“Everybody wants a happy ending, right? But it doesn’t always roll that way.” ~ Tony Stark, Avengers: Endgame
Professional wrestling is life.
I write this not to sound cute but to drive at the heart of how I think about the medium: professional wrestling is life because professional wrestling is performance art, and as art it is inherently possessed of the potential for allegory; allegory of our society, of our history, of our human experience, be that experience universal or intimately individual.
For me, the best professional wrestling is that which realises this potential. That’s what great art does. That’s what Brock Lesnar vs. Seth Rollins for the Universal Championship did.
On the surface, it felt like a familiar routine of the full-time talent in love with the industry pitting himself against the part-time talent who was hijacking it. Only it was never just about that at all. On the back of Brock Lesnar’s devious cash-in at Extreme Rules, itself coming on the back of Rollins’ successful but ultimately stained win at WrestleMania 35, the final match on the Summerslam 2019 card was the final scene in a story that has been running for years.
That story is the Seth Rollins story, that I have spent many column inches here at Lords of Pain covering. From founding The Shield to destroying it, from being promised the world by the Authority to being neutered as an addict by it, from slaying the king to reclaim his independence to using it to earn forgiveness in repairing his relationship with Dean Ambrose – and later attaining redemption in returning that same mercy years later – Rollins’ journey has seen him stripped of everything that made him who he was before beginning the effort to redesign who he wanted to be, rebuild himself from the ground up and reclaim his very soul.
WrestleMania 35 felt like the happy ending to end that story, but it came with a caveat that saw Rollins return to his more circumspect ways to emerge as champion. In retrospect, it was a win but no victory for a man fighting to be his best self every day of his life. For the fatefully minded, it was perhaps this very caveat that meant ‘Mania turned out to be no ending at all, but rather an avenue by which Brock Lesnar could finally take his long-awaited revenge in full for the closing moments of WrestleMania 31.
The question hanging over the head of their Summerslam rematch, then, was whether it would be the happy ending Seth Rollins had been seeking to earn, or not. It was about revenge, and championships, and schedules, but it was about so much more than that too. It was about the strength of a man’s will and the fight to wash away the sins of the past by promising the future only the very best version of himself he could muster.
Indeed, not for the first time, Rollins’ story of the night at Summerslam last week was about one thing: the sheer will of man. A threat easy to underestimate, especially for a creature used to fighting something more than such a simple thing. “Wasn’t Seth Rollins supposed to be the Beastslayer…the one man that had Brock Lesnar’s number?!” Paul Heyman screeches in question in the pre-match hype package. I wonder, would that number, by any chance, be, say, the 1 in 21 and 1, Paul? Because with Seth Rollins, there’s no undead augmentation, no supernatural power – only the indomitable will that had pushed him to impossible achievements as a matter of exhausting routine throughout his arc.
In the end, of course, it would turn out that Rollins did indeed have Lesnar’s number; or, at the very least, Lesnar never had Rollins’. The reason for that is because of Rollins’ aforementioned journey, the trials and tribulations no other man of his generation has had to go through, thereby setting the ‘Slayer apart from all those who tried to slay the Beast and fail.
“This is all I am. This is all I got,” are the words of the ghost of that journey when we hear them during the hype package. “I’ve already fought for the boys in the locker room. I’ve already fought for the WWE Universe. Tonight I slay the beast for me,” Corey Graves claims is Rollins’ self-proclaimed mission statement that night, and of course it is. The ill-advised headlong assaults on Brock Lesnar that had left Rollins injured coming into the main event indicated as much. The tactical mindset that had characterised the Architect and propelled Rollins towards wins in wars for high stakes was gone, replaced instead by a blinded wilfulness – an over-abundance, borderline out of control surplus of his indomitable will – that was reckless but never careless; instead, it was a burning testament to how much Rollins did care about this fight, about what it meant on a personal level as the necessary and urgent end to his personal odyssey that demanded he not only regain what he had now lost to Lesnar but keep what he had gained as a man in the pursuit.
You see all of this reflect no less obviously than in Rollins’ all-black garb. He arrives dressed for a funeral, because a funeral was the only permissible situation in which he did not walk away as Universal Champion. Championship aspiration, survival, redemption – here, now, they were all one and the same thing, and that thing was spelt ‘success.’
Personally for Rollins, then, the stakes had never been so high, explaining away why his will now burned like an inferno beyond control. You see it come into play within the opening seconds too, both men circling the other for the briefest of moments before Seth is compelled to quite literally charge forwards; there are no tactics, no feints, just a cannonball-like trajectory right into the waiting and hungry arms of the Beast.
The familiar story begins to take shape effective immediately. There’s the clubbing blows, the rough-housing, the shoulders to the taped up and targeted stomach and soon enough we’re on course for our usual trip to Suplex City – until Rollins lands on his feet and nails an opportunistic Curb Stomp suddenly, shockingly.
A near fall follows and in the blink of an eye it feels like the whole world as changed irrevocably. Lesnar lies shaken on the outside, and the camera brilliantly captures the shocked faces of Heyman and Rollins both – Paul, hand over mouth in the background beyond the ropes, Rollins wide-eyed, mouth agape, in the foreground. The realisation begins to settle.
Rollins’ will has taken the driver’s seat. I’ve written of this before – the will that drives him to attain the success he craves unlike anything else, it’s the strongest force in WWE’s fictional universe because it has to be, by virtue of the lofty heights and unrelentingly grand scope of that said success that Rollins so unrelentingly requires.
The reactions in that moment then, of both Heyman and Rollins, are instinctive, betraying the unexpected nature of the moment and telling the world we are witnessing a revelation. Rollins’ will-power guided him to his feet in response to Lesnar’s suplex, pushed him to Stomp without blinking and now offers him the answer, not just to the question of his own survival but to the long-awaited, for so long agonisingly distant conclusion to the journey they’ve been through together. It is in that one moment, and in the reactions to it, the landscape shifts, the tone alters and suddenly the audacity of hope places Brock Lesnar firmly in troubled waters.
What follows is more decisive action, as Rollins’ will-power continues to control his limbs; a diving knee outside, a close pursuit back into fresh sure-footing to neuter another suplex; but, after this brief audacious passage of hope, the story provides a stark and nightmarish reminder that Brock Lesnar is no ordinary opponent and, even in its overflowing abundance, Rollins’ will has a fight on its hands: a charge for the Stomp results in a rapid and momentum-curtailing F5 and images rent from the conclusion to their previous encounter at Royal Rumble 2015 flash across the mind’s eye.
In the aftermath of this turbulent opening phase the pace is allowed to settle and hearts steady as a shocked Lesnar leans back against the ropes in surprise as to the breadth of what he now realises opposes him. It’s an importantly effective moment that allows the audience to regain their lost minds, but one that also fascinatingly hints back at the reactions that more than one opponent had to the once most powerful force in WWE’s universe, the Streak; you know, the one that Lesnar killed. History, it seems, is not without an eye for poetry.
What follows speaks to the mindset of Lesnar. The beat-down of Rollins that begins with the man being swung around like a child by the bandages taping his injured ribs feels borderline gratuitous and Lesnar’s scream of “Closing time, bitch!” doesn’t feel worlds away from his one time proclamation of “Suplex City, bitch!” to Rollins’ brother on the night Rollins stole the WWE World Heavyweight Championship from the Beast and Roman Reigns both.
Watch closely at the suplexes that follow. They’re more tightly executed, dispossessed of the characteristic release that usually comes with them. The Beast is adapting, squashing down any opportunity Rollins’ will can seize to turn the tide. It’s an exchange that feels uncomfortably invasive, Lesnar breathing down Rollins’ neck quite literally as he progresses the physical dissection that more closely resembles the status quo of his previous conquests.
Lesnar holds Rollins by the hair, leads him about the ring, pauses to relish the assault; it’s a self-luxuriating turn from the champion, one that hints at the rage-inducing embarrassments and ignominious failures of his previous encounters with the ‘Slayer. Indeed, by the time Lesnar is confident enough to return to his release on every suplex beyond the confines of the ring he lets out a primal roar of triumph, all the past frustrations erupting out of him in volcanic temper.
It is worth remembering, however, that this is not the wrestling high fantasy of Brock Lesnar vs. The Undertaker, nor the Saracen fables of Lesnar vs. Reigns. It is a more intimate story of human fortitude, that which is possessed by the hero named Seth Rollins, and it is with another wink back to the moment that tides turned at WrestleMania 31 that Rollins’ will takes the briefest of moments to have the challenger escape a disastrous F5 and drive the champion skull first into the ring post.
Every moment in this match is laced with history and contributes to not only telling the story of its moment but retelling the story of how we arrived at this point. The artistry has depth, the emotional vein pulses with vibrant life, and though you might be forgiven for claiming the match has a deliberate pace it would be just as true to label it ‘urgent.’ The ticking clock does not originate here from a shortening time limit, but from the race to see whether it is Lesnar’s feral instinct for destruction or the sheer ferocity of Rollins’ will in full display that can adapt faster. Soon enough, the match is referencing its own self – Rollins’ opening with the ring post is swiftly followed with another diving knee, and as his face crunches at the agony felt by his seemingly preternaturally, certainly inexplicably willed on limbs forcing him to go high once more, Lesnar demonstrates his own frightful skill in escaping the next attack and releasing Rollins from another suplex. And this time, there is no sure footing at the far end of the ring for our challenger.
The sequencing becomes increasingly breathless, and the pauses Lesnar now requires rather than enjoys become deafening in their quiet prior the audience’s intermittent recoveries from the ever-more effectively constructed jolting action.
Question: when was the last time Brock Lesnar used a bear hug? Answer: I have no idea, but it certainly wasn’t any time recently. It is Rollins who scrambles for the nearest ropes to a desperate cry of “No, no, no!” when the Beast deploys the rarely used hold, but the desperation found in a usually supremely confident challenger being reduced to applying the simplest and least risky of all holds feels as if it cries the same in silence. It’s an effort to regain complete and total control over a situation that does not seem at all controllable. Lesnar, in fact, only becomes pettier: he has no response as Rollins’ body is willed to the ring ropes for a break, other than to slap Rollins on the back in protest and begin to take brazen shortcuts by choking the life out of the man on the ropes. Rarely have the champion’s instincts seemed quite so aimless.
It is the aforementioned meaning of victory here that drives Rollins beyond the limits of the human pain threshold, and the most emotive reminder comes as he crawls for distance from a stalking Brock Lesnar only to edge closer to the sermon of a Paul Heyman telling him that he can tap and “We’d all respect you for it!” Perhaps many would, but crucially there is the overwhelming sense that Seth Rollins couldn’t respect himself for it. And if he left that night knowing he had surrendered at the final hurdle and failed to find any respect for his own self, what would the excruciating emotional tortures and character-altering mistakes of the preceding seven years have all been for?
Death or victory is how success is defined for Rollins at this late hour, and whichever came would be total.
It’s for this reason he is able to avoid a charge from the Beast and see Brock Lesnar hurtle shoulder first into the ring post, and it is for this reason he is able to charge through the white hot pain that should cripple him to nail a succession of suicide dives that had once gained him important ground at Battleground 2015. But it is perhaps because Battleground 2015 is a shared experience for the two men that Lesnar knows what follows the double-tap, and is able to turn the sea-sawing momentum back to his favour.
“Will can only carry you so far through life,” Graves proclaims on commentary moments before Rollins seizes his second-long opening to superkick Brock Lesnar onto the announce table shortly thereafter, and, formed from the heat of his pained ribs, a memory stirs in Rollins’ mind, a memory of a revelation he uncovered years prior. Royal Rumble 2015 springs back into life as Lesnar lies prone in the same spot he did then, and Rollins leaps to the heavens from the same post as he had then, and history becomes prologue, both of them crashing and burning together through the table in a replication of the moment Rollins had broken Lesnar’s rib. Graves, it seems, was only part-right: will can carry you to wherever you need to go when your will is that possessed of the ‘Slayer, even when that means a fall from on-high; the most succinct way to define Rollins’ personal journey now concluding, no less.
From there, the odds are even for the first time and the two combatants crawl their way back to the battleground of the ring whereupon, in as pertinent and powerful a statement of defiance as I can ever remember seeing, Rollins follows his first frog splash with a second – a move that once slew the Beast in his distant past, and a move that damages Rollins’ ribs as much as any assault from Lesnar himself. It’s the moment the result is writ in stone, as Rollins’ will gets the last laugh and the Beastslayer silently promises, “You cannot defeat me.” The second splash may even be the highlight of the entire story, a moment that, when read into, feels as elating as it does vicarious, its resolution an overdue but no less inspiring refusal to surrender to the whims of a monster that has dragged their entire world to its knees in seeming perpetuity. It is Seth Rollins’ “I…am…Iron Man…” moment.
Of course, the ending doesn’t come there. Instead what happens is as precise a use of the false finish as you could hope for, and a moment of pause for a Rollins who, blurry eyed, nonetheless nods in affirmation of his new-found sense of defiant confidence. He stomps his foot to underline that defiant confidence, to an equally resolute, now firmly on-side chorus of “Burn it down!” and, though Lesnar’s adaptations continue as he looks to repeat the very conclusion of that Royal Rumble Triple Threat in near like-for-like fashion, it serves only for the Beast to demonstrate his greatest weakness: his inability to understand the human condition.
As Rollins counters the F5, nails a fresh superkick and connects with a victorious Curb Stomp that places the full stop at the end of his journey, he underlines his capacity for change. There were no shortcuts this time, no embraces of his worst self excused by notions of survival. After all, this match, this Herculean effort, wasn’t ‘just’ about capturing a championship or banishing Brock Lesnar anymore. This was death or victory, and either in total, and total victory came in the form of his attaining an indisputable win exclusively as the best version of himself he had fought to become since his harrowing experience within The Authority.
Lesnar – even his advocate, Paul Heyman – is entirely unable to comprehend such capacity any man has to change, because it is beyond their means to do so themselves. Any adaptations Lesnar makes during the bout are framed exclusively in the context of combat. They’re counter moves, not lessons learned. Reeling, outmatched and unable to understand the depth of meaning their match has for his opponent, in one final fatal moment he seeks to simply replicate what had come before, as so many fleeting moments within the content of the match itself seem to do. But for Seth Rollins, those moments aren’t replications at all; they really are lessons learned, fuel for the fire of his new self that emerges from the smoke of this climactic conclusion finally, gloriously fully-formed.
It is in that aftermath that Rollins’ will gives way to his heart, and the emotion pours unfiltered out of the soul of a man who had now, finally, completed his mission to redesign, rebuild and reclaim his best self by slaying the Beast, becoming the Universal Champion and discovering the fullest extent of who he was born to be: Seth freakin’ Rollins! So it is his tears flow, like the cries of a new born.
You see, it’s like I said: professional wrestling is performance art. And as art, for me truly great professional wrestling is defined by a very simple truth: does it speak to you on a personal level?
It’s not just this match that has done so to me, but Seth Rollins’ entire journey. It is for that reason that I will happily tell anyone who will listen that the breathtaking accomplishment of Brock Lesnar vs. Seth Rollins at Summerslam 2019 was an outright masterpiece, as sublime a slice of pro wrestling performance art as I can remember experiencing in my lifetime. A verbose statement perhaps, but a true one.
At the time of WrestleMania 35 in April of this year, I thought I’d seen the happy ending to the journey of Seth Rollins. It turned out to be a false finish – the happy ending I wanted then didn’t roll that way. Not so at Summerslam. Through its reflective content, its emotive tone, its masterfully dramatic structure and the emotional relief of its gloriously decisive, entirely committal conclusion, Lesnar / Rollins didn’t stop at being a performance art masterpiece, but went further, looking, sounding and feeling like a proper happy ending to one of the most stunning character arcs in all of WWE history.
Professional wrestling really is life, and it’s stories like this one that make it well worth living.
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