November 18, 2018 will mark the exact six-year anniversary of The Shield, a WWE faction that appeared like a supernova and ended up creating three top-flight main event talents. Fittingly, there will be a WWE pay-per-view on this anniversary — Survivor Series, the same annual event where the Shield first appeared. It’s kind of hard to believe that the WWE Universe at large has only been familiar with these three men for six years, but a year in pro wrestling isn’t like any other in sports … or in real life.
There has been a lot of triumph, tragedy, heartbreak, history, and expectations spread out over those six years. On Sunday, only one of the three members of the Shield will officially be in a match, although a second will almost certainly appear. And the third … well, we’ll get to that.
At Survivor Series 2012, three men in all-black tactical attire ran into the ring from the crowd and attacked Ryback, who seemed about to pin John Cena in a Triple Threat Match for the WWE Championship. The three men triple-powerbombed Ryback through an announcer’s table, allowing CM Punk to pin Cena and retain his world title. The three men were identified as being from WWE’s developmental brand, NXT. Seth Rollins, Dean Ambrose, and Roman Reigns had officially arrived on the main roster.
There’s some dispute over the specifics of the behind-the-scenes formation of the Shield. Punk claims that he came up with the concept of three mercenaries who would help him keep his title, and according to him, he hand-selected Ambrose, Rollins, and Kassius Ohno, who had a long history with Punk on the independent scene under the name Chris Hero. Also according to Punk, Triple H nixed Ohno being in the group and made the call to include Reigns as the muscle of the stable instead. (The Shield themselves haven’t really commented on Punk’s version of events, but they do credit longtime WWE producer Joey Mercury with coming up with a lot of the nuts and bolts of what made the unit successful in the ring and on camera. There are also stories about the Shield originally being conceived to carry actual, literal riot shields, and the universe is all the richer for that not happening, but also for us knowing that was on the table.)
Regardless of the story behind the scenes, within WWE storylines the Shield were mercenaries and self-proclaimed “Hounds of Justice.” They spent months attacking people, seemingly in league with Punk and his manager Paul Heyman, although neither side being willing to admit it. According to the Shield, they were standing up for unfairness and injustice as it pertained to WWE’s treatment of its top dogs.
The group had its first official match at TLC in December of 2012 against Ryback, Daniel Bryan and Kane, and even in hindsight, it’s amazing how completely the team functioned as a unit. They moved with urgency and ruthless efficiency, and worked smart. They were all also — every one of them — excellent at this whole pro wrestling business. That they were amazing performers was no surprise to hardcore fans, as Seth Rollins was a former Ring of Honor World Champion under the name of Tyler Black, and Dean Ambrose had previously been an independent scene darling as Jon Moxley, a sometimes-death match wrestler who stood out among his peers for his exceptional promos and microphone work that drew constant comparisons to “Rowdy” Roddy Piper.
Reigns, however, was a pretty unknown entity even to diehard fans. A cousin of the Rock and member of the legendary Anoa’i family, the former Georgia Tech defensive tackle debuted for WWE’s FCW developmental territory under the ring name Leakee. (No, it’s not pronounced like it’s spelled.) After FCW rebranded itself as NXT, the “Roman Reigns” name was established, but Reigns only wrestled in NXT for a couple of months under that name before the Shield was called up.
Once fans became familiar with the Shield, it wasn’t long before they caught on in a big way. They were positioned to be fearsome and dominant. Their “alone with a handheld camera in a dark room” promos, their entrance through the crowd, and their lack of regard for everyone else on the roster made them feel different and vital — something that was definitely lacking in 2012-2013 WWE, even with CM Punk on top at the time.
After the Shield failed to keep the Rock from taking Punk’s title, they slowly drifted away from being mercenaries and were content to be their own, dominant faction. Rollins and Reigns captured the tag team titles and Ambrose won the United States Championship, and with all three members of the Shield holding titles, they began to develop personae: Ambrose was the mouthpiece and therefore de facto leader, Rollins was the ring technician, and Reigns was the muscle. Those characteristics would shift as needs dictated, but they were all badasses, and they were dominant as a unit.
By the end of 2013, the members of the Shield were beloved, and hopes were high for all three men in the company, both as a unit and as individuals. They went on a tear of instant-classic six-man wars against the Wyatt Family and Evolution, and won both of those feuds decisively. They decimated Kane and the New Age Outlaws at WrestleMania XXX, and performed a clean sweep of Randy Orton, Triple H, and Batista at Payback in May of 2018. The next night on Raw, however, Seth Rollins gave us the modern-day version of the Barber Shop window, and turned his back on the Shield, breaking up the group and siding with the Authority of Triple H and Stephanie McMahon.
The three members of the Shield would largely go their separate ways with some twists and turns before a couple of attempted Shield reunions, which ended in as awful a way as we could have imagined. Let’s take a look at the three members of the Shield, what we expected out of them, and what actually happened.
Especially during the early days of the Shield, Ambrose had perhaps the highest expectations among the internet wrestling community, and as of 2018, he might be considered to be the least-accomplished and least-decorated member of the faction. As he did the heavy lifting with the majority of the promos in the first couple of years the Shield was together, as well as being the first member of the trio to capture a singles title, many assumed he might end up being the breakout star of the group. His microphone work drew comparisons to Piper, Jake Roberts, and other legendary promo men, and his “unhinged” persona was the most eye-catching.
While it’s true that Ambrose was the first member of the Shield to capture the career Grand Slam of championships, he was the last to attain world title status. Since breaking from the Shield, he has drawn criticism for wrestling in jeans (as opposed to tactical cargo pants, which are apparently more legitimate in pro wrestling), and for leaning very heavily on his former “Lunatic Fringe” shtick, which focused on him doing cringe-inducing prop comedy. In the flashes where he showed more edge, he connected with fans and critics and excelled, but for the most part, Rollins and Reigns dominated the main event and world title scenes while Ambrose feuded with Kevin Owens and the Miz over the Intercontinental Championship, and with Chris Jericho over the memory of a potted plant.
Ambrose captured the world title for (to date) the first and only time at Money in the Bank in 2016, when he won Money in the Bank and cashed it in the same night on Rollins — who had himself just returned from injury and defeated Reigns to recapture the WWE Championship. Ambrose lost the title less than two months later to AJ Styles, which jump-started Styles’ dominant runs of holding the top title on Smackdown and being the Face that Runs the Place. Ambrose’s most recent largest accomplishment since losing the world title came shortly after Styles won it, when Ambrose defeated John Cena on Smackdown, marking Cena’s first clean pinfall loss on WWE television in seven years. There would be many Cena losses to follow as he transitioned to full-time part-timer, but this is the one that broke the dam.
Ambrose remained a popular fixture of the roster and of the upper-midcard, but just when things began picking up again, he suffered his first serious injury during his time at WWE. Reigns and Ambrose captured the tag team titles (cementing Ambrose’s grand slam) in August 2017, and the Shield attempted to reform for the first time in October. However, an illness for Reigns necessitated Kurt Angle be a replacement in the first new “Shield” match at TLC that month. The Shield did have a match as a full faction at Survivor Series, but Ambrose would suffer an arm injury in December that ended up keeping him out of action for nearly nine months.
When Ambrose finally returned to WWE in August of this year, he sported a new look and a new attitude, returning to a more serious demeanor that was sorely needed. The Shield finally reunited, seemingly for real this time, the night after SummerSlam, but after Reigns was forced to vacate the title and go on hiatus, Ambrose was unable to cope with the loss, violently turning on Rollins moments after recapturing the tag team titles and serving the former turncoat his comeuppance several years later.
Ambrose is currently a former WWE Champion, United States Champion, Money in the Bank holder, two-time Intercontinental Champion, and two-time Raw Tag Team Champion. Somehow, he is the least decorated member of the Shield. Of the three members of the Shield, his spot in the upper echelon of the company is the least assured, but he remains popular regardless of positioning, and his burgeoning feud with Rollins could very well have him poised for a run at the very top of the card … and for the first time as a singles wrestler, as a heel.
(Dean does also have one accomplishment that Rollins and Reigns will likely never be able to match: a cast member on Total Divas for one entire season, during which he notably looked miserable the entire time, and once chased a drunk who stole Renee Young’s hat. We won’t soon be seeing times like that again, I can promise you.)
The former Tyler Black had the most indie cred of the Shield’s members, but was often the least notable of the trio during their initial run. He carried the lion’s share of the load in the ring, but as a former ROH World Champion and tag champ and a former PWG tag champ as part of the Age of the Fall (to say nothing of his time in Do It For Her in MTV’s Wrestling Society X), he was the darling of the wrestling hipster set. And yet … toward the end of the Shield’s first run, most fans were clamoring for Reigns and Ambrose to be the breakout stars. So it came as even more of a shock that it was Rollins who turned to the dark side the night after the faction’s most notable night.
Rollins began opening and closing Raw with long-winded diatribes designed to make fans hate his guts, as he named himself the Architect and SETH FR*CKIN FRACK*NG ROLLINS. Triple H and Stephanie McMahon tabbed him as their chosen one and started stacking decks in his favor, and he captured Money in the Bank and used the briefcase to ruin what was assumed to be Reigns’ first coming-out party as the face of the company at WrestleMania 31.
(Yes, that’s the only non-compilation version of that moment that exists on the official WWE YouTube channel.)
Rollins held the title throughout the summer, and became a double champion when he also captured the United States Championship. He started a feud that became an alliance with Daily Show host and wrestling fan Jon Stewart, and successfully defended the WWE Championship in what would end up being Sting’s final pro wrestling match. During this same stretch, Rollins drew ire from legends and contemporaries and began being tarred by critics as being an “unsafe worker” after breaking John Cena’s nose and then causing a severe injury with a turnbuckle bomb in his match against Sting. Both injuries were freak occurrences, but the stigma persisted longer than it should have. Also around this time, Rollins’ “Curb Stomp” finisher was phased out (or banned, depending on who you believe), and he adopted Triple H’s Pedigree as his full-time finisher.
In November 4, 2015, during a tour of Europe, Rollins tore his knee completely to pieces in a match against Kane, forcing him to vacate the world title and keeping him out of action for six months. He finally returned in May, but in a series of tone-deaf decisions, he returned as a heel, despite a crowd rabid for his return as a conquering hero. He lobbied for and received a match against Roman Reigns at the 2016 Money in the Bank, and captured the title from Reigns, who was already going through a … difficult period with fans. Rollins then immediately lost the title to Ambrose (see above). Rollins became Raw’s No. 1 draft pick in the new brand split in July, and in September, he finally began to split from the Authority and return to being a fan favorite.
The lengthy build to Triple H vs. Seth Rollins at WrestleMania 33 began, but it was jeopardized when Rollins re-injured his knee in January of 2017, putting the match in jeopardy. Rollins managed to recover in time to face and defeat Triple H at Mania, earning him yet another nickname, “Kingslayer,” because this is a guy who used to have a move called “Avada Kedavra” when he was Tyler Black (the “Black” taken from “Sirius Black,” of course).
Recently, Rollins has reinvigorated himself with Intercontinental Championship reigns (the first of which, in April, capped off his own Grand Slam) and his incredible hour-long performance in a Raw gauntlet match, and has dedicated himself (in between failed Shield reunions) to being the best performer on the roster. Currently, expectations for Rollins are arguably at an all-time high with a new need for a top babyface on Raw, and it’s possible that once Rollins and Ambrose put their feud behind them, there may be room for both of them in the world title picture.
Rollins is a former NXT Champion, United States Champion, two-time WWE Champion, four-time Tag Team Champion (he had a reign with Jason Jordan!), and two-time and current Intercontinental Champion. He is also the only active member of the roster to have a bronze statue made of himself, and Sting should be in jail for destroying it with a garbage truck.
Tarred throughout his career by accusations of nepotism, favoritism, being overrated, being on the gas, being underrated, and given far too much, too soon, and for too long, the conversation about Roman Reigns has never been an easy one. Unfortunately, it’s not a very simple conversation, but for an awful reason.
The truth is, people were over the moon about Reigns as the mostly-silent and very kick-ass powerhouse of the Shield, and they LOVED him. Loved his guts to pieces. But when Rollins turned and it was reported and rumored over and over again that Reigns was seen as and/or being groomed to be the face of the company, the fans soured on him in a hurry. The final straw for the majority of fans was the 2015 Royal Rumble, when he won the Royal Rumble instead of the eliminated-early Daniel Bryan, and not even the Rock raising his hand could prevent the Philadelphia crowd from turning on him.
That kicked off a run of four straight WrestleMania main events, although he is 2-2 in those matches. Over those four years, crowds booed him lustily no matter the situation, and although he has become a four-time world champion with a consistently high level of performance in the ring and is objectively a world-class wrestler, his constant presence in the main event scene at the perceived exclusion of preferred stars, combined with being given cringeworthy lines to deliver has kept the fans against him … at least up until the recent attempts at Shield reunions.
Reigns also wasn’t helped by a 2016 suspension for a WWE Wellness Policy violation, or by baffling booking decisions like running him up against Brock Lesnar for months on end with losses ow wonky finishes, rather than just giving him or anyone else the title. Regardless of the reasons behind why fans don’t like what WWE does with Reigns, they’ve spent the past few years using Reigns as the complete focus of their animosity towards anything they believe to be wrong with professional wrestling. He also appeared to have retired the Undertaker at WrestleMania 33 (although that proved not to be the case), giving fans yet another reason to despise him, and leading to one of the greatest promos in the history of this business.
All of this makes it even more crushing that on October 22, Reigns announced that he has leukemia, after the disease was in remission for the past 11 years. He vacated his Universal Championship and is on indefinite leave as he undergoes treatment. Arguably the most shocking and unexpected announcement in pro wrestling history, it was a massive reality check for fans and wrestlers the world over, and immediately put pretty much everything about Roman Reigns, both the character and the person, into stark perspective.
Reigns has a spot in the main event waiting for him should he ever return, and his legacy is all but cemented. He is a former Universal Champion, Tag Team Champion, United States Champion, Intercontinental Champion, three-time WWE Champion, and Royal Rumble winner.
There’s no telling what’s going to happen next, but the three members of the Shield have packed these past six years with more twists and turns than most wrestlers see in their entire careers. They’ve all reached incredible heights and they’ve all been horribly snakebit at the worst possible times, but they’ve already solidified their place as one of the greatest factions of all time.
Here’s hoping we haven’t seen the last of the Shield as a unit, but we certainly haven’t seen the last of any of these three performers, who will likely be seen as the cornerstones of pro wrestling for an entire generation of professional wrestling fans.