THE RAW REVIEW
Last night I was able to set aside my overly critical perspective and get wrapped up in the fun of RAW. When it finally came time for Roman Reigns to smash the backs of the bad guys, I was all in. I was a big kid. I believed. And, much to my surprise, it seemed the majority of the Nashville crowd was right there with me. Given the positively tepid response Roman Reigns received after winning the WWE World Heavyweight Championship at Survivor Series and the overwhelmingly negative response his ongoing push elicits from the IWC (Internet Wrestling Community), it was borderline odd to hear the RAW crowd respond so favorably to almost everything he said and did last night (especially after the last image of Survivor Series was Roman in tears).
With the benefit of time and consideration, I'm beginning to see why the tide might be about to turn for Reigns.
I’ve long been a fan of Roman’s, and I've remained a fan because I appreciate what he does well. I understand that Roman Reigns, at his best, represents the wish-fulfillment fantasies of adolescents.
John Cena is for kids. Roman Reigns is for teens. Brock Lesnar is for adults.
I doubt anyone in the WWE thinks of it this way or is aware of it (in fact the booking reveals they're not), but that is the organic dynamic.
And there's nothing wrong with that. The problems only come when there is no story to support these performers or when presentation conflicts with the perception. The problems come when booking decisions are utterly transparent.
The only reason a large portion of the audience rejects Roman's ascent is because he’s been booked as badly as anyone else on the card. The only difference between the bad booking Roman gets and the bad booking Cesaro gets lies in the fact that Vince McMahon likes Roman Reigns and doesn't like Cesaro. The boss's favor might guarantee more main event matches or longer matches, but it doesn't, in the slightest, guarantee better booking.
Good booking doesn’t mean you’re pushed into the main event of WrestleMania.
Good booking means good storytelling.
Good booking means hiding weaknesses and showcasing strengths. Roman Reigns has had absolutely none of that for the past two years. He’s existed without any discernible story while a massive spotlight has been shined on his weaknesses and his strengths taken for granted.
No one could possibly get over with that kind of presentation. There are few performers in the company who have been as badly booked as Roman Reigns. In fact, no one has been as badly booked on as massive a scale as Roman.
No one who likes Roman should ever have to say, "But he keeps getting better every week".
And yet that's the refrain of people who defend him. That's something the man behind the curtain should seriously take into consideration, because there's nothing about Roman Reigns that should ever inspire people to limply say, "Well...I mean...he keeps getting better".
A well-booked Roman Reigns is a man who inspires hushed awe and valiant cries of joy.
It is absolutely no surprise that people have reacted to his ascent in a negative way. But it’s important that fans keep his bad booking in mind when evaluating Roman as a performer and when criticizing the WWE’s product. And it’s essential that the WWE keep their prior missteps with Roman in mind as they move forward into the coming months. There is a chance to right the wrongs of the past year. It’s clear, with this reset-episode of RAW, that this is exactly what the WWE is trying to do.
And while other performers are going to get cast aside in the midst of this reset (Bray Wyatt has taken a hit from which he'll find it very hard to recover and Dean Ambrose will continue to languish in obscurity), Roman Reigns might finally be righted in the WWE's fiction (at the very least) if not righted for pro-wrestling fans (not considering those resigned to irrationally hate Roman for all time).
To understand why it’s taken so long to get to a point where the crowd cheers Roman for smashing heels with a chair (and to avoid making the same mistakes with his future push) we have to go back to when Roman Reigns was betrayed by Seth Rollins.
Ever since the disintegration of The Shield, the WWE has relied purely on Roman’s looks and Roman's athleticism to get him over as a babyface.
The promoter assumed people would love Roman if the WWE simply told the people Roman was the next top guy. That assumption, along with a fundamental misunderstanding of his strengths and weaknesses as a performer, damaged Roman’s character and fed the fires of fan disillusionment. All the WWE ever needed to do was tell a good story about a man who lost his brotherhood. All the WWE ever needed to do was tell a good story about a man struggling to find his purpose in life after losing all he’d known.
Instead fans got a feud between Roman and Randy Orton about nothing that paled in comparison to Dean and Seth's rivalry.
Since becoming a solo performer, Roman has displayed very little overtly benevolent behavior. He hasn’t expressed a passionate worldview. We haven’t known Roman’s ethos, his perspective, what motivates and drives him. He’s been portrayed as an amoral, blank canvas and, as a result, his push has read like a series of week-to-week experiments; failed attempts to discover what he’s actually capable of.
Some weeks he’s pushed to be The Rock. Some weeks he’s pushed to be The Ultimate Warrior. Some weeks he’s pushed to be the last member of The Shield.
The WWE tried their best to make his battle against Brock Lesnar about his family heritage, but that was an ill-fitting appendage that had nothing to do with the strong, silent warrior personae he’d organically built in The Shield. The fans did not know about Roman’s deep Samoan heritage prior to it being strong-armed into that feud, so why would they connect with that?
In his most recent feud with Bray, Wyatt cryptically poked and prodded Roman for having been rejected by the WWE fans hence his statement “Anyone but you”. Wyatt also repeatedly threatened Roman’s daughter. As is the case with so many Wyatt feuds, these were superficial threats at odds with both characters' realities and especially at odds with the way fans react to both characters. Why would the fans who rejected Roman suddenly feel bad for him because Bray was pointing out that he’d been rejected?
When Roman walks down to the ring, do you think of him as a father?
Does Roman look like a wholesome corporate spokesperson with a kid or does he look like a member of a swat team?
These questions point out the disconnect between presentation and perception, summing up why it’s been so hard for Roman to get over in a significant way even after two years of supposedly “strong booking”.
Why, after the dissolution of The Shield, did Roman not seek vengeance on Triple H (the man ultimately responsible for Rollins’ betrayal)?
Why did Roman not feel a need to wage war on The Authority for what they’d done to him way back in 2014, long before WrestleMania 31?
The Shield’s original purpose in the WWE was simply to “protect the WWE World Heavyweight Championship”. While that purpose is somewhat vague it is a perfect seed of motivation for the Roman Reigns character after leaving The Shield.
Seth Rollins was guided by selfish ambition, and he was willing to do whatever it took to be the absolute best in the entire company. He had the freedom to display his talent on the mic and in the ring and he became the best heel we’ve seen in years.
Dean Ambrose was guided by a love of Seth Rollins (yes love). Robbed of the necessary structure he needed to navigate life, Dean Ambrose became a crazed madmen, desperate to pay Rollins back for the deep heartbreak he’d caused. Dean became the sensitive millennial's wish-fulfillment, a new hero for a new age destined for great things.
But what about Roman?
Roman Reigns, when in The Shield, was presented as the less-thoughtful brawn of the group. His mission and his purpose was always simple and clear; provide protection.
What happens to The Muscle of The Shield when The Brains (Rollins) and The Heart (Ambrose) have splintered and gone their separate ways?
Roman's soul purpose should have remained “protect the WWE World Heavyweight Championship”.
Not only would that have built upon his established narrative, it would have explained why he kept the Shield armor, the Shield music, and the Shield entrance.
As far as this alternate Roman Reigns is concerned, he is the last surviving member of a once great team of elite warriors. This alternate Roman would be a man without a country - The Last Spartan after the fall of Sparta.
To watch this Roman tenaciously hold true to his code of honor would make him not only sympathetic, it would make him positively heroic. His entrance and his music and his actions would be infused with mythological meaning. He would fight The Shield's never ending fight and, in so doing, raise The People up with him.
The People of the WWE would rally around Roman because he would become their best hope for destroying The Authority (given Dean’s obsession with Seth Rollins).
The People, the citizens of The Roman Empire, would become Roman’s charge.
This mythology has its basis in historical reality, a nation selecting their “Champion”, the most elite warrior in all the land, to decimate and intimidate rival nations.
This would mean war with The Authority.
This would mean war with the then champion Brock Lesnar.
It’s important to remember that Brock Lesnar was a heel in 2014, and that he had The Authority’s favor. The primary reason he was a heel among diehard fans was because he was a part-time worker, a champion who rarely appeared on television. He was often described as a mercenary, holding the WWE World Heavyweight Championship hostage.
That combination of elements results in a ready-made feud populated with interesting, relatable characters and deep-seeded motivations that speak to the desires of the viewers.
In this alternate universe of better storytelling, Roman Reigns becomes the chosen hero of the internet wrestling community who hate the idea of a part-time champion. Roman's silence and his focus allows him to become a cipher for a wider variety of fans; viewers could have projected whatever they wanted upon him.
Consider how differently things turn out when the booker stays in tune with the feelings of wrestling fans and the truth of a particular character. A year before the fans booed Roman out of the building at The 2015 Royal Rumble, they cheered for him to defeat Batista in the 2014 Royal Rumble. Granted, the smarks cheered Roman simply because they hated Batista so much (and were reacting to the omission of Daniel Bryan), but that's an emotional response to Roman that could have been tapped into. The construction of the Roman character could have come from the fans rather than the front office.
That's the difference between a real hero and the personification of bad booking decisions.
For those who’d argue that this narrative assumes Roman is a better talker or a better worker than he really is, I’ll offer that there’s nothing in this described alternate universe that requires Roman to say one word or put on five-star high-spot indy-cred festivals to get over. It wouldn’t even make sense for The Last Warrior gimmick to be a talker or an in-ring performer with a varied move-set.
Simple vignettes or interviews with Dean Ambrose providing insight into this mythological warrior’s state of mind in combination with Roman’s imposing physique and steely gaze would have been all we needed.
This alternate universe, based on an already established narrative, spotlighting strengths and hiding weaknesses, and the booker remaining aware of the fan’s discontent with part-time champions would have led to a very different WrestleMania 31 main event.
The irony of Vince McMahon's perspective is that he actually could have had the Mania Main Event he'd wanted with the crowd firmly in Roman's corner if only he'd listened to the crowd one year prior and understood the nuance of that response. If only he'd given Roman the support he needed in the form of a good story that revealed Roman's motivations things could have turned out differently and RAW could be a lot more enjoyable to watch today.
Now there’s certainly no guarantee to ensure my alternate angle would have been as successful as I imagine it to be. Roman would have still been injured (although that wouldn’t necessarily dictate he disappear as he did). Smarks still might have seen through any push of his and rejected it, even a well-told one.
But I dare anyone to imagine this alternate universe and not get excited. And it’s not as though it’s a story pulled out of a random hat meant to suit one fan’s dream of perfection.
All of this material was staring the writers and the bookers in the face and they could have used it in a myriad of ways, but they are inevitably blinded by the need to sell pay-per-views and the need to push products and the need to get to the next show or the need to satisfy a misguided perception of “marketability”.
I’m also not so naive to ignore the fact that I’m booking from the comfort of my living room, several months removed from the first bad booking decision. I’m thinking of these people as characters in a highly controlled environment rather than human beings traveling across the country risking life and limb on a nightly basis for thousands of people who all have different needs and different ideas about what pro-wrestling is supposed to be.
I’ll always concede that point; I have no idea the stresses of real-life booking nor the pressures of running a massive organization.
But as much as I’ll concede that point, it remains unavoidably true that Roman’s strengths and Roman’s weaknesses have not been adequately considered over the past two years. Regardless of whatever particular story the WWE wanted to tell with Roman, following The Shield’s break up, he did not receive the adequate care and consideration he needed to get over with any crowd (smart or not).
It’s no coincidence that Dean Ambrose and Seth Rollins have come closer to getting over with the crowd. They had stories. They had purposes in the WWE.
Roman has had nothing. Until now.
And I believe that’s why I popped when he whacked Rusev & Sheamus with a chair.
As cognizant as I am that the WWE is actively regressing to a story they told two years ago with Daniel Bryan, I was still able to feel some small connection to Roman Reigns at the end of the night. The character, at the very least, finally has an expressed reason to be angry at someone and a reason to fight for something.
The idea that he’s “come so close” so many times isn’t necessarily the best way to endear people to him. There’s nothing about Roman Reigns that says, “Feel bad for this guy”.
But the WWE is onto something when Roman Reigns defies Triple H (specifically Triple H).
The Authority has reformed, stitched together with a bunch of directionless baddies who have all failed upwards. Sheamus is obviously a transitional champion, an obstacle for Roman to overcome. He behaves in the same ironic, snarky way all Authority heels have for the past several years only he doesn’t have the connection with the crowd Seth Rollins did. He could not be more far removed from the monster heel he returned as several months back.
Wade Barrett and Rusev, talented as they are, certainly are no match for J&J Security.
Roman obviously doesn’t have the unanimous love that Daniel Bryan did.
And Triple H and Stephanie McMahon continue to rehash Vince McMahon’s unyielding need to have a heel authority figure running the show.
Despite all of that, my gut tells me that this can be a step backward so as to take the necessary steps forward.
Commentary consistently emphasized the importance of the WWE World Heavyweight Championship and that this was Sheamus’ forth reign. Triple H, on the show, and on social media, raised Sheamus up as a significant figure in the company. Although this is in direct opposition to the perception diehard fans have of Sheamus, the word-choice and the style of presentation helps build the championship as a worthwhile goal. That helps build Roman Reigns and his inevitable Championship victory.
There is not one passive character in the bunch. Everyone is trying to accomplish something and no one is succeeding due to blind luck.
Rusev, who had previously been reduced to a joke in a love triangle, was represented as a viable threat, the kind of muscle The Authority should have had back when they were relying on The Big Show and Corporate Kane. Rusev also had an excellent main event match with Roman Reigns, helping to wipe his slate clean, working toward restoring his image.
The only new member of The Authority who wasn’t portrayed as a strong threat was Wade Barrett who, in his first attempt to do The Authority’s bidding, failed miserably and gifted Roman with the tool he needed to exact some revenge on Rusev and Sheamus.
And Roman Reigns, who has been everything from a guy who says “Suffering succotash” to the badass who smiles through the pain, only spoke a couple sentences in the opening promo, and represented himself as a defiant warrior eager to take back what’s rightfully his.
There are certainly nuances of these characters and aspects of this episode worth criticizing, but these basic positives are my takeaway. I see only the potential for real growth, and I see the WWE now laying the groundwork they forgot to lay nearly two years ago.
I do not suggest the WWE retcon Roman as the guy who wants to “protect the WWE World Heavyweight Championship”. They have to work with the character they established at Survivor Series and the character they established on this episode of RAW (not the guy they should have established after the fall of The Shield).
I suggest the WWE proceed on the course they’re currently on, keeping their ear to the grindstone, and keeping their minds open to deviation.
For example, it would be very easy to book a tag match main event next week where Roman Reigns and Dean Ambrose square off against Rusev and Wade Barrett. That’s the kind of choice the WWE would be wise to avoid entirely for it does not, in any way, help flesh out the Roman Reigns character and it only frustrates the fans.
Capitalize on your audience’s desire for change.
For one week, throw the easy script out the window and do something fresh and unexpected in an effort to endear people to Roman - an episode along the lines of RAW Snow Day built mostly of vignettes, backstage interviews, or match-ups that don’t elicit groans. Keep Roman away from the mic. Let him be dark and stormy and thoughtful, lurking in the guts of arenas, punching bags, and pulling chains. Keep him cool, calm, and collected in an effort to suppress the rage boiling deep in his soul.
When asked questions like, “What do you plan to do tonight?” allow him to give short answers like, “Hurt everyone” or no answers at all. Allow Roman to be disinterested in the spectacle of “Sports Entertainment” and instead focused solely on regaining The Championship he never should have lost.
Keep Roman relentless, despite whatever The Authority throws at him, no matter how many heartbreaks he suffers along the way. And no more smiling and no more crying. Roman is at his absolute best when he is stoically glaring into his opposition’s eyes or poised and ready to throw his Superman Punch.
Triple H clearly knows this. Roman’s exchange with Stephanie and Hunter was designed to get him over and it was effective - Triple H paused just the right amount of time, and Roman stepped forward into Triple H’s face at just the right moment to convey the idea that these were two alphas ready to go to war.
Roman is not a “cheap pop” guy and he’s not a “funny” guy.
The Roman Reigns who had the title taken from him at Survivor Series is a man who needs to rebuild himself and dismantle the corrupt infrastructure that negated his accomplishment.
The Roman Reigns who had the title taken from him at Survivor Series is a man with a mission, and it is time for the WWE to finally give us a reason to believe that.