WWE News of the Week: Why fans aren’t connecting with Roman Reigns

WWE continues to encounter problems while trying to persuade audiences that Roman Reigns is the new face of the company.

The issue remains in the storytelling.

Roman Reigns is larger than life, talented, and has grown into a role where he is finally confident on the microphone. His finest moment to date occurred on the Raw after WrestleMania, when he succinctly stated to a rabid crowd, “This is my yard.”

Despite Reigns being able to capture an organic buzz, the WWE returned to his underdog, babyface storyline this past Monday. Reigns was manhandled by Braun Strowman, and the crowd’s reaction completely hijacked the segment as the majority of fans at the Nassau Coliseum in Uniondale, New York loudly celebrated Strowman’s beat down of Reigns.

Reigns is 6-foot-4, over 300 pounds, and constantly written into storylines where he is superhuman in his ability to withstand punishment. He’s far more Superman than Daniel Bryan, and the natural response is, of course, to reject the non-believable storylines.

If Reigns had built off last week’s cockiness, his character would have been trending in a much more realistic direction. Instead, he’ll be back on Raw next week, somehow recovered from the fractured ribs he suffered on Monday, to avenge his beating from Strowman.

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Sami Zayn is another talent with a maddening character arch. Zayn is presented as the plucky underdog desperately seeking an opportunity, but the storyline is too manufactured to build organically.

Daniel Bryan and, to some extent, Zack Ryder were popular because, in addition to their talent, they were legitimate underdogs overlooked by the WWE. Bryan suffered so many indignities that his character was always believable and genuine. Zayn also does not yet have the personality of Bryan, who could win you over in an interview and delivered both humorous and serious promos.

Zayn defeated The Miz on Raw, which was championed as another upset, but the match failed in its job to elevate either competitor up the card. Zayn then made the move to Smackdown Live, and excelled in his match against Baron Corbin and AJ Styles, though most talent opponents tend to have a fantastic match with Styles.

If anyone is a current-day underdog, there may be no better choice than Finn Balor. The popular Balor, who just returned from the injury list, reportedly suffered a concussion from a far-too-stiff blow to the head from Jinder Mahal.

In other news…

• The Superstar Shake-Up was disappointing in its lack of transparency. Why weren’t there interactions between Daniel Bryan and Kurt Angle? Could we have seen the two men in charge of the Raw and Smackdown brands negotiate a trade? The draft from this past summer was much more realistic of a process.

• Was anyone else hoping that Kurt Angle would deliver a German suplex to both Samoa Joe and Seth Rollins during their skirmish on Raw? Angle’s on-camera frustration with the role of GM would be a sublime segue into a return to the ring in a high-profile match at SummerSlam.

• Jonathan Coachman stepped down from his role covering wrestling on ESPN. The Coach received criticism on social media over the timing of his decision to focus on other projects at ESPN, considering the announcement was in the thick of the JBL/Mauro Ranallo scandal. Coachman did, however, create some noteworthy content for ESPN with his weekly interviews, though I know for a fact that there were many at ESPN opposed to any wrestling featured on their airwaves. We’ll see if “The Worldwide Leader” continues to work with WWE.

• Notes from a live showing of last night’s Smackdown Live at the TD Garden in Boston:

— There were three JBL-related chants –“Fire Bradshaw”, “We Want Mauro”, and “Bradshaw Sucks”–during the Uso/American Alpha match, but all three burned out quickly;

— The triple threat to end the show proved, once again, that AJ Styles is the best in the world;

— The loudest reaction of the night went to Shinsuke Nakamura;

— The crowd went silent during 205 Live;

— WWE teased a match between Nakamura and Dolph Ziggler, and that took place after 205 Live to keep fans from leaving.

• When I met with Steve Austin last June for an interview, he gave me an education on pro wrestling. The question Austin continued to repeat to me was, “Who is he?” For instance, he asked me, “Who is The Undertaker? He’s a badass. Who is Bret Hart? He’s the ‘Excellence of Execution’. There is an image, and you get it. You see what I mean?”

This past week on The Steve Austin Show podcast, Austin detailed the problem with Seth Rollins:

“Who is Seth Rollins?” asked Austin. “When you say Seth Rollins, or you say Seth ‘Freakin’ Rollins, I still don’t have a sense of what or who this guy is. That rests on Seth Rollins’ shoulder as an individual to define or create that, as well as the WWE. I still don’t get a sense of what kind of personality he is. He’s not electrifying like The Rock, he’s not anti-authority like Stone Cold, or like The Deadman, so OK, then who is he? Look at another guy who, if I dare say, was a little introverted but obviously had an ego in Bret ‘The Hitman’ Hart. Not a larger-than-life personality, but the genuineness of his character was he was ‘The Hitman’ and he was a badass – the ‘Excellence of Execution,’ the best there is, was, and ever will be. Bret wasn’t an over the top guy, he was a pretty humble and quiet individual outside the ring. In many regards, he was somewhat like Seth – though, in many regards, Bret is an entirely different animal – but there is a case of a guy who was not a showy guy, but rather conservative, and had a highly-defined, world-class gimmick and was a badass worker. Seth needs to work on this.”

• For those keeping track at home, it has been 148 days since The Undertaker appeared on Smackdown this past November and claimed he would be “taking souls and digging holes”. He has yet to return.

• Duane Gill, who is better known to the wrestling world as Gillberg, was heartbroken to see The Undertaker’s last ride at WrestleMania 33:

“To me, it’s the end of an era,” said Gillberg. “‘Taker was the man, so I can’t believe his career is over. Wrestling just won’t be the same knowing that ‘Taker will not return. For me, seeing his career end was a sad, sad day in wrestling. I was impressed at what he could still do at WrestleMania, oh hell yes I was. ‘Taker passed the torch like a true pro. He is the man in and out of the ring – I love the ‘Taker.”

• Impact Wrestling star Moose played for the New England Patriots during his time in the NFL. A current Patriot, Rob Gronkowski, involved himself in the Andre the Giant Battle Royal at WrestleMania 33, and again last night on Smackdown. Moose was asked if Gronk could compete with him if they ever stepped into the ring against one another:

“Like Vince McMahon’s music says, Gronk got no chance!” said Moose.

Moose put together a compelling program with Cody Rhodes in Impact Wrestling, and the former NFL lineman is grateful to work with Rhodes: “Cody is awesome,” added Moose. “He is a pro’s pro. You can definitely see that he is a hard worker with the amount of shows he is doing each week, and his travel schedule is insane.”

Rhodes is also currently working with New Japan Pro Wrestling, and Moose had the chance to wrestle IWGP champion Kazuchika Okada while in Ring of Honor. Moose grew reflective when asked if Rhodes and Okada were similar:

“You can’t really compare Cody to Okada,” said Moose. “They’re two totally different guys. They are both awesome, but Okada is maybe the best in the world.”

• Congratulations are in order for Ring of Honor tag team War Machine, which consists of Raymond Rowe and Warbeard Hanson, who won the IWGP tag team titles this past Saturday at New Japan’s Sakura Genesis show. The pair, which has already put together a solid 144-day run as ROH tag champs in 2016, now have the opportunity to show off their talent as champions in the top company in Japan. Rowe and Hanson are two old-school, physical forces in the ring, but are also extremely versatile for big men. Despite the fact that they do not look like prototypical-chiseled WWE superstars, they are well-defined characters that have redefined the meaning of success in pro wrestling without the machine of the WWE behind them.

• Coming attractions: Bret “The Hitman” Hart will share his memories of The Undertaker next Monday on SI.com.

Conrad Thompson and Bruce Prichard return to the MLW airwaves this Friday at noon for the “Something to Wrestle with Bruce Prichard podcast to dissect and analyze the career of Owen Hart.

“We’re also going to use a lot of excerpts from Bret Hart’s book, and [Owen’s wife] Martha Hart’s book,” said Thompson. “A lot of people consider Owen the most underrated performer of that era, and many in the business think he is the most talented Hart. I’m looking forward to telling his story and being able to do it justice in long-form this Friday.”

Hart was the king of playful backstage pranks, and those ribs will also be an integral part of Friday’s podcast.

“We’ve got a really good rib story that we didn’t tell on our Undertaker episode last week that involves Owen Hart,” said Thompson. “It will also be interesting to hear how Owen’s big break almost didn’t happen. Originally, the whole feud with Bret and Owen was supposed to be another Hart, but Bret campaigned for Owen and Owen got the nod, and his career was never the same. We’ll examine the beginning with the Blue Blazer, we’ll have a little bit of fun with High Energy and Koko B. Ware, and then we’ll talk about when it got a little more serious with he and Bret, and everything that happened around ‘Stone Cold’ Steve Austin’s injury at SummerSlam, which no one has ever heard Bruce’s take on. We’ll cover the life and times of Owen Hart.”

Lucha Underground is on its mid-season break for season three, but seasons one and two have been added to Netflix and the current season is also available on iTunes.

New Japan Pro Wrestling returns to AXS TV this Friday featuring Kenny Omega versus Yoshi-Hashi, as well as the Young Bucks battling the Briscoe Brothers.

Kazuchika Okada and Katsuyori Shibata combined to deliver a 38-minute classic this past weekend at Sakura Genesis. Okada retained his IWGP championship at Ryogoku Sumo Hall in front of 10,000 people, and the match was enhanced even further by the commentary of Kevin Kelly on New Japan World.

“To me, Okada’s best skill is how calm he is when in trouble,” said Kelly. “And he was in a lot of trouble against Shibata. That allows Okada to dig down and execute high-level offense late in long title matches. Shibata can be proud to know that he and Okada sold out Ryogoku and he left the ring under his own power, refusing help.”

Although the show finished on a high note, the night did not end well. Shibata, who still uses the headbutt as part of his offensive arsenal, split his head open during the match and collapsed backstage. New Japan reported Shibata was rushed to the hospital for emergency surgery, though it is still unclear if that is part of the storyline or reality.

“It’s fair to say that Shibata must be open to modifying his offensive style for his own sake,” said Kelly, “but he was incredible in defeat.”

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