The Royal Rumble did not go as planned for Roman Reigns.
“It was a lot worse than I expected,” admitted Reigns. “With the internet and social media, I had a pretty good hunch it was going to go the way it did, but just not as much as it did. It seemed like a movement where Philly plotted against me for like a month, and it definitely left an impression. But I think I can say thank you–I’ve gotten better because of it.”
Reigns, speaking on behalf of WWE’s “Answer the Call” initiative benefiting the New York Police and Fire Widows and The Children’s Fund, opened up about his career, as well as how grateful he is for the opportunity to give back.
“People call us heroes, but we are nothing compared to our police force and fire fighters and everybody who protects us and makes sure our freedom is held to the highest standard,” said Reigns. “It’s a great opportunity and I’m proud to have the WWE be a part of it.”
The online auction allows a chance to bid on meet-and-greet opportunities with John Cena at a Monday Night Raw, “Stone Cold” Steve Austin during a taping of his podcast, and even a head-to-head meeting with Brock Lesnar and Paul Heyman.
“It’s such a great deal, and I just feel like the timing is perfect,” said Reigns. “SummerSlam is right around the corner, we’re going to be taking over New York, and this is our home base. The history of our company goes hand-in-hand with New York, and it’s such a great deal to help out the real heroes.”
Reigns had no problem discussing the highs and lows of his career, starting with this past January. As the boos reigned down upon the ring at the Wells Fargo Center in Philadelphia, Reigns – whose real name is Joe Anoaʻi – was simply a man disappointed he did not deliver on the biggest stage possible.
“This is art,” said Reigns, who played college football at Georgia Tech and was signed by the Minnesota Vikings in 2007. “It’s not like it’s Week One of the season and we’ve got to go out and play good defense and run the ball. We’re telling a story.
“And I get it–people want the Super Bowl today. But, in football, you have to do Week One and then Week Two and get to Sixteen, and then start talking about the playoffs. But we don’t have a week off [in wrestling]. This is 52 weeks a year. If we’re just throwing out pay per view matches every single night where we’re going crazy, then what are we doing?”
Fans revolted against Reigns’ manufactured push to the top of the card at WrestleMania 31, but his body of work in the squared circle has been excellent ever since. His matches with Daniel Bryan at Fastlane, Brock Lesnar at WrestleMania, and the Big Show at Extreme Rules were three very different matches with high-paced action and incredible storytelling.
“Our fanbase is so hardcore and smart, and knows the history,” said the 30-year-old Reigns. “It’s almost like the underground in rap music. There is always the underground rapper people enjoy, and you want to see him come up. That’s kind of how it is in wrestling. There’s a lot of guys on the indies with the tight following from those hardcore fans, and this is that time for me to build to that respect and let people know I’m here to win, I’m here to kill it every single night.”
Along with Seth Rollins and Dean Ambrose, Reigns immediately captured the imagination of WWE fans upon his debut in November of 2012. The three men formed “The Shield,” and worked seamlessly together as wrestling's self-appointed "Hounds of Justice."
Once the faction split after WrestleMania 30, Reigns continued to grow in popularity until an incarcerated hernia sidelined him from September to December. Upon his return, he struggled to regain his momentum and failed to connect with the hardcore fanbase.
Reigns won the Royal Rumble and seemed destined to capture the world heavyweight championship at WrestleMania 31, but WWE Universe had spoken–and Vince McMahon listened. A week before 'Mania, former Shield partner Seth Rollins was instead chosen to win the championship at WrestleMania.
“It broke my heart to lose,” said Reigns. “WrestleMania was the best day of my life, the greatest opportunity I’ve ever been afforded, but at the same time, no one wants to lose the main event for the WWE world heavyweight championship.
“If you watch the shots between me and Seth, after the 1-2-3, you can see on my face how emotional I was and how overwhelming it was. I’m a competitor, and I want to win every single thing I do.”
Reigns will be competing at SummerSlam with former Shield partner Dean Ambrose against the Wyatt Family. He has embraced the opportunity to work again with Ambrose, but does miss the brotherhood he created traveling with both Ambrose and Rollins.
“It’s a bit of a double-edged sword,” said Reigns. “Seth was really big on CrossFit. I’m not, but Dean and I just go with the flow and try new things. To be honest, I didn’t really like it because a lot of the functional moments reminded me a lot of my football training, and I was completely over that.
“But I’ll admit I miss that comradery with all three of us in the gym. We were just drenched – the sweatiest guys on earth – a couple hours into a good workout. That was a cool feeling, and that’s what I miss the most.”
WWE’s “Answer the Call” auction is also allowing fans the chance to attend the season finale of WWE “Tough Enough” and meet Daniel Paige and Daniel Bryan.
Perhaps unbeknownst to the WWE Universe, Reigns considers Bryan a very close friend.
“Bryan is the best,” said Reigns. “If anybody says any different, they’re an idiot. You can learn anything from him. I got to work a lot with him with the Shield–that was like the band with those six man matches [against Bryan, Kane, and Ryback], we were doing those every night. So I had plenty of chemistry and experience with Bryan.
“He is such a journeyman with so much experience, and that’s a key ingredient to what we do–just logging in those man-hours. Bryan is a journeyman, and he’s one of the few that we have, with Seth and Dean also in that category. He’s just so smart. He has a great take on everything, and he doesn’t just think about his product. He thinks of the grand scheme of things in the WWE world, and he’s a privilege to be around, not only in the ring but also as a person. The last European tour was a great tour, sitting on the back of the bus with Bryan in a conversation for an hour-and-a-half covering everything under the sun–we talked about from evolution to lotions to how to treat swelling. He has so much knowledge on life. I feel very blessed to made a friend with Daniel Bryan.”
Another critical voice for Reigns behind the scenes is that of Paul Heyman. The two verbally sparred with one another on the road to WrestleMania, and Heyman worked with Reigns behind the scenes so he could better connect with the crowd.
“He’s known me since I was just a little guy, when I was glued to my dad’s leg backstage,” said Reigns. “Before I even got to that point [in the buildup to WrestleMania], he’s definitely been a help.”
Reigns was quick to name the qualities that separate Heyman from nearly everyone else in the world of wrestling.
“It’s his knowledge, a lot of wisdom, and he’s got some cowboy to him, too,” said Reigns. “You can’t replace experience, and the time he’s logged in this business is irreplaceable. He’s seen damn near everything under the sun with what he’s done in front of and behind the camera. There’s so many different facets to this business–it’s not just hip tosses and body slams. This is chess, and in no way is it checkers, and I think that’s what sets him apart.”
Reigns has a lot left to accomplish in the business of professional wrestling. Beyond his current feud with Bray Wyatt, he wants to make a return to the world heavyweight title picture, and the thought of a triple-threat between the Shield at a WrestleMania still lingers in the back of his mind.
“I’m about building the future,” said Reigns. “I’m about building a huge crew. When the business was the most successful, there was a whole gang of top guys making a lot of money, so the bigger our crew is and the more competition we have, and if we can create the stiffest competition from within the company, that is how we’re going to go to the next level.”
In order to accomplish his goal, Reigns admitted that staying healthy is his top priority.
“If I can stay healthy, then I can wrestle every single week,” he said. “I want to make every single town that I can, see the whole world, feel every crowd in every arena, and pull those emotional strings. I can’t explain what it feels like to be in the center stage connecting with thousands of people, but I’m having the best time doing it.”
Justin Barrasso can be reached at JBarrasso@gmail.com. Follow him on Twitter @JustinBarrasso.