Rebuilding a champion: How Seth Rollins returned to the Universal Championship picture

Yahoo Sports
Seth Rollins had faced a long road back to the biggest title picture in WWE. (Photo courtesy of WWE)
Seth Rollins had faced a long road back to the biggest title picture in WWE. (Photo courtesy of WWE)

Every WWE star knows where they want to be at the end of WrestleMania.

For Seth Rollins, that goal isn’t difficult to envision, considering he has been in that spot once before, holding the WWE championship above his head after stunning Brock Lesnar and Roman Reigns at WrestleMania 31.

This year, Rollins is once again in position to claim one of, if not the, highest title in WWE as he faces Brock Lesnar for the Universal Championship at WrestleMania 35 in MetLife Stadium on Sunday night.

“[This lead up] has been incredible,” Rollins told Yahoo Sports. “Looking at the road that it’s taken me over my career to get to this point, I feel like every single moment has built up to this moment, this match against Brock Lesnar for the Universal Championship. The future of the business feels like it’s on the line, it feels like a very heavy match, a lot of weight is on it.”

Rollins’ sentiment is based in the fact that he and Lesnar are fundamentally different sports entertainers.

Rollins, who made his name more than a decade ago on the independent circuit as Tyler Black, is the epitome of a workhorse. Rollins’ versatility and work rate make him a darling among all professional wrestling fans and his charisma -- as either a heel or babyface -- allows him to evoke nearly any kind of reaction he is looking for.

Lesnar, a wildly successful athlete in his own right, remains a box office draw, but his infrequent appearances on WWE programming, especially while holding a championship belt, have played a role in the crowd turning on him.

“I think people are just sick of it,” Rollins said. “You’ve seen and heard it every single week. They want to see a champion who is going to be there, that’s going to represent them, that’s a champion they can be proud of and one that inspires people.

“Brock Lesnar doesn’t inspire anybody. He’s an industry killer, not an industry builder. He cares about no one but himself and he’ll tell you that, it’s been that way his entire life. He was given the opportunity years ago to carry the mantle here in WWE but it was too tough for him and he walked away. Granted, he’s been able to come back and do things on his own terms, but his own terms only serve himself.”

While Lesnar has put on a string of impressive matches since regaining the Universal Championship late last year, there’s no hiding the fact that without his continual presence on “Monday Night Raw,” the role -- and threat -- of the champion has been somewhat diminished. So much so that nearly the entire build to their WrestleMania match has fallen on Rollins and Lesnar’s vocal advocate, Paul Heyman.

“I put the pressure on myself all the time to make people care if I feel like they don’t,” Rollins said. “I go out there every week and tell them how I feel and they tell me that I’m right or that they agree with me and that’s a major thing. It feels good to get out there and say a lot of the things I’ve wanted to get off my chest about Brock Lesnar. I have been voicing my opinion about him for months now. I wasn’t shy about the differences between my [Intercontinental] title reign and his. Now I get to say it to Paul Heyman’s face because Brock’s not around, but it’s still a good feeling and motivating to know that I have a whole army of supporters behind me.”

For Rollins, it has taken years for him to return to this point. Shortly after winning the WWE Championship in 2015, Rollins suffered a major knee injury, forcing him to undergo surgery and relinquish his title. While Rollins did have a brief (minutes long) title reign and has been in the Universal Championship picture, his momentum was severely derailed.

“This [chase] feels different because it feels like this is the match that I have built on years and years of sacrifice and hard work,” Rollins said. “It’s the one where I just toiled and toiled and I had to deal with broken bones, setbacks, busted relationships, missing weddings, family reunions. This is the one that feels like it’s the buildup from those moments. Everything that I’ve put into this business, it has propelled me here. It feels like there is so much weight behind it.”

Injuries weren’t the only thing holding Rollins back from returning to the WWE’s highest level.

In 2014, Rollins was the lynchpin in one of the biggest heel turns in professional wrestling history when he left the Shield and betrayed Reigns and Dean Ambrose. Rollins’ in-ring ability had always been lauded and evident, but until he healed the divide with and his former stablemates, the crowd would not get behind him.

“When I came back from the injury and building off the rivalry with Triple H and that WrestleMania [33] match, people were still a little bit cautious,” Rollins said. “One of the things that needed to come full circle was the relationship with Ambrose and Roman so to mend that fence with Ambrose and have some incredible tag team matches with him ... that was the catalyst that really helped the audience accept me. It was a slow build but I credit a lot of it to the tag wrestling.”

With the crowd behind him, Rollins’ defining moment of 2018 came last February when he competed in a gauntlet match on “Raw.” In that match, where he performed for more than an hour, the world was able to see Rollins back at full strength.

“I think that was the tipping point where people started to remember how good I was I guess,” Rollins said. “That performance individually reminded people of the champion they saw a few years prior before the knee injury.”

The winding path to WrestleMania for Rollins took another turn last October, as Reigns announced he was taking a leave of absence to battle Leukemia. That same night, Rollins and Ambrose won the Raw Tag Team Championship before the latter turned heel and broke up The Shield again.

The betrayal set off a program between Rollins and Ambrose that never truly felt right for anyone involved.

“The way that affected Ambrose, that wasn’t really his best look,” Rollins said. “No one wanted to see us fight each other, we had been through that, it didn’t feel good. I was upset, he was clearly upset and people didn’t want to see it, they wanted to see us be brothers and care about each other.”

Rollins would go on to win the 2019 Royal Rumble, locking in his position to face Lesnar at WrestleMania, but there was still one piece of unfinished business to attend to. With Reigns having beaten leukemia and Ambrose’s departure from WWE imminent, there was a short window to get the Shield together for one last hurrah.

“At the end of the day, I was happy to have that one last match with my Shield brothers by my side,” Rollins said. “It was one of the most emotional experiences I’ve ever had in a wrestling ring and it felt so good. Whenever we’re back on the same side, it’s so easy, it’s so much fun. Knowing that was the last one, I think we all felt it, were able to soak it in and enjoy that match. That propelled me and gave me all of the momentum I needed heading into WrestleMania.”

While Rollins will be in one of the biggest matches of the card, he won’t be in the main event.

Despite the WWE Heavyweight or Universal Championship ending the night six of the past eight years, Rollins’ match with Lesnar will take place sometime before the Raw Women’s Championship match between Ronda Rousey, Becky Lynch and Charlotte Flair, a move Rollins is a big fan of.

“They have worked so hard this year to get themselves into this position, all three of them, obviously,” Rollins said “This is a landmark moment and historic in almost every way. It was 100 percent the right decision, I’m super proud of all of them, I’m friends with all of them and close to them. I’m really looking forward to them stealing the show and it’s going really, really cool to see.”

Rollins knows where he’ll be at the end of WrestleMania, the only question left is whether he’ll have a championship belt and the hopes of a brand with him.

WrestleMania takes place on Sunday April 7 at MetLife Stadium and will be streamed globally on the WWE Network.

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