Roman Reigns beat Samoa Joe at Sunday’s Backlash pay-per-view. Of course he did. Reigns wins, a lot, and he gets pushed, a lot. Punch, spear, pin, repeat. The crowd boos, everyone goes home unhappy.
The problem is that we’ve got some of this wrong. Reigns doesn’t win all the time; the Internet Wrestling Database pegs his overall pay-per-view win percentage at a shade under 51 percent. Once television is put into the mix, it becomes a very respectable 67.59 percent during his WWE tenure, but, as Vince McMahon keeps reminding us, television doesn’t matter. Fifty-one percent is a nothing win percentage, and certainly not that of a top guy. To shoot down the obvious, oft-made comparison, former superhero and current renaissance man John Cena wins 58 percent of his pay-per-view matches and 77 percent of everything. And that’s after taking into account the now 40-year-old Cena has been putting others over for a few years now.
After the initial explosion of his push in 2014 and 2015, Reigns has alternated being at the top of the card with sitting comfortably just below the top tier. He’s always visible, but has been neither ubiquitous nor champion much at all recently.
So what gives? If Roman Reigns is decidedly not the next coming of peak era John Cena, or even not at all invincible in that vein like Bill Goldberg, just what the hell is he? And why does it feel like he’s always on top, always taunting us with wins, stilted promos, and tweets about the haters?
Reigns’s big image problem has a name: Brock Lesnar.
By the time the Shield broke up, turning Reigns loose from the tag and trios scene, it was already decided that Lesnar was it. Lesnar was going to be the monster and, portentously, he got cheers for kicking the shit out of the then-reviled Cena. All of this happened just as Reigns was cresting, a crest which would be forever tarnished once he won the 2015 Royal Rumble instead of the beloved Daniel Bryan.
This set up a curious dynamic which has persisted for years. WWE clearly wants Reigns around or at the top, but they can’t have him beat Lesnar, since they also clearly think Lesnar gives the Universal title some sort of legitimacy it otherwise lacks. So Reigns keeps losing to Lesnar, which makes him look like a chump.
But remember: Brock Lesnar isn’t hanging around WWE week in, week out. He shows up for a handful of matches a year. So Reigns headlines a lot of pay-per-views which otherwise would have a Universal title defense. Again, Reigns is booked like a chump when it counts, so you have this guy who comes off as a delusional loser headlining pretty much all your shows, winning when it’s most obnoxious (Undertaker, Braun Strowman), while still managing to not be good.
This inchoate stew of bad booking and worse character development has taken its toll on Reigns. Because underlying all of that is that Reigns just isn’t that good. He’s not a disaster and there are things he’s good at, like his admirable willingness to be thrown through tables, but on a roster with more than a handful of generational talents there’s absolutely no reason he should be as visible as he is. He’s not a good talker and, beyond his good looks, there’s no raw charisma there. He is, to paraphrase one of his sayings, not a good guy or a bad guy but a guy.
As if to drive home the dynamic, look at the past month and a half of his run. He lost quickly, cleanly, and brutally to Lesnar at WrestleMania. Three weeks later, he lost a cage match to Lesnar at a house show in Saudi Arabia. He puttered around a little bit before Backlash setting up a match with Samoa Joe, which he won handily with his limited moveset against one of the coolest, most dangerous-seeming guys to ever enter the ring.
Of course Reigns and Joe headlined the show, despite A.J. Styles and Shinsuke Nakamura fighting for the WWE title. And of course Reigns won, because (again) he wins only when it serves to maximally annoy the fans. Joe had him, he didn’t, Reigns punched, speared, won, and the crowd booed.
Except the boos were muted, for the first time in years. Not because there were cheers, but because the fans left. They’d had enough of Reigns—and, indeed, the show, which as a whole was up there with the most boring WWE shows in years—and they walked. It was like watching a clearout in the last quarter of a football game where the home team is losing by 35. You know the outcome and stadium parking lot traffic is hell—why in the world would you stay?
This is a big problem. When it was boos enveloping Reigns at every turn, WWE could (and has) shrugged it off as part of the fun. Some slightly-too-clever commentary says Reigns is the most brilliant heel of the modern era, as if all of this is deliberate. And, admittedly, there is something enjoyable about watching him lose badly, a bloodlust of the id where all the frustration with our helplessness at our inability to alter even the smallest things about how the world’s corporate masters conduct themselves becomes centered on Roman fucking Reigns.
But fans are starting to walk. They’ve walked before, complained before, and always come back; that smarmy retort of “see you next week” to people publicly proclaiming they’re done with WWE isn’t without some proof that it’s just blowing off steam. That’s not all it is, though, because sometimes they don’t come back, and seeing people just get up and walk out during a main event isn’t an everyday occurrence.
WWE needs to finally sort out its Roman Reigns problem. He needs to disappear for a good while or be repackaged entirely. At the least, he needs to be less visible. But part of sorting out the Reigns problem is getting rid of Brock Lesnar, who has distorting effects on the entire roster. They came so close with WrestleMania, where they could’ve given one true shot at Reigns as the top guy while letting Lesnar ride off to his MMA dreams. They blew it and there’s no indication they’ve learned a thing.