Roman Reigns stepped out at last night's Royal Rumble to a hostile crowd, overwhelmed by a tidal wave of boos at what should have been his triumphant entrance.
Reigns held the title of heavyweight champion of the world, the highest accolade in the WWE's flavor of pro wrestling. He's a good guy — a babyface, in wrestling lingo — and all things being equal, hearing the champ's name blasted over loudspeakers should electrify a crowd. He's supposed to be the hero, the man everyone is rooting for. Plus, he'd been screwed over, under and sideways for months by the powers that be, culminating in his horrible placement in the title card match. Reigns spent a solid year getting his ass handed to him and paying his dues. This should have been a good moment for him.
Last night's crowd would have none of it. The match hadn't even started, and it was clear that those in attendance weren't going to accept Reigns as the winner.
I sat on my brother Jeff's couch, worried. I texted my friend, also a Jeff, who was worried, too. This was a huge match — maybe the the most important for the WWE in a year. Reigns and the WWE had a lot to prove, and there was good reason to believe it wouldn't go well for them.
"I want Reigns to win," I texted Jeff. "I hope he loses."
That would have been better for everyone involved, really. I'm an unapologetic Reigns fan, but there was just too much baggage to make his victory palatable to many others. The crowd's disapproval proved it. Weird as it is, a win could be more harmful to him than a loss.
An hour later, I'd gone through a full range of emotions from anger to excitement and back again. Minute by minute, I became more convinced that my worst fears were inevitable. I got so wrapped up in the drama that I forgot about the folded slip of paper sitting on the coffee table in front of me, to be opened only after the match ended.
I lost perspective. I got pissed. I became a cynic, convinced that the WWE hadn't learned its lesson. It was so obviously on its way to repeating the mistakes of the last Royal Rumble, the mistake of pushing Roman Reigns too far too fast.
I couldn't have been more wrong.
When the bell rang and the winner had been crowned, I was as shocked as I was happy. Last night, the WWE played me like a slide trombone named Francesca II. Its writers took every fear I had and arranged them in such a way that my emotions overshadowed my rationality, and then it dropped a ending on me like the Rock drops the People's Elbow.
And in that instant, I was reminded why, after more than a decade, I fell so hard for pro wrestling and the WWE again.
SCRIPTED SHOWS, REAL INVESTMENTS
Pro wrestling is scripted. Everybody knows that. It's basically a soap opera mixed with acrobatic feats of strength — and many of those are quite real.
Storylines are indefinite because the stories never end. They never really resolve because, at some point down the line, the WWE has to write more, and there are only so many combinations of people you can pair up.
Sometimes that can be great. Writers can craft new stories on years-long foundations — years-long battles in what wrestling nerds call the squared circle. Other times, having to write so much so often ... doesn't work out so well.
Fans will be the first to tell you that, moment to moment, match to match, week to week, pro wrestling can often be dumb. Uninteresting. Predictable. But the true value of wrestling isn't in the micro. It's in the macro.
That's what made last night so great. Its result could only have happened in this peculiar form of entertainment, at this particular event, with these particular wrestlers, a year after the events were set in motion and the WWE shucked and jived to make amends.
That's where a fan's investment pays dividends, unlike any other form of entertainment. That's where pro wrestling is at its best — at the intersection of script and real life drama, when the people who watch wind up influencing the stories they see.
THE AUDIENCE AS WRITER IN A TERRIBLY GOOD YEAR
Pro wrestling it is a unique form of entertainment in which the audience gets a vote.
Seinfeld didn't suffer that. The Big Bang Theory and Law and Order don't poll viewers. Ratings are a vote of sorts, sure, but pro wrestling's audience has a much closer, much more direct interaction with the stories it sees. And nowhere has this been more apparent in recent memory than in the interaction between the WWE, Roman Reigns and the audience of adult fans.
Those who follow the behind the scenes machinations of the WWE have long been convinced that the man in charge of the company, Vince McMahon, wants Roman Reigns to be the face of the company. Hardcore fans disagree with Reigns apparent anointment. He looks the part, sure. He's got potential. But he's young and not quite ready, not quite up to the standards of a bona fide superstar. Maybe one day. But he's so clearly a rookie, often awkward behind a microphone, rather inconsistent in the ring. He's not championship material right now, hardcore fans say.
Of course, I don't know if Vince McMahon really wants Reigns to reign. I'm not privy to any firsthand, backstage accounts. I don't know where the WWE holds its writers meetings, and I'd get arrested if I showed up at one. But let's assume that, for the sake of argument, it's true. There's a solid body of reporting that seems to support the idea. Many fans certainly believe it. And if you watched every week, you could make the case that Reigns has been positioned to shine throughout his relatively short career.
Regardless, there's a case to be made that the WWE and Vince McMahon have been positioning Reigns for top tier status.
In short, the tension between those who script the WWE and the hardcore fans who ingest it had been rising, but it became poisonous one year ago when Reigns won the Royal Rumble in January 2015. There's a very specific, understandable reason why, too.
The WWE holds 12 pay-per-view events every year. Once a month, the stories it tells on cable television culminate at these events. Not all PPVs are created equal. WrestleMania is the undisputed king. The Royal Rumble nips on its heels. In fact, that January PPV kicks off the WWE's "Road to WrestleMania," where effectively all stories lead to the company's biggest event of the year.
Winning the Royal Rumble has particular significance every year because it guarantees the winner a match for the heavyweight championship at WrestleMania a few months later. Reigns entered the Rumble in 2015, didn't do much wrestling (the common complaint is that he spent a lot of time exhausted, sitting on the ropes) and, wouldn't you know it, wound up winning. This did not please those in attendance.
Last January, in the wake of his victory, Reigns stood atop a turnbuckle and stared at the WrestleMania sign in the distance. The WWE framed what should have been an iconic shot of the presumed future champion looking toward his — and the company's — future.
The crowd drowned him in boos. And I mean drowned. It was super awkward.
There's a weird constraint there that makes pro wrestling fascinating. The WWE is in charge. It can write what we it wants, at least in theory. Fans don't get a vote. And yet, the WWE performs in front of live audiences, many of whom have no reservations about letting the WWE know what they think, when they think it. Sometimes, that means a "This is awesome!" chant. Sometimes, your #1 guy walks face first into to a wall jeers.
Even a special appearance by The Rock — arguably the most liked and popular pro wrestler of all time — couldn't change minds on Reigns last year. I'm surprised the crowd didn't throw tomatoes at him.
The tension between what McMahon apparently wanted and what fans thought Reigns deserved popped like a pimple last year at the Royal Rumble. Fans had enough with what they believed was Reigns' unfair, unearned push.
Within the WWE, the events of the 2015 Royal Rumble didn't seem to change anyone's mind about Reigns' place at the company. But it undoubtedly changed the WWE's mind about how and when Reigns would get there. It appeared that WWE had a plan to ring Reigns with the most prestigious belt it has to offer. The audience hated that idea. And there's every indication that the WWE heard the boos.
WWE spent the bulk of 2015 making Reigns lose. Writers set him up for big opportunity after big opportunity, and then they'd make him fail. Reigns may have won many small matches in 2015, but he also tended to lose the big ones. He lost at WrestleMania. He lost elsewhere. Sometimes he smiled as someone handed him his ass. His in-ring work improved. He became a better talker — not a great talker, but he clearly improved. Progress was steady.
By late 2015, the pattern was clear. Reigns might've gotten to fight in the big matches, and me might've won some of them, but he wasn't champion. If he ever would be, he'd have paid his dues to earn it.
All the while, Reigns cultivated an image of ... well, something like a likable outsider. He didn't have much to say, but his wrestling more or less did the talking. He was a good guy throughout, immune to the seductions of the bad guys who run the company.
In late 2015, heavyweight champ, Seth Rollins, got injured and would be out for months. Blurring the lines between reality and fiction like the WWE does so well, Triple H, a bad guy and the real-life WWE COO, offered Reigns the title in exchange for his loyalty. Reigns told him to sit and spin.
Instead, with the title vacated, the WWE sponsored a championship tournament, and Reigns earned his way to the top. Again, it was a way to show that Reigns wasn't being handed anything. He would earn it.
It appeared that he'd done just that when he defeated Dean Ambrose in the main event of a pay-per-view late last year and won the heavyweight championship. Fireworks erupted. The crowd did, too. They didn't boo him. They cheered him. Reigns hadn't been anointed. He'd fought for this, and the crowd knew and accepted it.
As the months-long storyline's conclusion played out in the ring, so much confetti fell from the rafters that it became difficult to see. Triple H came out to congratulate Reigns, and Reigns beat him up. And then, out of nowhere, a heel named Sheamus ran into the ring, cashed in a briefcase that allowed him to fight for the title at any time, on-demand and defeated a bruised Reigns. Roman's reign lasted all of a few minutes.
The WWE giveth. The WWE taketh away.
Sheamus paraded the belt around for a month. Reigns got his rematch at the next PPV. And he lost. Again. As a cabal of bad guys gloated post-match, Reigns went bezerk. Triple H had to be "hospitalized."
And then, the very next day on live TV, we were told that Triple H was convalescing and would be absent from weekly TV. (Drama!) That same night, Roman Reigns got his contractual rematch against Sheamus. To everyone's surprise, he won the heavyweight championship in the very same arena that had booed him out of the building in January. This time, they cheered him.
That was a remarkable achievement for the WWE and Reigns. They heard the fans. They devoted themselves to rehabilitation, and it worked.
Its mission accomplished, the WWE didn't rest on its haunches. It conceived of a new storyline for Reigns. Triple H was out recovering, which left a heel vacancy in the show, week to week. Leaning on the tried and true feelings of being mistreated by your boss, Vince McMahon became a regular, on-screen character for the first time in years. With Triple H gone, Mr. McMahon (as he's known in the ring) showed up to wield his power and make Reign's life as champion a living hell.
There were some self-contained bouts that began and ended on the WWE's weekly TV show, Monday Night Raw. Reigns got the best of the villainous McMahon a few times, which endeared him to the crowd even more. There were moments when felt like the golden age of modern wrestling, the Attitude Era, again. The WWE was certainly drawing from that well. McMahon reprised his role. Reigns stood in as Stone Cold Steve Austin.
Point is, Reigns was the champ, and even the hardcore fans were cool with that. The WWE was being smart about it, too, painting the champ into corners, giving fans reasons to root for him. Reigns needed that, and it appeared that the WWE knew it.
Still, the underlying tension never left. Fans accepted him with a caveat. They weren't going to be happy if the WWE made him invincible, like the current face of the company, John Cena. He's a squeaky clean, reliable winner — so reliable, in fact, that hardcore fans tend to chant "John Cena sucks" to the tune of his entrance music when he arrives in an arena. Kids love Cena. Hardcore pro wrestling fans — the same kind who rejected Reigns — loathe him.
The WWE, from a hardcore fan's perspective, looked like it was poised to remake the Cena mistake with Reigns. It looked like that's exactly what was going to happen heading into last night's Royal Rumble. The WWE appeared to stack the deck a bit too high, to set up a Reigns' victory.
It's not that he couldn't win credibly. But to do so, he had to win over fans in a way that any other wrestler wouldn't. The WWE could've run a stopwatch to prove that Reigns spent less of the match resting than any other wrestler, but the zeitgeist among the hardcore was so palpable, that even then it'd feel like he rested twice as long.
Last night, Reigns arrived to a crowd that saw the writing on the wall. They arrived in Orlando armed with spray paint.
LIKE A TROMBONE
Mr. McMahon's ultimate screw job to Roman Reigns culminated last night at the Royal Rumble.
Here's how that match works: 30 wrestlers have a shot at the championship. It starts with one man in the ring. Every few minutes, they add another. The ring gets pretty crowded pretty quickly.
Names get drawn from a lottery to determine a wrestler's place in the Royal Rumble. A higher number is better because once you're in, you can't leave. You either survive or get tossed over the top rope. If you sail over the top rope, then the moment your feet touch the ground outside the ring, you're eliminated.
The first man to enter the ring might have to survive an hour of wrestling, so you can see why it'd be better to come out 26th than, say, third.
Mr. McMahon and his daughter Stephanie made a big production a couple of weeks ago to determine Reign's number in the draft. And just to twist the knife, the McMahons decided that, for the first time in history, the Royal Rumble would be a championship match. Whoever won would be the heavyweight champion.
Wouldn't you know it, Reigns got the #1 slot.
The drama was obvious. The result was not.
To be clear, there were exactly two ways this could go. With all of the odds stacked against him, Reigns could have fought his way through the crowd of pro wrestlers and improbably retained the championship. Or Reigns could have lost.
Remember how everybody assumes that Vince McMahon (in real life, not the Mr. character he plays on TV) really wants Reigns on top?, and how they didn't think he'd earned it? That made the first option — Reigns winning — tricky. Many hardcore fans accepted Reigns, but only tenuously and only after a year of scripted struggles and significant losses.
The second option — Reigns losing — would have been more palatable to the hardcore fans. You know, the kind of people who'd be in the audience last night. After all, he hadn't proved himself in the Royal Rumble a year earlier , and the WWE still had him win.
And so it was against that backdrop that Roman Reigns, the heavyweight champion of the world, walked into a Florida arena last night to cheers mixed with louder boos.
He was screwed.
Reigns started off strong, to a mixed reaction. He was earning his place in the ring, but could he sustain that credibility?
Remember: Everyone knows that the outcome is preordained, and nobody cares more about it than hardcore adult fans. It's not that they think it's real. It's that they demand that it's credible. They want to be surprised with a good story, not force fed crap.
The hourlong main event took more twists and turns than is germane to this story, but suffice it to say that there were pleasant surprises amid solid in-ring performances.
But of course Roman Reigns was the meta story in the back of everyone's mind. And by about mid-match, it looked like our worst fears were coming true.
There's a fine line between a storyline where someone has believable odds stacked against them and one where the weight of the odds becomes absurd. At one point during the Royal Rumble, Mr. McMahon and a few of his bad guy henchmen ran from the backstage and exploited a loophole in the title match's rules. Because there were no disqualifications, the heels (that's wrestling nerd for bad guys) could abduct Reigns, beat the hell out of him and then leave him there to be eliminated by someone actually in the match.
That's exactly what they did, and anyone who's watched enough pro wrestling could see the obvious out that the WWE had written for themselves and Reigns. They were taking the storybook to its logical conclusion: We made Reigns likable by beating him up. So we'll beat him up during the Rumble, and that'll make his victory palatable and engender sympathy.
Battered and bruised, Reigns was lying motionless on the ground. The bad guys made their triumphant exit. Paramedics rushed to Reigns' side.
"This is how Roman Reigns rests for the rest of the match," my friend Kris said. And that felt so right. Classic wrestling script where they try to have it both ways.
There was the worst case scenario laid bare. Reigns goes backstage. Technically, he hadn't been eliminated. While other wrestlers duked it out in the ring, Reigns would recuperate. Then, at some point toward the end of the match, when only a few guys were left, Reigns would return, eliminate them and win. Ugh.
And that's exactly what happened. Mostly.
Reigns did return, and it did look like he was poised to win, but then something unexpected happened. The 30th contender was announced. He was a surprise entrant. It was Triple H, COO of the company who hadn't been seen since Reigns "hospitalized" him. He was back for revenge. And I'll be damned if he didn't get it.
The tension was palpable, and not just in the ring. For those who were invested in the meta story, we knew it could go either way at any point. Was the WWE going to strip it's golden child of the title and hand it to a semi-retired wrestler who only took off his suit and put on his tights once a year?
The answer, as it happens, was yes. Triple H eliminated Reigns. Then he defeated the lone remaining wrestler to become the heavyweight champion of the world. I laid a dozen eggs.
THE WORST FOR THE BEST
I watched this happen and cheered, even though Triple H is a bad guy. I smiled, knowing I'd gotten it all wrong. And I loved being the fool.
The WWE knew exactly what its most ardent fans were afraid of, and it gave them every reason to believe that the worst was inevitable. And then they slapped us in the face with the best kind of surprise.
That's why people love pro wrestling. Silly as it may sound to watch grown men in tights pretend to fight, there are enough moments like the main event of the 2016 Royal Rumble to demand our time and attention.
Of course things will get silly again. There will be some stinker matches and lifeless rivalries. But there will also be enormous payoffs that take a year to come to fruition, just like last night.
Pro wrestling's stories are fake. They're no more real than Titanic. But the emotions that well-crafted drama can stir up in me aren't fake, whether they're in the ring or projected in a theater. That's why I keep coming back to both.
Those emotions are also why I wrote something down on a piece of paper before the match began. I had a hunch about who might win. He hadn't been announced as a participant, but as I was thinking about how this might go — fantasy booking, as the wrestling nerds call it — one name stood out from among the possible contenders. He was a bad guy. He fought with the appropriate people. He'd be a good fit at WrestleMania in a couple of months.
I started to tell my brother Jeff and Kris about my theory, but I stopped short. It was a long shot, but if I was right I'd spoil something for them. "Write it down,"
Kris said. My sister in law handed me a piece of paper and a pen. I wrote it, folded the paper and put it on the coffee table.
By the middle of the match, not only had I forgotten about the paper, but I'd completely forgotten about my prediction. I was so wrapped up in what I was seeing (and so increasingly convinced that things were about to go south) that it slipped my mind.
Toward the end of the Royal Rumble, the clock ticked down to the final contender's entrance. Triple H's music played. I stood up and yelled. My brother told me to crank up the volume. Shit was about to get crazy.
A few minutes later, Triple H tossed Roman Reigns over the top rope. Then he did the same to Dean Ambrose and became the champ. I remembered a piece of paper. I picked it up, threw it at Jeff and said, "Holy shit, I forgot ! Look at what I wrote!" He opened up the paper, inside of which I'd written "Triple H."
I'm glad for all of our sakes that I didn't say anything. It's good to be surprised.