Before either Seth Rollins or Dean Ambrose was within reach of the WWE World Heavyweight Championship, before The Shield claimed its first victim, they were digging their claws into each other.
The title feud heading into Elimination Chamber is one that pits two men who thrived on the independent circuit against each other. It's a battle between two young, talented wrestlers who WWE could potentially lean on as cornerstones for years to come.
And while so many of WWE's stories are brief, over in just months, Ambrose vs. Rollins is one with chapter after chapter.
It's a story of a man who has still yet to get truly satisfying revenge on the man who betrayed him. It's one of the hunter and the hunted, one rabid animal looking to rip apart an elusive weasel. The first legs of this narrative began in Florida in the early stages of both Ambrose's and Rollins' WWE careers.
The Chase Begins
Florida Championship Wrestling, WWE's developmental system at the time, didn't have the spotlight that NXT does today. It was churning out one hell of a feud, but without the WWE Network and a buzzing fanbase, its audience was minimal.
Those who did tune in saw Ambrose begin his FCW career charging toward Rollins in 2011.
The same frenetic, unstable energy that fans expect of Ambrose today flowed through him as he debuted for WWE. He aimed that energy at Rollins right away. A gold medal hung around Rollins' neck, signifying that he was the FCW 15 champ.
The matches for that championship were normally 15-minute Iron Man matches. That amount of time proved to be inadequate for the wars that these men waged against each other.
Their first title match ended in a draw.
Rollins and Ambrose then met in a 20-minute match. With the clock expiring, Rollins and Ambrose traded forearm shots on stage equipment before both wrestlers fell to the floor.
That image of them exhausted and still on the concrete was fitting. They would push each other long after this, having a series of collisions that ended with no clear winner.
The time expired again. They bumped up the match time to a half-hour the next time out.
Near the end of the bout, with the ring ropes shaking, Rollins superkicked Ambrose into the corner. The challenger refused to fall, wobbling over to his foe only to take another boot to the mush. They put on a tremendous display, a precursor to the classics they would compose together later on.
Rollins got the win, a sight WWE fans have since become familiar with, as he drove Ambrose's head into the mat.
Ambrose did get some payback eventually but never the FCW Jack Brisco 15 Championship. He knocked off Rollins to qualify for the Super 8 Tournament in another standout match.
The chemistry and electricity that these men shared was on display here again. WWE clearly saw something special when these two met. The company would eventually transfer this rivalry to a much larger stage.
More violence and victories were on their way, but not before the enemies joined forces.
From Brother to Enemy
With Roman Reigns at their sides, Ambrose and Rollins stormed into WWE as a unit. At Survivor Series 2012, just as Ryback looked to have CM Punk's WWE title won, The Shield pounced on the powerhouse and hurled him through an announce table.
The group made its first statement using splintered wood. It would soon do its speaking through powerbombs and beatdowns, swarming its enemies like locusts.
Most fans had not seen Ambrose's and Rollins' battles with each other before The Shield's formation. A new narrative now washed over that story. WWE introduced them as mercenaries in search of destruction with no mention of their relationship at FCW.
Their new tale was one of unity. Superteams formed to stop them, but The Shield's cohesion knocked them all down.
That was until Ambrose grew cocky with the United States Championship around his waist.
After Rollins and Reigns lost the tag titles, Ambrose grew boastful about still possessing gold. There was a new air to him at this point; he was defiant and more focused on himself.
It seemed clear that if the group would fall apart, it would be thanks to his doing.
The Shield's splintering mostly came as a result of tension between Reigns and Ambrose. The two barked at each other with Rollins playing the role of peacekeeper.
Ambrose tried to oust Reigns from the Royal Rumble. The two teammates grew tense with each other during matches. At one point, Reigns mocked Ambrose for not defending the U.S. title enough.
The Shield's end looked to be imminent.
A rivalry with The Wyatt Family strained the group's relationship. It had Reigns and Ambrose bickering and compelled Rollins to abandon his team in mid-battle with Bray Wyatt's crew.
To discuss its issues, The Shield met on SmackDown in March 2014. The summit saw Rollins slap Ambrose in the jaw and Ambrose retaliate with a haymaker. This was not the catalyst for a feud between them, though, but a burst of violence that brought them together again.
Thoughts of The Shield's final days faded as Rollins and Company fought the reformed Evolution. Fans could see that battling big names in Randy Orton, Batista and Triple H was meant to be a springboard for the emerging stars of The Shield. Beyond that, it was the setup for Rollins' exit.
After taking down Evolution at Payback, Rollins revealed that he was aligning himself with the Triple H-led Authority.
A chair shot to Reigns signaled the end of The Shield. Another blast to Ambrose lit the fuse for a feud that continues today.
Fury filled The Lunatic Fringe. After the betrayal, he promised to rearrange Rollins' face, telling fans what his enemy would look like after he mangled him. "There will be plenty of room where your teeth used to be," Ambrose said.
He would spend the next few months trying to fulfill that macabre promise.
Lunatic on the Hunt
WWE's most thrilling story in the summer of 2014 was an enraged Ambrose chasing down Rollins.
Ambrose's hunger for vengeance traveled through the screen. Rollins, meanwhile, morphed into one of WWE's best heels as a slimy sellout.
He traded in his garb from his days with The Shield for more corporate attire. He became the centerpiece of The Authority, constantly flocked by goons, perpetually supported by the higher-ups in WWE's fictional hierarchy.
That alliance helped Rollins win the Money in the Bank ladder match at Ambrose's expense. It paid to have a giant man like Kane entering the fray with the express purpose of assuring him a win.
The Money in the Bank briefcase then became the tangible object in Ambrose's sights. It replaced the FCW Jack Brisco 15 Championship and preceded the WWE world title as the carrot that Ambrose galloped toward and that Rollins kept tight between his fingers.
Rollins found himself on the run at every turn.
Ambrose popped out of a present to attack him. At Battleground, he walloped Rollins in the parking lot. When Rollins tried to make use of his Money in the Bank briefcase, Ambrose was there to derail his plans.
Even a Rollins mannequin wasn't safe. Ambrose tortured a Rollins-like doll on live TV.
WWE wisely delayed the gratifying sight of Ambrose finally getting his revenge. At SummerSlam, the two battled in a Lumberjack match that ended with Kane and a briefcase to the skull making sure Rollins escaped.
On Raw the next night, the two faced off in a stellar Falls Count Anywhere match.
This built on their battles at FCW, improving upon their previous work. Rollins and Ambrose were growing as performers, and it showed. Having a brighter spotlight and a story that WWE's writing team provided ample attention helped as well.
As he had done so often before, Rollins came out on top. He used a stack of cinder blocks to put Ambrose out of action and off TV.
In reality, this was to explain why Ambrose was gone as he filmed a movie. In the WWE world, it was a despicable act that furthered a feud.
Ambrose returned months later at Night of Champions, fists swinging, to play the part of predator on the chase again.
He defeated John Cena to earn the right to face his old friend at Hell in a Cell. That's where these two up-and-comers rekindled fans' love for that specialty match. They bashed each other into the steel, the structure designed to keep Rollins from slipping away again and to give Ambrose a legit shot at payback.
To a degree, he achieved that. He whipped Rollins for much of the night, and in a bit of poetic justice, he pushed Rollins' head against cinder blocks of his own.
Bray Wyatt emerged from the darkness to sink his teeth into Ambrose. The fan favorite didn't get his vengeance; he got distracted by a new enemy. This was WWE pushing pause on the story.
Less than a year later, the company resumed it.
A Rivalry Reconvened
While Ambrose wandered from feud to feud on the midcard, Rollins was busy climbing to world champion status.
Ambrose lost several times to Wyatt, failed to dethrone Bad News Barrett and eventually toppled Luke Harper. Rollins, meanwhile, had inserted himself into the WrestleMania main event, taking home the company's top prize in spite of Brock Lesnar being the one who had it in his grip.
It appeared that WWE sought to elevate Rollins and Reigns to the main event, but not Ambrose. Rollins held the WWE title; Reigns remained in contention over the next few months. Ambrose failed to win on pay-per-views and didn't get nearly the kind of attention those men received.
In a surprise move, Kane gave The Lunatic Fringe a shot at joining the WWE title match at Payback. By defeating Rollins, Ambrose won his way into the Fatal 4-Way.
That match saw Ambrose get just seconds away from victory. It also saw The Shield reform for a moment only.
Ambrose and Rollins were on the same side just long enough to send Randy Orton into an announce table. Then it was back to being enemies.
After the bout, The Authority said that Ambrose had to go to the back of the line after losing. Rollins dismissed Ambrose's challenges.
Calling back an attack he once suffered, Ambrose held Rollins' head against cinder blocks, demanding a title shot. He now has that. In the latest meeting between these two, the WWE title is on the line.
At Elimination Chamber, their feud takes center stage. This is their latest chance to prove themselves, to use each other as springboards to somewhere higher.
At FCW, they each launched the other into WWE proper. Last year, they pushed their way into headlining status on the strength of their battles with each other. In their next fight, they look to prove WWE right for placing them on the marquee.
The past tells us that they will deliver excellence in the ring and that this will not be the final chapter. Their story is a novel. Unread pages await.