When Roman Reigns returned to WWE at Summerslam in August, it was a joyous occasion for fans of all stripes. Knowing that the real-life Joe Anoa’i felt healthy and safe enough to return to the ring amidst the COVID-19 crisis felt good. Nothing he did that night changed the feeling all that much. While Reigns absolutely trucked both Braun Strowman and The Fiend, neither of them are an underdog being bullied. Both of them had taken the Universal Title that “The Big Dog” had been forced to relinquish. His claim to that belt made any beef with both of the men involved make sense with the past.
What we didn’t yet know was how deep this new “Wreck Everyone & Leave” attitude ran. We soon found it’s not just a new slogan, but a new mindset and approach to those around him. While this was still technically Roman Reigns, he’s become the most believable, compelling, and watchable Big Dog we’ve ever seen. What’s made it brilliant is how it was a matter of degrees, and not wholesale change.
Some fans have clamored for years for Reigns to “turn heel,” which was understandable the big, good-looking, assured guy who is put on a pedestal is easily off-putting. WWE tried to keep him looking like a badass but still let kids root for him by forcing him to walk a “tweener” tightrope. His build and booking didn’t fit the underdog mold, but he couldn’t go hogwild with beating up whoever he wanted while still being the face of the company, and this played out uncomfortably onscreen.
This tension was epitomized by his awkward catchphrase “I’m not a good guy, I’m not a bad guy, I’m THE guy.” This just riled folks up more – if you’re not on the fans’ side AND don’t have your own clear evil agenda, what good are you? This was always one source of frustration with Roman’s character. What drove the point home was each fleeting glimpse we saw of something greater just beneath the surface.
When Reigns began his Road to Wrestlemania 33, and a date with The Undertaker, there was no point in treating him like a conquering hero against The Phenom. So Reigns went the other way, cutting full-on heel promos. He taunted the fans with his success, including his 2015 Rumble win that got booed at the time, and the other main events we all knew were on his resume. After beating Undertaker, he delivered a one-line proclamation on RAW (“This is my yard now!“) that was masterful in its brevity – he milked the heat from the crowd for just the right amount of time before pissing them off even more with his words, and then just left. They couldn’t even get satisfaction from continuing to boo him!
That 2017 run stood out because it was direct, understandable, and got its desired reaction. Everything a pro wrestler shoots for, and what’s more it felt far more natural for Reigns than anything that had come before. What we’re seeing now is really just investing full-time in that openly cocky, take on all comers direction. Everything Reigns has done since Summerslam has made that investment pay off. Taking on Paul Heyman as a nod to his Lesnar-like standing in main events was a masterful tweak to fans and a way to allow someone else to build hype. Roman takes the mic more often than Brock, though, and has cast himself perfectly as the head carrying the heavy crown. To hear him tell it, he does what is necessary to keep the kingdom in order, and if you don’t understand it’s your problem.
But how he’s telling it – and how well – is the big development here. He speaks more freely with fewer catchphrases. He speaks calmly, almost softly, but with a force and clarity that lets everyone know just how sure he is of beating down whoever is across from him that particular week – and his standing far above them. When questioned, though, the pot boils over and the “Tribal Chief” takes his pound of flesh because how DARE you not appreciate all he does and gives for this business.
This is not all that dissimilar a message from saying “I’m THE Guy,” but a lot more organic for his character and delivered far more effectively. Unleashing this side of Roman has turned what could have been a time-filler feud with his cousin, Jey Uso, into an interfamily drama I can’t stop watching. For instance, on the Smackdown leading into their match at Clash of Champions, Roman’s mask slipped.
The tone of the night changed drastically when Reigns jumped Uso on the ramp, then stood over him. Reigns changed with it to drive the moment home in a way that jumps off the TV screen. He spoke with anger and force, visibly shaking, as he swore to his own blood, “you will NEVER take MY place at the head of the table.” The champion’s desperation, borne of giant expectations, comes across as visceral, real, and raw. It’s something that many of us have felt when we’ve had to deliver for our family, our company, or ourselves. In this case – WWE, his growing acting prospects, the family clan – they’re all riding on Roman and he’s finally letting us see him sweat. Like most great wrestling tales, this is likely based in Joe Anoai’s actual reality as he watched his career possibly slip away.
All of that helps us understand why Roman Reigns does things even if hating the actions themselves. After all, that only makes for a more compelling bad guy. This newfound effectiveness is making this already the most gripping story Roman Reigns has carried on-screen. It’s clear what he wants, why he wants it, and how he plans to get there – by destroying anyone who resists.
Never has that been more clear than at Clash of Champions. Reigns and Uso put on a great match, but Roman used the stage to make a point. He demanded Jey “acknowledge” him and, when that accolade didn’t come, proceeded to beat his cousin down until Jimmy Uso threw in the towel. It was brutal, but honest and effective. Roman taking time to send a message, rather than being desperate just to win, made his talk about being on another level feel true. His willingness to go beyond the limits of what we’ve seen him do, or thought he would do, means we can’t take our eyes off him because we really don’t know what comes next.
Of course, the fact that he would go to such lengths against his own flesh and blood will turn fans’ stomachs, but Reigns doesn’t care. What’s even better is that he’s successfully communicated that even without doing the usual “I don’t give a damn what you inbred idiots think anymore!” heel workup, he simply stopped interacting with fan reaction. He comes to work, lays out his business, and then lays out his opponents. This clarity of purpose and action is credible, dynamic, and has become must-watch TV. Wreck Everyone & Leave.
Roman Reigns is back to cement his status as atop the WWE. He’s not sitting back and waiting for accolades to roll in or occur by default like so many T-Shirt sales. Instead, he’s taking the Universal Title, Smackdown, and his legacy by the throat. For him, his family, and his fans, this is (to use a tell-tale WWE line) what is “best for business.” The Tribal Chief will not tolerate anyone failing to grasp that. We all stand to benefit from watching him play the best version of himself, leading the way until someone rises to take a shot at the throne. They best not miss.