As soon as they flip the pages in their calendars from December to January, WWE fans start thinking about the Royal Rumble and the beginning of “WrestleMania season.” It’s the most important time of the year as WWE starts building towards the closest thing it has to a Super Bowl, World Series, etc. And many fans get more excited for the Rumble than WrestleMania itself. It’s meant to be a time for the company to showcase all of its talent, a time for fans to feel like anything is possible. But what it really is is a microcosm of the company as a whole.
The WWE is a top-heavy company in a way that I don’t think it’s been since Hulkamania ran wild in the 80s. And it’s kind of astonishing for me to see where it is now.
First, some context on my own history as a fan of professional wrestling. Like a lot of people my age, I started watching during the so-called Attitude Era of the late 90s and early 00s. I started watching right around when Stone Cold was just coming back from “being hit by a car” (an angle to cover for legitimate neck surgery), and stopped watching shortly after Chris Jericho unified the WWE and WCW Championships. I would occasionally check in to see how things were going, watching highlights like CM Punk and John Cena’s 2011 feud or the Undertaker and Shawn Michaels’ rivalry after the fact. It wasn’t until the Royal Rumble of 2017 that I got back into watching events live. I’ll get into my whole history with the company some other time, but suffice it to say I watched basically from 2017 until Summerslam of 2018 when a number of things conspired to cause me to lose interest.
The point is, during that 2017 to 2018 run, WWE was desperately trying to ram Roman Reigns down an unwilling fanbase’s collective throats as a heroic babyface and it was just not happening. And while appreciating his in-ring work, I found all of his matches just horrifyingly dull for the most part. (Notably except for any time he shared the ring with Kevin Owens. How in the world they didn’t build him up as the mega babyface to finally take Roman down on his current run, I will never understand.) Basically my least favorite part of any WWE card during that run was Roman Reigns’ matches, but there was so much else going for the company that it was actually possible to ignore their top guy, and the main eventer of most shows, just being not even a little fun to watch.
Fast forward three years, and now his storyline is basically the only consistently watchable thing in the whole godsdamned company.
This is probably a subject for a future article, but Roman’s current run is so unbelievably good it is actually the only thing keeping me interested in the WWE. Having the glaringly superior AEW (I’m sorry, it just is) makes it kind of impossible to care about 90% of the WWE, which is fine because it feels like Roman’s story is the only thing they’re putting any effort into. And that was fully evidenced by the Royal Rumble.
Roman vs. Seth was easily the best match of the night. Brock won an underwhelming Rumble to set up a WrestleMania match with Reigns because the WWE reportedly literally don’t have a plan for the WWE Championship at WrestleMania??? The rest of the show alternated between dull and genuinely cringeworthy. (Ronda Rousey was one of the many factors of me losing interest in WWE in 2018, and hey look she’s back and she won the Women’s Rumble! Sigh.) But I’m willing to overlook literally all of it because of a single moment and how well it was set up.
A vital part of Roman’s incredible current run has been his manager. Ladies and gentlemen, his name is Paul Heyman. And after a protracted angle in which Brock Lesnar sowed seeds in Roman’s mind that Heyman was working with Lesnar behind his back, Roman finally fired Heyman on live TV and prepared to assault him with a steel chair, bringing Lesnar out for the save. And a reunited Heyman and Lesnar looked ready to turn the clock back to late 2017/early 2018 but with Brock as a goofy face this time.
And then came that confrontation.
The jovial Lesnar comes to the ring with Heyman in tow. A bitter Reigns tells Lesnar he doesn’t do business with people who associate with “trash” like Heyman. The two start posturing at each other, and Heyman tries to intervene at which point Lesnar snaps, “Shut up, Paul!” and Heyman looks cowed. Surprisingly, Roman protectively snaps, “Don’t talk to him like that!”
I fucking ship it.
Fast forward to the Royal Rumble, and Lesnar is defending his title against Bobby Lashley. And there are plenty of legitimate reasons to criticize the booking of this match and I don’t care about any of them because Roman Reigns comes in and spears the hell out of Brock Lesnar, stands over his corpse, and holds his hand out to Paul Heyman and looks at him dominantly.
After an agonizing pause that felt longer than it was, Heyman hands him the WWE Championship belt. The crowd goes crazy. At home, I give this moment a legitimate babyface pop (in the form of a delighted shriek, I am so dignified). Roman nails Lesnar with a savage belt shot. He leaves with Heyman in tow without even waiting to see Lashley get the decisive three count to end Lesnar’s title reign. The crowd violently boos the entire thing while I instead cackle with glee.
I cannot believe this is the world we live in, but WWE is a fucking trashfire except for Roman Reigns, but Roman Reigns by himself is enough to keep me watching. For now.