Everyone loves a hero. Or at least they used to. Something strange happens with knowledge. There tends to be a darkness that comes with experience and age. The older the wrestling fan gets, the duller their taste buds become. The wrestling fan is rarely satisfied, and is as fickle as the Hardcore Championship. Always needing something new, spicy, and prepared just for them, the wrestling fan will discard a superstar the moment they go mainstream. There’s a certain hipster snobbery that exists even in sports entertainment that could rival any vinyl collection.
I’m not innocent of this, of course, but I do give a guy like Roman Reigns the benefit of the doubt. Two years ago, the former Shield member was red hot, as was the rest of The Shield. The Royal Rumble match of 2014 featured the potentially exciting final two of Roman and the returning Batista. That year, Daniel Bryan was the favorite, but was disappointingly eliminated fairly early in the match. Surely, The Animal, Batista, who had more or less returned to promote his small arthouse film, Marvel’s Guardians of the Galaxy, wouldn’t win the title match at Wrestlemania via the Rumble. It should go to someone new, but unexpected; someone who was rocketing to success as the dark, brooding, destructive powerhouse of the Shield. Cool. Neato.
Roman Reigns was about to have a “moment” and gain an unexpected victory at the Royal Rumble. Roman Reigns. Royal Rumble. Rail Road. Rest and Relaxation. The alliteration was all there. But instead of striking while the iron was hot, they let Drew Bledsoe play instead of Tom Brady. The Animal, Batista won the Royal Rumble under a rolling fog of boos.
Reacting to the negative feedback, WWE would squeeze Daniel Bryan into the main event of Wrestlemania anyway, which was smart since Batista would be leaving WWE for the hotter, bustier Marvel cinematic universe. But what of Roman?
In the next year, the Shield would break up, and Reigns would be primped to be the next golden boy. They would push him hard on the fans for a possible title run. The company wanted him to be the face of the company, and the fans could smell it. Roman Reigns was seeming less and less like a bad boy, and was feeling more and more lame. That’s right. Mom and Dad approved of our boyfriend.
It wouldn’t be the first time this has happened. There was a moment in time where Fandango made international news when fans chanted and danced to his theme song and seemingly gave him an easy bump to superstardom. People who never watched wrestling were “fandangoing” and he was an accidental overnight success. Then they had Jerry Lawler come out in his cool dad, bedazzled Ed Hardy shirt to tell everyone how popular Fandango suddenly was.
We know he’s popular. And it wasn’t your idea. WWE didn’t seem to like the fact that the fans had organically made something fun without their consent, so they had to claim responsibility for the phenomenon in the vain of, “Hey kids! Fandango sure is cool, isn’t he? I know, right? I agree! Don’t forget who bought you that toy. Dad did! That makes Dad cool, too, right?”And so, Fandango would take his wasted potential to the lower card, indefinitely. Meanwhile, Roman Reigns would eventually win the Royal Rumble, in one of the most anticlimactic and obvious victories since the days when Hogan used to win everything. The crowd reaction was arguably worse than the year before, with the other final participants being Big Show and Kane, not exactly viable Wrestlemania headliners.
The lesson here is that the fans don’t like a babyface to be pushed on them. We live in an age where the antihero angle is the best way to get over with the jaded fanbase. We like a proven villain. Someone with a sharp tongue and an ironic, backwards morality. It’s been that way since the mid90s and it’s what made the NWO so popular and changed wrestling forever. You have to go through Hell to get to Heaven, and we fell in love with Steve Austin and The Rock only after we were introduced to their dark sides.
So, here we find ourselves with a familiar foil: Vince McMahon. Everyone’s boss, incarnate. We remember Vince’s legendary feud with Austin, built on the story of a disgruntled employee’s revenge on a unfair, greedy world. A rage against the machine, as it were. What you may not remember as vividly is all of the times they tried to recreate this story throughout the years. Most notably, CM Punk practically reviving the Mr. McMahon dynamic, successfully. And even more recently, Vince was the catalyst behind the Triple H/Brock Lesnar feud. But seeing the success with Austin, there were many other times that Vince McMahon tried to feud with a top star in order to get them over with the fans. After Austin, he did the same type of “screwjob” feud with Triple H, The Rock, John Cena, and so on. There were some less successful attempts, including a feud with Bobby Lashley which involved future presidential hopeful, Donald Trump.
Unfortunately for Roman Reigns, this is starting to feel more like Lashley than Austin. And it’s not Roman’s fault. Despite what some fans may say, he puts on some great matches. He’s an entertaining inring performer. But WWE insists that everyone not only talk (a huge weakness for Roman), but smile as well. It’s Roman’s smile that’s holding him back. If Shawn Michaels lost him smile, Roman Reigns certainly didn’t find it. These are the same people who tried to make Sabu cut a promo instead of just being the suicidal, homicidal, genocidal, Sabu. People with a tough, quiet demeanor shouldn’t be shaking hands and kissing babies. It’s odd, really. They put a guy into a position for success before he’s ready and try to book him as a friendly, handsome hero; when this whole time he’s been a strong, silent, bad boy. And so, the fans turned their back on him. No matter how much the Authority tries to give Roman the underdog special, the audience recognizes that he’s anything but.
His character’s motives are unclear, as well. In the past few weeks, he has shown a complete disregard for his job, attacking Vince and disrespecting Stephanie; while also saying that this job is his life, and that the championship means so much to him because it helps him provide for his family. This sentiment isn’t very consistent with his carelessness about getting fired while ruthlessly attacking Triple H.
Hopefully they figure out what path he’s taking on the road to Wrestlemania. Roman Reigns is tall, dark, strong, and mysterious. He’s not so good with his words, but we know there’s some good in him, and maybe we can change him. He’s got a lot of potential and a good head on his shoulders. We just don’t want to hear that from our parents.
Nathan Burke is a Boston standup comedian. He hosts a comedy podcast, “So Now I’m the Asshole” on Fans.FM