Tuesday, February 20, 2018

Play To Your Roster's Strengths: On Seth Rollins' Star Turn

Rollins shone because he dictated his path, not management
Photo Credit: WWE.com
RAW has opened with a 20 minute promo so many times in its history, one can be forgiven if they watched last night, got nearly two-thirds of the way through the telecast before the first match ended, and were flabbergasted at the dedication served to an actual in-ring product that wasn't truncated, formulaic for television, or unimportant. Sure, the premise of it was, in a word, stupid if you didn't immerse yourself in the experience. Six days out from Elimination Chamber and putting all seven competitors in a grueling marathon match for zero stakes felt like the most Vince McMahon-as-demented-autocrat decision ever. However, Seth Rollins and Roman Reigns from the beginning set the scene in a way that it demanded your attention to forget about the lack of tangible stakes outside of the classic "winner's purse" ploys that old school color commentators would dangle as a reason.

The first two falls of the match set such a steep tone for the night, not just because Rollins was going up against the present (Reigns) and the near past (John Cena). Chris Jericho did the same thing one snowy December night against Steve Austin and The Rock, and to this day, no matter how many times Michael Cole reminds the audience at home of this feat, it felt as if it had little to do with the mythmaking behind Jericho, not nearly as much as the 1,004 moves, the conspiracy victimhood, his confrontation with The Rock on his WWE debut, and even his cut-painfully-short star turn with [REDACTED] against Austin and Triple H earlier that year did to that point. I don't know if it was Attitude Era spillover in match layout or McMahon's obsession with fitting any heel shorter than he is into a prefab box that may or may not fit the person or just the fact that it all happened during one of the dreariest times on the WWE calendar, but it feels like an event that doesn't feel like the magnitude matches up with the hype.

Rollins made his two wins over Reigns and Cena work because he was left to cook in a role he's been meant to play since getting to the main roster. While The Shield wasn't necessarily a heroic outfit until later on in its first run, Rollins showed flashes of what would make him a huge sympathetic star with his propensity to either bump or do offense from ridiculous heights. To wit, the debut match at TLC '12, when Rollins dropped himself off the ladder staging near the top of entrance ramp to distract Ryback away from the ring and allow Reigns to get the fall on Daniel Bryan, it wasn't just manifestation of brilliant strategy that would mark the trio's in-ring oeuvre during that first run. It was foreshadowing to how Rollins could be one of the top guys in the biggest wrestling company in the world.

That's why turning him heel and not Reigns or even Dean Ambrose (extremely Ron Howard narrator voice — it should have been Reigns) was asinine. Every fiber of his being was geared towards being the best possible version of Jeff Hardy. Yet, someone in the front office or creative, might have been McMahon, might have been Paul Levesque, who knows, decided to try and stuff him into another prefab box he didn't quite fit into. They had him work as a methodical heel with tons of promo time, and honestly, while I know that run has its fans, it felt like an utter failure that was mercifully put out of its misery when Rollins unfortunately injured his knee in the fall of 2015.

Since coming back, Rollins has been trying to find his voice again, both in the ring and as a character, but it wasn't really until last night when he spoke loudest not with a microphone in his hand, but in his body language and with his moves and countermoves against Reigns and especially Cena. Cena was so effective in helping get bring out the best in Rollins because he's been in that position before, subtly working as a domineering heel regardless of macroalignment in front of a crowd that wanted to boo him against the hardcore-fan favorite with a few opponents, most notably CM Punk.

But it wasn't just his opponents doing heavy lifting. You could feel the pathos radiating from your screen as Rollins flailed with what seemed to be the last of his gastank before breaking out an even more impossible counter, each time escalating and escalating until he truly had nothing left succumbing to Elias over an hour after the match began. It was the kind of run that would get a documentary made for it if its equivalent happened in a real sport, and who knows, maybe in ten years, it'll warrant a 30 for 30 on ESPN in advance of a huge WrestleMania main event where Rollins tangles with Ambrose or Reigns or who knows, maybe even Kenny Omega or some far out shit that I can't even see.

When a wrestler is good, it's hard to fully repress their talents. Again, Rollins' run as a top heel had its fans. However, most of the time, when a talented worker has a lackluster run, no matter how much their natural abilities shine through, it'll make for tough viewing. Smackdown right now has that problem with Sami Zayn and Kevin Owens. However, the inverse is almost always true too, that a marginal talent can be made fun or worthwhile to watch by amplifying their strengths. Extreme Championship Wrestling was brilliant because it was a promotion founded on those principles. The most, pardon the pun, extreme example was how it presented Sid for the short time he was in the company's employ. He would run in, powerbomb someone, and leave. Basically, it was everything that Sid did well (outside of cutting incomprehensible promos) in one small package that left a positive imprint on the program, no matter how god-awful he was otherwise.

So what happens when a company plays to a good wrestler's strengths? That's when you get an all-time talent on a memorable run. WWE started Rollins on that path last night, and if he fulfills his promise and becomes the dude everyone thought he could be, whether they saw it at TLC '12, in NXT/Florida Championship Wrestling, in Ring of Honor, or in the dirt Iowa/Chicagoland shindies he got his start in, it'll be because the managers finally got it through their heads that most of the time, the wrestler will tell them where they need to go, not the other way around. You know what happens when the other way around happens? You fucking get Chilly McFreeze in manifest. Don't ever tell me Vince McMahon is a genius again.