1/20/16 – Andrew Berg – @WrestleRosters
Check out the previous Wrestler of the Year Entries:
2015 Wrestler of the Year – Seth Rollins
Wrestler of the Week – 7, Match of the Week – 6
In 2002, HHH returned from his first surgery for a torn quadriceps in January. He won the Royal Rumble and then the Undisputed Title at Wrestlemania. He dropped the title and won it back a couple of times over the course of the year through rivalries with Hulk Hogan, Chris Jericho, Shawn Michaels, and Kane. In early 2003, he formed Evolution as the leader of the group and mentor to Batista and Randy Orton.
As it was happening, it was not obvious that 2002 was HHH’s coronation as the top wrestler in WWE. At the time, many fans complained about his supposed penchant for backstage politics and the perceived slippage of his wrestling ability after his leg surgery. In hindsight, we can see that Steve Austin, Mick Foley, and The Rock had transitioned out of full time wrestling status while John Cena and Brock Lesnar were still developing. HHH was, without a rival, the top wrestler in WWE in 2002, even if that status was less clear in the moment.
The past year was Seth Rollins’s answer to HHH’s 2002. While Rollins won the Wrestler of the Year award in 2014, he reached an even loftier status within WWE this year. Although the top four finishers on this list all have legitimate claims to the top spot, it was only an injury to Rollins that kept him from running away with the honor like he did a year ago.
Rollins held the Money in the Bank contract at the start of 2015, but he didn’t have to use it right away. The Authority booked him into a triple threat WWE Title match at the Royal Rumble against John Cena and champion Brock Lesnar. As tremendous as Rollins has been since he came to the WWE main roster in late 2012, this match brought him to another level. In my view, it was either the best or second-best wrestling match in the US all year. Rollins stole the show with a Shawn Michaels-esque elbow drop from the top rope through the announce table on Lesnar. It looked like he was going to be the one to finally beat Lesnar with a Phoenix Splash, but he did not get the pin and Lesnar ultimately retained.
Around the same time, Rollins started a fun, inexplicable feud with Daily Show host Jon Stewart. They routinely called each other out on their shows. While it took months for WWE to work Stewart into any sort of a wrestling storyline, the interaction was huge for Rollins’s name recognition and was the first time he ever remotely crossed over into pop culture outside of wrestling.
Back in the ring, Rollins continued a long-simmering rivalry with Randy Orton. Rollins and Orton chafed as teammates in The Authority because neither would cede the top spot among active wrestlers to the other. They wrestled one of the best matches on the Wrestlemania card that ended with a memorable Curb Stomp-into-RKO counter that gave Orton the win. Rollins still came out on top, though, as he interrupted the Lesnar-Roman Reigns main event. While the match was still ongoing, Rollins cashed in his Money in the Bank contract. As the fresh man, Rollins was able to isolate and pin Reigns to win his first WWE Title. The celebratory sign-off that most fans assumed would go to Reigns went to Rollins instead.
Coming out of Wrestlemania, Rollins had to work to keep himself a true heel. The surprise victory, taking the title from a heel champion like Lesnar, and keeping the unpopular Reigns away from the crown made him a popular man with many fans. He refused a rematch with Lesnar on Raw the next night and dialed up his heelish behavior. He leaned more than ever on the support of J&J Security and Corporate Kane. His first defense came against Orton, who had beaten him just weeks earlier. Rollins coopted Orton’s RKO (calling it the Seth-KO) to win a cage match and retain his title.
The next few months pitted Rollins against his former Shield teammates. He adopted HHH’s Pedigree as his finisher to win a triple threat match against both Reigns and Orton at Payback. He lost a non-title match to Dean Ambrose and they wrestled for the title at both Elimination Chamber and Money in the Bank. It appeared that Ambrose had captured the title at Elimination Chamber, but Rollins retained by DQ due to the definitive Dusty Finish- an overturned title change due to a rule broken before a pinfall. The procession continued as Rollins escaped a Battleground match with Lesnar with the title after Undertaker attached Lesnar mid-match.
Throughout this main event run, Rollins continued to wrestle outstanding matches on free TV. Lesnar’s six-month WWE Title reign featured exactly zero matches on Raw, so it was a breath of fresh air to see Rollins continuing to wrestle week after week. He wrestled memorable matches with guys like Daniel Bryan, Neville, Cesaro, and Kevin Owens during his title reign that proved that his number one skill is his ability to adapt his style to wrestle entertaining matches against any opponent.
With so many top wrestlers in his wake, Rollins turned his attention to John Cena. Ever since Wrestlemania, Cena had held the US Title and focused on his weekly US Open Challenge matches. Rollins faced Cena in a singles match on Raw for the US Title. A high knee for Rollins landed flush on Cena’s nose and busted it into many tiny pieces. Covered in blood, Cena gutted out the match and got the submission win with his STF. That set up a Champion vs. Champion match in the main event at SummerSlam. Bringing his earlier storyline full circle, Jon Stewart interfered in the match and hit Cena with a chair. Stewart later explained that he could not stand to see Cena catch an icon like Ric Flair in career title wins and he felt that he had to intervene.
Rollins proudly displayed both belts for the next month until he had to pull double duty at Night of Champions. Cena won his US Title back early in the show, but Rollins retained his WWE Title in the main event against Sting. Having already retained his title against Orton, Reigns, Ambrose, Lesnar, and Cena, Rollins had to face a returning legend to keep things fresh. Like it was before last year’s Wrestlemania, Sting’s motivation was to interject himself when he saw someone abusing their power in WWE. Rollins reinforced that he can wrestle a good match with absolutely anyone when he put together a strong main event against someone who literally collapsed in the middle of the match. Sting would later require neck surgery, but even after his injury, he and Rollins managed to close the show effectively.
That was the final high point of the year for Rollins. He beat Demon Kane at October’s Hell in a Cell to remove Corporate Kane from his role as Director of Operations. He was slated to face Reigns again at Survivor Series when he landed awkwardly in a house show match against Kane and tore apart the ligaments in his knee. While he somehow continued the match, Rollins would later need extensive surgery, costing him the last two months of the year and his WWE Title. There are lots of reasons to think that Rollins could return as a popular babyface. He dropped his title without ever losing it in the ring. Returns from long injury layoffs are exciting and typically yield babyface reactions. He even had lingering tension with HHH that could easily turn into a high-profile feud if WWE pushes the right buttons. Even if Rollins comes back with the identical heel character, he has proven that he plays that role so well that he will immediately leap back to the top of the card.
One of the things that makes Rollins so great is that he is a throwback to an earlier age. He simply antagonizes fans and adversaries rather than spinning storylines into meta-narratives about the wrestling business. More importantly, his popularity is based on his ability in the ring. He stripped down his style when he left The Shield to eliminate any move that would make fans cheer for him. He gradually rebuilt his arsenal into a more heel-appropriate attack that still highlights his breathtaking athleticism. He combines that rangy technical ability with an understanding of ring psychology that fits a wrestler far older than him. He knows when to sell and when to get heat. He knows that he needs to make his opponents look good in order to maximize the value of any feud. It’s almost as if he is an ego-free wrestler, which is ironic considering how much success he has already achieved in his short WWE career.
Many observers have said that Rollins is destined to have a career more like Edge or Orton than an undisputed main attraction. I believe Rollins has already surpassed that status because he has had a two year run at the pinnacle of the wrestling world. The notion that Rollins only deserves to be “in the mix” comes from the outdated idea that pure workers are not WWE’s preference in the main event. It’s the thinking that kept guys like Eddie Guerrero and Chris Jericho on the fringes of the main event rather than in the center of it.
The problem with that line of thinking is that pro wrestling passed it by and WWE has already acknowledged it. As I wrote in Cena’s entry, even the most established wrestler in the world had to reinvent his in-ring style to remain relevant. Rollins has been the most outstanding wrestler in WWE for two years and the most important one for the last year. After an Attitude Era hiatus from the in-ring product, pro wrestling has gradually shifted its emphasis back to the action between the bells. The argument is self-evident- Rollins can be the top guy in WWE because Rollins already is the top guy in WWE. He didn’t need to change his style to catch up with the company, the company had to change to catch up with what Rollins could already do. As it was with HHH in 2002, it might not be obvious in the moment. As time passes, though, it will be clear that 2014-2015 was the Rollins Era.