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WWE is wasting Roman Reigns’ prime

For years, WWE has tried to convince us he’s a conquering hero. For years, it has failed miserably.

WWE.com

It’s Time To Move On - Tom Petty - Wildflowers (1994)

It’s time to move on, time to get going.

What lies ahead, I have no way of knowing.

But under my feet baby, grass is growing.

It’s time to move on. It’s time to get going.

Sometimes, you just turn out to be wrong. Some of our least favorite people on earth are those who refuse to admit mistakes, even when the evidence of a misstep is so blatantly obvious. Skip Bayless is never wrong. Bill O’Reilly is never wrong. Bomani Jones is never wrong. Donald Trump is never wrong. Barack Obama is never wrong. And, when you call them out, you’re mocked, belittled, or subjected to ad hominem attacks.

That’s not the case with Vince McMahon and Roman Reigns, because he honestly couldn’t care less what you think. It’s strange that someone so committed to entertainment that fits a specific audience wouldn’t be more interested in that group, but it’s become the norm. On Thursday night, ESPN will run “This Was the XFL.” I screened the documentary earlier this week, and one thing becomes perfectly clear while watching the real story play out from start to finish:

Vince McMahon couldn’t take Vince McMahon’s ego out of a league that didn’t need Vince McMahon.

2017’s WWE isn’t the XFL, but the logic and the “You just don’t get it” that led Matt Vasgersian to be relegated to the B-Team after one week absolutely plays into today’s mentality. Vince told Matt to get relatively graphic (for the time) about the cheerleaders, and an upskirt shot gave him his opportunity. Dick Ebersol instructed him to do the exact opposite, and what ended up happening was an awkward piece of television that couldn’t possibly have been more cringeworthy.

On Sunday night in the Royal Rumble match, Vince McMahon again told us “You just don’t get it,” as he force-fed Roman Reigns intravenously through our collective veins. We became Matt Vasgerian, and a lot of people didn’t like it. Many people have written pieces about Reigns, but often those articles come from a place of hatred. Not once have I been a member of that chorus. I dig the guy. He’s got a fantastic look, he’s at worst an above average worker, he’s still young and continuing to improve, and he’s handicapped.

What?

Yes, he’s handicapped. He’s put in no-win situations constantly by the Chairman of the company that hands him a paycheck. Roman Reigns is no fool. He doesn’t make decisions, and also doesn’t seem to wield whatever power he might actually have when it comes to how he’s utilized. He generally does as he’s asked, but he has to know how big a hole Vince is digging for him every week.

When he found out he was number 30 in the Rumble, I wonder if he asked himself why. I would love to know his reaction. Was he thrilled to be a part of such an important match, pulling double duty on one of the three biggest shows on the WWE calendar? Or, did he recognize what it meant. Does he embrace the hate, much of it irrational, or does it get to him? Is he LeBron James, who increasingly takes aim at every ounce of criticism or negativity he receives, rather than just being the most talented basketball player on the planet?

It really doesn’t matter, because again, it’s our fault. We don’t get it. Vince McMahon doesn’t read all these endless articles, nor do most people with a voice inside the promotion. He’s vain, but he’s not stupid. You learn at some point that when you say or write things, it’s better never to read the comment sections. The unscrubbed bathroom walls can become havens for true venom.

Unfortunately for Roman Reigns, his “comment section” fills arenas across the country and across the world. He can’t avoid them, and as usual with commenters, most of the dumbest or most ill-informed are also the loudest. Today’s political climate reflects a small, vocal minority on both sides inundating social media with misinformation, bigotry, and a lack of understanding of all sides of an issue. Most comment threads on YouTube devolve into some of the most heinous stuff I’ve ever seen, so I’ve stopped looking.

Imagine how Roman Reigns feels while he’s booked to be a savior, but treated like Judas Iscariot. And then think about how easy it would be to actually turn this 31 year-old adonis into Judas Iscariot, and run with it as far as it can go.

Stubborn is almost never a good look, and as the years have passed, Vince McMahon has become as bullheaded as a human being can get. The Shield broke up in the summer of 2014. It’s been almost three years, which seems ridiculous when you stop and think about it. I interviewed Reigns in September of that year, and he couldn’t have been a better guest. He answered every question I had for him, and did so candidly. He spoke about his love for the business and progressing through Florida Championship Wrestling, finally getting the call-up, and how much fun he had with Seth Rollins and Dean Ambrose.

When he walked out after the conversation, all of us involved in the chat said the same thing. He was incredibly impressive, cordial, and professional. We went on radio that weekend and told our audience that we understood why WWE loves him, and we believed wholeheartedly he could eventually succeed John Cena in all his many roles.

But, as I’ve written many times, WWE fans have now grown not just to smell a rat, but to seek one out. Reigns ran smack dab into Daniel Bryan at the height of his popularity, and it was Roman that became the fall guy. The word I use is “Astroturf.” It felt illegitimate and forced on a viewing public that felt they had equity in many of the top stars of the past several years.

Stone Cold Steve Austin was a man of the people, they thought, as was CM Punk, and certainly Daniel Bryan. And how about The Rock?

Well, how about The Rock?

When he debuted at Survivor Series 1996, it flopped, even with Jim Ross selling the “blue chipper” angle for all it was worth. He had the million dollar look, he had the right size, and he could talk. But, he wasn’t what the fans wanted. They rejected Rocky Maivia, booing him relentlessly and probably leaving the room during his matches.

At the height of the Monday Night War, Vince McMahon stopped talking and began listening. He saw money in an antagonistic version of the new stud in his stable, and even if he secretly wanted Maivia as his new Hulk Hogan, he was willing to let him become his new Ric Flair. And The Rock was born.

How that man can’t see the parallels between The Rock and Roman Reigns almost defies belief. In my heart of hearts, I continue to think Vince has to see it, but instead of accepting it, he bucks the trend because the stubborn guy wants to be right. When the facts come out, when the house show numbers drop, when the audience continues to age and crave something more, he either puts blinders on or he’s isolated himself entirely from the conversation. What member of the creative team is going to stand up and call him on his bullshit? Those guys may have existed during the Attitude Era, but none of them are sitting in that room today.

Perhaps Vince’s son-in-law agrees with him, or perhaps not. I imagine Triple H would provide his opinion in as strenuous a fashion as he deemed necessary, if he had one to share. Only those two know for sure how they feel on the subject, but here’s what I do know.

Vince McMahon continues to waste the prime years of Roman Reigns’ career (and who knows based on injury or other options how long he might be with WWE or in pro wrestling) on a complete refutation of each and every piece of evidence telling him this whole thing ain’t working.

Compare Reigns to Andrew Luck, another relatively young, promising star. The Indianapolis Colts haven’t addressed a horrific offensive line to keep him upright and have let the defense fall back to the dregs of the Peyton Manning era. Ryan Grigson thought he knew better, and blew draft after draft after draft.

Grigson no longer works for the Indianapolis Colts, but he would if he were the owner of the franchise. That’s the biggest issue in a comparison with Roman Reigns and Vince McMahon. The two-toned necktie isn’t going anywhere, regardless of how many atrocious draft picks (creative blunders) he makes or permits to occur.

All it takes is a green light to turn Reigns heel, and maybe that’s what’s coming in the feud with The Undertaker. I will never bet that Roman will make a permanent or even long-term character switch until I actually see it. Even if he plays the baddie in this angle, it could easily be a handshake and a hug in Orlando. Then, we’re right back where we started. Every big name that arrives in WWE, part-time or full-time, everybody is there to try and prop up a failed babyface.

How can people with control over the situation not realize that turning someone heel isn’t a set-in-stone truth that can never be changed? This is professional wrestling. This is sports entertainment. The Big Show has switched allegiances no less than 85,438 times...this decade. It happens all the time, but for Roman Reigns, no we must continue to insist he’s Neo, even when there’s a shitload of money in him being Agent Smith.

Take the crutches away from Roman Reigns, Vince. You’re a supremely intelligent businessman in so many respects. Put him in the best position to succeed and benefit your company. Ultimately, those who buy the tickets, those who watch the shows, remain your lifeblood. Sure, the argument is those people will always be there. Jason Martin isn’t going anywhere, neither is Geno Mrosko or Sean Reuter or Sealia Bloom or Mike Johnson or Matt Fowler or Eric Goldman or Lady J or Conrad Thompson or Dave Meltzer or anybody I ran out of time and didn’t mention that spends time reading about or covering this industry.

But, think about this as the counter to that argument. Maybe Jason Martin stops evangelizing pro wrestling. I spoke to Alex Marvez this morning, and he told me he still follows the industry, but he watches New Japan these days. He used the “once you know how the sausage is made” analogy. The fear shouldn’t be that the diehards will walk away.

The fear should be the diehards will stop telling people they’re in the building. They’ll stop mentioning the product in public. The fear resides in a subtle, steady decline in passion that leaves many viewers simply “pot committed” to watching, because they always have, but not because they can’t get enough.

A Roman Reigns heel turn won’t fix every problem, and along with the negativity of this article, allow me to say there’s a lot right in WWE. There’s a great deal of it that I absolutely love, including Sunday’s Royal Rumble Pay Per View and yes, the match itself.

But, if Roman Reigns is indeed your shining light for the future, if he’s the guy you’ve hitched all the WWE wagons to, and if he’s the guy to carry your flag, Vince McMahon can’t afford for THAT guy to be a problem at all.

Not when it would be so freaking easy to make him the superstar you want him to be. Remember Vinnie Mac, The Rock was a god for most of his career, but before you can give the world the hero you think they need...

Maybe you should give them the asshole they know they want.