KELLER’S TAKE: Roman Reigns saying he is already a heel is preposterous, but framing it as such might be only way to save face

By Wade Keller, editor

Roman Reigns (artist Joel Tesch © PWTorch)

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Roman Reigns is not a heel. Roman Reigns is a babyface by every traditional pro wrestling definition.

What he is, more specifically, is a rejected babyface.

I, frankly, find his comments to ESPN this week to be preposterous. I hope he’s being insincere and just trying to put a “face-saving” spin on the humiliation of being so boldly rejected by such a large vocal part of WWE’s ticket buying fanbase year after year, despite the WWE promotional machine’s intense, relentless attempt to frame him as being worthy of fan cheers.

For Reigns to say he’s a heel because he is being booed is insincere at best, delusional and preposterous at worst. Someone in pro wrestling isn’t a heel because they’re booed; someone is a heel because they are largely matched against babyfaces, portrayed by the lead babyface announcers and color analysts as dishonorable and unworthy of cheers, teamed with other heels against babyfaces, and booked to perform shallow, despicable acts, often hypocritical in nature, against foes who typically exhibit acts of loyalty, kindness, bravery, and self-sacrifice. Heels also cheat, cheat first, and cheat without hesitation or regret. That isn’t Reigns.

Fans boo Reigns for many reasons. Sometimes for different reason than the fan next to them. They don’t boo him “because he is a heel,” and their booing him doesn’t make him a heel.

Credible arguments can be made that, in the big picture, Reigns being booed despite being cast as a lead babyface in WWE isn’t crippling or even all that damaging. That’s a separate discussion (which would include a debate over whether being presented as a lead act during a time of a revenue boom period is necessarily reflective on that wrestler’s effectiveness in the role he’s been assigned, or instead is a coincidence or even a result occurring in spite of that wrestler’s role in a top spot). What cannot be credibly argued is that what Reigns told ESPN is an accurate representation of Reigns’s role with WWE.

He, for instance, said he is a “gray-area guy” who does a little bit of everything. He said he is in “a good place to do whatever I want and just play with this character and not just be a heel or a face.”

Maybe next week he’ll be booked as a “gray-area guy,” but he has yet to be pushed that way, not even for one feud or one match or one week. He’s been pushed as a babyface – flat out, consistently. Just because a huge, likely a sizable majority of adult male fans boo him when they pay to attend a WWE event doesn’t mean he can just say he’s a “gray-area guy” and act like this is all by design.

Vince McMahon has done everything in his power to win over fans who boo Reigns. He’s booked him to be screwed over by heel management, screwed out of a Universal Title win, screwed out of deserved rematches. He’s booked him to be a friend coming to the rescue of Seth Rollins and teamed him with popular babyfaces and former Shield partners time after time. Reigns has been loyal to his friends and a good partner. You know, like babyfaces act, not heels. Reigns has not verbally lashed out at the fans, even those who boo him. Reigns goes about his business, absorbing the boos like a man (you know, like a babyface would, rather than being petulant and overtly resentful), and continuing to fight the good fight. There is nothing “gray” about Reigns’s character, as he portrays himself on TV and how he is booked.

He said “as long as they are showing up and as long as they are making noise, then I’ve done my job.” I don’t know if he and others around him have convinced him this a logical, credible stance to take, but it’s not. If attendance and ratings and WWE Network subs were surging and it could be tied to Reigns, or even loosely correlated to when Reigns was advertised for an event, maybe a case could be made. But there’s just zero evidence of this. Zero.

WWE Network growth has stalled; WWE didn’t even distinguish in its latest quarterly financials whether domestic full paid subscriptions had actually dropped, grouping all paid subs domestic and international together, without distinguishing whether “paid” included those who paid 99 cents for a three month promotion late in the quarter. TV ratings are flat, and actually dropped at the beginning of Reigns’s push on top (although this was largely in lock step with other linear TV show ratings trends).

Fans who attend WWE are buying into the brand and the entirety of the product. Reigns is a big part of that, but are fans paying to attend WWE events or subscribing to the Network in spite of Reigns, not because of Reigns? Maybe. I’d say probably.

This idea that if fans are making any noise, it’s a good thing, was started as a defense for John Cena. It ignores that there’s a spectrum of fan responses, and suggests the fallacy of a binary choice that the only bad crowd response is a lack of crowd response and the rest are equally good crowd responses. Reigns getting a response might be better than getting no response. Maybe. But it’s far from the ideal response. The ideal response is what Seth Rollins, Braun Strowman, Daniel Bryan, and A.J. Styles are getting – enthusiastic, loud pops from all of WWE’s ticket buying demographics.

Even if you think it’s better that fans who dislike Reigns dislike him with an intensity that manifests in loud boos at the vast majority of WWE televised events – when he appears in front of them, when his name is mentioned by others, or when his likeness appears in a video on a big screen – than if fans who disliked him were just silent, we’re talking about a matter of degrees of “bad,” not an exoneration of “bad.” In other words, on spectrum of “good and bad crowd responses to a top babyface,” being booed is on the bad side of the ledger, even if there’s something worse that isn’t happening – a quieter crowd response or silence.

If Vince McMahon really thought any response is a good response, he wouldn’t work so hard to get Roman a better response. He wouldn’t team him with the latest red-hot babyface. He wouldn’t have him cut promos saying the evil authority figures who run WWE are against him and out to get him. He wouldn’t put him in in his booking schemes that he’s put every other top babyface from Hulk Hogan to Lex Luger to Bret Hart to Steve Austin to John Cena meant to engender positive, sympathetic vibes from fans. He wouldn’t have the volume of the crowd turned down during the intense booing of Reigns when he makes his ring entrance on TV and PPV shows.

He compliments himself for “the way I stir up the crowd.” He makes it sound like the crowd response he gets is by design, instead of the complete opposite of what the promoting machinery and his own words and body language are aiming for. He doesn’t “stir up” the crowd with deliberate actions aimed at stirring up the crowd. On the contrary, he waits out the boos with a shoulder shrug and then recites his scripted lines. In matches, he wrestles with his set of signature babyface moves, with a match structure that is meant to garner sympathy from fans until he makes his comeback and then – like every other top babyface and no top heel in pro wrestling history – plays to the crowd afterward in a sincere attempt to amplify crowd cheers for his victory celebration.

Perhaps the most noteworthy quote of all is: “If I’m already being booed, then why try to get booed?”

So wait a second, is he intentionally stirring up the crowd or is he being booed without trying?

Setting that question aside, the answer is simple: If he tried to get booed, then he could play the actual role of a heel and go against babyfaces, and then fans who don’t like him would still dislike him but instead of resenting his positioning as a lead babyface against other heels, they could play along without going against the storyline and cheer the babyface they naturally like better.

That’s a win-win-win for WWE, Reigns, and the fans. Add another win for stockholders, because positioning Reigns as a heel against babyfaces would give WWE a better chance to increase WWE Network subscriptions, WWE TV ratings, and WWE live event attendance. It would align WWE’s costly efforts to promote its stars with the preferences of the fanbase instead of creating an unnecessary head wind that undercuts other heels whom he currently faces and distracts from everything else going on. It would mitigate the sense that Vince  McMahon is “at war” with his own customer base, many of whom are at risk of fleeing to New Japan or just cutting back their time and money invested in the WWE ecosystem.

Reigns said, “As long as they’re showing up and as long as they’re making noise, then I’ve done my job.”

A sign of a successful wrestler (one “doing his job”) is contributing to a happy and enthusiastic fan base who are willing to spend their money on the company he works for by watching the shows he’s on.

Imagine a political convention where the nominated presidential candidate was being loudly booed by more than half of the delegates and attendees representing the party. Would that be better than making no noise? Of course not. Noise in and of itself is not good.

A top babyface attraction who gets a loud reaction which largely consists of boos is not a good thing. Don’t buy the propaganda. Even if otherwise smart people you trust for wrestling analysis repeat it as if we’re all in agreement and it’s truth is self-evident. It’s not true. It’s a cover story to try to save face for the embarrassing failure of Vince McMahon to get fans who have rejected Roman Reigns for years to warm up to him.

Reigns is making a lot of money doing what he’s told to do. I don’t blame him for the preposterous spin he puts on the rejection of his character. But I’m going to call it what it is – it’s a preposterous or delusional spin on the reality of the situation: Reigns is not a heel, nor is he a successful babyface. He’s a rejected babyface who happens to be positioned on top of a promotion that is signing gigantic TV deals which are disconnected from the actual indicators of whether today’s fans are happy with the decision to promote Reigns as a lead babyface.


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4 Comments on KELLER’S TAKE: Roman Reigns saying he is already a heel is preposterous, but framing it as such might be only way to save face

  1. So other websites actually cover for wwe. Is that what you’re saying?
    “Don’t buy the propaganda. Even if otherwise smart people you trust for wrestling analysis repeat it as if we’re all in agreement and it’s truth is self-evident. It’s not true. It’s a cover story to try to save face for the embarrassing failure of Vince McMahon to get fans who have rejected Roman Reigns for years to warm up to him.”

    • How about him saying that if fans show up and make noise then Ive done my job. I am surprised the fact that the crowd filtered out during his “main event” PPV match against a popular wrestler was not mentioned in this article. Unless I missed it, forgive me.

  2. I think if the customer base were in the process of dwindling, then WWE will genuinely try to change the direction of their creative. Since they have stuck with the same-old Reigns experiment at the top of their card for a long time now, one has to conclude business is fine after all. Perhaps, that is what Reigns is also saying: The bottom line is good and I am getting a reaction, therefore I am doing my job. Reigns is a creative failure, but perhaps not a financial one.

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