In less than a month, the biggest event in the pro wrestling calendar will go down in Dallas, Texas. Over the last 30 years Wrestlemania has been headlined by some of the greatest wrestling performers of all time: Bret Hart, Steve Austin, Hulk Hogan and The Rock to name a handful. This year the show of shows will be main evented by Roman Reigns.
If you flinched at the mention of Reigns so close to so many genuine wrestling legends, the problem with this year’s event is already all too clear to you. Mere weeks away from Wrestlemania, there should be that buzz in the air for the biggest show of the year, but by now it’s so candidly clear Reigns is not the guy WWE want him to be.
Reigns is not a bad wrestler, and he’s been shown to get the crowd popping under the right conditions. With one thing after another though, Project Reigns has become a recipe that bubbles and boils into a sour mess. Let’s take a look at what has gone wrong:
1. Reigns is too green
It’s become something of a cliché to say Reigns isn’t ready for the main event, but it’s not just smarks shooting off about the Samoan badass. Reigns comes from a pro football background, only stepping into the wrestling ring in 2010, directly into WWE’s developmental programme. Thing is, that’s really not that long of a time to have been wrestling, never mind having the weight of an entire company on your back.
Reigns has visibly improved during his main roster career, but pushing someone to the main event while they’re still learning is a disaster cocktail. There are so many things a top wrestler is expected to do in 2016: talk well in promos, wrestle long and variable matches, connect with the crowd, sell moves properly. All this comes from experience in different promotions round the world. Both of Reigns’ former Shield partners, Dean Ambrose and Seth Rollins, had been wrestling roughly as long as Reigns has been before they even signed to WWE.
Sometimes a genuine star can emerge from the road Reigns is following. John Cena trod a similar path from WWE developmental on his way to winning the WWE title from JBL at Wrestlemania21. As much as we might dislike Cena these days though, it’s starting to look like he had the talent to make himself the exception rather than the rule. At this point Roman Reigns has had years to get over as a main event star, but in a lot of ways he’s still learning. He’s not got the skills to be a Cena-like babyface on the mic, and his recent main event at Fastlane shows how he still has a lot to learn about selling wrestling moves.
2. WWE still doesn’t understand their modern audience
WWE’s modern audience is broadly made up of two groups: kids who love good guys versus bad guys, and the older fans we’ve all come to know as smarks. The trouble for Vince McMahon is that just like in the 90s those kids will eventually grow up into a new generation of smarky adults. Hulkamania gave way to the Attitude Era as children became adults who wanted more. We’re in the middle of a similar transformation right now, but this time wiseguy fans are even harder to please and near impossible to predict.
The internet has done something to the WWE audience that we’re all struggling to grasp, WWE no less than the rest of us. Why hasn’t wrestler A been on TV for the last few weeks? Google it and a dozen websites will give you the real answer. Were the crowd really cheering for wrestler B last night? Check Twitter – at least a few people in the audience will have tweeted what really happened.
Roman Reigns has received wave upon wave of bad booking, but part of his predicament is almost certainly the current unpredictability of the audience. Which underdog star will they anoint as their hero this month? Will a moment of innocuous booking suddenly rekindle the crowd’s secret desire to see Dolph Ziggler win a world championship? Are they going to unexpectedly turn on a long time fan favourite because they think he might bury a popular up-and-comer?
3. The roster is packed with underused talent
Wrestling commentators are spending a lot of time complaining right now that injuries have depleted the WWE talent pool at the worst possible time. They are wrong. WWE’s current roster is possibly the most talented it has been in the last decade. Almost every wrestler on the main roster has the potential to go out and steal the show – WWE just doesn’t let them.
Fans know this. They know that Rusev could be killing it as a singles star at the top of the midcard. Or that the Social Outcasts could eventually become interesting if they’re given an actual storyline. They’re probably even starting to realise that the female roster is big enough and talented enough to sustain multiple championships. What they know above all else though, is that none of this seems to matter to Vince and his creative team as long as Roman Reigns is in the main storyline.
4. Roman Reigns is not John Cena
Vince understands this, right? Somehow, almost from day one, John Cena was ready to take the ball and carry it. The current reaction he gets from crowds is a sign he’s starting to overstay his welcome, but back in 2005 he really did manage to get himself over as the top babyface. He had that intangible quality, and he could play the goofy good guy like no one since Hogan.
Despite having neither of these essential skills, WWE are presenting Roman Reigns as if he does. He cracks smiles and makes dorky jokes, but they fall flat. The crowd boo his segment, but he doesn’t have the experience to improvise his way out of it. On the one occasion Reigns was allowed to not be John Cena, he laid a beat down on Triple H that got the crowd fully on his side for the first time since he left the Shield.
5. Booking Vince Russo would be ashamed of
Okay, that’s an exaggeration. Nothing WWE has done with Reigns quite matches the baffling bullshit that was Bash at the Beach 2000. Still, the litany of booking mistakes piled on top of Reigns must rival the Tower of Babel at this point.
The collapse of the Shield will be remembered as one of the most shocking moments in wrestling history. After the split though, Reigns was pushed straight to the main event, appearing in WWE Championship matches at two consecutive pay-per-views. Meanwhile, without a title belt to fight over, Seth Rollins vs Dean Ambrose became the feud of the summer – one that would play a key role in making Rollins a main event star.
After returning from injury, the bad booking continued with the tragedy that was the 2015 Royal Rumble. A match that saw fan favourite Daniel Bryan enter only to be eliminated early and directionless veterans Big Show and Kane eliminating popular names. Reigns’ victory was met with universal jeers.
More recently, WWE seem to have been using former Shield buddy Dean Ambrose as a crutch for Reigns. Trouble is, put the two side by side long enough and it becomes obvious who is the more fun and entertaining guy to watch.
As Wrestlemania fast approaches the build to the main event (Roman Reigns facing Triple H for a chance to regain the World Championship) has been as tepid as a bottle of lemonade that’s been left to go flat. WWE creative have done so little since the 2016 Royal Rumble to sell us on their Wrestlemania main event that Project Reigns is very probably going to crash land in Dallas like no wrestling push in history.