clock menu more-arrow no yes mobile

Filed under:

Roman Reigns: Escape From the Island of Relevancy, Part 2

As ‘WrestleMania 39’ approaches, we examine Roman Reigns’s journey and where he really ranks among the greatest champions of all time

Getty Images/WWE/Ringer illustration

It has always seemed particularly telling that the second he set foot back on weekly WWE TV (and Roman Reigns’s island of relevancy) at Raw after WrestleMania 38, Cody Rhodes immediately made it clear what he wanted. It was very specifically the WWE Championship, a title that his father, Dusty Rhodes, never earned (and rarely competed for). He did not want to win “a world title” but to be WWE Champion. In recent weeks, Rhodes has doubled down on this idea, essentially publicly requesting that, if he wins his title(s) match against Reigns, WWE split the Undisputed WWE Universal Championship back up.

Whether or not that would involve reintroducing the Universal Championship as a second major title (which seemingly would be instantly less valuable than the WWE Championship) is still an open question—as is the splitting of the two titles itself—in large part because of what value, or lack thereof, the Universal title has been able to accumulate over the first few years of its existence. Essentially, it was a palette-swapped WWE Championship belt (with the color variant depending on which brand you belong to) that was introduced the same night that the 2016 Democratic National Convention started; the next four years in the life of the Universal title went about as well as they did for many of us.

For starters, it became a cursed talisman from the very first night it was awarded; although the title was introduced with an announcement on July 25, the first match for it didn’t happen for another month, at that year’s SummerSlam. A match that infamously featured Finn Bálor winning the title after his shoulder was separated when he was on the receiving end of a buckle bomb to the outside guardrail from Seth Rollins.

After that, the championship ended up in the hands of Kevin Owens for roughly half a year, then became a kind of plaything for Raw’s biggest, beefiest bois (and a pre-“Freakin” Rollins) after Owens was squashed almost into oblivion by Goldberg at 2017’s Fastlane. (Following his 22-second annihilation, his previously scorching-hot feud with Chris Jericho would lose nearly all momentum, and Jericho and Owens’s match at WrestleMania 33 ended up disappointing Vince McMahon so much that it essentially led to what we would call a “de-emphasis” of Owens until the ThunderDome.) The championship would bounce around for much of the next three and a half years—essentially until the pandemic—from disappointing reign to disappointing reign, often grinding promising runs to a complete stop.

Its spiritual predecessor, the World Heavyweight Championship, also known as the Big Gold Belt, shared a lineage with World Championship Wrestling’s World Heavyweight Championship (although not with the NWA title that had previously been a part of Jim Crockett Promotions and WCW). On the other hand, the Universal Championship is perhaps the only major world title in modern times that was essentially made out of whole cloth as a consolation prize for someone (because USA Network didn’t get the WWE champion drafted to its show). Although, weirdly, that part actually does very much follow in the footsteps of a litany of regional titles that were created by promotions, including the WWE (né World Wide Wrestling Federation) title itself, when WWWF was unable to secure the aforementioned NWA title and its champion for its own purposes.

Which is certainly a valid reason to do something for a promotional outfit with a weekly TV show. But for WWE, a narrative content company, the story behind the Universal title’s origins is pretty severely lacking, and that origin-turned-raison-d’être has played no small role in making every single Universal title change feel like a business decision. To be clear, that is what all title runs and changes are, but usually companies are a little bit more coy in situations like this.

Instead, Universal Championship title changes often end up lining up a little too conveniently with requests for the product from outside influences and have often been very clearly telegraphed based on potential future matchups. Not in the fun and flirty wrestling way, but with all the charm and elegance of a video game making it clear that you’re about to enter into a cut scene instead of just allowing you to move the narrative forward naturally.

Which is how Reigns started his now-historic reign. He was handed the title, more or less, after interrupting a match at Payback between the Fiend and Braun Strowman almost exactly 10 minutes and precisely one collapsed ring in. The soon-to-be-anointed Tribal Chief and his new “wise man,” Paul Heyman, appeared at the top of the ramp with the contract that would allow his entry into the already-in-progress match. And a couple of chair shots later, Reigns would start on what’s turned into this 930-plus-day journey, which has led to Reigns and Rhodes standing in a ring together.

The above segment seemed to pop a number of folks, but if you spend more than 10 seconds thinking about what was said during the exchange, you may end up wishing that they’d at least strolled down some of the interesting avenues that touched at the emotional core of (or just made you give a shit about) why Reigns “needs” to prevent Rhodes from winning, beyond “I like being champion too much.” As we discussed last week, instead of engaging with the outside world and the realities of the universe in which we all live, Reigns and Rhodes mostly stayed in WWE’s “universe.”

Even the “real” or “shoot” beats they’ve tried to half-heartedly inject as non sequiturs into this feud have almost nothing to do with the larger Bloodline story and very little to do with anything that didn’t explicitly happen under the NXT umbrella. Instead of building Rhodes up as a formidable competitor, Reigns has spent most of his time running him down in any number of completely idiotic ways. (It should be noted that, on the other hand, Rhodes has been so quick to effusively praise Roman that it’s either a company edict or a kayfabe-deliberate psychological or promotional tactic he’s employing.)

For instance, Reigns’s attempt to imply that Dusty didn’t love HIS SON as much as he loved a guy he worked with is just the weakest possible shit. Now, to be sure, there are a lot things that Cody might have to say about his relationship with Dusty—anyone blessed enough to have spent significant time with even the greatest of dads definitely knows they are, at best, a pain in the ass (if you’re reading this, not you, you’re the best, Jimbo!). But “Does he like and believe in me as much as he believes in that guy he works with?” Doesn’t seem like Cody would have to work too hard to figure that out.

Cody isn’t some no-talent nepo baby. He was a two-time Georgia state champion as a high school wrestler who gave up a scholarship to Penn State (winner of nine of the past 13 national championships) to become a professional wrestler. And even if Cody weren’t those things, Dusty Rhodes didn’t get to be Dusty Rhodes without thinking Virgil Runnels was the shit. So I really doubt he’d look at his kid and think, “I’m sure Sika Anoa’i’s baby is going to be better than mine.” I mean, just look at Dusty’s face in this picture: That man adored Cody.

Something as palpably dumb as this would be additive if WWE leaned into the fact that Reigns looks ridiculous trying to rile Cody up in this way. Though, to the company’s credit, it did have Reigns explain that Dusty probably just didn’t like talking about his kid around him. But Reigns, as always, has to look strong, so his insults are played as something close to a mic drop, or it’s implied that Cody just doesn’t totally care. Neither narrative makes for the best television once the initial shock of “HE SAID DUSTY’S NAME” wears off.

Ultimately, there are no real personal issues between Rhodes and Reigns, which is totally fine from a narrative perspective. But trying to manufacture a feud in this way without making Reigns look like a geek (or at least an insecure bully) makes it seem like he has a point. This Dusty detour is a clumsy attempt to add emotional stakes to the match—apparently it isn’t enough to try to win the most coveted championship in the business (and also the Universal Championship) to honor the legacy of your late father?—because one of the other options (the intrapromotional dynamics between Rhodes and Reigns) is a subject that the company does not want to touch with a 10-foot pole.

Speaking of which, while we are here, congratulations are due to Reigns for main-eventing six WrestleManias (so far). It is definitely impressive, even if you don’t meaningfully take into account that this is an era when the brand of WrestleMania—as opposed to whichever of Vince’s favorite toys finds themselves working the last match of the nightis what has been explicitly used to sell the show. And, sure, Reigns is one of the few performers to have main-evented multiple WrestleManias, but he’s also the only one who has done so exclusively against opponents who had main-evented before him (his match with Rhodes will be the first time he’s worked against a ’Mania main-event rookieso now he’s actually trying to make someone else into a megastar instead of relying on more established and successful acts to carry the weight).

It’s almost certainly a coincidence that half of Reigns’s main events—WrestleMania 31 and WrestleMania 37 were both well received, while the consensus on last year’s third round with Brock Lesnar was met with lukewarm resignation—rank among the worst WrestleMania main events of all time. Rhodes seems to have forgotten to mention that he cofounded the only legitimate contender to the biggest company in the industry in 20 years, at essentially the same time that WWE was running Reigns out every year as the headliner of its biggest event. Just kidding; obviously no one would ever say that on WWE TV, and it makes good business sense not to!

But what’s genuinely odd is that Rhodes seems to be pretending to have selective amnesia about what happened during his WWE rumspringa. Rhodes could have said, “We sold out a 10,000-seat arena.” Instead, we get, “well, everybody gets paid more because of me” without even slightly hinting at the idea that, for a really long time, many WWE fans thought Reigns was everything wrong with the company, an idea that would add actual depth to the story being told. It would have gone a long way in making it seem that Rhodes is at least aware of the game Reigns is playing at, but without having to mention the competition or even really “shoot” on Reigns with a cheap shot. Slightly hinting at the idea that, for a really long time, many WWE fans thought Reigns was everything that was wrong with the company would add depth to the story being told.

But there seems to be an aversion to anything other than a story about Rhodes’s triumphant return and Reigns’s place on the throne. WWE will likely lean almost exclusively (especially when the match hype starts to hit overdrive over the next two weeks) into Reigns’s “historic” reign and the “mountain” that Rhodes claims he is ready to climb. But how high and majestic, exactly, is that mountain? Is it, as WWE seems to be positioning it, a towering achievement of will and determination that is, if not the greatest title reign of all time, certainly the best of the post–Bruce Sammartino years? I mean, if I can put it as directly as possible: absolutely not at all, not even kind of.

There are two reasons for this. One is Hulk Hogan or, more specifically, his first run as WWE Champion, the most important reign in WWE history as well as its most dominant. We, as a general rule, are not Hulkamaniacs, but the numbers are undeniable.

And yes, before you ask, we did run through all 3,806 WWE Championship matches since Hogan won the WWE title from the Iron Sheik in January 1984 to make sure that we were right about this. (It’s technically 3,807, but we did not include Rey Mysterio’s 2011 Bermuda Triangle title “run,” which lasted roughly 14 minutes, and instead folded that match into John Cena’s concurrent title reign, which itself was happening at the same time as another title reign.) No, we don’t regret this (as much as we thought we would). The findings were certainly illuminating, but the sheer volume of Hogan’s work is overwhelming.

His first reign has the most time in ring on television by three hours (OK, two hours, 50 minutes, and 44 seconds, to be as precise as possible), even though he worked without a weekly TV show worthy of ever having a meaningful title match. And he had more title matches (475!) in that one run than there are in the next three longest runs combined. He was also the only performer to main-event multiple WrestleManias in one reign—I, II, and III. The first was a tag team match, and the latter two were one-on-one championship matches against King Kong Bundy and Andre the Giant (though Reigns and Randy Savage are the only two to win a championship at one ’Mania and defend the title the next year).

But even if Hogan’s title reign is removed from the running, Reigns’s WWE title reign is nowhere near the most dominant, especially when taken by itself. In the grand scheme of things, Reigns’s WWE title reign is somewhere in the mid-30s of these champions:

Which makes sense. This run is very solid, but he’s had just 16 matches as WWE Champion, with only half on TV—for context, the first 21 of Reigns’s Universal title defenses were on TV because of the ThunderDome “situation.” And the company he keeps on that ranking (including his own) is still fairly significant. Slaughter’s run ended Warrior’s only run and led to Hogan’s last “legitimate” run for more than a decade (he’d win the championship twice more, with reigns that included three matches total, before leaving the company after losing the championship to Yokozuna at King of the Ring 1993).

Dean Ambrose’s and Brock Lesnar’s first runs were exactly what it says on the tin: solid runs by EXTREMELY over acts that functioned more as evaluations of their long-term potential as centerpiece performers than as significant runs in and of themselves. On the complete opposite end of that spectrum is perhaps the most consequential title reign of all time, Bret Hart’s last run with the belt before losing it to Shawn Michaels via the Montreal Screwjob.

Hart and Michaels had already had some of the most dominant runs in the championship’s history when the Screwjob happened, with three of their reigns among the top 10 ever.

This added to the drama of what happened at Survivor Series 1997, as the Screwjob didn’t involve a random Hart opponent like the Patriot (or Jean-Pierre LaFitte or Skinner or, well, you get the point), which made what happened feel significant while actually being significant. It’s best for business for important things to happen to characters who are really important. This also gets to one of the potential purposes of a title reign: to make the title of “champion” matter.

Which is also, beyond the Hogan of it all, what prevents this title reign from actually mattering in the same way WWE wants it to (and why it will likely be remembered as a “good run” 10 years from now, in the way Cena’s best runs have faded from memory). While Reigns’s Universal title run is the greatest ever, there’s a good chance the championship won’t exist as soon as next month.

It’s also not as dominant as Hogan’s, even if it’s not quite fair to compare the two. Reigns’s run is long, but if it ends at WrestleMania, it will not even have been two-thirds as long as Hogan’s. And during that time, he has worked fewer than 10 percent of the matches Hogan did. On the Universal side of the ledger, Lesnar also held the title for over a year and repeatedly beat Reigns’s ass in front of people for money, including in two of the last three matches in Lesnar’s reign (he’d eventually lose the third in the trilogy to Reigns at SummerSlam, in a dud of a six-minute main event.)

Reigns has spent a shocking amount of TV time in matches (combining the Universal and WWE reigns, it’s the second-most time as a champion in televised matches ever), so he seems dominant. But if the order in which he won the titles were reversed, this would just mean more.

It’s clear that WWE felt the need to add the only world title anyone actually wants to Reigns’s résumé in order to make his run feel more dominant and less like the answer to a trivia question.

For the reasons we’ve outlined above, and also the fact that two of the seven years of the title’s existence were completely warped by the pandemic, having the greatest Universal title reign is like having the most passing yards in LendingTree Bowl history. It’s an impressive feat because it’s always great to be the best at something, but wishing it were prestigious simply doesn’t make it so.

However, even after the Universal title reign is added onto the beginning of Reigns’s title reign—which would be a wild way to measure the relative value of his WWE title run, roughly equivalent to counting Shohei Ohtani’s hits in his Cy Young case—it wouldn’t be considered the most dominant title run in the last 10 years when run though our Power Board rankings formula. That Frankenstein’s monster version of a WWE title run would definitely be in the conversation for among the best of all time, though.

Post-Hogan, the performer who is actually no. 1 (based on our system) champion of all time may surprise you:

Yep. CM Punk’s comically frequent—especially post–Heyman Heel Turn™—claim that he had the greatest title reign of the modern era is, in fact, reflected in the numbers. If Hogan’s first run is the Platonic ideal of what a championship reign can be, Punk’s incredible run between the end of 2011 and the beginning of 2013 is the gold standard by which all modern championship runs should be measured.

In stabilizing the belt, Punk’s run helped put some of the “reign inflation” issues that many WWE titles had behind them after the most egregious bullshit in the history of the title. Post-Punk, the title had a hot streak of high-profile runs: the Rock’s return; Cena’s passed-torch run; Daniel Bryan and Randy Orton swapping the title back and forth, leading into the Yes Movement and “Yes”-tleMania; Lesnar founding Suplex City and Rollins cashing in; and Reigns winning his first. Punk’s run, outside of Hogan’s first, also featured the most title matches—149, 17 more than Savage’s 132 in his first run—and at 116 is tied with Savage’s for the most “successful” defenses (meaning wins, not draws or those matches that end because of the “champion’s prerogative” to get DQed or counted out to retain their title). It also featured the most TV time outside of Reigns’s and Hogan’s runs.

If there’s any run in the top five that actually needs explaining, it would be AJ Styles’s shocking (or at least “really surprising”; Hank didn’t need a fainting couch this time) placement on this list. But that sneaky-long title reign (Styles has the third-most matches and defenses, after Hogan’s run, behind Punk and Savage) played a role similar to Punk’s, but on a smaller scale. Styles ended one of the most reviled title reigns ever—while we would never hinder Jinder Mahal in the Palace of Wisdom, his run is generally seen as a kind of modern nadir in the title’s history, even if our numbers don’t agree (for those wondering, Sheamus’s are, sadly, the actual nadir)—and lost the belt to Daniel Bryan to kick off the American Dragon’s best (and his personal favorite) WWE title run, which itself ended up turning into KofiMania.

Which is ultimately what these championship reigns are about. Adding value (promotional or otherwise) to the performer, the title, or both is the only real reason to give someone a championship and make them an integral part of your wrestling promotion. And, in that way, Reigns’s run is extremely valuable, one of the greatest of all time.

But treating this like the second coming of world title runs both rewards WWE for backfilling its own narratives and will eventually end up with the kind of “____ is overrated” backlash that Reigns had to suffer through for most of his career.

Although it’s not a guarantee it would happen, if it did, it would suck much more than on the front end. As much shit as I’ve given Reigns in the last two weeks, he’s made it clear over the last decade that, as a performer, locker room leader, and one of the most public faces in the history of an art form I love more than any other on earth, he couldn’t get much better. And as a man and father, Joe Anoa’i seems like, as they might say on Cheap Heat, a guh-reat guy (though it’s unclear whether he’s “mensch of the centch” material). And that’s before you wrap your head around him beating back cancer twice.

That’s why, for once, WWE should just let Reigns be Reigns, let Rhodes be Rhodes, and allow the fans to enjoy what should be a once-in-an-actual-lifetime story line as precisely that. It shouldn’t try to force significance, create tension where it isn’t, or compare what’s happening now to what’s occurred historically, all in increasingly futile attempts to validate that what we’re watching is some pretty dope shit.

Now, let’s get off this island of relevancy and back on the Rhodes to WrestleMania.

Nick Bond (@TheN1ckster) is the cofounder of the Institute of Kayfabermetrics and provides weekly updates to The Ringer’s WWE Power Board.