World Wrestling Entertainment has had plenty of dominant characters over the past 50 years, but Roman Reigns continues to set his own path.
When Reigns faces Cody Rhodes on Sunday in the main event of WrestleMania 39 at SoFi Stadium in Los Angeles, it will be his 944th consecutive day as champion, the sixth-longest title reign in the company’s history.
“You set goals and have visions of where you view yourself and what you’d like to accomplish. But, I couldn’t have written the past three years any better,” Reigns said during an interview with The Associated Press. “It feels good to come from a wrestling family that has been performers for a long time. To represent such a prestigious title reign at the tippity top of the mountain, there’s no comparison.”
Reigns has a combination few sports entertainers can match — charisma, athletic ability, family pedigree and real-life experiences where he beat the odds.
That has also made Reigns a beloved and respected heel (bad guy). Fans cheer when Reigns demands them to “acknowledge me” when speaking in the middle of the ring.
That wasn’t always the case. Reigns entered WWE in 2012 but was a polarizing figure among fans for a long time because majority owner Vince McMahon had tried to position him as a champion and a babyface (good guy). Fans passionately resented Reigns because his rise to the top felt forced.
That changed in the fall of 2018 when Reigns— whose real name is Joe Anoa’i — announced he was stepping away due to a recurrence of leukemia. Anoa’i, an All-ACC defensive tackle at Georgia Tech, was first diagnosed in 2007 after signing a free-agent contract with the Minnesota Vikings. He went into remission two years later.
After four months of treatment, Reigns returned in February 2019. He was scheduled for the main event during 2020’s WrestleMania but pulled out due to health concerns at the start of the coronavirus pandemic. Even though the show occurred in the Orlando training center and no fans were in attendance, Reigns was immunocompromised, and his wife was pregnant with twins.
“There was always that struggle, and I don’t blame them,” Reigns said of his relationship with fans. “Everything we’re doing now and how it is displayed — the character work, the personality, the storylines, all of that the information we’re giving our fans, we’re keeping everything as logical as you can in a wrestling show.”
When Reigns returned to WWE events in August 2020, not only had he found a way to tap into becoming a heel, but it was with Paul Heyman by his side. Heyman had a long partnership with Brock Lesnar and different stints creating storylines for WWE, and he and Reigns spent months developing a way to reboot his character.
Reigns would win the Universal Championship for the second time less than two weeks after returning. He added the WWE belt by defeating Lesnar at last year’s WrestleMania to become the Undisputed Champion.
Real-life cousins Jey and Jimmy Uso teamed with Reigns in the fall of 2020 after feuds with him to form “The Bloodline” faction with Reigns as its Tribal Chief. The Usos go into WrestleMania with a record 623 days as tag team champions.
Anoa’i is the son of Sika of The Wild Samoans and the brother of Rosey, who also worked in WWE before his death 2017. He is also cousins with the late Umaga and WWE champion Yokozuna. The Usos’ father is former WWE superstar Rikishi.
Reigns admitted he initially didn’t like the idea of facing Jey “and beating him into The Bloodline,” but the more he thought about it, the more it made sense.
“When these ideas in real-time started happening, it became a chain reaction, a domino effect,” Reigns said. “It’s been like an onion, peeling open, left and right, these awesome opportunities and different rabbit holes to dive down with these different characters we’ve involved.”
Solo Sikoa, the younger brother of the Usos, has become part of the story over the past six months as the family enforcer.
As the Head of the Table, Reigns exudes the qualities of the best fictional crime family bosses of the past 50 years. The T-shirts marketed by WWE evoke comparisons to “Scarface” with a black background and red font. The storyline over the past three years — especially the past three months with friction between Reigns and Jey Uso — conjures up Michael Corleone from “The Godfather” trilogy.
Heyman, though, said the central concept for Reigns as the Tribal Chief was based on Colonel Walter E. Kurtz from “Apocalypse Now.”
“The reason why is because the story is of a soldier so great, he could not be stopped,” Heyman said of Kurtz. “He goes rogue and takes over this community, becomes their leader, and their end all be all. He then has to live up to being this navigator into the future and has the responsibility and the accountability of living up to those expectations. And at some point, that becomes a burden and makes him resent those with such lofty expectations for the person who positioned himself as their leader. And in that resentment comes this villainous bitterness.”
Working with Reigns has also been a full circle moment for Heyman, who was the on-screen manager for The Wild Samoans in the late ’80s.
John Cena says Reigns is one of the greats because he has created an environment for many to thrive.
“Roman, you see very selectively. Yet he’s been able to rise up six to seven people to be in another bracket of relevance. And that for me has never been done,” Cena said. “Usually the top guy is the top guy. … It’s that moment to take what you can from them, then move on. Just being in Roman’s orbit puts you in another bracket. He makes so many more people better, creating a better program and more people watching and talking. It’s not just a one-man show.”
If Reigns were to defeat Rhodes on Sunday, he would be on pace for the sixth title reign of at least 1,000 days and the first since Hulk Hogan held the belt for 1,474 days from 1984-88. However, Rhodes has been riding momentum since returning to WWE last year, and conventional wisdom is that Reigns will drop the title.
The Rhodes-Reigns matchup also carries its own set of family dynamics. The late Dusty Rhodes trained Reigns in NXT, which was WWE’s developmental program.
“He’s critical early on as far as instilling confidence. He saw the man I would become opposed to what I was looking at in the mirror. I’ve lived with that and carried that with me anytime I have doubts,” said Reigns of Dusty Rhodes.
The Usos tag team reign could end when they face Sami Zayn and Kevin Owens. Zayn was also part of “The Bloodline” for nearly a year before turning on Reigns.
If “The Bloodline” does break up after WrestleMania, Reigns’ character will undergo another evolution. Whatever happens next, Reigns said he will continue wrestling for a long time. He still undergoes regular blood tests to guard against a recurrence of leukemia.
“I feel good. I take care of myself. I’m not running around doing anything crazy. I raise children and dominate the wrestling game,” said Reigns, who turns 38 in May. “If they keep cutting these insane checks, I’ll stay around.”
AP sports writer Dan Gelston in Philadelphia contributed.
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