Ric Flair. Tully Blanchard. Ole and Arn Anderson.
Four men. Four champions. Four Horsemen. Even more than 28 years after their formation, just the mention of those four names can get wrestling fans' hearts all aflutter. They still matter in the business of professional wrestling. Even among a list of legendary WWE factions, they loom large, casting a big shadow over all who came before and all who followed.
In truth, as a top-of-the-card attraction, the Four Horsemen's rough ride over all comers for Jim Crockett Promotions and then WCW lasted only a few years. Soon enough, Arn and Tully were on their way to the WWE and another iconic faction—The Heenan Family.
The Horsemen soldiered on, but the effect was never the same. Every addition, every swerve, only served to remind the diehards that things had changed. You could still hold up the four fingers and get a response, especially south of the the Mason-Dixon line. But the idea had morphed beyond recognition.
The Four Horsemen captured the imagination of fans in the mid-1980s. They created something that felt new and fresh, an extension of their personalities. They really were competitive, hard-charging, hard-partying guys. Like the best gimmicks, it felt real because it was.
Factions that followed, even some of the best ones, felt like pale copies of the original. They weren't their own entities. They were just naked attempts to recapture the Horsemen ethos.
The Shield is not one of those factions.
Sure, like the Horsemen, the members of the group took the wrestling world by storm. But that's where the comparisons end. In fact, it's hard to find a single faction to compare The Shield with. The trio's unique charisma, clever ring gear, smash-mouth style and immediate push to the top put them in a category all their own. In a business that often struggles with homogeneity, that's a good thing.
Bleacher Report had a chance to sit down with Seth Rollins—who, along with Roman Reigns and Dean Ambrose, is writing his name into the wrestling annals—to discuss his decade-long, overnight rise to the top, reinventing the WWE six-man tag match and how it all ends for The Shield.
Bleacher Report: It's pretty remarkable I'm talking to you about the great WWE Factions. A few years ago, you were on the indy scene, as far away from the WWE as you could imagine. Now you're being compared in a big DVD release to the Fabulous Freebirds and the Four Horsemen. Have you had a chance to really process that?
Seth Rollins: You know what, man? Even if I really had the opportunity to sit back and really take that information in, I don't know if it would ever become less surreal. You're talking about guys who are legends in our business, who really paved the way for people like myself and Dean and Roman. That's pretty impressive, to even be in the same breath as those guys. It's just pretty wild.
Bleacher Report: It's been fun to watch because it's so different. Usually in WWE, there's kind of like a progression. When new guys come into the WWE, it's like that Drake song. Everybody starts at the bottom. You guys started from the top. But opportunity is just half of it. Once you had that opportunity in hand, you really grabbed a hold. How did you go about making sure you never dropped down the card?
Rollins: There is a commitment to excellence, I think, that we have. All three of us. And, like you said, it's all about opportunity. A lot of new guys who come to WWE have opportunities. But if you don't hit home runs every time, it's a quick-change type of business.
Man, we live in 2014. The information age. If you're not hitting home runs every single time you step up to the plate, people get bored real fast. We were able to capitalize on every single opportunity that we've ever gotten and knock it out of the park.
That's the secret to success, really. Our commitment to excellence. Knowing that night in, night out, no matter where you're at, whether it's Greenville, South Carolina, or Paducah, Kentucky, or Sacramento, California, or Tokyo, Japan. It doesn't matter where we're at, who we're wrestling or what the circumstances may be. We're going to go out and give 110 percent every single time. And it just so happens our 110 percent seems to be pretty good.
Bleacher Report: It's not too shabby. But I have to imagine it's been an interesting challenge. Because, in WWE at least, the six-man tag team match has never really been a big thing. In Mexico, trios matches can easily headline a card. It's not that way in WWE—or at least hadn't been. Where did you find your inspiration? Because you had to basically create a new category in WWE.
Rollins: Both myself and Ambrose had the experience in being in multiman matches in the independents. Ambrose worked for Dragons Gate when they were big into six-man tags and myself in Ring of Honor where we did a lot of the same things.
Style-wise, we understood the pacing of a multiman match and how to build it to a crescendo differently than you would a singles match. We brought that experience to the WWE and were able to find a way to make that style work.
And we had a lot of good opponents, to be fair. We had a lot of guys who were bringing the same energy. You've got to remember, in the first kind of incarnation of these six-man tag matches we were bringing to the table, we were in the ring with Daniel Bryan. He brings an energy level to these matches and gave as much as we were bringing.
Bleacher Report: That first PPV match in Brooklyn—wow. You guys brought an energy that you rarely see in mainstream wrestling.
Rollins: We had all these guys on both sides working together to bring the energy level to a frenzy. It works, and people responded to it. And it was something new and fresh. People are always clamoring for that. Clamoring for something different. We brought that to the table, just our style and energy and look, and the way it felt when we were in the ring was completely different than anybody else who had come onto the scene in a long time.
Bleacher Report: When you go into a match there's a different pace. It's frantic and almost looks out of control. How did you go about telling these veteran opponents, guys with seniority in the locker room, that the match you were about to have is a little bit different than what they are used to? Is that hard to do as the new guy?
Rollins: It was mostly trial by fire. You get out there and, once you steal the show a couple of times, you start to earn the trust of those guys you're talking about. They start to see that what you do works, and if they don't have a better answer for you, they've just got to trust. It's kind of like that in any working environment.
The guys know what they're doing. They know how to work. They've been doing it for a long time. And when you come in with a new idea, people are going to be skeptical. But once they see that your style works too, that there's multiple ways to stack this ice cream and it all tastes delicious in the end, they're going to be more willing to work with you. That's just the nature of politics I guess, right?
Bleacher Report: There's politics to being a wrestling fan too, especially when dealing with non-fans. I've long sung the praises of professional wrestling as one of America's great art forms, right up there with jazz music. And, like jazz, in the WWE, wrestling is truly a collaborative process. What's it been like for you, coming from the independent scene, to work with agents and writers and the whole creative team to come up with these masterpieces in the ring? Is it fun to work collaboratively like that?
Rollins: It's both fun and frustrating. Especially at first for me. I came into WWE from the independents where I was basically doing everything myself. When you come into a scenario, like you said, where there's agents, producers and writers, there's a lot of people who have different ideas. It's all about stitching those ideas together and making sure something good comes out of that.
That's a difficult process. People don't understand that's not an easy thing to do. They think, 'Oh, they've got these writers and these producers telling them what to do and they just go out there and do it.'
It's not like that at all. We're 100 percent invested in what we do on a day-to-day basis. We all care about The Shield particularly and its success and its growth and stuff like that. So it's an interesting process. But now that we've gotten used to it and I've been in the system for a while, I enjoy the process. It's a new challenge—telling stories through other people's eyes. It's a task I'd never been saddled with before.
Bleacher Report: There's a pretty solid level of institutional knowledge too. There's not much some of the people behind the scenes haven't seen.
Rollins: There's a wealth of knowledge here. We have guys, producer-wise, who have been doing this as long as I've been alive. Arn Anderson, Pat Patterson, Dean Malenko, Billy Kidman and guys who have really put in their time and understand what they're doing. They deserve a lot of credit for what goes on backstage.
Joey Mercury and Mike Rotundo and guys like that. These guys are journeyman and they've done it all and they've seen it all. They add so much to what we do, and people don't get to see that. They don't get to appreciate how good these guys really are.
Bleacher Report: I can really sense the passion when you talk about your job, and you can see it in the ring too. You kind of know when someone is just going through the motions and you can kind of see who really cares. You guys are clearly people who care.
In the past couple of months, there's been a pretty dramatic turn for you. A new challenge—going from villains to heroes. In the old days, there used to be really distinct styles in the ring. The babyface was going to be all about Ricky Steamboat-style armdrags and big dropkicks. Not so much anymore. Did you do anything to adjust your style in the ring?
Rollins: (Laughs) We didn't do nothing.
Bleacher Report: I didn't notice anything!
Rollins: We aren't doing anything different. We didn't change a thing about the way we operate. We're not on the apron rah, rah, rahing, and we're not pandering to the crowd for cheers. We just go out and kick the crap out of everybody, and people seem to like it.
Bleacher Report: It's just a different set of victims?
Rollins: It's all about picking your targets, you know what I mean? If you pick the right targets, people are going to cheer for you, I guess.
And, to be fair, people always kind of cheered us a little bit. There were always some situations where we were the good guys in their eyes. And that's OK. It's a different era and it's not all about bad guys and good guys. There's a lot of grey area and a lot of characters to fill it.
That's what makes things interesting. Let the people kind of decide for themselves. Especially when you have an audience as educated as ours is now. It's not 1982 anymore. The times have changed. If you don't evolve with the business, you're going to be left behind.
Bleacher Report: Every faction that is on this new DVD has one thing in common—their demise. I know you may not be ready to think about this, but have you thought at all about the days to come, when The Shield is just a distant memory for you?
Rollins: You know, you say that, but I don't know if these factions are all ever really dead. Because when Shawn (Michaels) and Hunter (Triple H) get back together and you get that "Are you Ready?" pumping on the Titan Tron, or when you get Scott (Hall) and Kevin (Nash) together and they put up the "Too Sweet" to each other, or you put Arn and Ric in the same room, they're definitely not enemies.
It doesn't always have to end badly. There's a lot of longevity that comes with having a gang of friends with you throughout your career in this business. So there's no telling when The Shield will run its course. If it ever will. We're just happy riding this wave of success right now, trying to make this place a better place for everybody, wrestlers and fans alike, and we're going to keep doing that until we can't do it anymore.
Seth Rollins and the Shield wrestle another legendary faction, Evolution, Sunday night on pay-per-view and the WWE Network. Jonathan Snowden is Bleacher Report's lead combat sports writer and the author of Shooters: The Toughest Men in Professional Wrestling.