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Building An Empire Pt 1: The Shield of Injustice

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On November 18th, 2012 at Survivor Series in Indianapolis, Indiana, the WWE Universe was introduced to three young men from WWE’s developmental program, NXT. Their names were Dean Ambrose, Seth Rollins, and Roman Reigns and they would come to identify themselves as The Shield, appearing to conquer injustice. Three and a half years later, we know them as three of the top superstars on the main roster, conquering between them every title a male performer can hold. But out of all three, it was Roman Reigns who was chosen to skyrocket to the top, holding the WWE World Heavyweight Championship three times since November 2015. His current title run, as well as his last year and a half in WWE, seemed to have been marred by his tumultuous relationship with the WWE Universe. Without them in his corner, he is a man at odds with the very people he is meant to be entertaining. Is Reigns doomed to a career shadowed by his inability to find a connection with his audience, or is there still some way to save the Roman Empire from falling? They say hindsight is 20/20, so perhaps a look back can set the record straight on what went wrong.

When revisiting the first six month of Reigns’ existence on the main roster as The Powerhouse of The Shield, the first thing we have to acknowledge is that he never would have gotten over at all if he wasn’t a part of something special. The Shield will likely go down in WWE history as one of the greatest factions of all time. Their work inside the ring was impeccable. When you go back and watch their six-man tag matches, Michael Cole repeatedly addresses the fact that any member of The Shield is willing to sacrifice himself for the good of the team – there is no ego among these men (at least, for now.) There is, however, a certain amount of nuance to how the team is constructed. When cutting promos, much of the dialogue is delivered by Dean Ambrose (arguably the best of the three on the mic.) During matches, it’s Seth Rollins whose voice is most often heard encouraging and directing from the ring apron. Reigns’ job in these situations is to deliver the button on the end of promo segments, usually whatever The Shield’s catchphrase is at the moment as well as cementing The Shield’s stance as The Hounds of Justice with his animalistic howls in the ring. He doesn’t say much, but when he utters any sound it’s completely frightening. Roman’s real job seems mostly at first to look intimidating, bring the pain in their matches, and be a solid base for the triple powerbomb The Shield became so notorious for using.

Building An Empire: A Fan’s Guide to the Rise of Roman Reigns

During The Shield’s first six months on WWE television, we see them utilize this triple powerbomb maneuver on many of the main roster’s biggest stars: Ryback, Daniel Bryan, John Cena, and even The Undertaker. We may not realize it at first, but there is psychology to this being a move specific to The Shield. It is a move that utilizes all three individuals: Rollins and Ambrose lift their victim up onto Reigns’ shoulders and all three are in contact with their opponent as he is slammed down onto the mat or through a table. But it is important to note that this assisted powerbomb is occasionally done with only two people (as in the case of their first match at TLC in 2012 against Team Hell No and Ryback) when only one of Ambrose or Rollins lifts their opponent onto Reigns’ shoulders and assists in the maneuver. It’s Reigns who is integral, and not just at this moment.

In the first three pay-per-view matches that The Shield participates in, (TLC in 2012, Elimination Chamber and WreslteMania in 2013) Reigns is directly involved in all three pinfall victories. At TLC, Daniel Bryan is powerbombed through a table by Reigns, with the assist from Ambrose, and Reigns scores his team’s first pinfall. At Elimination Chamber, Reigns spears Ryback who has set Rollins up for the shellshock, Ryback’s finisher. As they fall, Rollins falls on top of Ryback and gets the pinfall. At WrestleMania 29, Orton catches Rollins with an RKO mid-air, but ends up eating a spear from Reigns, allowing Ambrose to get the pinfall. At this point, all three Shield members have gotten a pinfall, though I’m sure it’s no coincidence that the first one went to Reigns and that he assisted in all of their wins. When he and Rollins enter into two-man tag team action in a tag title match against Team Hell No at Extreme Rules, we finally get to see more of Reigns as an individual, as the match is presented under Tornado Tag rules with all four men being legal simultaneously.

This is a great match for Reigns. This is going to be the first match I suggest everyone go back and revisit if you’re looking to follow along at home. There is a confidence that we haven’t seen from him up to this point. Not that his work isn’t good in the previous six months on the main roster, but in this match he has a swagger, and after months of working opposite Daniel Bryan and Kane, he clearly feels safe enough to try a few new things and really let his personality out. There’s quite a bit more smack-talking then we usually see from him, and the finish here is beautiful. Reigns executes a beautiful Argentine backbreaker rack along with a simultaneous diving leg drop from Rollins on Bryan and Reigns gets the pinfall, ushering in a new era in which all three members of The Shield hold championships (Ambrose had won the US title earlier that same night from Kofi Kingston.)

ex-2013

While we’re discussing booking, there’s one more thing to note here. Between their debut in November 2012 and their match at WrestleMania 29, The Shield were only in five matches: TLC, Elimination Chamber, and three matches on RAW. The first RAW match was really not much of a match at all; they were booked against Ryback in a 3-on-1 match, but Sheamus and Randy Orton come to his aid and Reigns, Rollins, and Ambrose retreat. Their second match against Ryback, Sheamus, and Chris Jericho, their third against The Great Khali, Justin Gabriel, and Zack Ryder both end without Reign’s direct involvement in the finish. But it’s at WrestleMania 29 that we see something new for Reigns, and that’s his really taking a beating for the first time. In those previous five matches he seems to escape being on the receiving end of too much of an offense from whoever is opposing The Shield. But the opening match for this card features a pretty intense beatdown of Reigns to open the match and he actually does a decent job of selling, which he was having trouble with up to this point. Now something else has been added to Reigns’ arsenal. He’s already got a good structure for who his character is and what his purpose within his team is, now he’s having better matches because his move set is increasing and his ability to sell is improving as well.

When The Shield debut they are involved in the WWE Championship picture in an indirect way. In protecting CM Punk from Ryback, they keep the title on him until his match with The Rock at Royal Rumble. That tile then transfers from The Rock to John Cena at WrestleMania 29, a man whom The Shield face several times with Team Hell No before finally winning the tag titles at Extreme Rules. Whenever The Shield are in the ring with another three-man team that includes John Cena, it’s hard to miss who Cena is always locking up with in the melee that usually precedes or closes out the match: and that’s Roman Reigns. It might have made more sense visually to have the largest man between Reigns, Rollins, and Ambrose tango with the largest member of the opposing team, but it seemed even then Reigns was destined to follow a path not entirely unlike Cena’s, and so to put them together whenever possible was to the benefit of Reigns in the long-run. Go back and watch the RAW matches in the three weeks before Extreme Rules 2013; you’ll see Reigns & Cena in the ring together time and time again. Is it sending the audience into a frenzy? No. But there is a picture there you can’t help but come back to now.

The final piece of the puzzle during this pre-title period for The Shield that is of note is what reaction the audience is giving to The Shield. When they first begin appearing in the arenas, they’re typically booed as heels are supposed to be. But then, it starts to change, and the boos begin to turn to cheers. By the time Reigns and Rollins beat Team Hell No for the tag titles in May, the live crowd appears divided between who they really want to be cheering, the team booked as babyfaces (Kane and Bryan) or the team booked as heels (Reigns and Rollins.) When considering the online atmosphere at this early stage of the Shield’s (and Reign’s) run, the feelings are a little different. Many of the online posts on fan sites and message boards from this time have their support behind Ambrose, who was a fan favorite in NXT at the time. Reigns was the least known of the three, as Rollins was actually the NXT champion at the time of their debut on the main roster. As the team grew in popularity, Reigns began to connect more with this particular demographic. It’s worth noting, however, that it seemed Dean Ambrose was getting pushed more than his brethren, as he was the first to wrestle a singles match, and was the first to win a singles championship. While there were moments of what was to come for Reigns (ie those moments with Cena) WWE was clearly not ready to pull the trigger on him. Or perhaps it was misdirection: give the audience what they want (a perceived push for Ambrose) while giving Reigns the chance to work on character and ability alongside Rollins out of Ambrose’s shadow.

If, immediately following Extreme Rules, the three members of The Shield had all decided to leave wrestling forever, burst into a cloud of gold glitter, or moved to Guam, their first six months would have to be heralded as one of the most successful runs of any faction on the main roster. But there was still more to come. Ambrose would go on to hold the US title for 351 days, while Reigns and Rollins would carry their tag titles proudly until two of the Hounds of Justice ran headfirst into two brothers of a common Dream at Battleground.

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