THE RAW REVIEW
I can’t remember the last time I wanted to boo Triple H.
Although I don’t personally know the man who performs Triple H (Paul Levesque), my maturation as a human being has coincided with his maturation as a performer. When you watch someone evolve over the course of nearly twenty years, you become comfortable with them. You start to notice what they do well, and you start to admire their capacity for reinvention. You appreciate the quality of the performance, not the moral alignment of the character they play.
For example, a couple years ago when Triple H handcuffed Daniel Bryan and beat him with a chair, and then made out with Stephanie McMahon over Daniel’s broken body, I wasn’t angry. In fact, I was happy because I thought it was an incredibly well-executed, incredibly intense moment that contributed to an emotionally rewarding story.
I wasn’t repulsed by Triple H. I was impressed by Paul Levesque.
That’s how I’ve been watching Triple H for the past several years, and I doubt I’m unique in that experience especially given how he’s promoted in an alternate yet not entirely distinct universe as the venerable good-booking Godfather of the beloved NXT.
It would be unwise to ignore the fact that not everyone watches pro-wrestling the way I do, though.
There is a new generation of WWE fans who only know Triple H as an evil member of The Authority who preaches “conform or die”. Younger or newer fans could be convinced to boo him, and it would seem that this is the group of fans who the WWE relies upon today.
Those fans are, unavoidably, less passionate about Triple H, however. Those fans who see him as a heel aren't going to make as much noise as those fans who love the way he books NXT.
Triple H being an Authority heel would work if the majority of people tuning in had no idea what was going on from one week to the next. It would work if the majority of viewers only had the capacity to recognize the broad strokes of a story and watch in exactly the way the WWE wants them to watch; that’s the bad guy so I’ll boo him, that’s the good guy so I’ll cheer him, they’re fighting cuz one is bad and one is good.
More importantly than all of that, Triple H as an Authority heel would work if the actual World Heavyweight Championship story encouraged viewers to boo Triple H and cheer Roman Reigns.
But it doesn't. Quite the opposite.
Lately, the WWE seems content to believe that today’s unruly internet audience will do what they want to do with their cheers and their boos regardless of the WWE’s storytelling. The company is fine that there's a massive divide between their content and the content a large portion of their audience seeks.
True as that may be, when I look at the current story of the WWE World Heavyweight Championship, I see a booking pattern that doesn’t align with the WWE’s apparent goal.
Their goal, for nearly three years, has been to get Roman Reigns over as the new, top babyface (at least that’s the company's most recognizable goal).
If we ignore “booking decisions” and if we forget about “hiding weaknesses, and emphasizing strengths” and simply look at the fundamental story the company has designed in an effort to get Roman Reigns over as a babyface, it becomes increasingly difficult see how the design meets the goal.
Their trying to build a babyface Roman Reigns using the schematic of a heel Roman Reigns.
Aside from the fact that Triple H is cutting compelling promos these days, he’s the only character in the WWE’s current fiction who’s actually right. He’s the only character whose motivations are instantly understandable and whose actions are completely justified. He’s the only character who seems to care about anything. He’s the only character who isn’t ironically laughing his way through every single segment or doing something "crazy".
Roman Reigns, in what has become little more than a glorified temper-tantrum following a loss, repeatedly struck Triple H with a steel chair, put Triple H through a table, and speared Triple at the TLC pay-per-view. Then, after wrecking this havoc for reasons that were never made clear, Roman Reigns punched, shoved, and laughed at Triple H’s seventy-year-old father-in-law in the weeks that followed.
Roman’s title reign consisted of segments that made him appear entitled, arrogant, and disinterested. His only motivation seemed to be rubbing his success in everyone’s face.
It’s incredibly hard to keep cheering for someone who feels a need to kick their opponent when they’re down (even if their opponent is evil). After one too many kicks your sympathy shifts toward the guy on the ground unless you're an unfeeling prick or Roman Reigns fanboy/fangirl. Had Roman Reigns been portrayed as a violent, uncontrollable warrior hellbent on dismantling The Authority and building a new WWE-Empire in his image, then he would have come across as an interesting, active character whose morality was less important than the spectacle of his actions. The actual story following Roman Reigns’ Championship victory on the RAW after TLC, however, did nothing but paint him as a self-absorbed star quarterback who got his jollies by pissing on the opposing team’s seal.
Add to that narrative foundation scenes where a very weathered-looking Mr. McMahon struggles to formulate coherent sentences and the WWE is left with a strange potpourri of discomfort, frustration, and misplaced sympathy; not a strong babyface Champion worthy of the audience’s respect.
Then enter Triple H at The Royal Rumble.
Ignore that “internet fans” are going to cheer Triple H eliminating Roman Reigns. Ignore that Roman Reigns sat out the event designed to prove his ability to weather any storm. Let’s continue to focus on the fundamental story, and whether or not it tells the most casual of WWE viewers to boo Triple H and cheer Roman Reigns in the way WWE wants.
Who is Triple H at The Royal Rumble?
Not only is he the COO of the entire WWE and the show-runner of NXT, he is a battle-tested warrior come to reclaim his throne. He looks like a determined badass. He is instantly convincing in his performance, commanding respect from the viewer.
Roman Reigns looks like a confused adolescent during his brief time in the match.
What’s motivating Triple H?
He was attacked, at random, by a young, brash employee at TLC. His father-in law was similarly attacked by that brash employee. His wife was disrespected by that brash employee. So Triple H enters The Royal Rumble as a motivated character completely justified in his desire for vengeance. When he knocks Roman Reigns out of the rumble and chops his crotch, it is a triumphant moment because the right man won. Roman deserved to get his ass beat after his behavior at TLC and the subsequent RAWs.
Then, last night on RAW, after the dust had settled from The Royal Rumble and Triple H’s Championship victory, The Game explained himself:
I gotta hand it to one person from last night, that one person is Roman Reigns. Roman Reigns could be one of the most amazing athletes I’ve ever seen. I’m not kidding, he could be that good, but the thing is…he could be. Today, he is not. There’s a reason for that, because Roman Reigns lacks one thing and that one thing is respect. He doesn’t respect anything, he’s arrogant, he’s cocky. Roman Reigns is great, but Roman Reigns needs to learn his place in life. I could put up with the fact that he thought he was better, I could even put up with his disregard for Authority, but what I could not put up with was his disrespect for this man,” Triple H points at Vince McMahon, and then continues, “Because as far as I am concerned, as far as Roman Reigns should be concerned, and as far as each and everyone one of you is concerned, this man might as well be God. Because he created all of this, and this, this until my dying breath, until my dying breath is my religion, my law, and my church, and I will be damned if someone like Roman Reigns will disrespect me or my religion.
Not only can I not possibly boo someone who calls professional wrestling his religion, I cannot help but cheer him! The moment Triple H emphasizes that the wrestling ring is his church and that he will defend it until his dying breath, I’m all in. He becomes my guy.
I want to see him beat Roman Reigns within an inch of his life and hold that title with reverence for the next several months, because nothing suggests Roman Reigns possesses even a fraction of that passion. And Miami felt the same way. Triple H was cheered.
But let’s continue to entertain the WWE’s belief that internet audiences are not indicative of their larger fanbase. Miami's cheers were another in a long string of freak accidents. Let’s keep focusing on the story being told and the characters therein, a story we are to assume is meant to make casual viewers hate Triple H and love Roman Reigns.
Triple H continues with his promo:
So a lot of people will say why after everything you have done, do you need to be WWE Champion, Triple H…and you’re right, you’re absolutely right, I don’t need to be WWE Champion. But I want to be WWE Champion. You want to know why I want to be Champion? It’s because people like Roman Reigns want to be WWE Champion and they don’t deserve it. So up until when I say so, I will be the WWE Champion.
Triple H didn’t even need to explain why he wanted the title to win me over. He had me at "want". The fact that he’s a character who wants anything and actually proclaims that want sets him apart in a narrative universe populated by passive buffoons content to let the world happen to them rather than affect the world. That aspect of his character alone makes him a more compelling person to watch, and someone to cheer for, regardless of whether or not he likes the audience. He cares about the title. He cares about preserving the title’s power.
That makes Triple H far more heroic than Roman Reigns ever was as the Champion.
The only thing Roman Reigns ever said about the title was, “This is my life”. At the time, I believed that to be an excellent moment. Now, it's proven to be an isolated incident that had no bearing on his future whatsoever. That speech suggested that he wouldn’t have a job if he lost the championship. Well…he lost the Championship, but he’s once again chasing the title as if his life hasn’t been affected in the slightest. Roman Reigns’ desire is entirely unclear, if not entirely nonexistent. He just seems to enjoy when the crowd randomly cheers his smile.
Triple H’s desire to hold the title not only fits in line with the feelings of “internet fans”, but it aligns with the story the company has told about Roman Reigns. In the company’s own fiction, Roman Reigns has been written as an arrogant, cocky, disrespectful person who didn’t deserve to be WWE Champion.
Triple H is absolutely correct in everything that he said in his promo.
So why would anyone boo him? What actually makes Triple H a villain and Roman Reigns a hero?
Even the most casual viewer has been told, step-by-step, that Triple H is right and that Roman Reigns is wrong.
Is that the story the WWE actually wants to tell?
Is that the story the WWE believes will get people to cheer Roman when he defeats Triple H at WrestleMania?
Does the WWE even care about making people cheer for Roman Reigns anymore or do they think he's a babyface despite the fact that he's clearly a heel?
I cannot answer these questions. All I know, with unwavering confidence, is that the actual story the WWE has told ever since the conclusion of TLC has positioned Triple H to be likable & interesting and Roman Reigns to be unlikeable & uninteresting. Whether that's by accident or not, that’s what the situation currently is. That’s the fundamental story they've told whether they wanted to or not. Triple H is the respectable Champion, an almost admirable leader of the company he loves and respects, and Roman Reign’s is the complacent adolescent quick to pat himself on the back any time he does a single thing right.
A lot of pundits will chastise the WWE for protecting The Authority too much. Triple H will get the heat he typically gets as someone who buries talent. Vince McMahon will be called “out of touch”.
I think the explanation is a lot simpler than all of that.
Firstly, Triple H is going to be Triple H and that's exactly who he should be on-screen. He shouldn't have to give a bad performance just to make up for those who can't match what he's giving viewers. The title means something on his shoulder, and he has the power to imbue the belt with greater significance before passing it on to someone who actually deserves it (and that's the point of this story; he's trying to get a younger wrestler over).
Secondly, the WWE just isn’t taking the time to be aware of the story they’re actually telling. The WWE isn’t aware of how Roman Reigns comes off every time he flashes that smirk or raises his arms when it doesn’t make sense for him to do so. The company assumes we'll like him simply because of the way he looks or the way he wins a match. He’s been booked to be Steve Austin-Light, but the scenarios he's in and the performance he gives doesn’t convey the idea that he's intelligent, powerful, and fearless (the way Steve Austin was).
The bookers get a lot of the blame for this, and Roman’s mic-skills consistently receive a lot of flack, but the performer himself exudes a degree of arrogance that negates all attempts to represent him as noble or heroic. It's hard to believe he's a focused, powerful warrior when he's striking poses for fans with cameras.
Last night, when Roman Reigns arrived at the arena, he was approached by JoJo for a quick interview.
He appeared amused. He recited his lines, gave a grin, and walked off camera.
This is not a man who is one day removed from losing “his life”. This is not an athlete who actually cares about the Championship that was taken from him by a corrupt system. Roman Reigns wasn’t even angry that he lost The Royal Rumble. It's as though he didn't remember being in the match. He showed up for his tag bout with Dean Ambrose and “had a good time”.
Is this a performer who is told to behave this way by an out of touch old booker and bad writers, or is this a performer who doesn’t actually believe in professional wrestling?
As much as I would love to think the WWE is purposefully booking Roman Reigns to seem like a passive, arrogant, unlikable human being so as to lay the foundation for his heel turn…again, I think the explanation is a lot simpler.
I’ve listened to Roman Reigns talk with great respect about “his art”, and that’s one of the many reasons I enjoy his work. I am a fan of Roman Reigns.
But it’s far too obvious that the man behind the character does not have the motivations that the character is supposed to have. There is a disconnect between what the WWE wants us to believe about The Roman Reigns character and the reality of the man who plays him.
The Roman Reigns character wasn’t angry after losing the WWE Championship at The Royal Rumble because the man behind the character wasn’t angry.
The man behind the character knows, all too well, that he hasn't really lost anything, as evidenced by his own words during an interview with Sam Roberts earlier last year:
It’s one of those situations where obviously the company is gonna do what the company does and the fans are definitely gonna do what they do. That’s what’s so great. The fans have to realize that as opinionated as y’all are in the way you want it, the company is the same way and they’re gonna do what they wanna do…at the end of the day I’m just a guy getting rich.
Perhaps Roman Reigns' perspective has evolved since then, but the feeling he projects when he's performing is less "noble babyface worth rooting for" and more "guy who thinks the company is behind him no matter what the fans think".
At TLC, after decimating Triple H, Roman Reigns smiled and raised his arms in triumph. That’s the performer showing how happy he is that the fans finally cheered something he did. That’s not a performer selling the reality of his character.
These constructive criticisms are the sort Roman should be receiving from his mentors.
It's obvious that no one on the internet, no matter how good their blog, will get through to pro-wrestlers and bookers.
I understand that.
I respect that.
If a rival blog tried to tell me how to write a sentence, I'd spit on them, forget about them, and go about my day.
But that doesn't mean every sentence I write is perfect.
The Roman Reigns character who viciously tore Triple H to shreds wouldn’t have been so blatantly pleased with himself nor felt a need to show off. He'd be more confident. He wouldn’t have even acknowledged the crowd at all. He would have taken some kind of battle-trophy with him and slowly walked off into the back.
What babyface warrior disembowels an enemy and then grins like a giddy little kid? He lost the match. He won nothing. The performer clearly isn't thinking that way, and so he's harder to believe in.
Roman Reigns, the performer, is comfortable that the belt will inevitably come back to him. That’s why it’s so hard for viewers to invest in his stories; if he takes it for granted then we will take it for granted and we’ll hate him for it. If he's transparent, then his story is transparent. It's too obvious that Roman doesn't have to worry about his "top-guy status".
If Roman was playing a heel, that personality would be absolutely spectacular. No one would moan about Roman Reigns’ character changing every other week. No one would care about his promo work or his ring-work. He would just be an arrogant heel, and it would be convincing. He would get to tell audiences exactly what he thought of them and exactly what he though of himself.
But that’s not the actual situation despite the natural flow of his apparent disposition.
We’re supposed to like Roman Reigns despite the fact that he exudes incredibly unlikable characteristics. No matter how hard he tries to hide or transform those qualities in his performance, arrogance is what shines through.
This is why, if he must be a babyface, he should be encouraged to speak less, emote less, and simply take action against people who are booked to be evil. His displays of athleticism create instantly entertaining spectacles. He can get over through motion rather than emotion.
If I’m correct in this evaluation, I don’t begrudge Roman Reigns. He shouldn't have to fight against his natural disposition whatever it may be. He’s at a stage in his career where, in any other era, he’d be booked according to his personality and he’d likely find a way to succeed. Today, he’s booked to be something he simply isn’t, a person whose success is preordained rather than earned, and his story suffers for it.
Imagine the WWE telling a Roman Reigns story that played to "internet fans" perception of Roman as an undeserving "Chosen One". It would be spectacular, maybe even groundbreaking.
There’s plenty of time to book around these realities. The WWE can simply accept that Triple H comes off as the likable, powerful, respectable Champion and that Roman Reigns comes off as the unlikable, passive, disrespectful athlete who doesn’t feel a need to show up for practice.
If Stephanie and Vince McMahon fade into the background and Hunter and Roman start telling a story about old school versus new school, past versus present, respect versus disrespect, fathers versus sons, then there’s a chance the WrestleMania main event could be compelling. If Triple H’s motivation doesn’t morph into a transparent attempt to strong-arm viewers into hating him when they don’t want to, and if Roman Reigns actually gets a motivation of any kind then it’s possible that the fight itself will be more important than who is heel and who is baby, and whether or not the company is successful in finally getting Reigns over.
But, if the company’s goal is to get Roman Reigns over in his current form simply by having him defeat Triple H at WrestleMania, then they may have already dug too deep into a story that just doesn’t allow for that possibility.
If the WWE’s primary goal is to leave people happy at the end of WrestleMania 32 in the AT&T Stadium on April 3, 2016 then, sadly, Roman Reigns is not the character for that job. He just hasn't been booked as a hero. If the WWE legitimately doesn’t care about telling a logical story that makes people happy, then they'll continue as they are and their chosen one will win despite the inevitable boos and despite the fact that he's actually a heel.
It’s hard to believe the WWE wants to book their way to a divisive ending, however. The company obviously wants us to cheer Roman Reigns and they’re willing to put a lot of hard work into creating that outcome regardless of how impossible it may be.
None of us should have to work this hard to have fun watching the WWE. There doesn’t need to be so much anxiety, on either side of the curtain, about whether or not Roman Reigns “gets over”.
The WWE has a very clear solution to all of these narrative issues and all of these problematic personalities and all of these finicky fans.
That solution goes by the name of Dean Ambrose.
Dean Ambrose is the one man who could rally 100,000 people behind him and get them to pop when the referee’s hand slaps the mat for a third and final time at WrestleMania 32.
Dean Ambrose is the one man who could hold his own against a Triple H promo. He’s the one man who could spell out his desires in no uncertain terms, whose motivations could be made clear in about thirty seconds. Dean Ambrose is the most likable, entertaining pro-wrestler hovering near the main event at this time. Dean Ambrose is the only pro-wrestler currently working on the main roster who could default Triple H to the role of heel simply by challenging him to a fight.
At The Royal Rumble, when Triple H and Dean started butting heads and slapping and punching each other, that crowd came unglued with good reason.
Triple H and Dean Ambrose are good storytellers who understand how to display their natural emotions at the exact moment they need to be displayed.
A rivalry between Dean Ambrose and Triple H on the road to WrestleMania smacks of decisiveness and confidence. That is the only scenario, coming out of Fast Lane, where the entire audience (smarks and casuals alike) would know exactly how they were supposed to feel and exactly who they were supposed to root for.
Any other combination breeds complacency or outright disinterest.
Triple H vs Dean would serve as a WrestleMania adrenaline-shot; it would wake fans up, and the main event would feel like a true opportunity once again.
Since the first RAW after Seth Rollins betrayed The Shield, Dean Ambrose has demonstrated not only an ability to cut eloquently dark promos, not only a willingness to sacrifice his body, but a consistent connection with WWE fans. Not once has anyone not known how to feel about Dean Ambrose. Not once has he elicited a tepid response in all the months he’s been working. He is the only wrestler working on the main roster who has drawn cheers of joy every single time he enters an arena.
Dean Ambrose’s story, his character, and his very essence aligns with what the Triple H character is searching for in a worthy opponent at The Show of Shows.
Dean Ambrose is the performer who believes in professional wrestling, and that’s why 100,000 people would believe in Dean Ambrose at WrestleMania.
I can't remember the last time I wanted to boo Triple H.
But I can remember the last time I wanted to cheer Dean Ambrose.