A lot has happened in the WWE in 2015 - Wrestlemania 31 became the highest grossing event in the companies history; the legendary Sting’s career hangs in the balance after a neck injury; an injury also cut short Seth Rollins’ 7 month reign as World Heavyweight Champion. The Divas division went from strength to strength at the hands of competitors like Paige, Nikki Bella and Charlotte; The Undertaker put in more than one day at the office with a very physical feud with Brock Lesnar and one with the Wyatt family. We saw the return of the Dudley Boyz. We witnessed Kevin Owens step up from the developmental organisation of NXT to become one of the most interesting heels on the main roster today and his three matches with John Cena which will surely go down as the best of the year.
But despite all of this action, all these stories and all of these twists and turns, 2015 was really about one man and his story…….Roman Reigns.
After The Shield fell apart in 2014, Reigns looked to singles competition and with a record setting performance in the Royal Rumble, he was clearly being pushed as a main event player. A win at the Royal Rumble the following year secured his spot on the grandest stage of them all to face the champion, Brock Lesnar. But the WWE fans are a fickle bunch. As the bell signalled the end of the Royal Rumble and Roman’s victory, the crowd made clear their disapproval. Even the presence of The Rock holding Roman’s hand aloft couldn’t get the fans on side.
Why was this happening? Well first off, it isn’t anything new. Look back to the Attitude Era and that whole period was built on the fans responding more to the edgier, bad guy characters than they were to the babyfaces. Stone Cold Steve Austin was the bad guy and they cheered him. Rocky Maivia was all smiles clean wins and the crowd hated him. Myself, I’m quite traditional as a fan. I like to be led by the stories I’m told by the company and I root for the good guys. Triple H was one of my favourite characters in the Attitude Era, but he was still the biggest heel in the company, and so I didn’t want him to win. And today, I think Bray Wyatt is probably the best character on the roster, but he’s a bad guy, so I’ll be booing from the sofa at the same time as loving everything he does.
Most wrestling fans are like this, I think. Sure there’ll be a bunch of them who just like to hate and do the exact opposite of what is expected/hoped of them by the industry, but for the most part, the fans like to be taken on a journey. But here’s the thing - the fans want the superstar getting the push, the guy at the top, to be a guy they’ve chosen. The wrestler they have decided to get behind, the one they believe deserves it. The boos that greeted Roman Reigns, I believe, came from a feeling that he was being cast into the limelight by the company too soon, that he hadn’t earned it. The fans hadn’t chosen him. It was artificial. Couple that with the general expectation that fan favourite Daniel Bryan would get that top spot and instead got eliminated from the Rumble early on, and you have a hotbed of derision towards the unsuspecting Reigns.
So what could the WWE creative team do? They could change everything, put the belt on Daniel Bryan and give the fans what they wanted. Or they could stick to their guns and continue down this road with Roman Reigns.
In the end, they’ve combined the two and in the process have perhaps created a year-long storyline that will go down as one of the best in the company’s history.
The WWE believes in Roman Reigns and why wouldn’t they? Look at him for crying out loud. Sure his mic skills need developing, but that will come. He puts on great, physical matches and he looks the business. And so the WWE chose to stick to their plan of putting Reigns on top, but they made him earn it in the eyes of the crowd and at the same time developing him as a character.
It began at Fastlane, the first pay-per-view after the Royal Rumble and Reigns found himself having to defend his spot at Wrestlemania against Daniel Bryan. Having Reigns win this was a brave move on the company’s part but win he did. It was a nice twist too as the crowd surely expected to be given what they were clamouring for. Instead they got Reigns and Lesnar in the main event at Wrestlemania.
Now the company had to find a way to further the development of Roman’s story and protect the unstoppable aura they had generated around Lesnar. And so Seth Rollins put the fly in the ointment and stole the title from both men with a well-timed cashing in of his Money-In-The-Bank contract.
A collision course between Reigns and Rollins looked likely, but first Roman had to go through the Big Show in a Last Man Standing Match at Extreme Rules before getting his shot at the Payback pay-per-view. It would be a title shot he would lose to the cheating ways of Seth Rollins.
Money in the Bank was his next chance, but with his fingers just inches from grabbing the briefcase that would secure him a title shot, he was toppled from the ladder by Bray Wyatt who proclaimed in the weeks that followed that when it came to winning the title, he would allow “anyone but you, Roman. Anyone but you.”
The feud with Wyatt raged for a further 3 months until finally culminating in a terrific Hell in a Cell match that saw Reigns come out on top and set his sights once again on the world title. A win in a fatal-four-way number one contenders match on Raw secured him the title shot, but it was then that Rollins had to vacate the title due to the injury sustained on tour in Ireland.
Storyline-wise this only added to the adversity that the company were piling on Reigns as a tournament was set up for the vacant belt. Given the opportunity for a free pass to the final by Triple H, Reigns declined, preferring to earn his spot all over again.
After beating the Big Show, Cesaro and Alberto Del Rio, Roman finally won the title after defeating Dean Ambrose in the final at Survivor Series. It would be short-lived. With ticker tape streaming from the rafters, Sheamus took advantage of an altercation between Reigns and Triple H to cash in his Money in the Bank contract and screw Reigns out of his title with a well-timed boot to the face.
Roman Reigns was the champion for 5 minutes 15 seconds.
Sheamus - aided by his “League of Nations” compatriots, Rusev and Del Rio - retained the title in a tremendous TLC match against Reigns in December. In what has to be one of the best moments of the year, Reigns snapped post-match, attacking the League of Nations and the boss Triple H - putting him through the announce table. Fueled by a year of frustration, back-stabbing and near misses, Reigns was a seething ball of rage and the crowd lapped it up.
The next night on Monday Night Raw, Mr. McMahon granted Reigns a title rematch against Sheamus, with the added stipulation that if Reigns lost, he would be out of a job. Fighting off McMahon, Del Rio and Rusev, Reigns defeated Sheamus and captured the WWE World Heavyweight Championship for the second time.
And so culminated a year of great story-telling and the validation of a character in Roman Reigns. Sure there are a few divisive voices still out there, but winning more and more of the crowd over with every appearance, putting in some of the best performances in some of the best matches of the year, Roman Reigns has proven that Vince McMahon’s faith in him was well placed. However long this second title run lasts, Roman belongs at the top.