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Posted in: Just Business
Just Business: Understanding Roster Positioning: Is Roman Reigns an Anomaly?
By Samuel 'Plan
Sep 19, 2017 - 10:33:46 PM

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Just Business: Understanding Roster Positioning: Is Roman Reigns an Anomaly?

In my last column, I laid out a theory regarding WWE’s approach to roster positioning through the Eras of its modern history that identified an emergent pattern: that there are always three men at the top of the roster placed clearly above all others. Going on some of the tremendous feedback I got, I wanted to take a second to reiterate that the theory wasn’t based on the accomplishments or achievements of performers at the top of WWE’s roster; only on commonality in the way they were presented by the company ‘booking’ them.

I once considered The Shield to be the natural successors to those spots for their own Era, but what became abundantly clear to me as I researched these ideas was that Roman Reigns simply doesn’t fit the pattern. He is so far removed from those around him that we couldn’t possibly consider him a first among equals.

In some regards, he presents the inverse of a man like Hulk Hogan. Where the on-going Hogan ‘super-push’ was, even if only briefly in comparison, shared by another in the guise of Ultimate Warrior, no other has shared the same ‘super-push’ of Reigns. Yet, where Hogan’s actual real world accomplishments far outshone those who, even if only briefly in comparison, once enjoyed similarly favoured treatment, Reigns’ are far outshone by those who should but don’t enjoy similarly favoured treatment. It’s a damning, cynical revelation to arrive at with little kindness for the state of WWE today.

So if the so-called ‘Trinity’ theory I wrote about last week doesn’t help us to better understand the role Roman Reigns is currently playing on the roster of his own Era, and is likely to go on playing for years to come, then what will? Last time, crucially, I explained that history reveals three consistent elements that often orbit the highest echelon of the roster of any given Era. The ‘Trinity’ is just one of those elements. If Reigns does not fit into that theory, then might he fit into another?

I turn now to another possible role that I have named using a term that would seem to fit the Big Dog’s circumstances quite nicely: the ‘Anomaly.’ Just like the ‘Trinity,’ this is far from a water-tight notion. It does not recur fully formed in every Era but we see it recur enough through the years to warrant calling it a historical trend.

Every Era in WWE’s modern history has a library of names readily identifiable with it. Though it is far from the only criteria by which we might identify when an Era begins and ends – and should certainly be far from the primary criteria – it nonetheless helps in that regard. When you think about the New Generation Era, you think about the likes of Bret Hart, Shawn Michaels, Diesel, Razor Ramon and British Bulldog. Likewise, when you think about the Reality Era, you might think about the likes of CM Punk, Daniel Bryan and The Authority.

In most Eras, though, one of those synonymous names proves to be a law unto themselves. They aren’t so much a disruption of the established status quo as they are exempt from it. Their place in history often reads as a curiosity, for one reason or another, and in the main these individuals buck any other trend we might be able to identify. They are, quite simply, and relative to their respective contemporaries, anomalous.

We can trace this all the way back to the Golden Age when, in 1991, an individual appeared on WWF (as it was then) television to proclaim himself “The Real World’s Champion.” I write, of course, about Ric Flair. It should take little explanation from me to describe how Ric Flair was, for many fans, the epitome of professional wrestling; and most certainly for professional wrestling beyond the confines of a now leviathan WWF. His arrival in the company essentially coincided with the departure of the Ultimate Warrior, and with Hulk Hogan’s own departure looming large in the coming months. Perhaps it is little surprise, then, that Flair quickly found himself holding World gold come Royal Rumble 1992.

Most of us know the story of the WrestleMania VIII that never was, of course. Flair and Hogan wrestled on live show circuits, but the ultimate dream match of its day never came to fruition. Flair would instead enter a feud with Randy Savage, and come close to a tag feud also involving Razor Ramon and Ultimate Warrior many months later. He would be the man to drop the World Championship to Bret Hart, and would bow out in early 1993 by losing an excellent Loser Leaves Town Match to Mr Perfect on an early edition of Monday Night Raw. All of this demonstrates how the Nature Boy came into the company as a big star and, in what many would think of as uncharacteristic fashion on the part of Vince McMahon, be very much presented as a big star too, never straying far from the main event scene.

Yet his tenure in the company was fleeting, especially compared to the generally prolonged runs of title reigns, storylines and character development so intrinsic to WWE’s Golden Age. When you go back now and revisit that Era, his role feels like it moves against the tide of its time, in part helping to disrupt what might have otherwise been a clear run for Warrior (accepting there were other, more personable mitigating circumstances impacting that same career). His victory in the 1992 Royal Rumble still feels anomalous because of the towering presence of so many WWF Golden Age legends; most notably, Hulk Hogan and Randy Savage.

The end result is a Ric Flair whose name is synonymous with the Golden Age, of which he was so intrinsic a part, despite the fact he spent most of that Era away from the company; indeed, working actively for its competition. He was the anomaly of his time.

He is but the first example. In the New Generation, Vader presented an anomaly in his own right. With some input from Jim Cornette, as the man would have it, he avoided the fate of being rebranded as “The Mastadon” and instead kept the name he had made for himself (sans prefix). He stormed onto the scene in early 1996 and was presented as an unstoppable monster from the get-go, displacing the multiple time World Champion and New Generation mainstay Yokozuna.

Vader, of course, would go on to wrestle Shawn Michaels in an infamous Summerslam main event and, as urban legend has it, originally had been slated to occupy the role that Sycho Sid would go on to occupy at the close of the year, essentially becoming a utility in re-developing tensions between Michaels and Hart. In the end, however, Vader’s tenure in the company fizzled out slowly and rather ignominiously over the course of 1997 and 1998.

Nonetheless, though mildly different to the untainted status Ric Flair enjoyed in the early 1990s, Vader ultimately was as invasive an anomaly as well. Not only did he keep a brand name he had built for himself working directly for the competition, he too, at least initially, played a major role in the company, occupying a top spot on the roster and, essentially, performing as the promotion’s foremost monster for the better part of a year.

In later Eras, and in a sign of how the industry has changed so drastically over the decades, these anomalous individuals at the top of the roster become much harder to pinpoint. The Reality Era, for example, it could reasonably claim, presented an anomaly in the form of Brock Lesnar, just as much as it could claim one in the form of The Rock. Both had become household icons of alternative industries and returned to the fold for massively important, but entirely unorthodox runs at the very top of the Era’s roster. Matters in that instance, though, are complicated by the rise of the part-timer.

The Brand Extension and the Attitude Era are perhaps the two most intriguing, presenting diametric opposites. The Attitude Era occurred at the height of the Monday Night Wars, where competition between companies was fierce and anomalies were more the status quo than anything else; which is to say that performers were able to move across companies in far greater numbers, and did so. It essentially becomes a case of taking your pick as a result, though if we wanted to force the theory into a trend of one then Chris Jericho, I think, would present the most compelling case. Truthfully, though, Attitude does not really seem to fit the ‘Anomaly’ idea.

Can I really claim the theory stands up then? I believe so. Though we see specific examples in the Golden Age and New Generation Eras, and two potential contenders in the Reality Era, the key really sits with the Brand Extension Era, and its curious relation to WWE’s new Era of today.

The Brand Extension was quite the opposite of Attitude. One of its most defining aspects as an Era was the sterility of its roster and the talent drought that came with it, all stemming from WWE’s unwise efforts to develop everybody in-house. It might, therefore, very well be the case that, this time, there was no ‘Anomaly’ at all. If anything, though, that still seems to support my over-arching theory here: was the woeful state of the roster throughout that Era largely down to WWE’s failure to import talent free to avoid the deeply flawed status quo of the day, one wonders. In other words, had they brought in a Ric Flair or Vader, might the Era have progressed differently?

I believe the answer is yes, for the same reason that I feel confident in claiming that Roman Reigns is not the ‘Anomaly’ of his day despite his unique situation.

The reason behind that answer is AJ Styles.

AJ Styles’ name is fast becoming synonymous with this new Era in WWE, that I have named the Renaissance. This has misled many, I believe, in considering Styles a member of the contemporary generation of talent. In fact, he is a member of the same outgoing generation as John Cena and Randy Orton. Of course, the reason behind any such confusion is because Styles is still very new to the company. He never wrestled for WWE during the heyday of his generation – the first Brand Extension – and instead went on to, for all intents and purposes, become the Ric Flair of his Era: the name synonymous with “not WWE.” When he did turn up in WWE over a year and a half ago, debuting in the 2016 Royal Rumble Match, history quickly repeated itself.

Like Flair before him, Styles seemed to suddenly invade what had felt like the inevitable course of WWE’s future. This time, fans did get to see Flair vs. Hogan, when Styles was matched opposite Cena in the absolute dream match of the mid-2000s. Styles would quickly follow that by over-shadowing and derailing the momentum of the then-reigning WWE World Champion Dean Ambrose; one of the Renaissance Era’s ‘Trinity.’ Even now, Styles continues his anomalous run, recreating the US Open Challenge John Cena incepted back in 2015 and maintaining an undisputed place in the admiration and sentiment of almost the entire WWE fan base.

Had AJ Styles done all of this with a two to three year run in the middle of the first Brand Extension, as Flair did in the Golden Age, history might have come to look radically different.

AJ Styles didn’t, though. He wasn’t the ‘Anomaly’ of the first Brand Extension, or even of the Reality Era. He is the ‘Anomaly’ of this developing Renaissance Era.

This is solidified by the matter of being able to quickly dispel any argument that the theory might apply to Roman Reigns. Though there is no denying that Roman Reigns is unique among the locker room of his Era, and far beyond even the closest of his competitors at this stage, he lacks the one recurrent and defining trait that seems to solidify others as the ‘Anomaly’ of by-gone Eras: absence.

Roman Reigns has been a WWE guy from day one without interruption thus far. Elements of his career in WWE have been highly unusual, but the common trait held among the ‘Anomalies’ of the past has always been their synergy with non-WWE businesses and, in some cases, industries. Flair was an NWA/WCW guy, as was Vader. The Rock returned in the Reality Era as a Hollywood guy, Brock Lesnar as a UFC guy. AJ Styles, of course, was an Indy darling, and then a TNA and NJPW guy. Even if you wanted to apply the theory to Attitude – in the guise of, say, Chris Jericho – you are confronted with stars initially synonymous with a competing promotion. Thus, in every instance, it wasn’t just the WWE career of the individual that was curiously at odds with the trends of their days, but the non-WWE career too, and how the two related to one other.

Hence, Reigns simply doesn’t fit the bill; his career doesn’t evidence enough of the common traits to really be considered an active part of this particular trend. That he shares a locker room with an individual who exhibits those common traits more than any other member of that same pattern throughout time is only further evidence that the Big Dog is no ‘Anomaly.’

The only question that remains, then, is whether he fits the third and final recurring aspect of the top of any WWE roster throughout history, or if he is, in himself, the emergence of some new paradigm, thus far unseen throughout the annals of WWE’s past. It is to that matter I shall turn in the concluding part of this three-part endeavour.

Until that hits later this week, though, let me know your thoughts on this theory. Does it stand up to scrutiny and, if not, what adjustments could we make so that we have a theory that does explain these intermittent disturbances – these fleeting invasive visitations - to WWE’s rosters through the years?

Thanks for reading!

Don’t forget to pick up your copy of my book, 101 WWE Matches To See Before You Die, from the LOP Store or Amazon today! Simply click here to find mine and a host of other books and merchandise on offer, all courtesy of LOP, or on the icon to the left to be taken directly to Amazon!

Click here to add me on Facebook!

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