Last year’s Royal Rumble felt like an event out of some bizarro wrestling world. For weeks, rumors circulated that WWE had re-signed Batista from retirement and promised that he’d win the Rumble and headline WrestleMania. It made a certain kind of sense — Batista was once one of WWE’s biggest stars, and he was seven months away from appearing in a Hollywood blockbuster. That mix of wrestling and mainstream stardom had worked for the Rock, who left for film and would receive the rapturous approval of fans anytime he returned to the ring.
But Batista wasn’t the Rock. And more than that, he was not Daniel Bryan, the underdog whose semi-real-life story line was the fans’ cause of the day. When Batista jogged out during the Rumble, and when Rey Mysterio came out at no. 30, ensuring that Bryan would not appear in the match (and thus would have no chance to headline WrestleMania), the fans should have cheered two long-serving babyfaces. But instead they revolted. They showered boos on Batista and Mysterio and WWE in general. Batista appeared shaken as he celebrated his win. He’d been an eight-year pro, and he’d never seen anything like this before. After leaving in 2010, he had no idea he’d come back to an entirely new world. If it were a Star Wars movie, it would have been called Mutiny of the Smarks.
Sunday night in Philadelphia, fans got the sequel to that disaster, this time starring Roman Reigns in the role of Batista. Rumors abounded that WWE planned to have Reigns win the Rumble almost from the moment Reigns’s solo career began. At first, the idea didn’t seem terrible: Bryan was injured last April and hadn’t wrestled for months, John Cena’s reign at the top felt beyond stale, and fans craved a new generation of stars. That next generation was embodied in the Shield, a trio made up of Reigns, Seth Rollins, and Dean Ambrose. Once WWE split them up (a ploy that helped make up for Bryan’s absence), all three were set to see their stars rise. And Reigns was supposed to shine brightest.
Let’s get this out of the way: One year ago, Roman Reigns was insanely over. When the Shield and the Wyatt Family had their first stare-down, Reigns stood toe-to-toe with Bray Wyatt, and that felt right. At the same Rumble where Batista was booed, the next most important story line was the dominance of Reigns, who set a WWE record by eliminating 12 competitors. He wasn’t as gifted a talker as Ambrose and lacked the ring acumen of Rollins, but nobody could deny Reigns’s star power. But rather than let Reigns develop into a headliner, WWE heard the cheers and decided to shove him straight into the spotlight, readiness be damned. Reigns would be fast-tracked to become the company’s new superman, no matter how fans reacted. Sunday’s debacle was inevitable. On the night that the fans rejected WWE’s plans for Batista and Bryan so forcefully that they changed the company’s narrative over the next several months, WWE failed to grasp the larger point: Fans won’t like somebody just because WWE tells them to. The “suspension of disbelief” is one of the most central ideas of modern pro wrestling — you have to give yourself over to the show, to accept its intrinsic limitations and allow yourself to enjoy it. But WWE has taken this to a whole new level — it convinced itself that fans will love Reigns in the face of so much evidence to the contrary.
So when the rumors began last fall that Reigns was in line for a Mania push, fans started grumbling. It wasn’t a knock on Reigns, but a knock on WWE for repeatedly pushing musclebound mediocrities who never seemed to amount to more than pale imitations of the Rock. Rather than build Reigns into a title-caliber wrestler and a character people cared about, it let him coast on the Shield’s laurels — he kept their theme song and costume, while Rollins and Ambrose evolved into new, fuller characters. Reigns was kept in a risk-free holding pattern until the Rumble rolled around. WWE seemed so afraid of messing with his success that it didn’t do anything interesting with him. When Reigns went out with a hernia last fall, it felt like a blessing. He could be spared WWE’s railroading routine and then repositioned into a more fitting role. For fans, the injury appeared to be a welcome escape from being force-fed another artificial star. But then Reigns returned, was rushed into a feud with the Big Show, and, with exactly one singles matche under his belt,1 booked for WrestleMania as the new wrestling messiah. For many fans who weren’t thrilled about Reigns’s WrestleMania destiny to begin with, the injury made it worse. Not only did they prefer other wrestlers, but now Reigns’s limited experience and months of inactivity would prevent him from living up to the moment, skill-wise. His victory at the Rumble makes him an even stronger symbol of WWE’s blinkered intractability than Batista was a year ago — and that’s saying a lot.
A decent match against Randy Orton at SummerSlam.
So at Sunday’s Rumble, when Reigns’s impending victory became obvious, the crowd turned on him. Loudly. So loudly that WWE edited the boos out of re-broadcasts of the event and announcer Michael Cole was later forced to call the event “controversial” — a bit of doublespeak used whenever a story line or character utterly fails (and often applied to Cena in his most despised moments). On Monday, with Raw canceled in Connecticut because of snow, WWE aired a studio show with replayed matches from the night before and new interviews with its biggest stars. Reigns maintained a low-key vibe, a sharp reversal from the corny promos he had been cutting over the past month.
In his promo, Reigns tried to acknowledge the animosity toward him and strike a go-getter tone: “If I was handpicked by the higher-ups, I guess I’d have to say thanks for the opportunity. But it’s an opportunity. You still have to go out there and capitalize, you have to deliver … you have to go out there and take advantage.” Reigns mentioned his family, a who’s-who of Samoan wrestlers. More than anything, though, Reigns seemed slightly shell-shocked from the previous night. And who wouldn’t be? When Vince McMahon told him the plan for the Rumble, I’m sure “they’re going to fucking hate it” was never part of the pitch. The saving grace of Monday’s show was when Brock Lesnar’s “advocate,” Paul Heyman, took over the interviewer’s duties and conferred some history and significance upon the title match. And most importantly, Heyman’s spiel allowed Reigns to be the character who had been so popular a year ago — steely, silent, and ambiguous.
It made sense that WWE was trying to win back the fans who had revolted the previous night, but Reigns’s reversal in tone, from the way he’d been presenting himself in previous weeks, was shocking. His volume was down and his humility and heritage were on display. He was almost likable. This was the fix WWE settled on — but it’s what it needed from the start. If this turns out to be a Band-Aid that gets replaced by further tone-deaf mythmaking for Reigns, then the fan reaction will be relentless. If it’s an indication that WWE is trying something different with Reigns’s character, then there’s some hope. If not, he risks dragging Heyman down with him, just like he did with the Rock.
An about-face worked last year with Bryan, who went from being perennially “buried” to full-fledged World Heavyweight Champion status before his injury. WWE would like you to think it had planned that outcome all along, and that leaving Bryan out of last year’s Rumble was an inspired feat of misdirection. The debate over Bryan is whether WWE was actively trying to hold him down before fan outrage forced it to include him in the WrestleMania main event, or if it was playing the fans all along. But the difference between those competing theories is less significant than it seems. Every wrestling story line is in some way a reaction to the fans, and it’s foolish to demonize WWE for finally listening to its audience. The problem is that it spent months ignoring and discounting the groundswell behind Bryan, just like it ignored the negative response Reigns had been getting in recent weeks.
The fans who booed Sunday’s Rumble weren’t simply agitating on behalf of Bryan, whose long-awaited return was greeted with swift elimination from the match. They were mad about all the fan favorites — Bryan, Dolph Ziggler, Ambrose, Cesaro, even Wyatt — who were treated as mere cogs in the Roman Reigns elevation machine.2 What’s at stake is more than just booing a character they aren’t fond of. Many fans feel ostracized from the product, having spent the last decade bored by the sovereignty of Cena. Now they look at Reigns and see Cena being created all over again, with even less emphasis on wrestling ability and coherent storytelling. The fans see this and they’re desperate to prevent it from happening. If WWE is dead set on re-creating the past 10 years instead of offering something fresh, then wrestling fans will do whatever they can to change the course of history.
Stephen Totilo has a great breakdown of the recent causes for fan resentment.
The truly sad part is that there were several ways WWE could have triangulated between pushing Reigns to the moon and keeping the fans happy. Last year’s Bryan story line proved there’s never a “too late” in pro wrestling. How would I have booked Sunday’s show? Four options:
1. You have Rollins win the title from Lesnar, then Lesnar vs. Bryan in a non-title match at Mania with Rollins-Reigns (or better yet, Rollins-Reigns-Ambrose in a Shield three-way) for the title. Have Reigns win that, I don’t even care.
2. Have Rollins or Cena win the title, and then have Lesnar-Reigns in a non-title match if you want that matchup. Reigns sending Lesnar packing from WWE might not be ideal, but removing the title would shield the match from much of the fans’ ire. To be clear, WWE fans don’t believe any of this is real. Winning matters to them only insomuch as it predicts how WWE will book the fans’ favorite wrestlers in future events. Fans care about who main-events WrestleMania because fans know how much it means within WWE.
3. Have Ziggler and Reigns as the last two heroes in the Rumble battling valiantly against Big Show and Kane. Ziggler gets tossed but catches himself and starts to slide back in under the bottom rope, and Kane boots him to the floor. The ref waves him out, but another ref appears and says that from his point of view he could see that Ziggler got more than halfway back in the ring before he was kicked out, so he’s still legal. (It could be a parody of recent NFL officiating troubles, and nobody loves parodies of the NFL’s plight more than McMahon.) Ziggler reenters just as Reigns triumphantly expels Show and Kane, and as Reigns turns to celebrate, his buddy Ziggler is there to celebrate with him. Except Ziggler raises Reigns’s hand and then superkicks him out of the ring. The crowd goes wild — Ziggler not only wins but delivers us from ReignsMania. Reigns-Ziggler can headline the February PPV, and Reigns can slowly develop into WWE’s new loner heel after Lesnar leaves town. And when Reigns turns babyface in six months, the crowd will go crazy.
4. If you’re determined to have Reigns win the Rumble and appear in the WrestleMania main event, don’t avoid the obvious: Have the Rumble match final four be Reigns, Bryan, Ziggler, and Ambrose, and have Reigns eliminate them all. If WWE is choosing Reigns over those wrestlers, then at least let the audience see him toss them out of the ring. It would have been booed — like everything else that happened with Reigns at the Rumble — but it would at least have built some intrigue into the proceedings and into Reigns’s character. And Reigns eliminating those rivals sends a message to fans that WWE at least acknowledges the existence of Bryan, Ziggler, and Ambrose. The biggest problem with the Bryan story line last year was the uncertainty of it all, the lack of storytelling. When he didn’t appear in the Rumble and WWE made no mention of him, it seemed clear WWE had hoped nobody would notice his absence. When Reigns gets the Rumble win with a booking sheet from a 1988 Hulk Hogan match, it’s clear WWE is back in wishful-thinking mode.
There are a million other routes to a successful WrestleMania, and for all I know, WWE will still find a way to make this one the best ever. (I doubt it, but who knows?) But the point is that putting somebody in the best position to succeed does not necessarily mean putting them in the main event. When WWE forces it, it’s more likely to derail a career than make one. The harder WWE tries, the more excruciating it becomes. I joked while watching Reigns’s Jack and the Beanstalk promo that someday we’d watch that video the same way football fans watch the clip of Joe Theismann’s leg breaking. And that makes me sad. I don’t want Reigns in the WrestleMania main event, but even more than that, I don’t want his career to be over. WWE might accomplish both the way it’s going.
What WWE should have done doesn’t matter. It’s done — or at least as done as it was last year, before fans forced Bryan into the main event. The question is whether WWE will have the self-awareness to listen to its fans and self-correct once again, or WWE will doom Reigns to the misfortunes of Batista, or Cena before him, or the first half of Randy Orton’s career, or the second half of the Ultimate Warrior’s, or Lex Luger’s WWF run. Those are just a handful of examples of when WWE booked wrestlers whom the fans didn’t want to see at the top. Looking at that list, it’s hard not to wonder why WWE hasn’t learned a new way to tell a main-event story since Hulk Hogan won the belt in 1984. It’s no wonder the fans boo something they’ve been seeing — in progressively diluted iterations — for more than 30 years.
To make matters worse, WWE saw the backlash coming. For the Rumble finale on Sunday, they got Reigns’s cousin, the Rock, to make a surprise appearance3 in the hopes that it might convey some of Rock’s goodwill and celebrity onto Reigns. It didn’t work. The fans booed so loudly that the Rock — like Batista before him — appeared to be stunned. They chanted for Bryan. They chanted for Rusev, of all people, who was the last man in the ring with a chance to dump Reigns. They chanted for refunds. By the time the cousins, Rock and Reigns, got together backstage for a postmatch interview, the Rock seemed angry that he’d been dragged into this shitshow at all.
I use “surprise” loosely, since Dwayne Johnson has a bad habit of posting his whereabouts to Instagram, and most fans knew he was in Philly on Sunday.
My podcast partner, Peter Rosenberg, asked what I thought the Rock was thinking when the boos rained down on him Sunday night. The answer is simple: He was thinking “Die Rocky Die!” — the chant he got at the beginning of his career when he was being over-pushed as a squeaky-clean blue-chipper. Rocky Maivia was like Luger and Cena — and all the examples I mentioned above. The problem isn’t necessarily the specific people WWE chooses to be superstars. It’s that it’s booking wrestlers into that role to begin with. Hulk Hogan wasn’t a model to be followed — he was a once-in-a-lifetime phenomenon. To repeatedly try to re-create his magic is the original sin of McMahon’s WWE. Thank god that when fans turned on Maivia, WWE listened and responded. And fans saw that response and realized that they, too, had a form of control over the product.
Fan reaction has always played a primary role in pro-wrestling storytelling. I’ve written about it at length — wrestling is the only truly interactive sport, where a hero is only a hero so long as he’s being cheered. And in this current era of wrestling, fans understand that they have the power not just to approve or reject story lines but also to commandeer them altogether by hijacking shows with chants. Up until Sunday, the Rock had been spared the wrath of today’s wrestling fans, who are usually just excited to have him back. He’s a symbol of wrestling’s last heyday and a symbol of how powerful a character can be when the promoter follows cues from the audience. On Sunday, the WWE machine finally managed to exhaust the Rock’s goodwill, and poor Rocky felt the consequences.
The mystery isn’t whether WWE actively despises these fans, but rather why it hasn’t figured out how to tell stories in a way that harnesses modern-day fan reactions and uses them to further WWE’s plans. The events at Sunday’s Rumble dispel the notion that last year’s Bryan story line was deliberate, because WWE still doesn’t seem to know what it’s doing. If WWE had learned something from the Bryan episode, then Reigns never would have won the Rumble — at least not the way he won. The fans would have been incorporated into the outcome. They wouldn’t have needed to openly revolt against it.
Instead, we have Brock Lesnar versus Roman Reigns at WrestleMania. Whether we like it or not.
This article has been updated to correctly indicate the number of pay-per-view singles matches Roman Reigns has taken part in.