When you have been a wrestling fan for as long as I have, you have lived through more heartbreak and tragedy than a fan of any other entertainment medium can really fathom. For every Tupac Shakur or Kurt Cobain, there is a Mr. Perfect, Randy Savage, Owen Hart, Eddie Guerrero or Chris Benoit. The list of wrestlers lost in my 20+ years of being a fan alone is staggering.
We, as fans, invest in a fantasy world of larger-than-life heroes and villains that put their bodies on the line for us five to six days a week almost the entire year round. It is that investment that unites us in cheers, jeers and chants. It is what draws us to autograph tables, appearances and podcasts. It is why we have shelves full of action figures or display cases full of replica belts. It is the secret handshake of the “too sweet” when we see someone in an nWo or Bullet Club shirt. It is a group of people brought together in a shared belief: we believe in pro-wrestling.
So, when one of our own goes down we feel it.
This past Monday on WWE RAW, Universal Champion Roman Reigns announced that he was vacating his championship and “going home” to battle leukemia, which he has had in remission for the past several years.
As one of the most polarizing characters in the business today, Reigns, real name Joe Anoa’i, has endured one of the most vocal booing campaigns in WWE history. Fans have rebelled against Reigns’ casting as the lead babyface (good guy) on WWE programming for years, feeling that he has been shoved down their throats and taken opportunities that should have gone to other performers. His music is met with a thunderous competition of cheers and boos with a “Let’s go, Roman!” followed by a “Roman sucks!” chant breaking out every time he competes in a match. He has been heckled, booed, mean-tweeted and played a central role in every wrestling pundit’s “Vince doesn’t get it anymore” thesis since emerging from the pack wrestling stable, The Shield.
Whether it was bad writing, miscasting, or just the defiance of young males jealous of Reigns’ popularity with female fans, he has been a lightning rod of discussion for the company while also being its public face and central character. No matter how hard he worked or what kind of matches he put on, the crowd shit all over it.
Until Monday night.
Once the audience smartened up, once the cynicism of a live wrestling crowd conditioned to believe everything is a work (fake) understood what was actually happening, the boos became a standing ovation and “Roman sucks” became “Thank you, Roman”.
Yeah, we are all tired of the stupid punch finish, but Roman Reigns is one of ours.
What makes a moment like the one we shared last night that much more remarkable, and that much more uniquely wrestling, is that the show goes right along. We see the very real emotion on the faces of the RAW announce team and the rest of The Shield, and then carry right along with the story. Pro wrestling is, as Mick Foley once said, the only “sport” where if a player goes down on the field, “they keep on playing the game around him”.
And, boy, did they play the game well last night.
It started with a promo by Brock Lesnar’s advocate, Paul Heyman, the best speaker in wrestling and perhaps in all of speaking, period. Heyman delivered a promo that began as a sincere and heartfelt reaction to what had occurred and then seamlessly transitioned into an introduction to the re-worked main event for WWE Crown Jewel. Heyman took reality, molded it and turned it back into wrestling.
But the pro-wrasslin’ magic didn’t end there.
At the end of the night, in an emotionally charged main event, Dean Ambrose and Seth Rollins, the remaining two-thirds of The Shield competed for and won the WWE tag team championships. They got the count. The crowd erupted. The story could have ended there for one night, with a victory by Reigns’ closest friends, for a feel-good go-home moment.
Instead, Ambrose turned on Rollins, dropping him with the Dirty Deeds, instantly becoming the most hated guy in the company.
The crowd was silent, the announcers were silent… it was freaking amazing.
All the emotional equity that WWE had amassed throughout the night, all the emotion that was brewing beneath the surface, exploded in one of the best heel turns in recent memory. Ambrose was perfect, Rollins sold his ass off, and the show went off the air in stunned silence.
Roman Reigns announcing his hiatus from WWE was the real connection to the audience that years of booking couldn’t manufacture. In that short speech, he became what he always was: one of our own. He absorbed our boos and jeers and the physical toll of the WWE grind so we could be entertained. Then, even on the way out, he provided the backdrop for an incredible moment, a new storyline and a fresh beginning for two amazing performers that also happen to be his closest friends.
There is no business like the wrasslin’ business and no fanbase like the one that supports it. It’s near impossible to explain, harder still to grasp if you don’t get it, but in moments where reality meets wrestling, it’s as real as it gets.