Last night, Roman Reigns opened Raw by vacating the WWE Universal Championship. The reason was a shocking and sobering one, as he revealed that he’ll be stepping away from the ring to battle Leukemia.
The global wrestling community has immediately come together in an outpouring of love and support for Reigns – although many have felt the need to preface their messages by pointing out that they’re “not a fan of his booking”, or that they “hate Roman Reigns the character, but not the man”.
While I would suggest that these sentiments are redundant at such a time, they’re incredibly telling. Over the past four years or so, the reaction to Roman’s sustained push has defined him entirely. It’s made him a unique and pivotal figure in wrestling history, absolutely – but it’s also caused many of his good points to go overlooked.
Any decent wrestling fan will hope that Roman is able to return to the ring, preferably as soon as possible. WWE will sorely miss a Superstar of his drive, dedication, and star power. But Reigns won’t just leave a gaping hole due to these qualities; he’ll also be missed because of his talent.
Gradually, all but the staunchest of anti-Roman folk have been forced to accept that he’s pretty damn good at this wrestling thing. He may not be a pure workhorse, forged in the fires of the independent scene like Styles, Bryan, Rollins, KO, and so many others. But he fulfils his role perfectly, with a style tailor-made for the main roster’s unique brand of Sports Entertainment.
That’s the general perception these days, at least. But I think that Roman’s absence will cause us to deepen our appreciation of him even further – ultimately recognising him as one of the most versatile wrestlers around today.
The furore over Reigns’ tendency to win (and win, and win) has threatened to cloud the fact that he can thrive in a variety of roles, filling in exactly where WWE need him on any given night. The classic Raw main event is his bread and butter, but there are far more strings to his bow. With the right opponent, we’ve seen him steal the show in thrilling workrate-heavy bouts. It’s happened many times in the past with the likes of Styles and Balor – both of whom I believe Reigns shares a particularly electric chemistry with.
We’ve seen him light up the ring in a succession of wonderful six-man matches alongside his Shield brethren. We’ve seen him dish out (and receive) mountains of punishment in a variety of weapons-based wars. We’ve seen him play the heroic underdog in the main event of WrestleMania 31, and the dominant thoroughbred when he seized the WWE Championship from Sheamus.
You might hate the way he’s been booked in Royal Rumble matches (as do I), but it’s hard to deny that Roman is a compelling force come January – prowling the ring and picking his spots with impact and precision.
That’s before we even begin to talk about the tag team wrestling. Honestly, for a Superstar so enamoured with singles success, Roman Reigns might be the most underrated tag team wrestler in the world. I’m not just talking about his partnerships with Rollins and Ambrose; I mean the oddball pairings with the likes of Bray Wyatt. Although they’re sadly quite infrequent, Reigns brings a spark and character to such matches that few truthfully could.
Although often positioned as champion or number one contender, Reigns has also been able to fill a variety of places on the card as required. We may think of him as a perennial main eventer, but Raw is set to miss The Shield’s enforcer from top to bottom. He’s previously been a formidable mid-tier champion, and engaged in wild and violent rivalries without the need for a belt on the line (namely the feud with Braun Strowman).
Despite his amazing versatility, I’m not going to pretend that Roman has the most complicated wrestling persona of all time. He’s a long-haired badass whose signature moves are a running tackle and a leaping right hand, but complexity doesn’t always lead to success. Shinsuke Nakamura arrived in NXT with mountains of hype, a unique style, and a unique charisma that was at once indecipherable and easy to grasp. At the time of writing, it’s fair to say that the former New Japan megastar has struggled somewhat on the main roster – a wrestler most would consider to be superior to Reigns in the traditional sense.
As Roman pointed out in his speech, fans have always reacted to him – for better or worse. This has typically been seen as a bad thing, the result of WWE’s repeated insistence on pushing a rejected golden boy. Most of the time I agreed with that school of thought. It doesn’t seem like such a negative now, with Raw set to become a quieter place all of a sudden.
Another reason his absence could result in a semi-permanent haze is the decision to turn Dean Ambrose heel last night, presumably leading into an emotional feud between Reigns’ two closest friends. It’s certainly a bold booking decision from WWE (one that I’m sure all parties are fine with) but understandably runs the risk of making Rollins vs. Ambrose too ‘real’. Ideally, their grievances with one another will revolve around Seth’s original betrayal of The Shield, Dean’s unhinged ways, and maybe even Ambrose’s title-based jealousy when he returned from injury. Expect Roman’s name to be mentioned, sure, but hopefully not too much.
Previously, a common argument was that a heel turn would be the only way to generate mass support for Roman in the long run – Rocky Maivia style. That has sadly been proven wrong, and while nobody would wish for the circumstances that eventually united the fans behind Reigns, our collective outpouring does raise the question of his (hopeful) comeback.
If all goes well, Roman’s return will undoubtedly receive a reception like few other. WWE will finally have the reaction they’ve attempted to manufacture several times over – but what will they do with it?