PWTorch editor Wade Keller presents a special Thursday Flagship edition of the Wade Keller Pro Wrestling Podcast featuring a WrestleMania 36 Preview with ex-WWE Creative Team member and professional stand-up comedian Matt McCarthy.
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At the end of the year, WWE and Roman Reigns have shifted their narrative on Roman Reigns’s ascension to WWE champion.
Throughout the year, it was denying and pushing away criticism of Reigns, whether for his basic moveset, sense of unwarranted corporate-backing from The Machine, or an inconsistent, unfulfilling title chase or journey to get to the top.
Now that Reigns has become WWE champion, WWE is embracing some of the negative reactions and criticism because it makes for a better story of WWE and Reigns believing Reigns has conquered all of the critics with two nights of booking starting at the TLC PPV.
Almost anyone else in Reigns’s position bombing in the infamous pre-TLC “tater tots” promo on Raw would have been thought of as “not having it” and sent back to the mid-card. Instead, WWE went the opposite direction and pushed the giant red button fully accelerating the rocket ship attacked to Reigns’s back by cashing in the Triple H chip at TLC and Vince McMahon chip on post-TLC Raw on the way to Reigns winning the WWE Title. Thus, further reinforcing the long-standing criticism of Reigns being backed by a Machine overlooking its flawed product.
Yet, because the two-night booking of Reigns dismantling Hunter and then giving McMahon his comeuppance produced a positive reaction in Philadelphia, where Reigns’s journey began at the Royal Rumble in January, WWE’s approach to Reigns’s story has changed.
On Thursday, WWE’s official website released an interview with Reigns reflecting on 2015. Instead of shying away from the criticism, which has been the directive throughout the year, WWE’s website made that the centerpiece of Reigns’s story to the top of WWE.
Missing from the narrative, though, is a large piece of the story. Now at the end of the year looking back to the Rumble, the WWE version of the story is that Reigns got a negative reaction at the Royal Rumble only because Daniel Bryan was eliminated early from the Rumble the year after D-Bryan was omitted from the 2014 Rumble.
Like Batista in 2014, D-Bryan’s impact on Reigns winning is important, but only half of the story. The other half is the criticism of Reigns’s in-ring skills, corporate-backing, even the way he carried himself and spoke, and many vocal fans believing Reigns’s position was unwarranted based on the idea that WWE was overlooking Reigns’s flaws.
Both aspects of the story weave together in the sense that Bryan was an underdog, and Reigns was not; Bryan was fighting uphill to get a main event spot that many fans felt he deserved, while Reigns was seen as being handed the key to the city without merit.
“I wasn’t concerned with D.B. being out there. If anything, I was happy he was out there, because he was coming off his injury, too. To have two guys coming back that can both contribute every single day, I never think that’s a bad thing. In hindsight, seeing how the reactions went, it didn’t help. But it is what it is, and everything happens for a reason. For me, it was an important part of the process,” Reigns said.
In the interview, Reigns loosely referred to improving in the ring and in his presentation over the course of 2015, but the questions focused more on the negative reaction at the Rumble – stopping at just the D-Bryan aspect – and not examining the other half of what produced the criticism.
Asked what process he underwent after the Rumble, Reigns replied, “Getting better. Getting more experience, dealing with a hostile crowd. Learning. And that’s what spurred most of the progression, I think, is being in that situation and being able to learn from that.”
Reigns noted that the Rumble leading into WrestleMania “took a lot out of me that night and for the weeks to come.” However, he decided to “continue to push and learn and continue to grind and get to this point.”
Reigns famously did not win the WWE Title at WrestleMania when WWE decided to go with Seth Rollins as WWE champion. It took 11 months for Reigns to finally win and hold onto the WWE Title, which he acknowledged was difficult along the way, especially trying to stay focused on the task at hand.
Part of that is the grind of the WWE schedule, which he talked about in context of WWE switching up the post-Royal Rumble format of Raw because the building was snowed out.
“That night was cool for me. I enjoy switching things up and going through different processes,” Reigns said.
“A lot of times it can be monotonous doing what we do, week in and week out. It’s a new town, but it’s a similar building and the same routines can go down. So for us to switch that up and for me to have that one-on-one time and be able to talk to Paul Heyman with only a few players in that studio, it felt a lot more focused.”
Reigns added that he’s had to adjust to the WWE way of life, but he has a “great support system and a family that loves me” helping him along the way.
“When I first started, they said this is 24/7. It’s not a job, it’s a life. When all is said and done, I’ve only been in this business for five-and-a-half-years. I’m still just scratching at the surface. I haven’t even gotten to the big stuff yet. I feel like I’m growing in front of the crowd’s eyes, and that’s something to be a part of. If God keeps me healthy, I’ll continue to do that and run into this wall head-first until I break it down.”
The repetitiveness of the WWE schedule seemed to affect Reigns in the “tater tots” promo on the final Raw before TLC. At the end of a three-hour Raw, Reigns had to recite a monologue standing on top of a ladder and then exchange lines with Sheamus to promote their WWE Title match at TLC. During the middle of the exchange, Reigns seemed disengaged from what he was saying, losing a tired crowd. So, in the interview, WWE asked the natural question of whether he is “more comfortable when you just fight people.”
“That’s just what I want to do: Create a path that’s unknown,” Reigns replied. “It’s hard in this business and this world we live in to trail-blaze. To create something different and do your own thing is hard nowadays. That’s what I want to do. I want to take these matches to a whole new level and break that bar. That’s what I said ever since I got here: I just want to leave this place better than I found it, continue to raise that bar for my family and continue to push our legacy.”
Reigns is now solidified as WWE champion, barring a setback like his hernia injury in 2014. Looking back on the year, Reigns said winning the WWE Title was “the icing on the cake” for him after “a full year of work and focusing in and keeping my head down, doing what I had to do and not letting anybody tell me differently.”
Along the way, he learned how to deal with criticism and negativity from fans. “It’s something I’ve had to teach myself over the past few years, because I am a person that cares. I do. I wouldn’t be in this business and do what we have to do and go through all the stuff we have to put up with if I didn’t care,” Reigns said. “Sometimes I have to pull myself back [and remind myself] the world is a big place. Don’t focus on the negativity. Focus on the positivity and the people that want you to do well, then, do it for them and for yourself.”
Now, 11 months later, Reigns says he can sit back and laugh about what happened at the Royal Rumble when the high of winning the Rumble was offset by the low of being booed out of the building. It’s just unclear if Reigns and WWE are willing to embrace the full narrative of why the boos came down on Rumble Sunday in Philadelphia, which could still hurt Reigns’s status as a top star going forward.
“It’s just about me staying with my process, knowing I have a great support system. I surround myself with the right people, I believe in myself and I think it shows that if you put your mind to it, you can do anything you want – even if it’s dealing with thousands of crazy Philly fans. [Laughs.] Anything is possible,” Reigns said in conclusion.