A more recognizable name in professional wrestling you will not find. Nor will you find a more influential figure in the history of the business. The man known as the Hulkster almost single-handedly made wrestling mainstream, capturing the imaginations of countless future performers in the process.
Count World Wrestling Entertainment superstar Seth Rollins among them.
“Hulk Hogan,” Rollins, whose real name is Colby Lopez, answered when asked about his earliest wrestling memories.
“I grew in the late ’80s, early ’90s and there was no bigger star in wrestling than Hulk Hogan and Hulkamania,” Rollins said in a telephone interview. “He was it for me, man; a real-life superhero. He was awesome.
“He got me hooked when I was at a very young age and I just fell in love with the pageantry of the WWE and the whole process of the entrances and the music and the larger-than-life personalities. I was hooked. I really haven’t looked back since then,” said the young WWE superstar, fresh off winning the Money in the Bank ladder match and capturing a contract for a WWE World Heavyweight Championship match in the process.
So strong was Hulkamania’s grip on the young Iowa native that it would pull him into the very business that Hogan helped catapult.
As a teenager, Rollins says, wrestling began to cross over from passion to profession.
“I was … 16 or so and I was in high school,” Rollins said when asked when he began to consider wrestling for a living. A good student at the time, Rollins said he just wasn’t driven to do anything else.
“I just didn’t have an interest in anything scholastically and I didn’t know what else I wanted to do,” he said, before adding that he and his friends in those days were known to hold impromptu wrestling shows. “At the time, I was farting around with my friends in the backyard and doing stuff we probably shouldn’t have been doing — we were throwing shows for our friends and stuff like that,” Rollins said, admitting that his love of all things wrestling was too powerful to ignore.
“It seemed to be something that I had a good time doing and I was like, ‘Well maybe I can just get trained and try to do this … and if I don’t give it a shot, I’m probably going to regret it.’ I said to hell with it, let’s start working out and when I’m 18 and graduate high school, I’ll go get trained somewhere.”
While it certainly made sense in the mind of the then-teenager, selling his parents on a career as a wrestler wasn’t so easy.
“They were so apprehensive at first,” Rollins admitted. “They were very upset. My mom, being a good mom, made sure that I did take classes at community college while I was training at first. I probably took a year or two worth of classes. I never got a degree or anything.”
Eventually, their son’s hard work and dedication began to ease their concerns.
“A year or two in, (my mom) started to notice that it was good and I started to make a little bit of money and things started to happen … I started to catch some breaks here and there,” Rollins said. “Then they were kind of on board with it, smartly for them because it turned out well.”
Rollins plied his trade on the grueling and substantially unlucrative independent wrestling scene, working for such companies as Pro Wrestling Guerrilla, Scott County Wrestling, AAW: Professional Wrestling Redefined, Independent Wrestling Association Mid-South, National Wrestling Alliance, and Wrestling Society X. He also worked briefly for Total Nonstop Action (IMPACT) and starred in Ring of Honor, before getting the call to the big leagues, WWE.
On paper, the ascension from little known indy performer to rising WWE superstar is far less ominous than the journey itself. Tales of sleeping in cars, driving hundreds upon hundreds of miles for a $25 payday are commonplace among indy lore. Rollins was no exception.
“There’s like a weird, crazy love that people have for this business,” Rollins answered when asked what drives a young indy star trying to make it in a notoriously tough business in which to break through. “Once you’re in and you’re entrenched in it, it’s an addiction and it becomes a lifestyle and you can’t do without it. For me personally, I’m a very driven individual, (a) goal-oriented type of guy and maybe I’m just stubborn, I don’t know, but I always wanted to better myself and better my position and be the top guy and be the best. Nothing was ever good enough for me. Even when good things were happening, I was always like, ‘Alright, what’s next, what’s next, what’s next?’ That was my kind of motivation. It was like, ‘OK, I’m doing good, but how can I do better?’ ”
That approach paid huge dividends for Rollins on his way to the top. He succeeded at every stop along the way, including a reign as the Ring of Honor World champ.
Rollins is unwavering in his love and support of independent wrestling.
“I think independent wrestling in the (United) States and in Canada is super important,” he said. “That’s the grassroots level, man. There is no replacing experience. We have the (WWE’s) Performance Center in Orlando, which is a state of the art, professional, amazing facility that can help with the top trainers in the world. The guys are getting experience on live events and all that in the Florida area and it’s great for them, and now NXT has got its own show and basically its own brand, but for me, there’s literally no replacement for doing it the way I did it. There’s no way you can mimic that experience of travelling with your buddies in the car and learning night after night from working with guys who are better than you and guys who are worse than you. That is, to me, the ultimate apprenticeship of what we do and really just working your way up and crafting who you are as a professional and as a performer. It’s very important, I think, in what we do.”
Before debuting on televised WWE programming, Rollins would dominate the developmental territories, becoming the most decorated performer in Florida Championship Wrestling history and becoming the inaugural NXT champion, an honour Rollins is proud of.
“Being the first (champion) is awesome,” he said. “Everybody knows Pat Patterson was the first Intercontinental champion, Jim Duggan won the first Royal Rumble … everyone knows the first so it’s cool to have that honour, to always be the guy who was the first NXT champion and really set the table for what that brand has become. I feel really proud of that.”
From there, Rollins would join fellow NXT stars Dean Ambrose and Roman Reigns to form The Shield, one of the most dominant and successful stables in recent WWE history. The trio enjoyed success from Day 1, winning fans over both as heels and babyfaces and climbing to mainstream status along the way.
The Shield was more than a stable, Rollins said.
“It’s (was) a mindset. A lot of guys don’t come in anymore with the mindset that they’re taking over,” Rollins said. “That’s just what we had from Day 1. From the moment we stepped through the curtain, made our debut, made an impact, we knew, all three of us, even if it was unspoken, that we were taking over. It wasn’t just a gimmick, it wasn’t just an angle, it wasn’t just a catchphrase. We were like ‘the business is in a spot where it’s time for young talent to come up and have a bit of a chip on its shoulder and have a bit of an ego and a good chunk of confidence.’ We knew we had the ability and it was just a matter of time before we pushed everybody else out of the way.”
Together, Rollins, Ambrose and Reigns dominated, with Rollins and Reigns winning the WWE tag-team titles and Ambrose the United States championship along the way. Rollins and Reigns were standouts at the Royal Rumble and the group was arguably at the top of their collective game when Rollins pulled the plug on the group, aligning himself with The Authority and subsequently capturing the Money in the Bank contract, all but assuring himself of a reign as WWE World Heavyweight champion in the next 12 months.
While Rollins is certainly proud of how far he’s come from those days of impromptu backyard wrestling matches, it’s not something he gives much thought to.
“You know, it’s hard to sit back and smell the roses, so they say, when we’re doing this every single day, all the time,” he said. “It’s never-ending. You get in the gears of the machine and we’re just going. If I have the opportunity, it’s nice to sit back and appreciate where you’ve been and were I’m at, but at the end of the day, like I said, what drives me is still the same thing that drove me when I was cutting me teeth in the independents, I just always want to be better. And even though I’m the Money In the Bank contract holder, and I’m possibly a future WWE World Heavyweight champion, there’s still more. There’s still more to be done. Maybe one day when I’m old and grey and on a beach somewhere, sipping a nice cold drink, I’ll reflect and be a little more appreciative of the things I’ve done for myself.”
While the contract all but guarantees a world title win, it doesn’t bring with it any kind of guarantee beyond that. Many a superstar have won the briefcase, captured the title and not been able to hold onto that success. Asked how he plans to avoid the fallbacks suffered by the likes of The Miz, Dolph Ziggler, Alberto Del Rio and Damien Sandow, Rollins says he won’t change a thing.
“You just outwork everybody,” he said. “That’s the only way. You can talk about all the politics you want and all of the guys who’ve fallen off, so to speak, or whatever it may be, but to me, it’s just a matter of working harder than everybody else.”
If anyone is looking for an example of that approach, they need look no further than at the current WWE World Heavyweight champion, and longtime face of the WWE, John Cena.
“Look at a guy like John Cena, who’s been on top for 10, 12 years at this point,” he said. “No one can say that they work harder than John. You can’t do it. When it comes to training, when it comes to in the ring, when it comes to appearances, when it comes to Make-A-Wish (Foundation) stuff, there’s no one at this point who can say they work harder than John. I think it all trickles down from there. The guys who work the hardest, the guys who put the most time in, they’re going to be in that position. And I don’t ever plan on falling down.”
Hard work and sacrifice, both personal and physical, are staples in a business that is as physical as any. Rollins himself took a massive bump (industry lingo for a stunt or having a move performed on someone) during the Money in the Bank match, being tossed onto a ladder that was suspended across a rung of one ladder and the top rope of the ring. Upon landing on his back on the ladder, the rope’s give caused the ladder to jump, dumping it and Rollins to the mat below, while his head and shoulder caught the bottom portion of another ladder on the way down.
It drew huge reactions from the crowd in attendance, and those watching at home and posting to social media.
For his part, Rollins admits he doesn’t think too far ahead to big spots like that. They simply happen.
“Man, adrenaline is a powerful, powerful chemical in the body. It does a lot of amazing things. At that point in the match, you’re in a sold-out arena in Boston at TD Garden, a match of that magnitude, where you know all the eyes in the world are watching you … there’s really no other alternative than to do what you’ve got to do. Any fear or reservation that you might have had going into the match, it all disappears in that moment and it just is what it is,” he said, admitting he hadn’t yet watched his bump himself.
Asked if he feared injuries like those suffered by Daniel Bryan and WWE Hall of Famer Adam (Edge) Copeland, Rollins had a different take on health and professional wrestling.
“To me the biggest threat, and the biggest enemy, as far as injuries are concerned, is the schedule — the wear and tear; the wrestling every single night; the bumping every night,” he said. “Nine times out of 10, the stuff that really hurts the guys, or we get injured on, isn’t the big stuff. Wade Barrett separated his shoulder the other night on Smackdown when he got thrown into a guardrail, which is fairly routine on WWE programming. It’s really one of those things where it probably wasn’t that guardrail that got him. It’s probably a situation where his shoulder has weakened over months and months of some sort of bumping or just the wear and tear of training and being on the road. I mean, we’re year-round. We don’t have breaks, we don’t have an off-season, we don’t have time to recover from our injuries the way a lot of professional athletes do. We are a one-of-a-kind business in that sense. People talk about the major risks and you think about the huge bumps and stuff like that, but realistically, to me, most of the injuries are wear and tear type things or freak accidents. It’s going to happen and you’ve got to accept that. It’s part of the industry. It’s not anything that we like or enjoy, and we’ve love to minimize that of course and have long careers, but all of us are performers and we knew what we were getting ourselves into when we signed up for this gig.”
Rollins will bring his work ethic and Money in the Bank briefcase to Kingston on Sunday as part of WWE’s SummerSlam Heatwave Tour. As someone who came up through the independent scene, there is nothing like a live wrestling crowd, Rollins said.
“Live events are just a lot of fun,” he said. “I enjoy the interactions with the people. They play a much bigger role in the shows than they (do with) TV.”
Asked how a fan might grab his attention, Rollins said: “If I see a good sign or something like that, I’ll give it a nod, or a little wink or something like that, but mostly I just like to get all the people on the same page and then I’ll fight with them a little bit. If it works, it works. If not, then we’ll try something new. Live events are the best, man. They’re a hell of a good time.”
Fans are in for a treat, too, as Rollins will face off against his former Shield friend Ambrose in what should be a show stealer.
“It’s going to be interesting,” Rollins said of facing his friend-turned-foe. “Now that I’ve got that briefcase, that contract, I think that adds another weird element to the whole thing. Ambrose, his character has kind of taken a new step in psychotic since the breakup of The Shield. He’s definitely a one-of-a-kind individual. He’s definitely off his rocker, just an aloof, crazy dude and being in the ring with him is not for the faint of heart. You never know what he’s going to do, where he’s going to be or what’s coming your way. You’ve got to be prepared for anything. Luckily, I’m that guy. I’m the guy who’s prepared for anything. I’m the utility player, I can do it all. Architect, if you will. It’s a dream matchup for fans and it’s going to be something that should be awesome. I’m looking forward to it.”
Rollins has come a long way since his days as a young Hulkamaniac, even having managed to get his own name into the wrestling history books alongside his idol, an idol he had the opportunity to meet in person this past WrestleMania.
“It was awesome,” Rollins said, the tone of his voice changing for the first time in the interview. “I tried not to get too weird about it … just went to shake his hand and say, ‘Pleasure to meet you, bro.’ ”
The immortal one responded in kind.
“He was awesome. He gave me a, ‘Love your stuff, brother,’” Rollins said, using his best Hogan impression. “That was awesome. To get Hulk’s seal of approval, you can’t beat that.”
Chances are, sometime in the next 12 months, Rollins will hoist his first WWE singles title, engraving his name alongside his hero in the process.
And maybe, somewhere out there, a young Seth Rollins fan will feel the same inspiration that young Colby Lopez felt all those years ago.
What: WWE presents its SummerSlam Heatwave Tour.
When: Sunday, July 6, 7 p.m.
Where: Rogers K-Rock Centre, 1 The Tragically Hip Way.
On the card: Dean Ambrose, Seth Rollins, Ryback, Kane, Mark Henry, Sheamus, Alberto Del Rio and others.
Tickets: $95, $50, $35, $25 and $15. For details, go to http://www.rogersk-rockcentre.com.