The Rock and Roman Reigns: A Tale of Two Pushes

As some of you may be aware, one of my guilty pleasures in life has been professional wrestling, which I’ve watched in on/off spurts since I was a kid. What makes professional wrestling (occasionally) interesting to me now is that, from a persuader’s standpoint, it’s one of the few mediums in which you can see, in real-time, what people are responding to. The WWE is a live A/B test, so to speak. What characters and stories get responses and what don’t? Are you telling the story in the ring in ways that the fans respond to or do they just tune out the match entirely? Is a babyface (good guy) act actually getting the proper cheers? Are heels (bad guys) being booed? Or does the crowd simply not care? Or is an act dying on the vine, like a babyface getting consistently booed?

You can learn a lot about the crafts of storytelling and selling from watching professional wrestling.

And it’s that last question that’s of particular interest to me today. There’s one act in the WWE that’s supposed to carry it into the next decade. That act is Roman Reigns (real name: Leati Anoa’i). For the past few years, WWE has tried to push the Roman Reigns character as its next “guy,” the guy who would eventually take his place on the WWE Mount Rushmore of Hulk Hogan, Stone Cold Steve Austin, John Cena, and The Rock. But to many fans and critics, Roman Reigns is nowhere near good enough to even stand in the presence of that pantheon, and his good guy act has worn very thin, to the point that he’s often overwhelmingly booed and jeered. In fact, Stone Cold Steve Austin and Hulk Hogan have both been critics of Roman Reigns themselves at times. It’s gotten so bad that WWE has returned to tactics they previously used at times with John Cena – confiscating anti-Roman Reigns signs and selectively editing reactions.

The tale of the Roman Reigns character is seemingly mixed. Where it counts the most, he seems to be doing pretty well. He sells more merchandise than anyone in WWE besides John Cena and he’s one of the most popular wrestlers in terms of YouTube views. On the other hand, WWE’s ratings have been in decline during his massive run, and RAW, its supposed flagship show (and where Roman Reigns performs), has been tanking in particular. In fact, during the popular AJ Styles‘ run with the top championship on Smackdown at the end of last year, RAW continued to decline while Smackdown trended upward and eventually (if briefly) overtook it in ratings, a very rare event.

It is also arguable that Roman Reigns’ YouTube videos get such high views because people want to see him destroyed, like in this very highly-rated segment (which also included his talking about having retired The Undertaker, which would bring heat on anybody, let alone him).

Is that video at over 12 million views because of Roman Reigns or because some strong ass guy pushed over an ambulance?

What to make of this? WWE currently has the best depth of talent ever in its history. It doesn’t have stars on a magnitude like Stone Cold Steve Austin or Hulk Hogan as in the old days, but in terms of the overall amount of talent on the entire roster, it’s far better off than it was even in the Attitude Era. There’s no reason that WWE shouldn’t be doing a lot better than it has been. There’s no reason RAW should be seeing such a steep decline in ratings. The blame lies with creative, and the push of the Roman Reigns act is a big part of that. He’s been received so poorly that fans even booed The Rock (his cousin) when the latter was trying to give him a rub a couple of years ago, and at last year’s WrestleMania, The Rock’s business managers wanted him nowhere near Roman Reigns.

The Rock couldn't believe the boos he was getting.

For The Rock, it’s actually a walk down memory lane. The Rock and his cousin Roman Reigns’, initial babyface acts are very similar, and that may spell trouble for WWE if they keep this up. Ironically, it’s The Rock that also provides a solution.

The Face that Flopped

When Rocky Maivia debuted in 1996, his act was a clean cut hero, a third generation wrestler whose name paid tribute to his father (“Soulman” Rocky Johnson) and grandfather (High Chief Peter Maivia). The character was instantly and overwhelmingly hated. The most common chants in response were “Ricky sucks” and “die Rocky, die!” The Attitude Era was dawning. Fans liked edgier characters like The Undertaker and the maturing Stone Cold Steve Austin, who was soon to prove the greatest act in the history of professional wrestling. Rocky Maivia just didn’t fit the zeitgeist of the time. He was never going to be hot. WWE was also in the midst of the Monday Night Wars, and in 1996-7, things didn’t look good for Vince McMahon. Innovation with acts that were flopping weren’t luxuries, but necessities.

And so this squeaky clean imitation of Hulk Hogan became The Rock, a contemptuous, arrogant jerk who insulted the fans and his opponents with catchphrases. The language The Rock used wasn’t particularly advanced or persuasive. They were juvenile insults, but The Rock had such a powerful, charismatic presence, using the entirety of his body to communicate, and his delivery was sublime. The act proved massively popular, and suddenly, like Stone Cold Steve Austin before him, this snappy heel became a fan favorite, even as he tried to discourage the fans’ newfound affections.

You can see The Rock (and Jerry Lawler on commentary) trying to keep the villainous act up, but the fans aren’t cooperating because they love it. Within two years, “die Rocky, die” became “sing along with the Great One.” The Rock would go on to become one of the most popular WWE performers of all time.

By ditching the original babyface act that wasn’t working and letting him become a heel to craft a new persona, WWE allowed The Rock to A/B test different angles that worked for his character. It’s notable that The Rock’s heel traits still shined through in his huge babyface act started in 1999, and that those traits, honed through trial and error of character development over 1997-99, were the bedrock of his popularity, even when he became the “People’s Champion.” Turning into a villain ultimately saved The Rock’s career and catapulted him into the pantheon beside Hulk Hogan, his contemporary, Stone Cold Steve Austin, and later, John Cena.

The Roman Reigns Problem

In contrast, Roman Reigns for years now hasn’t been allowed to develop his character. He went from being a part of The Shield (the most successful stable since Evolution 10+ years ago), where he was the silent muscle, to getting a massive push that saw him win the Royal Rumble in 2015 and main event WrestleMania that year. To this day, Roman Reigns’ character is essentially identical to how it was in The Shield when he first joined the WWE.

Even the controversial John Cena, who has been “the guy,” for 10+ years, had a massive change of character from when he first debuted in 2002, which included a successful heel run as a rapper from the years 2002-5. This allowed John Cena to establish his persona and develop his skills on the microphone to communicate with crowds, an essential trait for any successful professional wrestler. Though John Cena’s character from roughly 2006 onward isn’t one for my tastes, those skills that he honed during his rapper years served him very well. Cena could always carry a match and more importantly, sell a story. He got his boos because of the way he was pushed and because his character was rather bland. Yet, even John Cena had a believable character. “Hustle, loyalty, and respect” may have been too boring, too clean cut, too much an imitation of Hulk Hogan, but you could see that John Cena personally exuded all of that. It is his mantra.

Roman Reigns has none of this. I really don’t know what his character is. It hasn’t evolved any from his days in The Shield, quite unlike his former stablemates, Dean Ambrose and Seth Rollins.

Yet, all of this is in many respects basic bitch commentary. Everyone has said this in some form or another. If Vince McMahon is insistent on keeping Roman Reigns in a good guy act without turning him heel and letting him get some of the benefits that Stone Cold Steve Austin, The Rock, and John Cena got, he can at least present the character better than he has been. In many respects, Roman Reigns’ problem is that he’s just been framed entirely wrong, aside from the way he’s been pushed or his lack of communicative gravitas.

The Roman Reigns Frame

It puzzles me why WWE is promoting Roman Reigns as a heroic character without changing a few sensual things surrounding him.

For one thing, he just looks like a villain. The long, wet black hair reminds me of some greaser or street brawler from something like The Outsiders. The black bulletproof vest and other assorted riot gear screams villainous character as well. Even during the height of their heel days, Stone Cold Steve Austin, The Rock, and John Cena never dressed or appeared in ways that so obviously belied a villain, which made their subsequent babyface “good guy” characters easier to believe. When Hulk Hogan infamously became a villainous heel in WCW in 1996, he ditched his red and yellow brightness and donned the black and white of “Hollywood” Hulk Hogan, making his villainy unmistakable. Hulk Hogan looked the part as the leader of the best angle in the history of professional wrestling, the nWo (New World Order).

Dark colors are associated with villainy. Hulk Hogan understood this. By appearing so darkly, Roman Reigns is botching his own act. Maybe he could get away with the hair if he dressed more brightly, or more doubtfully, the black riot gear if he had different hair, but not both.

The viewer’s sense of sound isn’t helping Roman Reigns either. Here’s his entrance theme:

Does this sound like a hero’s theme to you?

Now, the theme for Stone Cold Steve Austin wasn’t particularly heroic either, but Stone Cold Steve Austin was a character built around one word that gave its name to an entire era: “ATTITUDE.” When you heard that glass break, you got pumped and you wanted to see Stone Cold Steve Austin get out there and kick somebody’s ass. But he was the very, very rare exception to this. When Hulk Hogan became a villain in 1996, his heroic theme was replaced by the brilliantly arrogant nWo theme. The theme for John Cena also changed from his rapper days to when he became the man of “hustle, loyalty, and respect,” and it generally worked.

The Rock is the best example, though. When he was a heel in 1998, this was his theme (the video with it helped too):

It was a perfect blend of energy and arrogance. When The Rock started to become a good guy, the theme changed, eventually leading to this one that would accompany the massive run he would have in 1999-2001.

This one was energetic, but a lot more heroic and far more befitting of the new role for The Rock as People’s Champion.

But unlike Stone Cold Steve Austin, The Rock, Hulk Hogan, and John Cena, Roman Reigns’ theme hasn’t changed at all! It is identical to the Shield theme (as is his gear). It’s now worth noting that the Shield itself debuted as a villainous stable that attacked good guys like The Rock and John Cena because they were out to rectify “injustice.”

Why, given the breakup of the Shield in 2014, is Roman Reigns still wearing their gear and still using their theme? If WWE wanted to promote this guy as next in line to the spot held by John Cena, and before him, The Rock, Stone Cold Steve Austin, and Hulk Hogan, why keep his character in the same role it was in the Shield, with its associated villainous appearance?

The Bottom Line

Something tells me that Vince McMahon is too smart not to understand all of this. Roman Reigns has nowhere near the charisma of The Rock, Stone Cold Steve Austin, John Cena, or Hulk Hogan, but by giving him such a massive platform with these inherently contradictory traits, he’s manufacturing charisma where there was none. By promoting a character that looks like a villain, but putting him in the role of a hero, Vince McMahon created a way to get massive attention and sell a lot of merchandise.

But the Roman Reigns wave certainly won’t be as big as the John Cena wave, which wasn’t as big as The Rock/Stone Cold Steve Austin and Hulk Hogan waves before. RAW’s ratings problem seems like it will only get worse for the year, as it’s an open secret that WWE is planning an encounter between Brock Lesnar and Roman Reigns at WrestleMania 34, where he’ll have his big coronation. The fact that this match was panned so badly three years earlier leading up to WrestleMania 31, which necessitated some last-minute changes that had Seth Rollins winning the title, seems to be lost on them. Worse, it generally makes all main event storylines on RAW meaningless from now until next April. We know Lesnar will win them all.

Robert Greene said long ago in his 48 Laws of Power that if people can predict you, they will lose respect for you. That book came out at the height of the Attitude Era, when Stone Cold Steve Austin and The Rock were making things unpredictable and explosive week after week, keeping you glued to your seat (and ratings in the stratosphere). Wrestling was huge then. Everyone was watching it. Not a day went by in school that we weren’t talking about it. Stone Cold Steve Austin and The Rock (and before them, Hulk Hogan) got constant mainstream exposure. Though the industry declined in the past decade, John Cena also has enough exposure that most people know who he is. Will Roman Reigns follow? Will we see him in a Rocky movie like Hulk Hogan?

I doubt it if his current act continues. Because WWE (and Roman Reigns) just hasn’t been interesting enough.

Or it could all be a troll, with Vince building the greatest heel of all time. Knowing him, it’s possible.

Anyway, read Stumped to make yourself more interesting and charismatic (Roman Reigns should probably read it too).