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Roman Wasn’t Built In A Day: How to Pass the Torch to Roman Reigns
By Andrew Terrance Kaberline
When building a roster of wrestlers, WWE and Vince McMahon try to tick all the boxes. You’ve got big wrestlers, small wrestlers, funny wrestlers, wrestlers who look like they should win but don’t, and wrestlers who look like they should lose but don’t. But to make the entire roster make sense the centerpiece, the keystone, the leading man in WWE must be a white meat babyface.
In a wrestling match a babyface is the preverbal good guy, opposed by the heel or bad guy. If you’re white meat, it means you have the highest moral code, and often, you’re the most patriotic. It means that you are more like Superman than Batman.
The lineage in the modern day of WWE (then WWF) started in the early 80s when Vincent Kennedy McMahon took over the business from his father Vince Sr. Since then, Vince has made sure to build his promotion around a star with enough charisma to sell a show by himself. A star who can handle the constant admiration of younger children, the pressures of being a role model, and spending off days fulfilling wishes for the Make-A-Wish Foundation.
Vince’s first leading man in the mid 80s was Hulk Hogan. Then the torch flirted with Lex Luger (more on this later) before ultimately being handed to Bret Hart, who in dramatic fashion handed it over to Steve Austin, who passed it to The Rock, then John Cena, briefly to Daniel Bryan, and now, potentially to Roman Reigns.
Since debuting a few years ago, Roman has looked like the heir apparent. He’s won the Royal Rumble while breaking the record for eliminations, won the intercontinental title, and the held the WWE title on three occasions. He’s been in the main event of the past three WrestleManias and is the favorite to notch his fourth tomorrow night. He’s beaten John Cena, and Daniel Bryan, and HHH, and the Undertaker (at WrestleMania). He’s a big man, an attractive man, who’s related to The Rock, who doesn’t cheat to win, and finishes off his opponents with a move popularized in Mixed Martial Arts, and aptly named “The Superman Punch.” Roman is a no brainer to take the baton of golden boy, and run with it for a long as he can.
There’s only one problem. The audience refuses to accept Roman.
It’s anticipated that WrestleMania 34 will end with Roman standing tall over the (nearly) unbeatable monster and legitimate fighting champion, Brock Lesnar. It doesn’t matter if Roman will win, but rather, how he does it, and if it will convince the fans, and Vince, that he is THE face of the company. If it’s not convincing, you must wonder how many more chances he’ll get before Vince decides to move on.
It is the opinion of most snarky internet fans that there is nothing to be done, that Vince has his eyes set on Roman, and that’s that. On a live podcast with Steve Austin a few years back, Vince McMahon stated his frustration that no one on the extremely talented roster wanted to stand out and grab the brass ring.
So perhaps it’s not that Roman has already won, but rather that no one else has challenged him. Daniel Bryan certainly could’ve been the man had it not been for his concussion issues. AJ Styles has made a strong claim to the throne in a short amount of time with the company. John Cena is now too involved in Hollywood to take back the mantle. Seth Rollins and Finn Balor have the looks, charisma, and in-ring ability, but both have had issues staying healthy. Kevin Owens and Dean Ambrose can captivate, but are too unusual. So, for the moment, we’re left with Roman.
Ideally, the ceiling for Roman is The Rock. It’s no coincidence that after winning the Royal Rumble in 2015, WWE wanted to make this comparison by having The Rock raise his cousin’s hand in the ring as the lasting image of the pay-per-view. It was as if to say, “The Rock approves, and so should you.” The people didn’t buy it. They booed, and booed, and booed some more, and The Rock looked on confused.
The WWE expected it to work, and so did the players involved. But you can’t expect Roman to be The Rock. They may be family, but they are not built the same way. The Rock wants the spotlight all the time, and Roman may be too giving of a performance partner, as evident in their joint interview right after Roman’s Rumble win.
The Rock takes the first few questions, he makes the jokes, he sells you on Roman, and then questions why the interviewer isn’t focusing more on Roman, “the man just won the Royal Rumble, so talk to him.” Roman then proceeds to reject a question about his future opponent, and both he and the Rock say the word “family” over and over so that you can’t possibly miss the fact that they’re related.
The Rock was presented as a white meat babyface when he debuted. It didn’t work either. People booed what the perception that they were being force fed a new star. What eventually made the fans approve of The Rock was his edgier response to the boos, “Die, Rocky, Die. That’s gratitude I get from you pieces of crap!?…Rocky Maivia is a lot of things, but “sucks” isn’t one of them.” That night Rocky Maivia became The Rock. He had the charisma to get himself over, to change his own course, to become a true star in the entertainment industry.
When you listen to Roman in sit-down interviews, you get the impression that Roman, the real life Joe Anoa’i, is a thoughtful quiet person who above everything else, is a proud father. This is not evident in how his character is portrayed on television.
When Roman Reigns comes to the ring, he is a silent badass type, but that couldn’t be further from the loudmouth showman that The Rock is. The night after Roman Reigns defeated The Undertaker at WrestleMania 33 to supposedly retire him, it could’ve been the moment Roman took the narrative into his hands and willed the audience to accept him. Instead, crowd cut Roman off, and he paused to let them finish booing him, before continuing with his promo. The most concerning problem with that segment might be the actual words, “it’s my yard now.” Roman says the words, but Joe Anoa’i and the viewers at home don’t believe them.
Let’s get one thing straight; Roman isn’t booed because he is a bad wrestler. Sure, the ways in which Roman wins his matches are too repetitive, but Roman can carry a match far better than many of the aforementioned WWE flag-bearers. Roman is booed because he doesn’t fit the way that he is portrayed. When John Cena experienced the heights of his boo birds during his transition to the throne, he combated it with charisma and the ability to be wholly original.
THIS is what hurts Roman Reigns the most. His attire and theme song haven’t changed since he came into the business, and those were originally part of the identity of a hired gun trio, The Shield. The other two members have moved onto their own identities, but Roman has remained behind. When he claims that the ring is now “his yard” it harkens back to all the times The Undertaker said that. The recent storyline with Roman going “off script” and getting in the face of Vince McMahon and being suspended has been a step in the right direction, but still reeks of Steve Austin with a pinch of CM Punk. His secondary finishing move, the spear, has been used on WWE TV in the last ten years by Charlotte Flair, Edge, Batista, Bobby Lashley, Goldberg, Christian, and countless others. He does have a catchphrase and nickname in “believe that” and “the big dog,” but both of those feel like the generic plug-ins you would find in the create-a-wrestler portion of a WWE video game.
You might argue that everything in wrestling has been done before, but that simply isn’t true. Braun Strowman is excelling at the traits of the scary giant of many large men before him, but adding a comedic element that no one at his size could ever do. Everything The New Day has done in the past few years have been organic creations of their own, bringing back the dead wrestling concept of a trios team on WWE tv with pizzaz. Seth Rollins was losing steam when he had to take HHH’s pedigree as his finisher, but WWE has corrected course allowing him to return to the brutal and original “Black Out.” The only thing that Roman has as his own, is the Superman Punch, and that’s a finisher that recalls Lex Luger’s bionic elbow…
Earlier, when I went through the timeline of main event guys in WWE, I mentioned a failed attempted to make Lex Luger the top star. If The Rock is the ceiling for Roman, Lex Luger is the floor.
Lex Luger looked like a million bucks, a blonde bombshell with a bodybuilder’s physique who had been wrestling for six years or so at the time. After the departure of Hulk Hogan, Lex was quickly repackaged as a stars and stripes All-American superhero. He proved he could pick up the gigantic evil foreign sumo-wrestler champion, Yokozuna (also a relative of The Rock and Roman Reigns) by answering the challenge on July 4th by way of helicopter to the USS Intrepid.
“He was America’s last hope!” Vince McMahon yelled from the broadcast booth, trying to sell Lex to the audience. What he was really saying was “Lex is my last hope!”
Lex Luger rode around on a bus dubbed the “Lex Express” for the summer of 1993, leading to a potential coronation at SummerSlam, but then, he lost.
It wasn’t because people were booing Lex, but because people weren’t cheering him enough. They didn’t buy in. And when the fans don’t buy in, Vince doesn’t buy in. Vince tried the rest of the year to jump start the Lex push, having him co-win the Royal Rumble, going towards a WrestleMania victory, but then, he didn’t win there either. And soon after, Lex was gone from WWE.
Lex Luger wasn’t mentally capable of connecting with the fans, of being “the guy.” He wasn’t wired that way. It might just be the same with Roman.
Roman debuted on the roster six years ago. He seems more cautious than those great wrestlers before him. While he doesn’t get “no reaction” like Lex Luger, Roman gets a heavy negative reaction. But Roman is praised by every single wrestler that he’s worked with, which was not the case for Lex.
Just listen to former WWE main babyface Bret Hart from an interview with Sports Illustrated,
“Reigns got dealt a bad set of cards. It has nothing to do with his work rate-he’s a really good worker and his style is really good. He just needs to be himself”
Tomorrow night, Roman Reigns’ match against Brock Lesnar will go one of three ways:
- Roman will lose the match, and the perception will be that he has become Lex Luger, that Vince McMahon has finally given up on him as the top star.
- Roman will win the match, looking like superman, with an ending sequence that feels predictable, and the fans won’t accept this coronation.
- Roman will win through some sort of deception, trying to capture the “cool anti-hero” love from the crowd similar to Steve Austin or The Rock, but this could wash away from Roman’s character in a few months, not to mention also alienating his biggest fan base, young children.
But there’s a fourth option. Roman pulls out something new to win the match. The crowd’s reaction at WrestleMania is mixed, but not as catastrophic as WrestleMania 32. When he arrives at RAW the next night, preparing to do his promo as WWE Universal Champion, the boos start to rain, and Roman tells the fans he’s had enough. But not the way that The Rock did. Roman does something original.
He shows weakness. He takes all the emotional burden of his rollercoaster last few years and lets it out. Maybe he even cries. He SHOULD cry.
Roman tells the fans…
“I don’t know what you possibly want from me. I’ve tried to be a million things. I’ve tried to be The Rock, and you booed me. I tried to be myself and you called me boring. I want you all to like me, to accept me as champion, but the fact of the matter is that you don’t have a choice. I’ve proven myself to be worthy. It hasn’t been easy. I’ve been caught up in steroid scandals I wanted no part in. I’ve had to come to work and hear arenas full of people tell me they hate me. It’s like the worst customer service job with the volume turned all the way up. I’ve had to work hard to gain the trust of my co-workers and management, only for you all to jeer me. Main Eventing WrestleMania is supposed to feel good, and it didn’t.
My daughter asks me “Daddy, why are they booing you, did you do something bad?” and I assure her “no, I didn’t do anything bad,” but then I don’t know… I don’t know. I think you all have this perception that I was gifted my success. But that’s not true. I had to work. Sure, I’m The Rock’s cousin, but there’s been many other members of my family who’ve come through that curtain, and things didn’t always work out so well for them. Are you aware of that? Do you know what it’s like sometimes to wrestle in a ring that my cousin Umaga wrestled in before he died at 36? That my brother Rosey wrestled in before he died at 47?
I bet you don’t think about that. But I do. I think about all of this. I think about you all and what you think of me, all the time. Well, no more. From now on, I’m going to focus on making myself better, and if you want to be on board with that, great. If not, then I’ve got nothing left to prove to you.”
Whether or not he makes that monologue into a wrestling actuality on Monday night, one thing is for certain, it’s time for Roman Reigns to decide who he is, and what that means for his status as incumbent face of the business. ■
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