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Reigns and Cena: Alpha. Fail.



It isn’t much of a secret that any fan over the age of 10 loves when professional wrestling blurs the line between fiction and reality. The “shoot promo” is one of the hallmarks of the internet age, Punk’s pipe-bomb being the most famous example. But there is a world of difference between Punk’s evisceration of business-as-usual and John Cena’s decimation of Roman Reigns on this week’s episode of Monday Night Raw. Punk’s promo was uncomfortable because he was, by and large, speaking truth to power. Punk had a point, and that point advanced the larger narrative.

What, exactly, was the point of Cena’s deliberate emasculation of Roman Reigns?

There’s no question that last night was one of the most entertaining episodes of Raw we’ve seen in a long time. But what did Cena’s “mic drop” accomplish, and where does it leave the story 30 days out from No Mercy? Was the point to simply drum up more interest in the PPV? Drive subscriptions to the network? To make the half of the crowd that was chanting “Cena sucks!” love Cena again? Was it to light a proverbial fire under Roman Reigns? Or was it a last chance for Reigns to take the ball and run with it—to actually be the top dog as opposed to being named the top dog?

Any way you look at it, it was completely unfair to Reigns.

Like most of you reading this, I’m not a fan of Roman Reigns being force-fed to WWE fans. I prefer the illusion of an organic rise to the top (or in the case of Daniel Bryan, a true grassroots movement). But I’ve never considered Roman Reigns a bad wrestler. Everything I’ve seen over the last several years indicates that Roman Reigns is the best kind of worker—the kind that elevates whomever he’s facing on any given night. He is, without a doubt, top talent and deserving of his spot. Whether he earned it or it was given to him is, at this point, immaterial.

So why send him out there to fail?

John Cena is a master of the wrestling promo. His ability to freestyle on the mic is a product of his lifelong love affair with hip-hop. He loves language, cadence and working a crowd. He’s quick on his feet and requires little or no coaching or prompting to deliver a forceful message. Give him the bullet points and he’s good to go.  In Becky Lynch terms, Cena is straight fire on the mic.

Roman Reigns is not. But does he need to be?

A large part of Cena’s success, in the latter portion of his career, is due to the trust Vince McMahon has in him. Cena is trusted to go out there and simply speak from the heart. Reigns? He sounds like he’s reciting lines because he’s reciting lines. That doesn’t make him a bad wrestler. It makes him a bad actor. And here is where my problem with last night really begins to manifest.  

Reigns is a terrible actor, so he can’t be expected to go out there and deliver lines. On the other side of the coin, he isn’t trusted to simply go out there and be Roman Reigns, in large part because instead of having the latitude to figure out who Roman Reigns is, he’s being told who he needs to be. It’s an impossible spot.

Nearly every wrestler with a podcast—from Austin to Konnan to Cyrus and Storm—has stated ad nauseam that the best “characters” are those that are simply the real guy amplified. Let Roman Reigns be that guy. You want to talk about hustle, loyalty and respect? Reigns has been a good soldier throughout this grand experiment. He’s worked hard—extremely hard, and often to choruses of boos—to improve himself in the ring, and his hard work has paid dividends.  You can’t claim to know anything about professional wrestling and claim that Reigns doesn’t hustle.

What about loyalty? Respect? By all accounts, Reigns’ loyalty is unimpeachable and his respect for the business is unmatched. He’s the undisputed leader of that Raw locker room, and is almost unanimously lauded by his peers.  His handling of his own failed drug test—which involved a mea culpa delivered to the entire locker room—and the rumors of his handling of locker room discord (most recently in the form of Enzo Amore’s implosion-in-progress) speak to a true love for both the work he’s doing and the people he’s working with.  That’s white-meat babyface stuff writ large. Those are the hallmarks of a top guy, and a World Champion. It’s the 21st Century “say your prayers and eat your vitamins.”

Let him build off that.  Stop making him say “this is my yard” every ten seconds. Show, don’t tell. Start showing other wrestlers—the locker room, not opponents—looking up to Reigns, treating him like a leader. Show him returning that respect, show him being grateful.  And then show him spearing people to death, Superman-punching and oooahhh-ing. If the next Raw opened with Reigns walking around backstage with people telling him to keep his head up, telling him they’re rooting for him at No Mercy, etc., this might be one of the best stories WWE has ever told.  If Reigns is anointed by his peers, sooner or later the fans will get behind him. That will never happen if Cena keeps running him down.

What Cena, and by extension Vince McMahon, have done is emasculate Reigns. Wreddit and Twitter explode when it is Stephanie chopping off a performer’s manhood. And yet what Cena did was good?  Cena made a conscious decision to go off script and humiliate Reigns. It is alpha male, football coach carny BS. All delivered by a guy who is supposedly the paragon of virtue in the world of WWE.  Does it drive interest? Sure. Does it have social media buzzing? Absolutely. Does it makes sense? Not even a little. There are millions of ways to give an opponent the rub while putting yourself over. Heyman does it every time he opens his mouth. Cena made a conscious decision to do the exact opposite.  

Where does it go from here?

If Cena loses, he can be the veteran who motivated Reigns to be his best. And that only bolsters Cena. It doesn’t do anything for Reigns.  If anything, people will hate him more. If Cena wins…Reigns just isn’t good enough, jack. U Can’t See Me. Etc. Etc. Either way, the only one getting the rub here is Cena. And he doesn’t need it. If Reigns really is the next big thing, then start cultivating that story. Give the fans the illusion of an organic rise to the top. Don’t anoint him and then do everything in your power to turn him into a scapegoat for his own “failure.” He isn’t failing—he’s being actively prevented from succeeding.

Cena can preach about WWE being his home all he wants, but he IS a part-timer. Roman Reigns isn’t. Roman Reigns has a long career ahead of him—one that should include a long run with the Universal Title or WWE Championship. What went down yesterday was nothing more than a cheap pop. It was the wrestling equivalent of making fun of a fat kid, or a stutterer. It was bullying and it didn’t serve the long-term narrative. Reigns is never going to be able to deliver a Cena-level promo. And that’s OK. He doesn’t need to.

Reigns said he doesn’t want to be the next John Cena—he wants to be the only Roman Reigns. I hope he gets the chance. At this point, it seems like it is out of his hands.

image credit – WWE

Zack Matzo self-identifies as a freelance writer and has never taken a bump in his life, brother. For 30+ years, he's proudly watched grown men and women fake fight over fictional grievances and won't be stopping any time soon. In addition to his work for WrestlingDesk, Zack writes about Star Wars, video games and fantasy/sci-fi literature at and has written for several other pop culture, sports and comics websites. Zack lives in Detroit with his wife and three children and spends his days masquerading as an attorney. He hopes to one day write novels of dubious substance and live out his days as a man of leisure--preferably splitting time between his basement, London and the Tokyo Dome. You can find him waxing poetic on baseball, hockey, video games, wrestling and the glory of Tottenham Hotspur FC on Twitter @perch15.