The biggest night of the wrestling calendar is now in the can. After a dramatic seven hours – yep, it gets longer every year – WrestleMania 33 came to a poignant conclusion as the beaten and broken Undertaker left his gear in the ring and took a final walk down the ramp. He had just been defeated in a brutal, and slightly depressing, brawl with Roman Reigns in which the younger performer landed four thunderous spears to put away the bona fide legend. This wasn’t a triumphant wrestling match, though. This was a powerful young buck beating the stuffing out of a 52-year-old man.
Reigns’ actions at WrestleMania were not the actions of a respectful fighter going toe-to-toe with a legend. They were the actions of a vulture picking at the bones of a carcass. The next night on Raw, Reigns’ music hit and he was met with an overwhelming chorus of boos from the traditionally raucuous post-Mania crowd. What followed was one of the more bizarre and brilliant opening segments in Raw history as Reigns stood in the centre of the ring, while the fans went to town. Reigns wore a smug grin as he was met with chants of “Fuck you Roman”, “Roman sucks” and “Go away” from the tens of thousands in attendance at the Amway Center in Orlando, Florida.
I really hope this is the beginning of a heel run for Roman Reigns. If it is he could be one of the best heels ever. #WrestleMania
— Chamatkar Sandhu (@SandhuMMA) April 3, 2017
After almost 15 minutes of silence from the man in the ring, Reigns finally raised the microphone to his lips and uttered five words – “this is my yard now”. With that, he dropped the mic and marched back to the locker room as the derision and hatred of the WWE Universe rained down upon him. On that night, at least, there’s no doubting that Reigns was the most over heel on the entire show.
This begs an obvious question. Has WWE finally done it? After months of talk among ardent fans online, has WWE pulled the trigger and turned Roman Reigns heel? First, a little background on the issue…
The new John Cena?
Reigns has been painted as a hero now for more than three years and, for a great deal of that time, his reaction has been split to say the least. So bizarre is his relationship with the fans, in fact, that Wikipedia has an entire page devoted solely to the way in which he is portrayed. Even the wrestler to whom he is most often compared, John Cena, does not have such a page. It’s clear that there is a disconnect between the way Vince McMahon and his company have positioned Reigns and the way fans want him to be positioned.
The reaction to Reigns is even worse from a company perspective than the reaction to Cena. The duelling chants of “Let’s go Cena/Cena sucks” that greet his matches at least show a roughly 50/50 split between fans who adore the 16-time champion and those who can’t stand him. There’s no such clear division for Reigns, who seems to get an almost universally negative reaction from fans every night. On Monday, especially, there was no doubting whose side that crowd was on.
The calls for Roman Reigns to turn heel have been growing for years. Some hoped he would become a villain as part of a double turn with former Shield partner Seth Rollins when they fought for the title at Money in the Bank last year and there was a clamour from many for him to turn prior to WrestleMania 32 after he lost the WWE Championship in a “one versus all” twist on the Royal Rumble. The momentum behind the Reigns heel turn, though, has never been as strong as it was this year when it became clear that he had a date with the Deadman at WrestleMania.
Retiring the Deadman
Going into WrestleMania, this was billed as a battle of two wrestling behemoths. There was a lot of talk about whose “yard” the ring was and plenty of moments where Undertaker appeared in the ring to stare down Reigns. The match, though, was an utter train wreck. It came at the end of a seven-hour show and was a sad spectacle, where it quickly became obvious that the Undertaker who has produced many of the greatest moments in WrestleMania history is no more. He now looks completely and utterly mortal.
It always seemed likely that Reigns was going over in this match and, when it became clear that it was closing the show, the stage was set for the Undertaker to complete a poignant retirement in the ring. However, the match was a snooze. Roman Reigns has shown a remarkable consistency in big matches, but it became very clear in this match that he doesn’t have the skill to carry a much weaker performer to a great battle. It was sad to watch Reigns and Taker struggle against their respective shortcomings and, as the pair bundled to the mat after a horrifically botched attempt at a Tombstone Piledriver, it felt like we were watching a dismal shell of the Undertaker we once knew.
The Reigns victory wasn’t remarkable, but what was unusual was the way in which he got the win. As Undertaker repeatedly kicked out of his biggest moves, Reigns became frustrated and seemed to slap disrespectfully at Undertaker as he tried to get to his feet. Finally, he wound up with several runs across the length of the ring before slamming into Taker’s stomach with one of the most violent spears I have ever seen – almost tearing the legend in half. He didn’t beat him like a good guy. He beat him like a villain asserting his dominance over the old hero.
If this ain't the visual of a villain, idk what is pic.twitter.com/f7dYZ6uTl1
— Kyle (@TRKG12) April 3, 2017
He continued to play that up on Raw, allowing the noisy fans to shower him with the boos that his actions at WrestleMania richly deserved. If WWE has the courage to push forward with this heel turn, they have a genuinely compelling villain on their hands. Reigns could be the rarest of things in modern professional wrestling – a heel who everyone is united in hating. The likes of Kevin Owens, AJ Styles and Bray Wyatt are always going to get a babyface pop from certain corners of the WWE Universe, Reigns would be more akin to someone like The Miz, who gets boos across the board.
The smarks who boo Reigns now aren’t going to stop when he turns – at least not for a while – and Reigns’ young audience will be furious at his betrayal, particularly if he takes out other heroes like Enzo and Cass, Chris Jericho or New Day. At a time when people believe that the traditional face-heel dynamic is falling apart, Reigns could be huge as an example of a genuinely hateful character who united the fanbase in their dislike.
The best performers, from The Rock to Stone Cold Steve Austin to even Cena himself, got over as good guys off the back of a major heel run. In fact, The Rock was very similar to Reigns in a lot of ways as a generic babyface absolutely despised by fans before he became one of the best heels of his era. If it’s good enough for the man who would become the biggest movie star in the world, it’s definitely good enough for Reigns. WWE’s ultimate goal is clearly to make Roman Reigns the face of the company and there’s no better way to make him a great babyface than with a year or two of brutal, memorable work as a heel.
The danger, of course, is that WWE just sticks their fingers in their ears one more time when it comes to Roman Reigns as a heel. They want him to be a babyface and so they may write off what happened on Raw as a sad anomaly caused by the “unruly” post-WrestleMania crowd and slot him into his upcoming title feud with Brock Lesnar as the usual badass babyface. However, for anyone who saw the way he acted in the main event of the biggest show of the year and the way he responded to it the next night, it’s clear that Reigns is a villain.
Either way, this is his yard now, whether you like it or not.
Would you like to see Roman Reigns turn heel at last? What did you think of his battle with The Undertaker at WrestleMania? Let me know in the comments section and take a look at my other wrestling columns.