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Roman Reigns Wasn’t Built in a Day

How Vince McMahon’s supposed fave became a runner-up at ‘WrestleMania,’ again. Is it too late for the promotion’s golden boy?

WWE/Ringer illustration

The highlight of WrestleMania 34 was indisputably the in-ring debut of Ronda Rousey, as she and Kurt Angle dispatched the WWE power couple of Triple H and Stephanie McMahon. There were many reasons for its success—wonderful booking, an invested crowd, the absence of the pressure and expectations that come with being the main event—but the real reason it worked is that Rousey exceeded expectations dramatically. Since her debut as a WWE employee at the Royal Rumble, Rousey has been clunky on the mic and awkward in limited physicality. Fans were excited that she was in WWE, but after weeks of unfulfilling build, there wasn’t much anticipation for the match. (Her dance partners are all stars, but Triple H and Angle are past their primes and Stephanie has never been a real wrestler.)

But on Sunday, Rousey was crisp in the ring, looking every bit the natural fans had lost hope that she would be. The rest of the troupe did their parts, with Stephanie selling Rousey’s offense like a buxom Ricky Morton and Triple H playing a spray-tanned Goliath, felled by arm bars instead of a slingshot. We knew Rousey and Angle were going to win, and most fans could have predicted that the decision would come by Stephanie tapping out to one of those arm bars, but in pro wrestling, fulfilling expectations isn’t a bad thing. The ride—the joy in getting there—is what matters. On Sunday, Rousey delivered.

With the run-up to the match as lackluster as it was, one could forget that we already had a seminal Ronda Rousey WrestleMania moment—at WrestleMania 31 in San Jose. Triple H and Stephanie came to the ring in their capacity as heel owners to gloat about the event, and they were confronted by the Rock, making a special appearance. When Stephanie slapped him, saying he couldn’t do anything about it because he wouldn’t hit a woman, Rousey leapt out of her front-row seat—she was a regular at big shows—to even the odds. She tossed the foils from the ring and sent the crowd into a frenzy. Even if the dream match between those four didn’t come to fruition at WrestleMania 32, it set the stage for Sunday—and frankly, it set up WrestleMania 34 in a way that the past couple of months never could.

WrestleMania 31 presaged this year’s show in more ways than that. While Rousey and the Rock were in the ring hyping the crowd, things became electric backstage, as Vince McMahon and WWE were setting up a last-minute tweak to the main event. At some point in the days leading up to the event, McMahon decided that the planned ending—Roman Reigns defeating Brock Lesnar for the WWE Championship—wouldn’t work. The crowd had turned on Reigns, in general because he was seen as the golden child of the WWE office, and specifically because his Royal Rumble win—which set up the title match—came after an ignominious showing by Daniel Bryan, who was (and is) the most beloved wrestler on the roster. The crowd booed Reigns loudly to end the Rumble (even when he was joined by the Rock himself), and nothing WWE did in the intervening months could take the stink off the Mania main event.

So Vince called an audible: Seth Rollins, in possession of the Money in the Bank briefcase guaranteeing him a title shot at any time, would enter himself into the title match in its last act and emerge the surprise victor. The plan went off beautifully—Rollins came out, attacked both men, and pinned Reigns to win the belt. It was a shock that the crowd could get behind, because Rollins’s cash-in was always an exciting, imminent threat, and, well, because they had gotten their way. (The only disgruntled members of the crowd that day were Reigns’s family, most notably his father, the ex-Wild Samoan Sika, who learned that his son was losing in real time with the rest of the crowd. There was “nearly a bad scene,” according to Dave Meltzer.) The fans had let their voices be heard, and the revolt had worked. The Reigns Era was postponed, and Rollins temporarily took his spot on top of the company.

Pro wrestling stories are often rewritten on the fly, but this was a dramatic rewrite in the biggest match of the era at the midnight hour. This is the story of how one decision—to not give Roman Reigns the title at WrestleMania 31—changed the course of WWE, and how the company and its fans are still struggling with that today.

The year prior to that, at WrestleMania 30 in New Orleans, Daniel Bryan won the title belt in a similar shotgun-wedding scenario. After months of fans chanting in support of him (and booing the deliberately laid plans), Bryan was inserted into the main event, where he defeated Randy Orton and Batista—the original two competitors slated for the spotlight match. But a contest earlier in the night is more central here. In the third-to-last bout, Lesnar defeated the Undertaker, ending a 21-match WrestleMania win streak that many thought would never end. It was a truly shocking moment, one in which fan expectations were so subverted that there was little room for the excitement of being surprised. McMahon had decided that Lesnar should win to set up a run that would culminate a year later with Reigns deposing Lesnar and swiping both the championship and the glory Lesnar earned by beating the Undertaker.

That night also signalled the WWE love affair with “shock factor.” After decades spent mostly playing it safe on big cards, McMahon and Co. delighted in the mainstream attention the Lesnar win garnered, even if most of it was stunned by the outcome. In the right situation, like Rollins’s win (or like Sunday’s heel turn by Shinsuke Nakamura), a twist can be fun. In wrestling lingo they call it a swerve. But a swerve for its own sake, even if it gets people talking, isn’t as fulfilling. It evokes another wrestling phrase: “working the fans,” which refers to villains jawing at the crowd to raise their ire. When imperfectly executed, an ending like this is working the fans writ large. And the company is the villain.

Reigns’s rise was thwarted repeatedly. At WrestleMania 32, Reigns was once again in pursuit of the WWE title, now held by Triple H. (Rollins suffered a knee injury that November, ending an admirable run on top.) Triple H wasn’t Lesnar, but as the evil figurehead of the company, he was a much less problematic foil for Reigns—while Lesnar got cheers for his physical style, Triple H was a pure villain. And as the stand-in for the company that was promoting Reigns despite the crowd’s disapproval, he was doubly detestable. But the fans still booed Reigns. He won the belt, but dropped it to Rollins (again acting as savior) when Reigns violated the WWE Wellness Program and was suspended.

At WrestleMania 33, while Triple H feuded with Rollins, Lesnar won the WWE Universal Championship (the company’s new lead title) from Goldberg, installing himself atop the company. When Lesnar returned to WWE in 2012, he looked to be more of a special attraction like Triple H or the Undertaker (if slightly more active), so when the company gave him the title in 2014 it felt like WWE breaking the emergency glass. The company needed Lesnar’s stardom to ferry it through to a new era, presumably helmed by Reigns, and that was the calculus again on this night. For his part, Reigns defeated the Undertaker, seemingly ending Deadman’s career (until he came back on Sunday), and claiming some of that mojo that had been bequeathed to Lesnar three years prior. In retrospect, it was a re-run, a slightly tweaked version of the game plan after WrestleMania 30. Lesnar would carry the title an entire year, and Reigns would take it from him—finally—at WrestleMania 34. I’m sure it sounded like a good idea, since it was the same idea WWE had three years prior.

Which brings us to Sunday in the Superdome. The synchronicity to WrestleMania 31 was palpable. Rousey debuted, the Undertaker returned yet again, and Reigns and Lesnar headlined the show. And the Reigns Era—or the Reigns reclamation project, the two being inexorably tangled at this point—was stymied once again. In the main event, with every fan in attendance expecting the final triumph of Reigns over Lesnar, Lesnar won. The match echoed their first WrestleMania contest—the outside-the-ring spots, the suplexes, the bare-knuckle brawling, the bloodletting, the failure of Reigns—but the ending called back directly to WrestleMania 30: the unsettling shock of Lesnar’s win over the Undertaker.

There are many theories about why the decision was made to give Brock the win: to encourage him to sign a new contract, to work the fans, to make the fans happy, to save the title change for a later event, or simply to push back against the obviousness of it all. It wasn’t nearly as good a match as the 31 showdown—Lesnar seemed to be either exhausted or sandbagging through much of the contest, and Roman, probably in response, seemed uneasy. It was disjointed enough that when Lesnar took off his gloves and busted Reigns’s forehead open, fans were unsettled: Could this be real? Judging by the shape of Roman’s face on Monday night, it’s clear that Lesnar didn’t go as easy on him as he could have.

Reportedly, Lesnar got into a shouting match with Vince backstage immediately after the match, but whether there was a specific grievance or whether it was merely a bully’s reaction to a bad performance, there’s no telling. But despite what happened during and after the match, fences have ostensibly been mended: Lesnar and Reigns will collide again in a steel cage at the Greatest Royal Rumble event in Saudi Arabia on April 27. WrestleMania may be pro wrestling’s Super Bowl, but the season doesn’t ever end. Rivalries go on forever.

The same goes for the meta narrative. The story of Roman Reigns ascending to the top of WWE has been ongoing for years now, and the real version is more harrowing—and more interesting—than what’s on screen. It’s why WWE has pushed Roman into doing regular worked-shoot promos, wherein he grouses about his lot in life. Calling out Lesnar for being “Vince’s boy,” while smart, was just too much of an ironic mouthful for someone seen as the chosen one. The refrain is basically “I’m as pissed as you are”—not that any fans are going over to his side. On Monday, reflecting on his WrestleMania loss, he said that Brock must be “one hell of a businessman,” implying that he negotiated the Mania win in his new contract.

Ironically, the more that “Roman Reigns, the heir apparent” edges closer to “the heir apparent who will never assume the throne,” the more Reigns transforms into a real-life underdog. He’s no Daniel Bryan, but just as Bryan’s story line was swallowed by the meta narrative, Reigns risks becoming Bryan’s inverse, a wrestler playing underdog to the fans. He’s like Dusty Rhodes, who always fell just short in his pursuit of Ric Flair’s title, except in this case he’s being booked like Hulk Hogan and getting Dusty’s results—and none of his cheers.

The entire story line leading up to WrestleMania 34 was constructed for Roman to win—he was suspended by McMahon and beaten to a pulp while he was handcuffed, for goodness’ sake. In wrestling terms, to set him up as the underdog and then have him lose the way he did makes Reigns look weak. And if fans think that WWE will bow to their will to keep the belt off of him, he’ll look even worse.

Rousey overcame the narrative and had a stellar outing on Sunday, but fans wanted her to succeed, and more importantly (and ironically) she had the company behind her. Reigns didn’t, at least in the final calculus. For all his flaws, John Cena—Reigns’s forerunner in the Hated Hero category—always had the endorsement of the office. That’s why the fans booed him—because he always won. Reigns’s mortal flaw was the perception of endorsement, and even though he has headlined four consecutive WrestleManias, he didn’t headline every show in between. He’s worked hard, helped elevate other (more beloved) talent, and waited for his moment to arrive again—which it does, almost annually, at WrestleMania.

On Monday night, Reigns said that “if they continue to put me in matches with Brock Lesnar, the story will end with me becoming the Universal Champion.” Despite his snarl, that quote showed how defeated he was. As part of a worked shoot, then sure, if this is the story line WWE is committed to, he’ll have to win someday. But five years into the master plan—to have Reigns vanquish Lesnar and stand atop the WWE hierarchy—the end of the story is still on hold. In trying to get Roman’s big win just right, WWE weakened him. And as its proxy—he’s Vince’s guy, like it or not—his weakness parallels WWE’s.

I’ve said before that one of WWE’s most powerful tools is Reigns losing in big matches. Because the expectation is that he’ll win, even though he doesn’t have the win-loss record of Hulk Hogan or even Cena in his prime. But if he loses simply for shock value, or because Vince changes his mind at the last minute, it’s an empty surprise. Subverting expectations isn’t the same as betraying them. I was ready for a Reigns win on Sunday, not because I like him (which I do) or because he deserved it (which, at least in story line, he did), but because it was time for WWE to go all in on the Reigns experiment and let the cards fall where they may. It’s frankly what the promotion should have done at WrestleMania 31, too. It’s not that the company shouldn’t have listened to the fans, it’s that it should have listened sooner and built the narrative accordingly. Because wrestling without structure—without the ability to realize expectations—is empty.

The truth isn’t that Reigns is a bad wrestler or an undeserving champion. It’s that WWE hasn’t found a way to make him seem deserving, and that means more than just winning matches. In the post- Daniel Bryan era, the fans have to co-sign a big push, and WWE has failed Reigns in putting him in position to win without putting him in position to succeed. I’ll repeat for emphasis: WWE has failed Roman Reigns. He lost on Sunday, and even if he wins at the Greatest Royal Rumble, in front of a (presumably) more forgiving crowd, that won’t fix the past five years.

In a sense, it’s not that the Reigns Era hasn’t come to fruition. This is the Reigns Era—an era of inaction and then overreaction, of overconfidence and un-confidence, of indecision and repetition. As Samoa Joe said to Reigns on Monday, “You failed and that makes you a failure.” Reigns is WWE’s stand-in, and until it figures this out, the failure to do so will hang over the product.

“The story will end with me becoming the Universal Champion”—that was the plan at WrestleMania 31, and that was the plan on Sunday, and those plans failed, and the crowd booed anyway. WWE and Roman can’t worked-shoot their way out of this story line. Because the truth isn’t popular either.