For the last few years, it's been well known that WWE has designs of Roman Reigns eventually replacing John Cena as the face of the company. With Reigns set to headline WrestleMania 32 on Sunday, his time as WWE’s top superstar is almost here, whether the majority of fans like it or not.
When he faces Triple H for the WWE World Heavyweight Championship at AT&T Stadium, Reigns will be in the main event of WrestleMania for the second straight year. Only John Cena and The Rock have done that in the last decade, and Reigns’ match will happen in front of the biggest wrestling crowd in history.
Cena will still likely be a part of main event pay-per-view matches for years to come, but as he slowly relinquishes his spot as the No.1 superstar that wrestles each and every week, Reigns is more than willing to take his place and forge his own legacy in WWE.
“I’ve always wanted to be the top guy,” Reigns told International Business Times. “The guy who pulls the load, the guy who carries that responsibility, but I’ve never wanted to be the face or the next anybody, the next John Cena. I’ve just wanted to be me. I want to be the first Roman Reigns.”
Exactly 11 years before WrestleMania 32, Cena won his first world championship at WrestleMania 21. He would go on to be in the main event of WrestleMania in five of the next eight years, becoming the No.1 star in the company and holding that spot longer than the likes of Hulk Hogan or Stone Cold Steve Austin. Cena remains the biggest name and the highest-paid superstar in WWE, but he might not be the top full-time wrestler for much longer.
At 38 years old, Cena hasn’t been in the main event of WrestleMania for three years. Prior to his recent shoulder injury, the 15-time world champion took two months off from October to December to film a reality TV show, and he reportedly had more time scheduled off in early 2016. Cena’s been featured in movies, as well, and he looks to be doing more and more outside of WWE.
A vocal portion of fans, however, have made it clear that they don’t want Reigns to be Cena’s unofficial successor. Much like Cena, Reigns gets mixed reactions from the crowd, often hearing boos from the adult males in the stands while getting cheered by women and children.
Reigns was booed mercilessly when he won last year’s Royal Rumble, even as The Rock celebrated with him in the ring. He was booed in the main event of WrestleMania 31 when he faced Brock Lesnar, who was a heel at the time. He’ll probably be booed again on Sunday when he takes on Triple H, the biggest villain in the company.
Just a few months ago, it appeared that the fans who hated Reigns were ready to accept him. Recognizing fans didn’t want to hear his lengthy promos, WWE and Reigns tweaked his character. Showing more aggression with beatdowns of Triple H and other wrestlers, Reigns won the WWE World Heavyweight Championship and was embraced by the same fans that booed him a year earlier.
“For me, I think that’s what works. When I come in, I beat people down and I leave,” Reigns said. “I come in and bring that action, bring that aggressive nature, bring that fight. I think that’s what people dig.”
But the love affair didn’t last long, and live crowds soon turned on Reigns. On the episode of “Monday Night Raw” before WrestleMania 32, Reigns was showered with chants of “You Still Suck” as he and Triple H went at it one final time before Sunday’s match.
Some of the criticism of Reigns is valid. He’s far from the best talker in WWE, and his promos often feel too scripted. But the reality is he has little chance to be completely accepted as the face of WWE. Fans know too much about the inner workings of the business, and they root against the wrestlers that they know WWE wants to turn into top stars.
“The world is a divided place in politics, in music and everything. Choices now, and people's opinions, are front and center more than ever. The Internet makes that readily available to everybody. They know all of the machinations of everything and the behind-the-scenes of everything, you know,” Triple H told CBS Sports.
“It used to be that the good guy was the guy that didn't cheat, you know what I mean? It was just very simple. The world has changed. I think [Reigns has] done a phenomenal job. He's, you know, from a behind-the-scenes standpoint, a great human being. I'm really happy for his success, as I am for all of them.
“The days of everybody loves the white knight and everybody hates the dark knight are gone.”
It’s much easier these days for wrestlers to become popular by first being successful villains, and Reigns might have to turn heel before he’ll be embraced by the entire fan base. While a heel turn at WrestleMania 32 is possible, WWE will likely have him defeat Triple H and begin a lengthy title reign as a babyface.
Despite what the crowd reaction might be on Sunday, Reigns has plenty of supporters. He gets cheered by a large portion of the crowd, and his merchandise sales are strong. According to the Wrestling Observer Newsletter, a recent marketability study showed that only Cena, Lesnar and The Undertaker were more popular WWE superstars.
For years, half the fans have cheered Cena while the other half has booed, often claiming they were tired of WWE giving him the spotlight. Reigns might not want to be the “next John Cena,” but that could be his destiny for the near future. It might even work to his advantage, because as long as he draws a reaction, Reigns will continue to headline WWE pay-per-views.
"You've seen it for, what, the last 10 years with John Cena," Triple H said. "I used to say to John all the time, 'You're the Red Sox and the Yankees in the same game. Half the place hates you, half the place loves you, but it's full, so who cares?'"