A year ago following Royal Rumble Abortion Mark One, Batista was receiving the Joan of Arc treatment in his clumsily-designed victory. Between that, Daniel Bryan’s utter absence from the Rumble match itself, and CM Punk’s startling walk-out from WWE, it seemed as though a star was born out of the wreckage of a gimmick match gone bust.
Up until Reigns regretfully served up ipecac-laced coffee to the McMahons this summer, he’d cultivated a Goldbergian image of muted monster, one that can break ribs with a charging tackle, or collapse you with a leaping punch, his mane of hair whipping like Predator dreadlocks.
Much like Goldberg, Reigns’ appeal was twofold. There’s that force of nature element already mentioned, and then there’s the aura of mystery surrounding them. Goldberg barely spoke. The only sentences he seemed to speak once upon a time were merely sentences in the academic sense; they were more or less grunts that took on an extra syllable.
Same with Reigns. While Dean Ambrose delivered his manic soliloquies, followed by Seth Rollins delivering hard-boiled dialogue with a raspy drawl, Reigns would merely punctuate the sentence with a chilling thud, his expression barely changing as he would say all while saying very little.
The dynamic worked, because all we knew about Reigns, character-wise, was that he was a scary guy that indiscriminately hurt people in some grasp at the vague idea of justice. When Goldberg was notching off that undefeated streak, it was all ‘arrive, kill, leave’. Same with Reigns. And that’s how we like our monsters: inhuman. There seems to be little chance that a wrestler can tightrope the pencil-thin line between wrecking machine, and articulate everyman. Mark Ruffalo’s price-tag for playing The Hulk in WWE would be astronomical.
If you’re going to humanize the monster, you run the risk of killing off the mystique. To this day, exasperated fans will bring up Goldberg’s early foray into WWE where a twitchy Goldust placed his silky wig upon the monster’s head, and Goldberg simply smiled, rather than doing what the old Goldberg would do, which is rip Goldust’s head off, and place it on a stake like Colonel Kurtz.
We all knew something was up when Reigns, post-hernia surgery, took part in satellite videos to assure everyone of his imminent return. When it became apparent that Reigns’ line-reading was less lively than your phone company’s automated menu, the aura cracked and snapped. Reigns was no longer the icy killer; now he was Frankenstein’s mumbling monster trying to flirt with the manufactured Bride.
Since no other wrestler received so much airtime while injured (save for Triple H’s “Beautiful Day” videos thirteen years back), the horror became apparent: THIS GUY is on the fast track to going to WrestleMania, and these are the promos we’re going to be hearing along the way.
If Reigns had his larynx crushed in a tragic dune buggy accident instead of suffering an incarcerated hernia, he doesn’t get booed so caustically at Sunday’s Rumble. If you can’t talk, you don’t have to take Vince McMahon’s hack-work scripts and then try to succeed with them. Granted, Vince could just as easily have had Reigns communicate through piano playing like Holly Hunter, since a film released in 1993 is on-par with McMahon’s pop culture awareness (see ‘Is, Whoomp There It’ from the Rumble).
The awful satellite chats gave way to in-arena script-recital, featuring such anti-classics as “Sufferin’ succotash” and a Jack and the Beanstalk monologue that was roughly the length of a Tarantino director’s cut. That’s probably the biggest reason Reigns was booed out of Philadelphia. If Daniel Bryan doesn’t win, that sucks, but had Damien Mizdow, Dean Ambrose, or Dolph Ziggler won, the sting would have been lessened considerably. All three are also underdogs championed by the dedicated viewer, so no booing would have been necessary.
Reigns, meanwhile, through his promos has crystallized into the obvious chosen one of a regime that constantly clashes with fan sensibility, and lost that killer’s edge that made him the last hope against Batista one year ago. It’s akin to being neutered. Bryan, Ambrose, and Ziggler all have an edge about them to some degree: Bryan’s remarkably human, Ambrose is masterfully spastic, and Ziggler’s sure to leave veiled comments about what a soulless hellhole WWE is on his Twitter, so you can’t really accuse any of being corporate lapdogs. Reigns bellowing “BA-LEE DAT” with all of the rigidness of a rusty crowbar while cribbing Merrie Melodies for promo fodder is the antithesis of that.
Then something happened Monday. With Raw officially snowed out, WWE made use of their studios for in-house interviews, including one with Reigns that was shockingly authentic. Reigns spoke about his family ties, and touched on the negative crowd reaction. That last point was way too close to the smiley Cena-esque concept of, “They can cheer or boo, they paid their ticket and I respect them all” patter, but it sure as hell beats him saying something like, “Jack be nimble, Jack be quick, Jack won the Rumble, using his mighty fist.”
This won’t end the Reigns hate overnight, but it’s a move in the right direction. Which begs the question: if WWE knows how to make their wrestlers look good on TV, why does it take a snow day for them to actually put these steps into motion?