When Roman Reigns relinquished the Universal Title on Raw, it revealed some truths about the narrative driving Professional Wrestling.
It’s no secret that “reality” is often used to drive the stories told within professional wrestling. As I’m sure you know, for many years the performances were presented as just that, a real competition between athletes, some of whom were quite dastardly. As time went on, and the audience more than often knew of the ruse, characters grew more animated and extreme. The comic book nature of professional wrestling had been exposed, and there was no turning back. No one did this better than Vince McMahon and his World Wrestling Federation. They took the formula and made legitimate superstars with it.
But like all things, that era had to come to an end. By the mid-nineties, the over-the-top characters of the WWF and its contemporaries seemed dated. This, as many writers know, is not really the case, but the perception of stagnation is enough to kill any story’s momentum. A change needed to be made, and it came in the form of the now lauded Attitude Era. The movement prided itself on being grittier, sexier and more realistic.
The biggest fallacy of this era is its “realism”. The antics of Stone Cold and the nWo aren’t really all that realistic. Yeah, they might be edgier and play with ideas that are more than a dead man fighting a clown, but you’d be hard pressed to find someone who treated their boss so poorly and was still on television every week. What the Attitude Era really did most impressively was let the fans feel like they were in on the realities of the business. It was controlled, it was contrived, but groups like D-Generation X played off of the crowd’s belief that they knew the truth about their favorite performers. The era perfected the tenant of the early days of wrestling, the idea that the fans truly knew their heroes, and let the business reach levels it never had in the past.
In 2018, we have Roman Reigns. For years now, Reigns has been the poster boy of the WWE. Handsome and rarely stuck with the loser’s purse, Reigns appeals to some fans, but has never had the momentum needed to reach the level of Hulk Hogan or Stone Cold Steve Austin. The problem is simple, Reigns got his first huge push when the crowd was still focused on Daniel Bryan. Bryan, a seeming perpetual underdog, made Reigns seem like a corporate substitute.
And there’s nothing that WWE fans, who pump millions of dollars into the company, hate more than thinking the company is in control. While Reigns recovered a bit in the past few years, the stain of this era follows him and, especially in the bigger wrestling cities, a chorus of boos follow his entrance. Reigns began to embody everything that the fans dislike about the WWE, whether he deserved to or not. Pair this with some rather unimpressive storytelling, and it was almost true. The company continued to push him through the booing and it only solidified the feelings of many fans.
Then, on October 22nd, 2018, Roman Reigns relinquished his Universal Title on Raw, due to a continuing battle with leukemia. Instead of doing so in character, he did so as Joe Anoa’i, and there was a distinct shift. The crowd began to recognize that the man they had booed because of the “reality” of WWE’s corporate meddling was coming to them to explain why he, for the time being, couldn’t continue on as his character. Reality trumped the perception that the audience had created. As Reigns walked away, his character was forever changed.
What the WWE needs to do in the aftermath of this revelation is simple: reward their audience. Roman Reigns, or I should say Joe Anoa’i, highlighted how cynical this can all get, when really we should be looking for great storytelling. He was the victim of some poor efforts. The WWE’s roster is flush and can support nearly any type of angle. I don’t know what the specifc solution is while Reigns is gone, but the crowd will be ready for the ride. WWE can use this as a jumping on point for a new era, and re-establish their own status-quo. This can even benefit a returning Reigns, who will surely claim a place as a hero. I can’t wait to see what he does when he’s back.