Paradise Lost: WWE’s Puzzling Use of Seth Rollins

Much has been made concerning World Wrestling Entertainment’s booking of their current heavyweight champion, Seth Rollins. Some industry experts, like former WWE announcer Jim Ross, feel the strategy has been a long game attempt at presenting him as a fan favorite following the end of his current arc. Others cite wrestling’s rich tradition of the “chickenshit” heel, a solid effort to get fans emotionally invested in the bad guy and anxiously awaiting his eventual (and certain) comeuppance. While these positions are understandable and logical, they nearly universally miss the fundamental point of the issue. The problem with the booking of Rollins is not HIS usage, it’s the utilization of who opposes his efforts. A quick trip through wrestling’s time machine tells the tale.

The headiest storyline of the current moment is Rollins going mano a mano with Kane, the Authority’s corporate henchman who has suddenly decided to become a demon again. Well, sort of. In a turn of events only a wrestling creative team can dream up, the “Director of Operations” (the only bureaucratic authority to create more useless personnel titles is the United States government) generally presents himself as a suit-and-tie-wearing, aggressively happy pencil pusher who would look right at home in the friendly confines of Dunder Mifflin. While it’s always a treat to see Kane perform his very underrated comedic skills, it’s all just one-half of the kooky equation. See, Kane is also still the crazy demon monster burned in the family fire set by his own half-brother The Undertaker. (The epically grandiose plotline digging into all this, including the equally difficult-to-fathom twin bombshells of Taker blaming Kane for setting the place ablaze before admitting he did it as part of his heel turn and the concept of Paul Bearer sleeping with Taker’s mama, is worth reviewing for the sheer entertainment value. Oh, the good old nineties.) Kane has, through it all, been a good company man, surviving the depths of Fake Diesel and Isaac Yankem to land a character with staying power. He’s also gotten a hell of a lot of relationship plotlines, particularly for a disfigured demon that’s not actually disfigured. Chicks dig the mask, I guess. He’s hung around on the periphery, available to fill a Royal Rumble slot or some such, the typical fate for former big names in the biz that are able to still go.

So perhaps it was only predictable that WWE would eventually resurrect Kane as an agent in their quest to give Seth Rollins something ridiculous to do. It certainly makes a good deal of sense from Kane’s standpoint, as Rollins and the rest of the Authority that buttresses him has done nothing but ridicule him almost since he first got the job. Like just about all on-air authority figures in Raw history, Kane’s chief objective is to get wantonly and frequently overruled by those that employ him. While that resonates with anyone who ever worked in a corporation, and is generally one of the most unintentionally accurate things WWE characterizes every week, it doesn’t go a long way toward explaining why The Authority keeps Kane around if he’s a hapless dolt and why Kane continues to work for them. The “slow build” payoff for this has reached its peak, wherein Kane’s dual personalities will be united and decided officially pending the outcome of his title match with Rollins later this month. While adding a stipulation concerning Kane’s career does heighten the drama a tick or two, the issue here is one of ennui: does anyone really care if Kane isn’t director of operations anymore? He’s supposedly a villainous member of wrestling’s uber-group, which isn’t something most fans wish to see continue. Some fans will no doubt support the cause due to the fact that it gets the strap off Rollins, but there’s not really a ghost of a chance on that front and everyone knows it. Similar to Big Show’s own disappointing arc against Brock Lesnar, heel vs. sorta heel ends up with a watered-down version of kissing your sister. Let’s call it holding hands with your grandma.

It wasn’t that long ago that Kane was used in a similar way as a faux antagonist to Brock Lesnar, which provided little of substance except for the massively entertaining Paul Heyman digging into the archives and bringing up Kane’s family tree as part of the build. Since the Taker/Kane relationship exists solely as a matter of convenience with immense periods of cooling down in between pings of recognition, that’s a big deal. Kane and Show exist to show us that Lesnar is really a badass that can destroy a monster at will and that Rollins can find a way (generally illegitimate, natch) to overcome the enormous odds placed in front of him and hang on to his title. Since neither of those things is at all a surprise to the world at large, it’s much ado about nothing really. We already know Lesnar is a ginormous asskicker, because, well, look at him. His background both in and out of wrestling have combined in a unique way that allows him to have to do very little to appear legitimate. While I’ll confess that his reentry to the company left quite a bit to be desired, it’s a distant memory at this point. The fact that he’s been paired with wrestling’s best talker and the fact that Lesnar seems a tad unhinged even when going through the motions of the current request (he threw a car door into the audience!) means there’s not much marketing needing to be done there. So the road to hell is a bit of a letdown, one broken-down rest stop and pancake restaurant after another until eventually the main event we all want to see, the rubber match between Taker and Lesnar that will build up both legends no matter the outcome. That’s the beach on the vacation drive, and you’ll forgive the rest of us if we’re not big on taking a detour to see the world’s largest pencil.

Kane vs. Rollins, therefore, remains more than a tad underwhelming, an excursion through the land of something to do while we wait for the next big something to do. This is only the latest in a series of such journeys, though, and it’s only been a brief moment since we went through a similar case of might-have-been while enduring the big fat ball of blah that was Rollins going up against WCW’s figurehead, Sting. While that feud has been forcibly pushed into the garbage can as a result of Sting’s unfortunate injury during their title bout, those who witnessed it (just about everyone) are here to tell you it was pretty atrociously booked. From the overdone tagline that WWE’s championship had “eluded” Sting, paying no respects to the obviousness of the fact he was never attempting to capture it despite numerous opportunities, to the idea that Sting’s vault into number one contender status came as a result of him performing the following list of feats: 1) Lose to Triple H. 2) Disappear. 3) Pretend to be a statue. 4) Dispose of actual statue. Fortunately for the WWE, Sting is another individual that brings with him massive appeal despite their inclination to use him poorly. Nostalgia for wrestling’s golden age has never been higher, and WWE’s Network affords the perfect tie-in opportunity to rake in the cash while adding a current veneer to the sepia-toned proceedings. Sting has never really been regarded as an enemy in the castle of his former opposition, an element of his character that speaks equally well to his persona and the man himself. In the right circumstances, perhaps, having the Authority’s crown jewel go up against one of their main naysayers could have been story enough to overcome the aggressive and effective workings of Father Time, but that ship sailed with a handshake between Trips and The Stinger after their own sudsy slugfest that was long on scope and short on execution. As it stood, it came across as precisely what it in fact was: a desperate attempt by a company heading the wrong way with ratings to reach into the closet of Halloween costumes past and temporarily don one in an effort to make you pay attention. Much like Gizmo or an Ewok, though, there might be a reason why it’s back there.

While Rollins’ on-again, off-again battle with company superhero John Cena went a ways to making Seth’s stock look better, he’s gone quite some time down this path without any relief. His former Shieldmates aren’t really options, as Ambrose has had more bites at the apple than I have space to tell you about them, and Reigns has never caught on with everyone despite even The Rock’s best efforts. Speaking of which, how long can it be before The People’s Champion is brought back to knock Rollins into oblivion? Such is the state of affairs at Titan Tower right now, with folks like Cesaro and Sandow looking for screen time while the writers’ room buzzes with giddy anticipation over the next opportunity to dump everyone down a notch for the next big name? Rollins has done the best he can with the character provided for him, evolving into a champion capable of delivering decent promos and finding a way to make sure nobody cheers for him in an arena near you. That makeover has impacted everything from his repertoire (can’t do those awesome swan dives because people like them) to his clothing (leather battle armor reminds me too much of The Shield, so let’s try white skintight Hazmat material). It’s not an easy road to hoe, to be sure. He’s also embraced the silliness. It can’t be easy to wake up in the morning and know you’re going to have multiple segments campaigning to have yourself casted in bronze or be pulled through the ring to an ostensible Hades, let’s face it. In short, he has taken the ball and run with it, and he’s done a damn good job given the circumstances.

Feel that Lesnar should be champion? I hear you, but it’s reserved for people who show up every week, or at least most of them. Lesnar got a deserved sniff of the gold, but he’s best suited doing exactly what he’s doing right now, which is beating the crap out of someone. If your champion isn’t going to work house shows, it’s not going to work. Not for the long haul anyway. With the possible exception of Bray Wyatt or Kevin Owens, not many heels on the horizon have the capability of turning a title reign into something to be remembered. So I’m not all in on the concept that Rollins is being groomed for a face push. No need to rush that, particularly while the spectacular failure of the Roman Reigns trajectory would cause nearly anyone to give pause. If the dirt sheets are to be believed and Vince Maestro McMahon is once again taking the reins to attempt to reverse the ratings decline during a tough time of the year for wrestling, I’d double down on Rollins. Wins and losses aren’t terribly important, but putting him in the ring with the right people is. What is the fear of putting Rollins in a program with Cesaro, or Neville, or Finn Balor or Samoa Joe for that matter? These are built-in storylines capable of multiple matches while still feeling fresh. Rollins goes down to NXT and insults somebody and it snowballs into a huge opportunity. WWE has started to grudgingly acknowledge that life exists outside of Connecticut, and fans have come to their own conclusions about the talent in the ring without the aftertaste of McMahon’s silver spoon. To understand that, you need look no further than Rollins himself, an outsider who made his hay in a promotion barely acknowledged by WWE. Promoting him is wonderful, but is reduced by lack of follow through. It can’t be that complicated. Can it?

Twitter: @DharmanRockwell

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