Roman Reigns and WrestleMania: The Endless Coronation
WWE wants Roman Reigns to be The Guy, but their brilliant start led to years of fumbling, bad luck, and bad decisions.
In wrestling, one of the biggest things that can happen for a wrestler is the coronation. It’s that title win that’s so huge that it solidifies him as a star and a major name. It means the right amount of build, a dramatic enough win, and a high-profile stage. It’s why Daniel Bryan standing tall at the end of WrestleMania XXX was such a big deal despite the fact that he was already a multiple-time world champion. It’s the difference between Bret Hart winning a non-televised title match and ending WrestleMania X as the new champion being held on the shoulders of his fellow wrestlers.
When it comes to Roman Reigns, WWE keeps trying to set up that sweet, sweet coronation and it’s gone from misstep to really kind of sad. The garden has been poisoned, but every WrestleMania season, the company still tries to plant some flowers.
It’s a shame because Roman isn’t really all that bad. He just…probably shouldn’t have been on his fourth WrestleMania main event in a row because the promotion can’t stop doubling down on him. He’s a flawed talent, but a seemingly can’t-fail top star who has been derailed by real life twists and out-of-touch authority figures trying either way too hard or not hard enough.
So let’s take a look back at Roman’s WrestleMania history and how we’re stuck in an annual insistence that, “This time it’ll work!”
Roman Reigns showed up on the main roster in late 2012 as part of the Shield alongside indie darlings Seth Rollins and Dean Ambrose. They were used to hold down another attempt at replacing John Cena in Ryback. Ryback could have been a major star, but he ended up hitting his stride in a time when the company was too intent on Cena beating the Rock at WrestleMania to become the new champion. They never pulled the trigger on Ryback and he never recovered.
The Shield, on the other hand, became one of WWE’s absolute highlights. Many could tell from the beginning that it was a vehicle to help groom Roman into being a major player, but it worked out better than anyone could have hoped. All three Shield members stood out with Seth being the flippy shit-talker, Ambrose being the sleazy psycho with no regard for his own safety, and Roman as the cool brute of few words.
In the time that followed, the Shield became part of some of the best series of matches in WWE history. No matter what combination of opponents were in their way, they succeeded. Even John Cena, who was a month away from facing the Rock in the main event of WrestleMania, couldn’t lead a team to victory at Elimination Chamber.
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That was what WrestleMania 29 was about for the Shield. They faced Randy Orton, Sheamus, and Big Show, a makeshift team of former champions who otherwise had nothing going on. Despite their combined accolades, having two faces teaming up with a heel out of necessity wasn’t enough and the Shield ran through them like they’d run through anyone. Big Show proved the point after the match by punching out his own partners.
The Shield appeared to be unstoppable as they had yet to have a true loss in a six-man tag bout. This streak finally came to an end in the summer, when Daniel Bryan led Kane and Orton to victory, boosting his status from comedic Napoleon to popular title contender.
The Shield continued to have awesome matches, but were no longer unbeatable. Cracks started to show as the company was increasingly eager to propel Roman to stardom. At Survivor Series, he plowed through most of the opposing team and pinned almost all of them. According to CM Punk, when he was booked to go over the Shield in a three-on-one handicap match, he was still told to make Roman look strong.
Speaking of Punk, his final match would be Roman’s big come out party as he absolutely dominated the 2014 Royal Rumble. Roman broke the record for most eliminations in one Rumble via 12 victims and ended up becoming the last flicker of hope for the fans in attendance. Although the narrative made it clear that this was Daniel Bryan’s story and his match to win (with Punk being the only acceptable alternative), Bryan wasn’t even booked for the match to begin with. Once that became wholly apparent, the fans realized that the returning Batista was being shoehorned into the winning spot strictly because he was a big name from the past.
The final three were Batista, Roman, and vanilla megaface Sheamus. Going into the match, Roman wasn’t the first or second choice of the crowd, but of those three, he was the one who was fresh and unpredictable. Roman Reigns challenging for the title at that WrestleMania would at least be interesting and less insulting than Batista being shoved into the main event.
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Roman lost, but looked godly in a tragic and hated Royal Rumble. The same Royal Rumble that had him eliminate his partners. The plans were to dissolve the Shield sooner than later, but behind the scenes, the three wrestlers agreed to stick together as a political force and nix the plans.
What followed was a brilliant series of matches with the Wyatt Family, which included a telling moment of foreshadowing where Roman was able to silently intimidate Triple H at one point. They became antiheroes in comparison, but when their break-up angle led to the Shield uniting stronger than ever, they became full-on faces.
In the lead-up to WrestleMania 30, the trio feuded with the authority-based team of the New Age Outlaws and Corporate Kane. It was no question that the Shield would come out on top, but few could have foreseen what a quick and simple squash the match would become. The Shield was both cool as hell and tough as hell with all the momentum in the world. But even for the Shield, a three-man team could only conquer so much before hitting their limit.
Meanwhile, the plans for a Batista vs. Randy Orton main event were derailed by excessive fan outrage that Daniel Bryan wasn’t involved in the championship storyline. WWE relented on this, turned Batista heel, and had Bryan win the title after defeating Triple H, Batista, and Orton in one night. Bryan ended the show with one hell of a feel-good moment and, in the eyes of vocal fans, precedent was set.
Also at that show, Brock Lesnar – who had been little more than just another main-eventer by this point – shocked everyone by pinning the Undertaker and ending his legendary winning streak.
These three matches would shape the next year of Roman Reigns’ career.
The Shield finally broke up at the perfect time. They just handily defeated the trio of Triple H, Batista, and Orton twice over. There were no heels left to crush. Seth Rollins turned on his brothers and they each had a new direction. Seth wanted to gain gold via corporate backing. Ambrose wanted to make Seth pay. Roman wanted gold as well, but under his own strength.
WWE gets grief for making a lot of their developments up as they go along, but they definitely had a rough plan for the next year and it was a solid one.
Daniel Bryan was meant to feud with Kane for a month or two until SummerSlam hit. There, he’d be fed to Brock Lesnar, who would become a hate magnet for the way he’d utterly destroy the fan-favorite champion. While Roman was busy working his way through Orton, he’d gradually build himself towards being the new hero of WWE. He’d win the Royal Rumble when he was ripe and go on to dethrone Brock at WrestleMania, just as Brock’s contract was supposedly ending.
The fans were loving Roman at the time and it had the right structure to truly get everyone behind him. At least for a time. Sadly, the best laid plans of mice and big dogs often go astray.
First off, Bryan had some neck issues that would force him to vacate the WWE Heavyweight Championship and get surgery. John Cena picked up the vacant title and got mauled by Brock at SummerSlam. While that was certainly a hell of a thing to see, it probably did a ton of damage to the idea that people should boo Brock Lesnar.
Then, in September, Roman was put on the shelf due to a hernia. He was gone for several months and his disappearance ruined the momentum of his path to the top. For one thing, he was planned to be part of John Cena’s Survivor Series team against the Authority, where Roman would heroically take out his final three opponents, thanks in part to the sudden appearance of Sting. Instead, that role was given to Dolph Ziggler, who was given absolutely no credit for his herculean task and had little follow-up.
Roman could have been fine if handled right, but WWE became too nervous. Roman would appear via satellite to do interviews just to remind us that he existed. He had nothing important to say, but he’d be there.
Bryan returned from his injury, pretending to announce his retirement, but in actuality announcing his entry in the Royal Rumble so he could get back the title he never truly lost. A feel-good idea that they never intended to give us.
At the same time, Vince McMahon became so driven to make sure that Roman was liked by fans that he apparently decided to write his promos for him. Yes, a man in his 70s trying to appeal to the youth. Roman’s coolness points hit the ground as he started going on and on about magic beans while quoting Sylvester the Cat. It was embarrassing and started getting him comparisons to Poochie from The Simpsons. They were lines that could have maybe worked for Cena, but were an ill fit for Roman.
The Royal Rumble was built around eliminating Bryan early, allowing the crowd to mourn him and get over it, then centering the rest of the match on Big Show and Kane eliminating beloved youngsters so that Roman could valiantly win the hearts of everyone by defeating them on his own. It backfired horrifically. Once Bryan was gone, the crowd turned on the show and could see how transparent it all was. Roman went from the promising alternative to Batista to…well, being Batista.
Even the Rock coming out to back-up and celebrate with his cousin was met with boos. The fans didn’t like this blatant force-feeding. Especially not two years in a row.
High on their previous success, vocal internet fans tried to get WWE to go back on this and once again put Bryan in the main event. Bryan vs. Brock was indeed a promising dream match. This time, WWE put their foot down and insisted that we’d be getting Roman vs. Brock. They did take advantage of the Bryan love by doing Bryan vs. Roman in a match where the winner would be #1 contender. Roman won, regardless.
But you know what? That was the right call. Bryan’s reckless in-ring style didn’t have much mileage left. He won the Intercontinental Championship at WrestleMania and soon had to give THAT title up because it was apparent that he was too banged up with concussions to wrestle. Poor guy had to hang it up.
(I mean, he would get cleared years later, finally got his dream match against Brock, and go into WrestleMania 35 as WWE Champion, but at the time in was super tragic.)
As for Roman, his build with Brock didn’t set the world on fire. If anything, the final go-home Raw image of the two of them playing tug-of-war with the championship belt was more laughable than badass.
The match itself was really good and did a good job painting Roman as a big, strong, tough guy up against someone bigger and stronger, but maybe not tougher. Roman was overwhelmed, but laughed through the beating. In time, he was able to get his licks in and make victory possible.
Had Brock been about to leave, as originally expected, things would have been different. Brock wasn’t leaving. He signed another contract, causing the company to nix the outcome on the day of the show. Roman wasn’t going to win. Neither was Brock. Instead, it was Seth Rollins with a Money in the Bank briefcase, turning it into a triple threat and winning the WWE Heavyweight Championship by pinning Roman.
They saw how Roman’s coronation would be received and flinched. They went with the twist and ended things with the crowd cheering.
That probably wasn’t the right decision in the long run.
Roman hung back for about half of the year. They wanted to have him mostly lay low while Seth took on challenger after challenger. This would have been better had Seth not been overly cowardly to the point that you wondered why his character became a wrestler to begin with, but the endgame appeared to be competent enough: Roman would get his shot at Survivor Series and finally dethrone Seth.
Once again, an injury threw a wrench into the mix. Seth’s leg failed on him and he had to vacate the title. Survivor Series became the latter half of a tournament to crown a new champion. Roman defeated good buddy Dean Ambrose in the finals and won his first world title, but it lacked the hype. Not that it mattered too much, since the aftermath had Roman give the cold shoulder to Triple H, then get a surprise Brogue Kick to the face by Money in the Bank holder Sheamus. Roman lost his title in mere minutes.
The chase to regain his championship did a lot of therapy for Roman’s image. Through taking out his frustrations on Triple H to the point of hospitalizing him to punching out Vince McMahon to defeating Sheamus on a random Raw, Roman earned a lot of good will and even got a great ovation from Philadelphia of all places.
And hey, if Roman was champion, then he wouldn’t have to enter the Royal Rumble and make the match about him again. Right?
Well, they put him in the Royal Rumble and made the match about him. The WWE Heavyweight Championship was on the line and Roman was given the spot of #1. Everyone could see the writing on the wall. Triple H was going to make his “shocking” return by appearing at #30 and winning. Then WrestleMania would be about Roman trying to win the title back.
Not like there was that many options for the top WrestleMania angle, but people turned on Roman once again for being thrust into another obvious and somewhat forced storyline. This time, the handling of the negative reaction became almost surreal.
Triple H is known for trying to get himself over most of the time and when he’d beat down Roman in the build, he’d make himself look good and fail to correct the fans in any way when they cheered their hearts out for destroying Roman. Roman left for several weeks for some nose surgery, but even when he was back, they made sure to keep him away from the ringside area on TV so that the fans couldn’t outright boo him.
When the match finally happened, it was atrocious. One of the all-time worst WrestleMania main events. This was the first year when WrestleMania was like a million hours long and everyone was exhausted. Then the match itself was a half hour long and involved Triple H’s plodding style. People still cheered Triple H and booed Roman, outside of Roman accidentally spearing Stephanie McMahon, but the match ended as expected.
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In one storyline, Roman Reigns won the WWE World Heavyweight Championship three times for the sake of establishing him as The Guy. By this point, there was acceptance that this was what we were stuck with. Daniel Bryan was long gone and WWE newcomer AJ Styles wasn’t going to be realistically bringing down Roman anytime soon. Ambrose just looked like a total chump against Brock. Nobody could hurt Roman’s status with the company.
…well, except Roman himself.
After winning a feud with AJ Styles, Roman was put up against a returning Seth Rollins. In a move that surprised many, the heel Rollins cleanly defeated Roman and became champion (before losing it a minute or so later to Money in the Bank winner Ambrose). On the next Raw, they made it official that at Battleground, the three former Shield members would fight it out for the title.
Then the day after, it was announced that Roman had failed WWE’s wellness policy and would be suspended for thirty days. Instead of suspending him immediately, they finagled things so he could drop the title, announce the upcoming match, be gone for thirty days, and return in time for Battleground. Ambrose and Rollins had to carry the storyline and by the time they got to the match, Ambrose retained by pinning Roman.
This was followed by the build to SummerSlam, where Finn Balor cleanly defeated Roman for the right to face Rollins for the newly-created Universal Championship. Balor ended up winning the title, but had to drop it due to injury. Still, Roman’s punishment made the title scene truly unpredictable for a time.
Once that punishment had run its course, Roman was built back up. He won the United States Championship in a one-sided feud with Rusev, then did nothing with the title. He was used as a contender against new Universal Champion Kevin Owens, though with no intention of beating him. Owens’ angle was originally supposed to lead to Chris Jericho winning the title at WrestleMania.
That got changed when Brock talked McMahon into a storyline with Goldberg that would involve Goldberg beating Owens for the title, only to drop it to Brock at WrestleMania. Said Brock/Goldberg match was like the wrestling version of two people playing Street Fighter II and only throwing fireballs for five minutes.
With the idea of Brock winning the title at WrestleMania, a new year-plus plan was made for Roman. First, after losing yet another title match against Owens at Royal Rumble, he would enter the Royal Rumble match at #30, purely to piss off the fans and cause them to cheer winner Randy Orton instead. Before that loss, Roman did at least eliminate the Undertaker, who wasn’t exactly looking in tip-top shape at the time.
This meant that at WrestleMania 33, Roman would not only face Undertaker, but he’d be the one to get credit for “retiring” him. As the two feuded over their shared tendency to declare the ring their yard, WWE pushed another bout where nobody was going to cheer Roman. Not only was he again in the main event of an endlessly-long WrestleMania, but he was going over a beloved legend and presumably ending his career.
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Like the year before, the match was terrible and that wasn’t entirely on Roman’s shoulders. Undertaker was physically a husk and his performance was more sad than anything else. Roman defeated him by hitting a spear with extra ring-bouncing and left the arena to deafening boos. Undertaker got up, removed some of his gear, placed it in the ring, and walked off.
On the next night of Raw, Roman opened the show to be greeted by pure hate from the hardcore crowd. It was glorious. He stood patiently and smugly as they chanted, “FUCK YOU, ROMAN!” “ASSHOLE!” “SHUT THE FUCK UP!” and, “GO AWAY!” Finally, he told them, “This is my yard now,” and walked off.
This would have been absolutely perfect if he was supposed to be a heel, but that wasn’t the plan.
Now, in the lead-up to that Undertaker match, Roman was caught up in a feud with one Braun Strowman. A cross between Ogre from Revenge of the Nerds and the Juggernaut, Braun was gradually coming into his own as a performer. The fact that he was targeting Roman Reigns – the guy who just seemingly ended the Undertaker’s career – only made people like him more.
Like, there’s no way you can say you retired the Undertaker without the crowd hating you for it. Even when people were loving Brock Lesnar, Paul Heyman could easily turn the crowd against them by reminding them that Brock ended the Undertaker’s WrestleMania streak.
Braun started getting over huge, especially in a segment where he mauled Roman during an interview and kept returning to beat him up more and in more over-the-top ways. This led to him flipping over an ambulance with Roman in it. All the while, fans chanted, “YOU DESERVE IT!”
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What’s weird was that WWE refused to lean into Roman’s heel side. Even when he tried to straight-up murder Braun with a truck, this behavior was just glossed over. They stuck to the longterm plan.
Roman’s year had two high-points, but was otherwise pretty low-profile. They reunited the Shield, but with a couple hiccups due to Roman being on the shelf with the mumps. They blew the massive John Cena vs. Roman Reigns torch-passing match at a random No Mercy when it should have been a SummerSlam main event at the very least.
But yeah, they certainly pulled back on the focus for Roman. When he wasn’t dealing with Braun or Cena, his main deal was that he was just having matches and usually winning. He had feuds with Samoa Joe and Miz, but they were fairly laid back and just led to lengthy matches. His only moment in the title picture was a Fatal 4-Way at SummerSlam, where he ate a pin from Brock.
Even when Royal Rumble came around, they didn’t even announce Roman on the card itself until two days before the show. He ended up in second place (fifth year in a row where he was in the final three) for the sake of adding drama to Shinsuke Namakura’s win.
Not that it mattered to Roman too much. The writing was on the wall. Everyone knew that we were getting Roman Reigns vs. Brock Lesnar II at WrestleMania 34. WWE was really going to try it all over again. It’s just that this time, they went with the opposite strategy in that instead of shoving Roman down everyone’s throat, they treated him like a footnote until it was showtime.
Going into Elimination Chamber, six of the seven participants in the match to be #1 contender had something of a storyline. Roman was just a guy who had some matches and was recently a supporting character in an aborted Seth Rollins/Jason Jordan angle. Regardless, he won by pinning Braun in the end, celebrated, then got thrashed by Braun to end the show on a note that would keep the crowd happy.
Rather than go with the more popular Braun, it was full-steam ahead for Roman. Though there was a brief real-life thing where an arrested steroid dealer named Richard Rodriguez claimed that he had proof that he sold steroids to Roman, which at the very least gave WWE pause for a sec until it was revealed to be bullshit. So while Braun went to go compete for the Raw tag titles with a literal child, Roman went after Brock again and made a huge deal about Brock being a part-timer who doesn’t actually care about WWE or its fans.
This had to mean that Roman going over Brock for the title at WrestleMania was inevitable, even if fans were still annoyed at it. All logic pointed at it. We just had to accept it.
Nope. The match was just Brock mauling and bloodying Roman while hitting multiple F5s until Roman finally stayed down. It was the most anticlimactic WrestleMania main event since maybe that time Hulk Hogan vs. Sid Justice ended in a disqualification.
It STILL wasn’t time for his coronation, in Vince McMahon’s eyes. After all, what good was it if everyone was still booing his golden boy?
Roman vs. Brock III, in the form of a cage match, was signed for The Greatest Royal Rumble in Saudi Arabia. Okay, suddenly Roman’s loss made a little sense. This show was going to potentially be a big deal and not only would Roman winning be a memorable moment, but presumably the Saudi Arabian fans would be behind Roman. Anti-Roman sentiment was surely an American smark thing, right?
They too booed Roman. The match had Roman spear Brock through the cage. Roman obviously hit the floor first, but the plan was that Brock was supposed to retain, so they hand-waved it as bias from the officials. Roman lost yet again.
An optimist would figure that maybe the company would move on and give the SummerSlam title shot to someone else because, good Lord, we were exhausted with seeing this feud, but it was time for Roman vs. Brock IV. This time, WWE had a questionable ace up its sleeve.
Remember how much people loved Braun Strowman? Braun won the Money in the Bank briefcase and fans were excited at the idea of him using it on either Roman or Brock. Hell, what if he made the SummerSlam main event a triple threat? Either way, people were pumped when he walked out moments before the match with briefcase in hand, promising to cash in on the winner.
Late in the match, Brock ended up outside the ring, attacked Braun, and threw the briefcase across the arena. Brock reentered the ring, ate a spear, and got pinned. That was it. Roman finally got his big win. All based on WWE using the fans’ interest in another wrestler as bait.
WWE finally got what they wanted. Again. Roman was champion and they could move forward. To give him some extra push towards getting love from the crowd, they reunited the Shield once again and turned Braun heel. Braun cashed in his Money in the Bank briefcase for a Universal Championship shot at Hell in a Cell and it was embarrassing with how badly booked it was. With Roman and Braun knocking each other out for an overly extended period of time, Brock showed up for the sake of F5ing both of them and making it a no-contest.
This was supposed to lead towards a triple threat at Crown Jewel, but then another wrench got thrown into the plans. Roman started an episode of Raw with the horrible news that he was stepping down as champion due to a bout with leukemia.
Roman left WWE for roughly six months and the writing didn’t get much better. The Brock Lesnar title picture went from a rubbish feud with Braun to a cool match with Finn Balor (where he didn’t use his Demon form for…reasons) and a WrestleMania program against Seth Rollins.
Roman returned and reunited the Shield for one last time as they took on Baron Corbin, Bobby Lashley, and Drew McIntyre. The latter team didn’t have a name or anything, but they were kinda sorta a stable for a bit. Shield won and it segued into Roman’s new WrestleMania feud.
After all this time, Roman’s WrestleMania bout is little more than a mid-card feud. He’s facing Drew McIntyre over Drew beating down Roman to the point of concussion, then brutalizing Ambrose a few times. It’s not the flashiest storyline and McIntyre’s only been on the cusp of being a big deal (he was positioned as a rival for Braun, but then nothing), but it’s a much-needed development for Roman.
Sure, he’ll be back at the top soon enough, but seeing Roman spend his first singles match back on a lower-card rivalry while Brock defends against someone fresher sure feels like a step in the right direction.
Gavin Jasper writes for Den of Geek and is at least ready to be done with modern-day Brock Lesnar matches. Read more of his articles here and follow him on Twitter @Gavin4L