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Posted in: Requesting Flyby
REQUESTING FLYBY: This Is The Roman Reigns I've Been Waiting For
By Maverick
May 26, 2015 - 8:52:36 AM

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This Is The Roman Reigns I Have Been Waiting For

Since the “chair shot heard around the world” almost one calendar year ago, the enforcer of The Shield, Roman Reigns, has been on a rollercoaster ride, in terms of his fortunes in kayfabe, in terms of his real life journey as a professional wrestler defined by his “upside” and in terms of his crowd reactions. As myself and many other columnists and podcasters have covered in previous discussion of Roman’s work post-Hounds of Justice, WWE’s uncertain and ill advised handling of their rough diamond threatened to derail his career through the summer of 2014 into the winter of 2015. Thrust into the main event of his first two pay-per-views as a solo artist at Money In The Bank and Battleground due to his huge popularity at the time, Reigns performed well, but with his old cohorts Ambrose and Rollins getting the hot storyline, this participation in throwaway multi-man main events actually turned out to be a disadvantage for him. Compared to Ambrose’s righteous fury at Seth’s betrayal, Reigns’ lack of response came across strangely on television, and his subsequent feud with Randy Orton was, other than one excellent beat down by The Viper, distinctly lukewarm. As the feud between The Architect and The Lunatic Fringe reached fever pitch, Reigns looked ever more the odd man out, until Ambrose was written off television off the cinder block attack that is, when, purpose restored, Roman suddenly got hot again. Unfortunately, an ill timed injury saw him have to pull out of the booked match with the Future of WWE at Night of Champions, and upon his return in December, Reigns was put into a programme against The Big Show which was obviously designed as a way for him to look “strong” heading into the Royal Rumble. Sensing what was going on, the smart element of the crowd reacted in predictable fashion, a phenomenon that reached its peak at the event itself, where Reigns’ win caused a huge backlash. From that point though, all one can do is congratulate Roman on the way he has turned that negative into a positive. First, he gained the crowd’s respect with his ring work against Daniel Bryan at Fast Lane, Brock Lesnar at Wrestlemania and The Big Show at Extreme Rules. Those incredibly vital performances answered one prominent criticism of the third generation star, but another still floated around in the ether, that is, his character work. But then I watched Payback, and I saw what I’d wanted to see out of Reigns for the longest time in character terms...he was not trying to be anything other than himself. And suddenly, he was as compelling a character for me as he has been an in ring performer, and the subsequent episodes of Raw and Smackdown have confirmed that for me. This is the Roman Reigns I’ve been waiting for since last June, and it’s glorious.

I was always a Reigns fan. I had grave doubts about the methodology WWE used to push him coming out of the break up of the company’s most dominant faction, but I always remained convinced that he would be, and should be, a major player in the future of the business. Last summer, my dislike of the Orton feud was mainly based around the way the company had formulated Reigns’ character; it was somewhere between Cena Lite and mid-1995 Diesel, a horrible mix that fed into some truly awful mic work that did nothing to mollify a crowd who were to turn against him. When he returned to action in late December, after they had three starting months to reflect, the writers threw numerous character traits at the wall to see what would stick. We had a kind of “Superman” character who took on Show and Kane single handed with flying punches (but you can’t build a character around a wrestling move alone). We had the guy who interrupted Rollins using the words “suffering succotash” (but he wasn’t well suited for using Vince McMahon’s Loony Tunes flavoured trash talk). We had “storytelling Roman” who gave us a cringeworthy rendition of Jack and the Beanstalk (I’m not sure I can think of any wrestler that could have made that work). None of these were natural fits for him and he seemed as uncomfortable as it was possible to be. Rather than blame some awful writing, some began to blame the man himself. As I covered back in January, given all of this, it was not the best time to give him a Rumble win, as they were still essentially coming up for a character for a Wrestlemania number one contender on the fly.

Inevitably, there were growing pains here. At the “snowed in” Raw, they went with the “born into the business” angle, and he seemed more comfortable, but the storyline with Bryan going into Fast Lane forced yet another rethink, as he took on a kind of tweener role. Then, in the lame and repetitive Wrestlemania build, poor Roman mostly had no opponent to bounce off due to Lesnar’s customary absence from most of the dates, which was hardly conducive to forming that elusive character either, not to mention the difficulty of playing a hero against Brock just as the Beast himself was becoming the hottest babyface in the business due to his freakish displays inside the squared circle. A retread feud against The Big Show did little for Reigns in character terms, as he was almost forced to take on the Superman persona again. Looking back at those two matches earlier on, I saw toughness, I saw incredible athletic ability, and I saw a young main event player putting on two very good pay-per-view matches. What was more difficult to see was Roman Reigns the character beyond “game underdog”. Coming out of Extreme Rules I was wary of the praise being heaped on him simply because however good his ring performances (and they’ve been very good indeed) he needed the x factor of a definable character before he could truly ascend to Dean and Seth’s performance level. Which brings us back to Payback, and the breakthrough that was made there.

Sitting there the other Sunday, the change in Roman’s body language was the first noticeable sign that this might be a break out evening for him. His customary walk through the crowd was so much more relaxed. Rather than trying too hard to be “intense”, he let his natural charisma do the work for him, just as he used to in The Shield. Where before he had shrugged off fans who tried to interact with him in his entrance, now he was fist bumping them on his way down, using them as a part of his babyface alignment (as he probably always should have done). Once the bell rang, in a match with the two men who he made his name with, two men he is close with backstage, he seemed more comfortable as a wrestler than I had seen him since last year’s Payback. He wrestled with abandon, throwing himself over the top rope, chasing down Rollins, and going toe to toe with anyone who stepped in front of him. The key thing for me was that it was a likeable performance, a less is more performance, one where his growing skill as a storyteller combined with an increasing sense of comfort with his wrestling persona. The old adage in the industry is that the best characters are based on the real life person, and the way Reigns was visibly enjoying the fight did so much more for him than the “smouldering” expressions he had gone for back at the Rumble. The key moment came with the brief reunification of The Shield for a triple powerbomb on Orton. As Rollins smugly held out a fist in celebration, Reigns’ smile suddenly turned serious, moments before he and Ambrose pummeled the traitor in their midst. The way he owned that situation was yet another indication of him finally hitting on a persona that really works for him, as was the way he conducted the crowd in a “on more time!” chant before the second powerbomb on Kane and, of course, the incredibly well judged “not much else to do...loser buys the beers?” line to Ambrose (again, look at how comfortable Reigns is in delivering that dialogue, how natural is comes to him). Indeed, the one on one interaction between The Big Dog and The Lunatic Fringe was perfectly judged, the vibe being two friends who love to fight going at it to see who the better man is on that given evening. As that main event ended, I thought to myself, “this is a turning point for Roman Reigns”. Having watched him on Smackdown last Thursday and on Raw last night, I have to say that it looks like I’m right.

On Smackdown, debuting a new t-shirt, the Samoan star again had that more relaxed vibe about him, cutting an excellent promo about Payback and his intention to enter Money In The Bank. No longer was he the guy struggling to deliver painstakingly written lines fed to him by writers, instead, this was somebody at home with the idea of holding a crowd in the palm of their hand. The easy smile, the variance in tone, the way he emphasised the right words; all of it points towards him putting together the non wrestling part of his skills set to go alongside 2015’s stellar ring work, which can only be a good thing. Moreover, what was denied Reigns in the early part of The Shield break up, the opportunity to riff off Rollins and Ambrose, is finally being given to him consistently. The hostile interaction with The Architect ever since the cash in at ‘Mania and backing up The Lunatic Fringe on a regular basis has helped make Reigns into a well rounded character with motivations and drivers that we can all understand. When The Authority try to play numbers on Dean or Roman, you know the other will be there to lend a hand. It’s compelling stuff, and helps to establish the integrity that all babyfaces need and thrive on. Watching this new Roman Reigns is increasingly becoming a highlight of my week.

As it turned out, the mystery behind translating Reigns’ success in The Shield into solo success was not such a mystery after all. You let the man be himself, and not whatever 1980s idea of a babyface the front office had in mind. You allow the rich stories created by the dominance and destruction of The Shield to drive the character’s motivations and actions. You let his ring work do the talking and keep the actual talking short, sweet and impactful. The experimentation with his persona through 2014 and early 2015 seems increasingly bizarre now that he has come through it all intact. This is the Roman Reigns I have been waiting for. I hope he stays for a long time.

This is Maverick, requesting flyby!