Sometimes a WWE superstar can make a statement that reveals more about a subject than was intended by those who scripted the scene. Such an moment occurred on Monday night when Dean Ambrose stated that he—along with Seth Rollins and Roman Reigns—were neither The Nexus nor The NWO.
Within the scope of this storyline, Ambrose’s comment was designed to indicate that The Shield are planning to carve a new path in the wrestling industry that has never been seen before.
However, the pronouncement also reveals where the group’s future lies.
Singling out two of the most famous mass factions as examples of what they are not is a strong indication against a future outpouring of NXT talent joining The Shield.
Considering that there have only been three successful types of faction in recent wrestling history—namely a mass faction with many members, a short-term alliance between two or more former champions and the classic four-piece group of main eventer with manager, midcarder and tag-team—then the chances are that The Shield will be adopting the classic four-piece set up.
Examples of the four-piece are notable throughout wrestling history. The Four Horsemen are possibly the greatest of all the examples, and the second forming of DX and Evolution also show this methodology has worked throughout the ages.
Obviously, The Shield are currently only a three, but this does not prevent them from following the design of a four-piece group as members are able to hold dual roles if necessary. It could also fall into the classic set-up if CM Punk does become leader of the faction in coming weeks.
What follows is a breakdown of the key elements in this type of faction, why this is so successful and how The Shield—with or without CM Punk—may be able to emulate others’ success.
One of the reasons that the four-piece groups of the past have been so successful is their elegant simplicity.
The classic example of such a faction comprises of four units. The first element is a leader—who is usually the athlete with the most prominent career prior to the formation of the group—and his constant companion tends to be a manager, who makes up the second element.
The third member is a singles competitor who challenges for the minor titles, and he will usually be a promising newcomer who learns from his more experienced stablemates. The final unit is a fully functioning tag team, whose combined purpose is not only to chase the tag team titles but also to add strength and depth.
The leader and his manager get the advantage of having back up when hunting for the major titles, while the rest of the group get the opportunity to learn from an already successful wrestler and the knowledge of a manager whose job is to guide wrestlers to the top of their profession.
This formula first came to prominence through the National Wrestling Alliance faction known as The Four Horsemen. Ric Flair was their charismatic leader, with Tully Blanchard fighting for the secondary belt and Arn and Ole Anderson the tag team element. This was rounded off by the services of Hall Of Fame manager JJ Dillon.
Oddly, The Horsemen came together accidentally,—and were already successful on their own before uniting—but their design has been replicated many times. Sometimes a group has less than five members, so one performer fills more than one role; such was the case with Ric Flair in his time with Evolution, where he was a tag team member and manager.
The reason why this design is so effective is that all members of the group are going after a title, and this allows the group a lot of television time without causing internal conflict by more than one member vying for the same belt. Everyone involved gets a huge amount of exposure and a rub from being connected with other champions.
Obviously the group eventually matures to the point where two or more members are in the hunt for the ultimate accolade of being WWE or World Heavyweight champion, and conflict arises. This is the signal for the group to disband, which hopefully leaves the WWE with two or more major stars to main-event shows as the company moves on. If this happens, then the group can be deemed a success.
In The Shield’s current formation, the group could struggle to recreate the magic of the four-piece system. There is no obvious leader at this point—although one could emerge—and this could lead to early conflict since there is no experienced figurehead to guide them in tough times.
However the addition of CM Punk and Paul Heyman to the group would transform the faction into a perfect unit for the classic four-piece system. Punk would be the big-name leader, while the other three could then form into a tag team and lower-tier singles competitor, depending on how their skill sets best compliment each particular role.
Heyman would naturally fill the management void to help his young warriors rise up the ranks, which should lead to one or more of these wrestlers being main event-ready when the group eventually splits.
So there is a good chance—if Punk and Heyman join the group—that all involved could become very successful from it.
The most successful groups patterned on the four-piece design have wrestlers with very exacting qualities which complement each other.
Usually this can be broken down to a leader, who is usually a good all-rounder, a power wrestler, a technical wrestler, and either a brawler or a high-flyer.
The second coming of DX fits this pattern almost perfectly, as Triple H was both the power guy and an all-round threat while his second-in-command—X-Pac—could fly with anyone in that time period. Road Dogg was one of the strike-first brawlers to become prominent in the WWE and Billy Gunn was extremely technically proficient.
The members of Evolution can equally be divided up in such a pattern with Triple H being the all-rounder again, Batista taking the power role, Randy Orton the technical specialist and Flair representing the old-school style rarely seen today.
This differentiation between characters is really important as it allows the wrestlers within the group to create unique identities. Wrestlers—especially the younger ones—use the duration of the faction to grow as performers, which hopefully leads to them into becoming big names in the future.
More importantly, it is also improves the fan’s experience. These factions are inevitably thrown into many tag team affairs, so the different styles make the matches more interesting to watch.
When groups are not so carefully put together—as was the case of JBL’s Cabinet— the outcome can be negative for all involved. The three additional active members—Orlando Jordan and Doug and Danny Basham—all had a similar brawling style that emulated their leader. This may have been a good idea on paper, but in reality the consistency of style made their matches particularly monotonous to view.
Crowd disinterest saw the group separate, and the knock to their image saw all three performers out of the company within a couple of years.
The Shield—with or without Punk—look very well suited to complement each other in this respect. Seth Rollins is known for his technical ability, while Dean Ambrose’s manic approach is akin to nothing usually seen in a WWE ring. Reigns is clearly the muscle of the group, and Punk could easily come in as the all-rounder on top—if circumstances required him to do so.
Even the most brief of observations would suggest that this separation of skill sets is highly calculated and planned by the WWE.
One of the biggest advantages of being part of a group is the fact that the wrestlers involved can hide any issues that they might have in their performances.
Many wrestlers look great in the ring but are unable to communicate well with the crowd, while others cannot find the consistency in their craft which allows them to perform at the top level every night. Such problems can really curtail a promising career, but the addition of another wrestler with complementary skills can make all the difference.
The classic example of this is The New Age Outlaws, where Billy Gunn’s competence in the ring allowed the Road Dogg to excel on the mic. Neither man was particularly good at the other man’s specialty, so they were unlikely to excel by themselves.
Other problems that can be hidden in the group dynamic include ring rust, injury, and even under-training in the WWE style.
Many of these problems go away with practice and exposure to the WWE crowd, so a performer within a faction can become a well-rounded figure by the time they strike out on their own. It should not be surprising that the likes of Triple H, Randy Orton and JBL were all subordinates in earlier factions before leading one themselves.
This is one of the biggest reasons for the WWE to consistently create factions to rule the WWE for elongated periods of time: doing so produces well-rounded performers who will often go on to become the main-event talent of the future.
In all honesty, it is too early to be able to know if members of The Shield can hide the deficiencies of their compatriots as they have not been on WWE television enough to know what their strengths and weaknesses are. Hopefully, the following weeks will show this process in action.
Looking at the most successful groups in professional wrestling history, one feature that they all have is a uniting factor that is more complex than simply wanting to become better wrestlers or championship contenders.
The Four Horsemen lived their personas outside the ring as much as they did inside it, and that party lifestyle was only going to be maintained if they stayed the premium group in wrestling.
DX—through all its different incarnations—had an overwhelming desire to push the boundaries of what could be done in the ring, both physically and morally, and this united them in a cause.
The NWO was underlined by power-hungry individuals that wanted to form a company around their image, and Legacy had a familiar connection due to them all being second- or third-generation superstars. Even real life familiar ties have been used to gather a group together.
These common bonds allow the performers to connect at a deeper level, and this appears to resonate with the audience. Why this phenomena occurs is rather mysterious, although one observation would be that the fans believe in the performances more if the connection of friendship between these people is deeper than the wrestling reasons stated on television.
Guessing at whether there is such a uniting factor amongst The Shield is a dangerous process, but there are a few possibilities. The most likely uniting factor amongst most of the potential members—with or without the inclusion of Punk and Heyman—is the indie wrestling roots that they share.
Punk, Rollins and Ambrose were all leading lights of the independent scene, while it is impossible to think of Heyman without thinking about Extreme Championship Wrestling, which has been the blueprint for many small organizations around the globe.
Their struggles to get noticed by—or in Heyman’s case compete against—the WWE so they can show their talents could be a very strong uniting force.
One glaring issue with this is Roman Reigns, who was an American footballer who transitioned almost immediately to WWE’s development program.
However, this problem may not be as big as first suspected as he is a real-life member of the Anoa’i family—therefore a relative of the Wild Samoans, Rikishi and The Rock—so it is more than likely he was brought up around independent shows as a youth.
It would certainly appear that The Shield have enough motive beyond the superficial to cover this element.
Possibly the most difficult idea to comprehend, but at the same time one of the most important requirements in making such a group work, is the overall sense of entitlement the faction needs to in order to put themselves into the limelight.
Being a dominant faction that produces new talent requires every member to take up a large percentage of television time and be involved with the biggest names in the business. This can be seen from The Four Horsemen, who feuded with every great of the late NWA era, to Evolution, who almost exclusively feuded with Bill Goldberg in his short run with the WWE.
Those factions who did not force themselves into the public consciousness often lost their momentum quickly. Punk’s first group—The Straight Edge Society—had feuds against high-profile opponents like Rey Mysterio and The Big Show but failure to cross over to Raw meant that they were never seen as a dominant faction who could endanger the WWE’s most prominent figures.
Sometimes this sense of entitlement to hold on to—or obtain a better—spot on the roster can be seen as a negative issue by fans. Yet it is also vital in making the audience truly believe that the faction is capable of dominating, especially when there is new and unknown talent amongst the group’s number.
Time will only tell if The Shield are forcibly pushed over a consistent amount of time, and are able to show that they are entitled to dominate the WWE. It may be easier for this to happen if Punk is their highest profile member, as he is already a main event calibre star and this, historically, has been an easier route to success.
The one promising clue is their interview on Raw (Nov. 26), which certainly suggests that the group is setting themselves up in the right way. This could lead them into following the footsteps of many great four-piece groups of the past.