The year was 2004. As a part of the hottest stable in wrestling at the time, Randy Orton was viewed almost unanimously as next in line to be a singles superstar by all within and outside of WWE. His feud with Mick Foley had given him his bad ass stripes, and it was a surprise to nobody when he was crowned the youngest ever World Heavyweight Champion at SummerSlam of that year, at the age of just 24.
One night later, his stablemate Triple H gave him the immortal thumbs down and he was unceremoniously booted from Evolution. This would, in theory, set in motion a sequence of events that would see Triple H regain his World Championship belt and Orton toil for seven months as an unstoppable babyface before taking it back at WrestleMania 21.
Except that never actually happened.
Triple H got his belt back and, sure enough, Orton was pissed about that and ran through anyone who got in his way in an attempt to regain it. But seven months is a long time in the world of WWE. While fans were behind Orton, they'd seen this script played out a thousand times already. It's kinda like when someone does something bad to a person that Jack Bauer loves: from that point on, their fate is sealed. That's well-and-good when Jack is going to be insanely charismatic and you know there'll be moles and twists and turns and Russians and Chinese governments want his blood on top of all of this. But when it's a young guy who's never exactly proven himself in the limelight and who appears to be working through several flaws in his game that only experience can fix, fans tire with such an inevitable destination so far away.
Instead what turned out to be the pivotal thumbs down in the feud was that of Orton's old stable-mate, Batista, who turned on Triple H himself and rode to WrestleMania 21 on a wave of momentum and goodwill from the fans who appreciated the switch-up. Orton didn't do too badly, he was soon re-packaged as a 'Legend Killer' heel and took on The Undertaker on the undercard of said show. All told, Randy has gone on to have a pretty spectacular WWE tenure (and will co-headline this Sunday's WWE Hell In A Cell PPV against John Cena), so everything has worked itself out for the best. But somewhere, deep down, you must feel that there's a certain amount of regret that he blew his first opportunity at the top spot.
Fast forward to SummerSlam 2014. It was almost too perfect: Roman Reigns, who had recently been turned on by former stablemate Seth Rollins as one third of The Shield, was riding a wave of his own momentum as he took on the aforementioned Orton. His standout performances at the previous Survivor Series and the Royal Rumble had pegged him as the next breakout star in WWE's decorated annals. Now it was just a case of WWE stoking the flames, having presumably learned from past mistakes, and keeping a young Reigns fresh in the interim period before WrestleMania 31.
Reigns and Orton shared many parallels. They weren't indie darlings, both had been products of the WWE's feeder system. Orton was a third generation superstar, while Reigns followed his father Sika and cousins such as The Rock, Rikishi and Yokozuna into the wrestling business (after brief stints with NFL franchises). Both possessed the coveted 'look' that WWE loved - big, tanned, good-looking and tattooed - and had tremendous upside in the early part of their career that required seasoning.
They both made their names in transitional phases in WWE's main event scene: Orton was the next generation following the likes of Stone Cold, The Rock and Kurt Angle, while Reigns is looking to eventually have the torch passed to him from Orton and John Cena. Their pushes both needed to work when WWE wanted them to, or something drastic would be required. Orton had fallen short of expectations. Reigns was doing fine, but also didn't yet have the transcendent charisma or pull that forced you to tune into the show each week. Everyone watching with a keen eye for the business knew a lot of work was to be done if the rumoured Reigns/Lesnar behemoth clash was to headline WrestleMania 31. He was a long way off becoming that guy. But time was still on his side. Or against him, depending on how full or empty you viewed his glass. The eight months between SummerSlam and Mania could either build him up as the perfect challenger or allow fans to tire and ultimately turn on him.
Then, on the week of WWE Night of Champions, Roman Reigns went down with an injury. He'd suffered an incarcerated hernia and required emergency surgery. To-date he's still to return, with the Royal Rumble looking a likely comeback date. The upside is that WWE can protect his greenness (which will presumably be further hindered by ring rust after months on the sideline) with a quick, three-month programme leading into a WrestleMania showdown with Brock Lesnar. The flipside of that is that, for the second year running, WWE fans may view this as an attempt to force an unwanted title challenger down our throats and reject the whole thing, forcing emergency surgery to the WrestleMania main event.
The former is the kind of situation you'd sense they'd grudgingly 'go with' if left with no better option. In previous years, it's the kind of deal that would see John Cena step in as a 'safe' option to cover, but that's a path so well-trodden that even Vince McMahon must see how redundant it would be. Instead, what Reigns' injury has left is a vacuum that is tailor-made for someone else to benefit from, not unlike how Batista did a decade prior...
Reigns was due to face-off with Shield turncoat, Seth Rollins, at Night Of Champions. Fortunately, WWE had a ready-made replacement on hand to cover his loss. And when the third member of The Shield, Dean Ambrose, returned from his own brief hiatus, the Nashville arena erupted in a way that screamed, "Roman who?"
Dean Ambrose wears street clothes when he wrestles. His character is a mish-mash of the likes of Brian Pillman, Stone Cold Steve Austin, Roddy Piper and Heath Ledger's Joker. In promos, he speaks in a slow drawl that's unlike anything many of the young audience has heard before. His ring style is similarly offbeat: anything around him can be used as a weapon or platform with which to vault himself at his enemy at any time, the sole objective of his assault is to maim by any means necessary.
Like Batista, he was never meant to be in this position, but fans are eating him up as the company's hot new, main event babyface (he even got a win - albeit via nefarious means - over John Cena on Raw a few weeks ago). That's where the Batista comparisons end, though. In practise, his rise feels much more familiar with that of Stone Cold Steve Austin in 1996.
My podcast co-host, Don Marnell, made the point on the most recent edition of 'Low Blows' that WWE seems to feel very scripted and regimented these days - every October there'll be two Hell In A Cell matches, every February we'll see an Elimination Chamber match, and so on. And it was a similar state of affairs when Austin made his splash in WWE in 1996. Even the company's most charismatic and fresh characters, like Shawn Michaels and Razor Ramon, felt very McMahon-approved. Their in-ring stuff was great, their promos did their job, but it was all under the predictable cartoonish header that had seen WWE begin to languish in the ratings in a world post-Hulk Hogan.
Then Austin went on a tear and ripped up the entire script. All of a sudden, things felt fresh and new again. We knew that Shawn Michaels' boyhood dream would eventually come true, but we didn't know what was going to happen when Brian Pillman had a gun.
That's exactly how it feels while Dean Ambrose is performing. Not many wrestling fans truly dislike John Cena or Roman Reigns, they both very much have a deserved place in the hierarchy of the company, but you know the script when they perform because you've seen it a million times before. Meanwhile, Dean Ambrose comes to the ring with a toy doll then grabs its testicles and gives it a piledriver, just for the craic. He's genuinely funny - quipping when the new Corporate Stooges Jamie Noble and Joey Mercury came to the ring to apprehend him recently, "Uh-oh...it's the Cruiserweight Division." Say what you like about Dean Ambrose, but it's tough to take your eyes off him when he's on-screen.
And in a WWE landscape that's plagued by injury and sabbatical - with key players or recent times like Daniel Bryan, CM Punk and indeed Reigns on the shelf - he's now getting a chance to headline a pay-per view as he faces Rollins inside the cell this Sunday. Is he going to go full Batista and sneak into his former stablemate's prized WrestleMania main event spot? I don't know, it's never easy to tell what's going to happen when Dean Ambrose is involved. And that's what makes it interesting.
This all, of course, is to forget about the third and arguably most variable component in this scenario: Seth Rollins.
Rollins is an indie darling, much like last year's surprise WrestleMania main eventer Daniel Bryan, being a former Ring of Honor Heavyweight Champion under the name Tyler Black. He was the first ever NXT Champion upon being hired by the WWE Developmental Programme, and thus far his success in the major leagues, like Bryan's, feels like a constantly pleasant surprise. At first, it felt like he could suffer from 'The Jannetty Effect' and be the hardest hit by the stable's inevitable split, but from the start of the year Rollins seemed determined not to let that happen and constantly stole the show in the trio's bouts. This led to him being the perpetrator in bringing about the group's demise, being paired with Triple H's 'Authority' group and given the Money In The Bank briefcase.
Where Rollins excels is that he constantly delivers while seemingly going unnoticed on the card. What I mean by this is that he avoids the scrutiny that, say, a Reigns and Orton invite, while still delivering night-after-night in whatever he's asked to do. You'd be forgiven for barely registering that he's now one of the company's most important heels. Much like his time with The Shield, he just slips in and out when needed and leaves you with enough thrilling memories that it's difficult to ever think negatively on him.
Arguably it should be he that gets the lion's share of the credit for WWE's trust in the high profile Ambrose match. Sure, Ambrose grabs your attention, but that's what babyfaces are supposed to do. A babyface (especially one of the rise) is only ever as good as his heel opponent makes him look, after all. Since The Shield's split last May, Rollins has held the entire deal together despite the intermitting absences of Reigns and Ambrose. Just like his time in The Shield, it's easy to draw a roadmap for success for Ambrose and Reigns, but murkier with Rollins. And yet he continues to rise. In fact, his push seems more steady and secure than either of the above right now.
So could he, in fact, be the Batista who sneaks into Reigns' spot at WrestleMania? His briefcase may be the X factor that makes that a reality. Many are speculating that he'll be the first to cash-in his Money In The Bank directly following the main event match, which could mean that he does on on Reigns or Ambrose. I made the prediction myself several months ago that Rollins' possession of the briefcase was proof of WWE's plans with Reigns, and anticipated the night after WrestleMania to be his moment to shine.
It's also not inconceivable that he could yet face Brock Lesnar outright, as a face or heel. His recent cash-in attempt on Lesnar at Night of Champions revealed that live fans, in spite of him successfully turning their cheers to boos, are willing to root for Rollins when he starts doing crazy, exciting, Seth Rollins things, as he did. So while it may seem a stretch now to see him ousting his former partners and leaving the Levi Stadium as WWE World Champion, that's just another day at the office for Seth Rollins. He's been getting those doubts since day one and they're yet to show any signs of materialising. Bet against Seth Rollins at your downfall. And, though they may have gone their separate ways, at WrestleMania one way or another, believe in The Shield.
WWE Hell In A Cell - Rick's Quick Picks
Hell In A Cell: RANDY ORTON over JOHN CENA to become new No 1 Contender for WWE World Championship
Hell In A Cell: DEAN AMBROSE over SETH ROLLINS
THE MIZ over US Champion, SHEAMUS
2-out-of-3 Falls: Intercontinental Champion, DOLPH ZIGGLER over CESARO
RUSEV over BIG SHOW
Loser Must Be The Winner's Personal Assistant For 30 Days: NIKKI BELLA over BRIE BELLA
Divas Champion, AJ LEE over PAIGE
WWE Tag-Team Champions, GOLD & STARDUST over THE USOS
Rick Nash is a former professional wrestler, the co-host of Balls.ie's official WWE podcast, Low Blows, and the founder of WWE Parties Ireland, who last week revealed details of their WWE Survivor Series Party in Woolshed Dublin. He is also a DJ and terrible sports gambler, so feel free to share some tips with him on Twitter.