It’s WrestleMania week, with the ‘Show of Shows’ set to take place on Sunday night. Every day between now and the big event, Tom Beasley takes a look at a different element of the build-up. Today, it’s the enigma of Roman Reigns vs. Brock Lesnar when it comes to fan loyalty…
I’m sure WWE knew that Roman Reigns was divisive before January 25th, 2015. However, there’s no doubt that even the company’s top brass were caught by surprise at the reaction to Roman Reigns winning the Royal Rumble. The Philadelphia crowd showered the nominally babyface Reigns with boos and didn’t even pause for breath when The Rock made a surprise appearance to celebrate with his cousin. Since then, WWE has repeatedly tried to push Reigns to the moon, only for his polarising crowd reaction to scupper their plans.
This Sunday, Reigns will get into the ring with Brock Lesnar in an attempt to unseat the WWE Universal Champion, who has held the title since he bested Goldberg at last year’s WrestleMania. The duo competed in a bruising, hard-hitting main event at WrestleMania 31, which was already well on the way to becoming a classic before Seth Rollins turned up to cash in his Money in the Bank briefcase, winning the match a few minutes later. Reigns has since main evented every WrestleMania broadcast, with varying degrees of success.
WrestleMania 34 is widely assumed to be the latest attempt from WWE to coronate Reigns as the successor to franchise star John Cena. His booking on Raw for the past few months has positioned him as a Stone Cold Steve Austin figure, characterised by a no-nonsense attitude and a defiance towards any sort of authority, whether it’s general manager Kurt Angle or a team of US Marshals.
This booking has been very impressive, which has led to some strange crowd responses. Reigns is still soaked in boos when his music hits, whether on his way to the ring or as he leaves the ringside area at the end of matches and segments. Within the segments themselves, however, the WWE Universe is responding exactly as the company would want, cheering him and booing Lesnar.
In the first few weeks following Reigns’s crowning as Lesnar’s challenger due to his victory inside the Elimination Chamber, WWE portrayed Reigns as a cock-sure opponent for the Beast Incarnate. The company played on Lesnar’s widely publicised, unique contract by announcing him for television appearances, only for him to subsequently not show up at the events. This allowed Reigns to build the impression of Lesnar as a “coward”, who would not face him. Reigns even stood up to Vince McMahon himself, earning himself a suspension when he stormed through to the Gorilla Position in order to take the boss to task.
It was then that Lesnar chose to strike. When Reigns appeared the next week, he was handcuffed by US Marshals, whom he then beat up when they put their hands on him. At that point, with Reigns handcuffed and defenceless, the Beast made his way to the ring and delivered a vicious beating to his challenger. Reigns was similarly taken apart by Lesnar on last week’s episode of Raw, which leaves the champion looking strong ahead of tonight’s final episode before WrestleMania.
The booking is Main Event Feud 101, but it has been executed brilliantly. So why does the crowd reaction still not quite match?
WWE simply has to concede the fact that Reigns is never going to be the universally popular babyface they would like him to be. Too much damage has been done by the repetitive booking surrounding him, so a certain segment of the audience will never warm to the character in his current form. Even the chance for a Rock-style heel turn to rehabilitate the stale character appears to have passed. It doesn’t matter how many A-grade pay-per-view matches he competes in, there’s no way some of the smarkiest WWE fans will be converted to the Reigns cause.
Further intrigue, though, is added by Brock Lesnar’s situation. It has been discussed heavily that Lesnar’s current deal expires after WrestleMania 34 and a UFC return is on the cards, which might mean the Beast stepping away from WWE. The last time people knew he was leaving after a big match was WrestleMania XX, in which Lesnar and fellow departing star Goldberg had one of the most bizarre bouts in wrestling history, characterised by fan hostility towards both of the competitors.
So that leaves us in a strange place. Hardcore fans don’t like Roman Reigns and, if Lesnar looks likely to be leaving, they won’t like him either. However, this is definitely going to be an excellent wrestling match and, with the WrestleMania atmosphere in full force, most of the people in the arena will want to pick a side. In that scenario, it’s entirely possible that, when Roman Reigns gets his shower of confetti at the end of WrestleMania 34, he might finally be as much of a babyface as he will ever be.
Tomorrow: John Cena vs. Undertaker is almost certainly happening, but will it be the battle for the ages that it should be?
Tom Beasley is a freelance film journalist and wrestling fan. Follow him on Twitter via @TomJBeasley for movie opinions, wrestling stuff and puns.