It was just over a month ago that Roman Reigns was the fan favorite in a Fatal Fourway for the WWE World Heavyweight Title at Battleground. Everyone basically knew that John Cena would retain over Reigns, Randy Orton, and Kane to set up what would become a memorable showdown with Brock Lesnar, but it is a fact that Reigns was the hottest wrestler in WWE going into that show on July 20th. Two weeks before, I named him Wrestler of the Week for some promising promo work and a top-to-bottom dominance on Raw that highlighted his electric energy and charisma. Approximately five weeks later, Reigns has lost almost all of the momentum he built up during the dissolution of The Shield. More importantly, he has lost the goodwill and support of many fans who championed him as a more entertaining alternative to Cena. How did he get to this point and what does he need to do to rebound?
One irony in the tides turning against Reigns is that he never fundamentally changed who he was. Since he got to WWE, he has had a limited offensive arsenal (he sells quite well for a young wrestler), rudimentary mic skills that do not seem tied to his natural personality, and an underdeveloped sense for how to put together a match that pulls fans in. When he was in The Shield, these shortcomings were covered by the more mature, complete Dean Ambrose and Seth Rollins. During his initial push as a singles wrestler, I suspect that many fans were so excited to finally see more of Reigns that they overlooked his flaws. Five weeks of repetitive and limited matches with Randy Orton and Kane have dampened that excitement and reminded fans that he is far from a finished product.
While all of these weaknesses are real, they are not career-killing, nor are they impossible to overcome. With time and repetitions in the ring, Reigns can enhance his move set, become more comfortable speaking to the fans, and learn to improve his ring psychology. It is much harder to acquire charisma and magnetism, and since Reigns has a wealth of those traits, it means his ceiling is immensely high if he is able to add the other elements to his repertoire. Even without them, Reigns has built a solid and loyal fanbase who appreciate his unique athleticism and intimidating look. Reigns is already miles ahead of the Mason Ryan/Ezekial Jackson class of impressive big men with poor supporting skills. Yet, WWE clearly has bigger plans for Reigns than it ever had for the likes of Ryan, Jackson, Gene Snitsky, or Matt Morgan, or dozens of others. If he is going to maximize his full potential, headline Wretlemania XXXI, and go on to be the face of the next generation in WWE, he has a long way to go.
When looking at booking options for current wrestlers, I believe it is useful to look at historical examples of wrestlers in similar positions to see what worked and did not work for them. In a very basic sense, Reigns is a phsycially dominant babyface with tremendous athletic ability and the sort of charisma that earns him a quick connection to fans. His weaknesses, as I mentioned before, include rough edges in his offense, promo skills, and ring psychology. He also started out red hot and needs to maintain that momentum or capitalize on it to take him to the next level- there is no reinvention needed along the lines of “The Ringmaster” or “The Blue Chipper” Rocky Maivia. In the relatively modern era of American professional wrestling, there are two examples of wrestlers who meet this basic outline who took divergent paths from that starting point: Goldberg and Sting.
In spite of his phenomenal early run, Goldberg serves as a cautionary tale to WWE regarding Reigns. While it is difficult to separate the development of Goldberg’s character from the generally haphazard booking in the late ‘90s WCW, it is fair to say that his persona never progressed from its early zenith. The most memorable moments of Goldberg’s career are his historic streak, his WCW Title win over Hulk Hogan at the Georgia Dome on Nitro, and his eventual loss to Kevin Nash at Starrcade with the assistance of Scott Hall’s taser. In other words, Goldberg never again reached the heights he attained in his first push- grated, that push was one of the biggest in wrestling history.
Like Reigns, Goldberg featured a believable and physical offensive style, but one that was limited to a few moves. Also like Reigns, Goldberg had an extremely unique entrance that got fans fired up every time he appeared. These are good starting points, but Goldberg never learned to deliver a promo that could create the necessary emotional investment in his feuds. Unless the stakes were outrageously high (the streak, the WCW Title) or he was feuding with someone who could create a storyline for him (Scott Hall, HHH), his participation in a program added little in terms of personal intrigue. WWE seems to be aware that this is a necessary step for Reigns, as he has already had more time to experiment on the mic and try to find his voice than Goldberg ever had. Even though “Believe in…” is not quite “Who’s Next,” Reigns has had chances to do direct promos, in-ring interviews, pre-taped speeches, panel discussions, podcasts, and a variety of other forms of communication to help him test out material and become more comfortable as a speaker.
While Goldberg reached the top of wrestling and failed to stay there, Sting remained one of the top draws in American professional wrestling for a couple of decades. When I compare his rawness to Sting’s, I am not referring to the Crow version of Sting, but the late ‘80s version who arrived in WCW from a short stint in the UWF. Sting was extremely green in the ring and received a very early title shot against Ric Flair nonetheless. At the first-ever Clash of the Champions, Flair carried Sting to a 45-minute time-limit draw in a match that laid the groundwork for what Sting would become. He spent roughly the next year wrestling with Flair, Arn Anderson, Tully Blanchard, Barry Windham, Mike Rotunda, and the Road Warriors. He received a master’s class in mat-based wrestling, powerhouse wrestling, face/heel psychology, and building fan interest. He showed rapid growth, and although he never became as good as Flair, he went from a sub-par ring technician to a very solid one who could augment his own charisma with matches worthy of his hype.
It appears to me that WWE tried a similar technique with Reigns when he entered a rivalry with Randy Orton. Unfortunately, their soft-spoken personalities did not click and the matches mostly felt formulaic. Orton is a great wrestler, but he is no Flair. The difference between them is the difference between Flair carrying young Sting to a classic match and Orton plodding through a predictable program with Reigns. My hope is that WWE uses the same approach and finds opponents who bring out the best in Reigns and challenge him to diversify his style while he learns how to sequence matches more creatively. While he is also young, Seth Rollins has a great deal of experience and seems to be a very good candidate. Unfortunately, WWE has a paucity of established heel technicians at the moment. In various forms, Alberto Del Rio, Christian, Chris Jericho, or CM Punk would be outstanding rivals who could help make Reigns look good while he continues to develop and gain experience. If set up properly, Kane, Sheamus, Cesaro, and Bad News Barrett could all serve this role while Reigns tries to accelerate his growth before Wrestlemania. The crucial element in any of these feuds would not be how impressive Reigns is in each match, but how much he learns- both in terms of additional offense and ring psychology- that he can bring with him.
Reigns has become a surprisingly polarizing figure in WWE very quickly. He transitioned from a darling of internet fans due to his association with Rollins and Ambrose. When his singles run quickly shed light on his developmental shortcomings, the same fans turned on him quickly and severely. The appropriate reaction is somewhere between those two extremes. While Reigns has glaring weaknesses, they are things upon which he can improve. If he has not made notable strides in any of these areas by Wrestlemania and he remains in the main event picture, it will be more than fair to question whether he has earned that spot. On the other hand, his strengths- including his raw athleticism and unquestioned charisma- are difficult or impossible to teach and extremely rare. Like a young pitcher with a 100 MPH fastball, Reigns should be given every chance to see if he can develop the skills he needs to buttress his core gifts. For now, the goal should be on learning and development.