Roman Reigns isn’t the typical lead performer in WWE — and that’s by design.
He stunningly returned from a nearly five-month hiatus last year at SummerSlam. It was the start of a character overhaul. He went from the babyface “Big Dog” to WWE’s heel “Tribal Chief” and “Head of the Table.” The character, whose story has roots in Reigns’ Samoan family’s deep history in wrestling, has become a WWE game changer and one of the industry’s best storylines.
For six years Reigns tried presenting himself in the same way as past babyface WWE champions — similar to that of John Cena, his opponent at SummerSlam on Aug. 21 (8 p.m. Peacock) at Allegiant Stadium in Las Vegas — only face great pushback from the audience. WWE’s current Universal champion has now chosen to do it his way and break the mold in the process.
“I think I’ve absolutely changed up the dynamic of the top guy,” Reigns said in a Zoom interview. “Being the face of WWE, and the way I’ve displayed it and the way that we’ve betrayed it.
“As opposed to lying about it and being this superman, bulletproof character who’s got these flamboyant colors on. And come running out to the ring [and] everything’s happy go lucky and saying a whole bunch of stuff with this loud charisma that doesn’t really make that much sense, but sounded good because he had great energy. I did it differently and I made it very real and authentic. I’ve showcased the burden of what it’s truly like to be the face of a billion-dollar company.”
Reigns, 36, has had a storyline feud with Cena before. In 2017 at very different points in their careers, the two built up to a match at the No Mercy pay-per-view. The former Shield member was in the early stages of trying to be the top babyface in the company. Cena was still active in WWE. He wasn’t yet a full-fledged Hollywood star, but wasn’t in a full-time wrestling role, either.
During a promo between the two, Reigns looked unsure of himself delivering his lines — forgetting them at one moment. Cena called him on it on live television. Reigns recovered, but it was a bad look for him at the time.
He was trying to ascend to the perch the guy across from him would soon vacate. Reigns said he doesn’t remember much about the promo and hasn’t gone back and watched it, but he did use it as a learning experience. As a young performer, he was still trying to grasp the personality, character and psychology he was trying to display.
“[I] was still trying to figure that stuff out, still living under the label of what WWE wanted me to be,” said Reigns, who had a much better showing in a promo with Cena on “Friday Night SmackDown last week.
“And now with me turning that completely upside down, and doing what I feel is right and doing what I want to do, and what makes sense to me and what’s logical to me and showcasing the layers of the personality that I want to display.”
Reigns, who told SI.com that his promos have been unscripted since his return, is trying to create something different. On screen, the ruthless “Tribal Chief” — flanked by his real-life cousins, Jimmy and Jey Uso, and special counsel Paul Heyman — is obsessed with maintaining power and prestige for him and his family at any cost. Because with him at the top of WWE it means everyone in the family can benefit. Reigns, undefeated since his return, portrays himself to the audience more like a villain in an action movie than a typical heel wrestler. Less is more, often letting his facial expressions do the talking.
One of the products of performing in front of a virtual audience during the pandemic was Reigns choosing to verbally belittle his opponent in the ring throughout the match to further the story. The idea to do so came from him wanting to “treat it like a football game.”
“In between snaps there is a lot of jawing back and forth as guys are [doing] in the separate huddles,” said Reigns, a defensive lineman in college at Georgia Tech. “You got D-lineman talking smack to the O-lineman. You go back to the movie ‘The Program’ and middle linebacker [Alvin] Mack talking smack to the quarterback or to the running back and stuff like that. That’s just different fight-inspired storytelling, competitive, killer-instinct storytelling nuances that I wanted to showcase.”
It’s all created a much different scenario for this feud with Cena. The 16-time world champion hasn’t wrestled a true televised match for WWE since January 2019 and last appeared in the cinematic Firefly Funhouse match at WrestleMania 36 in April 2020. Since then he has become a box office star with roles in “F9” and “The Suicide Squad” while Reigns has truly ascended to the top of WWE. Cena had a window to return. In the past there might have been other options for opponents. Reigns believes the circumstances made him the obvious choice.
“That would be a great match, him and Edge,” Reigns said. “It’s a throwback match and let’s do it here in 2021.’ But now there’s no other stops and there is great availability of talent to work with, but if you’re going to come back to WWE, I think there is no question … and Bobby Lashley’s another guy who is a great opportunity for a lot of guys to come back being the WWE champion. But [since] we’ve been in this ‘Tribal Chief’ character, the ‘Head of the Table,’ we’ve been head and shoulders above anything else.”
Beating Cena would serve as more validation for Reigns and it is a chance to continue to show he’s “the greatest alive doing this.”
“I’m the greatest storyteller and performer of my generation and I’m willing to do whatever it takes to back that up on a weekly basis,” Reigns said.
He takes great pride in not only enhancing his character but everything around him, from his cousins, his opponents and the Universal championship itself. Reigns main-evented two pay-per-views with Jey. When Jimmy returned from injury he was immediately thrust into the hottest storyline in the company. The Usos are also currently SmackDown tag team champions.
There was a chance for some of that to veer off course when Jimmy received a July DUI arrest in Florida, where he reportedly blew a .205 — well above the state’s legal limit of .08. He remained on WWE TV after what was his second DUI arrest in two years.
Reigns said he loves his family but doesn’t “condone that kind of behavior or decision-making.” He called it “not a great light to be shining” on his family or WWE. Reigns chose to handle the situation in a positive way. He called the first conversation with Jimmy a “mental checkup” to make sure he was OK.
“We’re all human, we’re all cynics, we all make mistakes,” Reigns said. “Instead of what some people might feel you should give up on somebody or maybe turn your back on that type of behavior, that’s one way to do it. But I don’t think that’s the way to push through and gain experience or make progressive movements of becoming a better man or a better human. So for me, it was diving into it with great attention, great love and very thorough communication to make sure my family is continually bettering themselves and putting themselves in a position to make better decisions.”
He hasn’t given much thought to adding more family to this storyline in the form of Jimmy’s wife, Naomi. Reigns sounded open to adding the former SmackDown women’s champion, who is currently on the “Monday Night Raw” roster, to “The Bloodline” faction but would want to do it in a way that worked in their story.
“I do believe if she was put in that position, coupled with all of us surrounding her along with Paul Heyman and the rest of our creative brainstorming system that we have and how we craft our narratives, I think we could put her in a good position,” Reigns said. “It’s just not something we’ve had time to come up with a thorough game plan. If we did, I think she’s definitely a superstar who could step up and take advantage of it.”
One thing WWE would hope to capitalize on is a match between Reigns and his cousin, Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson. Reigns has said in the past doing it at WrestleMania 39 in Hollywood would make the most sense. He does, however, believe that if it doesn’t happen it won’t detract from what he and his family is doing.
While the idea of a match with The Rock is certainly on everyone’s wish list, WWE has already begun to lay the groundwork for potential opponents for Reigns when his feud with Cena ends. Finn Balor, Seth Rollins and Edge all have legitimate storyline claims to a shot at the Universal title. Big E and his Money in the Bank contract are still hanging over Reigns as well. He and Rollins, his former Shield member, haven’t officially feuded since the group broke up in 2014. Reigns sees it waiting a little longer.