Chronicling Roman Reigns' career so far
A look back at Roman Reigns' career in WWE, and where and how things went wrong...
Roman Reigns! That name conjures up many different images depending on whom you ask. To some, he’s a true superstar from a bloodline of wrestling royalty that will carry WWE on his shoulders for the next decade or more.
To others, he’s a cheap John Cena knockoff that cannot wrestle at the same level as his peers and cannot cut a promo to save his life, yet is pushed unendingly down fans’ throats as the only superstar that matters nevertheless.
To others still, he’s the living, breathing manifestation of Vince McMahon’s unyielding stubbornness in the face of an increasingly-demanding and defiant audience that won’t swallow what he keeps trying to feed them.
Regardless of your opinion about Roman Reigns, his accomplishments in WWE cannot be ignored. He has won numerous awards, championships and distinctions over his five-year career on the main roster, which is no small feat (whether he is truly deserving of all of those accolades remains to be seen).
Here, we will be chronicling Roman Reigns’ career so far in WWE, and we will try and predict the direction in which his career is going.
FCW and NXT
The man known as Roman Reigns spent two years in WWE’s developmental system after he signed with the company following a brief career in American football. After suffering a losing spell while wrestling under the name ‘Leakee’, he became known as ‘Roman Reigns’ in the newly-rechristened NXT.
During his tenure there, Reigns acted like a businessman that was always well-dressed and saw himself as a priceless commodity to WWE. If one were to re-watch these old clips in which he spoke with an air of self-importance and smug sense of superiority, they’d see that he was a natural heel and fit the role of ‘arrogant rich guy who knew that he was better than you’ perfectly.
Unfortunately, these particular attributes would be ignored on WWE’s part in favour of placing him in an altogether different role.
The Shield debuts
At Survivor Series 2012, Roman Reigns made his main roster debut as one of three men collectively known as The Shield (of Justice). Together with his allies Dean Ambrose and Seth Rollins, the trio would dominate and destroy any and all who stood in their way, with Reigns playing the role of a powerhouse that carried the Shield’s victims on his shoulders when they executed their Triple Powerbomb team finisher.
Over time, the Shield became one of the most popular acts in WWE, and all of them were viewed by the fans as the stars of the future in WWE.
Throughout this entire period, Roman Reigns did the least of the talking and merely acted as the silent but strong tough guy of the group. During this period, Reigns exuded an aura of intrigue and mystery about him that made people want to watch him perform.
Though he wasn’t a good talker and his wrestling ability wasn’t anywhere near the level of then-ally Seth Rollins, Reigns’ weaknesses were well-concealed while he wrestled as part of The Shield.
As a member of this dominant trio, Reigns experienced two major accomplishments that signaled his eventual rise to the top of WWE. First, he won the WWE Tag Team Championship with Seth Rollins in May 2013. Then, in the 2014 Royal Rumble match, he set the new record for most eliminations with 12 (having surpassed the record set by Kane in 2001).
It should be noted that this match was also a critical moment for Reigns’ development and perception by both fans and by WWE’s management. Reigns was cheered as he stared down the eventual winner of the 2014 Rumble match, the returning Batista.
However, while WWE’s top brass might’ve assumed that these were natural cheers for Reigns as a badass babyface, they were actually protest cheers against the pre-planned winner, Batista. The fans cheered anyone other than the obvious winner, including Reigns. Perhaps some signals got crossed somewhere, but this was a major turning point for Reigns’ booking.
Split and first main push
After the Seth Rollins turned heel and betrayed his Shield brothers, Reigns was given a singles push that was meant to be his first main event run as a solo star. But as his push progressed, it became crystal clear that this was no longer the same Roman Reigns that the fans had grown to like in the first place (i.e. that silent badass that used his power to speak for him).
Instead, Vince McMahon and company demanded that Reigns fit the exact same mould that was used to create John Cena, as opposed to creating an entirely new character that the audience had never seen before.
You see, with John Cena’s body wearing down and WWE in need of a fresh new star, Vince decided what his company needed was another John Cena, i.e. the smiling, bad-comedy-prom-cutting, uber-babyface that never shows any weakness. You know, the same kinds of over-the-top and unrealistic ‘characters’ that defined WWE during the 1980s and the first half of the 1990s.
To ensure that Reigns fit this mould, the creative department mandated several changes to his character: more overly-scripted dialogue, more awful promos with bad puns and catchphrases, and a Lex Luger-style mega push that would catapult Reigns to the main event.
In changing Reigns in this way, Vince McMahon effectively destroyed what had made him interesting in the first place. They created something that was altogether different and wasn’t what the fans wanted to see anymore. But Vince was determined to see his vision come true, regardless of what the fans thought.
This led to Reigns becoming the single-most polarizing and controversial wrestler of the past three decades, if not longer. Reigns won the 2015 Royal Rumble match, and was met with a torrent of boos so vociferous that no amount of censorship or sound manipulation could hide it.
The fans hated this booking decision with an unyielding passion so intense (it also didn’t help that the ending was easily the worst in Rumble history, with Big Show and Kane basically handing Reigns the win on a silver platter) that they even booed The Rock, one of the most beloved wrestlers of all time, as he tried to rally the fans to support his victorious family.
These boos persisted for months without end and eventually forced WWE’s hand once again. Reigns was being booed so badly going into the main event of WrestleMania 31 that WWE made an 11th-hour change that saw Seth Rollins cash in his MITB briefcase at WrestleMania itself, which left the audience with something positive with which they could leave that show.
But Vince and company simply did not listen to the audience and decided that Reigns was going to be pushed into the main event nevertheless.
As 2015 progressed, WWE kept trying to create sympathy for the Reigns character, but it simply wasn’t working. With an increasing number of fans becoming aware of WWE’s obvious attempts to get him over with an audience that had already turned against him, Reigns was portrayed as both a ‘Stone Cold’-like an anti-authority rebel and as a Daniel Bryan-like underdog.
WWE were so determined to make the fans like him that they contradicted their own stories and retconned rules just so a pro-Reigns narrative would fit. This, of course, did little-to-nothing to improve acceptance of the Reigns character with the general audience and instead further divided the crowd into pro and anti-Reigns segments.
It also didn’t help that he was widely reported to be mouthing off at audiences once cameras stopped rolling and in the shoot, interviews were cutting promos that effectively demonized the audiences whose purchased tickets were paying his salary.
By late 2015, Seth Rollins’ sudden injury forced WWE’s hand once again, leading to something of a premature WWE title win for the first time on the three-year anniversary of his main roster debut. That win was short-lived, however, as he entered into a feud with the Authority and their newest henchmen, a stable called the League of Nations.
However, despite WWE’s pitiful and obvious attempts to re-create the Austin versus McMahon rivalry from almost two decades prior, this rivalry was met with general apathy. Not only were the supposed ‘roadblocks’ and ‘challenged’ placed before Reigns so pitifully weak that no one could believe it would cause him any difficulty, but the audience didn’t believe Reigns to be suffering from any adversity, to begin with.
The League of Nations was booked like a collective of jobbers that could not win on their own and only won via shenanigans. Meanwhile, everyone else on the roster was left to their own devices while WWE put all of their time and effort into ensuring that Reigns was put over.
Things didn’t get that much better into 2016, either. Reigns was the first person to ever defend their world title in the actual 2016 Rumble match, which was yet another attempt to get fans to cheer for Roman Reigns ‘the underdog’.
But instead of cheering for him as he defended his recently-reclaimed World title, the audience roared in approval when surprise entrant Triple H eliminated Reigns from the match, ensuring that the Samoan was not going to walk out of the building as champion (or as a winner, for that matter).
Yet all of this fan rejection only fueled the fire in Vince McMahon’s belly, as he became increasingly convinced that he knew better than the audience themselves. So when Roman Reigns won the WWE World Heavyweight Championship for the third time in the main event of WrestleMania 32, he was met with an even worse reaction than at the 2015 Royal Rumble.
For the first time in WrestleMania history, the show came to a close with the audience feeling sad, angry, and disappointed. As with the Rumble, no amount of sound manipulation could conceal fans’ widespread rejection and hatred of Roman Reigns’ character.
It got so bad that the heels – Triple H and Stephanie McMahon – had to try and placate the audience as the show ended, which is as clear an indictment against a character’s fan reception as you could get.
It shouldn’t surprise anyone that WrestleMania 32 was voted Worst Major Show by the Wrestling Observer for 2016 (although to be fair, that wasn’t entirely Reigns’ fault; that show had a multitude of problems top to bottom that made it difficult and at times painful to watch).
Suspension and second push
Reigns’ third and most recent reign as world champion didn’t last long. Despite having some genuinely good matches against A.J. Styles, Reigns lost the title to Seth Rollins at Money in the Bank 2016. This loss stemmed from him failing WWE’s Wellness Policy, which led to a 30-day suspension.
Yet even after failing that test, Reigns was pushed nevertheless, albeit in a different fashion. While he might not have been chasing the World Title, he was featured prominently on WWE programming nonetheless, scoring regular victories in virtually every match and showing little – if any – weakness as a character.
It wasn’t uncommon to see Reigns demolish wrestlers like Rusev and Gallows & Anderson on a regular basis…sometimes even in 2-on-1 handicap situations. These booking directions led to even more dislike for Reigns, as he was destroying wrestlers that fans had grown to like (Rusev) and ones that had genuine skill as grapplers from all over the world (Gallows & Anderson).
These booking ideas all stemmed from the disconnect between what Vince McMahon wanted in a star and what an ever-growing segment of WWE’s core audience wanted from the wrestlers. The former wanted to see the Superman-like presentation: a man with chiselled good looks never showing weakness and always being a clear-cut good guy.
The latter, meanwhile, wanted (and still wants) to see wrestlers show dynamism, emotion, character development, and sell for their opponents. This is why most of Reigns’ matches during this period were downright boring: it was so obvious and predictable that he wouldn’t lose that there was no point in watching or investing in those matches emotionally.
Yet even in the face of all these negatives and problems, and even after the widespread public condemnation of the Reigns character and his booking at the hands of Vince McMahon, this narrative persisted.
By early 2017, Reigns solidified himself both as a villain in many fans’ eyes and as a historic wrestler by pinning and (presumably) retiring the Undertaker, arguably the most venerated and respected wrestlers of all time. In doing so, Vince wanted the audience to get a clear message: Reigns was going to be the next big thing whether they liked it or not.
Well, the audience told WWE how they felt about such a decision the following night: for a good ten minutes, Reigns stood in the ring as the live audience pelted him with the most vicious and hateful chants imaginable, including expletives that cannot be repeated here.
Yet despite that obvious rejection, that entire show was framed as being composed of ‘non-traditional fans’ whose opinions didn’t have the weight or merit of their regular audience. Like a true master of propaganda, Vince had tried to sell to the audience watching at home that the fans’ opinions were wrong and only his mattered (whether that was successful or not still remains to be seen).
As 2017 wore on, Reigns remained embroiled in a feud with Braun Strowman, a monster of a man who, despite being a stereotypical WWE giant at first, has shown tremendous improvement and development as a wrestler in the past two years.
It has reached the point that even though WWE tries to frame Strowman as a heel, audiences everywhere cheer for him wildly whenever he does anything, especially if it’s to Roman Reigns. One would need only look at that now-famous segment in which Strowman ‘flipped’ an ambulance with Reigns presumably still in it.
The segment was presented as though Reigns could’ve been seriously injured, yet one could clearly hear the audience chanting ‘Thank you, Strowman’ at the idea of Reigns being actually injured.
While some people have criticized this fan reaction for being too extreme, one must keep in mind what such reactions represent. One mustn’t forget that the majority of fan backlash isn’t necessarily aimed towards Roman himself.
Instead, it’s directed at Vince McMahon and his team of writers, who insist on presenting Reigns in this way. Since Vince McMahon isn’t likely to change his mind on…well…anything, the next best thing these fans can do is at least try to sabotage his plans so that he learns from his supposed mistakes.
The past few months have all been centred on a possible Shield reunion, with this much-anticipated return of a former stable taking place at Survivor Series 2017. Although there were plans to reunite the Shield earlier, they were hampered by Reigns falling ill.
But that didn’t stop from Reigns receiving a majority of cheers for the first time since 2014 at Survivor Series. Although some fans continue to boo him, the degree to which they do so isn’t as much as it once was when he’s a member of the Shield.
This comes down to simple numbers; Reigns is alongside two established babyfaces whose fans greatly outnumber their detractors, so of course Reigns’ detractors will be hidden among the Shield’s supporters.
Reigns’ most recent accomplishment occurred on November 21st, 2017, when he defeated The Miz to become WWE Intercontinental Champion. In doing so, Reigns has now won every championship there is for him to acquire in WWE, having also won the WWE United States Championship back in 2016.
He now joins an elite few in WWE to have won one of each category of belt: a world title, a tag title, and both secondary singles titles. These accomplishments have made Roman Reigns a Grand Slam Champion, which only further adds onto the legacy that he has carved out for himself.
Roman Reigns is going to be a regular fixture of WWE programming for years to come. WWE have already put so much time and effort into him that there’s no turning back, no matter how bad his reactions might get.
Of course, even if he gets booed, WWE have come to an important conclusion: a large portion of their audience is composed of hardcore fans that will watch the show and consume Vince’s products no matter what.
As a result, he doesn’t necessarily have to worry about bad publicity stemming from hostile crowds. Now, whether Reigns as top guy brings WWE more fans in the future remains to be seen.
As of this writing, Vince McMahon still plans on crowning Reigns as World Champion for a fourth time at WrestleMania 34, in a match against Brock Lesnar. It will take something extremely radical and borderline earth-shattering for these plans to change, especially given how adamant (or stubborn, depending on your point of view) Vince is about the Reigns project.
So if there’s one thing you can get used to, it’s seeing that Samoan guy in the flak jacket walking down the aisle every week and Spearing people to win his matches. You’re not likely to see anything different over the next ten years or more.