Bear with me for a second, but I want you to close your eyes and think about your favorite moment in wrestling history. I’m sure we all have a different one. Think about where you were, think about who was in the ring, think about the crowd. Focus on the crowd for a second. I’m sure the details differ for all of us, but the one constant in all of these moments is the reaction of the crowd. If you’re thinking about a triumphant victory, I’ll bet the crowd erupted in to pure, unbridled joy. If you’re thinking of a heel beat down, the crowd was probably unanimous in their fury, throwing trash, screaming obscenities.
Now I want you to think about Roman Reigns. Think about the end of Raw, as the theoretical heel HHH bashed Roman bloody as the crowd chanted yes for each hit. Think about his entrance every week, the old Shield theme hitting and Reigns appearing in a crowd, surrounded by people booing him louder than every heel on the show. It’s almost impossible to look at Reigns’ push as anything but an abject failure, an unfortunate pawn sacrifice, a political hit. It’s odd then that I find myself thinking more and more that the WWE is in all likelihood quite content with the reaction that Roman Reigns has been getting every week. In fact, I think that Reigns is being presented in a very specific fashion that is at least in part designed to inspire both the jeers and cheers he currently generates.
I think before I get in to my reasoning, I want to address the “political hit” theory thrown out by Dylan Hales and others over the past few months. This theory postulates that Kevin Dunn and HHH are locked in a backstage war in which Reigns is an unwitting participant. Let me say that I do not think that anything Dylan has said is far-fetched. Wrestling is run by hyper-competitive, egotistical people. They have an intense desire to win and moreover for others to lose. There is a long history of backstage games, of power plays and blacklists. I think it would be foolish to think that Kevin Dunn and HHH are not locked in some sort of struggle. I also think it would be irresponsible to ignore HHH’s history as a wrestler that has consistently presented himself in a way that makes him comes across as insecure and over protective of his spot or at the very least tone-deaf when it comes to how he is perceived.
I guess in some regard, I agree fully that Reigns is being presented in a way that is baffling when compared to traditional faces. Or rather, he is being presented as such a traditional face that it is creating a backlash from fans to an almost unanimous degree. Many fans online seem to be in agreement that Reigns is almost past the point of rehabilitation. Again, I’m not sure I’m here to dispute that, but I would dispute the WWE’s interest in rehabbing him or changing his reaction. I would instead postulate that the WWE has made a concerted effort to generate loud reactions regardless of the traditional face and heel dynamic.
To bastardize a line from Pride and Prejudice, the opposite of love is not hate, but indifference. The WWE, and professional wrestling in general, cannot abide indifference. As the WWE makes every possible effort to be relevant on social media, having gifable, vineable moments is of paramount importance. Long term storytelling and deep characterization has taken a backseat in recent years, and in its place, the WWE has tried to create a series of brief events. It’s why we see things like the Angry Miz Girl, or the dude reacting to the streak ending, or Brock Lesnar guy. They are not fans, but instead tiny representations of moments in time. Through them, we remember where we were, and we remember how we felt the exact same way. Instead of episodic television, Raw is leaning more and more towards programming that can be easily distilled in to top ten lists. Now again I’ll ask you to think back to those moments that you remember as a fan. Don’t even thinking about the whys and wherefores or what was happening in the ring. Just think about the crowd again. The sound, the roar, that is what’s constant.
No matter what you think of Roman Reigns, I think it’s undeniable that he is one of the few people currently on the roster that actually elicits any sort of response from the crowd. Think about any of the other people who have been propped up as someone to be featured in a main event program since Daniel Bryan and CM Punk stopped being featured on television. Sheamus, Bray Wyatt, even Seth Rollins; At various points, those performers were greeted with glib dismissal from fans. I can think of plenty of moments that I enjoyed from those men over the course of the past year, but none that had the crowd engaged in a way that could be summarized with a six second clip. If someone was flipping the channel during a Sheamus match or entrance, they would subconsciously decide that he was middling. If that same fan did the same thing during a Reigns entrance, they might actually stop for a brief moment.
When those casual fans tune in, the WWE needs the crowd to act as a guide and inform them on which performers are a big deal, and what parts of the program are exciting. The crowd would see Roman Reigns as a big deal immediately, a divisive wrestler that everyone has an opinion on. Someone to discuss around the water cooler. The WWE sees Roman Reigns as the next step in the John Cena evolutionary chain, not because he’s going to be a multi time champion, or because he’s going to be a face of the company. While he may be those things eventually, he has one other very important trait in common with Cena: everyone reacts to them as soon as they appear. Some may cheer, many may boo, but no one will chant for CM Punk. In an era where distractions are everywhere, Roman Reigns is a wrestler who demands attention.
WrestleMania is the time of year where this is most important. People throw parties for Mania, people get it on a whim. Those of us who watch every week will end up answering “Who’s that guy?” and “Why are they fighting?” over and over while our neighbor talks about how much better the attitude era was. We’ll probably get told that John Cena is a garbage wrestler and how awesome The Rock is. Everyone will shut up when the Undertaker comes out. Everyone will talk through the Dolph Ziggler match. There will be at least one entrance that sticks with people, like Rusev in the tank last year. And at the end of the night, Roman Reigns will come out to face one of the few people that everyone in the room will remember in HHH. They may have seen him before. They may be looking at him for the first time. The crowd may be cheering. They may be booing. No matter what, everyone will be paying attention. Everyone will remember.