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Roman Reigns is now WWE World Heavyweight champion. As Michael Cole so eloquently said, “It’s Roman Reigns’ era. It’s arrived in WWE.”
So where does Roman Reigns stand right now compared to prior “faces of the company?” The short answer is that he barely stands at all.
To best describe the problem with Roman Reigns, I’d like to remind everyone of the New Generation Era. At this time the then-WWF brought multiple dead gimmicks back from the grave to have new individuals fill the roles. Marty Jannetty and Leif Cassidy (later Al Snow) formed the New Rockers. The New Midnight Express was formed, featuring Bart Gunn and Bob Holly. Jesse James (or however they spelled his name) donned Jeff Jarrett’s singing persona and Billy Gunn adopted everything that made the Honky Tonk man well-known. Most famously, Lex Luger was groomed in 1993 to take over as the next Hulk Hogan, a muscle-bound American man ready to serve as a role model for kids across America.
How many of these gimmicks were successful? Zero. And the answer to “why” is clear; you can never make a duplicate better than the original. Billy Gunn tried to dance like the Honky Tonk Man. Lex Luger tried to carry the company on his back, jack, as the face of the company and a savior for Americans everywhere. Roman Reigns is attempting to be the vanilla “overcome-the-odds” character that divides fan bases just as John Cena did for the past ten years. But Vince McMahon did not make the Honky Tonk Man, Hulk Hogan, or John Cena. They made their characters work because they adapted to themselves. Roman Reigns is being pushed as the next John Cena, but not only is the crowd not ready for another John Cena, Roman Reigns can’t be John Cena in the first place.
Reigns was most popular as the silent killer of The Shield, saying little while serving as the group’s muscle. Had this been honed and refined, Reigns could be seen as a viable leader for the next generation of wrestling. Unfortunately “The Powers that Be” wanted him to fit a different mold, causing a major disconnect in his character. The badass has been turned into a strange amalgamation of poor booking decisions. Within the past 24 hours we have gone from seeing recaps of his awful “Tater Tots” promo to seeing him seethe in rage at losing the championship and assaulting his boss. This led to discussing his daughter’s birthday and letting himself be emasculated by Stephanie McMahon, making more testicle jokes at Vince McMahon and ultimately overcoming the odds after dominating the main event heel faction on his own.
Hokey promos, random bouts of rage, overcoming the odds; sound familiar? Reigns’s presentation is eerily similar to John Cena’s during portions of his decade-long run at the top of the company. The big problem with this is that Reigns isn’t good at telling hokey jokes. He’s not good at talking, period. He isn’t a guy who looks like he’s ready to chat with your kid, he looks like a guy who’s ready to beat up anyone who crosses him. Reigns, up until the last few months, was presented as a man who sets the odds, not one who overcomes any.
This has led to an incredibly inconsistent presentation of Reigns, who gains a large amount of support when using his key offensive maneuvers, showing signs of his original character, but dies a slow death when going anywhere near a microphone to play up to Cena’s fanbase. Another problem arises where not even Cena himself was pushed to the extent Reigns has; even when he first won the WWE Championship in 2005, it was while the title was on the Smackdown brand at the same time as Batista rose to the top of the company. His “Hustle, Loyalty, Respect” character evolved slowly over time and are entirely based on Cena’s character from 2002-2005. As rough as the transition may have been, we understand what Cena stands for and why. Immediately promoting Reigns to resemble Cena’s current attitude not only comes across as forced as it is, it also eliminates any gimmick foundation, never mind a semblance of character development. What does Roman stand for? Family values? Drinking with his buddies? Annihilating everything in his path? Being Samoan?
WWE’s characters can normally be described in a few words: “Demon from Hell, American Patriot, Pretty Boy.” What is Reigns? His natural behavior betrays him; he doesn’t extoll Cena’s value systems. Instead, he’s an asskicker… who makes bad jokes… but likes his daughter… but doesn’t like authority. The “Roman Empire” doesn’t seem to stand for anything.
In an era where WWE touts that the “fans’s voices should be heard,” it’s shocking that they would promote Reigns in such an obvious manner. This is especially true after nearly two decades of WWE stories have told us that WWE management is not to be trusted and their “corporate champ” is no good. Sure, it’s a story, but once a less-than-stellarly-over talent begins his grooming for the top spot against the fans’ wishes, reality starts to imitate art. This questionable portrayal of Reigns is even more questionable considering the divisive nature of Cena’s character spawned from true hatred that led to numerous “diehard” fans ceasing to watch the product; fans who are key for WWE Network subscriptions.
And the diehard fans are already making their voices heard, as Reigns has spent the better part of a year working against a groundswell of negativity towards his push. Dozens of acclaimed wrestling legends have called for a Reigns heel turn to allow him to both find himself and turn the crowd’s jeers into cheers down the line. The answer remains “no.” Whether or not Reigns is over to a portion of the audience is irrelevant; as rude as it sounds, those people will cheer anyone put in the position Reigns has been put in.
WWE should be pushing the people who already exhibit signs of an established fan-base; why bother trying to build one from the ground up? Despite their best efforts, Reigns continues to be cheered less than stars like Dean Ambrose, Dolph Ziggler, John Cena, and even heels at times, despite being presented as one of the top individuals in the company in 2015. He’s over, but how over is he in proportion to his push?
So to recap; Roman Reigns is presented as the next John Cena in spite of the fact that this has never worked in the past at getting someone over, leading to an inconsistent character fans cannot connect to because it effectively doesn’t exist.
Where does this go from here?
Unless Reigns is allowed to find himself, he will go from being the next John Cena to the next Diesel. The only viable competitors for him at the moment are Sheamus (for one re-match), Triple H, Brock Lesnar, John Cena, and potentially Rusev and Kevin Owens, depending on how they’re treated in the next six months. Crowds over the last two nights have warmed up to Roman, but his fan base is weaker than Cena’s ever was, with crowds turning on him before he ever even won the championship. Hot-shotting his title reign now in hopes of popping a rating on Raw will only serve to further aggravate those who are dissatisfied at Roman’s rise to the top, who many feel came at the cost of numerous performers.
Roman Reigns is WWE champion, but he is beginning his run with one of the weakest foundations in wrestling history. He has zero character due to being molded after WWE’s previous poster child who was a success in spite of them. His popularity is mixed but can easily turn hostile, with WWE’s ratings reaching all-time lows. The real question throughout all of this is whether or not Reigns can stay as he is and serve as WWE’s next face of the company.
He can’t. He won’t.