Art is the creation of something from nothing that elicits a reaction. Pro wrestling embodies that definition. In wrestling, men and women step inside the squared circle and create with their actions, expressions, words, and bodies to garner a specific and distinct reaction from their audience. In turn, the audience responds to, engages with, and affects the work. No other art form in the world carries that uniqueness. In this column, we explore that art form inside real and relevant examples. Enjoy.
Well, it appears that we’re not quite at rock bottom yet as we’ve hit a brand new low in the saga that is Roman Reigns. If you missed Monday Night Raw this week, his rejection is now so lethal that failed acts like Jinder Mahal are cheered instead of him. That’s right, it’s so bad with Reigns that fans have openly accepted a character who portrays a gimmick straight out of the 80’s and is borderline racist in 2018 over a man whose main-evented WrestleMania four times in a row. After Mahal, maybe Reigns will be up for rebuilding Curt Hawkins next? It would be funny if it wasn’t true.
The Reigns story has been told to death. He was over pushed and lacked the time to get his character organically over with the audience. That coupled with the fact that the audience already made their pick for “top star” in the form of Daniel Bryan and the result was immediate Reigns backlash. That blood is on the hands of the WWE. Rushing to get Reigns to where they wanted him to be hurt his chances at actually getting there. Roman hasn’t helped himself in this process either. He regularly comes off as arrogant, too cool, and above the business he’s at the head of. This has led to audiences feeling even less inclined to accept him as he has prioritized being a corporate yes man over having a money making connection and openness with the fans.
Even with intense push-back and without a viable top babyface reaction, a calculated mix of smoke, mirrors, and pulling the curtain back on backstage politics was deployed by Vince McMahon throughout all of 2017 to pigeon hole Reigns into the main event of WrestleMania 34. In it, he’d finally take down Brock Lesnar and get his official crowning moment as the company’s top babyface. In classic fashion, fans revolted during the match and dismissed it with apathy. WWE capped off their year with Reigns’s flame burning out with the world watching. In the end, loyal fans who spend big money on the WWE product saw through their trickery and said enough was enough.
Reigns’s push continuing the way it has since WrestleMania 34 simply isn’t what pro wrestling is about. Within the insidiously bad promo segments and matches recently, Reigns is acting as a mechanism to fight the fan’s artistic involvement when he should be catering to them and using them to achieve success. Imagine Stone Cold Steve Austin driving a beer truck out to a chorus of thunderous boos or Hulk Hogan slamming Andre The Giant to an audience batting beach balls through the air. Those moments needed the artistry of the audience’s reaction to become as iconic as they are today. Their absence within Roman Reigns destroys fundamental artistic principals that the wrestling business is built on.
Roman Reigns has never been a great promo, but his work since WrestleMania has been particularly bad and has stunted storyline progression on Raw. The reaction that his push is eliciting from the crowd makes it impossible for him to do his job in getting the audience to react for him and the story he’s trying to tell. Anything that Reigns does falls on deaf ears which makes his artistic choices superfluous. Artistic elements like tone of voice, volume, expression, and body language can’t work for him like they do for others. Plus, his words are ignored because the audience rejects him outright. In his promo segments with Samoa Joe, he appeared bully-like and smug when he was written to come off as confident, witty, and intense. Why? Because the audience’s role in that segment and the art behind it was missing. Had the correct response been there for him and had Reigns been able to react to that and cultivate it in his favor, he would have been seen in a different light. The art in the audience allows for that proper reaction to happen and for a logical story to take place.
Same thing with Reigns matches. Because he can’t effectively get his story over on the microphone, he can’t execute that story in the ring via a good match. A good match needs a crowd reaction. Reigns and his opponent can work in pristine psychology that rivals Flair vs. Steamboat, but if the reaction isn’t there, it’s done in vain. What makes pro wrestling a unique art form is the fact that the reaction of the artist’s subject affects the art itself. Reigns and his opponent need the crowd reaction to mirror the writing so they can help tell the story well. At Backlash, Reigns and Joe mistakenly constructed their match based on getting the correct reaction, but the reaction was nowhere to be found. Joe dominating Reigns for the entirety of the match was artistically designed to drum up sympathy for Reigns. Because the crowd cheered Joe throughout, the story of the match made no sense and therefore the art within the match was lost. Reigns’s facial expressions meant nothing, his selling was worthless, and the match sputtered in first gear for nearly 20 minutes. The Money In The Bank qualifier match on Raw this week highlighted that same fact. In the match, Reigns was mauled by both of his opponents in an effort to setup a heroic comeback and again, the reaction wasn’t there and all art that followed it was rendered useless. When the comeback hit, fans didn’t care, and regardless of how great the in-ring action was, the match fell flat because the biggest moment in it didn’t click properly.
Roman’s push as WWE’s top babyface should have ended in New Orleans on April 8th. Even to the casual wrestling viewer, it was painfully obvious that a natural artistic connection was missing between him and the fans that are supposed to cheer him on. In the weeks after WrestleMania and this week on Raw, the audience continued to get more of the same and they’ve responded with an even more vicious and passionate rejection than before. Yes, that backlash manifests itself in a negative response, but it also roots itself in the audience happily abandoning their artistic responsibilities in the wrestling product. The result is a show that’s unfocused and nonsensical. With Roman Reigns, the WWE has created an environment in which its competing with its own audience. Not only has that strategy gotten Reigns to where he is today, but it ruins the art of the business.
The art in wrestling is what makes watching wrestling fun. The art triggers the story and reaction. In return, the reaction feeds the story and the art. That’s the formula. What’s happening with Roman Reigns contradicts that on all fronts and makes watching less enjoyable. He’s at the point where he can’t cut a promo and can’t have a successful match because he can’t capitalize on the art or reaction involved in those endeavors. The artistic capability of WWE’s biggest star has been fully neutralized. In a business that is tied to the art within it, that’s a problem. That failure resonates through the entire WWE system and at the top of their biggest and most important show stands an act that runs counter to everything that the show is supposed to be about.
NOW CHECK OUT LAST WEEK’S COLUMN: ARTISTRY OF WRESTLING: Seth Rollins shakes Montreal by utilizing beautiful spontaneity to magnify a raucous reaction