Anyone who reads my stuff here knows that I’ve talked a lot about Roman Reigns here, and that I’m a big fan of his. So with that, I’m typing this out as I’m still trying to grasp with his announcement that he’s been battling leukemia for 11 years and now it’s returned so he’ll have to relinquish the Universal Title. I hope and pray that he beats it, and goes on to have a healthy life whether he returns to the ring or not. And if he comes back I’ll be with him all the way like me and the rest of the Roman Empire have been for years. But for now I’ll just say a little on how and why I became such a big fan of his.
Way back in November of 2012 I was watching Survivor Series. I’d just started watching wrestling full time again after a pretty long break, and was still trying to figure out what so many people’s problem was with John Cena (after some careful reflection, I realized what it was – they were idiots). But seriously I was watching the main event between Cena, WWE Champion CM Punk, and Ryback while wondering just how it was going to end. It was too early for Cena to win the title back and Ryback damn sure wasn’t ready to be anybody’s World Champion but Punk pinning either of them straight up seemed like a bad move. So what to do? Some genuine intrigue for once. And then……late in the match, three guys jumped the rail and laid Ryback out, leaving Punk to pin Cena who’d been laid by Ryback seconds before.
Now I wasn’t following outside the main WWE roster at the time so I had no idea who these dudes were. Michael Cole said their names and that they were from NXT but they may as well have been from Mars for all I knew. Those three guys of course, were the Shield – Dean Ambrose, Seth Rollins, and Roman Reigns. Now I’d seen my share of wrestling factions over 30 years so I remained skeptical of these guys until they showed me why they were going to be any different, that a year later they wouldn’t be some midcard jabronies like the Nexus had devolved into. And boy did they show it. For three guys who’d been thrown together in a short period of time they had chemistry that you could not manufacture. Dean the leader and main spokesman, Seth the wild acrobat, and Roman the powerhouse. They complemented each other perfectly – Dean was the brawler, Seth was the stuntman, and Roman was the silent killer. They would take on and take out everyone in their way in impressive fashion and before long they were all wearing title belts.
And over time all three guys would evolve. Seth would emerge as somebody who could hold his own and put on great matches at a main event level. Dean would settle into a place onscreen that was different than we originally imagined, but more in line with how he appears to want to live – happy to be near the top, but not needing to be at the top. And Roman Reigns would go from a guy who was very green in the ring, needing to be put in the right spot in his matches, to a guy who could be THE top guy and put on great matches with anyone. He stood face to face on multiple occasions with Brock Lesnar, who is of course not just a pro wrestler but a real life MMA champion, and took a full tilt assault in a way that few people could. The beating he took from Brock at WrestleMania 31 and the comeback he mounted was straight out of a Rocky movie and it cemented to anyone who hadn’t already made up their mind that he was the real deal in there. The guy kicked off the match by going at Brock with a stiff punch to the face to let him know that it was time go full blast, and proceeded to sell Brock’s offense so well that I was legit worried watching it. From that point forward he was the best selling big man I’d seen in 30 years.
That was literally a grow up quick moment, and he handled it better than anyone. The singles run that was supposed to prepare him for this had been interrupted by hernia surgery so he was still very much getting his legs under him as a solo act. That match could have been a total disaster but he stepped up to the plate and knocked it out of the park, even in defeat. I hadn’t seen a one match coming of age like that since Sting went against Ric Flair at the first Clash of the Champions way back in 1988. The similarities are downright eerie. Two guys who looked like stars and had that aura, who started off in tag matches while they learned their way around the ring, and then were put in the biggest spotlight before a lot of us thought they were quite ready only to knock it out of the park. And two years later another parallel would emerge when Roman was given the task to get Braun Strowman to the next level in the ring by selling like crazy for him the way Sting got Vader over in WCW as a true monster by doing the same thing. It really is something special when you get to see someone literally become great before your eyes and I got to see it twice. That is a true blessing for a wrestling fan.
But what really made me a fan was the way he responded when the crowds did not respond as intended to his big push to the top. Normally the quick remedy is to turn heel to reset things but Vince stuck with keeping Roman as a face with the hope that some storyline adversity would change things. It didn’t but over time Roman adapted like John Cena had to and learned how to handle the hostile crowds that came out for RAW and at pay per view events. And as a fan it pissed me off to no end that some people suddenly decided, after over a year of cheering the man, that what was a natural tried and true elevation process was a decision to crap on. And to keep crapping on for no good reason whatsoever, under excuses like ‘I just don’t like his booking’ even as they never stopped moving the goalposts. When he was presented as less than invincible, the problem was that he needed to be running over people. And when he was booked more strongly, then the problem was that he wasn’t showing enough vulnerability for fans to relate to him. There were declarations that he had no fans, then when it became clear that yes he did have lots of fans, those fans were summarily dismissed as irrelevant – women, children, and people outside of the U.S. – as if one group of fans matter more than others.
There’s a group I have a special disdain for as well. All the podcasters, bloggers, and YouTubers that turned what could have been a temporary blip into a festering wound by continuing to stoke that fire because it got you clicks, views, and listens are the absolute worst thing to happen to wrestling fandom. For three years you all put that’s man name in your headlines, tag lines, and show episode titles because it was good for attention or good business and not because you had anything new or noteworthy to say. Lots of you weren’t even mad about him or his booking but decided that pretending to be was the move. Some of you even trashed him and his booking and then turned around and paid money to get pictures with him at meet and greets. If that’s you then in my book you’re a piece of garbage. Man’s been fighting leukemia while taking care of his family and you fostered an environment that led people to sour on him and his employer for no good reason. There was nothing extraordinarily bad about his character or his booking and yet you couldn’t stop acting like it was an outrage, and in doing so you turned some people against someone and others away from something they used to enjoy because it got you attention. Screw you, the horse, you rode in on, and anybody who worked with you to do that. That’s a slap in the face to anyone working to take care of their loved ones; if you have a 9 to 5 how would you like it if some yahoo went on every week that your employer stinks because they have you working the wrong shift or in the wrong division? Would you laugh it off if they told you they were just playing a character and it wasn’t serious?
As a fan, it often felt like you were battling the crowd with him. Coming from a different era of fandom I was, and still am, perpetually disgusted at the idea of booing a wrestler that you say you like because you don’t like the way that he or she is booked. That is ludicrous and I will never accept it. There are plenty of wrestlers I liked but wished were booked differently. I didn’t boo them for it – I enjoyed their performance for what it was in the spot that it was in. If your favorite singer or band gets to do the opening number on an awards show when you think they should be closing you don’t boo them, you enjoy the song. You don’t boo the quarterback of your favorite team if you think the coach is calling the wrong plays. You don’t go to a movie and boo because you think they miscast the hero and the villain. None of those make sense and neither does booing a wrestler you say you like because you don’t like where they are on the card. But props to Roman for handling it, doing his job every night, and ultimately figuring out how to make it work for him, all while battling leukemia. When he finally won the Universal Title at Summerslam it felt like my Redskins had won the Super Bowl, that’s how much those of us who call ourselves fans of his felt everything that had been thrown at him.
And now we feel something else – concern, sadness, and uncertainty. I hope and pray this isn’t it for him but if it is then it was a great run and a great time. Thanks for everything you did out there, and hopefully for what you do when you get back. You have embodied the best of what the business of professional wrestling has to offer from the day you arrived and you got a lot of people from first time viewers to old heads like myself to believe, to root for someone as like they would their favorite team, and to revel in the true brotherhood that you and your Shield teammates have shared with each other. We believe in you and we believe that you can tackle this like you’ve tackled everything else in front of you.