clock menu more-arrow no yes mobile

Filed under:

Roman Reigns never stopped fighting, but never got his due

The Wrestlemania combatant should’ve been the next John Cena or The Rock — but the WWE left him behind

Roman Reigns walks through fans booing and cheering at the WWE Live Paris At Accorhotels Arena In Paris Photo: Sylvain Lefevre/Getty Images

If you buy something from a Polygon link, Vox Media may earn a commission. See our ethics statement.

With WrestleMania 39 set to kick off on April 1, and Polygon contributor Abraham Josephine Riesman’s new book Ringmaster: Vince McMahon and the Unmaking of America set to enter the ring on March 28, we’re spending the week grappling with pro wrestling — and everything it’s shaped.

There are two ways of reading Roman Reigns’ go-to taunt, “Acknowledge me.”

The first is as the WWE wrestler intends it: As he said it to Jey Uso in 2020 and to everyone who has stepped to him since, “acknowledge me” is a demand, an order to recognize Reigns as the Tribal Chief, the Head of the Table, or the Big Dog, if nostalgia is your thing. It’s what Paul Heyman does when he cowers and says, “Yes, my Tribal Chief,” or goes into his long-standing “reigning, defending” bit. It’s what the Bloodline does when they carry out Reigns’ orders or back down from him.

It is, at long last, what WWE fans do when Roman Reigns is in the wrestling ring.

But that wasn’t always so. A second read of Reigns’ catchphrase shades his role as the most important wrestler currently in WWE, and arguably the world. Beneath the armor of his tough-guy swagger, his deliberately paced promos, his impressive list of title defenses, and a two-and-a-half-year run as WWE’s top champion, a run that saw him unify the Universal and WWE Championships at last year’s WrestleMania 38, is a plea: Acknowledge me.

Roman Reigns, real name Joe Anoaʻi, was supposed to become WWE’s top babyface in 2015. That was a big deal — WWE is driven by babyfaces, the good guys, and being on top of that pile means being the focus of WWE’s storytelling, its top box-office attraction, and acting as its most visible standard-bearer. If you know nothing about wrestling but know a couple of wrestlers by name, they likely had a significant run as a babyface.

With John Cena, Reigns’ predecessor in this role, drifting away from the WWE, Reigns had been built up as well as any heir-apparent could hope for as one-third of The Shield with Seth Rollins and Dean Ambrose (now All Elite Wrestling’s Jon Moxley). Beginning as henchmen for established acts like CM Punk and Triple H, The Shield’s magnetic personalities and penchant for wild six-man tag-team matches made them one of the hottest acts in the company, arguably one of WWE’s greatest creations. But after WWE Raw in June 2014, at the peak of their powers, they split. Having beaten Evolution (Triple H, Randy Orton, and a parting Dave Bautista), Rollins betrayed his friends, hitting Reigns in the back with a chair and taking his place at Triple H’s side.

Dean Ambrose was in the ring, but Reigns took the first knife in his back. With one swing of a steel chair, Rollins positioned himself as the future chief antagonist of WWE. It was a foregone conclusion that his rival would be Reigns, that he would be The Guy, their feud destined to define an era.

The problem is that WWE fans haven’t much appreciated being told who The Guy is since Shawn Michaels’ first “aw shucks” reign through the WWF Championship in 1996, which featured some incredible matches, but ended with Michaels’ hometown crowd in San Antonio cheering for and fistbumping Sid Vicious en route to his win at the 1997 Royal Rumble. Since the end of the Hulkamania era, WWE audiences have been somewhat predisposed to love the villain: “Stone Cold” Steve Austin, The Rock, and John Cena, the WWE’s three biggest post-Hulk Hogan stars, were ushered into babyface roles because fans would not stop cheering for them despite being heels.

Roman Reigns has not been so fortunate. While he held up his end of the deal as a third member of The Shield, when the stable broke up in 2014, Rollins was written as the turncoat, Ambrose was the crazy one, and Reigns was the guy you knew was going to win the title. Except for one thing: Vince McMahon forgot to give Reigns something to chew on beyond knowledge of his future success. Tagging Reigns as The Guy was an invitation for the company’s loudest fans to align themselves against him, and why not? He still had The Shield’s music, he was still wearing his Shield gear, and after winning the 2015 Royal Rumble, The Rock, Reigns’ cousin, came out and anointed him in Philadelphia, one of wrestling’s most judgmental crowds. But it didn’t work out.

The dissolution of The Shield began a long stretch of Reigns’ career where as the chosen one who McMahon could never choose. The career limbo was akin to the long, sad decline of Lex Luger’s prospects in WWF 20 years earlier, only there was no clear option to take Reigns’ place, as Bret Hart ultimately did for Luger in 1994. Reigns lost in the main event of WrestleMania 31 in 2015, when Seth Rollins cashed in his Money in the Bank briefcase in the middle of his predestined conquest of Brock Lesnar, then had his first WWE Championship tenure end after five minutes when Sheamus cashed in his briefcase later in the year.

WWE’s booking was in the wilderness at this point — Cena was transitioning to Hollywood, Daniel Bryan was injured, and Reigns was in a state of perpetual rebuild. None of this was helped by the company’s overreliance on part-timers like Brock Lesnar and Triple H. Money in the Bank 2016 marked Reigns’ first clean loss since his 2013 call-up to the main roster, but in terms of momentum, he had little to show for that on-paper dominance. The night after WrestleMania 33 in 2017, in which he beat The Undertaker in the main event, Reigns opened Raw by standing in the ring for an entire segment, getting booed every time he raised the microphone to his lips and receiving chants of “GO AWAY.” He took all of this, said, “This is my yard now,” and left.

There is actually no mold for what makes a top babyface in WWE. Looks, charisma, in-ring ability — these things matter, but the truth of being The Guy in WWE is that it’s all about its kingmaker capitalizing on a moment. It has been a slow climb for Reigns because his story doesn’t have the same charm as those of his scrappy Shield brethren, because his insertion into the main event was as inorganic as it was tenuous. The idea of Roman Reigns replacing Cena or The Rock was always doomed to fail, despite his having the chops to do so.

But Reigns was put on the path to being the top babyface at a time when the company’s crossover successes could come back to their old stomping grounds at will and suck the air out of the arena for a few months. Around 2012, as The Shield was getting off the ground, WWE reached a kind of mainstream acceptance. CM Punk’s pipebomb promo made it cool for sports and pop culture websites to cover wrestling. Yet Punk didn’t cross over into broader culture the way Cena and The Rock did; beyond his UFC run, his career hewed closer to wrestlers like “Stone Cold” Steve Austin and Edge, leading him to work in direct-to-video action movies, comic books, and television shows. Roman Reigns, for his part, inched toward such success, nabbing a small role in Fast & Furious spinoff Hobbs & Shaw starring his cousin.

This isn’t a mark against Reigns. It is unfair to expect everybody to smash through the divide between niche interest and something bigger. The Rock and Cena are anomalies, to say nothing of Dave Bautista, and two of those three were widely resented by a large chunk of their audience at some point in their wrestling careers. It’s easy to forget, since we’re 20 years into John Cena’s run as a product of WWE’s ceaseless marketing machine, but he faced the same kind of resentment Reigns did, to the extent that one might call the fans’ reaction to Reigns’ ascension an attempt at preventing another “SuperCena”-esque figure.

The fan-backed revolt worked. It took five years, from the rejection of Reigns at the 2015 Royal Rumble to his departure in 2018 due to leukemia treatment, then his return in 2020, but the WWE Universe finally saw what they were always denied during Cena’s run: a heel turn. It’s a shame that this happened to a lockdown-friendly version of WWE matches, with canned boos and a live audience of gigantic television screens, because Reigns immediately became a must-watch personality. The best work in his career was as a man wounded by the fact that WWE went on without him; though his leukemia was in remission by 2019, the COVID-19 pandemic forced Reigns to stay at home due to immunocompromisation. When he returned later in 2020, his armor of justified bitterness turned out to be the fuel for the best kind of wrestling heel.

Roman Reigns kneels over his opponent while surrounded by screens in WWE SummerSlam 2020 Photo: WWE

Reigns’ run of near-unquestioned dominance may end this weekend at WrestleMania 39. If so, the wrestler will fall to Cody Rhodes, a man who was also left behind by WWE at one point in his life. Taking on a nickname opposite his father’s American Dream, Rhodes leaned into the bitterness during his WWE stint, joining the globe-spanning heel stable Bullet Club, then eventually left to help found All Elite Wrestling. He refused, in and out of kayfabe, to stray from the light, no matter how loud the boos got. All he needed was the right audience to get behind him.

In WWE, he found it. From the moment his music hit at 2022’s WrestleMania 38, it was obvious that Rhodes built to the moment. Even his most skeptical critics would have to admit that he has been embraced in a way that suggests he may be the generational babyface WWE was looking for since 2015, when Reigns was getting booed out of arenas and Rhodes was spinning his wheels as a goofy take on his brother Dustin’s Goldust persona.

Why has this anointing worked for Rhodes where it didn’t for his opponent? I suspect it has to do with the fact that he’s earned his place in wrestling despite WWE squandering his early potential. Lineage aside, he gambled on himself for six years and kept winning, becoming one of the Florida-based Ring of Honor’s top draws, one of the faces of New Japan Pro-Wrestling’s push into America, and a cornerstone of a company that has stood as a viable competitor to WWE since its founding. Then he gambled on himself again, gave up his executive vice president stake in AEW and the perks of basic cable celebrity (RIP Go-Big Show), and won even bigger than before.

By contrast, Reigns’ struggle to cement himself at the top of wrestling has happened entirely within WWE, under the brightest lights his profession has to offer. But it largely didn’t matter, because WWE was bigger than any one wrestler, negotiating massive deals with Fox, Comcast, and the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia. The product was mediocre at best, but it has been decades since WWE truly needed good creative to generate revenue, and Reigns was The Guy through those doldrums, a focus group-approved shade of beige in a company that lived for shades of beige.

And so he was hated for it, to the extent that the absolute worst elements of wrestling fandom speculated that WWE engineered Reigns’ 2019 leukemia remission as a ploy to get fans back on his side. John Cena never faced that kind of hostility, even when dissent against him was at its loudest, but Reigns soldiered on, putting WWE on his broad shoulders when asked to, until 2020, when doing so would have meant risking his life.

In 2015, the Mountain Goats released Beat the Champ, featuring a song called “Heel Turn 2,” where a long-standing babyface, long the subject of abuse, finally snaps, turning his back on everyone, even the president of his fan club. The wrestler justifies his heel turn with the refrain “I don’t want to die in here,” framing it as an act of survival, but when he says “Stay good under pressure for years and years and years,” it’s obvious that his animus toward other wrestlers and the fans has been building for much longer.

In struggling to define himself, all Roman Reigns could do was turn heel, to drift down into the new, dark light. How many times can a babyface pick themselves up from rejection before realizing that their strength is not derived from the fans? It took five years for Roman Reigns to find his breaking point, and WWE has been better for it, enjoying its hottest streak since WrestleMania XXX nearly a decade ago. Having an overt babyface helps, but wrestling is a medium that thrives when that babyface has a real bastard to chase. In wrestling, there is no greater bastard than a man who knows he can’t be beat.

That’s Roman Reigns, and the path he took to get there is his own. He is a unique entity in WWE history, a long-reigning heel champion in a company that was built on generational babyfaces. He is arguably at the peak of his powers heading into one of the most consequential WWE matches of the decade, and the most interesting chapter of his career, the one where he is no longer cloaked in the prestige of his championships, might be on the horizon. That’s not bad for the guy who failed to become The Guy.

Sign up for the newsletter Sign up for Patch Notes

A weekly roundup of the best things from Polygon