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It was always so simple. For years, any backseat booker you talked to about Roman Reigns would tell you that WWE needed to turn him heel. The endless mission to get Reigns over, something that had gone from an optimistic plan to push someone with potential to an eternal war between Vince McMahon and the fans who never accepted Reigns as the new face of the company, only had one logical solution: turn Roman Reigns heel, change his character and hope that one day he can turn back and become the big babyface the company imagined he would be.
After more than a half-decade of waiting, the turn finally came when Reigns returned to WWE last month and won the Universal Championship. His turn was solidified when he aligned himself with Paul Heyman and then destroyed his babyface cousin and long time friend Jey Uso in a memorable main event at Clash of Champions. The work so far has been spectacular, Reigns has never been more interesting to wrestling fans and the future of his career as a heel in WWE is far more intriguing than just watching Reigns face another bad guy with WWE crossing their fingers and praying that THIS time it is going to work.
McMahon's stubbornness in refusing to turn Reigns heel ended up creating a situation for Reigns' heel turn to eventually become the most important storyline in the company. The longer McMahon resisted turning Reigns heel, the more intriguing the eventual turn became. This is similar to the situation with John Cena earlier in the decade, only fans never got that heel run, which probably would have done massive business and undisputedly been the biggest angle WWE did during the 2010s.
Despite the best wishes of a lot of fans, Reigns is probably the biggest active star on WWE's roster. With the possible exception of Randy Orton, who has the star power of being a big name from a previous generation, nobody on the roster has main evented more big shows, gotten more chances to get over, or been marketed as a major WWE star. Other talent may have been better suited to the role, but Vince chose Roman, so almost by default, Reigns became the most important star in the company.
So Reigns' heel turn became almost a mythical idea, the clear solution for all of WWE's problems. That isn't really true, but if you were to survey lapsed fans about a creative idea that would get them back interested in the product "Roman Reigns turning heel" would undoubtedly be a common response.
However, you can't just do the heel turn, it has to be done well. So far, the heel turn has been executed perfectly. Reigns return at SummerSlam was good and his subsequent feud with Jey Uso was great. Moving forward there is plenty of time for WWE to blow it with Reigns, I can just see an extended feud with The Field taking some of the momentum away from him, but for now, the heel turn has been booked pretty much perfectly, and it is working. Fans are more optimistic about WWE right now than they have probably been since the pandemic started, even though large parts of RAW and SmackDown are still almost unwatchable.
One reason the heel turn has worked so well was that as a babyface, Reigns had grown incredibly stale, to the point that any change would be a breath of fresh air. It is remarkable that over the years WWE tried so many different things to try and get Reigns over as a babyface, and yet his character was never altered. For more than six years, Reigns kept the same look, kept the same music, talked exactly the same, and was portrayed in the same light no matter what feud he was in.
WWE at times tried to build Reigns as the second coming of The Rock, then tried to build him up as the common man fighting against the evil McMahon's, then tried to have him grab the mantle from the biggest legend in the company in The Undertaker by beating him at WrestleMania, then tried to have John Cena almost literally pass the torch to him, then tried to have him come across as the savior for WWE fans who hated Brock Lesnar never appearing on the show. That entire time, Reigns appeared to be basically the same character, just tossed into a different storyline each year. The fans always saw through it as increasingly desperate attempts to get them to cheer for Reigns, and the harder WWE pushed with that same formula, the more fans began to resent it.
With his heel turn, Reigns has completely changed. Not only is he a heel, he has a different look, ditching the vest which badly needed to go, new music, and a new act with Heyman in the picture, and WWE fans are flocking to that like a starving man to a filet mignon. This is no longer WWE trying to trick fans into buying that the same old Roman Reigns should be their favorite wrestler; by allowing Reigns' character to evolve, they have created a more organic avenue for fans to become interested in him and to (hopefully) draw money.
The heel turn so far has been a success, but will it work long term? Will Reigns gain so much momentum as a heel that when he eventually turns babyface again, he will be that superstar, the true heir-apparent to John Cena, that the company desperately wants? I think there are a number of factors in play that will make that outcome very difficult.
The first factor is that WWE's ability to develop characters and put them in a position to succeed has been awful over the past several years. The fact that it took them years to finally allow Reigns to be a heel is evidence of that. With Heyman likely seeing a prominent role within the creative aspect of Reigns' run as heel, he stands a better chance than most, but long term character building has been something WWE has been very, very bad at. It's great that things are off to such a promising start, but we'll have to see where Reigns is in six months.
Another factor is that I personally have never thought Reigns was talented enough to be the face of the company. I didn't think he was bad, but my stance has always been that to be the face of WWE, you have to be a transcendent talent and Reigns just never looked like that to me. He didn't have the charisma, he wasn't a good enough talker and he didn't connect with the audience in a spectacular way. To compare him to Cena; Cena is that transcendent talent; he was that gifted of a talker, he was able to work a crowd perfectly, he was able to go out in front of 12,000 people that wanted to hate him, but ended up working them into his matches and promos.
It is possible that Reigns is that talented, but he was never put in a proper position for that talent to be showcased, and now with this new character, he will be able to show that he is that talented. I hope that is the case, but I'm pretty skeptical about it. Reigns has delivered so far, but he also had a strong storyline with Jey Uso to get him started. What happens if he has a bad storyline? What happens if he gets stuck in a three-month angle with The Fiend doing magic tricks? Will he have the charisma and presence to keep fans invested, even if the material is terrible? That will be the sign of a true superstar, someone that can take garbage and make it entertaining.
Lastly, when it does become time for Reigns to turn babyface, there will probably still be some residual effects from his six year odyssey to be the face of the company that will come back to haunt him. I'm sure that if he turns babyface, there will be a segment of the fanbase that previously were lukewarm on him but will now be big supporters. I'm also confident that there will still be some fans who will still see WWE as trying to shove Reigns down their throats and still reject him, even if he was a really good heel for a while.
I mentioned that a heel Roman Reigns could open up a more organic avenue for him to become a great babyface once again, but I wonder if that is actually even possible. WWE spent so long trying to sell Reigns to the fans, and fans kept rejecting him, that no matter how good of a heel Reigns is, there will always be that resentment from the fans and they will never get behind him to the point that he could drive business upwards the way WWE envisions. If Reigns turns babyface and he is in the main event of WrestleMania against Brock Lesnar, Braun Strowman, Randy Orton, or whoever, I don't know if fans are going to be pining to see him win the world title again and be a super-babyface.
Perhaps the best path forward for WWE is to let Reigns remain a heel for the foreseeable future, and scrap trying to turn him into a babyface. Fans are more interested in him now as a heel and I bet if you did a favorability poll for Reigns, it would probably be the highest rating for him since he debuted with The Shield. Over the long term I still think there are a lot of questions as Reigns' viability to be the kind of difference maker WWE needs in order to turn business around, but for now, he remains one of the key highlights of WWE programming.
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