After a championship match at Roadblock that was loaded with nothing except crowd apathy, WWE announced on Monday night that Roman Reigns will again challenge Kevin Owens for the WWE Universal Title. The match will take place next month in San Antonio at the Royal Rumble. Yawn.
Yes, despite all evidence clearly pointing to the fact that Reigns just isn’t the person who will carry this company as it’s top babyface, Vince McMahon and company are still hell-bent on making it happen. Over two years after the rocket was strapped to Roman’s back, WWE is still pushing him forward as if the world greatly anticipates his eventual…reign.
Look, this isn’t a personal attack on Reigns. From everything I hear, he’s a great guy and a hard worker. I don’t think he’s awful in the ring or not trying hard. In fact, I think he could be quite good. This goes beyond Reigns; the trouble is the people in charge of his character, not Roman himself. It’s just quite obvious to anyone who has followed this business for a considerable amount of time that he’s never going to be what WWE keeps trying to make him. Square peg, meet round hole.
There was once a chance to capitalize on some crowd momentum and make Roman a true main event player. That chance, though, involved turning Roman heel to capitalize on all of the real heat (something rare in wrestling these days) that he was experiencing.
Roman never had that chance.
Instead, WWE chose to continue trudging forward against mounting evidence they were traveling down a doomed path. Failing to pull the trigger on that heel turn when the time was ripe for it has left Roman’s career, as presently constructed, in a place where it will be hard to recover.
Roman Reigns is now stuck in wrestling hell. This is a term often used in the rest of the sports world to describe a team who doesn’t win a lot, but also doesn’t lose enough to score a high draft pick. The team is stuck right in the middle and no escape seems in sight. That’s where Roman’s WWE story arc is headed. He’s not over as a babyface, and the crowd just doesn’t care enough to boo him as boisterously as they did at the Royal Rumble two years ago. He’s just…there. And in wrestling, an industry built on charisma and crowd response, just being “there” is akin to death. It’s certainly not grounds for justifying his current place on the cards or within the storylines.
The rationale that defenders of Reigns’ incessant push always refer back to is John Cena. He, they argue, was always boo’ed by a large percent of the audience and still became the biggest star of WWE’s post Austin and Rock era. This is a massively flawed argument and narrative. While it’s true that Cena always had boo-birds (sometimes a large majority of the crowd), he also had (and continues to have) a dedicated and loyal following that moved a ton of merchandise. Cena also improved house show attendance, numbers that had been on the decline prior to his run on top. Reigns has succeeded in neither of these arenas.
John Cena got over organically at first, something Reigns has not done. Yes, the Shield was over as a group, but Reigns as a singles performer has never been over at a main event level with the crowd. Cena, as a heel and then turning face, popularized himself with the crowd during the era where he would rap before matches. He didn’t experience the blow-back from fans until the middle of 2005, after he had won the World Championship at WrestleMania 21 to the delight of most in attendance that night at the Staples Center.
A more suitable comparison for Reigns would be Dwayne Johnson. This comparison also shows how WWE missed the boat on the route that should have been taken with Roman’s character. There’s so much in common between the initial push of Rocky Maivia and Reigns’ ongoing failed singles push, it’s staggering. Men with a family history in the business and success in football. Good looking athletes with the body type Vince McMahon is enamored with. The audience rejected Johnson in 1996 and 1997 with the same volatility that they did Reigns. The difference is, Johnson was allowed to take his character heel and create the persona of The Rock that launched him into superstardom (and eventually Hollywood).
No, seriously, I really mean that. I really do feel bad for him because he never got that chance due to the stubbornness of those booking his character. I really think it could have been great, but I worry it’s far too late for that obvious heel turn to have much of an effect on Reigns’ career path or eventual ability to transcend into superstardom. Again, he’s presently stuck in the middle with an apathetic audience. The worst place to be in wrestling.
A year ago, the crowd was chomping at the bit for that heel turn. I wasn’t the only person calling for it. Steve Austin called for it on more than one occasion during his podcast. I like to think I know a fair amount about wrestling, but Austin has spit more knowledge back into the can while drinking a Steveweiser than I will ever hope to know. The fact that he agrees with me here I think gives my thesis credit.
So now what? Some believed that Reigns holding the U.S. title meant that WWE had finally realized the error in their ways and set Roman on the back-burner in favor of some new talent on top. I knew better. I wrote at the time that Roman’s U.S. title run was a “rehab stint” designed to get him in the audience’s good graces for yet another push to the top. Sadly, I was correct.
WWE apparently believes that the character has been rehabbed and he’s ready for the title scene again. That, or the push is being necessitated due to roster limitations in the new brand split era. However, there is no measurable statistic that shows Reigns has been turned around as a babyface. During the Summer, the Dean Ambrose headlined house show tour regularly outdrew the Reigns tour. His merchandise sales are still relatively stagnant in comparison to the others top sellers in the company. Perhaps some of this could be blamed on the absolutely awful designs they put on his t-shirts, though. Nobody else in the company suffers so constantly with bad merchandising designs. It’s brutal.
As far as rehabbing the character itself goes? There was a short period of time in late 2015 when it seemed the crowd was warming up to Reigns. This is when they briefly went back to letting Roman be the Shield version of his character. Minimal talking and more ass kicking. It was at that time that the Philadelphia crowd that boo’ed him so famously at Royal Rumble 2015 cheered him 11 months later, leading to Roman thanking them after the cameras stopped rolling.
As we all know, the direction his character was headed in late 2015 has long been reversed. Roman now appears over-scripted. He’s either not being allowed to be himself, or he’s just never going to be that good on the microphone (which is bizarre, as he’s proven to be an engaging speaker on Network pieces like the WWE 24 piece done on him around WrestleMania 31). His segments in front of the live crowd are almost always awkward and overreaching, resulting in what is usually a dead audience full of indifference. There’s no better example than this promo from Tribute To The Troops last week.
Despite Roman being a more than capable wrestler, as AJ Styles can attest to, Reigns’ matches lately have also been laid out poorly. This has resulted in more and more blow-back from the crowd. Need an example? Look at last Sunday’s match with Kevin Owens at Roadblock in Pittsburgh. Reigns received a cannonball from Owens, and he immediately popped up to hit a Superman punch. The groan from the audience could be heard across the state in Philadelphia.
So where is this headed? If Reigns is once again in the title match at WrestleMania 33, for the third year in a row, it’s a sign that the company will never, ever back down from doing whatever they can to make Reigns the top babyface. Unfortunately, nobody is paying attention to history or the present. Reigns as the top babyface draw is not ever going to happen as currently presented, no matter how much Vince grits his teeth and trudges ahead.
Too late or not, it’s still worth attempting an over the top and violent heel turn (I can’t emphasize enough that it needs to be violent for his character be the kind of heel he needs to be). Without giving Reigns the chance at a full-on heel turn, WWE is not only robbing Reigns of potential success as a future main eventer, but they are also robbing the audience of a potential future star. Right now, that potential main event star is stuck in the middle.