SummerSlam

Roman Reigns and the WWE’s Reality Problem

The WWE Universe will largely consume what is fed to them. However, with the company's many failed attempts to fabricate Roman Reigns superstardom, it's clear that the farther from reality the storyline goes, the lesser the appetite. Will this weekend's SummerSlam be any different?

At the risk of sounding ridiculous (because “professional wrestling” is basically a glorified, scripted television program), I’ll type out my opinion regardless of interpretation: Professional wrestling is at it’s very best when it’s actually real, when it feels real, or when the imaginative storylines we watch unfold on our television screens have at least a small dose of reality injected into them. Allow me to explain my position.

There was a time when wrestling fans happily played along, no matter how wacky or recycled the storylines tended to be. They cheered for the good guys, booed the bad guys, and sat on the edge of their seats, hoping and praying that the honorable hero would prevail over the dastardly villain. Time and time again, the babyface would overcome the odds to come out on top and it often felt as if all was right within the wrestling universe. Wrestling thrived on the “Good versus Evil, Evil gains the upper hand over Good, Good eventually triumphs over Evil” creative model from the time it became a television staple, to a point in the mid-to-late 1990’s. It wasn’t because those stories were always so captivating that it was illogical to change the model, it’s because wrestling fans were kept at a distance — not a measurable distance, but more so an intellectual distance — where they were close enough to feel emotionally invested, but far enough away where they couldn’t upset the established order.

I’m certainly no wrestling historian — though I do feel like I am qualified to be one — but I believe that the world of professional wrestling changed forever in the Summer of 1996. On a Sunday night in June, at WWF’s King of the Ring pay-per-view, anarchy prevailed over tradition:

Once we moved forward from Stone Cold Steve Austin’s now-famous “Austin 3:16” speech, it was clear that wrestling fans weren’t going to be content with sitting back and remaining passive observers of the predictable re-telling of the Good versus Evil story that they had been fed for years. After helping to skyrocket Steve Austin to the top of the WWF, fans rightfully felt as though they were entitled to have some level of control in the business’ creative process. Austin wasn’t even the initial choice to win the King of the Ring tournament in 1996. But alas, Steve Austin became a transcendent figure in wrestling history and fans, particularly those who flooded Monday Night Raw with “Austin 3:16” signs the night after King of the Ring, were largely responsible for his dramatic uprising.

Austin got over with the crowd organically, which has always been the best way to establish a star in professional wrestling. It’s how and why CM Punk captured the imagination of wrestling fans in 2011. There was serious doubt whether Punk would even re-sign with the WWE in the Summer of 2011, but the WWE Universe demanded that Punk not only re-sign, but be pushed to the top of the company. It’s also why Daniel Bryan ended up main-eventing WrestleMania XXX. He was the independent darling who had perfected his craft for over a decade of performing in front of tiny crowds in gymnasiums and small arenas all over the world (even though he was truly worthy of main event status). The WWE’s higher-up’s legitimately had other plans for him. But those plans were ultimately thwarted by Bryan, the WWE Universe, and “The Yes Movement,” which improbably became a cultural phenomenon.

Those are three examples of “real” wrestling success stories. Austin and Punk and Bryan became superstars mostly because of the work they put in, but also because the fans in the stands and all around the world willed it into reality. It’s no coincidence that in the last twenty years, the biggest pop’s I’ve ever heard from a crowd have come for these three men.

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That’s what makes this Roman Reigns situation truly puzzling. I realize that stressing about WWE storylines is a futile task that’s really no different than spending time being pissed off that the ending of How I Met Your Mother sucked, but I can’t help it.

For those who aren’t in the wrestling know, the main event at this year’s WWE’s annual SummerSlam pay-per-view is a Universal Title match between Champion/part-time performer Brock Lesnar and Roman Reigns. If you did happen to catch WWE’s hype package for this match, you’d be led to believe this is one of the “industry-defining” rivalries of professional wrestling; a contest between a half-interested, yet unbeatable monster champion and a defiant hero who is once again stepping up to the plate to attempt to defeat the “Beast Incarnate.”

Two-thirds of that video package holds to be true. Lesnar is undoubtedly a monster of a man and although his lack of interest has been overstated recently on WWE television, this is without a doubt an industry-defining rivalry (for a variety of unfortunate reasons). However, Reigns is not the defiant hero, no matter how badly WWE tries to make him one.

The most interesting rivalry in professional wrestling over the last three and a half years has been WWE the company versus the WWE fan base. Let’s be clear though: In this particular feud, the company is the heel and their fans are the de facto babyfaces. Thirty years ago this may not have been the case, but it’s not 1989 anymore. WWE fans are too smart, or perhaps, it’s just that too much information is readily available. I remember attending WWE’s Battleground pay-per-view in Tampa, Florida in July 2014. The main event was a fatal four-way match for the WWE World Heavyweight Title featuring champion John Cena, and challengers Randy Orton, Kane and Roman Reigns. At this point, a full eight months before WrestleMania 31, I already knew of WWE’s plans to book Roman Reigns in the final match of the event. The information was already out there, fans were already talking about it, and they were already pissed off.

By the time Reigns won the Royal Rumble match, securing his spot in the main event along with Brock Lesnar at WrestleMania 31, the fans had already turned on him. Not even the presence of Roman’s real life cousin, Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson, could save him from a chorus of boos from the Philadelphia crowd at the Royal Rumble. The reception for Reigns was so mixed in the weeks leading up to WrestleMania, WWE was forced to call an audible the day of the event. Seth Rollins, a former member of The Shield alongside Reigns, cashed in his Money In The Bank briefcase and turned an otherwise blah main event into an unforgettable one.

Not even a week went by before online reports suggested that WWE would be using the next year to rehabilitate Reigns’ image and re-establish him as the face of the WWE. After this restoration project failed, the same reports circulated online after WrestleMania 32 (where Reigns actually won the Heavyweight Title in the main event in front of a displeased crowd) and WrestleMania 33 (where Reigns defeated The Undertaker in the main event in front of an even more displeased crowd). Each time the WWE had no such luck turning Reigns into a megastar. When the crowd at WrestleMania 34 disrespected the Reigns/Lesnar main event to a degree that I’ve never witnessed in professional wrestling, it seemed like a foregone conclusion that WWE would have to abandon the hopeless task of getting fans behind Reigns.

Not so much.

It would be easy to pin Reigns’ inability to get over on Lesnar, as many people have. Lesnar has been absent for most of the build up to all three singles matches versus Reigns and on top of that, all three of their matches have been a technical disaster. This shouldn’t come as a huge surprise though; since Lesnar returned to WWE in 2012, very few high quality matches have been added to his career resume. It’s a whole lot of stiff punches, knees and elbows, far too many F5’s and too many frequent visits to Suplex City. The unfortunate thing about the Lesnar/Reigns pairing is that Reigns is almost equally limited in the ring. In just under 42 minutes of one-on-one in-ring action, there have been six Superman Punches, eight spears, eleven F5’s and god knows how many German Suplexes. It’s just NOT appealing.

But these shitty matches aren’t to blame for Reigns’ lack of popularity, nor is Lesnar’s part-timer status. WWE has spent over three years trying Reigns over and they haven’t had much luck, mostly because Reigns isn’t all that likable, which was the major problem early on. WWE misread the popularity of The Shield and figured that Reigns would remain just as popular once he was disassociated with his former group.

The biggest problem nearly four years later, is that Reigns’ situation continues to drift further and further from reality. We know that Reigns is WWE’s appointed face of the company, even as WWE has tried to pivot into a storyline where Reigns is being screwed over by management and that is why Lesnar continues to defeat him for the title. WWE has tried (and failed) to throw their fan base off this scent by booking Reigns to lose cleanly to Lesnar multiple times, as well as to worthy competitors like Finn Balor, Bobby Lashley, and Braun Strowman, among others. It just hasn’t worked. Fans are too smart, too much information is available and most notably, fans don’t have the desire to sit back and let Reigns take that mantle, when there are guys, who in their minds, are more worthy of the distinction.

The WWE has to realize that their fans are sick and tired of Reigns being pushed down their throats. They’ve been muting crowd mics when Reigns makes his way to the ring and piping in canned cheers, confiscating anti-Reigns signs in the crowd, or editing out negative reactions to Reigns when they re-publish videos on WWE Network or their YouTube account for years now. Either they don’t care about what their fan base wants, or they are certifiably insane (with “insanity” being defined as doing the same thing over and over again and expecting a different result). WWE is likely expecting that on August 19th, Roman Reigns will walk into the arena at SummerSlam to a massive, positive crowd reaction and that it will be a spectacular coronation with fireworks, when Reigns finally slays “The Beast.” That’s insanity.

I would like to think that maybe this Reigns experiment has been nothing but a long con on WWE’s part, but that’s far too optimistic of an outlook. As he’s positioned now, Reigns could be the biggest heel in the company if WWE embraced the REALITY of his situation. If Vince McMahon, Triple H and Stephanie McMahon (those on-air authority figures who call all of the shots in real life) publicly acknowledged that Reigns was their man, on-screen and behind the scenes, after he defeats Lesnar for the title, it would be the first wise move WWE has made in their handling of Reigns these last four years.

Reigns would still be in the main event spot, a role he’s much better suited for if he’s playing the role of bad guy. Any challenger who attempted to upset the established order and supplant Reigns, would be doing so in both storyline and in real life. Organically, a new megastar could be created, and one who could effectively carry the torch into the 2020’s with crowd support that was, for lack of a better term, real.

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