The WWE continues to work harder rather than smarter to groom Roman Reigns as the company's top face with Wrestlemania approaching. Also, we look ahead to the Wrestlemania weekend.
The WWE’s efforts to get Roman Reigns over are why Reigns isn’t over. Rather than let audiences love him organically as was the case with A.J. Styles, the WWE broke up The Shield in 2014 and almost immediately moved Reigns into the main event picture rather than let him build a rep as a solo performer and work his way up the card. The sense that he was being foisted on the “WWE Universe”—as the company refers to its fans—prompted fans to reject him, but rather than stop pushing, the WWE only pushed harder. It put him against John Cena so that Cena—simultaneously one of the most loved and most hated WWE wrestlers—could endorse him. He was robbed of a chance to win the WWE Championship when a heel Seth Rollins cashed in his Money in the Bank suitcase and beat his former Shield partner when he was poised to beat Brock Lesnar, but none of that moved the needle.
On the rare occasions when the company lets Roman be Roman, I find his casually smartass swagger entertaining. Unfortunately, that’s not how he is being framed going in to Wrestlemania in New Orleans April 8 to face Brock Lesnar. This time the WWE is pressing even harder with two-pronged manipulation of the fans. Lesnar has been positioned as a part-timer who’s only interested in a paycheck before he jumps to UFC, while Reigns is a second generation WWE lifer who’s hardcore for the company. To sell that angle, Lesnar has been announced twice as appearing on Raw but didn’t show up, and in a house show in Chicago, he dispatched Kane in 35 seconds—apparently a sign of disrespect for the fans who paid to see two rhinos collide.
At the same time, Reigns is also facing the WWE’s greatest heel, Mr. McMahon. Since owner Vince McMahon caricatured himself to feud with Stone Cold Steve Austin, he has been the company’s ultimate bad guy—the guy who’d rig the system against the working guy because he’s a rich, bored, vengeful prick. This week, he got into the Reigns push after Reigns called him out for letting Lesnar blow off the fans and the other wrestlers. His response was to suspend Reigns, in effect pitting the wrestling true believer against the dilettante and the toxic boss. That didn’t work either. Later in the evening, Cena tried to get a Roman Reigns chant going and couldn’t make it happen.
I’ve heard the suggestion that Reigns should turn heel because the crowd loves heels these days, and that within a year they’d be on Reigns’ side and the WWE could then turn him face again with fan support. That path got Styles and Seth Rollins to the places they are now, though the crowds were never against them like they’re hostile to Reigns. I’m not sure all that is necessary. If Reigns was allowed to be funny and smart the way he is in his best promos, he’d start solving the problem on his own.
You can’t give someone a list of reasons why he or she should love you and expect it to work. You have to let the magic happen. If the WWE would stop trying to force us to love Roman Reigns, people would.
In other news:
Sunday’s “Fastlane” pay-per-view and Tuesday’s Smackdown Live finally split Kevin Owens and Sami Zayn out of the WWE Championship title picture, which is once again focused on Styles and Shinsuke Nakamura, who’ll meet at Wrestlemania in New Orleans April 8. Owens and Zayn’s friendship finally split Sunday night, and on Tuesday they both cut great promos on each other. It looks like we’re moving toward an Owens/Zayn match at Wrestlemania, and the brutal beat-down they laid on Shane McMahon—who cost each of them the win at different points on Sunday night—at the end of Smackdown Live suggests that he’ll be a part of that match. I hope McMahon’s going to find a tag team partner to face the two, who can clearly cooperate against a common foe. A three-way match between them isn’t particularly enticing because while Shane is the best wrestler in the McMahon family, he’s not as good a wrestler as the wrestlers. Besides, we just saw what Zayn and Owens together can do to him. He needs an equalizer to make that match enticing.
On Monday night, Raw decided not to let Nia Jax’s feud with Alexa Bliss heat up organically either. Instead, a camera caught Bliss and Mickie James—who is inexplicably Bliss’ friend now despite their feud last year when Bliss mocked her as old—doing pages of exposition. They talked about how Bliss was using Jax, how dumb Jax was, how pathetic she was—all while Jax watched from the ring. Jax’s horror at finding out what her friend really thought of her almost made the scene, but as with the Roman Reigns vignette earlier in the show, it was a ham-handed way of moving that story forward. Smackdown Live has had a lot of issues this year, but the relationship between Owens and Zayn has moved effortlessly through a number of stages from best friends to mortal enemies without forcing things. It helps that Owens and Zayn are two of the best all-around performers on the WWE roster, but they show that good performers can move their stories through major changes that engage the audience if trusted to get the job done.
Since Braun Strowman became the “monster among men,” I’ve wondered what his second or third act looks like. If he’s a nearly invulnerable wrecking machine, how will the WWE find credible opposition for him in the future? That question came more quickly than I expected as Wrestlemania approaches and with Reigns facing Brock Lesnar, there’s no obvious big man able to give him a meaningful match. The WWE’s solution this week? Put him in a Raw tag team battle royal, where he single-handedly defeated four tag teams to face The Bar at Wrestlemania. The gesture officially stamped “CHUMP” on the foreheads of everybody else in the match as their tag teams were clearly designated as tackling dummies who couldn’t win an eight-on-one match. There’s no coming back from that, and because of that, there’s effectively no tag team division on Raw.
On Smackdown Live, The Bludgeon Brothers threaten to be a version of the same situation. At “Fastlane,” Harper and Rowan interrupted the Usos/New Day match to demolish an Uso and two New Days. Tuesday night, Big E and Jimmy Uso faced the Bludgeon Brothers and were shitkicked like everybody else who has gone against them. Now, all three tag teams will meet at Wrestlemania, but Harper and Rowan are being positioned as Strowman-like engines of destruction, with all the same challenges. Vince McMahon has always loved big men since he made Hulk Hogan the vehicle to make his then-WWF the first nationwide professional wrestling company. His love of big men has created some of the company’s most memorable performers including The Undertaker and Kane, but no one has seemed so bulletproof in a long time.
Strowman, Harper and Rowan all began as followers of Bray Wyatt, and all three are hotter than Wyatt has been since he parted ways with them. Their gimmicks simplified as they became big, strong motherfuckers, while Wyatt’s became muddier as he transitioned from a Flannery O’Connor-like southern spiritual leader with a small but menacing flock to a religious hoodoo guy.
Wyatt gets one last chance to be interesting when he faces Woken Matt Hardy this Monday night on Raw in “The Ultimate Deletion.” If it follows the form of “The Final Deletion,” it will be a combination wrestling match and B-movie starring Wyatt, Hardy, and the weird cast from Hardy’s Woken/Broken world—Queen Rebecca, King Maxel, Señor Benjamin, and Vanguard-1. The Hardy/Wyatt feud has been tedious as Wyatt is a charisma black hole into which everything interesting about those he feuds with disappears. He has sucked the fun out of Finn Balor and Seth Rollins, and so far he’s sucked the life out of Hardy too.
The WWE could kill “The Ultimate Deletion” by improving the production values until they reach a banal competence that loses the wild, nutty quality that made “The Final Deletion” great. On the other hand, if they get the concept and make “The Ultimate Deletion” the best wrestling B-movie possible, it could be something special. Maybe even something that would make me care about Bray Wyatt again.
Finally, Wrestlemania weekend is going to make New Orleans the center of the wrestling world that weekend. In addition to Wrestlemania followed by Raw on Monday, April 9 and Smackdown Live Tuesday, April 10, NXT will will present “Take Over: New Orleans” Saturday, April 7 at the Smoothie King Center. The same night, Ring of Honor will present “Supercard of Honor XII” Saturday night as well with a card that includes Cody Rhodes vs. Kenny Omega. as well as appearances by The Young Bucks, Kota Ibushi, and Hiroshi Tanahashi.