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Posted in: Just Business
Just Business presents #102: Chapter 9.1 ~ The Shield: Forerunners of a Generation
By Samuel 'Plan
Aug 9, 2017 - 10:33:41 PM

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Just Business presents #102: Chapter 9.1 ~ The Shield: Forerunners of a Generation

We have become so accustomed to seeing the three Shield alumni in the main event scene in WWE that it is easy to forget their rise to the top only happened fairly recently. The moment I defined the timeframe this series was going to look at – Summerslam 2014 to WrestleMania 33 – I knew that the rise of the Shield as singles stars was going to be one of the most pertinent issues to account for.

It is in tracing back the history of how the Shield became main event singles stars that we find the best example of the fast pace with which change has occurred in WWE these last three years. Many have forgotten the lack of certainty surrounding which match would main event Hell in a Cell 2014 heading into the pay-per-view because, today, we wouldn’t think it would be anything other than Seth Rollins vs. Dean Ambrose. At the time, however, even as relatively recently as it might have been, it was far from a sure fire thing; not least of all because they opposed WWE’s manufactured Cena / Orton feud.

But main event that show they did, in an indication that their ascent was more than just a temporary measure, or a changing of the guard. Instead, it was a fundamental change in WWE’s roster positioning that many had been waiting a very long time to see happen. For only a year or two before Seth Rollins and Dean Ambrose closed out a pay-per-view for the first time, any fans would have thought it perfectly unreasonable to suggest Cena and Orton wouldn’t, were they featured on the card as a match.

The Reality Era had only just hit its maturation point at WrestleMania XXX by the time the three Shield alumni began their solo stints. That timing is vitally important. CM Punk – the man responsible for incepting the Reality Era to begin with – had walked from the company and was not coming back. Daniel Bryan – the poster-boy for the Reality Era who shattered the ceiling Punk had cracked – was injured and out for a prolonged period of time. Brock Lesnar – the third major wheel of Reality – continued on his part-time schedule. This left a vacuum, and that vacuum was quickly filled by Seth Rollins, Dean Ambrose and Roman Reigns.

Those three men I once thought of as being the “men of the Reality Era,” but I was wrong. They were simply its beneficiaries. It was never their Era to define, but from it they emerged as something perhaps more important: the forerunners of what came next.

The most beautiful thing about the three of them jostling their way to the position of tomorrow’s locker room leaders is that, though elements were of course manufactured by the company, their rise felt irresistible all the same. One simply has to look at what they have accomplished in the ring – together, opposite each other and individually – to realise how inevitable it was they would be the top three stars of the next Era. Indeed, through inspecting those in ring accomplishments we are now, with some historical distance, able to identify the details of WWE’s gradual transition away from the increasingly stale characters of Cena and Orton et al and towards the refreshing, forward thinking likes of Rollins, Ambrose and Reigns.

Taking a chronological approach in order to reveal the details of that transition, we might start the very night after Rollins and Ambrose redefined a genre at Summerslam 2014. Seth Rollins vs. Dean Ambrose in a Falls Count Anywhere Match would main event the 18/08/14 edition of Monday Night Raw (MNR) the night after. Main events on Raw change all the time of course, but what’s important to account for here is what else happened at Summerslam that year.

John Cena got squashed by Brock Lesnar. It was the second most shocking turn of events that calendar year, following on from the ending of the Undertaker’s undefeated Streak, and it had the world of wrestling talking. Moreover, it was the single most shocking turn of events in the career of John Cena, and a daring creative move many believed WWE was no longer capable of. Two, even three years before, there is little doubt in my mind that the following edition of Monday Night Raw would have made such a monumental occurrence front and centre of the episode; would probably have found a way to slot it in as the closing segment.

But in 2014, rather than give the show closing spot to Cena in the wake of the most shocking turn of events of his career, they gave it instead to Rollins and Ambrose. Priorities, it seemed, were starting to shift in the company, and the opportunity, in true Shield fashion, was hardly wasted. What resulted was an exhaustive, immersive match in receipt of all the (well-earned) treatment of a “main event bout,” including a long enough run time to over-achieve, a shocking plot twist of a conclusion and plentiful shenanigans to help set the stage for a major return encounter in the coming months.

Make no mistake, none of this was a fluke. It was an indicator of an emergent trend. With Roman Reigns going down to injury, Dean Ambrose was brought back at Night of Champions the following month and the build toward the first Shield-only pay-per-view main event began; and it began in equally impressive measure as the Falls Count Anywhere Match, thanks to Dean Ambrose vs. John Cena in a No Holds Barred Contract on a Pole Match on the 13/10/14 edition of MNR.

The match itself is something of a non-event; a utility measure to drive the story forward, as opposed to an ends all its own. It is, again, context which matters, and what it signified. The original plan had been for Cena and Ambrose to meet at the pay-per-view to determine “who got to” wrestle Seth Rollins in the main event; imagine a similar scenario two years, even a year earlier and it’s easy to imagine Rollins and Ambrose would have been wrestling for the right to wrestle Cena instead. What’s more, when events got switched around, the urgency with which Ambrose and Cena compete only further feeds into the notion that wrestling Rollins was a major opportunity for them both. In storyline context, it was revenge they wanted, but we cannot ignore the empirical fact.

That empirical fact is that, here, John Cena, who for so long had been “The Guy,” and Randy Orton, who for so long had been “The Nemesis,” were, for the first time, the left-overs; quite literally. Not only does John Cena lose – in an early indicator of the deconstruction of his exceptionalism I explored earlier in this mini-series – but the stipulation of the match mandated that the loser faces Randy Orton. Imagine; Randy Orton, who only the year before had been anointed “The Face of the WWE,” was now a consolation prize for John Cena, the loser.

These small notions might have felt inconsequential at the time, and might still to some, but they are single pieces in a larger puzzle that reveal how, gradually, WWE pivoted to focus on the men the company knew were primed to lead the locker room of the next Era of their modern history.

Mere weeks later, the clearest sign yet would be offered by WWE that this was the case, when Seth Rollins vs. Dean Ambrose in a Hell in a Cell Match closed out the Hell in a Cell 2014 pay-per-view, while Cena and Orton’s own less imaginative effort was sat in the middle of the card. Though it was Cena and Orton wrestling for a World title opportunity that night – a sign that this shift was, indeed, a gradual and measured change – Rollins and Ambrose would justify their newly elevated position by compiling a love letter to the Hell in a Cell genre, transforming old into new by lacing their intense encounter with plenty of references and nods to the lineage of the match type, some of which hadn’t been seen for a very long time. As bloodless Hell in a Cell Matches go, you’d struggle to find a finer example.

Though it is difficult to find evidence to support the conclusion that the critical and popular success of Rollins and Ambrose inside the Cell further accelerated the pace with which WWE were prepared to entrust the company’s future to the Shield brethren, what followed was at the very least more of the same.

Seth Rollins vs. Randy Orton on the 3/11/14 edition of MNR was another televised main event for the up and coming Architect that placed Mr Money in the Bank at the heart of the build to a Big Four main event – and he would remain at the heart of that main event as it played out too - ahead of the veteran main event player, Orton. Though the action of this television match favours Orton that little bit more than Rollins, only further evidencing the gradual nature of WWE’s main event shift, the result is nevertheless an on screen endorsement of Seth Rollins and a moment signifying his transition away from being a promise into becoming a reality. As Michael Cole puts it on commentary, “And with that Curb Stomp, the future is now!”

Most telling of all, though, is what happens after the match concludes. Orton is written off of television so that he could return later and set the wheels in motion for both men’s WrestleMania encounter, but how does that occur? A reprise of what Seth Rollins did to Dean Ambrose, that’s how. That might not mean much in isolation, but it is a curious nod towards the creative success with which Rollins and Ambrose feuded that a famous moment of theirs would be the one to be repeated again here.

It was this rise of Seth Rollins through the winter months of 2014 and the beginning of 2015 that really started to show that the company was finally moving towards the stars of tomorrow. He was not alone, of course. It is important to remember that, while Rollins was playing a central role in a story with an ensemble cast, Dean Ambrose was closing out pay-per-views opposite Bray Wyatt. Similarly, once Roman Reigns returned from injury, he was at the heart of events once again, as explored in a previous chapter of this mini-series.

The Road to WrestleMania in 2015 was perhaps inevitably going to be a crossing point for at least two of the three in some manner, then, and indeed it was. In yet further signs of WWE’s embrace of The Shield boys, Reigns’ controversial Royal Rumble win came the same night as Rollins’ close calls in the WWE World Heavyweight Championship Triple Threat Match: at Royal Rumble 2015. And although the two men were already at the top of the roster as ‘Mania season kicked off that year, they would only become increasingly central to storylines through Fastlane and heading into the big event.

What’s important to remember about those WrestleMania months is that, for the first time, Shield members were having run-ins with Daniel Bryan as solo stars. Beginning a process to displace Cena and Orton is one thing, but both of those individuals were legacy players left over from an Era they defined a long time ago. Bryan was a contemporary icon, and one of three men who defined the then current Reality Era. Displacing him was a whole different signifier of change; and, perhaps, a change that came much sooner than many were prepared for. In part, that might explain the controversy surrounding Reigns’ symbolic defeat of Bryan at Fastlane that year in what was, to my mind, nothing short of a torch passing moment; or a torch hijacking, anyway.

Fans were more forgiving towards Seth Rollins, though perhaps that might have been due to the more passive treatment he received. For example, Seth Rollins vs. Daniel Bryan was another Monday Night Raw main event, this time of its 2/2/15 edition, where both men jostled for a match with Reigns to determine who would challenge Brock Lesnar at WrestleMania. With an intelligent focus on Bryan’s recently injured neck, it’s a fiercely competitive match that crucially, Seth Rollins loses.

There are more important details in play, however. JBL is not shy in comparing events to the career-defining events Bryan endured in the build up to WrestleMania XXX. WWE present this fight for the Fastlane main event as equal to Daniel Bryan having to defeat three quarters of Evolution in 2014 to get to the WWE World Heavyweight Championship. That’s pretty telling of how high Rollins and Reigns specifically had climbed in the company’s estimation. What’s more, here the conclusion is defined not as Daniel Bryan overcoming the odds, but as Roman Reigns spoiling Seth Rollins’ plans. These finer details place the Shield alumni at the heart of the bout’s story ahead of the Reality Era poster boy, and that’s quite something. It seemed the transition of creative attention towards the Hounds of Justice was almost complete.

Roman Reigns vs. Brock Lesnar (vs. Seth Rollins) at WrestleMania 31 was the climax of that transition. It is a powerhouse piece of work, pitched perfectly, executed flawlessly, telling a timeless story and possessed of a shocking, iconic and inevitably legendary swerve ending. Most important of all, though the long predicted coronation of Roman Reigns didn’t happen, The Shield were nonetheless crowned the new main event scene of WWE as Brock Lesnar, a man presented so undeniably as the central gear of WWE’s entire fictional universe throughout 2014, was pushed back into second place at the hands of the Hounds of Justice.

John Cena and Randy Orton had become special attractions. CM Punk had departed. Daniel Bryan had been defeated. Now, Brock Lesnar had fallen into second place. Meanwhile, The Shield had come to close out pay-per-views, win in cornerstone moments of the year and, most importantly of all, in at least one case, proclaim themselves WWE World Heavyweight Champion. Halfway through 2015, WWE felt like a different company to what it had felt like the year before. Watching shows back, that feeling is even more pertinent now. There is no doubt a transition was happening in 2014 - 2015, and there is no doubt the Hounds of Justice were at the forefront of it. They were no longer upstarts intruding into a main event scene they wanted to be a part of. They were the main event scene.

Seth Rollins vs. Roman Reigns vs. Dean Ambrose vs. Randy Orton at Payback 2015 should provide all the proof needed. In a match structured as the reverse of the Fatal 4 Way that occurred almost a year earlier at Battleground 2014, this time it was the man who wasn’t a part of the Shield who stood as the odd one out, rather than the man was. The moment the bout first breaks convention and moves away from a 1 vs. 1 rotation, it harkens back to the history of the Shield, as Rollins is double-teamed by Reigns and Ambrose. It’s the first time Reigns and Ambrose are presented in terms of confrontation, rather than friendship. The biggest moment of the match is undoubtedly when Orton falls victim to a passing, momentary Shield reunion, and from that point on the entire affair reaches another level by transforming into a chaotic, frenetic madhouse.

For the first time, the WWE World Heavyweight Championship scene was unfailingly the Shield’s turf. Randy Orton was just a tourist.

Where the likes of Bray Wyatt struggled over this same timeframe with inconsistent writing from WWE, and the likes of Dolph Ziggler just couldn’t seem to gain any traction, The Shield were succeeding at a frighteningly consistent rate, edging slowly further and further towards the top spots they were never shy about desiring until;, finally, they achieved what they wanted; they were the main event of WWE. Though it was Punk and Bryan who might have shattered the glass ceiling for the roster, it was the Shield who took advantage, revealing themselves as the forerunners of the generation they were destined to lead.

Lead it they did, as I will be turning to in the next instalment of this chapter. Until then, be sure to share your own thoughts on this issue in the comments below or over on social media! How do you feel about the Shield? Were they beneficiaries of being in the right place at the right time, or did they forge their own success? Let me know!

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