It takes a lot to get Vince McMahon to admit he’s wrong. That’s if it ever happens, which it might not. Being a multibillionaire kind of allows one to not have to, if not enforces them to.
So while Vince will claim it was just his own wrestling genius, what it really took for him to make Roman Reigns what he should have been all along was a pandemic, a lack of crowds, a hiatus for Reigns himself, and finally a plea from Reigns himself. Finally, McMahon got what he’d wanted for five years. Reigns at the top of the company, and everyone on the edge of their seats waiting to see what he’ll do next.
The saga, and that’s what it is by this point, of McMahon’s force-feeding Reigns as the face of the company has been an infuriating one for a lot of wrestling fans. The list is probably known to even non-wrestling fans by now. He main-evented four WrestleManias in a row, his feud with Brock Lesnar seemingly took 17 years, and the company used every trick they could think of to turn him into John Cena II, including using John Cena himself, to try and do it. None of it worked as well as McMahon hoped, when it worked at all.
The problems were numerous. Reigns was at his most popular when a member of The Shield, perhaps WWE’s most popular faction in history. Within that, Reigns didn’t have to talk, at which he’s still not great. He showed up, he kicked ass, and then someone else did the promos.
Once The Shield broke up, it was easy to see what McMahon saw in Reigns. He looks the part. He might look the part more than anyone has ever looked the part. He’s huge, he’s handsome, he’s athletic, he’s magnetic. It was an easy call to try and catapult him to the top, but without doing the actual work to get him there organically, fans would never go for it.
A lot of this was out of Reigns’s hands. It wasn’t his fault that Daniel Bryan was at the peak of his popularity when McMahon wanted to shift the company to Reigns. It wasn’t Reigns’s fault that Bryan’s concussion problems kept him from being out in front of fans as much as he or the company would have liked, only adding to the frustration. And it’s not Reigns’s fault he was constantly pushed into a position he just wasn’t quite ready for at the time.
Another problem Reigns had is that his character never showed any vulnerability. That’s fine for Cena and the kids who love him, but there was always something intentionally empty about Cena that just about everyone could appreciate. Just how badly he needed to be loved and adored. WWE never tried to instill that with Reigns. He was just put in main events and given title shots repeatedly, to the point where no one could have any doubt about him. There was no journey, there was no person, there was just a cereal box cover. A glorified action figure.
Even during that years-long mangling of his run, there were moments where WWE had him over. One was when he blistered the entire McMahon family essentially and won the title, and he did that in Philadelphia, the setting that had nearly booed him out of the building when he won the Rumble that everyone was so desperate to see Bryan win (seriously, the dude got booed while standing next to The Rock, his cousin. How is that possible? The look of confusion on The Rock’s face during that rivaled the one on Jared Kushner’s resting-doofus-face). The place went nuts for him.
But because McMahon can never take yes for an answer on any storyline, they kept on with the “Roman vs. The Company” story that led to Triple Goddamn H winning the Rumble and a thoroughly mediocre main event of probably the worst recent Wrestlemania in Dallas between him and Reigns.
The other time was when life intervened. Reigns became simply Joe Anoa’i, his real name, when he announced the return of his bout with leukemia. Reigns had to leave the company for a few months, but thankfully recovered. Still, even the coldest heart was on his side by that point. He was real, because nothing is more real than cancer.
When he returned from his illness, his job was basically to put other guys over while still winning, before returning to the top of the card. Keith Lee’s rise began with a star-making performance against Reigns at Survivor Series. Edge’s return to this past year’s Rumble was sealed with him being eliminated by Reigns. Drew McIntyre’s cementing as a main guy was eliminating Reigns from that Rumble. Just as Reigns was probably going to rise to lead Smackdown on Fox again, the pandemic hit and he took a hiatus to protect his and his new kids’ health.
With his return, and his return as a heel, WWE instantly fixed all of the previous problems with Reigns. Attaching him to Paul Heyman means he doesn’t need to talk nearly as much, and can leave it to one of the best to ever do it in Heyman (Heyman seems completely revitalized now that he isn’t constantly trying to sell us that Lesnar gives two shits). He can show up, kick everyone to shit, and move on. He even showed up in a shirt that basically said the same. Given Reigns’s size and athleticism and look, he should be the FINAL boss of everything. It never made sense that a guy who looks like that had to keep wrestling from under.
And they’ve also given him vulnerability. Most heels in WWE are just cowardly cheaters because that’s what Vince has decided heels are. There’s no rhyme or reason to it other than that.
But in last Sunday’s PPV main event, Reigns was after more. Not only did he absolutely truck his own cousin (Jey Uso), which is vicious enough, but he demanded affirmation from both Jey and his brother Jimmy. Even hearing the words “You’re the tribal chief” from Heyman wasn’t enough for Reigns. He needed it from family and competitors. He needs total subservience from everyone around him. He needs to be totally sure of the position that he kept being handed and kept not working. He’s a bully, and we all know there’s an emptiness within a bully, no matter how tough or strong or evil. A question within them that never gets settled. That’s something we can relate to. That’s a connection.
That’s all Reigns needed. It took forever to get here, but now he’s the biggest story on wrestling’s biggest show, and it finally feels right.