Is a U.S. Championship run the right fix for Roman Reigns?

If at first you do not succeed, try and try again. And again. And again. And again…

Roman Reigns kicked off a feud with United States Champion Rusev on Raw two weeks ago with a wordless stare-down after the Bulgarian Brute called into question the integrity of American Olympic athletes.

One week later, Reigns interrupted Rusev and Lana’s pompous post-nuptial celebration, made a joke about Rusev’s wedding-night ineptitude, and indirectly caused Lana to go careening face-first into a wedding cake, confirming his plans to challenge for Rusev’s title in the process.

To some, this might indicate that the former WWE World Heavyweight Champion has fallen out of favor since failing a drug test and that he is now destined for a long stint in the mid-card. But having Reigns step into the role of an American defending his country against a nefarious foreign heel and get cake in the face of that heel’s bride in successive weeks are just the latest maneuvers in the ongoing two-year effort to get him over as the company’s prevailing hero.

In terms of creativity, there isn’t much unique about either tactic. Being patriotic and making heels look foolish with slapstick are practices for getting babyfaces over that have been used to great effect for decades.

Only this time, given the decidedly less overwhelmingly hostile crowd responses over the last two weeks, the basics seem to at least be working to some degree for Reigns. And if it works to a greater degree for a longer period of time, the end result will be Reigns re-entering the main event picture sooner than not.

While the resistance to Reigns persists to a large and noticeable degree and is not likely to completely subside any time soon, the vehemence of it all appears to have diminished at least temporarily. If WWE is observant enough to understand what has changed and crafty enough to bend the circumstances to its advantage, it may very well have found the formula it has been seeking for the past two years.

Method and madness

Since The Shield disbanded in June 2014 (and even at times before that), it was made abundantly clear to even the most imperceptive observer that Reigns was earmarked for the top spot once occupied by John Cena.

If the intervening two years have confirmed anything, it is that WWE is not content to merely have Reigns become a fixture in the main event, nor is it even content to position him as the company’s bona fide top star. He has to achieve all of this as a triumphant babyface, and no other course will suffice.

If we accept this as fact, then we can altogether rule out the argument that Reigns turning heel will cure a great deal of what ails him. While history proves that it probably would, reality indicates that it simply will not happen.

Vince McMahon is a man who might change his mind about breakfast three times in the walk from the bedroom to the kitchen, but if he has not yet changed his mind about turning Reigns heel after two years of flailing, then there is no reason to suspect he ever will.

There have been multitudes of interpretations of Reigns’ character since he split off from The Shield, and each tweak in presentation has been aimed at cultivating a desired response. Results have been mixed at best. He has been a sensitive father, a brother-in-arms, a proud Samoan, a silent unstoppable wrecking machine, a hard-luck loser, a wisecracking Cena copy, an underdog, and “The Guy.”

More recently, WWE thought it could get Reigns over as a repentant redemption-seeker by having Seth Rollins chide him on Raw for failing a drug test and deceiving his fans. Amazingly, this approach failed spectacularly.

With each iteration, a chorus of angry voices clamored for the one thing that WWE is still unwilling to do. Still, for all the options WWE was willing to exhaust in getting to its end goal, it remains adamant to leave that particular stone unturned.

That catchphrase — “I’m not a good guy. I’m not a bad guy. I’m the guy” — seemed to target those fans that feel a heel turn might be the only recourse for salvaging Reigns. It sought to remind them that Reigns’ character alignment ultimately does not matter because he would be at the top one way or the other. Perhaps that idea is at the heart of the issue.

Reigns’ flight toward the top never once seemed to change from the split of The Shield onward, even at points where he was kept out of the championship chase to feud with the likes of Big Show or Bray Wyatt.

Perhaps this new approach has proven somewhat successful thus far because it feels less like a lateral move to temporarily delay his inevitable return to the top of the card and more like an actual step backwards. Perhaps it works because Reigns’ spot as “The Guy,” for the first time in two years, does not feel so secure.

If the feud with Rusev proves successful, then it perhaps serves as some proof that the problem is less about Reigns’ tendencies and more about his trajectory. Maybe the key to pressing forward with Reigns has been taking an appropriate step backwards all this time.

Perception and reality

Satisfying wrestling fans without completely turning the show over to their whims is entirely possible so long as a promoter understands what they want and how to manipulate those desires.

WWE proved its comprehension of this concept to some extent with the rise of CM Punk and Daniel Bryan. Even when both men were given their respective moments in the sun, there was never a realistic outcome that would have seen either man become the long-term face of the company, and both played ostensible second fiddles to larger stars even when they were carrying the championship.

Wrestling fans want to believe that promotions provide a level playing field that allows the best performers to rise to the top. They also want a promotion that will listen for their approval and react in accordance.

The WWE audience wants to believe that wrestlers with prodigious skills are not held down at a certain level by a limiting ceiling, and they want to believe that their collective voice can steer the direction of the programming when it is used to speak up on someone’s behalf (or, in the case of Reigns, against them).

It does not matter whether this is a fool’s hope; to satisfy that craving, WWE needs to merely present a convincing illusion of equity and of attentiveness to the audience.

Similar to Punk and Bryan, Dean Ambrose is easier than Reigns for those same fans to get behind because he represents someone who came from humble beginnings and has worked against overwhelming odds for everything he has.

It does not matter if Reigns works every bit as hard as Ambrose or if he has the same passion for what he does; Ambrose being more passionate about wrestling and, consequently, more deserving of success in the business is a perception driven in part by empathy. It is a perception that can be manipulated to work toward WWE’s desired ends, and it is one that WWE appears to be manipulating at this very moment.

Today, Ambrose is the WWE World Heavyweight Champion, and he will defend his championship at SummerSlam against Dolph Ziggler, another wrestler who is believed to have been held back by the company.

For Raw, there is a strong possibility that the WWE Universal Championship could wind up in the hands of Finn Balor. This creates at least the illusion that WWE, promoting a “New Era,” is actually allowing new or underutilized talent to carry its brands in a new direction.

It creates the idea that WWE listens to its hardcore audience and follows up on what it hears. Given the allure of the SummerSlam name, the promise of a Brock Lesnar match, and the diminished value of the company’s titles, offering two wildly different championship matches is not the gamble it might seem to be. But it’s not about actually changing the landscape. It’s about providing the illusion of change.

By facing Rusev for the U.S. Championship and not taking part in one of the main events, it may appear that Reigns’ push is being decelerated. But it is incredibly unlikely that the long-term project of making him the face of WWE has changed.

Putting Reigns in the hunt for a mid-card title creates the idea that he would have to work to get back to where he was, which might just be enough to make him a more empathic character. That he’s working with such a capable heel in Rusev certainly doesn’t hurt.

There seems to be the opinion that a wrestler should carry a mid-card championship effectively before being given a main event push. Such was the case with Bret Hart, Shawn Michaels, Steve Austin, The Rock, and John Cena. Perhaps the resistance to Reigns is driven in part by the belief that he was given a pass and permitted to skip a step required of so many all-time greats.

One has to wonder if Reigns’ fortunes may have turned out differently if, instead of a match against Lesnar for the championship, he had been chosen to be the man to break Rusev’s undefeated streak and win the U.S. Championship at WrestleMania 31 instead of John Cena. Perhaps not, but it is unlikely that Reigns’ road would have been any less rocky than it has been.

Perhaps the best course of action for the time being would be to keep Reigns at a mid-card level through the end of 2016, allowing him to make the U.S. Championship a featured aspect of Raw, and creating the illusion that he is working to earn his way back to a spot that the company is more than willing to keep warm for him.

It is by no means a guaranteed cure for all that ails his character, but if Reigns should beat Rusev for the championship at SummerSlam to a largely positive reaction, WWE should be in no particular rush to fix something that suddenly doesn’t seem broken.