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  1. #1
    Super Moderator Prime Time's Avatar
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    Take Up Thy Wrestling Boots and Walk - Romanes Eunt Domus



    There seems to be no let-up in the future plans for Roman Reigns, with the talk being that he will still be the next in line for Brock Lesnar. Itís been greeted with collective apathy as many people look for that shot to be given to a Seth Rollins or a Brawn Strowman. At the same time, I think we have to note that the Roman Reigns fans out there are quickly degenerating into the worst fans in wrestling, actively attacking anyone who challenges the credentials of the man they call ĎThe Big Dogí to lead the WWE in the current era. With the career and public perception of Roman Reigns at such a moment Ė still clearly in the driving seat to dethrone Lesnar and with his fans sinking to new levels in what was already a bit of a sewer Ė I thought it was a good time to revisit some of my own thoughts about Reigns.

    Iíd be a liar if I said I was ever on the Roman train, though how much blame the man himself should take is debatable. Iíve written pretty extensively on it over the past couple of years and have tried to make clear what I think are the primary reasons that Reigns has become the underwhelming figure that he has, rather than the kind of top babyface that would lead the company into the next decade. Naturally, then, you can imagine that Iím going to be rejecting quite forcefully the idea that Reigns is awesome and, as his backers hold, that contempt for him stems from jealousy or a failure to grasp his appeal to casual fans. It does not come down to this, and anyone resorting to such obvious nonsense is making the conversation around wrestling worse than it needs to be. Similarly, though, Iím going to be refraining from blaming Joe AnoaiíI, the performer behind the character, for things that are outside of his control.

    A quick search of my computer Ė which holds all of my columns since June of 2013 Ė suggests that the first time I mentioned Roman Reigns in a column came in very early January of 2014, when I was running through a statistical model trying to show who had been featured heavily in the previous year. In that, Roman Reigns finished in 11th place, in almost a statistical tie with Seth Rollins (a few points ahead of him in 10th) and Dean Ambrose (with slightly more of a lead in 9th). What I find telling about this looking back is that even though I input no personal value judgement to the statistics and let pure numbers speak for themselves (Alberto Del Rio and Randy Orton split second place, while Iíd rather see neither of them again), this does actually track very closely to my opinion of where the three members of the Shield were at that point in time.

    Put simply, I saw Seth Rollins as the real wrestling star of the group, the former RoH World Champion who could become a workhorse and, if he could curb some of the excesses of the current style of wrestling, might even become someone Iíd consider a true great. And then I saw Dean Ambrose as the man who was the ready-made star of the group, the only legitimately good talker and very much the Ďfront maní of the Shield unit. Heíd carried a lot of the promos and, as the singles star with the US title while the other two wrestled as a tag team, looked the most likely to be able to handle a break out role straight away. I expected to like Rollins more, and see Ambrose become a candidate for franchise player.

    And then there was Roman. Now, itís not that Roman was bad or anything; I should stress that much before we start. He certainly had an aura, and a hard-hitting style, and between those two attributes he was a great guy to play the enforcer role in that group. But he was the weakest in-ring performer at that point in time, and he was equally protected in the critically-acclaimed promos that The Shield were offering. He was, in fact, the man in the easiest position in the group, the most protected and the least polished of the three, and the one with the most susceptibility to failing were he to be put into too prominent a position.

    I did not mention Roman Reigns in another column for two years, until the February of 2016. During that time Romanís push started at the Royal Rumble, was accelerated as circumstances changed through 2014 and, following the break-up of the Shield, he became the anointed one of the group and was chosen to be the breakout star. In 2015 that came to a screeching halt as he was dialled back. Presumably this was to allow things to try and allow things to develop at a more natural pace, with the clearest example being the MITB Cash-in at Wrestlemania and Seth Rollins dominance of the title for much of the rest of that year.

    By the time I mentioned Reigns in a column again, I think itís safe to say that the project had stalled, and across the next three months Iíd revisit Reigns a number of times. Very few of the columns would focus on Reigns explicitly, so even in 2016 youíd be hard-pushed to say I was really going after the guy. But whether mentioning him in passing or as a more substantial case in an argument, the one theme that repeatedly came up is a criticism of the way that the man is presented. One column talks about the dominance of the heel McMahon vs babyface wrestler stereotype, and how it has proven susceptible to a law of diminishing returns, with Austin over huge, Rock a little less, it doing little for Cena and Roman getting nothing out of it. Another column focused on the desire to throw everything at making Roman the star, to the point where everyone can see what is happening a mile away and that thereís no drama in anything to do with him. Even when heís handed a loss, it just feels strange because the build-up is then so out of kilter with the result.

    So, I think itís massively unfair to blame any fan who doesnít want to see Roman Reigns at this point given that thereís not been a single moment during his solo run when the WWE have shown much ability to successfully book him. The lone exception to that might be when they reined him back in (no pun intended) in 2015, during that first cooling off period.

    More recently, Iíve written that the problem with Reigns is that heís presented as a babyface but that heís actually a pretty shitty human. I donít mean the man behind the mask when I say that. I donít have much of an opinion on him either way, though I assume that for people to stick with him through all of the shit of the past few years he must be a reasonable person to work with. But again, I do not mean Joe Anoaiíi. I mean that the character you see on screen is actually a pretty crappy human. John Cena was marred with the same thing, a tendency to commit some damned heelish acts. Thatís fine if you are Steve Austin working in a Ďwild westí style environment like the Attitude Era, but in a more moralistic framework it just simply doesnít work. Hell, Hogan was pretty much as clean as a whistle through his early WWF run and the Andre feud, but after that his own conduct starts to become more questionable. As it did, his ratings value fell. Correlation doesnít imply causation, but Iíd certainly add it to the pile of circumstantial evidence.

    So if you actually look at a quick summary of the last few years: weíve been expected to buy into Roman as a good guy, even when heís done more questionable things than many of the heels Ė and that his own performance style seems to lend itself more naturally to an antagonistic role. Weíre meant to buy into him as the victim of a group of tired heels who have gone after every babyface of the past twenty years, even though itís all pretty clear that they are actually the ones who are his greatest supporters. And weíre meant to get invested in a story that is so tepid, so paint-by-numbers at every last turn, that everyone knows exactly how and when the company really want it to end.

    I mean when you add it all up, the surprise to me isnít that people havenít embraced the guy, itís that he has any fans at all. Frankly, I think Joe AnoaiíI probably deserves a medal for putting up with this and not going home. Not least because of his ridiculous workload, and the fact that being overexposed to the fans in this way both increases his vulnerability to criticism and ensures he takes that criticism more often. Reigns wrestled 92 televised matches in 2015, 49 in 2016, and 41 in 2017. To put that in comparison, the latter three numbers compare to the kinds of numbers John Cena would put up in his career, though the 92 is even off his scale. In Hoganís drawing peak youíd see him between 20-30 times a year on TV, while Steve Austin wrestled only two more televised bouts in total between the beginning of January 1998 and Wrestlemania X-7 in 2001 than Reigns managed in that huge 2015 stint. I donít think it is a coincidence that the two WWF/E babyfaces to struggle with fan reaction the most have been the two most exposed. When you look at that workload is it any wonder that those fans who are not convinced by Roman Reigns got plain sick of the sight of him? As the old saying goes, How can I miss you if you wonít go away?!

    Though maybe the fact that heís willing to put himself out there time after time and do whatever is asked is, in itself, part of the problem. While Iím not the biggest fan of his wrestling because Iím far from a lover of that kind of style, the same thing could be said of his predecessor, John Cena. Cena, however, somewhere along the line learned how to switch things up when they werenít working out. Hogan and Austin were both guys in that position that were certainly willing to stand up and say when they thought something was the wrong thing to do for their character. Roman has exhibited neither quality to date. One has to wonder if the willingness to do anything can be a drawback if pushed to extremes. Should Reigns be refusing to do things if he thinks they make him look like an ass? Should he be changing up things that have been pre-planned on the fly if what is planned isnít working? Is he actually capable of that? Would he be allowed to do it? Itís difficult to answer the last two questions because thereís no real evidence of it.

    One thing that comes out of the last point is whether or not Reigns would be allowed the freedom that his predecessors in that top role have had. The simple truth is that the WWE have become less reliant on individual stars as time has gone on, not by chance but by a conscious design. Going back to the 1980s the idea has been to replace the idea of going to watch a Hulk Hogan match or a Steve Austin match with watching Ďthe WWEí. Itís something that Vince was trying to do for a long time, but that never really took off until the end of the Monday Night Wars and the advent of 20th century wrestling. We might ask if Reigns, as not so much the megastar leader but simply the man at the head of a brand for the moment, would have the same license to improvise and the same untouchable status.

    That brings us to what is many ways the most fraught question of all: is Roman Reigns is a draw or not? Iíve seen it suggested that other people in the main event make little difference to ratings, and because the ratings donít go up for them that they donít deserve the position over Reigns. They may have a point that no one could draw more at the moment, but that argument is still, in itself, pretty spurious. The better evidence would be if said wrestler had been featured as prominently as Roman for the last four years and then drew similar numbers. Clearly, a hypothetical point at best.

    That he sells merchandise is clear, although I donít think itís as some people believe. Iíve seen both online and print sources make the point that at no point has he managed to knock John Cena off the top spot during the last four years. Cenaís dominance more recently is dwindling, but that still doesnít lead to Reigns taking the top spot as his star has fallen from the number 2 position as well. The last report I saw of merchandise sales had him below not only Seth Rollins and Ronda Rousey, who were each shifting a number of items in greater quantities, but also internet favourite Rusev. And that brings me to another point that the merchandise argument doesnít address, which is that it says nothing about appeal to casual fans, his supposed primary audience. But a casual fan doesnít buy a shirt. They are the kind of people who tune in every so often, and only get drawn in if they like what they are seeing, and donít spend a fraction of the cash that the hardcore do. The WWEís entire profitability in the current era is not based on appealing to casual fans but on milking more and more money out of a smaller group of people Ė and, it seems, on exploiting the fact that they have a larger base than most other TV shows to sign ever more generous TV deals.

    The only real way to assess an appeal to the casual fan is to look at the effects on ratings. As has been pointed out, we need to be more careful when assessing ratings in the current era for all kinds of reasons. Still, itís the only meaningful way to think about how much any particular wrestler might have an effect on casual fans.

    Broadly speaking, the WWE ratings in 2014 were in the high-3 millions for each episode of RAW, by the time you took the average. Once you reach 2017, there are as many ratings below 3 million as above it, over the course of the year. While you can find spikes and exceptions, the WWE audience has generally been in a slow decline over the past few years, something Iíd be wary about accepting on face value if it werenít tied to a general malaise in much of the audience about the product itself.

    2018 offer a rather different picture and one that is far more positive for the company. There was a huge spike for the 25th anniversary edition of RAW and the WWE did a really decent job of keeping some of that increase interested through Wrestlemania. But since the middle of April, that rating has declined back to something more like normality. In fact, they even declined to the second lowest rating in history, supposedly, one time in May. I have seen it suggested that this is because Reigns wasnít on the show, but the following week Reigns was back and teamed with Seth in the opener. That first hour did a rating of 2.594m, up marginally on the first hour 2.593m the previous week. The big difference between the two was in the final hour, meaning that we can maybe conclude Kevin Owens and Finn Balor drew better than the womenís gauntlet match.

    It seems to me, then, that Roman Reignsí absence had little to no bearing on the lower number, nor did it ever really mean that much when he came back. And Iíd suggest Reigns fans embrace that argument, because his draw value, based on those numbers, would be a paltry 1.2% of the audience. And Iím even ignoring the fact that the week Reignsí was absent was head-to-head with an NBA playoff game, while the poor showing the week he returned had no such impediment.

    In truth, while it is evidence that needs to be presented to some of his fans I donít think this last point is entirely fair to Roman Reigns. Because these fluctuations are not down to who is there and who isnít and thereís far more evidence that the WWE at the moment only really draws people who are attracted to the Ďbrandí. And to be fair, thatís the way the WWE wants it. They want Roman Reigns to be a star, but they donít want him to reach the level of a Hogan or a Rock where they can become dependent on them for their business. A Reigns fanís best bet is not to claim that Roman is a draw, so much as is it is to argue that the WWE do not need the Ďdrawí of the past, and that Roman is fulfilling the role for which he is required now; because frankly there are few things more irrelevant to the WWE at this moment in time than whether Roman Reigns draws in new casual fans.

    My own track record shows that while initially sceptical, Iíve become more critical of Reigns and his booking as time has gone on, as the impact on the product has been felt more strongly. I think the fact that there is a subsection of the audience that is backing Reigns by lashing out at anyone who disagrees will hinder attempts at warming to him. But nonetheless, I think itís important to recognise that there are some obvious upsides to Roman. Itís just a shame that he was overexposed, and put forward at the wrong time, in a really lazy way, and with an absolute pig-headed stubbornness to see it through regardless of the consequences.

    Thereís a parallel universe somewhere in which Roman Reigns was given a slow-burn push as the Shield dissolved, where he was allowed to grow outside of the glare of the spotlight, and in which he didnít main event Wrestlemania against Brock Lesnar until 2017, and won the title to rapturous applause from an adoring crowd who were actively willing him to be the man to lead them into a new era. Isnít that a rather strange thought to finish on?

    "The worst moron is the one too stupid to realise they're a moron."

  2. #2
    LOP Freebirds Buddy Roberts SirSam's Avatar
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    Hey Pete, I'll be honest, I am hugely fatigued by the Reigns problem. For me I don't hate the guy, I don't love the guy, but I am so tired of the problems the guy represents dominating so much of the discussion within the fanbase, particularly at what should be the most exciting time of the year. I want to love wrestling, I want to get excited by it and I have actually really loved Roman's post-Mania series through the summers of 2016 and 2017, however when it has come time for the Rumble and Mania each year the only thing that the WWE stays consistent with in relation to him is the mind numbing inevitability of his presence and the deafness to the negativity that accompanies him. It just wears a man down you know. It is absolutely one of the reasons I am finding NJPW attractive, my feeling before a card is excitement not nervousness at how they will further mishandle this guys career.

    You are bang on about his character problems being a big part of the problem. He has not been allowed to lean into his strengths which have come as the cocky jock he played in those summers I mentioned before, a guy who acknowledges he is entitled and a guy who feels he deserves the space he takes up no matter what the audience think. However each time after actually nailing down a character that is working for him, works with his natural aura and leans into the reaction he is already getting, only a few months later the WWE flip up the script for him and want him to start mugging for the fans again. Last year he attempted to murder Braun Strowman after losing a match to him but we are supposed to believe this same guy will shake the hand of John Cena after a match just a few months later? It boggles the mind, the cognative dissonance is just too much.

    I think another part of it is that this year in particular things exploded because while throwing everything behind him the WWE baulked at the story they had written at the last minute. They built a story where Roman called out a problem the audience also felt, he said he was being held back and Brock Lesnar needed to be taught respect. Then when the WWE put them in the main event and neutered the match people wanted to love between AJ & Nakamura THEY DIDN'T EVEN FINISH OFF THE STORY. They sacrificed so much to tell this story of two titans finally colliding both with no one else left to beat, set one as the good guy and one as the bad guy and DIDN'T FINSIH THE STORY.

    I'm going to leave it at that and just say that throughout your piece I felt myself nodding but also boiling on the inside. This whole issue is far too toxic.

  3. #3
    The Brain
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    Very well put, but count me among those fatigued to death at even talking about the guy. That 92 TV matches in a year stat is astounding though, and the strongest argument to the benefits of a firm brand split that I've ever seen!

  4. #4
    Super Moderator Prime Time's Avatar
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    Well Gents, I'm glad you were both able to enjoy the piece at some level, even if this issue is a bit too played out for you. For my part, it seems to me to be an important thing to restate given that there seems to be an increase in Reigns fans 'getting militant' out there. But if you're not seeing that as much, then I imagine you won't feel the same way.

    I will say that generally speaking, if you are feeling that way - take yourself out of that position and don't pay attention to it. I say that even though it would have cost me a couple of readers for this piece, but it's more important than that. It's a fandom killer. I tried to keep involved through 2006 and 2007 and it was like throwing weedkiller on a lawn.

    "The worst moron is the one too stupid to realise they're a moron."

  5. #5
    LOP's Xavier DynamiteBillington's Avatar
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    Let me start by congratulating you on clearly stating this is about Roman Reigns, not Joe Anoaʻi. All too often we forget there's a real person involved, what we see is just a scripted character.

    A few things leap out at me from this column.

    The first is the lack of mention he got in your columns for significant periods of time. To me, this says that for a good proportion of that time he wasn't seen as an issue, nor was he seen as a main focal point. Maybe that's a good thing? The gradual build is something you maybe don't see happening until it's happened. However, considering he was instantly in the main event following the Shield break up, the gradual build argument doesn't come into play. I suspect it's mainly that he wasn't seen as an issue in that position.

    The second is that 92 matches in a year stat. That just shouts out over exposure, which to me is the WWE's biggest issue in the current time.

    The third, and definitely the biggest issue for me, is Sam's point that they didn't finish the story. OK, I know that wasn't really part of the column, but it can't be said often enough.

    The most telling point of all though, is something I hadn't considered. Going back to the 1980s the idea has been to replace the idea of going to watch a Hulk Hogan match or a Steve Austin match with watching Ďthe WWEí. Speaking as a fan, when you think about how hard WWE have tried to create the next Hogan/Austin/Cena, this is a strange concept. To the mainstream public though, the individuals don't matter. Getting those 3 letters out there is what counts. I mean how long has it been since they changed to WWE? 16 years? Non-fans of my generation and above (in the UK at least) still refer to them as WWF and often don't know what WWE is. That's the product they're trying to sell though. Reigns is just a victim of how they're currently trying to sell the product.
    I've done a signature. I didn't have one before. New forums FTW.

  6. #6
    Super Moderator Prime Time's Avatar
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    Thanks for the feedback, Billington. I should say that the me not mentioning him thing is slightly misleading because I didn't write a whole lot lot from the middle of 2014 and then all the way through 2015. Time was a bit of a constraint for me. And that does take you through the first aborted Wrestlemania win with the Rollins run in, through that summer and the pull back, all the way through to the start of his story with Triple H. So, I don't know if it's really enough proof that he wasn't seen as an issue. But what I guess you can say is that I wasn't motivated enough by it to go out of my way to find the time to criticise the guy.

    I'm actually not sure how bothered I am by them not finishing the story this past year. I've said this before, but if the story is fucking shit, who cares about the ending? And it was a turd. The surprise ending worked for me better than playing it to the natural conclusion, even though it was really fucking weird to do that and there was no way it 'logically' should have happened that way. But when you're presented with two turds, I can't really object to one over the other on the grounds that it's nuttier. They're still turds, at the end of the day.

    Overexposure is absolutely the biggest problem with WWE, and it's been something that hampered The Rock and John Cena before Reigns, and if they don't sort it out it'll get whoever comes next too.

    Great point about the WWF/WWE thing, especially here. And it's interesting, because although we sometimes think of them trying to create the next superstar... I mean, they do, but they want someone a bit of a rung down from that. And I think can be tough for people who've followed genuine stars in the past to accept. It probably doesn't matter so much if you only started watching Wrestling in the Cena era (Cena does transcend but not in the way any of his predecessors did, even ones who were 'less' successful in other mainstream media, bizarrely) but if you were brought up on people who sold tickets by themselves: Hogan, Flair, Bret, Shawn, and pretty much everybody who was anybody up until the late 1990s - it's just very different, and it can all feel rather flat.

    "The worst moron is the one too stupid to realise they're a moron."

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