When It Reigns, It Pours: WWE’s Identity Crisis by Mike Holland

The WWE is guilty of a serious crime, and they don’t really care if you know about it or not. They don’t care whether any of us support hand-picked champion Roman Reigns or not. That much has been evident since the start. While many of the reasons for the backlash have less to do with Roman himself than the way the company has presented him, it has nonetheless placed them at the crux of another critical moment in wrestling history. Their next movements will have to be calculated in a way that produces the intended result, but also allows for the bulk of their fanbase to feel heard. Is that even possible? We’ll soon see.

For Reigns, it’s been a long slog toward his current incarnation, and some of the propulsion was most certainly being in the right place at the right time. He’s got great genetics, his look is a throwback to wrestling’s heyday, and he’s a talented enough hand in the ring, but injuries to a spate of top stars helped the powers that be make the call to give him a shot. The company felt so strongly about this that they brought Triple H out of mothballs to be the standard bearer that dropped the strap to Reigns at WrestleMania, a match that felt so overbooked and double stuffed that you felt like you were at the end of Thanksgiving dinner watching it. The result was expected, but the end result of doubling down to force through the wishes of the chairman of the board brought about the obvious consequence: much of the fanbase hated it all the more. There’s a reason you don’t like Brussels sprouts now, and it’s because mom kept making you try them way back when. WWE got what they wanted, to be sure, but at the expense of fans feeling like their voices were being heard and reacted to. Nobody likes when a company tells them what’s best for them, even if it is best for them.

This current moment in WWE is an exciting time, but a bit of an odd one. Nothing indicates that more clearly than the Hell in a Cell match at WrestleMania. Undertaker’s victory over returning Shane McMahon meant Shane didn’t get to run Raw, except the next night there he was running it anyway. While that has allowed for some significant moments and some above-average programs since WM, it doesn’t dissuade from the larger point that creative feels more slapdash than usual. I thought these kind of “huh?” moments were reserved for Monday Nitro booking. Nevertheless, Roman did walk away champion and that led to a dilemma of a different sort. Who would be the first person in line to go up against the new Cena?

AJ Styles represents something the WWE has long tried to avoid and eschew, namely the famed outsider built completely somewhere else outside of their purview and now making the jump. Their creative team has always struggled with this, likely harkening back to the territorial days when a particular promoter recruited and used his own stars first and foremost, before filling out the remainder of the roster with who was readily available. Whether this is Vince McMahon’s direction or not is certainly not known to me, but I’ve watched enough wrestling over the years and learned enough about human nature to be able to take the leap that not much happens without his signoff. The WWE has always preferred owning their talent from the ground up, everything from their monikers to their finishers and all the ground in between. There’s also been the thought that talent is in the end replaceable. The WWE machine can simply clamp down and create another Warrior or Hogan or Cena, freshly minted and ready to start raking in the cash. The WWE is rather consistently regarded as the destination for any pro wrestler, yet trapped itself in its own time machine where anything that occurred outside of their environs was not worthy of their time. This is a company that used the international resume of Daniel Bryan as the butt of jokes for years during his “tryout.” When they sign one of their top rivals away, it’s a big deal. It’s also something that hasn’t meant a damn in wrestling since Vince bought WCW and became the Monopoly Man.

Even though TNA has struggled mightily to even be seriously regarded as competition to WWE, AJ Styles appearing in the Royal Rumble was a major omen that times were changing. His performance in that event signified even more. Styles was booked well, looking strong without winning the match itself, and got into a rewarding program with one of the best in the business, Chris Jericho, almost immediately after. Jericho, ever the teacher and ambassador, saw an opportunity to help get Styles introduced to those in WWE’s audience who didn’t know him, and did his thing. Following the dissolution of their brief partnership, the series of matches that ensued allowed those of us already impressed with AJ to demonstrate why and those who weren’t to get a good long look at him. Even with this radically different approach to the procuring and usage of opposition talent, the supposed glass ceiling was shattered when AJ was handed the opportunity to compete for the gold at Payback seemingly on a whim. Since that point, WWE has added the shroud of New Japan’s Bullet Club members Anderson and Gallows over the match to add another layer of depth.

That decision has actually done a bit more harm than good, as the explanation for their presence has been minimal. Hints and allusions have been made to the men’s shared history, but details have been shady as the WWE sticks to their intention to not make any other company look on par with what they offer. Even the Bullet Club name itself is off limits due to trademarking, forcing stalwart viewers to seek out YouTube in order to find out what the fuss is about. This naturally puts Styles in the same position Roman himself is in, popular with a certain segment of the fan base while his exact motives are unclear other than his desire to be champion. For the WWE to take the belt off their self-appointed champion and place it around the waist of a guy who made his hay working for Dixie Carter and friends is tantamount to seppuku. But it remains a heck of a good way to get you and I interested in the match, and in that regard it’s been a smashing success.

Smart money says AJ Styles could be flipped heel quite easily at Sunday’s event, aligning himself with his buddies despite his claims to the contrary and using that allegiance to propel him over Reigns to the gold. The problem with that theory, though, is that Reigns is largely unpopular already, so someone defeating him would be unlikely to bring the chorus of boos one would expect in that situation. That leaves the current du jour option for WWE’s menu, namely placing popular names against each other and seeing what works without truly committing to anything. It’s hit everyone from Bray Wyatt to Kevin Owens to Sami Zayn, and it’s been responsible for goofy calls like the Shane running Raw thing mentioned at the start and Zack Ryder getting his cup of coffee with the I-C Title before heading right back to the scrap heap. WWE has to invest in their talent before the fans will fully invest in them, and this is a lesson they seem loath to learn. We as fans are not always right, and I’ll concur with the assertion of some of my fellow writers that I don’t cotton to a very vocal minority hijacking what they are viewing in an attempt to convince everyone else that everything they don’t like sucks. It doesn’t make for good television, and it’s not brave or different. It’s just annoying. All of that said, when it’s an obvious majority it’s time to confront reality. Whether you like it or not, Reigns hasn’t passed muster, and the good news is that you’re dealing in the world of wrestling, where things flip on a dime and in a moment’s notice. It’s not tough to go back to the drawing board. Roman will have his moment, fear not. Everyone in the business has been booed, and most of them have been saddled with gimmicks and moments they’d rather forget. This guy is no different.

What looms larger for me is whether the WWE will learn the lesson from the Daniel Bryan debacle and give in to the temptation to give the people what they want. I can think of many scenarios that would indicate a massive change in the way WWE does business, but AJ Styles winning the belt is one of the simpler and more realistic options. That instant would be a clarion call to every promotion and indy wrestler that it’s not just for show, that Titan Tower is interested in combing every end of the globe to recruit the best talent available. It would say that you didn’t have to be created in Vince McMahon’s office to be the symbol of the company. It would say that the opinions of the folks spending cheddar week in and week out on their product have finally resonated. And it’s likely far too much to ask of a group with the history of this crowd.

I would simply close with this. I had the immense good fortune to grow up in Philadelphia, and as such attended many a show at the fabled ECW Arena, as many of you know. ECW tends to be looked upon favorably by many through the rose-colored glasses of time, particularly since WWE bought them in order to sell them back to you. While some of those things are revisionist history, nothing has ever captured the feeling in that building. I firmly believe there were a couple of reasons for that. An obvious one was the number of names, many of them familiar to only foreign audiences, who were willing to test their limits in tough conditions for a less than stellar paycheck for no reason other than love of what they do. What they earned in those days was the unending respect of a very tough audience, and that respect has lasted the test of time. The other major one was the guidance of Paul Heyman, who decided early on that while the crowd didn’t always know best, you couldn’t treat them like fools and expect them to keep buying it. The great thing about Heyman is that his skill on the microphone enables him to actively impact how you feel about any given situation, giving you the illusion of choice while secretly steering you toward the intended result. But if it didn’t work, it didn’t work, and that was one building that would let you know from the jump what was effective.

If you notice some parallels in there, it’s intentional. Those factors simply must be in place for lightning to strike again, at least in my view. WWE still has time to walk back their stubborn adherence to invisible wrestling law and do what’s right for those who follow them religiously. They also have a rather unique opportunity to do it with the unlikeliest of men as their standard bearer. In one fell swoop, they can acknowledge the past and prepare the future. Roman Reigns will still have his moment in the sun. He will likely still have another one as the company intended, a celebrated hero when The Shield reunite. For now, though, it shouldn’t be about him. It should be about the fans. They have spoken. Don’t let the Yes Movement turn into the I Can’t Hear You Stalling Game. You should be better than that by now, WWE.

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