wrestling / Columns

Stone Cold’s Wrong – Reigns Can Stay Face

February 29, 2016 | Posted by J. Onwuka

Once again it’s J Onwuka here with some opinions on wrestling. Hopefully you enjoyed my last column about what I see as lacking in Hirooki Goto’s game. This week I’m gonna bring things closer to home (for Americans, anyway). I suggest that you check out my piece on Medium arguing that Roman Reings must should have pinned Brock Lesnar at WWE Fastlane as well, that’ll give you a pretty good idea of how I think about the main event scene in WWE.

Oh, also, I got a nifty banner.

Recently the era-defining ‘Stone Cold’ Steve Austin made comments about the weakness of Roman Reigns’s push recently and what could be done about it. Specifically he suggested that Roman Reigns turn heel in order to catch people’s interest. It’s not the first time I’ve heard this in reference to Reigns and it’s not the first time I’ve heard it in reference to a floundering hero character. A lot of people in and out of wrestling, in interviews and on comments, recommend it as the one surefire way to reignite interest in a wrestler. I’ve never been convinced. If that was the case, why do Jeff Hardy’s heel runs generally seem to wash out? Why didn’t Ryback shoot up to the top of the card again when he went back to heel? Just switching things up like that isn’t the cure-all it seems to be.

There’s no reason that it absolutely wouldn’t work and a heel run could do some good for Reigns. It’s long attested that the bad guy is the easier role to play. Simple enough to get why: if you want somebody to hate you, you can find a thing to say or do that will get the job done, but if you want someone to like you there’s no guarantee. For that reason we have this conception of faces as being very cautious to not really offend anybody (or anybody they think are important enough, hi Rocky’s gay jokes, super cool man</sarcasm>) and being smiley happy people. That holds true for a lot of guys. Hell, AJ was doing the stanky leg on Smackdown. He just came from being ‘The Phenomenal One’ around the world and is on the surface running the same gimmick in WWE, but ‘gettin down with it’ has never been part of his character before. The dancing in particular is a WWE quirk but the point is, wherever you go, the guys we look at as ‘faces’ are those who are completely and utterly safe.

That route has never produced a good hero and it won’t make one out of Reigns. It doesn’t even make the morality police cheer, not on its own. I’m certainly not saying that to be a good face you need to curse & cheat but I am saying that ‘turn heel’ as advice is slightly missing the mark. The issue with Roman Reigns isn’t his gimmick, it’s the way he presents himself and the way he’s been presented. It’s the Golden Boy aura that people can’t stand, specifically the aspect of it that makes it appear as though his success is not earned.

One major thing that needs to be pointed out is that Roman Reigns’s popularity drain goes back to the hamfisted dissolution of The Shield. Nobody wanted to see The Shield go away. Heels or faces they were one of the most popular groups in WWE at the time, probably within the last five or six years, and their association seemed natural and strong. I think that, above all else, is what resonated with people. Not only were they badass, they weren’t a gang of hired guns: they were totally united, and though their ‘purpose’ of ‘bringing justice’ washed out, they always felt like they had a shared purpose. The turn of Seth Rollins felt to me and I think to many fans like a cheap way of getting a few more main events out of a stagnant scene. It was too overwrought in that it completely went against what had been built up as The Shield’s character in an instant and it was obvious that we were getting a tired old ‘break up the team everyone likes and make them fight’ angle, an angle that people rarely enjoy. All that was crude but it might have worked. There was one glaring problem, though.

It should’ve been Ambrose.

I say that with total respect for Reigns and, despite being a big fan of Dean Ambrose, being a fan is not the primary reason I say this. It should have been Ambrose because he was the leader of The Shield. I can’t speak for the general fan but reading news and comments during that period I know that the perception in the commentariat was, at the beginning of The Shield, that Reigns would be getting the big ‘office push’ out of it. The thing is that throughout the existence of The Shield it was Ambrose, not Reigns, who was its focal point. Ambrose delivered the promos and he set the character of The Shield. He was the guy who set the record as United States Champion. Ambrose was the leader all the way up until they were laying the tiny bit of groundwork they did lay for the breakup. That’s when it became all about Roman Reigns and people noticed. The Shield went from being utterly dangerous pseudo-mercs to being a team of really good friends. Not only had they softened, there was no real reason for it. Those who can remember The Nation of Domination know that when Rocky became the leader that created a huge rift, and that’s how he could sort of change what The Nation became. In The Shield, nothing. They just accept it. Of course, Seth Rollins did split them up, but he claimed that it was his entire idea to build them up and sell them out so that doesn’t really count. As far as the ‘brothers’ go, their shift caused no visible tension and that’s lame.

Bottom line is that The Shield’s breakup, and Roman Reigns coming out of it as the guy who was to face Seth Rollins, felt completely manufactured and plastic. The fact that Reigns X-Pac’d the entire gimmick of The Shield in order to stay over while Dean Ambrose developed a successful new thing is evidence enough of how incredibly obvious the push was. They wanted people to associate Reigns with ‘that really cool stable The Shield’ and I think the reason nobody accepted that is because that’s not the way it was.

The thing is that this whole Golden Boy stuff continued into Reigns’s singles run. He would rarely drop falls, and when he did they made sure that he gave a superhuman effort first. We all now that pro wrestling is fake but with Reigns they are almost throwing it in our faces. There is a vibe in the air that, no matter what happens, Roman Reigns is going to figure into a big match at the big show. Now just having him drop a bunch of falls isn’t going to do any good, especially if you want to make Reigns a star, a role that I think his work deserves (if not now then maybe after some more development) and that his look certainly warrants. Beating the Golden Boy perception is all about the ‘eating your cake and having it still’ paradox. You can’t both be superhuman and still need us to cheer for you.


Jeff Hardy is a guy that it’s pretty tough to hate, at least as far as his personality. Especially on screen what he’s remembered for is connecting with the fans in an affirming way. Ricky Steamboat, from earlier years, was always spit-polished and lemon-scented-clean. Sami Zayn, on NXT, has an infectious energy that never seems to get old. Neither of these guys got to their high positions working a heel gimmick, and in Jeff’s case on the few times that he was turned heel the general consensus was negative. For the most part these are guys who have been pushed consistently as fan favorites throughout their careers. How do they do it?

In my opinion it’s vulnerability. None of these guys are invincible. In fact they more-or-less thrive on being attacked, being wounded, being cheated, and getting back up. We get to see that and that’s the difference. On Raw last week, Dean Ambrose was absolutely savaged by ‘The Beast’ Brock Lesnar. Then he hijacked an ambulance and drove it back to the arena. He didn’t storm down to the ring in order to confront Lesnar & Paul Heyman. He crawled. He dragged himself. He gasped for air but he didn’t stop. At the end of it he didn’t even get to do anything or to look strong. It’s probably one of the most important things Dean Ambrose will ever do in his career and I mean that as a gigantic compliment. That’s a moment where somebody absolutely needs your help and the reason is not because they’re in distress, or not just that. The reason is that we have seen their effort, their determination, and for that reason we feel almost as thought they’d be cheated by fate if they didn’t get what they have striven so hard for. It’s not that we ‘love’ this person, it’s that we, ourselves, get to feel the catharsis of all this effort finally paying off.

So when Dean Ambrose goes up against Brock Lesnar that is what is on the line: not Ambrose’s well-being or his pride but our desire to see a big payoff for everything that he’s gone through. But for us to start to care about all that there needs to be a sense of real risk, of real vulnerability, because only in that context does determination really mean anything. Only when you can actually lose it all can anybody see just how far you’re willing to go.


But what about Goldberg, you might be asking. What about Hogan or Warrior or Ryback (for that brief push he got)? Oh sure, Hulk Hogan might have needed to hulk up but it wasn’t like he was ever put in a spot of real danger. He was always, always, going to come back and wipe the floor with anybody who opposed him. How did these guys get themselves popular as good guys? It looks more or less like what Reigns has been doing, after all. Going by that template it should be easy to just have a guy run roughshod over the competition and then the crowd will love him. I mean, that’s why John Cena is so popular, right? Right?

For the moment, I want to take Goldberg because he’s the best semi-recent example of this (over 15 years ago, geez). All he did was beat people. Quickly. Almost effortlessly. People often criticize Hulk Hogan for beating the Iron Sheik in under 30 seconds but Goldberg was doing it on the regular. Was it more accepted because Goldberg mostly did it to lower-card guys? Maybe. Mostly, though, it has to deal with Goldberg’s character. He wasn’t just a pro wrestler, he was near a force of nature. That was the entire presentation of Goldberg up through his first WCW title run. He did not need the crowd to like him, he did not even need for there to be a crowd. He only needed an opponent to defeat and he would storm in with one purpose, destroy, and leave. Whatever he gathered in the process was incidental. He was, in all actuality, a monster. The kind of creature that exists only for a hero to eventually draw the magic sword and slay them. But the crowd loved him. Why?

Goldberg had no agenda but wrestling but no desire to cut corners. The crowd loved him because he never gave them a reason not to. He displayed his determination, his drive to win, by simply winning. It wasn’t that Goldberg followed ‘the rules’, it was more that he followed his own rules, and that personal code did not allow for taking shortcuts. What he presented was a super-efficient professional wrestler and that is, ultimately, what fans tune in to a pro wrestling show in order to see. The aura of invincibility helped but I think more important was his incredible ability (at least, as shown) and his untaunted attitude. That is to say, I think even in that initial run Goldberg could have dropped a few falls and not been too much damaged. He was successful because he had the skills to be successful and that was it.

For the same reason Hulk Hogan got popular and the Ultimate Warrior were popular, but in different idioms. They were more of the superhero type, where in a match they might get in trouble but it was understood as part of the process necessary to summon their super powers. Hogan did cheat regularly but that was never part of his advertised persona. He was presented as someone who was simply too strong to be kept down. The Ultimate Warrior was the same way. It may sound strange to say it, especially in relation to Hogan, but these types did not need the fans’ support in order to win. The idea was to get the fans on their side, of course, but the reason that they could always win was because they were good enough to do so.

The catharsis, the payoff, achieved with this kind of character isn’t ‘can they win’ but ‘will they win’ which is a subtle but important difference. With a guy like Ambrose, let’s say against Brock Lesnar (as he will be), we legitimately don’t know if he can get the victory. We would be in some way surprised if he won, not because we don’t think he can but because the challenge is so daunting. With Goldberg, we already think that he’ll win, and in fact our projected happiness depends on him winning. Now he might not win, of course, and that’s what we worry about. In the first case we’re hoping to get something, in the second we’re afraid something will be taken away. Trying to worry about both at the same time can’t work because you can’t be afraid to lose something that you don’t already have. That’s the problem of Roman Reigns.


Triple H has inserted himself into this storyline in order to present a major villain for Reigns. Ever since then he’s been pouring cannonfire onto Reigns from atop a high hill but there is zero sense of danger. At WrestleMania 32, Roman Reigns will win and become champion. He might lose, yes, just like he might have lost at Fastlane. He was never going to lose at Fastlane and thinking he’s gonna lose at Mania is as far-fetched. Plausible, but just barely. Why do I think that? Not because of anything on screen. Just because I know Roman Reigns is their Golden Boy, he’s the guy they want to put the strap on. It might sound like I’m jumping the gun but the reason that mind even went there first is because what they are putting on TV is not compelling in the slightest.

Roman Reigns is not positioned as a superhuman character and yet, in the big clutch situations, he always wins. They like to beat him up and leave him laying for a night, but the next show he’s up, he’s ready, he’s back to being Roman. How then am I supposed to believe that now Triple H is seriously hurting his chances by slapping him around a little bit on Raw? The fact that pretty much anybody can beat up Reigns backstage but usually can’t beat him in the big match just nullifies any feeling we might have about Trips doing it. If he was a generally vulnerable character the attack might actually put him in jeopardy but we know it won’t and so we don’t care. If he’d been presented as a superman who destroys everything, the fact that Triple H has done this might represent a special threat, but he hasn’t been so we don’t care.

This is the exact same reason the crowds dislike John Cena. They like to beat him up a little bit, then WWE sends the scuffed-up Ken doll back out as if the rest of the plastic isn’t shining and immaculate. They want him to look human but they don’t want to have a guy that actually loses regularly in big money matches. And ultimately they don’t get why this feels so false and why people avoid it.

Why do some fans like Reigns? Well, why do they like Cena? He’s a handsome, muscular dude. It’s not just sexual attraction, it’s also natural reaction to good looks and a sense of strength. Even a genocidal maniac is going to have a few fans if the maniac is physically attractive. Hell, Orton is still popular heel or face and I can guarantee you it’s for the same reasons. Reigns can perform adequately which is more than I can say for Cena a lot of times. He’s got some exciting moves. But he’s still stuck.

It might read like this is a ‘smart’ or ‘insider’ type of opinion and I’m not going to deny that I read news online etc. However, I think the reaction to Roman Reigns isn’t just a lot of people on the internet. It’s a response to the poor storytelling put in place. It’s people watching Reigns get beat up and immediately get back up to win as if nothing had happened. It’s about him, for no apparent reason, hovering forever around the world title picture while other people pick up wins and titles and never enter that conversation. It feels completely manufactured and that’s what turns people off.

Could turning heel help him? Yeah, but only in as much as it would force him to either take more meaningful losses & setbacks or it would turn him into the sort of monster that destroys all opponents and doesn’t need anyone. The thing is that he doesn’t need to go heel to do that, and even though bad guys are more likely to take losses or be unstoppable, it doesn’t mean it’ll take. Either as someone endlessly determined or as a natural elite fighter, Reigns needs to find a persona and presentation that will make sense naturally on the screen. The one he is using now only makes sense if you assume that he is being hand picked.

There’s a reason that in pro wrestling ‘The Chosen One’ is always a heel gimmick.


Ring of Honor is the promotion I’m following closest these days so I thought I’d say something here, though I’ll probably expand at a later date, either here or on my Medium account. At the moment I’ve just seen the results but even by the ‘news updates’ coming out of the show I’m not too impressed. Basically, the show was another spinning of the wheels in a deep mud rut. Like New Japan (until the departure of the BC varsity team and Nakamura forced them to shift a bit) their shows are fun to watch but aren’t presenting anything too compelling. Nothing is really getting built up right now except for O’Reilly vs Cole and they can’t really decide what they want to do there. reDRagon continue to rule without ruling, basically doing everything short of actually winning big matches, which is just bizarre. I’m sure I’ll enjoy the show when I watch it but ROH could do a lot better. Major complain on the surface is quit with all the damn multi-side matches. All my interest is in the one-on-one.

My history series, the World Champions Podcast, has passed through the war years and is on the establishment of the National Wrestling Alliance and the legendary title run of Lou Thesz. Check it out at worldchampionspodcast.com, as well as on iTunes and Stitcher. I’d appreciate it if you’d check it out and spread the word around about the intricate history of pro wrestling.

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If you’ve got a comment or a question, leave it below. I appreciate all the positive feedback on my last column and you should see more stuff from me soon.