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  1. #1
    Administrator Prime Time's Avatar
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    Prime Time Profiles - Roman Reigns

    Roman Reigns has had many misfortunes in his life, as we now know. But one of those, perhaps not most among them but still significant, is that for much of his WWE run we spoke about Roman to refer to other things. This column might just as well be called ‘What we talk about when we talk about Roman Reigns.’

    The reception and coverage of Reigns has been very little about the man himself. Think, if you will, about the diverse reactions to Reigns in-ring work, in which people run the full gauntlet from ‘he cannot work’ to ‘he is incredibly talented’. These are both comments I’ve seen from people who would each fancy that they are fairly knowledgeable about wrestling.

    The truth, so far as I can see it, is that this reveals far more about the taste of the person doing the watching than it does about Reigns. I have never particularly liked watching Reigns matches, but as time has gone on it seems to me that he has become really quite adept at wrestling a particular style that the WWE have embraced. And in this, he is not especially unique, because I could say much the same kind of thing about John Cena. The previous face of the company is someone that I never much enjoyed. Indeed, I can count the matches of his that I truly like on my fingers, which is not an excellent success rate for someone who has wrestled almost 700 TV and PPV matches in his WWE run.

    Other people, however, like far more of what they have seen from both Cena and Reigns, and it strikes me that it is far more likely that when we say we think they are great, or poor, we are in fact speaking more about the style of wrestling that they embody. I do not believe that WWE style as it has evolved in the guise of these two performers makes for particularly great wrestling, and think it is largely devoid of drama in all but the most over-the-top sense. This is, however, really a statement about style, and makes no genuine informed comment about the ability, or lack thereof, of Roman Reigns to perform the style that his WWE employers request.

    In this case, then, the debate over the past few years about Reigns’ ring work has essentially been a coded referendum on the stylistic evolution of the WWE post-2004.

    The same thing can ultimately be levelled at other central aspects of Reigns’ performance. I would suggest that the area in which he has received the most consistent public criticism has been of his ability to talk to an audience and to convey an aspect of his character in a likeable manner. I must confess that I have routinely watched Reigns over the majority of his babyface run and thought to myself – ‘who on earth would actively want to cheer this man, the way he is presented?’ It has occurred to me on more than one occasion that the biggest section of his adult fan base could only be motivated by contrarianism, from people seeing criticism that they thought was so overblown that they would ignore massive narrative shortcomings.

    And yet when the Roman Reigns character was pushed to the margins and Joe Anoai’I spoke to the world about his leukaemia, there were two notable things. One is that the vast majority of the crowd immediately swung behind him. There is perhaps little surprise in that given the circumstances, though in itself it adds weight to the theory that very little of the antipathy towards Roman was really about him. The other important takeaway was that people immediately praised Reigns’ ability with the microphone. The one thing I heard, time and again, on both the internet and real life, was where on earth has this Roman Reigns been for the last five years? Why hasn’t this been a part of the programme that we’ve been watching?

    Again, then, we are not really talking about Reigns ability when the question of his promos comes up. I stand by the fact I found them to range from turgid to unlikeable. But this is once again a question of style. The person who criticises Reigns’ through this run but praises the speech as he forfeited the Universal title implicitly makes a statement, not about the man and his ability but the efficacy of scripted promos, and more generally of the way that WWE have booked their top babyface in an unsympathetic manner. All of a sudden he has fire when freed from the constraints that he was required to work under, and though the reason for audience sympathy is now all too apparent, it is clear that people can feel for him, react to him, when the circumstances are presented in such a way that allows that to happen.

    Reigns’, then, is the heir to Cena in more ways than one. But it is worse for the former than the latter because he has the misfortune to come after John Cena, when these tendencies have been ingrained in the WWE for a decade or more, and during a time in which they become more and more prevalent, more and more stultifying. He does not perform before an audience seeing these things happening and who therefore might miss the march of time, but those who are already living, and are largely sick of, the effects. The conversation about Reigns has largely missed one key point – he has been asked to sell something that 50% of the crowd have eaten so much of that they are sick of it.

    That is why the discussion of Roman Reigns has always been to miss the mark and to talk of other things; smaller things, in fact, because his own abilities are of less moment than the underlying structures of the WWE. But this is so often the case because those bigger conversations are so much more difficult to have.

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

  2. #2
    The Brain
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    I find this really fascinating.

    On the one hand I completely agree, perhaps more than any other wrestler in memory, Reigns was more of a symbol than he was an individual. He was a focal point, the axle from which the wheel of WWE discussion endlessly spun. Most of what he was criticized for was exactly what the company intended him to do, at least more or less.

    So yes, when we talk about Roman Reigns, in a sense we were never talking about Roman Reigns at all.

    AND YET,

    is there another way to talk about wrestlers? Particularly those who never have and never will exist outside the WWE sphere?

    At some point a wrestler is the sum of his works and is going to be judged accordingly. It is possible, of course, to say "I don't care for most of Roman's matches and promos, but he performs well with regards to what WWE asks him to do", and I think you and I have both said something to that effect at some point, but it's a terribly stilted way to talk about wrestling fandom. Wrestling at it's core encourages us to be passionate and speak vehemently about our likes and dislikes, so inevitably the conversation will turn to "this person is great/sucks" as opposed to a deeper analysis about stylistic differences and corporate expectations.

    And I already know, I'm well aware of that finger you're pointing to the past when those vehement opinions were better framed about the moral content of the characters, instead of our perception of their abilities and behind the scenes worthiness. Believe me, even though I am more fond of modern wrestling than you I agree wholeheartedly that it seems like a very tiresome way to engage.

    Maybe my favorite profile yet, you went beyond what I expected and did it in such a succinct way, bravo Pete!

  3. #3
    Some awesome analyzation here, Prime. I remember Daniel Bryan mentioning on a podcast how Mr. McMahon told him in early 2014 "you know we really want Roman to be the next John Cena". And Reigns has been his obvious successor for a few years now but I believe the biggest difference between the two is consistency. During Cena's decade of dominance, he was audibly rejected by crowds on countless occasions but WWE always stayed the course. They booked Cena strong at any cost and beating him back then was considered a big deal. Large portions of the company's fanbase didn't like it but they learned to live with those circumstances. Then Roman received his big singles push and had the unfortunate luck of it coinciding with Bryan's rise. Heckling the hell out of Reigns was more about sending a message to WWE management but when it led to Vince calling an audible, everything changed. Wrestling fans quickly realized the influence they had thru social media and have used Roman ever since as a medium to communicate their unhappiness with Reigns being the guy. And as much as Vince may be Team Roman, he's had Reigns lose at several pivotal points (most notably WrestleMania 34) which just fed into the fans' mindset that they had a voice and thus the company wasn't fully confident in Reigns. The dude's been World Champion four times and none one of his title stints lasted longer than two and a half months.... I believe it's always had less to do with Roman's individual abilities and more about disgruntled fans using him as a pincushion for WWE telling them who to support.

  4. #4
    LOP's part time glass ceiling DynamiteBillington's Avatar
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    For me, the main difference between the two is that they actually tried Cena out in the mid-card first. From his US title to his first World title, he was actually the guy the people wanted. It was only once he reached the top people truly started turning on him.

    With Reigns, he was just the big guy in the Shield, then he was put right at the top of the card. He was never given the chance to win the audience over in an organic way, we were just told he was the top guy and had to accept it.

    The thing is, and I've said this in response to another column recently (maybe even one of yours?), the next top guy has never been created while the last top guy was still around.

  5. #5
    The Brain
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    Quote Originally Posted by SkitZ View Post
    Some awesome analyzation here, Prime. I remember Daniel Bryan mentioning on a podcast how Mr. McMahon told him in early 2014 "you know we really want Roman to be the next John Cena". And Reigns has been his obvious successor for a few years now but I believe the biggest difference between the two is consistency. During Cena's decade of dominance, he was audibly rejected by crowds on countless occasions but WWE always stayed the course. They booked Cena strong at any cost and beating him back then was considered a big deal. Large portions of the company's fanbase didn't like it but they learned to live with those circumstances. Then Roman received his big singles push and had the unfortunate luck of it coinciding with Bryan's rise. Heckling the hell out of Reigns was more about sending a message to WWE management but when it led to Vince calling an audible, everything changed. Wrestling fans quickly realized the influence they had thru social media and have used Roman ever since as a medium to communicate their unhappiness with Reigns being the guy. And as much as Vince may be Team Roman, he's had Reigns lose at several pivotal points (most notably WrestleMania 34) which just fed into the fans' mindset that they had a voice and thus the company wasn't fully confident in Reigns. The dude's been World Champion four times and none one of his title stints lasted longer than two and a half months.... I believe it's always had less to do with Roman's individual abilities and more about disgruntled fans using him as a pincushion for WWE telling them who to support.
    Some good thoughts here for sure. Worth noting also that when Cena was shooting up the ranks he did have huge fan support, at least at first, and there was no other focal wrestler for the fans to fixate their support behind. I also think you really can't oversell how hot Bryan was at the time, and how futile it was to push anyone in that top role besides him. Imagine if in '98 WWF had tried to push Billy Gunn on top instead of Austin? And I say that as a huuuge Billy Gunn fan, but there's absolutely no way fans would have swallowed it. Or if that comparison is too harsh, imagine they pushed a not-at-all-ready Rocky Maivia or Hunter Hearst Helmsley at the same time. Same result. When someone is that hot, you simply have to push them accordingly or the fans are going to revolt (or just stop watching).

  6. #6
    I think people have been clamouring for some realism from Roman. The most hatred he has gotten is from his presentation. Nobody likes how he is presented and that is a WWE fault of and no fault of his own. In certain types of matches he does excel; such as matches of the hardcore variety and against smaller wrestlers. Roman will forever be divisive amongst wrestling fans and that all boils down to the perception that WWE has created of him.

  7. #7
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    Mizfan: Good question, is there another way to talk about wrestlers? I mean, maybe not anymore to be honest, but there certainly used to be, as I think you hint at towards the end of the column. And I also don’t think that when people talk about other wrestlers they quite take on the same symbolic burden as Roman, just in the sheer weight that his image has to carry. Cena, though, might be an exception to that. But guys like Seth, Dean, even people like Cody, Okada, Omega? I don’t think people talk around them as much as happens with Roman.

    I do agree with the point you make about the accuracy being a very tired way to engage, but I think it’s actually a bit of a trap that we can fall into. Now, for me the whole problem is not one wrestler or angle, it’s the whole superstructure that supports everything on WWE programming. If we allow that to become a conversation about whether or not Roman Reigns is ‘good’, then our arrow will inevitably miss and we’ll have less chance of discussing things in a meaningful way. More to the point, people will carry on watching hoping that things will improve once the hated figure is out of the way, rather than doing the only thing that is likely to affect longer-term change – switching off.

    Skitz: It’s an interesting question that you raise, because I’m not sure what option they had but to pivot. I think if they hadn’t, in the fact of that hostility, then crowds would have been lower, earlier. I think the few surprise finishes probably had a net positive effect in the end, especially the Seth run-in. But yes, it does come with a drawback that now everyone expects every fan intervention to have the same effect immediately. Mainly, though, I think it comes down to Roman coming after Cena, when fans are already sick of having someone like that in that role. They want something new but were being offered pretty much the same thing. That’s really what sits at the heart of it, for me.

    Billington: Yeah, Cena did win the spot fair and square, if you like. He was head-to-head with Batista for it and really won the day. So you can’t knock him for that. I think that you can only carry that so far, because he quite clearly lost the audience between 2004 and 2006, so whether or not he should have had the next decade on top is debatable. Something to consider, though.

    I don’t know if I agree with you on the last point though. Leaving other promotions aside and just looking at WWF, Hulk was ready to explode when Backlund still had the title. Later, Hogan was still there when Warrior was made. Bret and ‘Taker were still there when Shawn was made. Austin was pretty much de facto top guy by the autumn of 1997 and Bret, ‘Taker and Shawn were still there at the time. And Rocky got elevated to kind of ‘co’ level with Stone Cold before his time off. I’d say there are more cases of someone being ready to go before the previous guy steps down than there are pure vacuums for someone to grow into.

    Mizfan: totally agree with this, and the basic principle is sound regardless. You’ve got to go with who is hot at the time. Doesn’t mean you depush someone to obscurity if the audience shifts but it does mean you have to take advantage of the way they are moving. There’s a part of me that thinks doing that for a while would actually get rid of a lot of the fickleness out there anyway – you’d seen find if people did move quickly and the product kept pivoting that they’d calm themselves down.

    Don: Totally agree with everything but the last bit. I think Roman will be less divisive from now on than he has been before because of the nature of his illness. That has really taken the wind out of the sails of his staunchest critics and brought a lot of people back over – a reminder that some things are more important.

    But the rest I’m with you on, although I can only think of a couple of matches of his I’ve ever really liked (and those with top, top talent). But realism is absolutely what they’ve been calling for, and it’s absolutely what the WWE programming format, and their stilted writing, just weren’t able to give him.

    I recently watched the chronicle, and there are plenty of bits of Roman backstage, and he has so much personality, and is so much more likeable, than his on-screen persona ever was. It’s yet more evidence of ‘where was that guy all this time’ and how he’s been set up to fail by what I guess are some dated ideas of what he should be like.


    Thanks for reading everyone, and especially to those who took the time to leave their thoughts.

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

  8. #8
    LOP's part time glass ceiling DynamiteBillington's Avatar
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    I don’t know if I agree with you on the last point though. Leaving other promotions aside and just looking at WWF, Hulk was ready to explode when Backlund still had the title. Later, Hogan was still there when Warrior was made. Bret and ‘Taker were still there when Shawn was made. Austin was pretty much de facto top guy by the autumn of 1997 and Bret, ‘Taker and Shawn were still there at the time. And Rocky got elevated to kind of ‘co’ level with Stone Cold before his time off. I’d say there are more cases of someone being ready to go before the previous guy steps down than there are pure vacuums for someone to grow into.
    I see it a bit differently, but then it is a subjective thing.

    Can't comment on Backlund/Hogan, the Hogan era was well underway by the time I started watching.

    From Hogan to Warrior, I'd actually argue that handover never happened. Warrior certainly got on a par with Hogan for his title run, but didn't last so for me it's an era that never was. HulkaMania lived through it. Same goes for Macho Man - he held the title in someone else's era.

    That then takes us to the port-Hogan Hart/HBK era. In my opinion, neither truly stepped up to the level of major mega star at that time, the belt dropped to their level. They both may have been over with the fans, but they didn't get over with the mainstream public in the way Hogan/Austin/Cena did.

    That makes the next major star being Austin from 96ish(?) through to about 2001ish(?), who was certainly built after the Hogan era. Totally agree The Rock hit the same level, I've always felt they shared the Attitude Era. Again though, kind of subjective.

    Following that, nobody really took over until Cena hit it big in 2005.

    As for Taker, yes he spans all those eras and yes he is known outside the wrestling audience, but as much as I hate to admit it (he is my personal all time favourite) he was never the main guy.

    All opinion obviously, YMMV

  9. #9
    Administrator Prime Time's Avatar
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    I agree with you on Savage, which is why I didn't include him. But I don't think that's really valid on Warrior. Just because it didn't work doesn't mean it isn't an example. They clearly tried to go that way, and they clearly tried to do it when the other guy was there.

    For the same reason I don't think you can dismiss the 'Taker/Bret/Shawn era. They may not have had the mainstream profile that the three you list did, but that has more to do with circumstance than it does with them. No one wanted to watch wrestling between 1991 and 1996, except for a dedicated hardcore like us. They were still absolutely 'the top guys in the WWF', regardless of whether anyone outside was paying attention. And y'know, they did try and build mainstream profiles for those guys, so it's not like they weren't thought of and billed as top stars. It just.... didn't work outside of the core audience. America, in particular, wasn't ready to embrace wrestling at that point.

    'Taker and Bret actually share that mid-90s period in the same kind of way that Rock and Austin do, for me. The difference is that they have different functions, and 'Taker is sidelined in 'special attraction' bouts. But once you get past the belt being the be-all and end-all, you realise Undertaker didn't have to take a backseat to anyone on starpower and billing. He could main event literally any time he wanted from 1993-1997.

    But yeah, you make your stars with the core audience anyway. The outside stuff is just a nice cherry on the cake.

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

  10. #10
    LOP's part time glass ceiling DynamiteBillington's Avatar
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    I guess the key thing is to see what sells, and in the current era no matter how much was put into Roman it seems they are working towards a concept where no single guy is that guy in the way the people we've mentioned were. They want WWE itself to be the big selling point. I'm not convinced.

    The trouble with that concept is that people don't relate to an organisation, they need a hero to believe in. For all of those we mentioned, no matter what their levels of success were, we had that.

  11. #11
    Administrator Prime Time's Avatar
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    100% with you there. Vince has always wanted to be the brand to be the selling point, and it has that to a degree, but it's not the same as when someone genuinely puts asses in seats because you buy into them. Y'know, Hogan and Austin were hot as hell because of who they were and the connection they had with the audience. Rocky was just so damn charismatic people wanted to see him and join in with the catchphrases. And though they weren't big stars, the WWF brand wouldn't have survived through that mid-1990s period without Bret, 'Taker, and to a lesser degree, Shawn.

    Cena is probably the transition of that, the guy who was the company's move towards a top star they could control but who still had enough, towards the end of his wrestling run, to transition into having a broader mainstream appeal. I actually don't think he had that at all for the first few years on top - when I stopped watching wrestling the first time there was no sense that he was any 'bigger' than the guys in the 1990s had been. But since I've come back to it you can see that's changed. Partly that's being on top for so long, because no one since Hogan has managed it as long as Big Match John. But the other part of it is his own hustle. Either way, be broke out of those shackles, but that doesn't mean everyone will. Roman wasn't showing much sign of being able to do that, although if he comes back and is allowed more leeway who knows what he might be able to achieve then.

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

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