It was stated by Dean Ambrose in the address delivered on the Monday Night Raw episode immediately after the Shield split, “We will go down in history books as one of the greatest groups in sports entertainment ever.” And they have. Undoubtedly on paper, match by match, the Shield dominated in a way that few stables have. It was full of talented performers who grasped every element of professional wrestling.
But in the split the art of storytelling in professional wrestling was elevated, redefined.
On June 1st, 2014 The Shield defeated Evolution in yet another breathtaking match. The feud between The Shield and Evolution had reached a fever pitch over the last year. The Shield was also contending with The Wyatt family during this time, wreaking havoc on their brotherhood and sanity, leading to bickering, occasional aggression, and a few suspicious disappearances of Dean Ambrose. But that night Bray Wyatt had other things to contend with and the Shield closed out the show with an awe inspiring unified front. It seemed any wounds had been healed. The Shield was united and ready to dominate.
On the following Raw, however, Seth Rollins would betray them. While Roman Reigns and Dean Ambrose took the occasional swing at one another and Ambrose was groomed by Wyatt, Seth Rollins had been spending time with Triple H. He had been groomed to be Triple H’s “Plan B” if Evolution still couldn’t topple them.
One week later, Ambrose and Reigns would address Rollins’ betrayal and the remaining brothers would set out on different paths of retaliation and retribution.
Reigns pointed himself towards Triple H and Randy Orton, the men responsible for breaking Rollins and so breaking the Shield.
But for Ambrose, there was only one move: to pursue Seth Rollins.
“We want you to stand out here in the middle of this ring in front of the whole world and we want them to hear Triple H’s words coming out of your mouth. We’re going to listen to every word of it, and then we’re going to beat the hell out of you.”
– Dean Ambrose, June 2, 2014
Later that night, Rollins was interviewed by Michael Cole, and claimed the glory entirely for himself. He had created the Shield. Ambrose was all heart, a grunt. Reigns was motivated by rage and rule. They would be nothing without Seth. When Cole responded with, “The Shield was about three individuals who came together, not just about one man,” Seth faced the crowd sternly and lied, “They were just business partners.”
Ambrose was everywhere. In matches against Rollins, he was hard hitting, emotional, constantly dragging Rollins back to the center of the ring to face what he’d done. He wanted Rollins to pay, but still spoke of the situation as thing done to Rollins too.
“You know what was a bad decision by Triple H? Getting on my bad side and making an enemy for life. [….] Your life changes when I am your enemy and it’s just going to get worse.
– Dean Ambrose, Monday Night Raw Fallout interview after hearing word Rollins demanded he be put in the Money in the Bank match. June 23, 2014.
At Money in the Bank, Ambrose’s opening promo made it clear that he would play the game- seek honor, glory, a title- but it was only to get to Rollins and to hurt him. Rollins won, with interference from Kane, but the next night he cuts Rollins victory over RVD short with a Titantron cut in, “From one scumbag to another, you don’t really think this is over do ya?”
Addressing the WWE Universe, facing the likes of John Cena, being interviewed, it didn’t matter. Rollins could not escape Ambrose. Rollins could not escape what he had done and who he used to be. Rollins’ Money in the Bank win only gave Ambrose more reason to pursue him. Not just to punish him, but to become a barrier to further success, less of the Shield Seth he knew.
“Ambrose, Ambrose, Ambrose. You’re so talented but you just can’t seem to figure it out. Without me you are nothing. Without me you are just some babbling, out of control lunatic destined for an insane asylum. And I’ll give you this. You got guts. But clearly, after Monday, you’ve got more guts than brains.”
– Seth Rollins, interrupting Dean Ambrose on Monday Night Raw, July 18, 2014
Reigns’ stepped in as he could when two, three, or even four men came after Ambrose at once, but Ambrose didn’t ask for assistance. The point was never to win. The concern was never his own safety. At Battleground, Ambrose attacked Rollins before the match, was ejected from the building, and still returned to take on Rollins once again even after the match was declared a win by forfeit.
August saw a Beat The Clock challenge as a means to keep the two separate and for the winner to be allowed to name the stipulation for one final match. Ambrose distracts Rollins to make sure it’s his choice.
Summerslam. Lumberjack. Rollins can’t run. In theory.
This match made the emotional pursuit of it physical. They fight all across the arena, but it’s in the ring where they shine. After chasing one another, being chased by the lumberjacks, beaten by any number of men, they make it back to the center. Even commentary notes at how dizzying it is to watch two men who know each other so well hit and reverse, hit and reverse. It’s less a fight and more a dance.
It’s a peak theatrical performance as well. Even when they aren’t touching one another, they don’t drop character. Their exhaustion and the high stakes and their heavy breathing make it that much harder to keep up machismo and so they’re both incredibly vulnerable and expressive.
Regardless of the men ringside who had good reason to pummel the former Shield or lackeys or Big Red Machines that were sent to spare Rollins, Ambrose is relentless.
Because of the interference from Kane, Ambrose and Rollins are given another match up with a fan voted stipulation. The following Falls Count Anywhere match functioned as a midseason finale for an intoxicating and almost flirtatious feud. All this time Ambrose has been performing an exorcism. If he can hit Rollins hard enough, trap him in the ring, on the ramp, backstage, in catering… if he has the ability to catch him anywhere, stop him from running, stop him from getting surrounded by Triple H or Kane, he could save his soul. Rollins betrayed the Shield, but he didn’t go on his own. He was lured by a predator.
Rollins has been on the run, being caught up again because Ambrose’s chivalry feels inevitable, or because he wants to get it over with. Until this match, the it he wants over with is a little unclear. Rollins wants to rewrite history. To deny the Shield as a brotherhood or a code of honor. He wants to dispense with his moral compass and leave no witnesses. Ambrose is living, breathing proof of all of it.
And without the Shield, without titles, without a fair fight, Ambrose continues to carry all of that. He won’t stop. He’s got nothing to lose.
Ringside, Kane’s face is one of horror as he slowly realizes that Ambrose will not balk.
And it is this, an outside source, realizing what Dean Ambrose IS and how impossible it is to stop him or for Seth Rollins to leave him, that takes this feud from fun to fatal.
Kane reveals a stack of cement blocks and slams Ambrose into them. Rollins tells Kane to handle it but Kane demands that he be the one to do it. He hesitates. He waits.
Kane keeps his eyes on him.
Rollins stomps Ambrose. He stands victorious but unable to look at Ambrose. Unable to really look anywhere.
On commentary, Cole says, “we’ve gotta get these two lunatics out of here,” but Dean Ambrose isn’t one of those lunatics. Seth Rollins, Kane and by extension the Authority… those are mad men among them.
Rollins follows this by staging a Eulogy for Dean Ambrose.
“Pain was never a factor for Dean. Fear was never a factor for Dean Ambrose. Dean Ambrose was a courageous fighter but last week I had to prove at his expense again that the Authority always wins. And now, with a heavy heart, I’d like to take a look back at the match that you, that you the WWE Universe chose, as the demise of Dean Ambrose.”
– Seth Rollins, Monday Night Raw Eulogy of Dean Ambrose, August 25, 2014
It is unequivocally performative but Rollins can’t manage to brag. His cackle is at its most dramatic. Rollins switches into his Future persona to the point of shaking a little, Kane still there, the watchful eye of the Authority. Even the celebration turns to a speech about “what ifs”.
And just as it hits the tipping point, Roman Reigns shows up, momentarily leaving his pursuit of the biggest predators to put Seth Rollins in his place. Reaffirming Dean Ambrose’s position as the heart of the Shield and of professional wrestling.
Seth Rollins cannot escape him.
At Night of Champions, Ambrose returns from the grave via a taxi to answer Seth Rollins’ open challenge after Reigns is not medically cleared. This time the Authority enlist the help of an entire security detail and J & J and still… Ambrose won’t be stopped.
Without Kane to guide his hand, Rollins runs.
At Hell in a Cell, Ambrose finally gets what he wants. Rollins in a cage. Ambrose is at his most unhinged, climbing the cage, weilding a kendo stick, his energy electric for the audience in attendance and the audience at home.
Rollins is flanked by J & J security. He doesn’t believe in himself. He fears Ambrose or at least what Ambrose represents. The Authority won’t let him enter his battles on his own any longer.
During the match both men are nearly taken away on stretchers, but Ambrose fights his way out and pulls Rollins back into the hell of his own making.
Every spot is a thing of beauty in the technical and psychological sense. But perhaps most symbolic is Ambrose covering the ring in steel chairs, just like the one Rollins wielded to end their brotherhood.
“Now you pay for it, Seth. Now you pay for it. You stabbed me in the back, you son of a bitch.”
– Dean Ambrose, Hell in a Cell, October 2014
Rollins later takes the steel chairs to Ambrose. Again. This time it is not calculated. It is not stealth, not a choice for security or his future. It is harder, he takes more shots, he grunts and screams, like maybe he’s mad he didn’t do this to begin with. End Dean Ambrose the day he ended the Shield.
Ambrose digs cinder blocks from under the ring when he finds his feet again.
Ambrose places Rollins’ face onto the blocks almost lovingly, strokes his hair, mumbles something along the lines of I didn’t want this.
He backs up, ready to run into the curb stomp that Rollins nearly ended him with.
In the end it took a ghost following Dean Ambrose for Seth Rollins to escape the ghost of Dean. Bray Wyatt appears as a vision made flesh and takes Ambrose out. Rollins grabs the pin and runs as the man who tried to take Ambrose from the Shield mere weeks before Rollins is taken by Triple H, stands over the so called Lunatic.
The yin and yang of Dean Ambrose and Seth Rollins is apparent from the jump. Ambrose is stable on the inside but not the outside, Rollins is a performance piece in the vice versa. In retrospect, it was apparent in the Shield, even before the chair shot heard round the WWE Universe. The unspooling of it in the fallout has given us perhaps the best feud in pro wrestling. In mere months these two performers gave emotion in and out of the ring and connected with fans in ways that take some years.
Mira Adama has been ringside since the womb. She is passionate about fake fighting and its potential for representation and catharsis in wrestling, television, and film. She is the host of Be Seeing You: A John Wick podcast and can be found on Twitter, @LostWolfling.