Masterful manipulation of storyline hatred is fueling WWE's current best feud—Dean Ambrose vs. Seth Rollins.
Their rivalry has been simple, effective and continuous. An act of treachery has led to a compelling story of one man's rage driving him into action, building toward a potential classic at SummerSlam.
The mark of great theater is when the audience stops thinking of those on stage as actors but as the characters they play. A powerful enough performance has the emotions bubbling on stage feel genuine rather than scripted.
That's what's happening in Ambrose's hunt for vengeance against Rollins.
Ambrose's anger burns through the screen. Fans badly want to see him tear into Rollins. With two-plus weeks left before SummerSlam, WWE has a chance to further mine that desire.
The Money in the Bank contract has played a major role in their narrative, but the heart of it is Ambrose's fury. It's a powerful emotion, one that began for Ambrose with an act of betrayal.
Rollins turned on his brothers in arms at the beginning of June, drumming a steel chair against Ambrose's and Roman Reigns' flesh to signal the end of The Shield.
That ambush set Reigns and Ambrose free as singles competitors. For The Lunatic Fringe, it has lit the wick to his internal dynamite. He became incensed from that point on, compelling the crowd along the way.
On the June 9 Raw, he and Reigns stood in the ring to voice their anger over what Rollins did.
Ambrose called his former partner "a cancer" and described in grotesque detail what he planned to do to his face, including jamming his hair into his toothless mouth. He shook, he breathed heavily, and his eyes widened as he glared at the camera.
It was clear this was going to be a story to pay attention to. A madman like Ambrose given the incentive to destroy promised to be fun to watch.
WWE has had him and Rollins collide several times over since but not in an official capacity yet. Fans will have to wait until SummerSlam to see the first actual match between them.
In the meantime, the company has built anticipation for that match through Ambrose's infectious rage.
He has attacked Rollins again and again, creating an enthralling energy in the process. On the June 23 Raw, Rollins seemed to be closing in on a win against Rob Van Dam. In charged Ambrose, fists at the ready.
Ambrose flung his enemy over the security barricade, peppered him with punches and looked like a rabid animal latched onto its prey.
The attack inspired Rollins to demand that Ambrose join him in the Money in the Bank Ladder match. Ambrose would have stolen and pawned the contract-filled briefcase that is that match's prize anyway, as he told Tom Phillips in the above video.
Rather than have the story plateau there, WWE had added a new element.
Ambrose promised that Rollins would never get to use it under his watch.
Each time he attempted to cash it in, Ambrose would be waiting for him. The hero now played the antagonist, the man blocking Rollins' path to his goal of being world champion.
He did just that on July 7, the crowd roaring as he pounced on Rollins mid-cash-in attempt.
Seeing them brawl once more was thrilling in itself, but WWE had added a new motivation for Ambrose and upped the stakes. Each of the hero's attacks wasn't just a measure of revenge but a means to squash Rollins' title hopes.
WWE's misstep in telling this story soon followed.
The company promised a match between them at Battleground. Instead, fans saw them brawl throughout the arena, the bout tabled.
That move gave the two men a bigger stage on which to work with, namely SummerSlam, but it robbed fans who paid to see the show thinking they were getting to see Ambrose's hatred for Rollins explode on-air.
Rather than compete at the pay-per-view, the enemies scuffled in the arena and in the parking lot.
Those were all memorable brawls, but it would have been wiser to have that segment on Raw or to have Rollins and Ambrose's match begin and eventually devolve into the unsanctioned melee that it became.
Still, the fire between them is only growing hotter. WWE continues to escalate Ambrose and Rollins' animosity.
On the July 25 SmackDown, Rollins went on the attack during Ambrose's match with Cesaro.
He scraped his boots against Ambrose's jaw and left him out cold atop a bed of steel chairs. When Ambrose pounded his fists against Rollins' face, it felt cathartic, an act of justice for fans to savor. When Rollins had his turn, the moment morphed into a disgusting act.
It's hard not to join Ambrose in hating Rollins when he lifted his former comrade's head off the mat and asked him, "When are you going to learn to stay down? When are you going to learn to die?"
Their rage is still strong. Their attacks still compel the audience to slide forward in their seats.
Fans saw that on the July 29 Main Event when Ambrose couldn't finish his match with Alberto Del Rio thanks to his archenemy leaping at him.
It looks as if WWE will have no trouble keeping up this pace until SummerSlam. It's a rivalry so drenched with hate that it has the potential to lead to a show-stealing instant classic. Seeing Ambrose get a full match to exact his revenge will be must-see theater.
Few expect this story to end there, though. As hot as this storyline has been, count on WWE riding it long past the summer.
Ambrose colliding with Rollins on Aug. 17 should be the first of many meetings—their war continuing, their hate ever rising.