Reigns won the 2015 Royal Rumble match - an abomination of calculated protection. It was deceptively clever; by positioning the prehistoric Kane and Big Show as the killer of online darlings, it was thought, optimistically, that even Reigns might receive cheers for putting an end to what felt like a magnified microcosm of Triple H’s 2003-04 “reign of terror”. He didn’t. Even The Rock, in full endorsement mode, was shaken and visibly embarrassed by the en masse rejection.
It didn’t work. The spectre of the far more popular Daniel Bryan haunted the Road to WrestleMania 31, and it mattered little just how perfectly Bryan pitched his pseudo-heel role at Fastlane; articulated in the coarse sentiment of the toxic crowd reaction to Roman’s push, Bryan was so over that you’d have shaken his hand for f*cking your mother.
Roman’s WrestleMania match with Brock Lesnar was a brutal and über-dramatic revelation, in which Roman sold with the work of a complete babyface - not that it mattered. We had already reached a point at which his performances were immaterial. The people had already spoken: Reigns wasn’t their guy. WWE ignored this - and the relentless drive to prove us wrong, despite the stopgap intervention of a briefcase-wielding Seth Rollins, only drove us away.
It was anti-marketing deployed by a man who didn’t need to market Reigns without his trademark antagonism because he had cornered that market. More infuriatingly still, McMahon sensed the sentiment and used it to proceed in the same dead-end direction.
“Anybody but you, Roman,” was Bray Wyatt’s motivation for ridding WWE of its golden child. That never happened, obviously; Reigns, as he nearly always did, won the programme. In a tone-deaf move, he was programmed with Triple H at the end of 2015, purportedly for rejecting the advances of the Authority faction. In reality - real reality, not the by-know completely illogical WWE version of reality - Reigns was the golden boy of the office. Roman fell from his throne and into a gigantic plot hole. The feud was hollow, the blowoff match average - and Reigns defined the cherished Rumble institution for a second successive year.
Reigns wasn’t merely the unwanted Great Hope; his rash-like presence threatened to infect all that was good about WWE.
In 2016, things appeared to change. Gone were the laughably bad Cena-lite Looney Tunes promos, the Monster of the Week matches. Reigns became a less verbose badass wrestling absolutely awesome matches with AJ Styles. It’s strange; those matches were a league beyond Chris Jericho’s ultimately underwhelming series with the Phenomenal One, but Jericho emerged with his darling status intact, and Reigns remained persona non grata.
This was key to understanding the scale and the essence of the problem. Reigns outperformed Jericho - the “carrying” argument holds no weight, with the same common denominator in the opposite corner of the ring - but few were willing to admit it.
Roman is a symptom of the problem, more so than the problem itself; he’s a very athletic worker, with huge presence, able to expertly pace his matches to yield the loudest reactions in the company. The man, since 2016, has excelled. Classic matches; a stealthy shift away from lame promos; the reunion of the Shield: nothing matters, because Reigns is stigmatised as the public enemy.