THE RAW REVIEW
Two weeks ago, on this website, I proclaimed that I would not be watching or writing about Monday Night Raw again until January 5th, 2016. Without malice, I needed to step away from WWE and regain some perspective rather than harp on the same few criticisms every week.
I decided that I would use the month of December to shine a spotlight on independent wrestling and other promotions that seemed more in tune with what viewers wanted from the medium in 2015. Thus far, during my sabbatical, I devoted an episode of my podcast to Insane Championship Wrestling and last week I wrote a Raw Review dedicated to World Class Championship Wrestling.
On Sunday night, after checking my Twitter feed, I realized TLC was happening (I hadn’t even remembered). I put it on in the background, half-watching, because there was nothing left to do on a particularly lazy Sunday.
The final few minutes of that show managed to draw me in completely, however. I set the computer down, and I watched as something unexpected happened. I saw Roman Reigns transform into the strong, vengeful warrior the character has always wanted to be.
I saw the Roman Reigns character react appropriately to an increasingly frustrating situation. I saw Roman Reigns unleash himself, without remorse, upon his enemies. He became the wish-fulfillment of the viewer; desperate to dismantle The Authority for no other reason than The Authority’s ever-presence on the show. We finally had a hero who could do exactly what we wanted to do to the people running the WWE.
The morality of Roman’s actions ceased to be of any concern. All that mattered was that he had been disrespected by an adversary. That’s all the incentive a true warrior needs to go on a horrifying rampage that leaves destruction in his wake.
As he whacked Triple H with a chair and roared, wild-eyed, and seething, unconcerned with the ramifications of his actions and instead lost in the glorious red glow of passion, I saw the Roman Reigns I’ve wanted to see ever since The Shield first broke up.
I saw the Roman Reigns I’ve seen in stops and starts throughout the years.
I saw a Roman Reigns who could convince me to tune in to Monday Night Raw at the height of my disinterest in the WWE.
I saw a well-booked Roman Reigns supported by a story that played to his strengths, hid his weaknesses, emphasized the villainy of his enemies, and encouraged people to have fun watching him succeed rather than passively accept his ascent as a foregone business decision.
I saw Roman Reigns become The WWE World Heavyweight Champion.
And I would have been a fool to miss that.
Years ago, when I was a little more self-righteous and stubborn, I would have refused, on principle, to break my promise to not write about RAW for the month of December. I would have snidely rolled my eyes at the news of Roman’s victory, secretly furious that I’d missed out on the experience of that moment. I would have pushed forward with my plan to not write about RAW despite the inherent flaw in that plan, and despite how such a choice would let down the readers eager to read a RAW REVIEW about this great moment.
(Last week’s RAW REVIEW on World Class Championship Wrestling is one of the least-viewed pieces I’ve ever written. I really enjoyed writing that piece, and I think it’s one of the better things I’ve written this year, but if it doesn’t find an audience, it doesn’t necessarily contribute to the purpose of this website. This week, if I wrote a RAW REVIEW about Lucha Underground or Insane Championship Wrestling, those pieces would receive a similar reception. Few would read them or understand why they were titled THE RAW REVIEW. Fewer would care about the symbolic gesture of writing a RAW REVIEW about an indy promotion and not WWE. That wouldn’t be fair to those promotions. From a purely practical perspective, the internet requires clarity, and I genuinely want to celebrate those other promotions without doing so as a critique of WWE. And I will, in editorials with appropriate titles that more effectively draw people - for example, if last week's RAW REVIEW was titled "What WWE Can Learn From World Class Championship Wrestling" it would have done ten times better, but in my narcissism I assumed THE RAW REVIEW itself was a draw regardless of its subject matter)
When it came time to write today’s review, I knew that I could choose to stubbornly hold to my proclamation out of some misguided sense of self-importance and a fear of alienating readers quick to dub me a hypocrite…or I could just be honest.
And If I’m honest with you, dear reader, I’m done being angry for long stretches of time. I have no interest in being one of the “cool kids” who rages against the machine even when it’s not intelligent to do so. I've been there, I've done that, and it wasn't fun and it certainly wasn't useful to anyone. This website is more scalpel than sledgehammer, a genuine effort to be as effective as possible at achieving its mission.
For all these reasons and more, I want to spend today’s RAW REVIEW commending good decisions, and encouraging the WWE to continue embracing the most basic truth of the Roman Reigns character.
Others joined me a couple weeks ago in taking time off from WWE, but they were lured back in thanks to good storytelling. That’s not something any of us should feel guilty about. That’s something to celebrate. It means that the WWE still has the power to move us to emotional highs. It means that our love for the product, no matter how beaten down by relentless six-man tag matches, injuries, scripts, and squandered talents, remains dormant in our souls, ready to be manipulated and reignited any time the WWE tries to.
It means that the WWE has a positive point of reference for future downturns in the product.
If the WWE checks the pulse of their base at this time they can learn from this experience and make informed decisions about the direction of their show in the future. After last night's Monday Night Raw, the company has a solid guide for increasing viewer-retention and, more importantly in 2015, how to sustain fan-enthusiasm for the product. Word of mouth is everything in today’s internet age, not necessarily an outdated ratings system that ignores the way people generally consume entertainment today. When legions of fans heap praise upon a product, no matter how niche, that praise contributes to an air of significance, a sense of urgency among people who feel they must tune in. That urgency and that praise vibrates throughout social media channels and popular culture like the bass-thuds of a raucous house party. People hear that fun is being had, and so they naturally gravitate toward it. To offer an example, there are people reading this article right now who have not been watching the WWE for a while, and right around this sentence they're considering checking in. Even if that's only one person, that's still a potential paying customer.
Right now people are happy to be WWE fans. There's no reason that needs to change so long as the company remains focused on the same basic premises that led to this renewed interest.
Prior to this week’s RAW, even “casual viewers” weren’t happy. They didn’t have a reason to tune in. The disinterest wasn’t the result of heels dominating babyfaces. The disinterest was the result of tired stories that failed to hide weaknesses and showcase strengths. The same people who couldn’t be bothered to tune in to Monday Night Raw the past few months simply could not stand to miss this week’s Monday Night Raw. The same arena that booed Roman Reigns out of the building at The 2015 Royal Rumble, erupted into “YES!” chants just moments before he became WWE World Heavyweight Champion.
Why? What happened? Is everyone just fickle or is there a good reason we all popped?
People got wind of a good story, where a powerful character took violent control of his life and fought against an oppressive, corrupt system. People heard that Roman Reigns beat the hell out of Sheamus, The League of Nations, and Triple H.
People saw something they wanted to see at TLC. They saw something that made sense. They saw a Roman Reigns they could actually believe in.
I’ve long been a fan of Roman Reigns. When I see Roman, I get it.
He is Achilles…or at least that’s who the Roman Reigns character naturally wants to be. He is a mythological warrior;a hero whose heroism comes not from being morally righteous (like John Cena), but from being elite.
In days of old, when warriors walked the land defending nations, lords, or villages, they were revered because of their brutality. These warriors relied on their own myth to strike fear into the hearts of their enemies. The more pain they inflicted upon their adversary, the better. The more vicious and relentless and wild these warriors were, the more the citizens believed in them and revered them as fearsome gods.
THESE CLIPS FROM TROY REPRESENT A ROMAN REIGNS WHO GETS OVER
Great warriors are violent. They can’t help that. It’s in the job description. They specifically deal in death and destruction. They’re not necessarily benevolent, but they’re not malevolent either. Great warriors operate outside the realm of a binary perception of right and wrong, existing instead in a realm founded on principles of honor, courage, respect, self-defense, and domination. Great warriors are not radical ideological madmen who contribute to the profit of others. Great warriors simply defend their charge. They have a job to do, and so they do it. That is all the justification a warrior’s actions requires.
In this way, “The Story of The Great Warrior” is one that represents a specific kind of wish-fulfillment. The average person (the masses) loves the idea of transforming themselves into a beloved legend, especially when that legend is born out of an act of violence. We find catharsis in imagining a reality where our rage and our viciousness has an appropriate outlet. To this day, we still tell stories about these legends and raise them up as worthwhile aspirations.
Batman is the purest modern-day example of a warrior-myth. As psychologically complex as the character may be, his mission is very simple; rid the world of injustice. Gotham is Batman’s charge, and he will stop at nothing to defend it from those who seek to destroy it. The more violent Batman is, the more inhuman Batman is, the stronger his legend becomes, and so the weaker his enemy will be. Trained to his physical peak, schooled in all forms of combat, Batman is an adored warrior precisely because of his excellence but, more specifically, because he earned his excellence through pain and suffering. Batman teaches us that pain can be used to heal the wounds of our minds and the wounds of the larger world.
Pain defines the warrior's existence.
In today’s kid-friendly, publicly traded, oftentimes cartoonish WWE, it’s not so easy to tell that kind of violent, warrior story.
In a WWE where heroes must be morally righteous role models who teach children that all forms of violence are wrong while also promoting Breast Cancer Awareness while also selling tee-shirts, it’s difficult for someone who looks and behaves like Roman Reigns to find a comfortable narrative-lane. He is a character, and a man, whose strengths as a performer have remained unavoidably hidden from viewers due to the very nature of today’s WWE organization.
You wouldn’t ask Achilles to say, “Sufferin’ Succotash, son!”
You wouldn’t ask Achilles to say anything at all actually.
The more Achilles spoke, the less you’d fear and love Achilles. The more Achilles tried to get you to like him, the less you'd like him. Ironically, the more human Achilles becomes, the less relatable and the less interesting he is. The draw of Achilles will never be what Achilles thinks about the world around him or what Achilles’ familial ties are. The draw of Achilles will always be in watching Achilles wage violent war while defending his charge.
The draw of Achilles will always be in hearing others tell stories about his acts of greatness.
And that’s the draw of Roman Reigns.
Showcasing those violent and valiant aspects of his character moved WWE fans to place their faith in him, and pop when it came time to pop.
If viewers have been paying attention to Roman’s ascent ever since he first started with The Shield, crowds do react favorably to him when he works within the framework of a warrior-legend. To date, his best solo outing was against Daniel Bryan at Fastlane. That fight was founded on a very simple premise; who's the best fighter in all the land. That story was grounded in realism, and it helped demonstrate ways in which Roman could ascend in a more “natural” fashion. One of the high points of Roman’s WrestleMania Main Event against Brock Lesnar was when he received a series of stiff slaps from The Beast Incarnate and then broke out into legitimate, bemused laughter. This is a warrior’s reaction to pain and oppression.
When Roman speaks softly (or not at all) and carries a big stick, people pop. When Roman walks through the crowd focused on the coming battle, giving the occasional fist bump to “the citizens”, he projects an image of god-like supremacy (not an underdog and not someone who's funny or who even cares about being funny). When Roman moves in the ring, he blends grace and brutality in a manner that’s unique to him. His matches don’t need to be five-star indy spot-fests; that wouldn’t even make sense given the character he's playing. Roman is the kind of warrior whose calculated strikes cause the most amount of damage possible - firm, fluid blows that come when least expected.
Portraying him as elite is, understandably, a frightening proposition. In the age of smarks ready to cast aspersions on anyone who’s the least bit pretty or well-built or not the best talker or lacking an arsenal of traditional wrestling moves, presenting Roman Reigns as “The Best Warrior in The Land” seems destined to generate the bad kind of heat and be at odds with reality (especially when that portrayal cuts in on Lesnar’s gimmick). Attempts to humanize Roman by mentioning his family ties, giving him a microphone, or transforming him into an underdog have only strengthened his disconnect with audiences, however. And so he has existed in narrative limbo for years, unable to sustain a consistent character and, therefore, a consistent connection.
Where so many critics have seen “John Cena 2.0”, a fabricated top guy getting by on his looks, I’ve seen a talented young man suffering from the same inconsiderate booking as his peers.
But, at long last, the WWE seems to be embracing the fundamental nature of The Roman Reigns character, and it’s paying off. Many WWE fans were confused by Roman’s actions at TLC, some even regarded it as a semi-heel turn.
I saw the violent warrior we’ve always wanted to rally behind. The reaction to his victory last night in Philadelphia helps prove the point that an appropriately booked Roman Reigns who talks less and smiles less works.
It’s not as though the WWE is ignorant of the character’s style or Roman’s strengths as a performer.
His name is Roman Reigns after all. If ever a name was "on the nose" that's it!
He walks to the ring encased in body armor.
His chest is emblazoned with a coat of arms.
He walks through a gathering of citizens desperate for his touch.
It’s all already there, and it’s been there for quite some time.
The writers and the bookers know that a fun, interesting, and relatable warrior myth is contained in Roman Reigns. That simple story has just been lost along the way, and bogged down by corporate shenanigans.
The basics of what makes the average person pop for Roman was clouded by the modern definition of “WWE Superstar”. The WWE has created a fictional landscape over the past several years where all characters need to be all things to all people while simultaneously appealing to their specific subset of fans. That's a paradox. That's an impossible situation to navigate, especially when combined with the increased knowledge and the increased sensitivity of fans.
If you handed me a guitar and told me to get up on a stage and entertain ten thousand people, I’d play a few chords, hum a few bars, and get booed out of the building. I can’t get over playing a guitar, no matter how many times an announcer said I could.
Hand me a pen and some paper, I can give you something worthwhile.
Roman Reigns is not The Rock.
Nor should he be.
We don’t need another Rock.
Dwayne Johnson’s time came and went. Those days are in the past and in the past they should remain.
Roman Reigns is Roman Reigns, and Roman Reigns is a silent warrior who tells his story with his body and his eyes. That’s all he ever needed to be. That's all we ever needed from him in order to believe. That’s his unique strength as a performer and that’s what he does incredibly well.
And yet, over the past year, he’s been asked to cut lengthy promos that have absolutely nothing to do with the inherent appeal of his character. Even if Roman had Paul Heyman’s gift for gab, it wouldn’t actually make sense for his character to talk too much.
Roman has also moved from feud to feud without overcoming too many urgent emotional hurdles. Fans have been permitted to see booking decisions rather than good chapters in a long-form story focused on Reigns' exploits.
In just two days, by addressing these problems, by embracing Roman's strengths, and letting him be a mostly silent, vicious warrior, he has become a hero of the people.
It's obvious the WWE took great care to make this happen, from Triple H encouraging Reigns to keep hitting him with a chair to Vince McMahon, Sheamus, and Stephanie McMahon overseeing most of the talking duties during RAW's promo segments.
The fans were encouraged to watch Roman endure pain and then return that pain in equal measure. Stephanie's stiff slaps, the relentless onslaught of The League of Nations, Sheamus' naturally stiff style of working, helped create the sense that Roman was overcoming easily comprehended obstacles in the pursuit of accomplishing his mission.
Both in the fiction of the WWE and in reality, Roman clearly worked hard to ascend to the status of elite warrior.
It's a true shame the color had to be wiped from his face at the end of the match, and that there wasn't an extreme close-up on his eyes as the blood poured down. To see him raise the title, red-faced and screaming, perfectly represents the power of his character. But, again, that is not the WWE booking Roman, and so the conundrum of the character is epitomized (blood would help him get over, but in this era, we can't show blood).
Roman Reigns must tell violent stories to really succeed, and he needs to keep telling those violent stories to remain true to his character and true to what people really want to see in 2015.
His acts of violence, his determination, and his relentlessness can define a more modern WWE World Heavyweight Champion; a warrior who doesn't always strictly "do the right thing", but always does his job. All of the great, hard work that Roman, Sheamus, and the WWE bookers put into this transformation must not be squandered in the future just to keep Roman "palatable", "marketable", and "safe for kids".
Let John Cena be for kids.
Let Roman Reigns be for ages fifteen and up.
Ill-fitting comedic shtick and backstage shenanigans about going out for drinks will serve only to distract from the strengths of the character. The less we know about "Roman Reigns the man", the more believable "Roman Reigns the legend" will be.
After months of feeling the wear and tear of dissatisfying finishes and stunted character development, possibility has finally returned to the WWE.
There is an incentive to tune in next week, to bear witness to the rise of The Roman Empire.
We have our hero: Roman Reigns.
Roman Reigns has his charge: the WWE World Heavyweight Championship.
And I cannot wait to see him defend it.