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Roman Reigns Finally Shines

With his surprise return at ‘SummerSlam,’ WWE, at last, seems to be getting the wrestler right

WWE/Ringer illustration

Before Sunday night, the defining moment of Roman Reigns’s career came at the 2015 Royal Rumble, where he got booed out of the building. To be more precise, he got booed out of the building and got the Rock booed out of the building. Yes, he somehow got the Rock—who made a surprise return to help his cousin Reigns fend off Kane and the Big Show—on the wrong side of an arena full of pro wrestling fans. By winning the match, Reigns earned himself a spot in the WrestleMania main event, but the real achievement was the reaction. Nobody’s gotten that kind of fan hate since Hogan turned heel.

The thing was, Reigns wasn’t turning heel. He was positioned as the company’s top babyface—and that was the problem. The fans could see Reigns’s coronation coming a mile away, and despised WWE for staying the course despite their disapproval. Pro wrestling has always been a symbiotic experience—fan reactions are necessary for the machine to function—but modern wrestling crowds have taken their centrality and turned it into a weapon. If ever the product seems too predetermined, the crowd sees it as a sign of disrespect; Reigns came to embody that angst.

The protest worked, to an extent—Reigns didn’t dethrone Brock Lesnar at WrestleMania in 2015, as was widely expected, but rather the match was joined and won by a third (unexpected) entrant, Seth Rollins, and the Reigns experiment transitioned from a straight line to a never-ending series of loops. Over and over, WWE tried to get the fans to buy into a Reigns push, only to get him booed out of the building again and again.

The thing was, Reigns was always good. Sometimes he was great. He was undeniably cool—everything that Vince McMahon saw in him to decide he would be the next face of the company was real, even if his brand was better suited to make him a star in eras gone by. The company had been too presumptive in coronating him. For a wrestler as talented as Reigns, it was unfair. The corrective came in the form of tragedy in late 2018, when Reigns announced that he had leukemia and would have to step away from the ring. When he came back the next year, the crowd was obviously on his side. All was forgiven, at least until WWE started force-feeding Roman to fans again.

Earlier this year, facing the dual concerns of his own weakened immune system and his children’s health, Reigns took a step back during the coronavirus pandemic. What initially seemed like a short-term measure dragged on and on, and eventually his absence seemed interminable. That is, until Sunday night, when he returned unannounced after the main event and pummeled both competitors—Braun Strowman and “The Fiend” Bray Wyatt—relentlessly, wearing a complimentary T-shirt that read “Wreck Everyone & Leave.” It may go down as Reigns’s new defining moment.

The crowd didn’t boo, for one thing. WWE came off the road in March and had been proceeding without fans for months, but pivoted this week to a new concept called “WWE ThunderDome,” a fully decked-out installation on the main floor of the Amway Center in Orlando, that looks like a functional wrestling arena, with digital walls of fans’ faces filling up the spaces where the real crowd used to sit.

After a largely uneventful SummerSlam weekend—the highlights were probably the in-ring debuts of Dominik Mysterio, son of Rey (he lost to Seth Rollins), and former Colts kicker and media wunderkind Pat McAfee (he lost to Adam Cole at NXT Takeover: XXX on Saturday)—the main event saw the Fiend (fka Bray Wyatt) win the Universal title away from his old compadre Braun Strowman, whom he had tormented for some months. It wasn’t exactly a surprise, but it was a decisive move, a signal that the holding pattern represented by the Strowman era was over and now, in the ThunderDome, active storytelling would again commence.

And boy, did it ever. As the Fiend climbed to his feet to celebrate his victory, he caught a spear from stage left from a returning Roman Reigns. The motto of this weekend’s event was “You’ll Never See It Coming,” which projected a surprise, sure, but the moment was bigger than shock value. It was a moment. In an industry built on moments, this was a reassuring return to the surprising norm.

It was a mirror image of his 2015 Rumble debacle. Reigns was actually playing heel this time—whether or not he’s going to be booked as a villain (as opposed to a take-no-prisoners badass), he was certainly heeling it up when he assaulted Wyatt and Strowman with a chair and hurled “real” insults at them, making the case that they mattered only in relation to Roman, and that they’re nothing without him. “I made you! You aren’t a monster without me!” he yelled at Strowman. He called Wyatt “just a freak in a mask.” A boo at that moment would have almost been the proper reaction for a change. So of course, the fans were overjoyed.

But the arena was filled with a dense cloud of canned crowd noise. It was an amazing approximation of a “real crowd,” but it would be a stretch to call the response organic. The noises WWE chose for the fan soundtrack was a slightly metallic excited drone, a soccer-game murmur of surprise, backed by carefully stage-managed webcam shots. For once, there was no question that the “reaction” matched WWE’s intentions. But the cheers felt right. They felt warranted. The online reaction certainly backed it up.

But there’s one element of Sunday night that hadn’t changed—the endless cycle that is Roman’s career arc. Right before he took his leave, Reigns was booked to face Goldberg at WrestleMania for the Universal Championship. When he backed out of the event, he was replaced by Strowman, who was looming around just outside the main event, a monster in search of purpose. He won the match—as Reigns would have—and carried the belt until Sunday night. Reigns’s return rectifies that replacement. But take it a step further—Goldberg had only just won the title from—you guessed it—the Fiend, in a last-minute rewrite to put the legendary Goldberg into the main event. Before that, the plan had been for the Fiend and Reigns to tussle at ’Mania and then for Reigns to dispel the mysterious monster and walk away with the Universal belt. Having Wyatt win last night in preface to Reigns’s return neatly resets the title picture to where it was in early 2020.

That’s the biggest parallel with older vintage Reigns: Time is a flat circle, and the Reigns project will continue until it succeeds. But WWE seems to have finally learned from its previous mistakes. Reigns is embodying the vitriol that was spewed at him for so long. He’s not playing the hero McMahon imagined him to be—he’s playing the character fans put upon him. And even though it was scripted, despite the canned crowd noise, it felt real. And Reigns, for his part, felt worth cheering, even if he was trying to get us to boo.

In a company that’s been sorely lacking for moments during the COVID era, it was a relief to finally have one. Even if this was just the latest chapter in the Reigns project, it was good to be back to normal.