For years, the higher-ups working behind the scenes of WWE tried their hardest to position Roman Reigns as their next top star.
John Cena had begun his ascent in Hollywood on a similar trajectory as Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson. The Undertaker had reverted back into a part-time role, and other big names like Brock Lesnar, Goldberg and even Chris Jericho turned into come-and-go names throughout the mid-to-late 2010s.
On the flip side, the company felt like they had no reason to worry, doing their best to build Reigns up into the next big thing who could fill all of those legends’ shoes.
Unfortunately for Vince McMahon and company, wrestling fans didn’t quite agree.
He was booked to win the WWE title against Triple H in the main event of WrestleMania 32, culminating a story based around an abuse of power from “The Authority” that was holding the rising superstar down. Both wrestlers wound up splitting support from fans in a predictable match, and Reigns’ title reign lasted just two months.
Reigns was booked to defeat The Undertaker in the main event of WrestleMania 33, signifying a passing of the torch and handing over of “the yard” to the new “Big Dog.” Instead, Reigns was booed relentlessly the following night on Monday Night Raw, garnering arguably the most heat any wrestler has gotten in the 2000s.
He was booked to take down John Cena later that year, in another attempt to pass the torch from one top star to the next. Instead, Reigns fell behind while trying to keep up with Cena in a war of words leading up to the event, even getting called out for forgetting his lines during one classic promo.
Through it all, WWE officials did their best to push through in their pursuit of making Reigns the company’s cornerstone. He won the WWE title in 2018 a few months after main-eventing WrestleMania 34 against Brock Lesnar, all before being forced to relinquish the championship due to an ongoing battle with leukemia.
When he made his return in 2019, it appeared as if things had slowed down with regards to Reigns. He wound up going back-and-forth with Drew McIntyre and Baron Corbin for most of the year in forgettable feuds, even teaming up with The Undertaker in a one-off match midway through 2019.
Once all of that was over, the rocket was placed right back on Reigns’ ship, and he was abruptly thrust into a Universal Championship match against Goldberg for WrestleMania 36.
Then, the COVID-19 pandemic hit.
Many WWE talents took time off to avoid putting their families at risk, including Reigns himself, who didn’t want to jeopardize his health given his history, or the status of his wife and young children.
Reigns fell off the grid for more than five months, and fans wondered what was next for the former champion if and when he ever returned.
As they say, though: Absence makes the heart grow fonder.
In this case, the break due to the pandemic was just what Reigns needed to turn himself into the most must-see product in WWE.
He shocked the world when he aligned himself with former rival Paul Heyman, turning himself heel in the process. He took on a more serious demeanor, lost his bulletproof vest that he usually wore during matches, won the Universal Championship and began referring to himself as the “Tribal Chief” and “Head of the Table.”
He fought with his own cousin Jey Uso, and put on some of the most captivating performances WWE fans have seen in recent memory.
Through it all, fans finally put all of their attention on Reigns in a positive way. He was no longer a superstar being shoved down their throats, but rather a moneymaking machine that made it so you couldn’t possibly take your eyes off of him.
“I said to Roman, ‘do you realize you could not have presented this facet of your personality even two-and-a-half, three years ago?'” Heyman said in an interview with the New York Post. “You were still too young. Now, when you look at him and you look at his face, now you see a more mature persona. You can sign off on the fact that he has a decade of experience on a day-to-day basis with enormous main event battles over the past 10 years.”
Heyman is spot on with his assessment of his new client.
This version of Reigns would not have worked in the earlier stages of his push, and almost required all of the force-feeding that WWE higher-ups went through to try to make him a star.
It all gave Reigns the resume that someone needs to take on a bigger role than they’re accustomed to, similar to an entry-level employee earning their stripes before being promoted to manager.
In this case, similar to his cousin “The Rock,” Reigns went through all of the hurdles he needed to as a “face” in the beginning of his career, which all helped to build up the character that he has mastered today.
It lets you know how serious he is when he’s on your television, and almost makes him feel like someone who was held down for so long by a “system” that tried to turn him into something that he’s not. Through it all, he makes you wonder why WWE didn’t pull the trigger on a “heel turn” so much sooner.
The switch wouldn’t have had the same impact if it had happened in 2017 or 2018, nor would it have worked if Reigns had been booked to turn in abrupt fashion in early 2020.
The long absence and the circumstances all unintentionally benefitted Reigns, and turned him into the bonafide superstar that WWE wanted all along.
The scariest part? According to Heyman, this isn’t even the final form of the Roman Reigns character that has turned him into a must-see performer in 2020.
“We haven’t even scratched the surface of the depths this character can go to,” Heyman said. “All we’ve done is taken away the kissing babies and smiling into the camera and trying to put smiles on people’s faces of his personality, which a lot of people had trouble buying into from the get-go.”
“We’re not even out of the gate yet,” Heyman continued. “There’s a long narrative and a fascinating journey ahead.”