In the end, Vince McMahon went out and did it himself.
Philadelphia was finally manipulated. Eleven months earlier, in the same city, fans for the first time outrightly rejected Roman Reigns despite WWE’s every effort to make him the unequivocal star and winner of the Royal Rumble that night. With cousin Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson giving him the endorsement with a confused expression, fans booed loudly. They sensed Reigns was the chosen one, picked by the company much more so than themselves.
WWE put themselves in a situation where they couldn’t possibly put Reigns over at WrestleMania this year, as intended, without looking like fools as the confetti rained down and the ardent wrestling tourists in Levi Stadium either booed or were apathetic.
Instead, they held off, and in the last several months too often exposed Reigns’ weaknesses and failed to book him to his strengths. In some ways he was given every advantage: in an era of 50/50 booking, he was one of very few who won matches consistently; he was the one member of the disbanded Shield who was allowed to retain all of the successful stable’s regalia: the entrance, the music, the attire. Yet still, he was sent out to do promos of a length and style that did not suit him; that failed to get him over; and squandered the mystique built up for him as the strong, silent member of the Shield. Rather than dominating his opponents, he almost always sold too easily, too desperately and for too long. Despite PPV wins over Randy Orton, Daniel Bryan, Big Show and Bray Wyatt, his reactions were lukewarm at best.
In just two days of good booking, they have started to turn the corner. After a couple of years of the Authority brow-beating every character they interacted with to impotence, Reigns finally overpowered them, including Vince himself in the finale.
Reigns’ long-awaited title win is also a huge victory for McMahon in his ongoing feud with his own fans. McMahon’s creative philosophy demonstrably does not allow him to merely take the lead of his fan base. He must instead be the master manipulator, even against an ever-evolving audience, and perhaps his ever-slowing wits.
On Monday night, WWE’s CEO stood in the center of the Wells Fargo Center himself, live on Raw for the first time since November 2014. For a man who so values physical aesthetics; who dominated his industry; who admitted he felt shy at social activities for his wife’s political campaign; whose vulnerability is somewhere, if buried deeply; does it crush him to age like such a mortal man? Is that why he keeps his recent TV appearances so few and far between?
The more scarce his appearances are, the more fascinating. The old man now emerges from behind the curtain to show himself, when otherwise we only know he’s there, stationed somewhere in the shadows at the Gorilla position.
Since we saw him last, another year has passed. Like a grandparent you visit once a year, you notice the changes in the familiar, historical figure: his ears seem larger, the complexion weathering, the tongue more rigidly coordinating the iconic speech, the favorite phrases.
If McMahon is hell-bent on making Reigns into perhaps the last genuine superstar he creates, then it’s no surprise McMahon was willing to spend one of his rare appearances on Reigns’ coronation night.
WrestleMania is now on the horizon, and not a single match is obvious and having its hype stirred. With the cards they currently have dealt to them, it probably makes sense to get the champion in place for WrestleMania sooner rather than later. The TLC show the night before, in a ladder match rather than a straight match with a pinfall, was probably not the ideal setting for Reigns to finally properly win the title. Regardless, without the strong build-up of the post-match angle at TLC, and the build-up throughout Raw, a Reigns title win wouldn’t have earned much more than indifference in Boston on Sunday.
As live TV ratings decline, the time was ripe anyway to shake up Raw. Ratings have been wading into modern lows, scoring in the low 2s since Labor Day, down from a 3.0 average during WrestleMania season. An appearance from McMahon and a WWE title change showed the audience that important events can still happen on the three-hour slog. It finally expressed some urgency from a creative direction driven by a man who’s been called (by myself included) out of touch.
Reigns recited from McMahon’s self-approved script: “Let’s face it: you’re 70-years-old, and time is passing you by.” Perhaps demonstrating some self-awareness, this is the line that finally taunted the Vince character into giving Reigns the stipulated title match. Regardless his age, McMahon is still a great performer: at least he certainly is in doses so rare.
After a year of resistance, in just two nights, Reigns, for now, finally won over the audience. That’s how effective good booking can be, and that’s how good wrestling can be when done well. He finally posted on the turnbuckle, hoisted the WWE title, not to an apathetic or mixed reaction, but to a landslide of cheers. Genuine relief was painted on his face. Sincere elation was shared with Dean Ambrose, the Usos and the Philadelphia crowd after Raw went off the air.
— lyss (@WWELyss) December 15, 2015
WWE’s creative dysfunction runs much deeper than anything that can be corrected in a few days. Just the fact that McMahon’s own character was a huge part of what finally got Reigns truly over for one night is an indictment of how ineffective the rest of their characters are.
The most fundamental difference between NXT and main roster WWE is that the former has earned the goodwill and trust of its audience while the latter has too often cultivated a cynical, jaded fan whose interest is waning. Main roster WWE took a step toward correcting that Monday night.
This company’s track record, however, tells us their hubris will soon compel them to overreach. But for at least one night Reigns was finally the hero WWE has wanted him to be this entire year.