It's been more than a year since Seth Rollins sold out – or "bought in" – via a series of chair shots on former Shield brothers Dean Ambrose and Roman Reigns, and in the time since, he's made the most of his opportunities, becoming one of the top heels in WWE, winning the Money in the Bank briefcase and cashing in at WrestleMania to become the World Heavyweight Champion.
In many ways, his rise was remarkable. But, since making it to the top, he's been forced to watch those beneath him snatch the spotlight. From John Cena revitalizing the United States Championship and Brock Lesnar casting a sizeable shadow over the promotion (on a part-time basis), Rollins has almost become an afterthought. On top of that, his reign has coincided with the rapid ascent of the promotion he used to rule, NXT, and talent like Kevin Owens, who made waves when he was called up to WWE earlier this year. More proof that it's not easy being champ.
But has any of that caused Rollins to lose confidence? Of course not. And as he prepares to reassert his dominance (and his title's eminence) against Cena on Sunday at SummerSlam, the WWE champ spoke to Rolling Stone about the criticisms of his reign, the art of working a crowd and why he thinks he's still the best in the business.
So I wanted to ask you right off the bat: What was it like to break John Cena's nose?
It was bad. John, being who he is, had no intention of stopping that match, whether his nose was halfway off his face or not, but I knew right away when I hit him; the impact was way harder than I thought it was going to be. I heard his nose pop, and I felt it on my knee – I thought it was his eye socket or something; the way it cracked, I never heard a nose break like that before. The narrative changed after that, but that's one of the cool things about all this. You can't do that in any other medium. That visual of him finishing the match, standing there with his nose halfway across his face, that's something that will be around forever. It's pretty awesome.
Speaking of narratives, are you aware of how your reign as WWE Champion has been received? A lot of what I read online has been less-than-complimentary, to put it mildly.
Twitter's kind of an abridged version of all that; I see enough of it, so I don't really go out of my way to read the sites or the sheets or anything like that. You have to take everything with a grain of salt, because everyone's got an opinion, and now, with Twitter and the blogosphere and all that bull crap, everyone has the means to express that opinion, so it's really hard to gauge an actual response. You just have to go out and do what you do; I know when things I do are good, and I know when they're not, so I'm not going to lose my confidence over one dude online who's writing a report that 20 people read. I know that I'm the one who worked for 12 years to get to this point, I'm the one who spent my whole life putting this before my family and friends, I'm the one who sacrificed every relationship I've ever had to get to this point, and if that guy sitting on his couch, who never did a thing, wants to point fingers at me and talk to me about my championship reign – even if it's a good thing – he can suck it. His opinion is irrelevant to me.
To be fair, most of the criticisms have little to do with you and everything to do with the way you've been booked – as cowardly and incompetent, a weak champion.
Well, I am a heel. I am a bad guy. The object of being a bad guy is to be hated, and for people to not want you to have the championship. And I've had the title for 100-and-whatever days, and every single day of that reign, people have wanted me to lose that title more and more; so in my estimation, I'm doing a bang-up job as WWE World Heavyweight Champion. People have lost sight of what heat is. They don't understand it, in the era of reality in wrestling, and how smart they are and all this, they've lost sight of what actual heat is. So the idea of booking a champion too weak doesn't exist in my opinion. It's about the heat.
So would you like to explain the concept of heat for those who don't understand it?
It's an incredible art form. There's multiple ways to do it, because the beautiful thing about art is that everyone's got their own method. I think there's certainly an art form to being a heel, just like there's an art form to being a babyface. For me, it's always about finding a way to take a shortcut whenever I have an opportunity. That's the one thing that resonates with people of all ages, races, sexes – if they see someone always trying to take the easy way out, it chaps their asses a little bit. They want their champion to be a certain way, and every single time I have the opportunity to take the easy way out, I'm going to do it, from a live event in Bemidji, Minnesota to a main event in Brooklyn, New York for both titles. I'm going to find that little thing that irks people just enough; right when they think they might like me just a little bit, I'll get them all the way there, and then I'll do the one thing that pisses them off. That, for me, is a trick of the trade, always thinking that way: "What's the crappiest way I can do this?"
Do you feel that working matches as a heel has limited you?
Well, you have to dictate the pace of the match, and not give the people what they want all the time. You can't just go-go-go-go for five minutes every single night, because that works against both sides – me and the audience. I think that it's been a challenge, but in a good way. It's definitely something that's going to keep my body healthier, and it's just fun to do new things. I love the fact that I spent three years in Ring of Honor, and got to do that style, I love the fact that I got to learn on the indies, I love the fact that I got to work carnivals and fairs and barns, to figure that stuff out, and I love the fact that I'm here in WWE, and I get to be the top guy and figure out how to do that. To me, that's constantly learning and evolving, not just as a character, but as a human being.
What about WWE's decision to ban the Curb Stomp? Was it difficult for you to lose your finisher during your reign as champion?
Obviously, it was a move that I was partial to, but it didn't make or break me as a performer. I want to make it clear that it wasn't banned because of a risk of injury – I've never hurt anybody with the move ever. We mislabeled the move to begin with – we gave it a lousy name – and then once I got to this level, we started to notice that I was going to be making a lot of media appearances, and moms were going to be seeing the representative of WWE doing this kind of maneuver, and kids were going to try it and it could go wrong very easily. That's stuff I don't think about, but that's why we have people like Vince McMahon, who have done this for their entire lives – they think about stuff like that, and they keep us alive and not in court settling lawsuits all the time. So we decided to make a switch and change over, and I'm fortunate enough to be in a position to be handed down a move like the Pedigree, that no one else has been able to use as a finish in the past 20 years. So I don't mind it one bit, and it kind of adds to the character. People say what they will, but at the end of they day, they're not happy about it, so I'm doing my job.
It just seems like you've had to overcome a lot as WWE champ, very little of which has to do with actual challengers for your title. Do you ever get frustrated?
There are always frustrations. The challenge is finding ways to work within the reality and overcoming it and finding new ways to create heat, as opposed to the old way. The challenge is taking that cynicism that exists out there, and turning it against the people. So of course there's frustration, but it would behoove me not to dwell on it. I've got to go out there every single night and do what I do. I have to navigate this minefield, and the satisfaction comes from getting through it.
You recently cut a promo on Raw where you referred to yourself as "the end-all, be-all of champions in this industry." The fact that you expanded that comment beyond WWE was interesting to me – do you feel you don't get the credit you deserve in this business?
Maybe. I don't even know if that was something that was thought about, but if it came across that way, that's pretty cool. I look at myself, and I look at the journey that I've taken, and there's a lot of guys out there who work for different promotions and they're going to call themselves the best wrestler in the world. They say New Japan is the best wrestling in the world. The PWG guys think they're the best entertainers in the world, yadda yadda yadda. The bottom line is WWE is where everybody wants to be, and if they're telling you they don't, they're liars. And my championship is the championship, so at the end of the day, I am the end-all, be-all of champions in this industry, and if anybody tells you any different, they're straight-up liars.
I don't think anybody gets more attention that I do. I'm the one who's on The Daily Show, I'm the one who opens and closes the show each week; I'm the guy everybody's watching. Here in WWE, I think it's great that guys like Owens, or Cesaro, or Neville or whoever wants to come on board and push me to the next level, because the last thing I want to do as the champion is become complacent. So having guys to bring the competition is one of the best things I can ask for, because it's going to make me better than I am, which is a pretty scary thought.
To that end, at SummerSlam, it'll be you and John Cena, champion versus champion. Do you feel the Heavyweight title hasn't been given the respect it deserves, considering the attention Cena's brought to the U.S. Championship, and are you looking forward to shifting the focus back to the guy on top of the promotion?
I think it's awesome that you have these two different championships, and the fact they're being defended differently makes for exciting television. John comes out every single week, has the US Open Challenge, goes out there and busts his butt and wins every single time; but for me, I don't want to go out there and give a title shot to anybody who wants to take it. I gotta make these guys earn their title shots – it's selective, and it dictates how John's character is and what my character is, and it creates an interesting conversation about prestige. John will tell you his championship is the most prestigious because of the way he defends his, and I'll tell that mine is because mine isn't defended as often. It's apples and oranges, but it makes for an interesting discussion.
On the subject of interesting discussions: You raised a lot of eyebrows with your criticisms of the cast of Tough Enough. Did you catch any heat for that? Speaking out against a WWE product isn't something you see many WWE Superstars do –
No, they asked me how I feel about the competitors on Tough Enough, and I told them the truth. I don't feel there's a lot of potential there – I watched bits and pieces, I went down there and met the competitors, and I didn't feel like there's a lot of heart down there; I didn't feel like there's a lot of passion for what we do. And maybe that's just me be being biased, coming from where I come from, but I like to see people who really want to do this because they love what we do, not people who just want to be famous, or be on TV or be on a reality show or work for a major company like WWE. I want to be surrounded by people who have the same passion for this that I do, and if they don't have that, if they're just around to take a check and call it a day, then they're stealing money from my pockets and from the pockets of the fans. And I'm not into that. I want people who have passion, and love what we do and love this company; if you're not into that, then I'd love for you to find somewhere else to work – go hang out on America's Got Talent. You can have your 15 minutes of fame on that show, but don't waste your time working with my company.
As a guy who loves this business, how do you think you're perceived right now, and how do you want to be remembered?
I think right now, I'm in the infancy of my career, so it's hard to tell, but I think if I walked away tomorrow, people would miss me. Maybe they don't want to admit it, but I think they would. And I hope that someday, my legacy will go down as one of the greatest in-ring performers of all time. I love the way people talk about Shawn Michaels, and no one will ever be Shawn Michaels, but I don't want to be him, I want to be Seth Rollins next to Shawn Michaels. I hope that I have enough in me to go that long, to be able to be that influential to the next generation.