In spite of the controversial image of Triple H, Stephanie & Vince McMahon standing tall at the conclusion of the 2016 Royal Rumble, the general consensus on the overall show was a positive one – as positive as for any WWE pay-per-view since SummerSlam, in fact. But, with the Royal Rumble as the proverbial “first stop on the Road to WrestleMania”, the likely card for the biggest show of the year – and what is hoped to be the grandest event in company history – has been met with mixed reactions. Serving as the embodiment of this sentiment is the likely main event of Roman Reigns challenging Triple H for the WWE World Heavyweight Championship, in the continued search for a star-making performance – a moment that has alluded both the Reigns and the company for the better part of a year.
To say that “a star-making performance” has alluded Roman Reigns is misleading, as it implies that he has in some way failed to deliver at the level expected of him. But, Reigns has by most accounts performed at a personal level on par with reasonable expectations of a performer with just over five years in the business, forced into a main event position. His work is consistently decent, and at times very good, surpassing by a fair margin the equivalent performances of John Cena in 2005 and 2006. Reigns obviously has “the look”, at least by the sensibilities of the company’s upper echelon. His lack of refined promo ability is one of his biggest weaknesses, but if given the right material he could most assuredly deliver to a satisfactory degree. Why then, if Reigns has these qualities, if he has a good look, if he can work to a decent extent, does he remain unaccepted as the company’s top star? Why is Reigns still several steps below what the company expects of him?
There is no single answer to these questions, but holes in Reign’s armour, visible to seemingly all but the WWE’s top brass, say more for the current state of the roster, creative, announcing, and fanbase than they do about Leati Anoa’i.
WWF/E creative has always been erratic. For every Austin-Hart feud, there were several Val Venus-Taka Michinoku or Katy Vick segments – for every Summer of Punk there has been an exploding limo or Anonymous General Manager. However, for as different as these triumphs and failures may seem by nature, they ultimately share a major commonality – self awareness.
WWE’s creative and financial peeks align with the times at which the company’s creative faculties have been at their most self-aware. The Summer of Punk caught fire due to a realization that fans were frustrated with the then status quo. The Vince McMahon character succeeded as one of the most successful in company history, because McMahon himself came to terms with the fact that he was viewed as The Montreal Screwjob’s guilty party by his own fanbase. Daniel Bryan, after months of undermining booking, finally had one of his career defining moments because the views of those high in the company became public knowledge, and creative capitalized on it. This is self awareness, it fuels suspension of disbelief, and has been the determining factor in the creative successes and failures of WWF/E since the early 1990s.
This awareness, and the ability to capitalize on it, is still present in certain facets of the modern company. NXT is a prime example, with Paul Levesque, for all his shortcomings, understanding who and what a sizable portion of the fan base – the hardcores – want to see. This sense of understanding has led not only to artistic success, but also financial growth, however negligible it may be within the broader context of the publicly traded juggernaut.
The finish to the Royal Rumble showed similar understanding. Hunter’s past desires to dominate the roster and appear at the forefront were implicitly acknowledge in his Royal Rumble victory. As meta as it may be, most fans could imagine Triple H intending to get himself over as a part-time performer at the cost of the full-time roster; this is clever booking. However, in order to move this notion from the realm of a cute and clever idea to exceptional booking strategy, which draws money, interest, and emotion – at least as much as can be expected in 2016 – there needs to exist a booking destination; a direction born from similar foresight and self awareness, and this is enviably where the current product fails.
Even to the most casual of viewers, the goal of the current Triple H title run is evident – have Hunter drop the title to Roman Reigns at WrestleMania. Strong analogues may be drawn between this direction and the improvised 2014 build to WrestleMania 30 with Daniel Bryan. In storyline the Authority want Reigns to fail, as they did Daniel Bryan. But, unlike Daniel Bryan, who was in reality demeaned and under pushed for years, Roman Reigns, is the real life heir apparent to John Cena’s thrown – no one could have realistically thought the same of Daniel Bryan. And this is where self awareness stops, and creative misdirection begins, because Roman Reigns isn’t Daniel Bryan, and wasn’t under pushed for years, and the company doesn’t truly believe that he isn’t fit to be the top star – and of this the fans are well aware. In this sense the Triple H Rumble win is rendered counter productive, as Reigns is not the ultimate underdog, as Daniel Bryan was, but the perennial overdog, as everyone has known from his main roster debut.
What results is creative that believes itself to have worked fans into perceiving Reigns as the downtrodden underdog, utilising the common perception of Hunter as an egotist to achieve this goal. In actuality, this “achievement” is nothing more than a disconnect between audience and producer. Indeed, this is the company that leaves intentional pauses in promos for imaginary crowd reactions. This is creative that wishes to force their audience into believing that Reigns is a true hero fighting the odds in the mould of Daniel Bryan – a blatant falsehood. This is a team that has failed to grasp what made prior successes work, and has in turn lied to itself in what has deteriorated into a perpetual cycle of doublethink.
A philosophy of this sort is particularly dangerous when the evolution of the fanbase and their expectations of performers has occurred more rapidly over the past decade than perhaps any time in history. The average WWE fan is more knowledgeable about the inner workings of the business and backstage happenings than ever before, which reflects a general trend, not only in professional wrestling, but niche hobbies and interests in general. The number of people watching wrestling is at an 18 or so year low; one could argue an all-time minimum globally, given the popularity of wrestling in Japan and Mexico during the American slump of the early 1990s. However, this smaller fanbase, with the advent of the internet – and the amount of content produced by the WWE alone – is one far more dedicated to their fandom than the millions of North American fans who vanished following the death of WCW.
The company seems to be at least partially cognisant of these fluctuations in the collective mindset of its audience. AJ Styles was signed and booked like a star in the Royal Rumble, Kevin Owens debuted on the main roster in extraordinary fashion, and Daniel Bryan was given his WrestleMania moment in 2014. But, for all of the steps taken towards progress from the perspective of the most vocal and increasingly valuable members of the fanbase, each inch forward is met with a regression of an equatable magnitude. Daniel Bryan was the most over star in the company following his title win – this should have been apparent to anyone with even the slightest modicum of professional wrestling knowledge – and yet he was partnered with Kane in the months that followed, in a programme seemingly crafted solely to drain his momentum. Styles came into the company as a beloved superstar, and yet the announce team had to put him in his place on RAW – his body of pre-WWE work had to be undermined, treated as meaningless, and urged to be forgotten by those who had seen it.
This artificial ceiling placed on some of the most over and talented performers in the company, doesn’t only hurt the specific wrestlers in question, and the quality of the product as a whole, but also the heir apparent, Roman Reigns, who has no marquee full-time title programmes as a consequence. Consequently, fan resentment has given way to broader apathy. Unfortunately, however, for as many solutions as can be suggested to remedy this network of problems, the largest obstacles facing Reigns and the company stem almost exclusively from the long ingrained mentalities of those in-charge – mind sets that have led to, in prior decades, both creative triumphs and prolonged stints of delusion and misdirection, a pattern likely mimicked by the years ahead.