When most fans talk about the hostile response to Roman Reigns, they focus on the WrestleMania main events, the booking, the promos, or a host of other issues that are only tertiary to the root cause of the polarizing reactions towards Reigns. The simple fact is that Reigns isn’t relatable to more of the audience, because he doesn’t get chances to be emotionally vulnerable. And that’s an easy fix.
I’m going to preface this article by admitting a bias, because I feel like that’s an important thing more writers need to do these days. The bias is quite simple: I am a Roman Reigns fan.
Surely, several people will gloss over this concession and come right for my jugular, but it’s important for me to admit that I cheer for Reigns despite some of the hatred directed at his character. But at the same time, I understand that the entire audience is not behind Reigns. And unlike most people, I don’t think it has anything to do with the obvious reasons thrown out there.
(Also a hat tip goes to Dave Schilling, who wrote a piece containing quotes from Kenny Omega and Roman Reigns about their characters that got my gears turning. It’s a great piece, and I encourage you to read it, too.)
Firstly, Reigns has never won the Universal Championship, and he hasn’t held a world title since 2016. When he was Intercontinental Champion this year, he carried the title the same way that Seth Rollins and others have with “Open Challenges” week-in and week-out before dropping the belt by losing twice to The Miz. You know, the same Miz who hasn’t won at a Pay Per View since September of last year.
The notion that Reigns wins too much is flawed. If he won too much, why did he lose the Intercontinental Championship so quickly? Why hasn’t he won the Universal Championship despite the fact that he’s had six title matches since the championship was created two years ago?
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I also want to make another admission, and that pertains to the overall importance of my piece. For WWE, anything that I say is totally irrelevant, because, at the end of the day, Reigns has been a success. WWE’s stock is skyrocketing, Reigns is well-liked by many fans despite not being close to universally cheered, and there are plenty of things to like about his character’s no-nonsense moral code.
But in my book, WWE could be doing so much more with Reigns as their “top guy”, because the “problem” with Reigns isn’t that he’s the top guy. No, the real critique that I have is the fact that he’s not emotionally vulnerable enough.
Reigns’s mission this year has been to win the Universal Championship from Brock Lesnar, and this should honestly be an obsession for him. At WrestleMania 31, Reigns had a chance to beat Lesnar, who famously broke The Undertaker’s WrestleMania streak just a year before, only to have the WWE Championship stolen from him by an opportunistic Seth Rollins.
So WrestleMania 34 was Reigns’s chance to bring everything full circle and win the Universal Championship for the first time. Instead he was beaten, victimized, and conquered by the Beast Incarnate. One of the most indelible images of 2018 has to be Reigns, bloodied and shocked, defeated and broken, walking back as his own music hit. The man was literally bleeding profusely as the whole crowd booed him after he lost…with his own damn music blaring.
Why was there no real fallout from this? I know that Roman’s character is supposed to be a bad-ass who never shows any emotion and simply wants to fight people. But the problem is that this isn’t relatable, because it isn’t realistic. Any fighter who is obsessed with winning a title or defeating a single opponent, especially one the caliber of Lesnar, won’t just live in some fantasy land where their emotions are flat.
Just look at Ronda Rousey as an example of a legit, real-life bad-ass who openly spoke about being emotionally vulnerable following a string of crushing losses in UFC. The fact that Roman loses to opponents and still sits there talking about his resume or how he’s the “rightful” Universal Champion is disingenuous. It creates a disconnect, because this isn’t how an actual person would react. They would be devastated.
WWE has given us plenty of bad-ass male characters who have been willing to show emotions beyond just “anger” or “determination”. Before he was a wrestling machine, Kurt Angle was an absolute goof. Eddie Guerrero spoke openly about his struggles with substance abuse. Even Stone Cold Steve Austin hugged his boss, damn it! And just this year, John Cena had an on-screen mid-life crisis in which he openly wondered about his future in WWE (which was never really at risk, but he did a good job of selling it in storyline) by making himself vulnerable in promos.
We’ve never seen that other side of Reigns. He’s always been this character devoid of feelings who just jumps through hoops, and it’s hard to develop an understanding for why he does what he does.
I mean, this is a man who should have been filled with anguish after losing to Lesnar at WrestleMania, wondering exactly what he has to do to win that title. This is a man who should have been on the cusp of losing it after Lesnar stole a victory from him in a steel cage match at The Greatest Royal Rumble.
Yet instead, he acts like the old high school quarterback we knew, living on glory days and refusing to acknowledge his own emotions or even regrets.
Sometimes I wonder if Roman’s lack of emotional expression is a reflection of Vince McMahon’s idea of masculinity, which is, yes, probably toxic. WWE seems to want their characters to be easy to understand, but the best characters who generate the most cheers and reactions are ones with certain layers of complexity.
I’m not saying Reigns needs to be as nuanced of a character as The Miz or Sasha Banks, but we need to see how he struggles with his losses.
We rarely ever get backstage promos or post-show promos where Reigns speaks openly and honestly about being defeated or coming up short. I get that he has to hide behind a facade of bravado, but why can’t that facade occasionally crumble and allow us to look at a more realistic, nuanced character?
In many ways, I think this is the real missing piece with Reigns. His in-ring work is fabulous, to the point where it’s hard not to be invested in his matches. There’s little doubt he’s one of the best athletes in the company right now. Beyond that, his promo work has been terrific, because he does get the crowd in the palm of his hands. And with several high-profile losses just this year, the claims that he’s “shoved down the throats of the fans” just doesn’t hold as much water as they did three years ago.
There’s always a risk in making a character seem more vulnerable, but it has quite literally paid off every time they’ve done it before. Reigns’s brothers in the Shield, Seth Rollins and Dean Ambrose, have always spoken candidly in backstage interviews about their frustrations after being cheated out of wins. They display more than just anger, and they’ve shown their brotherly love more prominently. Who can forget that excellent reunion storyline last year, which culminated in them winning the Raw Tag Team Titles at SummerSlam?
But Roman’s never had that in his entire WWE career. They’ve given him storylines where he fights the Authority, but what good is it if there’s no actual internal struggle that we can perceive? In story-telling, internal struggles are always far more powerful, because humans relate to emotions better than they can relate to events. This is especially true in a fictional wrestling show, particularly when so few fans have actually been fighters; we can’t infer the emotions of a defeated, frustrated fighter as easily as we can observe and synthesize them.
So instead of trying to make Reigns a flat character who never shows pain, never shows frustration, and never sheds his cloak of stereotyped masculinity, WWE should allow him to be emotionally vulnerable to the audience.
Give him WWE.com exclusives where he tells us how much being Universal Champion means to him, or how much this roller-coaster of a journey to the title has taken a toll on him physically and mentally.
I know he’s supposed to brag about the mixed reactions from the crowd, but it’s natural for human beings to want to be loved. This is a man who puts his body on the line for our entertainment every week and is quite good at what he does.
Why can’t he cut a promo where he bluntly speaks about how this animosity occasionally does get to him? Why does he have to pretend to be unfazed by everything? Why can’t he be a realistic example of a babyface people can look up to, instead of a contrived version of an idealized male hero that existed decades ago?
Reigns doesn’t have to be cookie-cutter, and he’s more than talented enough to pull off being a multi-faceted character, just like Rollins and Ambrose (as convenient examples) are. Instead of trying to “game” the fans, why not try to give them someone they can relate to, while setting a powerful example of how men can be both strong and emotionally complex? Because the real tough guys aren’t afraid to show their feelings to the world.