Roman Reigns: Wrestling’s Top Star Finally Lives Up To The Hype
In a year that brought us the worst pandemic in a century, social unrest, and an election with results that left each side able to be frustrated about something, finding a silver lining for many has been tough. Speaking for me personally, I’ve had my own many bumps on the road in 2020. I lost employment (thankfully have found work again since), most of my highly anticipated films got pushed back to next year for release, my annual trek to Halloween Horror Nights at Universal Studios had to be cancelled this year, and WrestleMania which was scheduled to take place in my hometown of Tampa Bay was forced into a small arena with no fans in attendance. But if there is one silver lining that stands out to me about 2020 it’s that Roman Reigns finally achieved legitimacy as an interesting character in the wrestling industry after years of never living up to the hype.
Now there’s probably a few of you who are asking yourselves one question – “Who on God’s green and beautiful Earth is Roman Reigns and why did he have a better 2020 than most of us?” Well, I’ll answer all that in due time, but before that I’ll remind you that you can find a previous article on here from me on why I watch and what I get out of wrestling which might be worth your time before you read this piece. If you happen to be confused as to what to think about the industry that asks men (and women) to play fight for your amusement, I actually will side with Vince McMahon in not calling it a sport as much as it is an entertaining stage play played out like a sport. You’re watching legitimate athletic gladiators in the ring who happen to act out narratives as well in-between their battles with one another.
Now who Roman Reigns is has a more complicated answer than you’d think at first glance. You see as the legendary and infamous late wrestling icon Roddy Piper once explained to actor (and a character himself) Gary Busey on a reality television show they were featured on; an actor doesn’t have to live their performance once the film or show stops taping. Maybe an actor will get stopped on the side of the street and asked to replicate a quote or scene, but they’ll sign an autograph with their legal names (stage names becoming more of a thing of the past) and be known for their work as an actor more so than just their characters on screen.
A wrestling performer has to live their character practically every time they’re out in public whether in the ring having a match or signing autographs at an event. They are known more for who they pretend to be more so than who they are. Even in an era where we all know they’re just pretending, even with various documentaries produced on who these people are behind the scenes, the biggest stars are still only known for who they play than who they are. Take the likes of Terry Bollea, Richard Flier, Dwayne Johnson, or Steve Austin who no matter how many movies or special appearances they do elsewhere will always be referred to as Hulk Hogan, Ric Flair, The Rock, or Stone Cold. When Robert DeNiro is meeting a fan or media at the red carpet he’s seen as Robert DeNiro not stuck with just being known as say Travis Bickle. This link between reality and fiction has led to performers who have lived their characters’ lifestyles to the extreme at times, and it sometimes leads to massive pressure on them to deliver.
Roman Reigns’ “real life” name is Leati Joseph Anoa’i, he’s a member of the legendary Anoa’i family which has produced some great wrestling talent, and even has ties to the iconic Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson. Wrestling families aren’t rare in the industry, and in becoming Roman Reigns “Joe” had plenty upside for producers to look forward to with him past just his lineage. The guy is big, a powerhouse of a human being who played football in his younger years and at six foot-three and bulging muscles has “the look” of a wrestling star. He’s also been cited by many as a born locker room leader who shows respect to the veterans and shows younger and fresher talent the way to conduct themselves as superstars. His character has always been spoken of very highly by those who have worked with him. And on top of all that he came into the main roster of WWE just as the era of top star John Cena was fading away in its twilight years, with Cena looking to expand his talents to Hollywood as other previous top wrestling stars have. WWE needed someone to replace Cena as the big-name superhero who would main event shows, and Reigns had the look, the name, the reputation, and the lineage to do it.
There was only one big problem – it’s one thing for the company to warm up to you, it’s another for the fanbase to as well. WWE likes to brag about how they allow their superstars to “grab that brass ring” and shoot their way up into stardom, but the truth is everyone has a role from comedic sideshow characters to mid-carders to main eventers to “the top guy”. And quite frankly if you want to be “the top guy” you need the approval of Vincent Kennedy McMahon and if you get it, he’ll shape you into becoming the big merchandise selling, kid friendly, magnetic personality that will main event many WrestleManias and take down top supervillain after top supervillain. Or at least that’s the plan. But the fans don’t always go with the plan. The industry is filled with a history of guys who had “the look” and were the chosen picks to be that top performer only for fans to reject them in mass. In fact, I would argue that the best way for someone to get to the top is to get the fanbase around them naturally the way Hulk Hogan, Shawn Michaels, Stone Cold, John Cena, and others did – while also incidentally getting Vince’s attention to their ability to get “butts in seats”.
In a day and age when fans are smarten up to behind-the-scenes decisions more than they’ve ever been before, everyone knew Reigns was going to be the next main eventer the company would “push” to the top. Unfortunately for the company as Reigns was about to take Cena’s role, an unexpected five foot-ten working class, vegan-dieting, bearded superhero emerged instead in Daniel Bryan, who captured the fans’ hearts as he fought the perception, he wasn’t good enough both in front and behind the camera and became the choice as the next big “babyface” hero by the fans to cheer for. Bryan’s famous “Yes!” chants broke into the mainstream invading sports games and becoming a meme on social media. The company pushed back a bit and that lead to an infamous Royal Rumble event in 2014 in which the fans were nearly in a riot mode and booed almost the entire show when they realized Bryan wasn’t going to get the WrestleMania main event treatment. This forced the company’s hands, and he did indeed get to play the hero at WrestleMania XXX, one of the few times McMahon allowed the fans to book a storyline over his own plans.
But the company didn’t quit on Reigns as their choice to be the top star. Following an injury to Bryan that in time would lead to years of him being unable to perform (thankfully he’s returned to the ring in the last few years), Reigns was broken apart from the team he had been a part of. He was packaged as a lone wolf and within just a few months into his solo career getting off the ground, the company booked him the honor of winning the legendary Royal Rumble match and cementing his place as a would-be WrestleMania main eventer. The plan that night was to have Reigns crowned as the next big hero, with he is taking down goons of the top “bad guy” squad at the time and The Rock himself coming out and raising his hand in victory. The fans cheering the start of a new Roman Reigns era in WWE. Or at least that was the plan.
For whatever reason, WWE rushed Bryan back from injury, had him eliminated from the match at the height of his popularity in a fashion that made him seem weak and pathetic rather than the man who was eliciting such raucous crowds, and then featured Reigns defeating two veterans past their prime who at the time had gotten heat on them for not retiring sooner and all while The Rock bailed him out. Completing a match that is considered by many to be perhaps one of the lesser Royal Rumble matches ever produced. As The Rock raised Reigns hands up in the air, the arena booed them out of the arena with The Rock visibly flummoxed and Reigns big moment ending up rejected by the very fans WWE wanted cheering for him.
This would lead to Reigns being so completely rejected that WWE tried for weeks to gain sympathy for him, including even booking Daniel Bryan to endorse him as the next champion and desperate weekly attempts to make fans buy into him as the next main eventer. But the reactions never changed and come WrestleMania time WWE booked him to lose, attempting to reboot his character for a better done premier as the new top guy for the company. Months later Reigns finally got a huge ovation when WWE correctly booked him as a legit “bad ass” who decided to rebel against the boss after one night in a pay per view event, the fans finally seeing something in him that night. And did WWE correctly let that reaction fester and grow by putting him in a month’s long journey to become champion? No. They (forgive the expression) “blew their wad” in just twenty-four hours and had him become the champion the next night. By the time Reigns had his big WrestleMania moment in 2016, the show was reviewed as being mediocre and Reigns’ match was filled with a mostly negative reaction from fans.
This began a long and tortured cycle in which the company would try time and time again to give Reigns his big “He’s arrived” moment, booking him into main event storyline after main event storyline, trying different ways to get the fans behind him. They tried so hard to give him sympathy, he actually lost some pay per view matches in ways that only made him seem weak and illegitimate as a stop star. They had him come up short in Rumble match after Rumble match, leading to cheers when he was eliminated rather than any sympathy. One time he was getting beaten down so bad in a main event match, at WrestleMania 34 nonetheless, that fans showed their apathetic feelings about “the top guy” by cheering his defeat and playing with a beach ball in the stands instead of paying attention to what on paper should be the biggest match in the year for the wrestling industry. The following month after that very main event, it was reported that a big chunk of the audience for the following pay per view event’s final match that featured Reigns walked out on the match apathetic to whether he won or not! Reigns was being shoved down throats repeatedly and a sizable part of the fanbase resented him and the company for it, and it showed in the ratings as Reigns’ time as the top “good guy” during 2016 to 2020 lead to some of the worst ratings declines in the company’s history.
Now to be completely fair, Reigns did have his fans, and this wasn’t exactly the first time the company kept hammering on with a performer as their main event pick even as some rejected that performer. John Cena himself could elicit some strong negative reactions, but the problem is his merchandise sold crazy money and he’s a legitimate and proven ratings grabber. I was actually among those who bought into the Cena character and enjoyed his feuds with different wrestlers. Reigns did have some moments when he sold merchandise better than anyone else, and there were moments when they hit a town he was actually received well by, but the anti-reigns sentiment was just much stronger than any pro-Cena sentiment during Cena’s (pardon the pun) reign atop the industry. Reigns had his small flashes of glory, but for the most part he was an awkward main eventer that never seemed to get a consistent positive reaction or get butts in seats or eyes on the TV.
For my part I was firmly in the anti-Reigns camp. I had no beef with “Joe” Anoa’i personally, but the character was boring and stale to me and it was insulting how obvious it was the company was hell bent to make him something he was not. There was even a stretch when WWE was caught photoshopping out negative fan signs in regard to Reigns and rumors persisted of them paying fans to show up at shows with pro-Reigns gear. The obsession with him was becoming insufferable for a good amount of us wrestling fanatics. Of course, he still won over some fans, but the idea he was ever the hands down top main eventer didn’t vibe when other performers were getting bigger cheers and earning stronger fan bases. My brother and me would get into heated debates about the company presenting him as the face of WWE, as he has always been the kind to just go along with the show and I want to be entrained by good storytelling. But I was losing interest in WWE with each passing month and Reigns consistently being the main story week in and week out quite frankly was a major reason why.
It had been always argued for the last three to four years that if being the “good guy” wasn’t going to work for Reigns as a character, maybe he could find his own footing as a villain. “Heel turns” as they are referred to as in the industry, when a hero becomes a villain in wrestling, have done wonders for would be superstars. Quickly coming to mind is how The Rock and John Cena went from boring generic babyfaces into brimming with personality heels that shaped the popular characters they would become major stars as. In fact, The Rock didn’t become “The Rock” until then generic good guy Rocky Maivia donned a pair of sunglasses and started to refer to himself in the third person after he switched sides. Even the aforementioned Daniel Bryan had a small run as a bad guy last year that helped his character from getting stale. But there was always a question as to if WWE would be willing to do that with their top hero regardless of the at best mediocre reactions he got from the crowds. After all, he still sold merchandise with the kids and the kids don’t gravitate to “cool villains” like some of us fans do.
In late 2018, Reigns announced the shocking news he had started a second bout with Leukemia, having fought off the cancer in his earlier years. Even the hardest of Reigns detractors wished him well as a human being, and thankfully within months he was back to competing in the ring. And yet when he had his big return match at WrestleMania 35 last year, he was met with polite claps much more than a triumphant return reaction. Becky Lynch, a woman who had set the wrestling world on fire while Reigns was recovering had become the new face of the industry as she broke barriers and main evented the first ever WrestleMania main event involving only female performers. She had been the real story of that event, and Reigns was a side character.
Reigns went on to be pushed towards returning to the main event for this year’s WrestleMania, but the boos started to slowly come back, and some fans started to blame him for the lagging ratings and the booking decisions to help his character that hurt more popular performers, including a head scratching decision to have a veteran take the championship off an act that was really hot at the time in Bray Wyatt, just so Reigns could have a match with that veteran. And as if Reigns bad luck as the “top guy” in the company hadn’t been rough enough by then, the pandemic hit and out of caution for his and his family’s health he understandably dropped out of the main event for this year’s Super Bowl of wrestling and vanished from the show with quite frankly not many missing his presence.
And this is where the silver lining for 2020 comes in for me. Up until August of this year, the wrestling industry, especially WWE, has been hit by the pandemic just as bad as other industries have. They can run television shows, but they can’t run live events in front of fans. Their ratings have dropped to the lowest on record, their breakout female star had to leave due to pregnancy, and their top male star – or at least who they thought was their top male star – wasn’t performing and quite frankly not missed much. I myself spent the Summer taking a long break from watching and I had nothing to look forward to when I decided to catch their annual August event, Summer Slam, to end my drought of non-watching.
Before I get into why Reigns has finally reached the mountain top and why I consider his evolution as a character a silver lining of 2020, let me make clear his status before this year was never his own personal fault. Reigns did what he had to do, becoming an exemplary employee for WWE, doing his job and going out there and putting his body on the line by being asked to perform in main event matches that were always expected to deliver entertainment. He is a good in-ring performer and the storylines he was given made some sense even while many like me never cared much about the fate of his character. It wasn’t his fault the company put him in some tough spots and never let him grow as a performer, or that some fans began to get annoyed enough that they rebelled by walking out of his matches or booing him. It’s a live event show, and these things happen and he’s by no means the first or last wrestler that will have been put in such a position. In a profession when one is always on that line between who they are and who they pretend to be, I can see why more and more wrestling performers are feeling the pressure and getting into online spats with fans on social media when met with criticism. But when you are a wrestling fan, you’re inviting these people into your homes for hours within a week and caring about and buying into these characters is an absolute must for those watching and following along. Because if fans don’t care who wins these scripted matches, they tune out and more and more have tuned out from watching the last few years.
Roman Reigns finally began to live up to the hype and give the wrestling industry something interesting from him on the very day I decided to check into wrestling again – August 23, 2020. Reigns jumped into the ring after the main event and in a surprisingly overly aggressive manner attacked the two performers who had just competed in the final match. That Friday, he was revealed to be in cahoots with the ultimate villainous wrestling manager in Paul Heyman. The following Sunday, he won the heavyweight championship in a heel-like manner by coming to the match late after the other competitors had beaten each other down. By September he was a full blown “bad guy”. Roman Reigns had finally made the heel turn some us had called for – and it was the best thing to happen to him and I believe the best thing to come out of 2020 for WWE and maybe all of wrestling in general.
Whereas before Reigns was a generic big guy who came out and had to repeat badly scripted dialogue, he has swagger now as someone who knows he’s been chosen to be the top guy and doesn’t care what you think about that. Where before they tried too hard to gain sympathy on him to little success, he’s a foreboding and scary presence now playing the role of almost a Godfather-type figure who calls himself the “the tribal chief” and verbally and physically threatens his cousins to do the dirty work for him. His storylines have gone from generic good guy versus bad guy to an interesting weekly drama of a man who believes he’s not to be mess with and the question is who will finally step up to this don that abuses his power as the main event face for the company. His matches have gone from generic and okay to interesting melodramas that play out in the ring as he asserts his will over his opponent and his family tries to earn their respect from their “chief” by constantly getting involved or screwing things up for him. It took years for WWE to finally pull the trigger, but by letting Reigns go from hero to villain, he has become the most interesting character in the company within the snap of a finger.
If you would have told me at the start of 2020 that Roman Reigns would end up the most interesting WWE character of 2020, I would have called you nuts. But that’s exactly what he’s become. In under a year Reigns has gone from stale and boring to someone who I both want to see continue evolving as a character and want to see who will be the first to successfully stand up to him. And ultimately that’s what the magic of wrestling is about. Build up an unstoppable heel, and then have a hero come along and finally have the villain get his or hers. In switching roles, Reigns has finally become what the company has wanted him to be all this time – a legitimate top guy that fans want to see in the main event.
Now, of course, WWE’s ratings hole isn’t getting fixed overnight, the pandemic will continue to hurt their ability to get “butts in seats” for the foreseeable future, and while Reigns has been living up to the hype now there’s plenty other things from their shows that haven’t been entertaining me anywhere near as much. But I stand here with 2021 around the corner and Roman freaking Reigns is actually one of the silver linings for me both for 2020 and what wrestling might be able to offer me as a fan in 2021. I never thought I’d see the day, but if Reigns can finally start to become an interesting character to watch, maybe he won’t be the last as we start a new year. Maybe 2021 will see a couple more interesting character evolutions for WWE and other wrestling promotions.
Maybe your own favorite shows will give you that as well next year. New year, new character arcs. Or maybe that evolution will extend to some of us on a personal level as well. Maybe its new year, new us.