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Posted in: Just Business
Just Business presents #102: Chapter 7.2 ~ The Reality of Roman Reigns
By Samuel 'Plan
Jul 30, 2017 - 3:50:12 PM

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Just Business presents #102: Chapter 7.2 ~ The Reality of Roman Reigns

I concluded at the end of the last instalment that, whichever way one interprets the initial months of Reigns’ ascension, the only thing certain was that they were a mess. Sadly, this would go on to become the defining characteristic of his singles career for quite some time.

WWE would present Reigns as one thing, book him as something else and fan reaction would define him as something entirely different. Roman Reigns would wrestle a match implying one character, then be asked to cut promos that imply him to be something unidentifiable. On and on this chaos went, denying Reigns the opportunity to develop traction as a character and preventing him from fleshing out any of the myriad versions of his character into something three dimensional. The result was, in one sense, inevitable: fans obsessed continuously over his roster positioning because, quite honestly, in WWE’s mad scramble to “make it work,” they failed to provide fans with anything else to think about. This meant, despite consistently strong in-ring efforts that seemed to, generally, be improving over time, fan reaction became increasingly steadfast in its position opposing his slot on the roster.

Fast-forward all the way to Roman Reigns vs. AJ Styles at Extreme Rules 2016 and you get the perfect example of the outcome of WWE’s irritating inability to get the Reigns’ character perfected. By this stage, Reigns had improved exponentially between the ropes. His performances were unceasingly those of an iron man, rarely dropping “below four stars” for those who go into such ratings, and the proof is in the live crowd responses: it seemed time and again, once the match had gone over ten minutes, fan resistance ebbed away and “This is awesome!” chants, or something similar, rose in that resistance’s absence. For quite some time, Reigns became defined by his unpopularity as a character paradoxically opposing his ability to win crowds over during match time.

The Extreme Rules 2016 main event demonstrates this brilliantly. It shows just how ardent the wider fan base had become in their opposition to his status atop the roster, because even in lieu of a match that was being naturally reacted to favourably for virtue of its brilliance, fans consciously began to chant “You still suck!” Similarly, upon the emergence of Reigns during the entrances, unlike in the Fastlane 2015 instance, by this time his reaction was universally negative. Nonetheless, what results is an outrageously good match between the two that redefines its genre – the Extreme Rules Match – and demonstrates how much more of a nuanced performer Reigns had become since his time gunning for Lesnar the year before.

So, beyond his inconsistency as a character, by the spring of 2016 were there any other possible reasons as to why Reigns could wrestle excellent matches but still be received negatively by fans? My answer to that question prior to researching this column would have been a resounding no; that other examples of the same phenomenon repeating over and over are too commonplace. I would have argued that what emerges upon closer inspection of the narrative of Reigns’ ascension as its predominant theme is a performer coming into his own, unable to connect with fans because of a company unable to settle on a single sense of character.

Imagine my surprise, then, that upon doing my research I found as much inconsistency on the part of Reigns in the ring as I did on the part of WWE’s presentation of him elsewhere. It is true enough Reigns had a number of great matches; but so too are they not quite as plentiful as immediate memory might encourage pro-Reigns supporters (of which I have always been one) to believe.

Reigns was far from a consistent let-down in the ring, but so too was he far from consistent.

2016 might be the go-to for many in order to prove this, and there was certainly a drop in the quality of Reigns’ in-ring outings following on from his return from suspension. They became infinitely less enjoyable, lacking the same zealous energy and relentless action that had marked many of his better matches earlier that year. It is perhaps Kevin Owens vs. Roman Reigns at Roadblock: End of the Line that provides the most pertinent example of this.

Following a largely forgettable feud with Rusev, Roman Reigns, now as United States Champion, seemed set to return to his days of being noticeably over-pushed as he targeted the then-Universal Champion Owens. Roadblock was their first major meeting, and it was widely acknowledged as a bitter disappointment. There is little spark to be found in their clash, and the ferocity with which Reigns often wrestled following his tranformation during WrestleMania season that year was absent too. Instead, the two compose a piece of work best described as tepid; or languid; or bound only to further exacerbate criticism of Reigns and his position of the roster. Where prior it had always felt like Reigns was a performer motivated to prove a point, you get no such sense of defiance in his performance opposite Owens. One could even go so far as to describe it as an ugly presumptive performance from a more entitled performer; though there is little real evidence to support that feeling.

Braun Strowman vs. Roman Reigns at Fastlane 2017 was an improvement, but continued the trend; it too lacked that same intangible energy that had made so many of Reigns’ better performances and matches so exhilarating to watch. There were no more “You still suck!” chants, because Reigns was, frankly, no longer provocative enough during match time to get fans invested in the action. Sure, his first major clash with Strowman was as cerebral as one might expect, but the non-event of a disappointing finish makes it all feel somewhat like business as usual; as if Reigns, the company and the fans had opted into a contract with one another to silently recognise the issue was now something that was not going to go away and, quite honestly, nobody really cared all that much anymore. Not least of all because, unlike during the majority of Cena’s tenure on top, there were far too many, far more interesting events going on elsewhere. So why bother?

The paradoxes that have come to define Reigns’ run as a singles star thus far, then, are not limited solely to the sphere of relationships: between fan and fan; between fan and company; between company and performer. Roman Reigns himself has been directly responsible for one paradox in particular, namely the inconsistency in the quality of his ring work.

This is where we enter a chicken and egg scenario, however. How much responsibility should a performer shoulder for lacklustre matches if the writing leading to the pay-off bouts is, in itself, lacklustre?

Consider, for a moment, Bray Wyatt vs. Roman Reigns at Hell in a Cell 2015. The feud between Wyatt and Reigns was built perfectly. It was instigated at Money in the Bank, started in earnest with an excellent exchange at Battleground that year, escalated to a tag bout, escalated again to a six man and concluded with one of the more preeminent WWE stipulations. All the while, the material (in the main) stayed fresh, providing as typical a Reality Era storyline as you could find with Wyatt’s refrain, “Anyone but you, Roman.” At the time, this climactic confrontation was well received, and for good reason: it had an excellent background, and was a rare instance in this day and age of the Cell suiting the feud it was climaxing.

Looking back now, though, and one is confronted with a match that argues Reigns’ in-ring inconsistency is of his own making. Despite the excellent and characterful build up, the focus of the match itself remains, in rather sterile fashion, only on back and forth action. There is little character involved, Reigns showing no vulnerability in the face of his demonic challenger, and neither is there any identifiable psychological reaction to the imposing environment these two characters are meant to be fighting within.

But then you have, only a couple of months later, Sheamus vs. Roman Reigns for the WWE World Heavyweight Championship in a TLC Match at Tables, Ladders and Chairs 2015. It is as aesthetically effective a brawl as I can remember in the last few years, but creatively there is nothing below the surface – no story, character or sense of a larger arc in play, all of which is reflected by an audibly bored crowd far from invested in any of the realistic exchanges on show.

On the one hand, then, you have a disappointing match received better for having an excellent background and, on the other, you have an excellent match received poorly for having no real background whatsoever. Which comes first: the chicken, or the egg? I’ll be damned if I know. At this juncture it seems utterly impossible to convincingly theorise an answer to whether Reigns is as responsible for his own failure to gain traction with fans as WWE are. All we can identify is that everything surrounding Reigns since Summerslam 2014 amounts to exactly the word I used last time: a mess.

WWE have tried de-prioritising him by entering him into big multi-man affairs as a background player, making an impact but not attaining a victory, nor being the centre of attention. The 2015 Money in the Bank Match is the best example of this, where his performance is limited to that of an impactful supporting character; only, that didn’t really work.

WWE have tried pairing him up with more popular talents to assuage the negative responses, evidenced by Dean Ambrose and Roman Reigns vs. Bray Wyatt and Luke Harper at Summerslam 2015, in which Reigns watches as more naturally himself in a wonderfully chaotic, ever changing piece of work; but that didn’t work.

WWE have tried giving him the rebellious anti-authoritarian treatment to tap into the same magic that made Austin and Bryan both so popular, as exampled by Triple H vs. Roman Reigns at WrestleMania 32; but thanks to wrestling an inappropriately angled match, that didn’t work either.

WWE even tried to have the Reigns character pay some dues here and there by diluting the sense of dominance that so invasively underscored his singles run, perhaps best exampled by the 2016 Royal Rumble Match; but even that didn’t work, thanks to a strangely absentee outing for the defending champion and the rabid popularity of Ambrose getting a spot in the final two.

The struggle of Roman Reigns has been one we’ve never seen the likes of before, riddled with paradox and contradiction. At least with the case of John Cena, there was clarity of purpose. When it has come to Roman, though, even by the time of WrestleMania 33 it felt undeniably like WWE were still making up their minds as to what they wanted him to be. Even now, despite some long awaited character consistency following his defeat of The Undertaker, it feels WWE aren’t sure what that is. The only thing we can be thankful for is that we at least have that little bit of clarity on who Roman Reigns, as a character, is; and, perhaps to the shock of very few, if anyone at all, that character feels much more like a bad guy than a good guy; though certainly by no means “The Guy.”

So, for the first time in this mini-series, I am left with an inescapable conclusion: there is no one match that best represents this issue. You have to see them all in order to truly comprehend how catastrophically inept, and how inherently paradoxical, each one of the five attempted pushes of Roman Reigns really was.

Next week, I’m going to be turning to the exact opposite though. There will be no talk of disasters as I focus instead on the general topic of what I like to call “Modern Masterpieces” – a series of matches that have taken place since Summerslam 2014 that I believe are among some of the very best pieces of performance art WWE have ever put to canvas; and one or two of the choices are probably going to surprise some folk.

Until then, please do share any of your own thoughts and feelings on the Reigns issue in the comments below or over on social media!

This mini-series is a spin-off of my first book, 101 WWE Matches To See Before You Die, spawned from the acclaimed LOP column series of the same name. So for more of the same, click below to pick up your paperback or e-book copy today!

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