Roman Reigns has always had a, shall we say, “strained” relationship with certain sections of the WWE fan base, with a lot of them point blank refusing to accept him as the top star of the company since his initial push dating back to 2014. For over five years Reigns would find himself entering to a wall of boos and jeers at WWE events, despite the fact he was supposed to be the number one good guy in the company, with WWE trying everything they could to try and stem the tide, all to no avail. However, as of the writing of this article, WWE finally seems to have stopped trying to swim against the tide and have agreed to present Reigns as a villain, injecting fresh life into his character in the process.
As it currently stands, Reigns is not only one of the few highlights in an overall pretty drab product, but his interesting new career direction has also had a positive effect on television ratings, with viewers seeming to be digging Reigns’ descent into the dark side. For his part, Reigns has done an excellent job in the role, doing away with his less than thrilling vest ring attire in favour of a topless look that shows off his dynamic muscular frame far more, thus making him look more imposing and physically impressive. He has also been delivering when it comes to his promo skills. Gone are cheesy lines and pandering delivery, instead replaced with a colder and more clinical demeanour that makes you think he is mere moments away from tearing his opponents head off. This makeover and change in personality, combined with his already solid in-ring skills (Some won’t like to admit it, but Reigns has been a strong in-ring performer for the most part since his initial push up the card), has led to Reigns becoming a far more engaging and interesting character in a company that desperately needs them.
But how did we get to this stage?
Going into this year’s WrestleMania event it seemed like it was to be business as usual, as a clear babyface Reigns was all set to challenge WWE Universal Champion Goldberg for his Title at WWE’s biggest event of the year. However, the COVID Pandemic struck and that led to plans changing. Reigns had previously battled Leukaemia on two separate occasions, and as a result it had left him immunocompromised and thus at greater risk if he contracted COVID-19. For this reason, Reigns decided to step away from WWE for a while and Braun Strowman ended up getting the match with Goldberg instead, which led to him winning the belt.
Strowman’s reign was somewhat less than invigorating though and eventually he dropped the Title to The Fiend at Summer Slam on the 23rd of August 2020. However, The Fiend didn’t have long to celebrate as Roman Reigns made a shocking return to the company and left both men laying to establish himself as a contender for the Title. It seemed like Reigns had returned with his previous babyface gimmick, and with just a week until the next big even, named “Payback” on the 30th of August, a Triple Threat bout between the three men was organised to close the show, with The Fiend’s newly won Title scheduled to be on the line.
It was at this stage that WWE decided to bowl everyone a Yorker by having Reigns hem and haw over signing the contract, before revealing that he had aligned himself with Paul Heyman, a man last seen as the on screen advocate of long-time Reigns rival Brock Lesnar. The wrestling world was instantly abuzz over what this meant. Had Heyman switched over to the good side, or had Reigns finally made the long desired switch to the dark side? Fans didn’t have to wait long to get their answer, as Reigns waited backstage whilst Strowman and Fiend brawled with one another before coming down to pick the bones and win the Title in an underhanded manner. There was no doubt about it, Reigns was a villain, and not only that he had a proven winner in Heyman as his new advocate.
I have been intrigued enough by Reigns’ new attitude that I have made a special effort to view not only his Smackdown segments but his pay per view matches also, including his most recent one at Clash of Champions on the 27th of September 2020. Considering that I have long since given up on watching the WWE product regularly anymore that speaks volumes to how good a job Reigns is doing in this role. It really feels like new life has been breathed into him, and his recent Title defence against Jey Uso was a storytelling tour de force, as Reigns beat his relative down to the point that Jimmy Uso had to throw a towel in to save his brother from further harm.
It actually reminded me a lot of the pay per view finishes WCW used to do in the second half of 1996 when they were focusing on getting heat on the New World Order faction. More than one show featured a depressing flat finish where the nWo would stand tall after decimating the heroes. It was a hugely effective booking tool that really got across how strong a unit the evil faction was, as normally you would expect the good guys to at least get something to close out a show. However, show after show ended with the heroes flat on their backs, and it all built up the nWo as the most fearsome threat possible. I got vibes from that at the end of Clash of Champions, as Reigns not only won but won in strong convincing fashion at the expense of a heroic opponent. It really rammed home that he was not only the top guy on the show but also made you want someone to come along who was capable of challenging him.
Of course WCW went to the flat finish well one time too often, and it ultimately led to their downfall as the villains were so strong that the fans essentially gave up hope that the heroes would ever manage to rally, instead tuning into WWF Monday Night Raw where dominant babyface Stone Cold Steve Austin almost always came out on top. WWE have a hot hand right now with Reigns, and it makes sense to end a few shows with him standing tall so as to make him look like a dominant villain who needs to be toppled, but they must be careful not to overplay this hand. At some stage they are going to need to find someone who is capable of really challenging Reigns on the babyface side.
The only issue there is that WWE really struggles in creating top babyface stars due to their stop-start 50/50 booking. A good example would be Keith Lee, who they brought in with a big win over Randy Orton but then flattened out pretty quickly afterward until he was just another guy. What WWE doesn’t seem to realise is that babyfaces only have a certain amount of times that they can fail until fans lose faith in them. If you contrast the way WWE books their top babyfaces to the way All Elite Wrestling books theirs, it may as well be night and day. AEW World Champion Jox Moxley hardly ever loses and is presented as a tough, intelligent and resourceful character, and as a result you root for him, because who doesn’t want to back a winner?
WWE have finally turned Roman Reigns into a villain and, provided this run is handled well, there is a good chance that when fans come back to arenas it won’t take too long for them to organically start cheering him. The big problem with Reigns’ babyface run was that it felt forced, like WWE were trying to shove him down the fans’ throats. However, by having Reigns as a heel WWE can now wait for the fans to come to them, which I personally think they eventually win. As previously mentioned, Reigns is good in the ring and he clearly has charisma and star quality.
Deep down I think a lot of fans want to like him, but because WWE has worked so hard to foster distrust amongst its fan base the fans rejected the over-push when it first happened and Reigns’ babyface character never recovered. Now that he’s a heel, fans can boo him to their hearts content and, when they get that out of their system, there’s every chance they will come to like him on their own terms, at which point WWE can make the switch with a chance of making it stick. One thing is for sure, this trip to the dark side has injected new life into the Roman Reigns character and, If handled correctly, WWE could finally have the top babyface superstar they’ve always wanted when all is said and done.