Roman Reigns is WWE’s top guy. Barring the outcome of a suspicious steroid allegation, that’s not changing anytime soon.
Why is Reigns WWE’s top guy? Because everyone keeps reacting to him instead of staying silent. Any reaction, be it positive or negative, is still a reaction, and WWE can take that to the bank. WWE will not de-emphasize Reigns to appease a vocal subset of fans–especially when that vocal minority still pays money to hatewatch and heckle the show.
For the most part, WWE has embraced (or pretends to embrace) its handpicked star’s divisiveness. His self-marketed catchphrase says it perfectly: “I’m not a good guy. I’m not a bad guy. I’m THE guy.” Reigns has a strong but silent attitude that, depending on a fan’s bias, can read as either understated confidence or entitled douchiness. He plays both sides; he was a good guy when he reunited with The Shield last year. He was a bad guy when he locked Braun Strowman in an ambulance and crashed it.
Last week, however, the WWE writers shot for the impossible: They scripted Roman Reigns to draw a unanimously positive reaction from all fans. It was done in an extremely self-aware, meta manner. And it kind of worked, though it came at the sacrifice of the show’s actual quality. Fans did not receive what they paid for.
Roman Reigns came down to the ring. He was advertised to confront Universal Champion Brock Lesnar that evening–not to fight him, but to stare him down.
But that didn’t happen. Instead, Reigns delivered a worked shoot (a monologue that blurs the line between storyline and real life). Reigns announced that Lesnar was not in the building that evening, and the face-off wouldn’t be happening. Why? Because, Reigns claimed, Lesnar was entitled and didn’t care about the fans. He revealed what many on social media had noticed: that on the Sunday night of Elimination Chamber, Lesnar was hanging out with Dana White, spurring rumors that he’d soon return to UFC.
Reigns then positioned himself as the people’s hero–the man who breaks his back full-time every week to entertain the fans. When Reigns walked into the ring that evening, lots of fans were booing him. But by the time he left, the majority of fans were cheering him. It was the most passionate promo Reigns has recited in months.
So that’s the WrestleMania 34 storyline: The spoiled, lazy part-timer who only cares about money versus the hungry, passionate full-timer who wants to bring the belt back “home.” WWE has done similar storylines in the past.
But this feels different–much more insidious and underhanded in its approach. Usually, the heel makes the babyface look good by punishing the opponent. In this case, the heel (Lesnar) is making the babyface (Reigns) look good by punishing the audience.
It’s manipulative as hell. WWE booked, promoted, and sold tickets on the premise of a Lesnar appearance last Monday. Then, they cancelled that appearance. That didn’t hurt Reigns; that hurt the fans, who were promised one thing and deprived of it. WWE is sabotaging the real life appeal and likability of its own show so that Reigns can “save” it.
In case you think this is overanalysis, consider the following match at a recent house show in Chicago. Lesnar defeated Kane in 35 seconds. He delivered two lazy German suplexes followed by a sloppy F-5 to score the pinfall. The paying fans were outraged by this sort of don’t-give-a-damn behavior from Lesnar, but that’s blaming the wrong person. Lesnar’s just following orders. WWE calls the shots, and it’s the company the fans should blame.
WWE is deliberately leaving their fans unsatisfied so they can offer Reigns as the only solution to a problem they engineered. And it’s all to make Reigns into a widely beloved babyface–a role he isn’t naturally good at. But who knows? It might actually work this time. Still, that’s a tightrope to walk. If WWE has to damage its own brand to pull it off, is it worth it? And what happens if and when the casual fans catch on? Wrestling fans love to be fooled, but they don’t want to be made fools of.
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Author: Kevin Wong
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