2017 has produced several “Wrestler of the Year” candidates in Braun Strowman, the Miz, Alexa Bliss and AJ Styles. Outside of WWE, Kenny Omega and Kazuchika Okada cemented their place in this conversation after their internet-breaking IWGP Heavyweight title match at Wrestle Kingdom 11.
But one name that hasn’t been brought up much in this year’s conversation is WWE’s most polarizing wrestler, Roman Reigns. But then again, why should he? He hasn’t held a world championship since June of 2016, hasn’t been featured in a main event pay-per view match since SummerSlam and has held the Intercontinental and United States championships for less than two total months out of the year. Is he now universally and unequivocally popular among the WWE Universe? No. But has he improved from his performance in past years? Objectively, yes. He has been placed in more meaningful feuds, helped put on more grueling matches and fans are starting to grow fonder of him since he’s not in the main event picture on RAW as often as he was in 2015 or 2016.
Admittedly, Reigns did not start 2017 on a good foot. He lost the United States championship to Chris Jericho on the second RAW of the new year, coming just a few weeks removed from failing to beat Kevin Owens for the Universal title at Roadblock: End of the Line. Additionally, his surprise entry at the Royal Rumble was met with an overwhelming groan (or worse) from the WWE Universe despite making it to the final two participants before being eliminated by eventual winner Randy Orton.
WWE fans to reaction to Roman Reigns number 30 spot 😂😂😂😂😂😂😂😂 pic.twitter.com/LcP5dUvp1u
— Wrestling LAD (@WrestlingLAD) January 30, 2017
During the first three months of the year, Reigns had something of a mixed-bag of matches in terms of watchable performance. He competed in very entertaining matches like his Universal Title match with Kevin Owens at the Rumble and his United States championship bouts with Chris Jericho on RAW. His match at Fastlane with Braun Strowman was good, but felt deflating for his momentum after Reigns’ win. It felt like the previously indestructible and incredibly popular Strowman had struck a 265-pound tactical vest-laden brick wall. A month later, Roman’s match with the Undertaker at Wrestlemania was critiqued as one of the worst matches to close a Wrestlemania of all-time for being sluggishly-paced and for quite a few botches during the match. (Although it did lead to one of the most memorable openings to a night-after-Wrestlemania Monday Night RAW promo in recent memory).[youtube https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=o8s6PZ1Iwp4&w=560&h=315]
His next feud for late spring and early summer came against Strowman once again, where Reigns’ year began to take a turn for improvement. Strowman and Reigns’ feud was marked with several stiff shots and unbelievable beat downs between the two behemoths trying to destroy each other. It was the first time in recent-memory that many fans felt that Reigns could be made “vulnerable” and someone could take advantage of the former WWE Champion.[youtube https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=JXTOH9jhbOg&w=560&h=315]
Strowman had been built and labeled as a certified 6’8”, 385-pound ass-kicker who had a Bruiser Brody beard and a Rob Van Dam haircut. Everything about the way he looked, wrestled and presented himself resonated with wrestling fans and garnered a reaction that WWE brass no doubt envied for their top star of the present and the future in Reigns. It was a clash that fans didn’t feel like it would end with Roman running over a common jobber. Fortunately, their matches at Payback and Great Balls of Fire felt like wars where both men were tested to their athletic limits, giving a big rub for both men’s on-air resumes (Reigns, especially).
Another round of thanks is due to the supporting cast who worked in multi-man matches with Reigns in big pay-per view match-ups in the middle of the calendar year. Reigns, Seth Rollins, Finn Bālor, Samoa Joe and Bray Wyatt all put on a great five-man bout at Extreme Rules, especially with a fantastic and exciting ending where each man hit his finisher one-after-the-other to set up the win for Joe. SummerSlam also featured a brutal and exhilarating fatal 4-way main event between Reigns, Joe, Strowman and Universal champion Brock Lesnar, albeit Reigns took the pin from Lesnar and Strowman was the one who came off incredibly well to the Barclays Center audience.
In the fall, Reigns started teaming up and then feuding with John Cena in a rivalry fans thought could only happen in a Wrestlemania main event in a symbolic passing of the torch from the star of the past to the star of the present and future. In a back-and-forth match at No Mercy that was climactic (but probably not the last time the two cross paths), Reigns picked up the win that helped legitimize himself in the eyes of the WWE Universe by taking down the company’s top guy for the last 10+ years.
After conquering Cena, The Big Dog and The Miz began feuding after No Mercy around the Intercontinental Championship before Rollins, Dean Ambrose, the Bar, Strowman and Kane joined in the scuffle. Together, Rollins, Ambrose and Reigns joined forces for the first time in over three years to reform the Shield, a huge fan-favorite move that the WWE Universe had been clamoring to see ever since they broke up.[youtube https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=0TP1zVBdosw&w=560&h=315]
Together, the trio shared the main event spotlight during the fall and gave the fans a reason to elicit more cheers to Reigns, albeit more so cheering for the group he was a part of rather than the man himself. Unfortunately, a viral infection sidelined Reigns for a few weeks, postponing the official in-ring Shield reunion for a few weeks later on RAW rather than the Tables Ladders and Chairs pay-per view. Reigns and his original target the Miz eventually squared off the night after Survivor Series in a match for Miz’s Intercontinental Title, which Reigns won and has held to this day.
Interjected in the middle of the Shield’s feud with Miz’s Miztourage and the Bar, they entered a short inter-promotional feud with the New Day, arguably WWE’s most popular trio since the Shield’s break-up. Again like the Shield’s reunion the month before, fans were salivating at the idea of two of their favorite trios going head-to-head for the first time at Survivor Series. While the match did not hold the honor of match of the night (instead going to the intense fight between AJ Styles and Brock Lesnar), the two teams still put on a very solid bout that got every fan in the Toyota Center excited for the rest of the show.
Despite this strong end to the year, Reigns still has his haters for logical (and sometimes illogical) reasons. Reigns can’t demand the attention of the crowd like the Rock and he can’t wrestle a technical-style like Bret Hart like so many fans want from a “top guy.” But the relieving thing is Reigns doesn’t have to be the best thing to happen to WWE in order for him to be a successful top guy in the company. Being the perfect choice doesn’t mean he’s “perfect” in the ring or on the microphone or in every conceivable way as a wrestler. It means given all the tools at his disposal (move-set, appearance, charisma, personal relatability, etc.), Vince McMahon sees that he’s the best choice to be “the face” of WWE in every facet (corporate interests, mainstream media appearances, kid’s imaginations, etc.).
This doesn’t mean that all of Reigns’ detractions and controversies have vanished in 2017. Reigns’ character is still very one-dimensional and often says flat, uninspiring dialogue (although this can be said for the entire roster at points). But, if WWE wants him to become “the next big thing” as they envision him, winning over the crowds will take more character revamping in 2018. Because let’s face it: In a year where Reigns beat one of the most popular WWE superstars of all-time in the Undertaker at Wrestlemania, as well as backing up an ambulance with Strowman inside into a tractor-trailer at full speed at Great Balls of Fire, there’s no conceivable way WWE will turn him heel at any time in the near future, nor will most fans embrace him as a hero after taking down some of the more popular stars on the roster. The company has made their choice and are sticking with it for the time being, which is equally maddening and commendable.
That being said, 2017 has been an improvement for Roman and to say this year for him has been anything other than his best on the main roster is disingenuous and just plain wrong. There have been zero “sufferin’ succotash,” “Jack and the Beanstalk” and “tater tots” promos within the last 12 months. Reigns has not had many long, rambling promos as of late, instead employing a few sentences ending with a challenge to the target of his promos to a match. With the exception of the Undertaker at Wrestlemania, Reigns didn’t have any outright bad matches on television this year, and landed five appearances on WWE.com’s Top 25 matches of 2017 list. Thanks to his time working with the Shield again, Roman is harkening back to his old position as the silent, menacing enforcer who was considered the “muscle” of the Shield. If they want to build him as a fan-favorite top guy for the foreseeable future, WWE would be wise to utilize him more in that Shield persona when he returns to the top of the card next year, especially if the rumors of him wrestling Lesnar for the Universal Title at Wrestlemania 34 are true.
Hopefully we see even more of a badass Big Dog in 2018 to continue building off of his most successful year yet.