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The Acute Angle: Roman Reigns

It’s his yard. We’re just chanting in it.

Roman Reigns WWE/Ringer illustration

The Acute Angle is a recurring investigation into the essentialness of the stars of WWE, what they’ve done and where they might be headed, and what the real story line that we should be paying attention to is.

The Superstar: Roman Reigns
Years Active on WWE Roster: 6 this November
Number of WWE Titles Held: 6
Finishing Move: Spear; Superman Punch
Signature Catchphrase(s): “This is my yard”;“Ooooohhhaaahhhh!

What’s the Angle? Is this generation’s most divisive superstar purely a victim of circumstance?

First, a Little Background … Roman Reigns — real name Leati Joseph Anoa’i — wasn’t necessarily supposed to be the second coming of his cousin, the Rock. But Reigns’s being the latest descendent of that far-reaching Samoan family tree (other past and present pro wrestlers Roman can claim relation to include his father, Wild Samoan Sika, and his cousins the Usos and Umaga) burdened him with a high bar of expectations. Nor is it hard to see the confusion, since Roman and the Rock’s early trajectories as standout collegiate athletes — in Reigns’s case, an all-conference defensive tackle for Georgia Tech — hand-picked to carry forward the family tradition were remarkably similar. By 2010, Reigns was suiting up for action in WWE’s developmental promotion Florida Championship Wrestling, the precursor to NXT, under the guise of Roman Leakee. When NXT launched two years later, Leakee had been swapped for Reigns, and the seeds were planted for his surfacing as a strong-and-silent force on the main stage.

Upon Arriving in WWE, Reigns set about one of the most provocative runs of dominance in the company’s history. Along with fellow NXT alumni (and, as far as indie cred goes, far more seasoned vets) Seth Rollins and Dean Ambrose, he embodied one-third of powerhouse heel trio the Shield, debuting in what would become the threesome’s characteristic, blitzkrieg fashion by beating down Ryback at 2012’s Survivor Series. From there, they went on a sustained, year-and-a-half stretch of interdivisional dominance, laying waste to everyone from John Cena to the Undertaker and hoarding both the tag team (Rollins and Reigns) and United States (Ambrose) championships. Hard as it is to fathom today, fans loved him. In February ’14, when the Shield (with Reigns front and center) stared down the WWE’s other up-and-coming trio, the Wyatt Family, the crowd exploded like their hero had won the title. Fan voters even awarded Reigns with the 2014 Slammy Award for Superstar of the Year — and it felt right. That would mark the high-water mark of his short flirtation with being decisively over as a fan favorite.

So What Happened? Well, you see, the Shield split in mid-’14, and in what would prove a decision with greater implications for Reigns than anyone else, Rollins was tapped as the turncoat villain. (Seth has since demonstrated a Randy Orton–like capacity for changing his stripes, and is currently Raw’s preeminent babyface.) Through no fault of Roman’s, the big push that was planned for him — propelled by a feud with traitor Rollins — bumped up against the return from injury of former WWE champion and bona fide pop-culture phenomenon Daniel Bryan. And when Reigns, and not Bryan, emerged triumphant at 2015’s Royal Rumble, sentiment toward the Big Dog started to curdle. Before long, fans felt the fix was in and that the McMahon family’s guy — a legacy talent with looks and ability but genuine shortcomings as a talker — was cutting the line in front of theirs. (It didn’t help that his ascent came after a decade of John Cena’s force-fed run atop the company.) The tension shined a light on how, for the contemporary fan, wrestling isn’t just a meritocracy that rewards performers’ efforts. It’s not really about the wrestlers at all so much as it’s a measuring stick of whether the fans themselves are seen and heard. A collective anti-Roman movement quickly coalesced, rivaling rallies of support for Bryan and others perceived as being passed over. (Never mind that Bryan had in fact capped off a tremendous 2013–14 by headlining WrestleMania 30 in victorious fashion, though in some quarters that only affirmed that fan sentiment moved the needle one way or the other.)

For better or worse, by design or spontaneous choice, Reigns leaned into the hate, legitimizing the line of thinking that he was neither grateful nor subtle, and helped fuel a feud between him and WWE audiences that’s going on the better part of four years. It’s a masterful (if accidental) story that transcends his actual story line booking. It is, arguably, the most prolonged and personal sports-entertainment saga since Stone Cold Steve Austin stood in as proxy for average Joes up against his boss, Vince McMahon. And, for all the elements that conspired for and against Reigns, it was an inevitable endpoint of WWE’s two-decade tilt toward obsessive self-reference.

Where Do Things Stand Now? At WrestleMania 31, Reigns got his big shot against then-world heavyweight champ Brock Lesnar, coming up short when Seth Rollins cashed in a title shot mid-match and walked out with the belt. On Monday night, three-plus years after that fateful night, Reigns defeated foe Bobby Lashley on Raw to win the opportunity to square off at SummerSlam against … current Universal champion Brock Lesnar. In the intervening years, Reigns has never been scripted as an overt bad guy, his love-hate (read: hate-hate) rapport with the WWE Universe forever his A-story, authored largely by fans seemingly unaware of the irony that — at this point — courting Reigns’s favor may be the only way to make him less compelling. Meanwhile, his once-and-again BFF Rollins has avoided similar scrutiny while benefiting from huge momentum that, while deserved, has to have somewhat benefited from drafting behind the Reigns hate train, and Reigns has secured relatively little gold and has yet to be crowned Universal champion — which is odd for someone perceived to be constantly pushed to the top of the card. It’s all very confusing and riveting and inane, three descriptors that — when keeping people glued and gossiping, buying merch and bemoaning that others are buying the merch — mean everything’s going exactly right.

His Signature Moment: His big matches against AJ Styles, Daniel Bryan, and Triple H all deserve nods, but they’re not exactly Roman moments. That Shield debut at Survivor Series ’12 might have been the last great, not-entirely-spoiled sneak attack. Though what could be more perfect, and perfectly Roman, than inspiring thousands of Royal Rumble onlookers to boo the Rock?

The Finish: Is Roman Reigns Purely a Victim of Circumstance?

I mean, kind of. He didn’t ask to be the Hulk Hogan of fan angst. But more than anything, Roman’s a living monument to the era’s post-modernity and is poised to keep racking up wins and titles while all the meta-conversation keeps him relevant. Seems like a pretty good gig to me.