This is probably the most controversial article I will ever write.
So many hardcore wrestling fans who believe that they’re “smart” to the business are almost entirely unified in one belief: Roman Reigns sucks. He doesn’t deserve his spot. He is overrated, can’t work, can’t talk and doesn’t belong anywhere near the main event scene in WWE.
These people couldn’t be more wrong.
Listen I have been a huge wrestling fan for most of my life and I love workrate darlings like AJ Styles, Finn Balor, Shinsuke Nakamura, Kevin Owens, Kenny Omega, Adam Cole, Christopher Daniels, etc as much as anyone. I think that the modern product is the best wrestling has ever been from an in-ring perspective and marked out for Okada-Omega as much as anyone else.
Having said all of that, Roman Reigns is absolutely without a doubt one of the best professional wrestlers on the planet.
He exemplifies everything a professional wrestler should be. He is larger than life both physically and in terms of the natural charisma he exudes as a performer. He is in incredible shape and is a handsome guy with probably the best head of hair in the history of the business. At 6’3”, 265 lbs, Roman is the prototypical pro wrestling heavyweight.
Just on looks alone, Roman is everything you’d want in a pro wrestler. Granted the business is littered with guys who had the look and couldn’t get it done in the ring. A lot of people are bringing those type of accusations to Roman Reigns, and that is completely dishonest.
Reigns can work. For a big man his skill and agility is off the charts. He is incredibly mobile for his size and has had great matches with a variety of opponents of all different sizes. As a good friend recently pointed out when we were discussing many fans hatred of Roman Reigns, try to think of one bad he’s had. You can’t. There really isn’t one.
Seriously, think about his WWE career since hitting the main roster with the Shield in late 2012. He hit the ground running along with Dean Ambrose and Seth Rollins in probably the greatest modern professional wrestling stable in North America. We all loved the Shield then, and for good reason. Their matches were incredible.
One of my favourite WWE matches remains the Shield’s first big PPV match against Daniel Bryan, Kane and Ryback in a six man Tables, Ladders and Chairs match at the show of the same name. That was easily one of the top matches of 2012 and every one brought their A game to it. It is probably the strongest debut a stable has had in the history of the company as the Shield not only were booked as equals to three top talents but went over them cleanly as well.
If you can look back and honestly tell me you didn’t mark out huge when Roman Reigns and Dean Ambrose hit the assisted power bomb on Daniel Bryan for the win, you’re a liar. All three members of the group established themselves as major players, but it was Roman’s power moves that easily got the biggest pops in those initial Shield matches.
The group was booked incredibly strong. Initially they only wrestled at pay-per-views and showed up otherwise to assist CM Punk in retaining his title or to knock off a top star to assert their dominance over the WWE. The group didn’t wrestle a match on free TV until February 18th a full three months after their initial debut in which they defeated the combination of Ryback, Sheamus and Chris Jericho cleanly. The night after beating John Cena, Ryback and Sheamus.
They went on to defeat the team of Randy Orton, Big Show and Sheamus at WrestleMania 29 and from there didn’t lose a match until they dropped a decision by DQ on the May 13 episode of Raw to John Cena, Kane and Daniel Bryan. That’s almost six months of going undefeated. Yet nobody complained about them being overpushed and every single one of us absolutely loved the Shield’s matches and unique hard-hitting style.
When Rollins and Reigns captured the WWE tag team titles, we loved it. Every subsequent rematch with Team Hell No (Kane and Bryan) had us on the edge of our seats and each one was a masterpiece in its own way. All four men carried their weight in those matches. Including Roman Reigns. Fans were willing to acknowledge his abilities as worker then, but seemingly have forgotten about them since.
The Shield become embroiled in the Authority angle at the time and helped to keep the title on Triple H’s chosen champion, Randy Orton after Daniel Bryan was screwed out of the title at the 2013 edition of SummerSlam. It was during this angle that the seeds to future solo careers for the Shield were initially sewn as the team dropped the tag titles after a seven month reign to Goldust and Cody Rhodes in one of the hottest angles of 2013. Dean Ambrose, however, still had his US title and some tension was shown between he and Reigns giving us our first idea that maybe the unit wasn’t as cohesive as we once thought.
The 2013 edition of Survivor Series gave us an indication of who the break out star of the group would be as Roman was the sole survivor of the Shield’s Survivor Series match which them team with Jack Swagger and Cesaro against Cody Rhodes, Goldust, Rey Mysterio and the Usos. Roman was put over strong by getting four of the five eliminations for his team, including pinning both Goldust and Mysterio despite being in a 2-on-1 situation. Again, nobody complained about this as we were all too busy popping for Roman’s excellent spear which he used in each one of his pinfalls.
Nobody complained at the 2014 Royal Rumble either when Roman got the “Diesel push” and set the record for Rumble eliminations by taking out 12 competitors while lasting almost 34 minutes in the match. Going all the way to the end before being eliminated by Batista. In fact, there was a great deal of backlash that Reigns wasn’t the winner as the crowd was firmly and squarely behind him over the part timer who was just passing through on his way to promote his upcoming role in Guardians of the Galaxy.
Granted a lot of the fans rage was due to the fact that Batista was getting the WrestleMania push that many saw as rightfully belonging to Daniel Bryan who had an unfinished issue with Randy Orton over the WWE title as he had yet to get his revenge for being screwed over at the previous year’s SummerSlam and was also the most over wrestler in the entire company. The fans rejected the company’s choice in favour of their own.
It’s a trend that would come to define Roman later in his career, but at this point they wanted Bryan and if they couldn’t have him would gladly have accepted Roman Reigns getting the WrestleMania slot over Batista. I remember many think-pieces going up after that PPV about how fresh and exciting an unexpected Reigns’ main event push would have been. How things change so quickly.
One year later it would be Roman getting mercilessly booed for winning the Rumble fans would have been fine with him winning the year before. The wrestling business is funny that way. I still have no idea how we got to that point as Roman really spent the time leading up to his Rumble win coming into his own and vastly improving his in-ring work and developing his character for a main event push.
The Shield found themselves turning face in an all too brief but red hot feud with the Wyatt Family that produced an excellent match at the 2014 edition of the Elimination Chamber PPV which you should track down if you haven’t seen it. The collision of the two biggest stables to hit the WWE in decades was something special. A program that could have been undoubtedly extended for months but was ended too early in favour of moving Bray Wyatt into a program with John Cena and The Shield into one with The Authority.
Initially they took on Triple H’s lackeys Kane and The New Age Outlaws, beating them soundly at WrestleMania 30 while H concerned himself with Daniel Bryan. Post-WrestleMania, however, The Shield enjoyed their biggest program yet when they took on a the reformed Evolution – Triple H, Batista and Randy Orton. It was the two biggest WWE stables of the 21st century going head to head in a program that was an absolute dream for fans to watch unfold.
The Shield went over Evolution incredibly strongly as they won both PPV matches cleanly and decisively. The torch had seemingly been passed…..until Triple H executed plan B and convinced Seth Rollins to turn on The Shield the next night on Monday Night Raw.
The break-up of The Shield allowed WWE to pair off Seth Rollins and Dean Ambrose in a nice long feud while focusing on building up their next main event superstar: Roman Reigns. Perhaps this was the initial mistake on the company’s part. Where character-wise Reigns should have been as obsessed with seeking revenge on the traitorous Rollins as Ambrose was, he was instead inserted into a battle royal to gain entry into a Fatal Fourway match for the WWE title.
Reigns, the character, seemed to move on from The Shield too quickly. Cosmetically, he still had the look, the theme music and the entrance through the crowd. From a storytelling perspective, though, it seemed as though he was being kept as far away from seeking revenge on Rollins or helping Ambrose as possible which simply didn’t make sense. It wasn’t he first time Roman Reigns would be booked very inorganically.
Reigns would come up short in the title match against Kane, Randy Orton and John Cena but out of it was spun off into his own feud with Randy Orton who he would very convincingly defeat at SummerSlam. A huge win over man who had entered WrestleMania as champion was a great boon to Roman Reigns’ solo push, but I’m not sure that fans ever really bought into it as much as they should have because there was still the feeling that he should have been in hot pursuit of Seth Rollins rather than feuding with Orton. Still the match showcased Reigns’ continuing development as a performer and was a good indicator that he could carry himself well from an in-ring standpoint when the time came for his big moment, presumably at WrestleMania 31.
A feud between Rollins and Reigns finally happened after SummerSlam, but just six days before they were to lock up at that September’s Night of Champions PPV, Reigns suffered a hernia that would require surgery and kept him out of action for most of the rest of the year. Rollins would be declared the victor by forfeit at the show, which was clever booking in terms of keeping an ongoing issue brewing between the two.
Reigns’ injury also allowed Rollins to be inserted into the ongoing feud between Brock Lesnar and John Cena, which was really a great development as it allowed for another main event star to be cemented out of the former members of The Shield. Rollins carried himself well in his promos and matches with the two superstars. So much so, that he part of the triple threat match for the title at the Royal Rumble with Cena and Lesnar.
Reigns, in the meantime, recovered from his injury and after a brief feud with the Big Show, in which he impressively displayed a chemistry with the veteran giant that allowed him to enjoy his best matches in years, was entered into the Royal Rumble match. Many smart fans took this as a sign that Reigns was being booked to win the Rumble and normally, I think many would have welcomed the coronation of a new star.
There was a huge problem though. He wasn’t who the fans wanted to win.
Daniel Bryan had just returned after being sidelined since the previous May following major neck surgery. Bryan was still every bit the fan favourite he was before being injured. On top of that he still had a legitimate claim to being the top guy in the company as he was never beaten for the WWE Championship, but instead had to forfeit the title due to injury. For many fans, the only acceptable story-line would have been Daniel Bryan winning the Royal Rumble and going on to WrestleMania in order reclaim the title that was rightfully his.
The company had other ideas.
Bryan was eliminated by Bray Wyatt early on in the match and Roman Reigns would go on to win the Royal Rumble as planned. WWE, undoubtedly as a result of seeing the negative backlash coming, sent The Rock out, branded him Reigns’ “cousin” due to their shared Samoan heritage and had the two celebrate Roman’s Rumble win together. The result was that the live Philly crowd just booed The Rock too.
Unlike the previous year with Batista, there would be no turning back. The company not only stood its ground but doubled down by having Reigns beat Daniel Bryan clean in a match at the Fastlane PPV with the WrestleMania title shot on the line. The result was that angry fans got #CancelWWENetwork to trend on twitter after the match.
Here’s the thing. None of this was Roman Reigns’ fault.
The Philadelphia crowd at the Royal Rumble was always going to shit on him because they were the home of ECW and many of the fans in that city want to be as much a part of the entertainment as anyone. Going “off script” as it were and taking a dump on the man who was obviously the company choice to carry the torch going forward was classic Philly.
WWE probably wasn’t wise in their selection of venue to start Roman’s rocket push to the top. I mean the whole thing was ill-advised right down to having The Rock come out to celebrate with Reigns and put over his “cousin” as the new face of WWE. If Philly rejected a guy who was once part of the most universally beloved stable in the company (by hardcore and casual fans alike) and had been busting his ass in great matches for years, what hope did a movie star who had only appeared sporadically and even then it was to feud with John Cena, end CM Punk’s record setting title reign or pushing his latest move on wrestling fans.
If any fan base would reject The Rock, who hasn’t been a regular part of WWE programming since 2003, it was Philadelphia. You can’t rest on your laurels in the city of ECW.
The creative team booking this should have been aware of it. Or maybe they were and didn’t care. At any rate, this was probably the one moment that was more damaging to Roman Reigns that any other. It hurt him in ways that could have been avoided. Fans saw the Philly crowd turn on him with more disdain and emotion than had previously been displayed and soon the sentiment spread into other cities as well. Honestly, at this point it probably had less to do with hatred for Roman than it did as a desire to see Daniel Bryan restored to prominence and wanting to seem as cool as the hardcore Philly fans.
In retrospect, the company made the right choice. Daniel Bryan would wrestle his last match shortly after WrestleMania. His career is over due to concussion issues and a recurring neck injury. The style that the fans loved so much ultimately prematurely ended his career.
Roman Reigns is still wrestling.
The WWE saw the crowds turning on their chosen champion and panicked. The planned finish to WrestleMania 31 was changed. Instead of Roman Reigns beating Brock Lesnar for the title and being cemented as the top guy in the company, Seth Rollins cashed in his Money In The Bank briefcase and pinned Roman for the title.
It was a memorable moment and one that I think everyone universally marked out for, but I kind often wonder if maybe the WWE blinked when they shouldn’t have. The Roman Reigns vs. Brock Lesnar match was telling a very compelling story. Brock was giving a Reigns a tremendous beating and even busted him open while Roman kept taking it and even smiled at one point. A funny thing happened in the face of that, more people started to get behind Reigns during his hope spots. If the match had continued like that, with Brock mercilessly kicking Roman’s ass and the Samoan superstar being able to make a comeback and get the pin, maybe that would have been enough to eliminate the stigma that had surrounded Roman since the Rumble. That match actually started really hot and seemed like it would have been really good before the altered ending.
Instead they put the belt on Rollins and in a way told the fans who had rejected Reigns that they were right. He wasn’t ready and he wasn’t the guy. I think that decision ultimately hurt Reigns in pretty big ways. It set him back when it didn’t have to.
If they went through with the change and Reigns flopped, Rollins could have cashed in at any point after that. Instead, they didn’t go through with Roman’s big WrestleMania moment and validated the widespread rejection of Roman Reigns.
I truly believe that match would have gotten him over huge.
The booking after the fact made things even worse for Reigns. It mirrored the situation after The Shield break-up. Again instead of going right after Rollins, which would have made sense from a character motivation perspective, he was stuck in yet another meaningless feud with The Big Show.
He’s finally get a chance against Rollins at Payback two months after WrestleMania. Only it was in a four-way match also involving Randy Orton and Dean Ambrose. Reigns was kind of treated like an afterthought during the match in favour of the intrigue with The Authority angle and the mounting tension between Kane and Seth Rollins of all things.
Reigns would also come up short for the Money In The Bank contract, but that outcome would help ignite one of the best story-lines of his career when Bray Wyatt interfered in the match to prevent Reigns from grabbing the briefcase. His reasoning: “Anybody but you, Roman.”
Honestly, that moment was one of the best booked and best executed in recent WWE history. Bray Wyatt was speaking of a large percentage of the WWE audience when he said that. He was speaking for those fans in Philly the night of the Royal Rumble. He was speaking for every fan who booed Reigns mercilessly and with little thought as to why beyond “this is who the company wants me to cheer so I won’t”. It was such a great use of some fans rejection of Roman and Wyatt was probably the one man in the company at the time who had the promo skills and the character work to bring it all to fruition.
The feud also organically kept Roman away from the title picture. Rather than putting him in a meaningless feud with Big Show or putting him in multi-man matches, this one gave Roman a real and unique challenge with an opponent that was able to bring out different sides to his character and one that genuinely seemed like a big threat to him, not just from a physical standpoint but psychologically as well.
The first match between the two was excellent and is still one of my favourite of Reigns’ to this day. Roman and Wyatt viciously tore into each other, brawling outside of the ring, giving each other stiff shots, and each man taking the other one’s finishers and somehow kicking out. It was a great twenty minute heavy hitting affair that only ended when Luke Harper interfered under a mask which allowed Bray to beat Roman with Sister Abigail and also signal that Reigns wouldn’t just be up against Bray Wyatt but a reunited Wyatt Family as well.
With the odds not in his favour, Reigns turned to his old Shield running mate Dean Ambrose and the two of them teamed up to defeat the Wyatts at the 2015 edition of SummerSlam in a wild, knock-down drag out brawl that really accentuated the strengths of all four men. The action continued the following night on Raw with a rematch that ended when a brand new member of the Wyatt family debuted and beat down Reigns and Ambrose: Braun Strowman.
The edition of Strowman to the feud added another element of danger and menace with the new, massive physically imposing monster helping the Wyatt Family get the better of Ambrose and Reigns even when they brought in Chris Jericho at Night of Champions to try and even the odds, the newest member of the Wyatt Family proved too much to overcome.
The feud was blown off in a Hell In A Cell match between Bray Wyatt and Roman Reigns at the eponymous PPV, which was my favourite match on that card (even though it was overshadowed by The Undertaker vs. Brock Lesnar main event). The brutality that came to define the feud between the two was on full display in this one. Weapons were involved. Tables were involved. Both men beat the ever-loving hell out of each other before Roman emerged victorious. It was the perfect match to blow off the feud and it really showed how deep rooted the issues between the two men were.
The Wyatt feud was the perfect way to rehabilitate Roman. It was placed comfortably in the upper mid-card, was not for a title and was extended to include the Wyatt Family and Dean Ambrose to organically keep it going without unnecessarily drawing things out. It was the best booked feud of 2015 in WWE in my opinion. Reigns and Wyatt’s in-ring styles complimented each other very well and the whole thing built to a satisfying conclusion inside Hell In A Cell. As a wrestling fan, you could not have asked for anything more.
Roman came out of the Wyatt feud looking strong and I think at this point even his harshest critics had to admit that it was a quality program and he more than carried his fair share of it. The company had to have realized that as well as the next night on Raw, Reigns won a fatal four-way match over Dolph Ziggler, Alberto Del Rio and Kevin Owens to make him the number one contender for Seth Rollins’ WWE Championship.
The feud that everyone had been clamouring for since the Shield broke up was finally on. A feud that was a year and a half in the making. If the Bray Wyatt program helped to salvage Roman’s image in the eyes of WWE fans, the Seth Rollins one would certainly put him over the top in term of fan approval and acceptance. The glimpses we’d seen of Reigns vs. Rollins up to that point had indicated that they have a natural chemistry in the ring. Both men can work well and their styles compliment each other so well. This had the chance to be a classic technician against powerhouse feud in the mould of Hulk Hogan vs. Randy Savage of Shawn Michaels vs. The Undertaker.
Instead Rollins completely blew out his knee just a week later. Once again an injury put off the match we’d been waiting so long to see.
Obviously this kind of injury at such a key time could have turned the entire company on its head. The Reigns-Rollins feud was something that we’d been waiting for. The company was obviously thinking about for a long time and that’s why they kept the two apart for so long even though there will two points in the story-lines where Roman should have gone after Rollins (post-Shield break-up and after Rollins’ Money In The Bank cash-in). They were wait until this moment to pull the trigger and now it couldn’t happen.
Anyone who thinks that the WWE creative team isn’t capable of greatness needs to remember the story-line that unfolded in the wake of Rollins’ injury. What could have been a total disaster instead became a triumph as the title was put up for grabs in a tournament to be held at Survivor Series and The Authority angle was brought right back to the forefront as Triple H approached Roman to be his corporate champion just as The Rock had done for H’s father-in-law Vince McMahon two decades before. He even offered Reigns a bye right to the finals if he said yes.
Of course, Roman turned it down emphatically. The WWE wasn’t about to turn the man they wanted to be the face of the company into the new corporate heel. The stage was set, however, for the angle that would finally get the crowds behind Reigns.
Reigns would defeat Big Show in the opening round of the tournament and then Cesaro in round two. He would go on to Survivor Series and defeat Alberto Del Rio in the semi-finals before facing off with friend, frequent tag team partner and former fellow Shield member Dean Ambrose in the finals in an emotionally charged and exciting back and forth match-up.
Following Reigns’ title win, Triple H came out to congratulate him, he was instead greeted with a spear by Roman and the crowd popped for it. Reigns was finally getting positive reactions. And then it happened.
Remember that Money In The Bank that Bray Wyatt cost Roman Reigns? Sheamus won it. It’s pretty common knowledge that Sheamus generally occupies a constant upper mid-card slot in the company because of his history of being Triple H’s training buddy. He came out to cash in his Money In The Bank and won the WWE Championship. For the first time ever the WWE fan-base – even hardcore fans – felt sympathetic for Roman Reigns.
The pro-Roman sentiment was starting to build up because WWE did a brilliant thing. They had Roman get screwed out of the belt by one of the only guys in the company who absolutely nobody would cheer over him. It worked perfectly over the coming weeks as Roman continually got screwed over in matches for the belt by The Authority and by Sheamus’ partners in The League of Nations stable (Rusev, Bad News Barrett and Alberto Del Rio). They managed to even cost Reigns his rematch at Tables, Ladder and Chairs after which Reigns was driven into such a rage that he beat down Triple H badly enough to kayfabe send him out on a stretcher.
This was the Roman Reigns that people had wanted all along. Now they were getting it. All of the qualities that made Reigns great in the Shield were on display in the complete and utter destruction that he unleashed on the WWE legend turn on-screen authority figure.
Eventually even Vince McMahon, himself, entered the fray. He was enraged by Roman’s actions against his son-in-law (and in reality was trying to stop the ratings free fall that Raw was facing at the time) and inserted himself into the story-line to further stack the deck against Reigns.
It all came to a head on the December 14th edition of Monday Night Raw when Reigns faced off against Sheamus one final time for the WWE Championship with his career on the line. Reigns overcame interference from the League of Nations and even Vince McMahon. Reigns hit Vince with a Superman Punch en route to defeating Sheamus and regaining the title.
Guess what happened? The crowd went insane. They popped huge for it. You know what the best about it all was? The show was in Philadelphia. The exact same city where they had mercilessly turned on Roman just a year ago. This time the booking was spot on, Roman was made to look incredibly strong and the focus was on a great story-line instead of on what some fans could see as someone being forced on them instead of the guy they wanted. This time they wanted Roman to walk out with the title. And he did.
This moment represented the apex of WWE’s booking of Roman Reigns. It was a time when they absolutely got everything right and the result was that everything went exactly how the company and the fans wanted it to go down. The pay-off now should have been moving Reigns onto another opponent and an exciting fresh story for him heading into WrestleMania.
Well not so fast. The Authority weren’t done with him yet.
Instead of building toward an intriguing match-up with someone Roman had yet to face. Instead of say, Kevin Owens or Rusev or Chris Jericho or The Undertaker or even the Brock Lesnar match we didn’t get last year, Roman was positioned against Triple H.
This was a mistake for a number of reasons. The Authority story-line couldn’t have been paid off any better than it was on that December Raw. Keeping it going would always risk audience boredom and really how many variations can you do of the McMahon family stacking the odds against the biggest face in the company? It’s a story that is going to have diminishing returns every time it gets rehashed and Roman really could have had a clean break from it here. He put Triple H on the shelf, punched Vince and overcame the odds. There was no need to draw it out and it actually would have been a great idea to have Roman move on to something else and then if the Triple H issue needed to be revisited down the line, do it then.
Additionally, Triple H is still a beloved figure. Not so much when he’s playing the corporate shit heel but when he puts on his boots and trunks and gets back in the ring, there’s something special about that. Now that he’s gone down to wrestling sporadically, whenever he does it’s a huge deal. Trust me I was at a Toronto house show last night and people went crazy for Triple H. He’s not someone you see all the time and unlike some other “legends” the company brings back, he can still go in the ring. He’s still going to get a pop not just based on nostalgia but also on genuine respect. It’s common knowledge among the fans that in addition to his legendary wrestling career that he’s responsible for NXT and also for hiring many of the most beloved acts in the company currently.
The WWE finally got Roman cheered and they immediately put him against a guy who deep down a lot of fans will never want to cheer against. Not the best card the company could have played, but they went full steam ahead with it. Full steam ahead with the repetitive top face against authority angle that’s been recycled over and over and over again since first time we saw it with Steve Austin vs. Vince McMahon.
The same template was followed with the odds ridiculously stacked against Roman Reigns. He would be have to defend his title in the Royal Rumble match itself and he would also be the first entrant in the match. It marked the first time in the history of the Royal Rumble match that the active WWE champion defended his title in the match.
Roman started strong by eliminating Rusev but was then pulled out of the ring by the League of Nations stable and viciously assaulted with the beat-down culminating in Rusev splashing Reigns through a table. He had to be taken backstage for medical attention while the match continued. Eventually he would return and get his revenge of Sheamus and Alberto Del Rio before being eliminated by the 30th entrant to the Rumble….Triple H who went on to win the Rumble and capture the title.
In order to get a chance at a rematch, Reigns had to go through Brock Lesnar and his friend Dean Ambrose in a triple threat match at Fastlane. The Roman-Lesnar sequences were by far the most intriguing aspects of the match and only drove home that the company really should finally pull the trigger on a straight up one-on-one match between the two. Reigns would pin Ambrose after a spear – setting up his showdown with Triple H at WrestleMania while Ambrose would get the match with Brock Lesnar.
The main event of WrestleMania 32 should have been the moment that finally cemented Roman Reigns as the top guy in the company. He should have gone through Triple H in much the same manner that Batista did when Hunter put him over clean as a sheet in very convincing fashion. Instead Reigns and Triple H put on a very long and somewhat drawn out nearly 30 minute match that was probably more evenly booked than it should have been given the story-line leading into it. I get that they were looking for a gruelling mat classic between the two, but Roman needed a strong win and then to be moved on to something else. He didn’t get that and instead appeared to have just overcome Triple H instead of get the big win he needed.
Further damaging the goodwill that Reigns had built up in his program against Sheamus just a few months before, he was programmed against one of the hottest acts in the company: AJ Styles.
Styles had just debuted at the Royal Rumble and was coming off a program with Chris Jericho that was defined by its excellent matches and Styles came into the company with a ton of indie and international credibility as he’d established himself as a major star in ROH, TNA and New Japan and had built a reputation as one of the best workers in the entire world. A reputation that fans who only watched WWE programming were now seeing firsthand.
Putting Reigns against Styles at this point hurt Roman for many of the same reasons that the fans turned on him at the 2015 Royal Rumble. Styles was an amazing worker and a darling to the hardcore wrestling community. Any outcome that was not AJ Styles beating Roman Reigns would be completely shit on by them and their response is often contagious to other fans trying to look “smart” and “cool”. Styles was also red hot and Roman hadn’t been given any chance at all to establish himself as champion before being put against the hottest act in the company.
Some of this was mitigated by the chance that AJ would turn heel on Roman and accept overtures from former Bullet Club partners, Karl Anderson and Luke Gallows who were now openly talking about reforming “The Club” on WWE programming. Gallows and Anderson would become involved in the match but Styles didn’t really turn heel and The Usos came out to run them off.
The match itself was excellent. Many critics focused solely on AJ Styles ability but a lot of praise should also be given to Roman who sold AJ’s offense really well and helped to drive home that Styles was now a top guy in the company and one who could hang with anyone. Reigns was barely able to survive repeated Phenomenal Forearms, splashes and a full-out aerial assault. The match was so good that a rematch was immediately set up for the following PPV: Extreme Rules.
That match may have even topped the first one due to the no-DQ, no-count-out stipulation which freed Reigns and Styles to brawl outside of the ring in a sequence that involved such high spots Styles hitting a Phenomenal Forearm off of the pre-show stage and Reigns putting Styles through a table. Roman also took not one, but Styles Clashes including one on a steel chair. Interference by Gallows and Anderson on Styles behalf and the Usos for Roman also added a lot to the match as what would be surefire pin falls were broken up by the interfering teams. The finish came with a spectacular mid-air spear from Reigns to Styles out of a Phenomenal Forearm attack.
The backlash against Reigns for beating Styles again didn’t really have time to ferment as Seth Rollins emerged immediately after the match to attack Reigns and lay claim to the title he never lost. Finally the match that we’d been waiting for since the break-up of the Shield would happen as Rollins and Reigns were set to go one-on-one for the WWE title at the Money In The Bank PPV.
The showdown between the former Shield members would deliver on all counts. It was an excellent back and forth affair that showed us what we had been missing as this match had been put off for so long since the Shield’s break up for both stolidness reasons and due to Reigns and Rollins injuries. The finish saw Rollins beat Reigns clean in the centre of the ring after two Pedigrees.
The result was shocking for both Reigns fans and detractors as regardless of how you felt about Roman, it was shocking that the WWE would end his title run so quickly against someone who should have been his biggest rival for years to come. Rollins getting the win could have been for unique story-line possibilities and to shake things up, but the true reason became apparent shortly after the show when it was revealed that Reigns had failed his first wellness policy test and was suspended for 30 days.
The news rocked the wrestling world to its core. Fans who hated Roman were on the verge of celebrating in the streets while fans who had supported him were heartbroken. The substance turned out to be adderall which could have been relatively easily acquired with a prescription but clearly wasn’t.
Let me say this: people in glass houses shouldn’t throw stones. The wrestling business is gruelling. Performers are on the road for 300+ days a year and there is no off-season. The physical and mental demands of the wrestling business have no parallel in any other form of sport or entertainment.
The reality is that to cope with this lifestyle a lot of guys have turned to a lot of substances over the years to cope. Whether it be steroids to overcome physical injuries and fatigue or drugs and alcohol to cope with life on the road and the resulting isolation and mental and emotional toll it would take. Wrestling has gotten a lot better of addressing substance abuse issues in recent years, but the reality is that the nature of the business that has lead to so many horror stories over the years has remained the same.
Roman didn’t turn to steroids. He wasn’t found in a hotel lobby passed out drunk or coked out of his mind. He took some adderall. It was in violation of the rules of the wellness policy but it has been a lot worse for so many and thankfully it wasn’t for Reigns.
For the WWE’s part, the company deserves full marks for following through with suspending one of their biggest stars for something that they could have very easily turned a blind eye to. For Reigns’ part, he took full responsibility. He offered no excuses (it would not have been hard to come up with one) and apologized to his fans. He served his suspension and faced up to what he’d done.
Often someone’s true character isn’t seen until they’re under adversity. Until they’ve done something wrong and have to own up to it. In Roman’s case, he showed what kind of man he is. He’s flawed like the rest of us, but unlike so many others, he is able to own it with grace and dignity. He really does deserve full marks for handling the situation as well as he did.
There was, however, a professional price for Roman to pay for his suspension. Immediately upon his return, he ate the pin in a triple threat match for the WWE title at Battleground with Dean Ambrose and Seth Rollins. Reigns jobbed cleanly to Ambrose’s Dirty Deeds finisher. In a way it was a sad exclamation point on the fact that the Shield triple threat match that many felt could one day be a WrestleMania main event was instead given away on a throw away PPV with little build-up and a foregone conclusion due to Reigns’ wellness policy violation.
In the interim, WWE had also split the brands again with unique rosters for Raw and Smackdown. Reigns was drafted to Raw where undoubtedly there would have been plans for him to the face of the program. Instead he jobbed cleanly to the debuting Finn Balor in order to determine who would face Seth Rollins for the Raw exclusive WWE Universal Championship.
Reigns was then pushed down to the mid-card and entered into a feud with Rusev over the WWE United States championship. A match between the two at SummerSlam never started as the two brawled before the match could begin and it was declared a no contest after Reigns injured Rusev. They would finally lock horns at Clash of Champions with Reigns defeating Rusev and taking the US title before the feud was blown off inside Hell In A Cell at the PPV of the same name.
Much like the Bray Wyatt feud the year before, the Rusev feud really helped Reigns get built back up. Instead of a nasty crowd backlash, this time it was his own suspension that he had to recover from. The Rusev feud gave him the chance to get back to the basics and engage in a feud with a classic heel-face dynamic while showcasing his move-set against an excellent opponent. Rusev and Reigns have in-ring styles that truly compliment each other and the result was a feud that gave Reigns a much needed shot of credibility for overcoming the Bulgarian Brute and gave Rusev the rub of hanging with the man who was now being dubbed “the big dog” and putting on a series of highly entertaining and enjoyable matches.
Reigns was now well-established with some singles gold and ready to begin his ascent back into the main event scene. It started with a spot on Team Raw at Survivor Series and continued at Roadblock: End of the Line with a match against Kevin Owens for the WWE Universal Championship. A match that saw Reigns lose by disqualification when Owens’ best friend Chris Jericho interfered and hit Owens with a code breaker, saving his title and costing Reigns the match.
Reigns would get another shot at Owens at the Royal Rumble with Chris Jericho locked in a shark cage high above the ring but would come up short when Braun Strowman, with the promise of a title shot against Owens, interfered and chokeslammed Reigns onto a table before giving him a running powerslam though it. Allowing Owens to get the pin and retain his title.
Roman would still go on to enter the Royal Rumble as the surprise number 30 entrant. He eliminated The Undertaker before being taken out by the eventual winner of the Rumble, Randy Orton. Some fans were genuinely terrified that Reigns would win the Rumble again when he came out. The fact that it seemed like a possibility at all shows how successful the company was at rebuilding Roman after his fall from grace the previous summer.
Reigns would continue his issue with Strowman putting on an excellent match with him at the Fastlane PPV where he would become the first man to pin Braun clean. Throughout their feud, Roman took some brutal offense from Braun. Including being powerslammed through tables, thrown through the barrier and otherwise completely beat down by Strowman. The Fastlane match was no different with Reigns only squeaking out a win after Braun hit his head on the ring post and was momentarily stunned. Even then, it still took two Superman Punches and a spear to put Braun away.
The next night on Raw, Reigns’ WrestleMania program against The Undertaker began with every indication being that The Deadman is going to put Roman over clean in order to further cement him as a top guy.
Of course the naysayers will remain and explain how Roman doesn’t deserve it, but what other role would you put The Undertaker in that this point? Also if not Roman than who? Who else in the company has had this much invested in him and has this big a history of great matches with such a wide variety of opponents? John Cena is probably the only name I can think of and he’s 40 years old and gradually making the transition to full-time movie star.
Roman is it. The company is way too invested in him to give up on him or turn him heel. He is as he says not a good guy and not a bad guy – he’s the guy. Honestly, he probably deserves to be.
Looking at the history of his career, it’s hard to fault WWE for thinking that. In their minds, they were giving us exactly what we wanted. We marked huge for Roman when he was the Shield so they split the group up but kept Roman with the theme music, the look and the entrance through the crowd in addition to giving him a rocket push to the top that really didn’t include changing much of what made him great in the Shield.
He’s always been the same ass-kicking character with the same set of crowd-pleasing power moves and the same impressive work rate. Roman has had too many good matches with everyone from AJ Styles to Rusev to Braun Strowman to not be respected as a top worker and somebody who has very clearly dedicated themselves to being at the top of the game as a worker and performer.
Yes there have been some missteps along the way. Yes there was the “sufferin’ succotash” promo, there was the aforementioned wellness policy violation and some questionable booking of Roman by WWE. But you can look at any performer in WWE hard enough and find flaws in them.
Let’s be honest, the biggest crime Roman is guilty of was not being Daniel Bryan at the 2015 Royal Rumble and that isn’t on Roman and it’s not fair for him to have to live that down and be punished because WWE made what in the long-term was a good financial and business decision in choosing Reigns over Bryan given that only one of them is capable of wrestling anymore.
Somewhere along the way we, as wrestling fans, have to really examine why it become cool to resent Roman Reigns and ask ourselves if its based on reality or just conditioning over time. An honest view of Reigns’ body of work is quite telling. The man has simply never had a bad match. You can’t say the same about most workers and you can’t ask for anything more than Roman Reigns.
I remember growing up and being conditioned to look at a guy with Roman’s size and expect Hulk Hogan-style workrate. Thankfully that isn’t the case anymore and Roman certainly is leagues above some other big guys who WWE assigned prominent pushes to.
The backlash against Reigns is unfair, silly, childish and it needs to stop. Anyone viewing the product with any sort of honesty can see that.
Roman Reigns is going to be the top guy in WWE for years to come whether we like it or not. Why not give him a shot?
Long live the Roman Empire.