Roman Reigns is back, and it is good. I mean it, too. World Wrestling Entertainment shows, for all of their attempts to freshen things up—think Raw Underground, Retribution, NXT call-ups that’ve completely gutted that show, and Thunderdome—have been stale and airless, innovation (and alleged theft) aside. They needed something else, something more grounded in actual wrestling storytelling logic, and at Summerslam Reigns provided, appearing after the conclusion of the WWE Universal Championship match between Bray Wyatt and Braun Strowman to fulfill the promise on his t-shirt, wrecking everyone and leaving.
A week later, Paul Heyman returned to television, a pan to Roman’s right during an interview segment where his motivations for attacking one of his long-time rivals and his opponent were being questioned. Before Heyman, the answer to the question “why did you do it” was pretty obvious. Months ago, a stretch that feels like years given the elasticity of time in 2020, Reigns was scheduled to challenge Goldberg for the Universal Championship at WrestleMania. We know the story: as a leukemia survivor, he was (and is) at high-risk of serious complications (and death) should he contract COVID-19, the virus that, back then, had managed to slow down and in many cases completely stop life as we knew it. Wrestling, of course, continued, but when several wrestlers were sick and pulled from WrestleMania, Reigns decided to sit it out, necessitating the last minute substitution of Braun Strowman in the match, which he won.
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It’s a normal part of combat sports for someone who loses a championship due to outside circumstances to try and reclaim what they lost. Interim champions set up a big return bout against the original champion, the idea of taking a championship from the cloudy murk of multiple iterations to the clarity of an undisputed championship a clear, understandable motivation for everybody involved. You can see that elsewhere on SmackDown in Sami Zayn’s return with his Intercontinental Championship, echoing, in its way, part two of the Shawn Michaels/Razor Ramon Intercontinental Championship feud of the early 90s. You’ll see it whenever Jordan Devlin returns to competition, and again when Karrion Cross comes back from injury.
— WWE (@WWE) August 29, 2020
What makes Reigns different is that he didn’t lose a championship in going on hiatus—he lost an opportunity. Watching someone else win a championship match you’d earned would be motivation enough to return by attacking both the man who took your spot and the man who beat him. What that pan to Heyman complicated was the notion of who—and what—Roman Reigns could be. One of the longest-held criticisms of WWE’s storytelling being its inability to turn its chosen babyfaces heel when they start to get stale in that role, Reigns aligning himself with Paul Heyman made him a capital-H Heel before Payback. The part where he won the championship by waiting until after Wyatt and Strowman imploded the ring to show up? Icing on the cake.
The match was bad, but the booking was spectacular. Reigns, the epitome of modern WWE heroism and heir apparent to John Cena, took the coward’s path to the championship and was proud of it. I was so enthralled by this that I did something I haven’t done in at least a decade and watched a full episode of SmackDown. I was immediately rewarded with Reigns and Heyman’s celebratory promo. Heyman has always been good, but, attached to Brock Lesnar for the majority of his WWE career, his bluster and hype for the mayor of Suplex City often felt worn out. Next to Reigns, speaking with an almost religious sense of awe, he sounded revitalized, a man at the top of his game. And then he said it: Roman Reigns had been abandoned by the company because he needed time off, and that’s not what the company does. And now we have WWE’s first kayfabe response to the COVID-19 pandemic.
Taking Your Ball Home
If it seems like a stretch that Roman Reigns’ heel turn is predicated upon his last minute WrestleMania exit and long-term hiatus during a pandemic, I invite you to look at pretty much every other instance of a major star leaving the company or sitting out several months due to contractual or creative conflicts. Reigns is a WWE guy through and through—I suspect that the only thing he’d leave the company for is a career in Hollywood—and his reasons for sitting out WrestleMania were legitimate. He hasn’t (and really can’t be) punished for doing what was best for him and his family. But this is a company that, both in kayfabe and in real life, prides itself on never taking a day off, no matter what. 9/11 didn’t stop the WWE, COVID-19 hasn’t stopped the WWE, and beyond the hiccup of the Raw dedicated to the memory of Chris Benoit, no amount of tragedy or death has stopped the WWE. It can’t, either. To paraphrase Triple H, World Wrestling Entertainment is a book that never ends. To paraphrase him again, World Wrestling Entertainment exists to put smiles on faces. You can’t have a book without characters, and you can’t put smiles on faces if the people responsible for the biggest smiles are gone.
How WWE handles unplanned or acrimonious exits varies pretty wildly. Brock Lesnar left the company when he was one of its biggest stars. He returned an even bigger star, practically untouchable due to his success in the UFC, and unless you want to count his matches against Triple H and the Undertaker as punishment, he’s done fine. Jesse Ventura, who sued WWE over royalties owed to him over commentary, was erased from re-releases of 80s WWF Pay Per Views and WWE On-Demand replays of Saturday Night’s Main Event for an eternity, compromising the quality of those releases to avoid paying out. Before Vince McMahon mended fences with the Ultimate Warrior in time to induct him into the WWE Hall of Fame, the company released The Self-Destruction of the Ultimate Warrior, a hilariously mean-spirited hatchet job “documentary” that, among other things, included an aside where Hulk Hogan claims he offered to break Warrior’s legs in response to Warrior holding McMahon up for money.
That’s all real world acrimony, but what’s at the root of those issues and their kayfabe counterparts is the notion that it’s possible for a wrestler to be bigger than the WWE, and thus for their interests to take precedence over the company’s. Since Vince McMahon purchased the company from his father in 1982, there’ve been four wrestlers who’ve arguably mattered more than the letters WWF or WWE on the marquee: Hulk Hogan, Steve Austin, The Rock, and John Cena. Having household names like that on the card is nice—they drive television contracts, draw live crowds and PPV buys, sell tons of merch—but they’re a risk in that once they reach a certain level of stardom there will be interest from larger, more respectable areas of the entertainment industry. Hulk Hogan tried and failed to transition to Hollywood, but was able to continue dabbling when he left the WWF for WCW. Steve Austin’s acting career didn’t really begin until he retired, but he guest starred on Nash Bridges six times between 1999 and 2000, a year he mostly spent rehabilitating from a neck injury, so tires were kicked. WWE Studios was founded in 2002, the same year The Scorpion King made it clear that The Rock was going to be a big deal whenever he left wrestling. They managed to produce two movies starring The Rock, but he was gone in 2004 and didn’t come back for 11 years as the biggest movie star in the world. John Cena, who returned briefly this year to feud with Bray Wyatt, just had his contract expire. Considering how many movies he’s been in lately, who knows if he’ll be back.
One of those wrestlers, The Rock, started his transition from full-time wrestler to full-time actor by adopting a heel Hollywood character, an insecure jerk who pushed around and bullied people (differently, I guess, than his face character) because The Scorpion King was a huge success, to say nothing of his feeling slighted by the reaction Hulk Hogan got at WrestleMania X8. The reason The Rock hated the fans is because he was better than them and no longer needed their attention. The reason the fans were meant to hate the Rock is that he left them for something better. When Hulk Hogan left the company for World Championship Wrestling in 1994, McMahon’s response was pettiness. Announcers began mentioning that the WWF was steroid free. A lot of airtime was given to sketches depicting aged and decrepit versions of Hogan, Randy Savage, and Gene Okerlund dicking around wasting Ted Turner’s money. When Jim Cornette was given a promo segment on Raw in 1997, one of the things he talked about was the infamous Roddy Piper/Hulk Hogan “Age In a Cage” match from Halloween Havoc, where he said of Hogan “you are a household name, but so is garbage and it stinks when it gets old, too.”
And then there’s Steve Austin. 2002 was not a good year for him, creatively. After the obvious Match of the Century between him and Hulk Hogan at WrestleMania X8 was switched to him against Scott Hall (which Austin takes fault for, citing his belief that Hogan couldn’t keep up with him in the ring), he bailed on the Raw after Mania. Later in the year, mired in a feud against an already moribound nWo, he went on the company’s webshow, Byte This, and slammed creative so hard that McMahon had to address it the following week. When he was asked to lose a King of the Ring qualifying match against Brock Lesnar, Austin refused and walked out of the company. On Raws following this incident, McMahon and Jim Ross publicly castigated McMahon, saying, among other things, that he took his ball and went home. And that was it—he was gone. Until he returned in 2003, pretty much an apology tour that featured his last match, against The Rock, at WrestleMania X8.
Austin’s departure from the company was real. They stopped selling his merchandise and quit mentioning him on television, the segment on WWE Confidential about his walking out was not part of a long angle for him to come back at some point. But, the same way as WWE has milked the Montreal Screwjob for 23 years, they’ve brought back the idea of a wrestler taking their ball home when they’ve needed to. WWE’s version of the Summer of Punk, where CM Punk won the WWE Championship on his “last night” with the company and put the belt in his fridge? Literally taking his ball home. Batista’s first and second retirements? Figuratively taking his ball home. Those long stretches of time between Brock Lesnar appearances? Roman Reigns skipping town between WrestleMania and now? Flattened out and made into identifiable, marketable narrative units, they’re the same thing. These men—pick a name from the past or pick Heyman and Reigns now—believe themselves bigger than the WWE Universe. The fun, we’re told, is in watching these men get proven wrong. I’ve always believed the opposite. Fuck the company, I want to see how much trouble they cause before coming back down to earth.
Paul Heyman, Guys
It’s better that Paul Heyman says that WWE abandoned Roman Reigns than for Roman Reigns to say it himself. In Roman’s mouth, it’s an indictment, a semi-true story that’s corroborated by his nearly total absence from WWE programming, the poster of him in the hallways of Titan Tower during the Money In the Bank match notwithstanding. We’ve never been conditioned to take Reigns at anything less than his word, even when he was the largely wordless, smoldering muscle of The Shield, a group that made its debut as protectors for Paul Heyman’s client CM Punk. Him saying “I felt disrespected by the company” isn’t something that can be walked back whenever it’s convenient. Paul Heyman saying it is something else, something walked back practically the moment the sentence is over.
The Heyman/Reigns pairing works because for as long as Paul Heyman has been in professional wrestling the truth, coming from him, sounds like a lie, and a lie, coming from him, still sounds like a lie, but one you’d like to believe. From his WCW days of managing The “Original” Midnight Express and the Dangerous Alliance to his run as the impresario of ECW to his long career in WWE as a color commentator, booker, and manager, stories about him, backstage and in front of the camera, have conditioned the audience to look upon him as a kind of snake-oil salesman, regardless of his undeniable success in every position he’s held. That he’s been spurned and cast aside and otherwise disadvantaged by most of the promotions and clients he’s worked for along the way is almost too good to be true, so far as his adaptability to characters like Punk and Reigns are concerned. Top babyfaces pushed aside by the company for one reason or another only need a little nudge to snap. Putting someone like Heyman, himself frequently a victim, in the ear of someone already on the edge is more than a little nudge.
With Reigns, the timing is almost freaky perfect. Dismissed from his role as the Executive Director of Raw after a year on the job and left with nothing to do given Lesnar’s absence and (likely temporary) departure from WWE after losing the WWE Heavyweight Championship to Drew McIntyre at WrestleMania, Heyman’s spiel about he and Reigns being mutually discarded by a callous corporate entity with a short memory for what people like them contributed before the world went crazy has enough truth beneath its surface that it’s hard not to imagine these two characters—this agent with an unbelievable aptitude for the wrestling business and a wrestler who was given a choice between protecting his health and wrestling for nobody—talking to each other on Zoom, finding common ground in the whole thing, and promising that it’d never happen to either of them again. That they’re effectively going full circle, an agent picking up a client he’d tagged as a can’t miss superstar as far back as 2012? Just more proof that there’s nobody in the game quite like Paul Heyman.
It’s early, but I haven’t been into anything in WWE the way I’m into this angle since the pandemic began. If wrestling has to happen (it doesn’t), and if it has to happen under these conditions (again, it doesn’t), it could at least try to do something different, given that the burden of a live audience’s reaction is largely not in play. The bloom is off the rose so far as cinematic wrestling goes, and none of the aforementioned storylines and quick fixes the company has tried to keep its ship afloat have worked. So why not do something like this, something unexpected? Why not take what everybody knows about Roman Reigns—that he’s John Cena’s successor—and turn that on its ear? Figuring out that The Guy doesn’t have to be exactly like The Previous Guy is a huge step forward for a company that’s spent the majority of its existence chasing the “next” Hulk Hogan and lamenting the lack of Steve Austins and The Rocks in the world. Growth was the last thing I expected from the company and its characters in 2020, but here we are.
As for how to feel about it? I don’t know. I’ll admit that my connecting the dots between character motivation and company angst is a little more spurious than past exercises—Reigns and Heyman have had one promo together, and they’re not likely to mention the time Reigns was away the deeper and deeper we get into their alliance. But this is also part of WWE’s storytelling m.o., to take people who are ostensibly right about something in their workplace or in society and make them the bad guys. Retribution. Eco-warrior Daniel Bryan. The Nation of Domination. Heels are right about inequity as often as they’re the perpetrators of it. Even as violent an institution as professional wrestling believes in civility. I’m supposed to hate Roman Reigns because he doesn’t believe in being civil anymore. I can’t. I’m here for he and Heyman’s revenge.