The Big Dog has a new bite
WWE fans have spent years begging for Roman Reigns to be a bad guy. It looks like they finally got their wish.
Reigns is easily the most divisive wrestler in the company, as evidenced by the existence of a 5,400-word Wikipedia article titled “Persona and reception of Roman Reigns.” Reigns debuted in WWE as a member of the villainous faction the Shield with Seth Rollins and Dean Ambrose but ever since the group’s breakup has been positioned as a hero. A wrestler’s on-screen portrayal is usually a reflection of how they are received by fans, but not in Reigns’s case.
Until fairly recently (more on that later), fans were never really given a good reason why they should root for Reigns. He wasn’t very compelling on the microphone. His matches were built around two moves—the spear and the Superman punch—that are boring and uncreative. And yet WWE kept pushing him to the top of the card.
For years, WWE fans made their disdain for Reigns known by booing him lustily, and so they thought it only made sense for WWE to lean into that and present Reigns as an on-screen villain. He was already despised by large segments of the crowd. Why not make that reaction even stronger by giving people a legitimate reason to hate him?
As Vince McMahon and the rest of the WWE power structure continued forcing Reigns to be what fans didn’t want him to, they reacted by greeting Reigns with hearty boos—or even worse, sometimes just complete indifference. When Reigns and Samoa Joe closed out Backlash in 2018 with a dud of a match, fans in the arena started walking out in the middle of it. WWE’s insistence on pushing Reigns never slowed, though. Three months later, Reigns captured the universal championship from Brock Lesnar.
Two months after that, though, fans finally had a reason to root for Reigns when he announced that he had been diagnosed with leukemia as a younger man and now the cancer had returned. Reigns stepped out of character, addressed the crowd as Joe Anoa'i and relinquished the title.
When he returned in February 2019, Reigns was finally a legitimate babyface. And then the pandemic hit. Reigns, hesitant to put his health and the health of his and his wife’s newborn twins at risk, pulled out of his scheduled universal championship match against Goldberg at WrestleMania 36 in April.
Reigns was off TV for five months—until Sunday night. To close out SummerSlam, Reigns made a surprise return after the conclusion of the Braun Strowman–Bray Wyatt match. Even more surprisingly, he did it as a villain.
While it’s impossible to know how Reigns’s character will be presented going forward, those unprovoked chair shots are 100% heel behavior. If WWE does go ahead with packaging Reigns as a true villain, it could breathe new life into what has been a stagnant television product. There was already a built-in story line around Reigns’s pursuit to regain the universal title (he absolutely would have won the match against Goldberg at WrestleMania, which instead was won by his replacement, Strowman). Resuming that pursuit as a man driven by vengeance is a much more interesting story.
TV ratings for WWE’s two flagship shows (Raw and SmackDown) have been in the tank ever since production was forced to move into an empty venue. An early May episode of Raw, the last before the Money in the Bank pay-per-view, drew just 1.686 million viewers, the fewest of any episode in the show’s 27-year, 1,400-episode run.
But there’s hope for WWE to bring back some of the eyeballs it lost during the dull period of fan-less shows. Its new “ThunderDome” TV set at Orlando’s Amway Center is a legitimately awesome viewing experience and, most importantly, allows fans to make their voices heard during shows once again. When Roman Reigns comes out this Friday on SmackDown, expect the boos to be as vociferous as ever. Just this time the fans will be happy to be booing.
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