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Jan 22, 2015
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The first people Seth Rollins brought to tears — before The Shield, before the WWE Universe, before anyone — were his mom and dad.

That’s a rough note to begin on, but it’s a necessary because originally, we had planned to write about Seth Rollins in June 2014, and our story — his story, really — was going to be your usual underdog yarn about a guy who worked hard from humble beginnings, reached his goal, almost lost his goal, and eventually found himself sitting on the mountaintop through grit and hard work. Not entirely unlike Daniel Bryan’s tale. But that all turned on its head the night Rollins took out his fellow members of The Shield with a steel chair and set himself on a catapult career-trajectory that led to the Money in the Bank briefcase and helped him waltz right into a WWE World Heavyweight Championship Match against John Cena and Brock Lesnar at the 2015 Royal Rumble over about the course of six months.

Given all that, it seems appropriate to begin the story we’re telling now, the story Seth Rollins forced us to tell instead, with the fact that he had a penchant for defying expectations and breaking hearts —including his family’s — before he’d even formally laced up a pair of boots. “When I told my parents and saw the look of disappointment on their faces, it was like a real moment,” said Rollins, recalling the uncomfortable night he sat his parents down as a teenager in Iowa and told them he would be pursuing a career in sports-entertainment. “I remember walking away from the dinner table and just being like, ‘Man, I don’t care what anybody says, I’m going to do this. I don’t care if anybody believes I can do this or not.’”

About the only one who believed he could succeed was Rollins himself, a lapsed Hulkamaniac who rediscovered his passion during the Attitude Era and had already proven himself a natural boundary-pusher in mock wrestling shows with his buddies where he created a character named “God.” The point is, even when he was pretending, Rollins was already jumping about two acts ahead in the script. Underdogs take obstacles as they come, and earn their stripes one battle at a time. But he was seeking opposition like a man who’d already proven he could take on all comers. He welcomed adversity, invited it, and fed on it. His plate filled up soon enough: Once Rollins began earnestly training alongside a friend at a Ring of Honor tryout, he quickly started hitting what has become the standard marks for any indie wrestler’s coming-up.

Money troubles? Check. (“We did the tryout, we got accepted to the class, and then it was time to fork over a down payment for the school. For whatever reason, we had no idea that living was going to cost us money.”) Solitude? Check. (Rollins’ buddy threw in the towel to move closer to his girlfriend and the guy’s aunt, who had been putting the two of them up, kicked Rollins out.) A last-minute bit of near-divine intervention to save his passion? Check. “I remember one night I was bumming a couch from a guy whose ad I picked up off a college message board with a bunch of roommates listed,” said Rollins. “I was just hanging out with those guys, had a good long talk, and decided I could still go home and train to be a wrestler, I don’t have to do it out here.”

A fresh start? Big ol’ check. Rollins moved home and began training under independent veteran Danny Daniels (himself a disciple of Al Snow), who taught the Superstar the psychology of sports-entertainment. From there, the obstacles eased up a bit and a successful spell followed. Rollins wrestled wherever he could find a ring — shipping yards, bars and the like — across the frigid Chicago winter of 2004. Then came stints in a tag team with fellow independent competitor Jimmy Jacobs, who hooked Rollins up with Ring of Honor head official Gabe Sapolsky and helped bring the future Mr. Money in the Bank into the dark horse promotion.

Rollins made his debut under the handle of Tyler Black and served alongside Jacobs and The Necro Butcher (the guy who brutalized Mickey Rourke with staples and glass in “The Wrestler”) as one-third of a trio called Age of the Fall. The group was introduced through an innovative viral campaign and a gruesome attack on mainstay Jay Briscoe, who was hung from his ankles while savagely assaulted (“We didn’t anticipate the amount of blood … it was a pretty horrific scene”). Rollins’ time in Age of the Fall led to a winning streak that soon established him as the man who could carry the company into the future. “Gabe really wanted to push me as a singles competitor, and to an extent he wanted me to be the man in Ring of Honor,” said Rollins. “I started to notice I was getting more singles matches, and I was starting to work with higher-caliber talent.”

In those years, Rollins tangled with the pre-WWE likes of Daniel Bryan, Cesaro and Sami Zayn, and it became quickly apparent that a World Title Match against reigning ROH World Champion Nigel McGuinness was in his future. Unfortunately, Sapolsky was fired before the match could be made, and Rollins found himself adrift under new management.

“The title went from Nigel to Jerry Lynn, then from Jerry Lynn to Austin Aries, and I was caught in the shuffle. Over that whole next year, I was just chasing Austin Aries for the title,” said Rollins. “As good as that first year in Ring of Honor was, the second year was really, really bad for me. In retrospect, it was great for me, but at the time it was a tough situation to be in. I didn’t have anyone around to mentor me where I needed to be.”
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