January 19, 2021
Roman Reigns' heel turn at Payback is WWE's boldest move in years

Roman Reigns’ heel turn at Payback is WWE’s boldest move in years



Sunday was a momentous day in the world of pro wrestling. Roman Reigns, returning to the ring for the first time since March, defeated Braun Strowman and “The Fiend” Bray Wyatt in a no-holds-barred triple threat match to win the Universal Championship. Yet the mere fact that Reigns is Universal Champion for the second time isn’t really the big news.

It’s the way he won it. After aligning with nefarious manager Paul Heyman on Friday’s episode of SmackDown, throughout Payback Reigns refused to sign the contract for the triple threat main event. With Braun and Wyatt lying in the wreckage of a broken down ring after 10 minutes of brutalizing each other, Reigns music hit. He arrived, Heyman in tow, signed the contract, speared Strowman and won the title. 

It was extremely pro wrestling. Payback ended with Reigns standing tall as the heel Universal Champion, Heyman by his side. There’s no live crowd at WWE events, as a result of COVID-19. Interest in Payback was slightly below usual, because SummerSlam, the second biggest wrestling show of the year, proceeded it just a week prior. 

So you may not know it, but this was by far the most important WWE moment of 2020.

Fight the tide

The COVID-era of pro wrestling has seen several key moments. Drew McIntyre toppling Brock Lesnar at WrestleMania and Matt Hardy debuting in AEW are two that stand out. But Reigns’ heel turn trumps those moments easily. Fans have wanted this for five years. Or rather, fans haven’t wanted Reigns as the top babyface (or good guy) as WWE has been trying to portray him, for five years.

It was 2015 when Reigns infamously won the Royal Rumble to a deafening chorus of boos, and WWE has invested four WrestleMania main events since then trying to coronate Reigns as the leading man of WWE. None of it worked. Reigns beat Triple H for the WWE Championship at WrestleMania 32, and became the second person ever to pin the Undertaker at WrestleMania a year later.

It didn’t matter. Reigns faced Brock Lesnar at WrestleMania 31 and 35. Both times he was meant to win, but both times his win was nixed because the fans weren’t buying it.

Reigns eventually did beat Lesnar, at SummerSlam in 2018, to the chagrin of a large part of the audience. But soon after that, he had to vacate the title because of a very real battle with leukaemia. That changed forever Reigns’ dynamic with the audience. Wrestling fans are notoriously difficult, but the very least you can say about them is that they won’t jeer a hero with cancer.

Since courageously beating leukaemia and returning in 2019, Reigns relationship with the audience has been a strange give and take. Fans haven’t aggressively rejected him, but the WWE hasn’t aggressively pushed him, either. There was still a feeling Reigns was being groomed to be the top star, and he kept winning high profile matches, but he was conspicuously absent from both world title scenes.

Reigns was poised to win the Universal Championship at WrestleMania, but he bowed out due to coronavirus concerns. So, in a way, it makes sense that WWE wanted to re-debut him with a fresh new, villainous character. But it’s strange, because the company was so resistant to the idea for so long. Why now?


Roman Reigns being booed out of Santa Clara’s Levi’s Stadium in 2015.


For your viewing pleasure

Ratings. That’s why.

Doing a wrestling show with no fans is obviously a challenge, and WWE’s Raw and SmackDown shows have taken a hit during the coronavirus pandemic. Well, several hits. July 13’s Raw was the least-watched in history. The first SmackDown of 2020 had 2.4 million viewers, while episodes over the past few months have struggled to exceed a viewership of 2 million.

“As far as ratings are concerned,” WWE CEO Vince McMahon said on a recent earnings call to investors, “the audience is integral to our success and our television ratings. Again because interaction, or lack thereof. Not withstanding that, I think that we can have more compelling characters, better storylines, new characters coming in to where we are right now.” 

It appears that finally turning Reigns heel is McMahon’s answer to steady ratings decline. And what an answer it is.

The combination of Reigns running in place since returning from leukaemia last February and his heel turn taking place in front of virtual fans with piped-in crowd noise instead of a real, live audience belies the magnitude of the situation. Since John Cena stopped wrestling full-time in 2015, WWE has sorely needed a star to lead the company into a new generation.

Ronda Rousey, Brock Lesnar and Becky Lynch have all flirted with the position, but it’s clear that WWE has always saved that spot for Reigns. It’s taken five years, but the company has finally realized that it’s strategy of attempting to force fans to love Reigns wasn’t working. Reigns is still going to be the top guy, but WWE are finally approaching it in a fresh way.

Is it too little, too late? Maybe. But I’m willing to tune in to SmackDown on Friday to find out. 

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