Steve Austin posited on his podcast last year that Seth Rollins wasn’t “all the way over” in the babyface role.
Rightly so: what was framed as his grand redemption at WrestleMania 33 was, in retrospect, a very good but methodical affair bereft of heat that did not act as the intended launchpad for Seth’s superstardom.
Rollins remained enervated in its aftermath. His molasses-slow recovery from his ACL, MCL and medial meniscus injuries felt not like a recovery but the new normal. Rollins went 50/50 in consecutive programmes with Samoa Joe and Bray Wyatt, the former of which was particularly disappointing, marred by any sense of in-ring dynamism and narrative consequence.
Still, even under the heavy weight of a so-so 15 minute Payback match, the promise remained. In the midst of his heat spot, Joe launched himself at Seth’s recovering knee with a crushing running senton. Rollins sold it, with a palpable realism, as if reliving the events of November 4, 2015. His eye popped out of his head, he clutched his knee with a credible fused expression of panic and pain, and, brilliantly, he yelled out “Motherf-“ as he crumpled in agony.
His grasp of psychology was there, even if his 2015 explosiveness was not. Rollins proved himself capable of carefully pushing WWE’s PG envelope and conveying a sense of genuine peril under WWE’s safe in-ring philosophy. Rollins’ grit bled through the glossy WWE stage.
Rollins wore golden, feathered gear in Orlando to symbolise his phoenix-like rise from the ashes. The phoenix was not yet in full flight, but, at Payback, the embers still burned.