Last night, Roman Reigns defeated The Undertaker in what, by all appearance, looks like it was The Undertaker’s last match. Reigns, a controversial figure in pro wrestling, has received a negative response from fans since being obviously chosen by WWE management to be the company’s top star at a time that many fans viewed him as not ready preferred other choices, like fan favorite (but soon to be retired due to career-ending injuries) Daniel Bryan. While Reigns was admittedly inexperienced when his big push began in 2015, his skills on the microphone and in the ring have improved dramatically, which all but his most hardcore critics will admit. But a constant, and the primary source of fan animosity, has been WWE’s terrible creative direction for his character over the last two years.
Though Reigns is dominant in both appearance and in-ring style, he’s often jarringly written to be the underdog in feuds with opponents, and rarely loses, especially cleanly, save a short period when he was being punished for failing a banned substance test and violating WWE’s wellness policy.
Reigns’ match with The Undertaker at Wrestlemania 33 was the perfect example of Reigns’ current situation. While reviews of the match online are mixed to negative, it excelled by most the important measurement of success in a wrestling match: it told a great story. Reigns entered the stadium to a chorus of boos, and walked to the ring with a focused sneer on his face like a confident, even cocky thoroughbred on his way to put an end to the career of one of the greatest wrestlers of all time, with no remorse. The Undertaker, long past his prime and diminished in physical capabilities, still looked massive next to Reigns, and early dominance in the match by The Undertaker showed that there was still fight left in the aging legend. But as the match went on, Reigns’ superior conditioning and prime athleticism were obviously too much for Undertaker.
— WWE WrestleMania (@WrestleMania) April 3, 2017
Some critics complained that Reigns looked like a bully, beating up on an old man who couldn’t defend himself by the end of the match, hitting flying Superman punch after Superman punch and spear after spear on a dazed and reeling Undertaker, but that was what made the story of the match so good. Unlike fondly remembered recent retirement matches, like when Shawn Michaels retired Ric Flair, or when The Undertaker retired Michaels, Reigns showed no sympathy, no regret, when he it came time to deliver the killing blow, running the ropes and breezing past a bewildered Undertaker who spun helplessly before Reigns speared him one last time and pinned him. Reigns left the ring in victory without shedding a tear, and disappeared quickly. What followed was a ceremonial laying down of his ring gear by The Undertaker as the crowd cheered in appreciation for his 30+ year career.
Aside from a few missteps, The Undertaker’s physical deterioration worked in favor of the match. There was no trademark swan dive over the top rope onto his opponent at ringside. The Undertaker didn’t walk the ropes like an acrobat. When he delivered his Last Ride powerbomb, in which The Undertaker traditionally hoists his opponent far above his head in a feat of superhuman strength, he was unable to get Reigns above his shoulders. The only truly glaring flaw came when the pair were unable to successfully execute a reversal that would see Reigns use Undertaker’s own move, the Tombstone piledriver, against him.
— WWE Universe (@WWEUniverse) April 3, 2017
The biggest problem with the match, and the one which most perfectly exemplifies why WWE fails to properly utilize Reigns’, was that WWE muted the crowd after Reigns won, preventing viewers from hearing the massive showering of boos that Reigns rightfully earned, in a good way, for his performance. WWE likes to say that it doesn’t matter whether their performers get a positive or negative reaction, as long as they get a reaction. Roman Reigns gets a louder reaction than almost anyone else on the roster, they say. But when it matters most, WWE does its absolute best to stifle, deny, or denigrate that reaction, which only serves to commit pro wrestling’s most unforgivable sin: breaking immersion.
Though Roman Reigns has worked hard to improve on his natural abilities and become a great pro wrestler, and though he gets a reaction from the crowd that any all-time classic “heel” would kill for, WWE shows time and again by their attempts to cover it up that, no matter what they may say publicly, he’s not getting the kind of reaction they want. And thanks solely to WWE’s ponderous creative decisions, by no fault of his own, it is impossible for Roman Reigns to get the kind of reaction they want. Despite this predicament, Reigns has been tasked with carrying the company on his shoulders for the foreseeable future as the torch of the The Undertaker has been passed to him on the grandest stage of them all.
Imagine how that must feel. Probably, a lot like this:
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