Wednesday, December 16, 2015

How Roman Reigns Won over the WWE Universe

A moment well earned by WWE's deserving new ace
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The last time WWE was in Philadelphia for a live, televised event, Roman Reigns was booed out of the building. He won the most lackluster Royal Rumble in history, one plagued with terrible layout, uninspired performances, and an inexplicable positioning of Kane and Big Show as the big bads. Not even The Rock, who usually guarantees a decibel level above the OSHA threshold for hearing protection, could save his crowning moment. Imagining that moment in time as the impetus for Vince McMahon deciding that WrestleMania 31 would end not with Reigns triumphant but with Seth Rollins cashing in Money in the Bank is not a stretch of the imagination by any sense.

Monday night, the same venue hosted another landmark moment in Reigns' career. The reaction could not have been any different. Instead of vociferously giving Reigns the proverbial business, Philadelphia cheerfully welcomed him as WWE's new standard bearer. Eleven months is not a long time in pro wrestling, even if it seems like forever since the last Rumble. How did Reigns get from rejected and falsely-entitled inheritor of the mythical ball to a celebrated hero? The answer is more complex than a single thing WWE did for his booking, even if the final step had everything to do with his direction.

When Reigns came back from his hernia injury in early 2015, replete with a Superstar of the Year Slammy that rankled many an observer, he was seen as too green to be pushed to the main event level. His mic skills and in-ring work had been well-hidden in The Shield, and his initial singles run produced unmemorable matches, including a stinker against Randy Orton at SummerSlam. His build-up to the Rumble did nothing to deny those doubts on the microphone, but he started to show more ability in the ring. The Rumble match did no one any favors, but once that match was through, Reigns started to build goodwill.

His match at Fastlane against Daniel Bryan was well-heralded, but many wrote it off as a case of the American Dragon having another classic with something akin to a broomstick. I didn't see that match in question, but everything that I saw after build Reigns' case up in resounding fashion. The WrestleMania main event match belonged in the conversation with Steve Austin vs. The Rock for the best Mania main event in history. The key to that argument is that Brock Lesnar really doesn't carry people to matches. He's perhaps the most unique wrestler in WWE history in that regard (or at least the most unique since Andre the Giant). I don't want to say that when one works Lesnar, they're working against him and not with him because I'm not in the ring with them and don't know how they do it. But it feels like the onus of the match rests on Lesnar's opponent and how he reacts to Lesnar's signature spots. By that metric, Reigns passed with flying colors.

The secret to getting over that the Vince Russos and other sports entertainment huggers don't want to admit is that being good in the ring can be as much of a hammer as knowing how to translate raw charisma into crowd manipulation. [REDACTED] is as good an example as any of this. His promo skills were always shit, but the man could work a crowd into a frenzy through his sequencing of spots and building to a crescendo in a match. The Rock's rise from talker-extraordinaire to complete promotion ace coincided with his improvement in the ring. Eddie Guerrero, Chris Jericho, John Cena, CM Punk, and of course Bryan are all examples of wrestlers who could walk the walk in addition to talking the talk, and their match resumes were as important as their execution on storylines and interview spots.

Reigns' resume since Mania helped his reputation along with the rest of the crowd that wasn't already cheering him. He made a feud with Big Show watchable because of the matches, including a Last Man Standing match at Extreme Rules. He dragged watchable matches out of Bray Wyatt, who has been hit or miss since his call-up to the main roster two years ago. Most telling has been his series with Sheamus. Now, Sheamus isn't exactly a slouch in the ring. The man has at times been the best in-ring performer in WWE over his now six year career. But he's seemed uninspired since his latest comeback. He got into the ring with Reigns, however, and the vibrancy returned. The stiffness was back. Sheamus appeared to be back to an older version of himself. Of course, to credit that all to Reigns may be fallacious. Sheamus is in a position of importance for arguably the first time since the Bryan feud around WrestleMania XXVIII. But Reigns getting the best of guys while returning some A-plus work himself can't be discounted either.

Of course, that undercurrent of support didn't rear its head until the butt-end of TLC, after Sheamus had retained the Championship and when Reigns proverbially snapped. Sometimes, all the work one puts into improving oneself doesn't mean anything if the directors and producers aren't channeling that wrestler's strengths into the right ports. Reigns up to that point had been a mutated variant of the hard-luck Bryan, a man whose prize kept getting snapped up before his eyes. The reason why McMahon and the rest of WWE's braintrust had stars in their eyes when they gazed upon Reigns is the absolute reason why that line of booking could never work with him. A guy the size of Reigns needed to start exerting force and taking what was his from the people who'd kept denying him through trickery, subterfuge, and chicanery. When Reigns' talent aligned with his best direction, the fans finally had a reason to believe.

Would those moments of power and triumph soared to the heights they did without the work Reigns put in? One can never tell, but I get the feeling that if one took a poll of the WWE Universe, that person would find that the average fan would prefer rooting for someone who was good and not bad. WWE couldn't have put, say, Heidenreich or Jackson Andrews, or even Braun Strowman, a guy whom I personally like and think has a high ceiling but who hasn't had the chance to earn it yet, in that spot and had them evoke the crowd reaction. Reigns over a year became a singularly good professional wrestler, at least in the "sports" portion.

Granted, his coronation was hardly a moment of perfection. His ability while on the microphone is still suspect at best. Back when McMahon was obviously scripting his material and he was off babbling about beanstalks and other ill-fitting fairytale analogues, he had a convenient scapegoat for his troubles. He's improved with better material, but he's not the kind of guy one would conceivably put out in front of a crowd to fire them up by talking alone. He still gets glassy eyes from time to time, and his voice loses confidence when he's asked to be on the defensive.

Additionally, the follow-up story, which will be as important as the shows Sunday and Monday, seems to be a tangled morass. Jumping to conclusions that Triple H was behind the year of misery for Reigns feels tenuous at best, especially recently. WWE's writers have done a poor job of tailoring promo material for exposition, whether it be the Authority explicitly stating that they were behind it all, or Reigns making fluid accusations with more than just "NO, YOU'RE THE DISGRACE" behind it. Of course, one could give the benefit of the doubt that WWE is being subtle, but allowing concessions for McMahon's company for nuance and implication is about as irresponsible as giving a starving pit bull the task of watching a rump roast on a low-lying table without eating it.

But regardless of the normal traps WWE has set for itself, the company finally got out of its own way and allowed a man who has become ready to stand at its vanguard as The Man to step into that role. Any denial of Reigns' readiness as the straw that stirs RAW's drink should have been cast out when he stood in radiant celebration in front of a crowd that had spewed vitriol at him not even a year prior. Roman Reigns won over the WWE Universe, and he did so by proving that when hard work and talent meets the right opportunity, it creates a singularity that will turn even the blackest hearts soft and willing to greet the righteous conqueror.