WrestleMania is just under three weeks away, and at this point the Raw match that has had the most build is the one that pits Seth Rollins against his former benefactor (and real-life WWE executive) Triple H. It hasn’t all gone smoothly, though. The entire storyline is built around a Rollins face turn that has done nothing to endear him to the fans, framing him not as a repentant former bad guy but as the jilted former champion angry that he was cast aside by the villainous management who had previously hand-picked him and rigged the system in his favor. He didn’t realize the error of his ways and rebel against Triple H and his wife, Raw general manager (and real-life WWE executive) Stephanie McMahon, but whine in reaction to those two effectively disowning him shortly after he returned from a serious knee injury. It makes it hard to root for a wrestler when you can’t respect their motivations, and it’s even harder to care about a major face turn predicated on the wrestler wishing they were still basically a heel. During the early days of the story, it felt like Rollins had single-handedly ushered in the Era of Passive-Aggression.
Seth Rollins has charisma, though. He can deliver a good promo, when he has the right material, and even though his knee injury has slowed him down a bit (and a more recent, less significant knee injury has kept him out of action the last few weeks), he’s still one of the best all-around wrestlers on Raw. People can easily cheer for this man. That’s why it was so baffling that he was still playing the heel role as the authority figure’s would-be lackey when he returned from his surgery, and why the fundamentally misconceived nature of his face turn felt even more tragic than it otherwise would’ve. It would take very little effort to make fans cheer Seth Rollins, so instead WWE put a lot of effort (presumably unintentionally) into making sure the fans didn’t care about him as much as they should have.
That’s all backstory. Last night Raw ended with a hot angle that proved how willing the fans are to embrace Seth Rollins. After an angry, believable promo between Triple H, McMahon and Mick Foley that veered into worked shoot territory (without the negative connotations that usually conjures up), and which ended with Triple H and Stephanie on the verge of brutalizing a downed Foley, Rollins hobbled out with a crutch and a knee brace and then proceeded to beat Triple H up in a way few wrestlers get to do. He both outsmarted Triple H by exaggerating the extent of his injury (long-time fans know that somebody getting the intellectual drop on Triple H is one of the rarest occurrences in all of wrestling) and then proceeded to punch, kick and dropkick the “King of Kings” entirely out of the ring. And, in true face fashion, he did it without using the foreign object of his crutch as a weapon.
The fans responded in kind: Rollins got the biggest face reaction he’s seen in months, at least since his first return from injury and perhaps stretching all the way back to his days in the Shield. This is classic wrestling booking: the face, Rollins, is shown as being smarter than the bad guy, who he attacks head on, and in defense of a beloved wrestling legend. If the fans hadn’t cheered as much as they did it’d be a sign that WWE had completely undercut Rollins’s viability as a top star. The fact that they did react properly proves that Rollins still has that potential to be a true main eventer, and also proves that WWE can actually get a great face reaction when it wants to.
And then WWE did what it so often does: pull the rug out from underneath itself and get too cute and busy with its booking. There are still two episodes of Raw before WrestleMania. That’s more than enough time for Triple H to get his heat back on Rollins. That’s what should happen—the arrogant heel should use cheap tactics, the advantage of numbers, and every other dirty trick he must’ve learned from Ric Flair during the Evolution days to stack the deck against Rollins over the next two weeks. What probably shouldn’t have happened is the heel immediately getting his heat back. But that’s how Raw ended last night; after Rollins kicked Triple H out of the ring, goofily pointing at the ubiquitous WrestleMania sign as the fans cheered him on, the bad guy made a comeback through the blunt end of Rollins’s crutch. Triple H didn’t just use that improvised weapon for an unfair advantage—he directly targeted Rollins’s knee, trying to aggravate the injury that’s kept Rollins out of action. He then put Rollins in a leg hold, distending that knee, before leaving the ring with his shirt off, his face twisted up in a smirk and his enemy writhing in pain.
This should’ve happened—eventually. Triple H should’ve gone after Rollins’s injured knee. He probably should’ve had help from Samoa Joe and Kevin Owens, his latest chosen sons. He shouldn’t have done it last night, though. Last night was the time for Rollins to finally be taken seriously by the fans as a top-of-the-card, main event babyface. WWE did that perfectly by having Rollins lay Triple H out at the end of Raw. Triple H instantly getting his heat back hurts Rollins more than it helps Triple H or their feud, though.
Perception is key in wrestling, and if the fans are going to perceive Rollins as a true threat to Triple H, they’re going to have to see Rollins portrayed as a true threat in the build-up to their WrestleMania match. Even if the plan is for Triple H to win that match, Rollins needs to be carefully managed for the fickle fans to truly see him on Triple H’s level. Triple H taking Rollins out with a crutch and trying to reinjure him makes perfect sense, and is the direction this story should head in, but not within seconds of Rollins getting the upper hand on Triple H for the first time. If WWE had given that moment time to breath, if they had let Rollins finish the show standing tall as a disgraced Triple H slinked off to the locker room, the perception that Rollins really was a top guy would have lasted for a week. And then, when Raw returned the following Monday, they could have Triple H get the better of Rollins, perhaps with the help of his latest goon squad.
This lack of patience is a common problem in WWE’s storytelling over the last couple of decades, but rarely is it displayed so plainly as it was on last night’s Raw. It only makes you wonder if the expected, common sense conclusion, where the face Rollins stands triumphant over Triple H at the end of their WrestleMania match, is where the story is headed. If it isn’t, well, that’s another thing that would fit in perfectly with how WWE tells its stories.
Garrett Martin edits Paste’s wrestling, comedy and games sections. He’s on Twitter @grmartin.