The horse we are beating, at this point, isn’t only dead; it’s pieces are splattering all over the walls and what’s left isn’t even recognizable as a horse. But that doesn’t make it any less true that Roman Reigns has been a colossal failure for the WWE. He is positioned as the top face in the company besides immortal real-life superhero John Cena, but the fans don’t boo anybody louder. His merch sales are consistently in the top five or ten, but it’s a self-fulfilling prophecy, as he has the most merch to buy out of all the wrestlers, Cena included. The WWE tells us Reigns is a slighted hero, in the vein of Stone Cold Steve Austin, that the corporate douchebags and whiny stooge heel wrestlers walk all over and bury constantly, and he has to persevere and survive in order to triumph and become the big dog.
Why the disconnect between the story and the fans?
It takes nothing more than a cursory glance at WWE storylines to see the fault in the story logic: Roman is already the big dog. He has been given more chances than anybody, be they normal chances or maybe a little unfair chances. When he fails for whatever reason, he’s simply given another chance in a slightly different way until he succeeds. He is entitled, smirking, unstoppable, handsome, predictable, and always at the top even though the fans hate him. Every single one of these elements scream “heel” but the WWE keeps screaming “face.”
Back in 2013-2014, Daniel Bryan had amassed a groundswell of fan support to the point that he was reaching Austin-like pop levels, and WWE chose to roundly ignore this as Bryan was as far from the blueprint of an ideal top WWE top star as possible. He was essentially used to push other, more favorable talent, and the crowd grew sick of it. This came to a head at the 2014 Royal Rumble, where Batista, a part-timer essentially only there to promote Guardians of the Galaxy, won the Royal Rumble match and Bryan wasn’t even included. The crowd torpedoed the whole match and WWE had almost no choice other than to rewrite their whole top storyline and give Bryan the title at Wrestlemania. It was an example of the WWE giving the fans exactly what they wanted and the crowd loved them for it. It’s one of the most satisfying conclusions to a WWE storyline of all time.
Royal Rumble 2015 was almost identical to 2014, with Roman Reigns winning and Bryan serving the role of enhancement. The crowd dive-bombed everything again, but this time the WWE drew a line in the sand. Bryan faced Reigns for his championship shot at Fastlane, and instead of Bryan triumphing, Reigns won, and Bryan came out on the next Raw and said Reigns was the better man. Vince McMahon’s voice could almost be heard emanating from Bryan’s mouth.
Reigns would go on to face Brock Lesnar at WM and smirk his way through the match, kicking out of everything and getting the hell booed out of him. The WWE acquiesced a bit, and Seth Rollins cashed in his Money in the Bank contract to sneak out with the world title, but it was clear that the WWE was no longer going to listen to the fans.
The 2016 incarnation of the Royal Rumble saw a twist, as Roman Reigns came in as the champion and his championship was on the line. How do we make the superhero face look strong? By having him get the crap kicked out of him early on in the match, get stretchered out, rest for like 45 minutes, and come back out for the last couple minutes of the match. The cheering when monster heel Triple-H tossed him was nearly deafening. Of course, Reigns would go on to beat inactive wrestler Triple-H in the boring, worthless main event of the biggest Wrestlemania in history, and he overcame the odds just like Bryan did because he’s WWE’S TOP STAR WHETHER YOU LIKE IT OR NOT.
Surely WWE wouldn’t make the same mistake all over again at the 2017 Royal Rumble, would they? ESPECIALLY with Reigns already in a title match on the undercard!
Everyone and their mother knew Reigns was going to win against Kevin Owens and take the Universal Title going into Wrestlemania because he’s the TOP STAR DARNIT. In a wonderful and shocking turn of events, he actually lost the match after getting completely murked by Braun Strowman (though he’d already kicked out of every imaginable thing prior to that). This was followed up by an instant classic between best wrestler alive AJ Styles and suddenly transcendently good John Cena. The crowd was nuclear at this point, perhaps one of the best crowds WWE has EVER had at an event, and WWE had earned nothing but their love and goodwill going into the Rumble after the Reigns loss and classic Styles/Cena match.
Once we’d reached the countdown to the 30th entrant in the Rumble, all the big advertised names (Undertaker, Goldberg, Brock Lesnar) had already entered the match, which left the 30th spot a complete unknown. The crowd was at a fever pitch, because the possibilities were endless. Kurt Angle returns! Samoa Joe debuts! Something else incredible maybe?! WWE spoke widely about surprises and twists leading up to the show, so they have to have saved a doozy for the final one!
When the crowd instead got Roman Reigns at 30, the crowd instantly died until the very end of the match. Not even boos this time, just apathy. Top face Roman Reigns blows another title chance, takes the most coveted spot in the Rumble, throws out Undertaker in Taker’s BIRTH STATE, and looks like a terminator without selling an ounce of the beatdown he took in the earlier title match. Even though WWE rope-a-doped us a bit and had Randy Orton (in 2017, seriously) win the Rumble by chucking Reigns last (which is the only time the crowd sort of cared again after Reigns came out), their insistance that Roman Reigns is lol top babyface turned a crowd hotter than a volcano into a disinterested house show crowd. And at this point, with Reigns seemingly slated to eat Braun Strowman for breakfast before crushing Undertaker at Wrestlemania, the WWE is doing everything in their power to make us gag on Roman Reigns as he’s forced down our throat. This isn’t what we want and the disgust is audible at almost all events now.
Of course, even after all of this, there is a solution that can and will fix everything; it’s the simplest solution, certainly, but maybe the most difficult one to make. The stage is set, and it couldn’t be a more perfect time. Reigns is wrestling Undertaker at Wrestlemania, and with the look of Undertaker right now, this match may certainly be his last before riding off into the sunset. Nobody wants Reigns to put Taker in the ground, but it’s inevitable.
This is where you use the ill will, and you turn Reigns heel.
Tell us this is the end of the Taker! Make us not want this even more! Build up even more hatred for Reigns going in! Then, at the end, Reigns cheats to win. Doesn’t matter if it’s a SHIELD heel turn reunion or just a low blow, have Reigns steal it and put down the Taker. Then his smirk can actually
mean something, and instead of simply hating Reigns, we would all love to hate Reigns, as we should for all heels. Sure, Reigns’s merch sales will probably dive, and the E will have to start grooming another guy to take Reigns’s place atop the totem pole, but they will have solved the Roman riddle, perhaps the biggest problem the WWE has had in years from a fan perspective.
Will the E do this? Probably not. Vince and team are extremely proud, and they will likely continue gagging us with Reigns until we finally puke. The disconnect between the Roman Reigns character and the WWE crowds will continue to be massive, and will likely grow wider as the E continues feeding the people we like to Reigns. WWE storylines will continue to be stagnant, and the writers will continue to not take any chances. But the answer is there. They may not like it, and it may hurt their pride and their souls, but the answer is there, shining in the darkness, if only someone is willing to take a chance.