It’s been a struggle to get excited for Summerslam this year - the television has been pretty dire on the Monday Night Raw (MNR) side. It was only this last week, with the exciting return of a new look Dean Ambrose, that I finally found something to get excited about.
This will mark the now fifth year in a row that Seth Rollins and Ambrose have worked a programme opposite one another in some form, and yet it still feels fresh. That’s a remarkable creative achievement, and should be recognised as such. It is, in the most literal sense of the word, unprecedented within WWE. Constantly torn apart and brought back together, torn apart and brought back together, the Rollins / Ambrose story defies definition as a ‘feud’ and, instead, takes on the more conceptual mantle of ‘story.’ These are two three-dimensional characters that have taken on a life of their own, sharing in a relationship that repeatedly defines their existence. Tonight, we witness the fifth chapter in that evolving relationship.
We will find out what that looks like in more specific terms in just a few short hours. What that will be, I’m not sure, and can only be sure that I’m likely to love it as much as I have loved the first four chapters that have preceded it.
Each of those four chapters has carried a unique identity and served only to add another layer onto their friendship. So, ahead of Chapter 5, I thought it would be fun to sit down and rank, in terms of quality, Chapters 1 - 4 of the ever-evolving Rollins / Ambrose relationship.
Arguably the most tepidly received chapter of the Rollins / Ambrose story, their 2016 confrontations felt considerably more incidental than the heavily character driven interactions found elsewhere in the annals of their relationship. This might be in large part because of the company going through a major creative change at the time by reintroducing the Brand Extension, coupled with the conflating spectre of a suspended but still involved Roman Reigns.
Yet even this least strong, most diluted chapter of the Lunatic and Architect’s saga still boasts two TV classics and two hugely cathartic moments vital to the evolving relationship I now put under the microscope - the first being Dean Ambrose’s cash-in on a newly re-crowned World Champion Seth Rollins, thus bringing the still unresolved revenge arc of 2014 to a close, and the second being Ambrose’s status-affirming victory in what remains thus far the only time all three former members of The Shield have wrestled on the main roster; and, what’s more, taking the WWE World Heavyweight Championship with him in the process.
Those two moments marked 2016’s entry into the Rollins / Ambrose saga as being all about Dean’s revenge, providing the necessary conclusion to what was then a career-defining chase for the Lunatic Fringe. That Rollins and Ambrose during this period headlined the last MNR of the outgoing Reality Era and the first ever Smackdown Live (SDL) of the incoming new Era, as well as having been picked as the first and second overall draft picks of the second Extension, only contributes further to this deceptively complex piece of their puzzle of a pairing.
The forgotten middle section of Ambrose’s original revenge quest, the three matches Rollins and Ambrose wrestled while the former held the WWE World Heavyweight Championship in 2015 might just be my favourite chapter (not necessarily the one I consider the best) of their story thus far.
Kicking off with a non-title encounter on MNR between the two ahead of Payback that year, in which Ambrose attained a victory that saw him inserted into the aforementioned pay-per-view’s main event title bout, it wasn’t long before we had returned fully to the feud that defined 2014’s burgeoning mid card scene. Only this time, it was the main event.
From there, the two competed for the title in an old school delight of a match, heavily New Generation Era in style, at Elimination Chamber that eventuated in controversy that spawned what is, to my mind, their best one on one match to date, and the best Ladder Match of all time, at Money in the Bank; a genre masterpiece, that sought to return the overexposed match type to its roots.
Match quality couples with the prominence of their newly attained main event stage to help place ‘One Bad Decision’ in third place, but its piste de resistance was the way in which it shed more light on Ambrose’s state of mind after Rollins’ betrayal the year before - he hated Rollins for what Rollins was doing to himself, as much as he continued to love him in spite of what Rollins had done to him with the chair shot heard around the world, all of it underpinned with the conflict of the happiness felt for seeing Rollins attain what he had always wanted and the need to inflict justice because of the means by which Rollins attained it.
Intensely emotionally complex but beautifully simple in the ring, their 2015 run ins, fuelled by Rollins’ ‘one bad decision’ as Ambrose called it at the time, have become one of WWE’s forgotten gems.
Depending on the day and on my mood the second and first placed chapters in the Rollins / Ambrose story are likely to switch places. To prove that point, ‘Fratricide’ - the initial betrayal story that has come to define both of them - was, for the longest time, placed in the prime position until I started thinking back to their reunion last year.
Perhaps it has been bested only because of its harder cynical edge in comparison to the feel good uplifting optimism of 2017’s reunion, but the first chapter in the Rollins / Ambrose saga (on the main roster, anyway) nevertheless remains an absolute masterpiece in mid card writing.
Propelled across a span of months but kept fresh through simple, effective writing tricks like injury write-offs and multi-man match encounters, Chapter 1 has a lot to boast about. It helped create arguably the best Men’s Money in the Bank Ladder Match since the very first one some nine years beforehand. It was responsible for an all-time mid card classic, being one of the most innovative matches ever seen at a Summerslam, and was capped off with a sublime and literate Hell in a Cell Match that paid tribute to a multitude of its genre-defining predecessors in a PG-friendly manner, proving that the genre still had a place in spite of its tonal shift, while becoming the first match in years to headline a pay-per-view without featuring a favourite of the Attitude Era or ‘OVW Class of 2002.’
2014’s chapter saw Rollins and Ambrose solidify themselves as the beneficiaries of the disruptive grenades named CM Punk and Daniel Bryan, and in the process of doing just that the two men gave us some of the most entertaining and layered performances of their respective careers. Their Lumberjack Match is a personal favourite, as is their Hell in a Cell Match - and all of this without mentioning an outstanding Falls Count Anywhere affair on Monday Night Raw.
Pulsing at the heart of all of this was a pinch of political intrigue thanks to the fringe presence of Rollins’ new adopted home, The Authority, but more importantly the heady cocktail of vengeful rage and sorrowful loss that allowed Ambrose in particular to litter their ring work with small touches that spoke to the complexities of both men’s relationship with one another.
Chapter 1 remains the darkest chapter of them all; thus far, anyway.
In the end, I had to place last year’s ‘Reunion’ as the very best entry in the Rollins / Ambrose story though, because it proved to be the perfect marriage of everything that has made this particular relationship so utterly compelling in the first place.
They had the prominent stage, wrestling feature length mid card tag matches on pay-per-view that stole the show twice over, and headlining another pay-per-view without their bed-ridden brother Reigns; it was a headliner in which both men put in a shift.
They had the match quality. Their MNR Tag Team Championship feud with The Bar resulted in Rollins’ and Ambrose’s second all-time classic at the summer classic, before going on to top that achievement with what many considered to be an even better sequel at No Mercy the following month. Throw in a couple of television main event hits to boot and what resulted was the strongest, most composed tag feud of the year (sorry Usos and New Day!).
They had the strong TV build. As my LOP colleague SirSam is oft quick to point out, Rollins and Ambrose got a good six weeks of emotionally driven, characterful and compelling television out of a fist bump; purely because, thanks to every chapter ranked lower on this list, that fist bump had developed a mind-blowing degree of subtext. TV segments were committed to with a rarely seen degree of immersive believability as the two men performed their hearts out as much on the microphone as they came to in the ring, and at least one of those segments - the eventual fist bump on the go-home MNR before Summerslam - had one of the hottest, loudest live reactions of the last few years.
Their story translated into the ring, both men functioning more as a clumsy brotherhood giddily riding high on the emotion of their reunion than the slickly oiled machine they once were. Matches were palpably raw, like an exposed nerve, and every win felt hard earned and overwhelmingly cathartic.
Above all else, all of its emotional weight proved to be positively uplifting, a glimmer of smile-inducing, heart-warming optimism at a time when we need nothing more in our escapism.
Chapter 4 is going to be hard to top.
It’s only a matter of hours now until we see how and if Rollins and Ambrose can do just that, top their opus of a chapter from twelve months ago, and whatever they end up doing I have a feeling that whatever now looms in the background, drawing ever closer, may prove to be even darker than the fratricide that kicked this saga off to begin with.
So until the future reveals itself, if you have any thoughts on tonight’s Summerslam event, on the Ambrose and Rollins story or on anything I have discussed in this column, let them be known in the comments below, over on social media or even by signing up to our own LOPForums; just click here to sign up!