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Posted in: Just Business
Just Business presents #102: Chapter 7.1 ~ The Rise of Roman Reigns
By Samuel 'Plan
Jul 26, 2017 - 11:28:04 PM

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Just Business presents #102: The Rise of Roman Reigns

Chronicling the singles career of Roman Reigns thus far is a difficult task. Many would jump immediately to the John Cena comparison, and conclude that the story of the rise of Reigns can be summed up quite easily: he got over-pushed much too quickly and fans rejected him because of that. The truth, however, is that his story is far more complex, and certainly a radical departure from the John Cena story. This is because, unlike in the case of John Cena, Roman Reigns’ own career as a singles star thus far has been one of paradoxes; of contradictions; strangely, of a more divided, if less keenly divisive, growth as both performer and character.

Many fans might seek to reject this conclusion outright, and it would be easy to understand why. On the surface, we now even have competing “Let’s go Roman!” “Roman sucks!” chants, just as we have had with John Cena. The similarities seem obvious. Look deeper into the ebb and flow of reactions to Roman Reigns over the period this mini-series is focussing on though, and look similarly to the changing state of his own performances and presentation, and what you uncover is the absence of any clean narrative worth identifying. Instead, there is a strange disconnect between company and performer, performer and fans and, ultimately, fans and company. It really is most bizarre, and even more singular than in the case of John Cena.

One could be forgiven for calling it an absolute mess, in fact.

We know, of course, that it hardly got off to the best of starts. Unlike in the case of Seth Rollins and Dean Ambrose, the Reigns character skipped straight over the fallout from The Shield split and, in what felt almost like an implied ret-con, was thrown immediately, inevitably into the World title scene. A lukewarm performance opposite Randy Orton at Summerslam 2014 in his first singles big match situation did him few favours, and neither did an injury derailing the first attempt at a feud between him and Rollins.

As this mini-series is focussed only from Summerslam 2014 onwards, though, it is to the 2015 Royal Rumble Match I first turn, and where the first instance of paradox emerges in Reigns’ push towards the top.

The prevailing memory of the 2015 Royal Rumble Match is of the overwhelming sense of disaster that pervaded the entire event (outside of that universally acclaimed Triple Threat Match). Indeed, it is difficult to deny that it was a match with priorities in all the wrong places. Despite Bray Wyatt and Rusev dominating the majority of the match with an intriguing unholy alliance, it was instead the tired acts of Big Show and Corporate Kane who got the pay-off with a dominating run at the bout’s climax. Despite the unfinished story underpinning Daniel Bryan’s surrendering of the WWE World Heavyweight Championship the year before, the Yes Man wasn’t even allowed to reach the end of the bout; in an obvious attempt on WWE’s part to try and make fans forget about him by the time Reigns entered. And despite The Rock turning up at the end of match to try and bolster support for Reigns, fans raged on into the night about this obvious, jarring and unwelcome move.

Immediately, from the very moment Reigns’ major push began then, we can identify paradoxes at the heart of events. Use of The Rock revealed awareness on WWE’s part that fans would likely reject the move towards a Reigns victory; but they did it all the same. What’s more, playing into that same issue, eliminating Daniel Bryan early seemingly indicated that WWE were aware he was the fan favourite to succeed; but they denied him the win all the same. The 2015 Royal Rumble Match is a clear indicator WWE saw something in Roman Reigns that they wanted to place centre stage, yet the match watches in a manner that seems reticent to go all in with the Big Dog; as if riddled with guilt for doing what was being done. On the one hand, the desire to push Roman Reigns in a major manner was clear. On the other, through how Bryan is manipulated and The Rock deployed, it feels bizarrely non-committal; self-destructively hesitant, at the very best.

And yet….

Those who lived through the controversy of the 2015 Road to WrestleMania, and who are true to history, will likely remember that the reaction to Reigns’ victory was nowhere near as universally critical as the reaction to Batista’s the year before. Fans were split. Even here on Lords of Pain, there was a divide among us columnists. I, for one, had no problem with it; but my TRSOTP compatriot Maverick was vehemently against it. Once again, then, the Reigns situation, even this early on, was one characterised by paradox. Truly enough, this was a divisive move on WWE’s part, but it seemed that, at this early stage, that divide was most keenly felt within the fan base, rather than between fan and promotion.

Roman Reigns vs. Daniel Bryan is the proof needed to back up this statement. Though, by only a year down the line, the rejection of Reigns at the top of the card in ‘Mania season was more widespread, in this instance such was not the case. Watching the match back now might surprise many, as the live crowd is vocally split down the middle. Nor is the pitch in the support of either man indicative of a generational or gender divide. It was a pure division among fans blind to age and gender; some chant for Reigns, some chant for Bryan. This was far from a Cena-style response; though one might draw a comparison to the Cena / Jericho Summerslam 2005 encounter if necessary.

What’s more, this was a match that demonstrated the key factor riding in favour of Reigns: his natural talent. Though there are those that maintain, in spite of clearly contrary evidence, that Reigns “cannot wrestle,” at Fastlane he was deployed opposite a man many saw as the best in the world at the time, and he hung with him. It is not a match I am particularly fond of, in truth. I find the pacing too steady, the obvious narrative much too safe and the action over-choreographed. But my reaction isn’t as important as the popular reaction among fans; and that popular reaction at the time was just that: it was popular. Certainly, reception to the result was mixed, but the match itself received praise; some of which might be down to Daniel Bryan being clearly presented as the better wrestler.

Once again, we see paradoxes then. The crowd itself was one: some fans supporting Reigns, others Bryan. Reception to the match is another: though many disliked the result, which felt inevitable, many praised the manner in which the match played out. Perhaps most fascinating though, and what worked against Reigns more than anything, was a second non-committal push on the part of WWE. Despite letting Reigns win a hard fought bout, they presented Daniel Bryan, unashamedly and utterly consciously, as the superior combatant. Were WWE so blind as to think positioning Reigns – this strikingly good looking, not particularly small, naturally quite cocky and obviously physically talented World Championship prospect – as an underdog would work?

Such implication did not end at Fastlane either. Come WrestleMania, there was no denying Reigns felt like the underdog throughout his challenge of incumbent champion Lesnar, and even then, beyond that, one got the same impression in how he was presented come the time of the Big Show vs. Roman Reigns Last Man Standing Match at Extreme Rules 2015. Admittedly, the Big Dog’s clash with the giant was a smartly worked one that positioned Reigns as the man giving the fans what they wanted – quite literally, in the form of tables and weapons – but so too did it watch as galling, regardless of its quality, for presenting Reigns in that age-old ‘never say die’ John Cena mould.

That might just be the first major mistake WWE made - despite Reigns having faced little authentic adversity in his career, WWE were, even if somewhat through implication, presenting Roman Reigns as an underdog. It was a presentation in direct contradiction with the widely known fact he was WWE’s ‘chosen one’ to dethrone Brock Lesnar and go on to, perceivably, replace John Cena; more paradox.

The end result was a character that wasn’t a character; a figure in WWE’s fictional universe to whom fans had no idea how they were meant to be reacting, empathising with or supporting. WWE wanted to push Reigns, but seemed afraid to do so. WWE wanted Reigns to be a bad ass, yet implied him to be an underdog; and if they presented him as an underdog, they were utterly ineffectual at making fans forget the real world circumstances underpinning the situation (at the heart of an Era known as Reality, no less). Whichever way one interprets the initial months of Reigns’ ascension, one thing is clear: they truly were a mess.

Nor would things get better any time soon, and what followed is what I will focus on in the next instalment. Until then, please feel free to leave any comments or feedback down 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!

Click here to pick up your copy of 101 WWE Matches To See Before You Die from Amazon.com

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