AS “WRESTLEMANIA MOMENTS” go, they don’t get much more memorable than that which Seth Rollins experienced at this year’s main event. With WWE champion Brock Lesnar and number-one contender Roman Reigns both lying supine on the mat, feeling the effects of a hard-fought World title match, Rollins scurried to the ring, cashed in his Money in the Bank contract, and quickly stole a pinfall victory over Reigns to capture the most cherished prize in the sport on its biggest stage.
“It almost went by too fast. I tried desperately, as the fireworks were going off behind me, and the crowd was losing their minds, to soak it all in. But it was so much,” Rollins recalled. “It’s really hard to feel like you’re in that moment: That Shawn Michaels moment. That Hulk Hogan moment. That Steve Austin or Rock moment. It’s hard to put yourself in that place, with those type of people.”
And now, Rollins gets to share another prestigious distinction with those legendary names: achieving the number-one ranking in the “PWI 500.”
“That’s crazy to think about,” he told PWI. “I’m just sitting in my house in Davenport, Iowa, right now, just thinking about how weird that is, to be honest with you. To be mentioned in the company of the other guys who have been named number one, it’s pretty humbling, to say the very least.”
Rollins’ 12-year journey to the top ranking began in the Midwest independent scene, where he wrestled as Gixx. But it was in 2007 that fans from around the world took notice of Rollins when he debuted as Tyler Black in Ring of Honor.
In February 2010, Rollins achieved a career high point when he defeated Austin Aries for the ROH title. As a cocky heavyweight champion who wasn’t above taking shortcuts to keep his title, the then-24-year-old gave ROH fans a glimpse of what would become Seth Rollins. But Rollins insists the similarities are limited.
“I feel like I’m two different performers. It’s night and day compared to my time in Ring of Honor six years ago. But maybe there’s a little bit there, for sure,” said Rollins, who does believe his ROH title run did give him some valuable experience that he still relies on today. “I think any experience you have being the top guy in a promotion, carrying a company, will help you moving forward.”
In the middle of his seven-month reign as ROH champ, Rollins achieved an impressive number 20 ranking in the 2010 “PWI 500.” But before the magazine could reach newsstands, Rollins would make one of the biggest decisions of his career—giving up his position as the biggest fish in ROH’s modest-sized pond for a developmental contract with WWE.
“WWE is where I wanted to be,” he said, “no doubt about it. And I knew when I had the opportunity, I was going to give it a shot. I had to. And there was no better time than parlaying my Ring of Honor championship into that opportunity. So, for me, there was no hesitation there.”
But rolling the dice on a WWE career meant starting over for Rollins, who dropped 34 spots to number 53 in the 2011 “500.” Despite experiencing some success in Florida Championship Wrestling, as WWE’s developmental offshoot was known at the time, after two years without a callup to the main roster, even Rollins couldn’t help but question whether his WWE ship would ever come in.
“I definitely had a hefty amount of doubt in the system, and whether they had the faith in me that I had in myself … Watching other guys get called up before me and be given the opportunity that I felt I deserved certainly was very, very frustrating,” Rollins said. “But a lot of times it’s about getting opportunities. And if you don’t play the game the right way, the opportunities aren’t going to come your way. So I had to compromise a little bit in the way I was and how stubborn I was about some things.”
Late in 2012, Rollins’ big break came in the form of The Shield—the dominant three-man group that included fellow developmental callups Reigns and Ambrose. And almost from the moment they debuted, the question wasn’t whether a Shield member would one day win the World title, but rather who would do it first.
“We were always competitive with each other and we knew when it came down to it, it was going to be a situation where we were competing with each other for the top spot,” Rollins recalled. “It was just like, ‘Hey one day we’re going to take this place over and we’re going to be fighting with each other for this title.’”
But for fans, those fights seemed unlikely as The Shield tore through WWE as a unified force. That is until Rollins turned his back on his partners in 2014 to join Triple-H and Stephanie McMahon’s Authority faction.
“Anytime you make a drastic change like that, where you know you’re going to create enemies, it can be pretty frightening,” Rollins conceded. “At the time, it was pretty unnerving. But in the back of my mind, I thought I was making the right decision."
Rollins got some confirmation of that thought when, weeks after splitting from The Shield, he won the Money in the Bank ladder match for a guaranteed World title shot. Later, he would become embroiled in a thrilling rivalry with Ambrose that would be voted 2014’s Feud of the Year by PWI readers, and give Rollins’ his first pay-per-view singles match main event at Hell in a Cell.
“That was really important to me, just because we were on the same show with another Hell in a Cell match between Randy Orton and John Cena. And to follow them and to main event that show, that was really awesome. And I think it kind of fell under the radar a little bit,” Rollins said.
Even as the chorus of boos grew louder, Rollins continued to prove he made the right decision by putting The Shield in his rearview mirror. He wrestled the sport’s top star, John Cena, at TLC. And at the Royal Rumble, he got his first WWE title shot in a triple-threat match against Cena and Lesnar.
Then came WrestleMania, and that “moment that will never be forgotten.”
Looking back on the many twists and turns his career took leading up to his place above all others in this year’s “PWI 500,” Rollins feels very blessed. “If I hadn’t been at the right place at the right time with The Shield none of it would have happened. And who know where I would have been today? At the end of the day, everything worked out better than I could have ever imagined.”