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Building an Empire Pt 4: Intents and Purposes

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On June 2nd, 2014, I didn’t watch Monday Night RAW. Instead, I went to the movies. When I got out, my twitter feed had exploded: The Shield was no more. I was completely shocked, and disappointed in myself that I had missed it. I had recorded the episode and watched the very end back at nearly one o’clock in the morning. The abrupt and intentional termination of The Shield altered the landscape of WWE, and this coming Sunday at Battleground, I will be in the audience as the three members of a faction that was so near and dear to many of us step into the ring for a triple threat over two years in the making.

Probably the greatest era of change for The Shield occurred in the aftermath of the 2014 Royal Rumble up until their demise. With an ever-evolving cast of opponents, the ‘Hounds of Justice’ saw themselves go from Authority bodyguards, to topping off Triple H’s most wanted list. When 2014 began, Roman Reigns, Seth Rollins, and Dean Ambrose were all heels, but by the time they were facing off against Evolution, they were three of the company’s biggest babyfaces. But within their trio, the playing field was no longer even remotely even: WWE had made their choice, and that choice was Roman Reigns.

Following a strong showing in the Royal Rumble match, Reigns was soundtracked by the commentary team listing his credentials: setting a record at Survivor Series, breaking Kane’s record in the Rumble match, and still not even being two years with the company. On the night after the Pay-Per-View during a Shield match against Daniel Bryan, John Cena, and Sheamus, the commentary team lists the names of everyone Reigns eliminated as he powers out of Cena’s STF. The crowd is still behind him as well, even though their hero Bryan is in the match. This is the first, really clear time we hear a chant of Reigns’ name from the audience. In the end, the match ends in a DQ when the Wyatt family interferes and attacks Cena. This sets up the Shield’s next feud, as the DQ cost them a chance to be entered into a title match at the next PPV, Elimination Chamber.

On SmackDown that Friday, The Shield cut a promo in which they challenged the Wyatts and are interrupted by Triple H. When he tells them to let it go, Reigns tells the boss that they’re not asking for his approval. The match is made and the audience cheers – the same audience that jeered the Shield’s entrance but cheered for Roman getting on the microphone. They’ve already become so fickle they don’t know what they really want. The ever-changing nature of the live audiences (sometimes booing the group but cheering an individual, or changing mid-show who they cheered and who they booed) feels less like the impulse of a fan to boo a wrestler until they earn a cheer, and more like the audience trying to assert themselves as the most dominant force in the story. The crowd can be incredibly distracting for a home viewer, and will often sway the television audience without them even realizing they’ve been influenced. At this point, with a push from creative when he overcomes opponents his brothers can’t and big showings at PPV matches but as a defined heel character, it seems unclear whether or not we are meant to cheer for Reigns, and the audience is certainly a reflection of that.

When the Shield head into their Elimination Chamber match against the Wyatt family, there is already some dissension, though mostly it comes from Dean Ambrose. Ambrose is the wild card of the Shield, getting himself into tight spots and being disqualified (and therefore losing the match) on more than one occasion. When this match – a true war – gets underway, Ambrose becomes a liability. He wrestles Bray out into the crowd and is never seen again. But the crowd is heavily invested in this match up, with chants for both sides, and a big pop for Reigns on his first tag in. In the end, the missing member of the trio puts the odds in the Wyatt’s favor, and Reigns takes a Sister Abigail from Bray and the pinfall. Bray Wyatt therefore joins Cody Rhodes as the only two people to have cleanly pinned Roman Reigns. The next night on RAW, Reigns faces Bray in singles competition and does well for himself, though the crowd’s attentions are elsewhere. In the end, Ambrose can’t resist sliding into the ring and getting some kicks in on Bray, thus causing a disqualification. It’s clear that he is the weak link in the group.

All of these issues come to a head the following week when The Shield has a rematch against The Wyatts. The whole thing feels like a disastrous mess. The crowd cheers, boos, chants for CM Punk and Reigns, all interchangeably. The Wyatts work has to keep Reigns out of the match and when Ambrose tries to tag himself out, Rollins walks out on his brothers. Ambrose eventually is pinned by Bray, and on SmackDown, the Shield hold a summit. The Shield Summit is a really excellent piece of storytelling in that it creates solid character development for all three individuals. Rollins is shown to be methodical and plotting. He makes the plans. Ambrose is clearly the hot-head, and though Rollins makes a good point in explaining his walking out on Ambrose and Reigns was so they would work out their own issues, he can tell Ambrose is not satisfied. So he smacks Dean, and invites him to let out his own aggressions, which he does abundantly. What’s interesting is that neither of them turn their physical aggression toward Reigns, as though the repercussions were too great to face. In the end, they are once again a united force, three brothers who got their feelings out and could move forward.

The weeks between The Shield Summit and Wrestlemania 30 show us a new side to the trio. They are being more picky about how and when they dole out their brand of justice, and win the ire of Corporate Kane when they do not follow his orders. Ambrose & Rollins are paired up often during this time, with Reigns coming in after the matches are over to administer spears and base their triple powerbombs. After one of these matches, Kane and The New Age Outlaws attack the Hounds of Justice and leave them lying in the ring. During this time, we’re getting some pretty aggressive chants for the Shield, and for Roman Reigns in particular. On the go-home RAW for Wrestlemania 30, the WWE Universe votes for Kane to face off against the Powerhouse of the Shield, one-on-one. This is a great match, one I recommend everyone go back and re-experience because there is a new development to Reigns’ ability that is exhibited quite beautifully here. When wrestlers are inexperienced, they seem to oscillate between frantic, unpredictable (and usually dangerous) movements, and overly hesitant, choppy movements. At this point in his career, Reigns is not only comfortable in his ability, he’s allowing himself to experience the match as it’s happening. That means he’s making choices that we can see on his face. There’s nothing robotic about his movements; it doesn’t seem as though he’s just going through the motions. When he delivers a forearm in the corner and his opponent falls onto the bottom rope, you see him assess the situation and decide to run around to the outside and deliver a running dropkick on the apron. This is a thing of beauty, because it further extends the suspended disbelief of the audience. It looks like he decided just then to do that move, not an hour ago backstage.

The match Reigns, Rollins, and Ambrose have at Wrestlemania 30 is short, but fun. It’s also an exhibition in solid tagging, as there are numerous tags in this match, and yet the legal man is always kept straight. This is a problem WWE seems to be experiencing now, so the ability of these six men to work fast, but clearly, is perhaps a lesson the current tag division should receive. After Mania season ends, The Shield aligns themselves with new WWE World Heavyweight Daniel Bryan, which seems serendipitous. Prior to this, the audience had issues choosing between Bryan and the Shield for their cheers. Now, here they were, all four of them in the ring, with the audience able to chant “Yes! Yes! Yes!” for all of their favorites.

Let’s remember for a moment that there are a few other components floating around the WWE Universe, beside just the Shield’s storylines, that are affecting them at this point. The fans are still pissed that CM Punk walked out on them, and are taking it out on just about everyone else in the company. Daniel Bryan is the new WWE World Heavyweight champion, but ends up working a program with Kane to mask an injury – one retrospect tells us we should have been more understanding of, as he would retire less than two years later. John Cena remains embroiled in a feud with the Wyatt family. This leaves only three major players for the Shield to face off against at the top of the card: the fan-loathed Batista, Randy Orton, and Triple H. With the three of them as heels unanimously panned by crowds, it was easy for Reigns, Rollins, and Ambrose to take the spot of the heroes – the underdogs.

A lot happens between early April and early June 2014, but a few things are of note. When we have our first real attack of Evolution on the Shield, they seem to pay special attention to Reigns and Rollins – their beatings seemingly more vicious than the one they deal out to Ambrose – and it’s as if these two are being jumped into top-tier status with the company. They get beaten down so they can be raised up. The second thing to note, which really is a continuation of the first, is that even if we hadn’t seen all of the things WWE had done before this point to push Reigns, Evolution really seems to set their sights on him as the leader of the Shield. Before this, he had always stood in the middle when all three Shield members were together, but the way Evolution pays him special mind helps to encourage us as audience members to believe that without him, the Shield are vulnerable. In that same vein, the third thing is that Roman Reigns starts to act like he is as important as he is being treated. He doesn’t do anything particularly cocky or attention-grabbing, but he proves himself worthy of concern from an opponent.

Not only is Roman Reigns the base for the Shield’s signature finishing move. Not only does Reigns seem to appear when his brothers need him most to hand out Spears and Superman Punches to anyone in their way. But Reigns manages to take an egregious amount of punishment and still convincingly bounce back. He does struggle, and he does feel pain, but he manages to dig deeply and find the strength to pull out one last glorious effort. I think the match that shows this the best is the Shield vs. Evolution match at Payback, which is a No Holds Barred match. Evolution seemed to render Reigns unconscious at one point, and he struggles from that part of the match forward, but the Shield somehow pull out a win, with the crowd firmly on their side.

Get caught up on Lady J’s nine part ‘Building an Empire’ series

You would think after working so hard to elevate Roman Reigns that WWE would bank on him being the break-out of the Shield and let him turn on his brothers. From November of 2012 to June of 2014, Reigns is certainly the most improved of the three Shield brothers. His behavior and abilities inside of the ring were enthralling. His mic work had found a sweet spot, a low, calm dangerousness that had long been missing from the WWE landscape. Perhaps the disadvantage of his being less experienced had worked in his favor, as the WWE Universe was allowed to witness his growth and ascendency to prominence unlike Rollins and Ambrose who came to the company with their own followings and whose growth was not as wide or as observed as Reigns’.

I mentioned at the end of the last article that perhaps one of the errors of WWE was to allow Roman Reigns and Daniel Bryan to be experienced by the audience simultaneously. Their second big mistake was clearly in the splitting up of the Shield. It wasn’t that they shouldn’t have broken them up, or that they did it to soon. It wasn’t even that they let Rollins be the cause of the Shield’s destruction. For a year and a half WWE had sent Roman Reigns out there alongside two experienced wrestlers with indie cred and demanded he get over. Eventually, he did. By the time The Shield was winning PPV matches against Evolution, Reigns’ tags would cause the crowd to erupt with cheers. He had become a stronger worker and a more well-defined character. But after the Chair Shot Heard Round the World – the inciting factor in the break of up the Shield – Reigns was left lying on the mat. He took that first shot, he was the victim as Rollins pledged his allegiance to the Authority. And when the dust settled on the end of the Shield, Rollins was a newly crowned Prince, Ambrose was a wild man seeking revenge, and it was Reigns who was left to wander, without a real purpose.

image via WWE

The Lady J is bringing her personal brand of internet sass via the US capitol, where she lives with her golden doodle roommate Gizmo and cannot find a good bagel to save her life. While it may not seem very lady-like, she is actually cutting a promo on you right now.

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