Stop me if you’ve heard this one before: tall, muscular guy with a full head of hair and movie star pedigree is appointed by WWE as the “next big star.” We’ve seen WWE appoint quite a few pet projects over the last couple of decades, each to varying degrees of success. Some of them exceeded expectations, others were pushed too soon and never quite fulfilled their potential, and others were eventually whiffed by the fans in favor of an unlikely talent who exploded under the WWE’s collective noses. Roman Reigns, the Samoan sensation formerly of the Shield, is the latest in the line of stars being specifically groomed for mega-stardom, and while it’s uncertain where he’ll fall when it’s all said and done, one thing is clear: WWE has done all of the right things in bringing him along so far.
Now, he is still fairly raw in the ring and on the mic, but if you were looking for someone who can mark off all of the items on the Certified WWE Superstar checklist, Roman Reigns is your guy. With his physique and demeanor, he looks like something conceived in the action-stuffed dreams of comic book fans everywhere in the mid-90s, a welcome breath of fresh air from the usual squeaky-clean brand of stars WWE has been so fond of in recent times. He’s already developed a few moves and spots that are guaranteed pops from the increasingly-smarky live audiences. While he still has a way to go before he can carry a feud on the microphone, he’s shown an understated charisma and the ability to capture fans with just a few words laced with unquestionable confidence. It’s the type of no-nonsense attitude that the neglected 18-34 fanbase has been clamoring for.
And the best part for WWE is, it’s working with the audience at the moment. When The Shield first erupted onto the scene in late 2012, we would already hear chirping from the dirtsheets that WWE saw main event potential in Reigns despite him clearly being the least experienced of the trio. The internet was, shall we say, skeptical. But here we are 17 months later, and Reigns has become a welcome addition to the main event scene and has been receiving some of the biggest reactions of anybody in the company. Even his mere staredown with Triple H from Raw back on June 30 garnered “This Is Awesome!” chants from the typically uncooperative Washington D.C. crowd. The concerns about smarky fans rejecting WWE’s desire to push him hasn’t been an issue.
It’s a testament to the excellent job WWE did in pushing the Shield; it was almost as if they were booked in a bubble removed from the typical WWE philosophy. As opposed to the doldrums of 50/50 booking, flakey pushes that start and stop at random, and directionless booking that we’ve been all too accustomed to, the trio of Seth Rollins, Dean Ambrose, and Roman Reigns were a dominant stable, running roughshod over WWE with a clear purpose as heels and capturing gold along the way. To the surprise of nobody who has even a passing familiarity with wrestling, they easily got over with the fan; by January they were getting babyface reactions. What was surprising, however, was that WWE continued to keep them strong as babyfaces. I mean, let’s face it – their feud with Evolution was essentially the Shield kicking the Evolution’s ass for two months straight. Such a dominant face faction was almost a foreign concept in the era where every babyface not named John Cena is neutered.
Thanks to the Shield’s strong booking, Reigns, along with Ambrose and Rollins, has been able to easily move up to the main event scene. The usual concern fans have whenever WWE hand-picks a top star is the inevitability of him being jammed down our throats until our vomit is the same color as their merchandise. After all, why else would we be begging for somebody, anybody, who’s different from John Cena, the [alleged] “Greatest Champion in WWE History”? So far, Reigns is right where he belongs; even though he still needs to improve in the ring, he has no place in the mid-card, and I’d like to think WWE knows that the fans wouldn’t accept it. With the Intercontinental Championship not being a valuable title any time soon, it only makes sense that Reigns is in a position where he’s getting a whiff of the WWE title.
But that’s it: a whiff. He isn’t being shoehorned into a top spot and presented in manner that completely contradicts his crowd reactions. Sure, some people would rather see Ambrose or Rollins in his spot, but there’s room at the top for all three of them. The feud between Ambrose and Rollins is right below the world title picture in importance. Hell, it even revolves around that very belt. As long as the crowd continues to buy into Dean Ambrose and Seth Rollins’ battles, they’ll have an open slot to join Roman Reigns at the top.
However, let’s face it – this is the WWE we’re talking about. Even if things are going right for the moment, there’s always the possibility of them screwing it up.
Let’s rewind to 20 years in the past, where the cautionary tale that will always be in most smarks’ minds when approaching Roman Reigns began. Kevin Nash, a.k.a. Diesel, was in a similar position to Reigns, a menacing badass (they didn’t call him Big Daddy Cool for nothing!) who was cheered by the fans despite being a heel and wasn’t worth much in the ring. After a few months of being Shawn Michaels’ partner-in-crime, he split off from him and was hotshotted to the WWF Championship in an eight-second squash over the newly-crowned Bob Backlund. A little sudden, but sounds cool, right?
Sadly for Nash, Vince had different ideas on how Diesel, WWF Champion and face of the company, should be portrayed. Diesel got over by being a menacing monster, one of the original “cool” heels, but once he became the number 1 guy in the promotion, he suddenly become a seven-foot tall Hulk Hogan clone. “Big Daddy Cool” was now a smiling dork who was ever-so eager to give 110% in front of all of the great WWF fans, shook his opponents’ hands after matches, offered them another shot because he was such an honorable guy, and fought off the big bad heel of the month.
It was a flop of disastrous proportions. By the fall of 1995, WWF’s house show attendance and pay-per-view buyrates – which had already been dwindling for years up to that point – had floundered to such a degree that they had to restructure the entire promotion around Monday Night Raw just to even stay afloat.
It’s exactly what fans are afraid will happen to Roman Reigns if he wins the WWE title next year and is crowned as the number-1 babyface, and it’s certainly a valid concern. Even after they got it right with Stone Cold Steve Austin, it appears to have been an outlier since John Cena and even CM Punk to a lesser extent got personality makeovers once they were given the golden tickets to the top of the promotion. And if Reigns follows suit, you wouldn’t need a master’s degree in theoretical physics to figure out that the crowds would be demeaning him with ironic chants in no time. And if that happens? Say it with me:
CENA. WINS. EL. OH. EL.
As it stands, however, WWE has been bringing Roman Reigns along just right. If it weren’t for the fact that most smarks have known about WWE’s desire to push him for nearly two years, the organic nature of ascent wouldn’t even be a question. As fans, we can’t predict the future, and so it remains to be seen if WWE will continue to bring the former Muscle of the Shield along the right path. But sometimes, we need to simply relax, let it play out … and see where it goes.
James is a Multimedia Communications Major at Georgia Southern University, and (unless his advisor reveals some obscure elective he forgot to take) he’ll be graduating in December of this year. You can follow him at @FunkDoc1112 on Twitter.