Roman Reigns made his WWE main roster debut in 2012 as part of the three-man wrecking machine known as The Shield. Standing alongside Seth Rollins and Dean Ambrose in the trio, Reigns served as the silent strength, delivering Superman Punches and Spears in the name of "justice," or sometimes simply as part of a for-hire mercenary group. He spoke few words -- typically nothing beyond "Believe that," or "Believe in The Shield," but his shiny dark hair, blue eyes and strong jaw easily made him the most compelling to look at, or at least the most conventionally handsome member of The Shield.
But this is pro wrestling, and The Shield was not meant to stick together forever, which is where the problems began for Reigns. When Rollins aligned himself with the Triple H-led Authority, taking a chair to Reigns' back and dissolving The Shield, Reigns was positioned as the most main-event ready of the three. The problem was that he wasn't as ready as advertised. His in-ring work still needed improving and honing, and his speaking skills on the microphone were even less polished.
Yet, with such a can't-miss look, WWE (and Vince McMahon, in particular, who likes large-and-muscled for his male talent) decided to throw Reigns into the main event and WWE World Heavyweight Championship pictures.
The fans' rejection of Reigns, though, was something McMahon and company could not have predicted. For nearly three years now, WWE crowds are booing Reigns far more than they are cheering him, no matter the feuds he is scripted into, no matter how low or high the stakes are in his matches.
Rollins, ostensibly among the biggest heels of the time would receive cheers when facing Reigns. The crowds thoroughly rejected any intimation of Reigns holding a championship belt -- and when he finally did, in 2016, his tenure as Heavyweight Champion ended after 77 days (and a violation of WWE's Wellness Program). He was then suspended for 30 days.
Despite Reigns' constant struggle to connect with fans in a positive way, WWE has not relented on making him a focal point of the company. He's even been highlighted more, simply as a result of the roster being split between the "Monday Night Raw" and "Smackdown Live" brands last summer. While Reigns isn't currently in WWE Universal Championship contention (a.k.a. the biggest prize on "Raw"), he was as recently as late January, when he was also WWE United States Champion.
Now, Reigns has another obstacle: Braun Strowman, a former strongman (hence the name) who has lost very few matches and has been angling for Reigns-level competition to test his mettle for months.
This, unsurprisingly, has created its own set of problems and further serves to illustrate what exactly the WWE's Reigns problem really is: John Cena. Like Cena, Reigns has been negotiating the boos of the crowd by cutting "you can love me, or you can hate me but I'm here and I'm great" promos that are in many ways direct cribs of speeches Cena has given over the years. Like Cena, Reigns will take impressive beatings, sometimes from numerous foes at one time, yet seem no worse for wear, even in the same night (see: January's Royal Rumble).
Cena's time in the WWE is winding down. He's already a part-time competitor as it is and frequently takes breaks to shoot TV shows and movies -- two things that will probably have him away from WWE for all of the upcoming summer. The WWE needs to find a way to fill that eventual Cena void and no matter how crowds and fans react, McMahon et al., seems to believe that man is Reigns.
It's a myopic and in many ways desperate strategy, akin to the Denver Broncos' and Miami Dolphins' longstanding quest to find their respective "new" John Elway or Dan Marino, or how record executives spent nearly 20 years trying to find the "next Nirvana." Cena was an organic creation, something of-the-moment that cannot be replicated; it's the same reason no one has resonated in the way "Stone Cold" Steve Austin did in the 1990s. A WWE Superstar either is or isn't "it," and that isn't a death knell for a career. Reigns should have as long a career in the WWE as he chooses and could someday hit upon that one kernel of "it" that drives the fans into his corner.
The latest attempt is this feud against Strowman, which is set to either reach a new mile marker or its culmination on the March 5 "Raw"-only WWE Network event, Fastlane. The way the WWE has built up the battle has been interesting in a sense, given that the two men are being "trained up" for one another along parallel paths (which sometimes converge). Strowman is being handed big-man opponents, like Mark Henry and The Big Show, while Reigns is being placed in handicap matches, most recently against the "Raw" Tag Team Champions, Gallows and Anderson. The handicap match conceit, though, is a problematic one (and one that hearkens back to the Reigns-as-Cena-2.0 issue).
For two weeks, Reigns has squared off against Gallows and Anderson on "Raw," defeating them the first time, losing the second time (via chair-related disqualification) and then further beating them down after the fact. Champions-as-cannon-fodder for men like Cena and Reigns is nothing new, but it's also one of the most easy-to-criticize conceits of the current era in the WWE. Yes, let Reigns look like a properly-matched opponent to the intimidating, seeming unbeatable Strowman, but it's not necessary to make champions -- a pair of champions, even -- appear so significantly lesser-than that it makes onlookers wonder why Gallows and Anderson are holding the belts to begin with.
Whether we like it or not, Reigns is squarely positioned to be the future of the WWE, the face that will run the place when Cena finally abdicates his throne. But the WWE could have taken a very different direction toward getting him there. With Reigns shoved down viewers' throats, trying to manufacture a fan-favorite where the fans were showing no favor, means that for him to really and truly ascend to that level has been made all the more difficult.
The WWE Universe may be many conflicting things, but one area in which most members can agree is that there are limits to the genre's emotional manipulation and limits to its storytelling style. The WWE's style includes attempts at dictating what viewers should feel. Too mush pushing, though, leads to pushback, which has been a defining trait of Reigns' solo career to this point. But another one has been the WWE's top brass ignoring the pushback and continuing to drive forward.
The next stop is Strowman, and based on history, it appears odds are against him derailing Reigns' momentum at Fastlane.