The following is a true story. On Monday night, I’m sitting in the Amway Center anticipating the biggest pro wrestling television episode of the entire calendar year, and the sports entertainer next to me said RAW had to open with Roman Reigns. I agreed, as his victory in the final match of the evening was the talk of the grappling world due to The Undertaker’s retirement after the main event.
I knew what to expect. The fans would be all over him, and I would call them marks. Some in the industry deem it an antiquated term, but that’s flat out ridiculous. How do I know that? First, I’ve performed in front of crowds in the past ten years that believed everything I did, and hated me as a heel as if I had murdered one of their children or pets. If a fan can be regularly manipulated into a desired reaction, said fan is a mark. It’s less a term of derision today than simply a way for the boys to look at their audience.
I attended Revolution Pro Wrestling on Friday as part of WrestleCon, and as impressed as I was with the athleticism and the talent on display, the show left zero impact on me. Why? I suppose it’s because I’m more a southern wrestling purist, where spotfests without psychology and constant Wade Wilson-like breaking of the fourth wall irritate me more than they entertain me. I also recognize many love that kind of content and those kind of shows, and thus more power to that audience and to those making a living exciting those individuals. I’m thrilled people are enjoying themselves.
I will never balk at someone succeeding in this business. I like a lot of those guys, but I also see a ceiling to what they’re doing. They would have to change some of their style and mentality in order to supersede the niche promotions. This isn’t a treatise on new-school hipster Indy feds, and by the way, I freaking adore Marty Scurll.
Roman Reigns has become the single most polarizing figure in professional wrestling, and at this stage in his career, he generates far more vitriol than John Cena did early in his WWE run. Many of the fans that despise Roman are the same ones I encountered in the bleachers at RPW. It’s certainly not everyone, and as much as I want to become the top Reigns apologist on the Internet, I don’t think he needs me to defend him. He’s the guy, whether anyone likes it or not. And, he’s a solid, talented worker doing the job he’s asked to do.
When the Orlando crowd went nuclear on him Monday night and he stood and soaked it all in, allowing the marks to get their anger or disappointment out, the segment was money. Roman Reigns was money. Whoever it was that coached him on how to handle that situation did so beautifully, and as he spoke his one line, dropped the microphone to the canvas with a smirk, and walked out of the arena, he won his second match in as many days.
I tweeted about the “mark” phenomenon taking place in front of me, and said I didn’t really want to use that word, but considering so many of these idiots legitimately despise this guy, I had no choice. They hated him so much, yet had no concept of the reality taking place. They made him look like the biggest superstar in the company during that 11 minute span. Looking at his expression, and I want you to go back if you can and watch it again, HE knows how perfectly it’s playing out. The idiots chanting “Fuck You Roman” and “Please Retire” and even “Die Roman Die” had no clue what they were doing.
A few weeks ago, Triple H took part in an interview with Sports Illustrated, claiming Roman Reigns was already the top heel in WWE, and calling the requests (including mine) to turn him heel both misplaced and laughable. I largely rejected H’s assumption, and in one key area, I still do, but he’s not entirely wrong. Romey gets heat for being who he is as an employee, rather than the perceived construct of a screen villain. The disdain shoved in his direction emanates from something completely real, and what could be better for a character than legitimate negativity from a crowd that isn’t going anywhere?
Does he move merchandise? Yes, and he wouldn’t move anywhere near as much of it as a heel, because almost no one sells gimmicks as an asshole like they do as a buttercup.
Does he sell tickets? Not to the level a top guy should, but I can’t tell you how many Reigns signs I see at buildings, and if you attend house shows, the families and the kids are often there strictly to see The Big Dog.
Are his matches main event caliber? Absolutely, and it’s inarguable. He’s held his own with AJ Styles and he’s helped ensure Braun Strowman looked good while in the learning phase. He somehow had a great match with the old, overweight Big Show, and he tore the house down with any number of others.
By the metric that counts, you may not think he should be in the spot he’s in, but it’s not your decision to make. What power you have resides in your mind and in your remote control. If you stop watching, if you stop paying attention, if you stop going to shows or supporting WWE, maybe you can change the internal paradigm. But even then, it’s a maybe. It can’t just be you. It has to be you and a million of your acquaintances in the WWE Universe. And that’s not happening.
He gets booed out of nearly every building he steps in, and as he’s leaned into it a bit more, it’s working well. His attitude in the lead-up to WrestleMania became increasingly arrogant, and his reaction Monday night was basically a middle finger to the smart community. So, in that way, Triple H was accurate in his assessment.
Where my problem originally lied with H’s comments is in how Reigns has been booked as this “top heel.” If he’s the lead antagonist, he should be used to elevate top protagonists. When he’s pitted against heels, it defeats the purpose. The concern is Roman Reigns isn’t creating new stars, because he’s written like a conquering babyface, despite generating a heel reaction. However, think of who he’s been working as of late.
Is Braun Strowman a heel? I don’t really think so. He doesn’t generally cheat. He’s just presented as the big and scary monster. Even so, many fans like him and have embraced that character. Certainly The Undertaker wasn’t a heel, and Reigns played the jerk during the entire angle. Was AJ Styles REALLY a heel? He was, but he still received beaucoups of cheers, because he’s AJ Styles. While Roman isn’t working Sami Zayn and The New Day, perhaps WWE has been a little craftier than we’ve given them credit for as of late.
Roman isn’t working against pure heels and he isn’t working against pure babyfaces. He’s working against rising or existing stars. He’s performing alongside others who generate mixed reactions, but are top flight talents in the WWE hierarchy and mindset. So what’s the real issue here? I think I’ve figured it out. Listen carefully. Are you ready? Here comes some education for you.
There isn’t one.
Roman Reigns is exactly who and what he should be. He doesn’t need to “turn,” he just needs to consistently toe the line and be this guy. He’s generating massive reactions and the known fact that Vince McMahon is so infatuated with him provides more heat than anything that a mediocre writer could put together on a script. As long as Roman continues to be the superstar he’s been over the past six weeks, he’s golden. He’s going to piss a lot of people off and dazzle others.
When he works Brock Lesnar next year at WrestleMania, unless the plan changes again, both will receive plenty of love and plenty of hate, but it will feel like an enormous event. The hate for Reigns may have made sense at one point, but it’s now utterly insane. He may never cut a promo like Arn or be as varied or crisp in the ring as Kurt. He may not fly like Ospreay or sizzle like Nakamura, but in WWE, he’s cast perfectly. I’ve never been a “shades of grey” fan, or haven’t been since Austin took his last bump, but I see the value in toying with marks who think they’re in the know, and using their naivete and emotional outbursts to create buzz.
If Amway had gone silent on Monday night and Roman walked to the ring in an atmosphere where we could actually hear each step he took, the contingent of “too cool for school” fans might have actually landed a blow. But what actually happened was the exact opposite, and it backed up each of the five words Reigns spoke ten minutes later.
“This is my yard now.”
Yeah holmes, it damn sure is. Truer words have never been spoken.
And we’re better for it.