Roman Reigns – 2018
By the end of the decade though, despite the character journeys and backstage creative issues each man had to overcome, the trio together clambered to the top of the mountain and found one another there, fulfilling the mission they set out to accomplish when they debuted in 2012.
Money In The Bank 2016 would hold special distinction in their legacy where within a few minutes all three men would hold the most important title in the company, the WWE Championship. Beyond that Roman Reigns would eventually beat Brock Lesnar and claim the Universal Championship. Likewise Seth Rollins would receive critical acclaim for his 2018 run as Intercontinental Championship and leverage the popularity to take his shot as the Universal Champion and the face of the company in 2019.
Even the least heralded member of the faction Dean Ambrose won a Grand Slam champion, co-piloted the rise of Smackdown in 2016 and was a constant presence in the upper mid-card or main event scene after the The Shield split in 2014. When he eventually left the WWE in 2019 there was absolutely no one hotter in wrestling than Ambrose alter ego Jon Moxley. Even under a different name and wrestling for different companies, he was still hunting down the same objectives The Shield set themselves when they debuted in 2012.
Rarely does the WWE reward its long term viewers, often it feels like they run their shows as much to spite their most loyal fans as to entertain them. Too often long term storylines are tossed aside and the idea of character development is one segment where a wrestler suddenly does an about face with his character and tries to justify it before doing the same thing again six months down the line. However there have been some cases where the WWE has been able to construct the kind of long term storytelling and character development that draws people into prestige drama shows like Breaking Bad, Game of Thrones or The Sopranos. The Shield is one of them.
Across the span of the decade Seth Rollins, Roman Reigns and Dean Ambrose were able to tell a sprawling tale of three very different characters rising through the ranks of the biggest wrestling company in the world, fighting with one another, reuniting and coming to dominate professional wrestling.
There are other factions that held more gold, others that reigned at during more acclaimed periods of wrestling but no other faction in the history of wrestling have told a story like The Shield.
Thanks for joining me for this week’s edition of Stories That Defined A Decade, make sure you check back over the coming weeks as I explore more stories that shaped pro wrestling this decade. I’d love to hear what you thought on the rise of The Shield in the comments below or on Twitter @Sir_Samuel. You can also find links to the other pieces I’ve written in the series below.