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Head of the Table: The Inside Story on How Roman Reigns Forced the Wrestling World to Acknowledge Him

Unpacking the creation of pro wrestling’s no. 1 kaiju, current Undisputed WWE Universal Champion Roman Reigns

Harrison Freeman

For days, the conversation raged continuously on the wrestling internet; two professional athletes and their proxies in a fierce debate over which of them is the best in the world. Kenny Omega, longtime king of the smaller circuits, wasn’t prepared to relinquish his crown. Will Ospreay, the spectacular highspot artist of Japan’s top promotion, was quick to point out his recent rave reviews in the pages of Dave Meltzer’s seminal Wrestling Observer Newsletter, the hardcore fans’ bible.

The seriousness of their involvement was questionable, to say the least. After all, an argument online can be settled in the ring, especially in a world where promotional borders are increasingly fluid. It was the kind of discussion that could only happen in the shadow world of professional wrestling—or perhaps one of its reality-television offspring, where housewives, salacious sisters, and realtors are equally coy about where fiction ends and real life begins.

It was absurd, of course, and not just in the way every online argument is faintly ridiculous. Because the best wrestler in the world isn’t plying his trade in Tokyo’s Korakuen Hall or Daily’s Place in Jacksonville, a Hail Mary pass away from TIAA Bank Field. He’s front and center on WWE SmackDown every Friday night on FOX, where he carries all the gold that matters as the WWE Undisputed Universal Champion.

His name is Roman Reigns.

It’s time to acknowledge him.

Paul Heyman, who plays Reigns’s wiseman on WWE television, occupies a similar role in real life. A longtime consigliere for the Anoa’i family, Heyman offers his clients advice, support, and, yes, years of accumulated wisdom acquired over decades surviving and thriving in a notoriously tricky business. A longform interview with the champion is the kind of thing he has the power to approve or deny—and, before I talked to the champ, his advocate wanted to, well, advocate.

To Heyman, the case for Reigns is simple and twofold. He’s both a transformative, once-in-a-lifetime performer and the leading figure during the most prosperous era WWE has ever seen, surpassing even the famed Attitude Era when it comes to pure dollars and cents. Heyman spits them out like a litany—Reigns has headlined the highest-grossing WrestleMania, SummerSlam, and Royal Rumble events of all time. He presided over the first billion-dollar year in the company’s long history. How does that not, Heyman asks, put him among the top acts to ever step in the ring?

“Who’s driving these revenue numbers? It’s the top star,” Heyman says. “Now, if this was happening in ‘84, ‘85, ‘86, the credit would go to Hulk Hogan, and rightfully so. If this was happening in ‘98, ‘99, 2000, the credit would go to ‘Stone Cold’ Steve Austin, the Rock, DX, and rightfully so. If this was happening in 2008, 2009, 2010, 2011, the credit would go to John Cena, and rightfully so.

“But it’s happening now,” Heyman affirms. “And Roman Reigns is on top of the list of attractions that WWE has to offer as completely uncontroverted, undisputed number one. There is no 1A or 1B. There’s just number one, and that number one is Roman Reigns.”

For Reigns, the case is even simpler—no one has ever done it at the level he has for as long as he has.

“It’s a ‘What have you done for me lately?’ business today,” Reigns says. “It’s not building to that one moment and riding that wave anymore. It’s consistently creating moments to continually remind people why you are the very best.

“I’ve done that. And I’ve done that for over two years now,” Reigns states plainly. “I mean, we point to the Tribal Chief era first, but I was doing this as the Big Dog. I was main-eventing WrestleMania as the no. 1 wrestler years before I even became the Tribal Chief. So I’ve been performing at the highest level, in my opinion, and have backed it up longer than anybody.”

The numbers speak for themselves, most impressively the 26 months wearing championship gold around his waist. It’s the longest run on top since Hogan bested all comers for more than 1,400 days almost 35 years ago.

In the days of yore, before streaming services, wireless internet, and cell phones, men like Bruno Sammartino and Lou Thesz could remain champion for years at a time. Today’s attention spans, it was believed, wouldn’t allow something like that. Instead, in the modern era, the title has been passed around like the promotion was playing a game of eternal hot potato.

There were eight title changes in the two years before Reigns locked down the Universal Championship. That kind of extended run on top requires a rare presence in the modern era. Reigns, it turns out, was up to the task, adding just enough twists and character development to keep things interesting and the plot moving.

“I would suggest that after two years of television, you knew who ‘Stone Cold’ Steve Austin was,” Heyman says. “After two years of television, you knew who the Rock was. After two years of television, you knew who Hulk Hogan was. After two years of television, you knew who John Cena was. After over two years of being the undisputed champion, you’re still finding out different layers of Roman Reigns.”

It’s such a compelling case that discussing whether he’s the “best of right now” almost becomes moot. Roman Reigns belongs in more exclusive company than that. It’s not a matter of wondering where he stands amongst his peers—it’s pretty obviously head and shoulders above them all. The conversation, rather, is where he stands amongst the true immortals of the sport.

“I think it’s undisputed that Roman Reigns is the greatest wrestler on the face of the planet today,” Heyman says. “And I think he is constantly making the case that he’s the greatest of all time … from a performance perspective, he’s the greatest of all time. From a revenue perspective, he’s the greatest of all time.”

You could argue endlessly about the WWE Mount Rushmore. A lot of digital ink has been spilled doing just that, with old-timers taking up their swords for greats like Randy Savage or Antonino Rocca and more modern fans making their cases for the Rock or Brock Lesnar. But the general consensus is that the grunt-and-groan mountainside would certainly feature ’60s stalwart Sammartino, ’80s icon Hogan, and the Texas Rattlesnake himself, Steve Austin.

It’s the fourth position that has always been up for debate. Maybe it belonged to the Rock, a Hollywood megastar whose star shined supernova-bright during a brief career? Or, perhaps it’s Cena, king of jorts, white-boy rap, and Make-A-Wish visits, one of the game’s true gentlemen? Some would advocate for the Undertaker, a legendary presence behind the scenes who, while never the guy, was a top star for decades across three distinct eras.

But, with respect, it’s time to take a wrecking ball to that version of the mountain. Because right now, it’s hard to deny Reigns belongs right beside the best of the best.

“All those guys that you named off, could they do what they did right now? I know I could do it back then,” Reigns says. “I know if you sent me to the ’40s, ’50s, ’60s, ’70s, ’80s, ’90s, 2000s, I’m going to be a top guy, I’m going to be a centerpiece. But could they come into this world?

“Could they handle the burden and the pressure of 2022, of the modern day? I just don’t think they could. And that’s no disrespect to anybody. I had the advantage of looking at all their bodies of work, going through that, learning from it, and then being able to adjust everything as need be, so I can do what I’ve done.”

If you were building a wrestling star in a laboratory, he might look a little bit like Roman Reigns. Sickeningly yet ruggedly handsome, he’s a former college football star with a deep Johnny Gill voice and commanding presence that demands your attention. Even better, unlike most elite athletes stepping into the business, he’s no interloper looking to grow his Instagram following or searching for a path into the movies. Reigns has the kind of respect and feel for the wrestling industry that can only come from a long familial history in the business.

His father, Sika, was one half of the Wild Samoans tag team. His first cousin was former WWE champion Yokozuna, and the three cousins he grew up with in Pensacola, Florida—Jimmy Uso, Jey Uso, and Solo Sikoa—have joined him in the Bloodline faction that currently dominates WWE. Part of his extended wrestling clan includes the “High Chief” Peter Maivia and Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson.

Wrestling has more than one royal family indeed.

Take all this together, the looks, presence, athleticism, and compelling backstory, and you have the perfect ingredients to cook up the ultimate wrestling babyface. Everyone who saw Reigns knew it—promoters, trainers, and fellow wrestlers alike. Even fans knew he was a can’t-miss prospect. And some of them hated him for it.

As he rose to the top of WWE, first as a member of the Shield and later as the babyface hero doing battle with the likes of Lesnar, Reigns met continued pushback from parts of the WWE fandom that were resentful of his perceived favored-nations status and more interested in choosing their own heroes than having them selected by a corporate system some felt was out of touch.

Rather than the heir to the Anoa’i bloodline, he was seen by some as the heir to another polarizing star instead—the equally controversial Cena, who preceded Reigns as the industry’s top act.

“I’ve had to go through the process of winning them over and earning respect for years at a time,” Reigns says. “From 2014 to maybe 2018, every single night it seemed like I had to earn their respect. Some nights they would be booing me and I would earn their respect and they’d be all cheering me and standing up by the 1, 2, 3. And then there were some nights where it was working and the crowd was with it. It was just a straight good-guy response. But because it was always different, I always had to stay on my toes, and it was good practice in real time in front of a real audience. I was in the fire, in the deep end learning and jotting all this down mentally. Like I needed to absorb all this, learn from it, and then make it my own. Take what works, make it my own, take a weakness, work on it, make it a strength, and that’s what I’ve done.”

Despite these pockets of guerrilla resistance, Reigns was undeniable. By 2020, he had main-evented WrestleMania four times, held one version or another of the world championships in WWE five times, and entrenched himself at the top of the card. A throwback performer of sorts, Reigns has eschewed the trend of packing matches full of moves and high-octane spots, preferring to focus on storytelling and character beats. While that means he’s never received a perfect five-star match rating from Meltzer, it has helped him stand out in an increasingly large field of wrestlers focused on nonstop action over emotional connection.

“I look at the moves as vehicles to trigger emotion,” Reigns says. “Moves, especially the cool ones, they’re little micro moments in their own right. But in order to be remembered, you have to have the ability to make people feel. For me, the main thing is, how do you move people? Because a really cool move isn’t going to make people stand up, isn’t going to make people cry, isn’t going to make people get angry. You have to create those human connections.

“The moves are just the moves,” Reigns continues. “That’s why everybody who’s ever been in my position or considered a great, we’ve only got a few of them. We go out there and we know what buttons to push for our crowd and we create that emotional connection.”

Once they arrive at a place where they can move the people at will, WWE performers are mostly content to maintain the status quo, afraid of upsetting whatever delicate alchemy earned them their place at the top. While his turn to the darkside seems inevitable in retrospect, the truth is it was anything but. Cena, for example, never became a bad guy, even as the chorus of boos occasionally overwhelmed his vocal supporters, preferring to weather the storm until the very end, confident there were enough cheers to keep merchandise moving and television audiences tuning in.

Reigns easily could have followed a similar trajectory, becoming too big to fail in an industry that rewards careful, sometimes vanilla, consistency. Instead, he blew up his own eventual Hall of Fame bust, confident he could build something even more compelling from the pieces.

“There is an interesting dynamic in this industry in that the longer you’re in it, the fewer chances you take,” Heyman says. “You find what works, you narrow down your performance and you don’t take a chance in alienating the audience that you have built by doing something that makes them question whether you’re still the performer that they fell in love with. It becomes a great routine that people want to see over and over again because this is the formula that works; and if it ain’t broke, don’t break it.

“But Roman took the chance, which is unheard of in that position. That a character who’s already the champion, already the no. 1 box office attraction, already the absolute top star, is going to completely change the manner in which he presents himself and his matches during the championship run [are some] of the most courageous and amazing performances that I’ve ever seen.”

When the two decided to reinvent themselves, they took their case together to WWE management, pitching a plan that would see the promotion’s top babyface transformed into its biggest heel.

“Together we made the decision [that] we’re only going to do this if we have the opportunity to be uninhibited in our approach to be the greatest act of all time,” Heyman says. “And we stuck to that and we were uncompromising in our approach.”

The presentation is a true team effort. Whether an idea comes from Heyman, Reigns, someone else in their inner circle, or even the WWE creative team, they workshop it together before Roman has the final say. In the end, it has to be that way, especially as his new character is so delicately steeped in cultural and family traditions.

“I’m smart enough to understand the reality and the authenticity behind my character and how it really does relate to my culture and to be sensitive and empathetic to everybody in my family,” Reigns says. “But I’m also smart enough to know that if I’m trying to portray some kind of a character and I’m not 100 percent locked in and it isn’t received well, that’s more disrespect to my family. So the greatest respect that I can give is by creating an energy that nobody can emulate … taking a piece of our culture, maximizing it, making it bigger than life and putting this crazy WWE spin on it and creating great success out of it.”

Now written into WWE lore in permanent ink, the Tribal Chief sits at the head of the table, the central figure in a multi-tiered story about family, pride, and control. At first, Reigns’s cousins, Jimmy and Jey Uso, bristled at their childhood playmate’s delusions of grandeur and insistence that they must acknowledge him as the family don.

His leadership was first affirmed at the Clash of the Champions show back in 2020, in one of the most emotionally compelling bouts in the history of the company. Reigns brutally beat Jey seemingly within an inch of his life, forcing Jimmy to throw in the towel for his twin brother and longtime tag partner. It was a bravura performance, both by Reigns and, more importantly to him, for Jey, who stepped into a singles main event like he too was born to it.

“I’ve never been so nervous for anybody I’ve been in the ring with,” Reigns admits. “I want everybody to do good, but I’m not going to lower myself. I’m going to make everything look awesome as much as I can. So you have to keep up. At the end of the day, you have to be able to work up to this level and not seem out of place. And he didn’t, man, in so many ways.”

Reigns and Jey faced other challenges in addition to the emotionally charged material. Most pressing was the COVID-19 pandemic, an issue Reigns was particularly sensitive about because of his ongoing health issues with leukemia. The two had little time to talk through the match as a result, making it a truly improvisational masterpiece plucked from a different era when bouts were often built in real time inside the ring.

“I’m not going to dive into all the super backstage stuff, but there was no time to discuss,” Reigns says. “So there were a lot of instincts that were relied on. The fact that we have literally a brother-level connection and relationship, it made it really easy for us to just rely on our history and being comfortable with each other and also being able to push that type of emotion out of each other.

“I don’t think anyone’s ever pushed me emotionally like Jey has,” Reigns admits, “and I think we did that for each other and we made a star out of him. I mean, even to this day, if he doesn’t go through that process, I don’t think he’s doing what he’s doing now at the level he’s doing it at. It doesn’t happen if he doesn’t make those giant leaps he did two years ago.”

Because of WWE’s COVID protocols at the time, there was no live crowd to provide the soundtrack for fans at home watching on television or to provide direct feedback to the performers in the ring. The WWE’s solution was called the ThunderDome, a massive undertaking that brought the live audience into the arena via a giant collection of LED screens.

To many, this was a problem. For Reigns, rather, it was an opportunity to test new storytelling options that had never been fully explored. As a result, the match wasn’t just a story told with fists and slams—it was a tale underscored by Roman’s continuing conversation throughout, both with his cousin, the audience, and, seemingly, even with himself. On the football field, he was known for going back and forth all game long. Why not, he wondered, bring that same swagger to the wrestling ring?

“[Trash talk] has definitely been done before, but to be cutting in-ring-level microphone promos while in the match? I don’t think anybody has done that,” Reigns says. “I mean they made highlight reels of the shit I say. It’s not just spitting out stupid stuff. This is all stuff that relates to what I’m doing and what the character’s feeling in real time.

“There was always just this stigma of ‘let’s not break the fourth wall.’ But man, I’m in that wrestling ring in front of millions of people and there’s eight cameras all around me. Why wouldn’t I play to those cameras? Why wouldn’t I feel like those are my cameras? These were just all the little psychology pieces that had to come together in order to create something special.”

Heyman, who has seen almost everything there is to see as a producer, manager, writer, and even owner of his own promotion, says it’s these little details that make Reigns stand out, even among others with a case as the greatest of all time.

“I think [that 2020 Clash of the Champions match] is a frame-by-frame picture-perfect example of what I mean when I say Roman Reigns is the most transformative performer in this industry to come along in decades,” Heyman says. “Because no one was doing anything even close to that. No one was telling stories like that. No one was performing like that, especially in main events and matches for the heavyweight championship. No one was doing it at all, let alone on his level, let alone in that position.”

It should come as no surprise that the highlight of the latest Reigns run came in a program with Lesnar. The two have main-evented together on pay-per-view nine times, including three WrestleManias, and their rivalry has become as iconic as any in the modern era. They’ve met so many times that the idea they could top themselves or reframe their rivalry seemed outrageous. But the culminating match, in many ways, was the most memorable they’ve ever had, one that no one will soon forget.

WWE has become less a promotion about great contests and more one built on memorable moments. But sometimes those two things come together in the most spectacular ways. Other promotions can give you exciting matches, compelling interviews, and human guinea pigs playing a game of demolition derby.

But nobody does spectacle quite like WWE.

Over the years we’ve seen Austin drive to the ring in a beer truck, Shawn Michaels descend to the ring on a zipline, and Mick Foley tossed from the top of a steel cage, broken in half for the world to see. The beautiful thing about the WWE spectacle is the way each one simultaneously feels both cutting edge and timeless. You know immediately that you’ve seen something that will join the lexicon of legendary wrestling moments the moment you lay eyes on it—and we were witness to that kind of greatness at SummerSlam this year when Lesnar drove a giant tractor to ringside and proceeded to wreck the place.

“To me, if he doesn’t level up and showcase the Cowboy Brock character, then don’t nobody give a shit about Brock next to the Tribal Chief,” Reigns says. “I was able to push my level up, which he knew, OK, ‘this guy’s creating different levels and layers to this, let me step my game up.’ And he did that.

“That was just a perfect recipe of two performers who want to be the best, and both have pretty legitimate claims to that territory. And when you get two guys who compete, it’s not backstabbing. We’re looking each other in the eyes and we’re telling each other, ‘I’m better than you and if you don’t show me, then this is the end of the road for you.’ People probably said, ‘Oh God, not Brock-Roman again.’ And then we go out there and deliver a classic. Got better on that last one. And I think that’s the key to the kingdom. How do we continually get better? How do we upgrade? How do we push ourselves to the next level? How do we continue to move these goal posts?”

During the match, Lesnar came face-to-face with Heyman, his former representative who decided to stay loyal to Reigns rather than return to the fold. Lesnar sent Heyman crashing through a table, not only adding powerful gravitas to the match, but also setting up a story line for the next one as well. Reigns’s victory came at a great cost. When he traveled to Wales to face Drew McIntyre, he had to do so without the services of his wiseman. It’s an example of the attention to detail the duo have brought to the WWE main event scene, helping make this more than just another title run.

Every time you start to feel like the Bloodline story is getting a bit long in the tooth, they do something to freshen things up, most recently adding the incomparable Sami Zayn to the mix. The result is a program that feels brand new again, providing depth to the characters and preventing the show from falling into a rut.

“That’s one of the top responsibilities of being the top guy is we never work down. It’s only about bringing people up and making them better,” Reigns says. “Look at all the characters around me. Look at how strong this character is to be able to be the centerpiece of so many amazing talents.

“I mean, look at Sami. He unlocked a different door, which allows us to showcase different layers. He gives us something completely different to play off of. And vice versa, for Sami to be at the cool-kid table, in the cool clique. Being able to showcase that story, that’s what makes us next level. Who would’ve thought ‘Ucey’ would be a thing? But over 12 million people on social media made it a thing, and that’s the type of power we have. We can take anything, anything, and make it good. That’s why the Bloodline, the Tribal Chief is so special. Because we’ve taken more chicken shit and made chicken salad than anybody in the history of this business.”

Wrestling is often better at beginning stories than it is ending them. That’s the nature of all serial entertainment, where the overarching story never truly ends and things often peter out rather than culminate with a bang.

Earlier this month, Reigns had an instant classic with social media star Logan Paul, millions watching as the newcomer lept from the top rope to crash through both the Tribal Chief and a ringside table. It was another epic moment in a career full of them. This Saturday, Reigns and his family will do battle in the WarGames cage, a rare first in his Hall of Fame career. Just another for the list of classics that have made this, ahem, reign, special.

“I have the power to do whatever I want,” Reigns says. “And I don’t say that irresponsibly. I say that with confidence that I’ve taken everything that I’ve been given and either knocked it out of the park or took something that wasn’t expected to be a home run, elevated it, put people on base and then hit a grand slam with it. What I’ve done over the past two years, it’s continued proof that this guy is what’s best for this company. If Roman Reigns is doing good, WWE’s doing good.”

Next year’s WrestleMania will be his third in this new persona, and many are speculating his long run as champion will finally come to a conclusion. If there’s an ending in mind for all this, Team Reigns isn’t spilling the beans. Will it be a family affair with the Rock? A dynastic battle with Cody Rhodes? Something else entirely? There are no scoops here. In fact, to hear them tell it, the story of Roman Reigns has only just begun.

“I’m right in the middle of it,” Reigns says. “People want these interviews, they want to do these documentaries. But this is the bottom of the third inning to me. We’re in the second quarter of the Super Bowl right now.

“Just wait, man. We’ve done this in turbulent times, through a pandemic, through the biggest change of all time in this business. And we’ve done it seamlessly. We’ve done it without falter. Down the road, 20 years from now when we start giving out all these crazy details of the inside, inside, there’s just going to be even deeper respect for the performances that we’ve been putting on. Man, it’s been a hell of a journey. But it’s only begun. It’s going to get bigger.”

Jonathan Snowden (@JESnowden) is the author of Shamrock: The World’s Most Dangerous Man, Total MMA: Inside Ultimate Fighting, The MMA Encyclopedia and Shooters: The Toughest Men in Professional Wrestling. He works for the Department of Defense and lives in Alabama with his wife and two children. He thinks about professional wrestling. A lot.