About 18 hours before the public was made aware of Roman Reigns’ WWE Talent Wellness Policy violation, a Raw audience in Phoenix, Arizona serenaded him with a rather questionable chant: “You Can’t Wrestle”.
Those pejorative words are entirely subjective, and a bit ironic coming from viewers that presumably don’t share the work ethic of the performer they’re taunting. There are critics of Reigns’ super-push and his stoic, wooden mannerisms that would concede his ability to hang with better-skilled performers in marquee matches without looking out of place. Really, Reigns is no different from the ilk of Randy Orton, in that he’s a routine performer equipped with the timing and signature moveset to produce a paint-by-numbers, but wholly well-executed, main event.
In terms of working the “WWE main event style”, Reigns does alright for himself. Hulk Hogan, The Ultimate Warrior, and Sting weren’t the greatest ‘workers’ in history, but they could justify their main event positions in matches with better wrestlers. Hogan vs. Savage? Warrior vs. Savage? Sting vs. Flair? If it takes two to tango, then they weren’t just necessarily carry-jobs by a skilled ring general. Same applies to Reigns, who has held his own with the likes of AJ Styles, Seth Rollins, Dean Ambrose, and Daniel Bryan.
But times change.
Those eight-year-olds in the Hulk Rules t-shirts and Sting grease paint are a quarter-century older, and their tastes have matured. They no longer crave superheroes. Wrestling fans in their 30s today are long past the point of needing a Cena-esque do-gooder that will predictably thwart all forms of evil. The Hulkamaniacs and little Stingers of the late-80s that hang on today as the discriminating ‘smart marks’ are a bit of an anomaly.
Wrestling has always been a product for children foremost, even in the Attitude Era—when action figures and foam championship belts were still available in toy stores. Sure, adults can still enjoy wrestling for epic storytelling and quirky characters, but there are louder groans than ever when the spotlight isn’t shone on something they particularly enjoy. Characters like Ryback and Sheamus as babyfaces, and certainly Reigns today, are of the powerhouse Hogan and Warrior mold and were marketed toward elementary school boys that run around shooting off NERF projectiles and popping wheelies on their bikes. That is, when they’re not busy disregarding the “don’t try this at home” warning by play-wrestling with their buddies, re-enacting what they see on their TV just as all of us did as kids.
Reigns’ first crime was looking like somebody Vince McMahon would drool over. It makes sense to put the WWE World Heavyweight Championship on somebody that looks like a main eventer, so long as they can justify the part with their work when necessary. Nobody would ever accuse Reigns of being lazy or unathletic, but they would accuse him of not being what he most certainly isn’t: an indy darling.
The “You Can’t Wrestle” chant at Reigns is as much an accurate statement as it would be at Rollins or Kevin Owens or Cesaro, but Reigns lacks their pedigree. The more savvy today’s older fans get, the more they balk at the idea of a wrestler that was likely hired for his look getting the nod over somebody that conquered the independent scene with a transcendent body of work. It’s a weird sort of avatar’ed parallel where “the office” is represented by a strapping young man with an impressive musculature and Greek God good looks, while the diehard, streamer-throwing fanbase backs the performers they knew in their formative years, and watched evolve to the point where even superficial-minded WWE came calling.
In the fallout of The Shield split, Rollins became the conniving Triple H protege, while Dean Ambrose further hashed out the lovably-malevolent elements of his own character. Reigns, meanwhile, was still Shield-era Reigns, only without a batting order to hit clean-up in. The viewers that have developed pattern-recognition through years of relentless fandom figured that Reigns was going to get the rocket-push, for all of the same reasons that McMahon threw his saddle onto ‘hosses’ of sports entertainment past. When Reigns stumbled out of the blocks with poor recitation of the most anemic action-star dialogue that McMahon has ever hammered out, there was almost no turning back.
Reigns’ first crime was looking like somebody Vince McMahon would drool over.
Daniel Bryan at the time was the biggest star in the company, overwhelmingly cheered by fans that saw him as a superhero, even with his lithe body and unimposing height. Sami Zayn and Neville were tearing up NXT, a show that was on its way to becoming the WWE Network’s centerpiece program in the same timeframe that Reigns was being regrettably positioned as an unconvincing stand-in for his A-lister cousin. Fans were finding it difficult to boo Rollins unless his character did something truly nefarious, because they were enamored with how hard he worked, forging a hybrid of Shawn Michaels’ athleticism, CM Punk’s modern-indy work ethic, and Edge’s unvarnished villainy. Early in 2014, fans in Pittsburgh booed John Cena, Randy Orton, and Batista, all by now relics of the 2002 Ohio Valley Migration, out of the building, swiftly rejecting past stars that received sustained pushes in part due to their look. Reigns was walking that same path, and weary fans recognized the pattern.
“Not this again,” they thought.
“You Can’t Wrestle” is shorthand for “you can’t wrestle at a level that we consider to be evolutionary, cutting edge, and therefore acceptable, and we feel you can only have good matches when a world-class worker holds your hand and walks you through it.” Right or wrong, that’s how vocal dissenters feel about Reigns. The bar is raised so high today through this work that isn’t traditionally part of that “WWE main event style”, and thus nothing Reigns does is particularly exotic to those fans. Not only is he not cut a break for his mode of work, but those vociferous fans have caught on to the breaks he’s afforded.
At SummerSlam last year, when Reigns played dead at ringside during a Tag Team match, which was the obvious set-up for him to spring back to life and get the hot tag, Brooklyn fans roared with a chant of, “Roman’s Sleeping”, unashamedly lifting the curtain on a tactical breather . That didn’t stop the company from giving Reigns a half-hour lunch break during this year’s Royal Rumble match, something many fans were quick to point out, and it only emboldens the hate against Roman. Forget not being able to ‘wrestle’ at a certain level—if he lacks the endurance to do what other wrestlers have done in the past, then what’s so special about him?
Those chants are going to be mere child’s play to whatever awaits Reigns when he returns from his 30-day suspension. Any ridicule against Reigns before could have potentially been downplayed as envy toward his success or his rugged looks, but now the perception is that he’s a cheater. Granted, he could just have easily taken an over-the-counter supplement that contained a banned substance such as a masking agent, but we’ll never know for sure. Maybe he was knowingly breaking the rules, and maybe not. But perception is reality, and judging by the number of memes and jokes that put the cackles against Reigns on full volume, this has the potential to be scarring.
You just know there are going to be chants.
“You’re A Cheater”
It’s been 25 years since Hulk Hogan destroyed his credibility by lying about his own steroid use on The Arsenio Hall Show, and Hulk was a beloved household name that sold out venues across the globe. The house shows headlined by Reigns in A-towns barely outdraw cards in B-towns with Ambrose on top, and that’s if they outdraw them at all. While the likes of Orton, Jeff Hardy, Kurt Angle, Rey Mysterio, and others have failed tests (with Hardy and Angle also running into legal issues in regards to their problems), none of them are as polarizing as Reigns, not even Orton. None of them draw the constant vitriol on social media and message boards that Reigns the performer does. The Wellness failure is just going to be more ammo used by disillusioned viewers against Reigns, even if those viewers weren’t as willing to criticize other, perhaps more reputable, violators in the past.
We’ve seen how McMahon’s faith in Reigns has run bafflingly deep, how he’s been so willing to move heaven and earth to position Reigns as his top dog in spite of fan resistance and falling numbers. The clean pinfall loss to Rollins at Money in the Bank came approximately 24 hours after WWE learned of Reigns’ test results. That would indicate a loss of faith in their chosen star, but his placement in the Battleground Triple Threat match, three days after his suspension ends, goes contra to that.
Whatever McMahon’s future plans are for Reigns in light of the story breaking, the scorn against Reigns by an already-virulent fanbase is only going to intensify. There’s a palpable irony in ESPN, among other media outlets, reporting on Reigns’ suspension when the WWE/ESPN relationship was borne out of McMahon’s desire to purchase positive media coverage for his conglomerate. Reigns is suddenly wrestling’s Barry Bonds or Alex Rodriguez, and he’s likely going to be forever scandalously marked, even if what he did wasn’t really all that bad.
The “You Can’t Wrestle” chant is an unfavorable ruling in the court of public opinion, but with WWE telling the world that Roman Reigns committed a cardinal sin, they’re begrudgingly giving their audience permission to continue their hostile dislike unabated. Now there’s concrete evidence to them that Reigns shouldn’t be “The Guy”.