Seth Rollins healthy, hungry and hunting for more gold

WWE superstar Seth Rollins has a chance to win the Raw tag-team titles at SummerSlam alongside Dean Ambrose. Don Feria/AP

At some point nearly two years ago, Seth Rollins entered a rehabilitation center in Birmingham, Alabama. Just days earlier, he had blown out his knee so severely that as he made his way to the training room -- grudgingly awaiting another session to begin -- he took a deep breath, tilted his head skyward and looked for any sign of inspiration.

Instead, he saw only a picture of insignificance staring back at him.

Rollins had it all. He was the champ. He had risen to the top of his profession, and then Dublin happened.

In a championship match in Ireland against Kane on Nov. 4, 2015, Rollins attempted a sunset flip on his opponent from the top rope. Rollins landed awkwardly on the instep of his right foot, resulting in an imbalance and buckling effect that immediately caused the weight-bearing joints in his knees to give out. The devastating consequence: a torn ACL, MCL and medial meniscus.

Distraught, Rollins was forced to relinquish his title the next day. The forecast for Rollins was immediate surgery and up to nine months of repair work.

"You spend time in rehab, on the table and in the room, and you wonder if it's worth it," Rollins recently told ESPN.com. "Is there still a place for you? You wonder if you still fit in. You see the show go on without you and you start to realize that maybe you are just a cog in the machine -- maybe you're not as special as you think."

To understand Rollins, the world-class performer, you have to step as far away from the wrestling ring as possible.

Rollins continued to rehab hundreds, if not thousands, of miles away from the action. He began to reconcile life outside the only livelihood he'd known. There were some dark days.

But eventually there were bright days as well. Slowly, Rollins began to morph into motivation. His knee was going to get better. He was going to get better.

Whether he'd ever reach the point where he was before the injury seemed secondary, as long as he wasn't stuck in a state of sorrow.

"Let's get through this," Rollins said. "And let's make it the best that we can."

Back with the frenemy

On Sunday, Rollins will team up with Dean Ambrose, former brothers in arms who infamously split on an episode of Monday Night Raw in June 2014. They will take on Cesaro and Sheamus at SummerSlam for the tag-team championship. The various character iterations of both Rollins and Ambrose have been fascinating over the past couple of years, but right now the overarching question is one of trust.

Ambrose doesn't fully buy Rollins' about-face from a slick, deceitful, self-centered adversary to a more altruistic character who regrets his past misgivings.

But Monday night, after both vented their frustrations (and threw a few final cathartic punches at each other), they finally put their fists together, the signature move of The Shield and a sign of unity and forgiveness.

Before his injury, and even in the ensuing months after his return, Rollins played the heel role as well as anyone in the company. He had aligned himself with The Authority, notably led by Stephanie McMahon and Triple H. With their help, er, nefarious tactics, Rollins was the guy.

"The injury and everything that happened afterward kinda changed me as a person, so I am in a different state of mind than I was a few years back." Seth Rollins

On March 29, 2015, at WrestleMania 31, Rollins successfully cashed in his Money in the Bank briefcase during the main-event bout between Brock Lesnar and former Shield member Roman Reigns.

Rollins left Levi Stadium in San Francisco, California, with the belt he would hold until his knee setback 220 days later. When he made a surprise return at Extreme Rules the following May, most fans expected to see the softer, more compassionate side of him, only for Rollins to renounce any kind of fondness from the fans. Being a bad guy was his thing.

Rollins believes this era of wrestling makes it easier to be disliked.

"I just think that's maybe it's a sign of the times," he said. "I just feel like, modern kids and people, we like to complain about everything.

"Whether it's movies, music, TV, there's just not a lot of universal love going around, so it is hard to be a Daniel Bryan; it is hard to be a Hulk Hogan. It is a difficult thing to be liked, loved by everybody, so for me I get a kick out of playing the bad guy."

Eventually, Rollins' character had no choice but to disassociate from the corrupt company he was keeping. When Triple H betrayed Rollins during a Fatal four-way match for the Universal title in August 2016, he was left to fend for himself. All that remained was an entire arena of fans waiting to cheer him on.

"Looking back on it now, it made for a better story this way," Rollins said. "I feel like there was an actual catalyst for why the character has grown, and it's happened over time organically, as opposed to, 'Oh, he's hurt and now he's back.'"

Redesign, rebuild, reclaim

Redesign, rebuild, reclaim: Those three words are more than writing on his T-shirt. They accurately illustrate what Rollins is today.

He's watched as his future was in suspense, not knowing what direction his career would take after his initial surgery and a subsequent knee injury that occurred in early 2017, which almost forced him to miss his second consecutive WrestleMania.

"I had to keep my focus and have a goal in mind to work towards, because that's all I've ever done with my life," Rollins said. "I don't know how to operate any other way."

While the Universal championship picture is on hold for now, a shot at the tag-team titles will be, as Rollins said, a renaissance for him and Ambrose.

"I was a tag-team champion with Reigns once, and it would be very nice to do the same thing with Dean," Rollins said. "Sheamus and Cesaro are on fire; they took the titles from The New Day, so it's gonna be a fight. I hope it works out for us."

And if it doesn't? Perhaps a reunion with Reigns?

"Hmmm, yeah, he has a few other hosses to worry about first."