In case you’ve had WWE programming on mute for the past several weeks, I’ll tell you that WrestleMania 35 is fast upon us, which means it is our eminent duty to periodically roll out excruciatingly detailed previews of each match in the month-plus leading up to April 7. (Unless you’d prefer we dedicated thousands of words to whether Kofi Kingston will conquer Daniel Bryan at Fastlane.) It is, to be pointed, The Ringer’s WrestleMania 35 Match Book.
As of this writing, the card for professional wrestling’s biggest night (no offense to ROH and NJPW) has but two matches on the books, both of them top billings: Raw women’s champion Ronda Rousey versus Charlotte Flair, and Universal Champion Brock Lesnar defending his title against Raw poster boy Seth Rollins. We’re not even going to touch the former contest until it’s clear that Rousey v. Flair will proceed as planned, given the likelihood that story-line-suspended and story-line-hobbled Becky Lynch will fight her way into the bout. So let’s commence this limited feature series by taking stock of Lesnar’s and Rollins’s intertwining paths to deduce why we care and who will emerge the company’s alpha male.
WrestleMania 35 Match Book, Chapter 1: Brock Lesnar (c) vs. Seth Rollins for the Universal Championship
Last Monday night, Paul Heyman did what he remains an onscreen presence to do: underscore his client’s claim to brand supremacy and bottom-line the unresolved angst between Lesnar and his latest prey. As the advocate’s pretaped segment suggested, this go-round of Brock vs. Seth is less about any barbs or blows the two have traded in 2019 (though Lesnar certainly left an impression on the challenger with six F-5s last month, all of which Rollins sold like a champ) than a full-circle narrative, taking things back to their first shared WrestleMania moment, when Rollins cashed in his Money in the Bank contract in the midst of then–world heavyweight champion Lesnar’s WrestleMania 31 title clash against Roman Reigns. Rollins entered himself into the match midstream, pinned Reigns, and scurried away with the belt, ending the night on the grandest stage as the surprise champion.
That set the stage for a fleeting summer 2015 feud with Lesnar, in which Rollins—lest we forget—was the antagonist, emboldened by tyrannical COO Triple H’s backing and chaperoned (however fruitlessly) by Jamie Noble and Joey Mercury (aka J&J Security). But their Mania beef didn’t come out of nowhere; their contentiousness was the result of a slow burn that began several months prior, when Rollins stuck his nose in Lesnar’s business by breaking up a Night of Champions showdown against John Cena in September ’14 and curb-stomping Brock for good measure. A triple-threat match ensued that January at Royal Rumble. Lesnar retained (as he is wont to do), but not before getting clocked with Rollins’s MITB briefcase, another concussive bread crumb added to the trail of fictional head trauma. Which brings us back to Rollins’s mischievous Mania cash-in and then to his and Lesnar’s long-awaited one-on-one at Battleground in July ’15, which ended with … the Undertaker interfering to avenge his Mania XXX loss to Lesnar, triggering a no-contest and effectively extinguishing Seth and Brock’s carefully meted-out malice.
Following the anticlimactic events of Battleground ’15, the two marquee stars traveled divergent roads. Rollins tore up his knee facing Kane later that fall, missing half a year of action. Meanwhile, Lesnar was busy wrapping up his affairs with Undertaker inside the Hell in a Cell structure, an apt coda to their own long and winding road that saw them squaring off in that same environment in 2002. (Provided one acknowledges “Biker Taker”—the leather-and-bandana-wearing persona he was working at the time—as part of the Undertaker canon.) After that, Lesnar basically beat the ever-loving crap out of the Raw locker room until Goldberg came along and gave him a run for his money from fall ’16 up through Lesnar’s victory at WrestleMania 33.
Rollins, for his part, was medically cleared as of May ’16 and, after getting a taste of his own medicine at the subsequent Money in the Bank event (Rollins beat champ Reigns, but was ambushed and bested by briefcase owner Dean Ambrose almost immediately), went on a headlining-match merry-go-round with his former Shield stablemates, perhaps planting the seeds for their 2017 reunion.
The knock on Lesnar—both from real-world critics and each of his in-ring adversaries on TV over the past few years—is his light schedule, that he’s always got one foot in the UFC octagon, or on a hunting range, or sitting on his couch counting $100 bills while Paul Heyman schleps from port to port puffing up his bona fides. There’s as much truth to that as there is the simple logic of WWE’s protecting an aging asset and Lesnar’s mitigating the very real damage done to his mind and body after a quarter-century of beatings—real and choreographed—in virtually all quarters of sanctioned combat.
Still, when he was levied with a fine and suspension by UFC over positive drug-test results, it opened a sizable hole in his money-making schedule. Thus, the Beast moved on from Goldberg and spent the rest of 2017 making quick work of foes like Samoa Joe while selling that sweet Suplex City merch from coast to coast. He earned his keep in 2018, surviving a series of brutal collisions with Roman Reigns, finally relinquishing his Universal Championship (he’d held it for more than 500 days) at last year’s SummerSlam. Roman had to abdicate his throne only two months into his reign and step aside indefinitely, owing to a real-life recurrence of leukemia. Either in lieu of a definitive Plan B or as a way of fast-tracking what might have been Plan A all along, Lesnar reclaimed gold by defeating Braun Strowman at the much-maligned Crown Jewel special in Saudi Arabia that November, priming Brock for his latest, still-active extended tenure as top dog. All that time, Rollins was somewhat spinning his wheels, first reuniting the Shield—until Dean Ambrose got bit by the injury bug—and then turning his attention to helping Raw GM Kurt Angle’s kayfabe kid Jason Jordan get over. But since Rollins is apparently a human Madden curse, Jordan soon succumbed to serious injury as well.
Fortuitously or not, that freed up Rollins to regain his footing as a singles star, albeit as a multitime Intercontinental Champion, not yet in Lesnar’s immediate rear view. That changed the moment Reigns announced his hiatus, and particularly once Ambrose fell on the sword and betrayed his longtime Shield brother, relaunching Rollins into the upper-babyface stratosphere. WWE dangled Strowman and Finn Bálor as heirs apparent (both were summarily squashed by Lesnar), though in retrospect, Rollins was the only choice, symbolically and qualitatively, to assume that mantle. And now, with WrestleMania nearly here, Rollins and Lesnar can resume what went unfinished at Battleground in 2015, each a an enduring emblem of their era and surefire Hall of Famers. Only this time their roles are more sharply shaped—their destinies are the stories beyond that title that’s on the line.
Whatever Lesnar’s outlook for life after WrestleMania (he may want to pay that aforementioned fine if he plans on UFCing it up again soon), it’s difficult to see how hanging onto a title he may have regained as a temporary solution to a grievous issue (Reigns’s health) lines up with WWE’s eye on the future. The road to Mania 35 has been defined by distinguishing a youth movement that was culled (OK, poached) from across the world and honed and styled in Triple H’s NXT incubator. Seth Rollins—the first NXT champion and current anchor of Monday Night Raw—is (as he was scripted to be, back in his Authority days) the poster child for the new era of WWE. Yes, there has been an unsteady ratio of hits (Bálor, Drew McIntyre, Big E, and a healthy majority of the present women’s divisions) to misses (Adam Rose, No Way Jose, Apollo Crews, etc.) among NXT call-ups since Rollins and his Shield brethren stormed Survivor Series n 2012. But the current wave of newcomers slowly migrating north from Orlando, Florida—Ricochet, Aleister Black, Johnny Gargano, Tommaso Ciampa, and so on—appear primed to keep the treadmill in constant motion, taking the baton from immediate predecessors like the Revival, Elias, Andrade, Ember Moon and (gulp) Baron Corbin.
Tuesday’s men’s championship scene is an outlier. WWE champion Daniel Bryan and his major threats—Randy Orton, Jeff Hardy, Samoa Joe, etc.—are unmistakably of a certain vintage. And while we can all agree that the overnight leap in stature of Bryan’s Fastlane opponent, Kofi Kingston, is the lone silver lining to come from Mustafa Ali’s injury (Kingston replaced Ali at Elimination Chamber and has been on an inspiring and overdue, if contrived, tear), Kingston—as the promos keep reiterating—is far from a rookie. NXT didn’t even exist when the future New Day centerpiece splashed down in WWE. That makes the flagship show’s Universal Championship a glaring candidate for possession by someone who epitomizes how the journey from independents to NXT to prime time is supposed to evolve. They need to be someone whose place in the pecking order has been earned and asserted but who still has the incentive to lead by example. Seth Rollins needn’t be shielded any longer, and the Beast has prowled for long enough. If WWE truly wants to set the wrestling world ablaze in the face of unprecedented challenges to its dominance, then there’s only one thing left to do: burn it down.