Paul Heyman talks a lot, and he’s pretty good at it. Every so often, a real gem slips through the cracks, like in a recent interview with Complex. Rather than put words in his mouth, it feels better to let the man speak for himself:
“The whole heel/babyface dynamic is antiquated, yesterday’s news. Listen, I’m appreciative of the contributions that Hulk Hogan has made to sports entertainment, but the days of, ‘Let me tell you something, brother,’ are over. They are. You have to constantly update and upgrade the product. Is Roman Reigns the villain? Right he is, damn right. And a damn good one, and maybe the best one ever. The reaction to him in WrestleMania told one hell of a story. But, villainous people can admire people who aren’t villains. It’s the old, Bill Apter magazines, ‘fan favorites and rule breakers.’”
Why am I bringing this up? Glad you asked. A few members of the Cageside crew pondered why Roman Reigns’ story is heads, shoulders, knees, and toes above anything else in WWE, much less SmackDown. Then along comes the answer in the form of that Heyman quote.
While Reigns is unquestionably the final boss looming over all of WWE, there’s nothing traditional about his character. Reigns is who he is, and the story is as dope as it is because Roman and Paul created a three-dimensional character for 2021 while most WWE is still stuck in the 1980s.
The ‘80s were good to WWE. No duh. Its success was built on archetypes that weren’t exactly models of complexity. The good guys waved to the crowds and kissed babies, while the bad guys sneered and cheated some of those same babies out of money. The characters didn’t need to be that complex because the target demo’s two favorite school subjects were nap time and recess.
A story where the pure hero vanquishes the dirty villain always gets the job done for a kid. Gray areas need not apply to this space because they overcomplicated WWE’s morality tales.
That all changed in the late ‘90s when Vince McMahon gave his “good guys and bad guys” PSA, but in the grand scheme of things, that temporary deviation was just that. WWE’s chairman will always resort to the mean and keep it simple above all else.
Roman Reigns isn’t simple. Like the best movies with the mob bosses we remember, his perspective is easy to understand. As the number one guy, he does need to flourish for the rest of the company to succeed. Reigns’ name in lights does put more food on more tables for every WWE wrestler in the locker room.
When Vince gives someone the proverbial ball, it’s on them to run it into the end zone as much as humanly possible. The character of Roman Reigns says the game needs him, and that’s not far from Joseph Anoa’i’s truth. Anoa’i only started scoring touchdowns on repeat when Reigns recognized this reality.
A message from your Tribal Chief… #Smackdown pic.twitter.com/8kAVMaYo12— Roman Reigns (@WWERomanReigns) May 1, 2021
When he was the guy we’re supposed to cheer for, Reigns was antiquated. Instead of an assassin who chose his words as carefully as he picked his spots, we got a Frankenstein’s monster. Reigns was one part Steve Austin, a couple doses of The Rock, a cup of noted racist, and a dash of John Cena for good measure. Fans, seeing the hustle, reacted accordingly. That version of Roman was barely a two-dimensional cartoon character.
When he’s the guy we’re supposed to hate? He has a complicated relationship with his family, gives props to the heroes, rarely raises his voice, has a genuine sense of humor, and isn’t evil for kicks and giggles. He doesn’t twirl his mustache like The Miz or Sheamus, nor is he an unrepentant psychopath like Randy Orton. Like many of us at our worst, Roman’s menace comes from his ability to rationalize everything. The man justified choking out his blood relative, which is still one of 2020’s best moments.
In Reigns’ eyes, everyone he beats should thank him because that’s one more day their kids get to live comfortably. The Tribal Chief truly believes no one loves wrestling more than him because what he does in the ring is an act of service to WWE as a whole. And he asks for nothing in return.
Well, almost nothing.
"Acknowledge me. Acknowledge me as the main event of @WrestleMania." #SmackDown @WWERomanReigns @EdgeRatedR pic.twitter.com/FY6npgfAsb— WWE (@WWE) February 10, 2021
Black hats in the past were cool getting checks and championships. They knew they were the best, and that’s all that mattered. By comparison, Reigns is insecure AF. What is “acknowledge me” if not the anguished pleas of a man desperate for respect?
The Head of the Table’s need for everyone else to say he’s the best gets him into tight spots—like a triple threat match at WrestleMania—and is potentially a fatal flaw. Heels usually go down for two reasons: their willingness to do whatever to win gets the best of them, or they’re no match for their opponent.
Did @WWERomanReigns w/ @HeymanHustle make the returning Jimmy @WWEUsos fall in line on #SmackDown? pic.twitter.com/GaTtI45dFy— WWE on FOX (@WWEonFOX) May 10, 2021
In the real world, it’s typically our insecurities that do us in more than we like to admit. Reigns going down due to a compulsive need for acknowledgment is different, compelling, and relatable. Roman’s obsession with getting a hat tip is testing conventional wisdom about the relationship between blood and water, putting the Chief in a precarious position.
And it all feels natural. Paul wants to add nuance to what we see on TV every week. Everything involving Roman Reigns is proof positive his instincts are on point. Whether it’s Roman himself, The Usos, or even the man formerly known as Dangerously, everyone involved feels complex like human beings actually are. They’re people first and villains second, which is the inverse of how WWE primarily operates.
Reigns told Jimmy Uso he’s all about moving forward.
WWE should follow his lead.