KELLER’S TAKE: Why WWE sort of turning Reigns heelish without a full on heel turn is a bad idea

By Wade Keller, PWTorch editor

Roman Reigns (artist Travis Beaven © PWTorch)

I just posted highlights of a new interview with Sean “X-Pac” Waltman advocating that Roman Reigns being “heelish” is better than being officially turned heel and becoming an all-out heel. He, disappointingly, said “it’s not 1980” as an argument in favor of keeping Reigns in the role he’s in rather than uniting the fanbase and the entire WWE narrative against him.

The argument for Roman Reigns to go all-out heel is that when he does, all the stars can align. If Reigns just acts “heelish,” as Waltman advocated, it muddies the entire WWE narrative.

There are clearly two strong factions of fans in WWE. There are the children and women and families who see something in Roman they like – strength, confidence, courage, leading man looks, a neat-o vest, and a stern unflinching persona. Then there are the majority of adult male fans who vocally express their dislike for Reigns because they don’t connect with him.

They see him, as C.M. Punk contended in his podcast appearance with Colt Cabana after leaving WWE, as the guy everyone has been directed to “make look good.” They see Reigns’s character as giving off the vibe of a guy who thinks when he walks into any room that he could steal your girlfriend or wife but sees himself as a charitable guy for deciding against doing so. They see Reigns as the wrestler with an over-reliance on a few signature “video game style” moves with announcers gushing about him and an array of world class workers selling their ass off for him to make him look good.

If Reigns were to go heel, WWE loses that lead babyface that is hard to find who attracts that first part of the audience. That’s a valid argument to keep him babyface. The counter-argument, I believe, is stronger in favor of turning him heel.

The goal should be to unite the WWE fanbase by listening to the most vocal fans who are rejecting a lot of WWE’s booking decisions when it comes to their miscasting certain wrestlers as babyfaces and miscasting others as heels.

By turning Reigns heel, surely the fans who cheer him now will feel betrayed and boo him. They will cheer just about anyone he faces because that part of the fanbase eats what they’re fed by WWE. They buy into the narrative without a lot of second-guessing or critical thinking. I was a fan like that at one time, too, when I was young and believed if someone was framed as a good guy on TV, he must be a good guy.

By turning Reigns, they can give the “anti-establishment minority,” as Brian James put it on Twitter, what they want. And they can unite both fanbases in the process.

Then everyone can cheer Reigns’s opponents. The key, of course, is to push properly-cast babyface opponents for Reigns. Vince McMahon, following his father’s approach, favors the booking approach of the top star being a heroic babyface and having a parade of heels challenge him, only to have the heels come up short 95 percent of the time. It’s a valid approach and works really well when you have the right guy for the role. Reigns is not that guy.

If Reigns goes heel for two or three years, he can then turn babyface, and likely would have the entire fanbase behind him because someone else will likely come along whom the guys dislike even more than Reigns, and by then perhaps Reigns will have earned their respect without being told incessantly by WWE’s narrative push that they are supposed to love him.

Going half way with Reigns and having him be “heelish” is undercutting the only argument of keeping him a babyface, which is that he’s effective with that fanbase who relatively blindly eats what they’re fed when it comes to characterizations on TV. If the announcers say he’s a good guy, and if the booking frames him as a good guy fighting off evil, they’ll cheer. He’s cast as the hero, and like kids watching a superhero movie or women watching a Lifetime Network movie, they’ll buy into the narrative willingly.

If they start injecting dickish behaviors and traits in Reigns, while the narrative still frames him as a lead babyface taking on heels (post-WrestleMania against Undertaker), fans who boo him will still boo him, of course, while the fanbase that cheers him will see him differently. They’ll be conflicted because now he doesn’t seem as nice as he used to.

People don’t turn to escapist entertainment like the broad brush strokes supplied by WWE to feel conflicted and experience “shades of gray.” People tune into WWE to dive into a world where there are good guys they like who act in ways that align with their values and there are bad guys who contradict all they wish the world was like.

There isn’t a strict guideline of what traits a babyface needs to have (Bruno Sammartino and Verne Gagne worked in their setting at their time, the Road Warriors and Steve Austin worked in other settings at other times). I believe the entire fanbase can be aligned together and the goal of WWE should be to cast wrestlers and portray wrestlers with that goal in mind. Marrying the notion that “any reaction is a good reaction” is unnecessarily waving the white flag and giving up on what’s actually best for business.

By having Reigns cast as a babyface but give off heel vibes on purpose (instead of the typical “d-bag” traits have gone unnoticed by the kids and women but turned off the adult males so far since the Shield break-up) not only won’t satisfy those who are frustrated that the WWE brand doesn’t give them heroes they can cheer for, but it will undercut the one large segment of the fanbase who sees him as a hero worth cheering and thus are inspired to buy his merchandise and wear it proudly.

WWE should either go all-in with Reigns as a babyface and make sure he’s scripted to act with integrity and speak with respect to those who deserve it (and fight back verbally against those who don’t) and do their best to script and edit out the aspects of Reigns’s personality and ring style that turns fans against him, while resigning themselves to, if not embracing, the boos from the rest of the fanbase, or they should unite all fans against him. I vote for the latter. But what Waltman advocated is a third option, and the worst of the three.

It’s damaging WWE’s overall credibility in terms of fans buying into everything they present when the announcers and the framework of the booking react to Reigns like he’s worthy of cheers, yet he gets booed. It’s even worse if Reigns starts acting like a dick, but the babyface announcers ignore it and he’s still matched against heels in feuds. Then Reigns fans won’t like him as much because of how he’s showing a bad attitude, and they’ll lose faith in the WWE narrative because it seems as out of step with them as adult males fans feel today regarding how Reigns is portrayed.

This whole situation also works against heels, whose main goal is to get fans to root against them, when they have to face Reigns and half the audience, give or take, cheers them. Being a heel who gets cheered is no more a compliment to their job performance of their being cast as a heel than top babyface Reigns being bombarded with an explosion of boos when he appears on the big screen or walks into the stage. Any sizable reaction that goes counter to WWE’s narrative framework is a sign of failure, not success.

This whole thing of “at least he gets a reaction” is permeating WWE’s group think, and they’re selling themselves short. Yes, getting any reaction is better than no reaction, but that’s hardly the definitive argument against working hard to get the right reaction – the reaction that aligns with the narrative pushed throughout the shows.

Oh, and it being 2017 instead of the 1980s has nothing to do with anything. No other form of entertainment has thrown out the basic centuries-long tenant of aligning the values and actions of a hero with the audience it’s intended to serve, and positioning villains or heels to project values and actions that counter those of the hero and the fans.

That’s just basic Storytelling 101 that didn’t get invalidated because of social media or “the Internet” or fans having more access to the scripted nature of pro wrestling. Fans, as much today as yesterday, just want a show with a narrative that they can immerse themselves in and not feel like they’re fighting against.


NOW CHECK OUT THIS ARTICLE: KELLER’S TAKE: Talking Smack vs. Total Bellas, how reality TV gets it right where WWE gets it wrong in terms of protecting characters

2 Comments on KELLER’S TAKE: Why WWE sort of turning Reigns heelish without a full on heel turn is a bad idea

  1. “People don’t turn to escapist entertainment like the broad brush strokes supplied by WWE to feel conflicted and experience “shades of gray.” People tune into WWE to dive into a world where there are good guys they like who act in ways that align with their values and there are bad guys who contradict all they wish the world was like.”

    I would argue that this is simply not true. WWE seemingly hasn’t done this for years, and yet the people keep coming. I like a certain order to things as much as anyone, but it must be torture to watch the shows and advocate for ascribing neatly defined roles and personas to the characters the way Wade does every week. It just isn’t going to happen and I can’t imagine Vince McMahon really cares as long as the sellouts roll on.

  2. In response to this paragraph and the articles sentiment in general,

    “This whole thing of “at least he gets a reaction” is permeating WWE’s group think, and they’re selling themselves short. Yes, getting any reaction is better than no reaction, but that’s hardly the definitive argument against working hard to get the right reaction – the reaction that aligns with the narrative pushed throughout the shows.”

    Wade there’s no arguing the points which you’ve made and for a long time I’ve felt the same way, I had also been of the view that WWE should put Reigns babyface plans on hold and turn him heel in the mean time in order ensure his organic development whilst allowing fans to get invested in his character work and in-ring skills because he is no where near as bad as he is made out to be as an all round performer but one can argue that booking has sabotaged his perception amongst the hardcore fanbase in general.

    But what exactly is the “right reaction” ? one thing which is so easily overlooked yet is so obvious is John Cena ! it’s no secret that Reigns is being groomed to replace Cena as the top man in WWE; now if we analyse Cena’s case, we’d know that during his monster push he was arguably disliked even more then Reigns! he was absolutely despised but WWE kept giving him a monster push despite the fact that he was green in the ring, however he could talk better then anyone and was incredibly charismatic but the point in the end is the fan opinion of him was split between the casuals and hardcore enthusiasts, Cena during his initial run was despised like no other and on the other end of the spectrum he was over with the female and children demograph; in the end it worked out well for the WWE because those mixed reactions created a superstar so why turn Reigns fully heel when everything is pretty much going to plan as far as replacing Cena is concerned; Reigns is just as over with the smarks in terms of heat as Cena was, he isn’t quiet there in terms of popularity amongst the women and children but that’s something to work on.

    In the end these mixed reactions are far more lucrative financially in the long term, turning him fully heel would not have as much impact in his current persona because he’d not be generating the nuclear heat he is now nor would he be isolating a fanbase which buy his merchandise. The split opinion plays right into WWE’s hands, even in other sport; say boxing, it’s safe to say majority hate Floyd Mayweather and despise his in-ring style but people still pay to watch him in the hope he gets KO’d. Also with regards to clearly defined roles, I have a couple of names to throw out there; Stone Cold Steve Austin and CM Punk….there is always something in-between, it’s not a rule that you have to have clear cut faces or heels; but assuming they do turn Reigns heel you have to agree that the’re a possibility that the hardcore fan base would potentially cheer for him inevitably! it just goes to show that the audience in 2017 has indeed evolved and a character which is not clearly defined can still be highly marketable.

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