If there is one word that could define Roman Reigns, that would be it and the past eight months certainly proves that when it comes to professional wrestling.
Reigns is returning to the main event stage at WrestleMania after missing last year amid the COVID-19 pandemic. While he has always been WWE’s top draw, Reigns has spent the better part of the past year turning himself into arguably the best performer in professional wrestling.
‘Everything had to fall in line’
Although it’s been a relatively new shift for Reigns, the 35-year-old star has been laying the groundwork for a move like this for his entire career.
“As far as character building and everything that goes down creatively, it’s been happening since I started doing this,” Reigns told Yahoo Sports. “I’ve heard Paul [Heyman] say it in interviews in the past, this couldn’t have been done two years ago, it honestly could not have been done a year ago, I wasn’t ready. Everything had to be centered. Everything had to fall in line for me to put all of this together.”
When Reigns returned to WWE last August, there was a marked difference in how he carried himself.
Traditionally a babyface, Reigns has been built into a superhero-esque figure and was beloved by younger fans. The character Reigns portrayed until 2020 was more in the ilk of Hulk Hogan and John Cena. The persona that Reigns took on in the early months of his return was a full-on heel. It was a change that many seasoned wrestling fans quickly embraced.
It may seem like WWE flipped a switch, but in reality there’s a deeper psychology behind everything Reigns is doing — and has done — since his return.
“I couldn’t even begin to list all of the different minute things that needed to happen on a week to week basis to make all of this happen,” Reigns said. “I think a big portion of what people saw happen from August to November, the molding process and grooming had been happening for a long time and it was just fleshing it out, relying on instincts and always keeping in mind that I want to give the audience the best story possible. It’s dotting all of the I’s and crossing the T’s. How do I make human beings understand what I am going through and be able to grasp the emotions my character is feeling.”
A major part of building Reigns into the “Tribal Chief” character was who he had aligned himself with upon his return. Since “The Shield” broke up in 2014, Reigns has primarily been a singles competitor in WWE and occasionally worked alongside various other superstars, including his real-life cousins Jimmy and Jey Uso.
During his recent run, Reigns has worked closely with Heyman — one of the great minds in pro wrestling, both on and off camera — and after an initial, intense feud with Jey Uso, has worked more closely with his cousin than ever before in WWE.
That has been one of the biggest highlights for Reigns since his return.
“I’d retire twice before I’d go back and not be able to work with Paul or Jey,” Reigns said. “With Paul, it’s almost an everyday creative venture that we are on of how to continue to service our audience. How do we make it better? How do we make it more detailed? How do we make it all make sense? How do we connect to it better? How do we display something that has never been done before? How do we continue to build and grow the business? There are so many hows, and whys and what ifs that we dive into on a weekly basis.
“With Jey, it’s so much more instinctual, natural and blood built. The reason why our story, dynamic and interaction work so well is because it is a 35-year relationship that we are displaying. For that experience alone, I will never take that for granted.”
The common bond between on-screen opponents
At WrestleMania, Reigns finds himself in a match that, much like his character change, once seemed impossible. Reigns will defend his WWE Universal Championship against Edge and Daniel Bryan, two iconic stars worthy of sharing the main event stage with Reigns in Tampa.
Of course having three performers of this caliber checks the box when it comes to selling tickets and marketing an event the magnitude of WrestleMania, but there’s a respect that ties these three men together. In Edge’s case, Reigns sees an approach to the business of professional wrestling that closely resembles his own.
“One thing I love about Edge, it’s all of those little details that I focus on, Edge completely understands those and what we are setting out to achieve and accomplish here,” Reigns said. “Having that kind of understanding between performers is crucial. That’s the handshake of chemistry where we know that we have the potential to be really good together. That and all of his experiences inside and outside of the business, it’s cool to see another chess player. When you play chess against a formidable opponent, you can learn things, see things in yourself, sharpen your craft.”
When it comes to Bryan, who is on the short list of the world’s top professional wrestlers in his own right, there’s a different emotion at play. The contrasting styles — Reigns and Edge’s relentless pursuit of the spotlight with Bryan’s pure love of the craft — makes for intriguing storytelling possibilities, all of which were on display in an instant classic match between Reigns and Bryan last month at WWE’s Fastlane event.
“DB, although he says he’s an ambitious character, he’s not ambitious, he just loves to do this,” Reigns said. “That’s what is so brilliant about his underdog character. DB is one of those guys who just needs some ropes and canvas. I think he’d enjoy it if a lot of people are watching, but I’ve heard him say it before, he might have been the only guy who enjoyed the Performance Center era, where it wasn’t even the ThunderDome, where it was just like being in a warehouse again. It wasn’t even fancy. He would say ‘Let me get Cesaro, let me get Gulak and let’s crackle.’ I respect that.”
From a personal standpoint, there’s a bond between Reigns, Edge and Bryan as well. All three men at one point over their careers had, or nearly had, their livelihoods taken away from them due to medical issues.
Edge and Bryan were forced to retire from WWE due to injuries sustained over a career of taking bumps in a wrestling ring. For Edge, he didn’t wrestle for nine years. Bryan was similarly forced to step away from in-ring action for two years, although he remained in an on-camera role as Smackdown’s general manager.
In Reigns’ case, his leukemia returned in 2018, forcing him to step away for five months for treatment. Reigns returned in February 2019 before performing at WrestleMania 35 — the last time he performed at the event before this coming Sunday.
“We all have this real-life connection,” Reigns said. “We all have this barrier that we have all had to push through or climb over to get back to what we love. That’s where we’re all connected. When I talk about these three characters, we’re not even really characters anymore. It’s all so natural and real and tied to experiences. The only thing that changes is that it’s recorded and the red light is on. We carry ourselves a lot in these manners.”
‘I’ll never be content with what I’ve earned’
The same resilience shown by himself, Edge and Bryan is something that makes Reigns so proud of the work WWE has done over the past year, navigating a global pandemic and changing a business model that is so dependent on the live experience. For Reigns, and thousands of others, WrestleMania this year will be, at least somewhat, a return to normalcy as 25,000 fans will be in attendance at Raymond James Stadium in Tampa.
“Our world is getting to a point where it’s smart enough, safe enough to be able to create an experience that is balanced with keeping all of the safety requirements while allowing our viewer to let their hair down and enjoy a live show, a social event, what makes us human, escape it all and tap into feelings that haven’t been available for the past year,” Reigns said. “It’s a huge credit to all of the hard work that everyone has put in, which sometimes can be as simple as just staying home. For us to be able to celebrate that and get back to some kind of normal, I think that’s huge.”
Of course, Reigns would love to remain the top dog in WWE by winning at WrestleMania, but his sights aren’t simply set on April 11. When it comes to his career, legacy and life, there has to be something else for Roman Reigns to accomplish.
There has to be more.
“I don’t want to have the world to go on another thousand years and no one knows who I am,” Reigns said. “They’ll know Michael Jordan. If this world ends and aliens come down 100 years from now or 200 years from now, I want them to see in the written books that this Roman Reigns guy, this Joe guy, he was significant, he was legit, he was heavily influential on his community and the people of Earth. I just want more. I’ll never be content with what I’ve earned or what I’ve been working for.
“Maybe that’s a curse or a bad thing, but it’s just who I am.”