Few wrestlers have had as turbulent a career and a more volatile relationship with fans than Roman Reigns.
Although he has been more or less adored since returning to WWE in the second half of 2020, the first six years of his main-event career were controversial to say the least. There was a time when he was the most hated man in wrestling, to the point that he made John “goody-two-shoes” Cena look like a miracle worker in comparison. Many fans complained as loudly and as often as possible about how much they hated Reigns…yet here he is almost a decade later well on his way to becoming a certified Hall of Famer, and many of the people that tried to sabotage his career now embrace him with open arms.
So what was the deal with him? Was he truly deserving of all the hate back then? Or was it simply a case of a fickle and self-entitled audience demanding that a billionaire with his own promotion cater to their constantly-changing whims because they felt like they had more of a say in the company’s creative than the man in charge? To answer those questions we need to revisit one of the most iconic main-events in WrestleMania history.
As a reminder, I am reviewing Five Star and almost-Five Star wrestling matches as rated by Wrestling Observer’s Dave Meltzer. It goes back to the 1980s and I’m going to pick different matches from different eras to see how they look today. Check out previous entries in my 5 Star Match Reviews series right here.
WWE’s treatment of and relationship with its fans had been a complicated affair for decades, but things really started getting more intense during the early 2010s. With the summer of Punk taking place in 2011 and social media gradually becoming more prevalent, fans started getting more vocal in their demands. There had been recalcitrant crowds here and there, but nothing approaching the level of downright hostility.
Then, on the RAW after WrestleMania XXIX, the New Jersey crowd hijacked the show so much that no one could ignore them. Although that crowd was largely cheerful and fun-loving, there were still flashes of rejection and disruption, such as when they completely ignored a match between Randy Orton and Sheamus and just chanted for…well…everything and everyone except the two men in the ring.
As 2013 progressed, WWE’s creative direction started seeing two parallel paths emerge: the wrestlers that the fans wanted to see at the top and those that the company wanted at the top. These two paths didn’t always cross; wrestlers like CM Punk, Daniel Bryan, and Dolph Ziggler were put in prominent positions, but anyone capable of reading between the lines saw that these “indy darlings” weren’t part of the company’s long-term future.
Things took a darker turn in late 2013 and early 2014 as Daniel Bryan was given what looked like a main-event push, yet the company was perceived to only be giving him a push without actually acknowledging his abilities. Many fans saw through this charade and began highjacking segments to voice their opinions, only for said opinions to fall on deaf ears.
Then things got really bad for WWE at the 2014 Royal Rumble when the audience booed the eponymous Rumble match so badly that it made headlines the next day. Whether this was due to selfish fans being unhappy because they didn’t get their wish or because the company was openly mocking them for being so passionate for the wrong person is a matter of opinion. But what is factual is that Roman Reigns was cheered like a conquering hero when he faced down Batista in the closing moments of that match. The crowd almost got a silver lining of a win when Reigns nearly eliminated Batista; but when Batista countered him and won, the booing continued.
In that moment, the first steps in Reigns’ main-event push began, though perhaps out of the wrong assumption. The people in WWE watching and listening likely assumed that the reaction Reigns was getting was organic; maybe it was, or maybe it was more a rejection of Batista as the company’s handpicked winner and thus support for anyone other than one the higher-ups want to push. Either way, so began Reigns’ slow push to the main-event, and with it, his transformation into something that he wasn’t.
After Seth Rollins turned on his Shield stablemates, Reigns began his singles push which saw him involved in several multi-man main-event matches and title challenges. Although he failed to win at the time, it was clear that he was on his way to the main-event. And even though he was being put into these top-level positions, the fan reaction to him hadn’t changed that much; he was still getting cheered for the most part, but that was because he was still more or less the same character: a soft-spoken and hard-hitting powerhouse.
Then in the fall of 2014 Reigns was sidelined with a hernia and wouldn’t return until December. And it was at that point that things started to turn for him. In the weeks and months that followed, Reigns’ character began shifting into something way less cool. He started acting and talking like John Cena and had to cut scripted promos that had cheesy lines with terrible delivery. Many people concluded that Vince McMahon was getting directly involved in Reigns’ new singles push, and THAT is what many of them had a problem with. They liked Reigns when he was himself and doing something that came naturally to him, as his personality from 2020 to the present has demonstrated. But when the WWE corporate machine started getting directly involved and changing things to fit certain “sponsor-friendly” requirements, they saw through it and didn’t like what they were being sold. And since there was no way to get to Vince McMahon himself, many fans concluded that the next best thing they could do was try and sabotage Vince’s new project whenever possible.
So when the 2015 Royal Rumble came about, the ghosts of the past came back. Reigns was given a monstrous push with the full backing of the WWE machine, despite any on-screen storylines trying to imply that The Authority were against him. Further complicating matters was the fact that Daniel Bryan was going to be in the Rumble match after spending most of 2014 sidelined with a neck injury. There was hope among some pockets of diehard fans that Bryan would, at the very least, make it to the final four or final two opposite Reigns so that there would be some unpredictability to the match. Instead, Bryan was eliminated about halfway through and Reigns was basically handed the Rumble win on a silver platter.
The negativity towards Reigns was so widespread that fans forced WWE’s hand once again. Shortly after the Rumble, WWE conducted a poll that asked whether Reigns or Daniel Bryan should be in the main event and the fans voted for Bryan in overwhelming numbers. But the company basically said “too bad, so sad” and gave those same fans a small consolation prize in the form of a Reigns/Bryan singles match at Fastlane 2015 that Reigns won to cement his spot in the main-event…
…which happened to be opposite Brock Lesnar.
Lesnar had run roughshod over WWE since returning in 2012, but he really became an unstoppable force in 2014. In that year, he ended the Undertaker’s WrestleMania streak, demolished John Cena in one of the most one-sided SummerSlam main events ever, and retained the world title against anyone and everyone. But Lesnar, being a special situation with special privileges, spent most of the year at home because he had negotiated an arrangement that let him wrestle whenever and do whatever he wanted.
And so, WrestleMania 31 came about and WWE was in something of a dire situation. Roman Reigns was built and written as the hero going into the match but he was rejected so much and so loudly that it was hard to say that those booing him were “a minority”. Meanwhile, Lesnar was being cheered by comparison in a manner similar to how Reigns was cheered at the 2014 Royal Rumble: not necessarily because he was loved but because he wasn’t the one being pushed so overtly by the machine.
If Reigns won, the company risked having their biggest show conclude with an incredibly unhappy audience and potential bad press that could affect the company’s bottom line down the road. If Lesnar won, it would send the fans home happy (which, ironically, has been WWE’s mantra for years and was the reason so many of their storylines had unsatisfactory conclusions) but it would also be an admission of failure with the Reigns project, and it’s not like someone like Vince McMahon has ever shown himself to be humble enough to admit he was wrong.
Because of this tense situation, no one knew what was going to happen. Most people expected Reigns to win, but there was such a sense of “what if”, especially since Paul Heyman started promoting the narrative that Lesnar “shot on” the Undertaker the year prior and some people started really believing him.
So even though this match featured two heels (at least in the eyes of the more jaded and vocal audience members) it was one of the most unmissable WWE main-events in years in which anything really could happen.
This match originally took place on March 29, 2015. It was rated ****1/2 out of five by the Wrestling Observer’s Dave Meltzer and **** by TJR’s John Canton.
Reigns rushes Lesnar but Lesnar carries him around the ring like he’s weightless. Lesnar no-sells a cut on his cheek and hits both a German suplex and an F-5. Lesnar doesn’t cover for whatever reason and instead hits some stiff knees and a fisherman suplex. Reigns elbows out of another German attempt and the crowd boos loudly. Reigns hits a few clotheslines but Lesnar no-sells them. Lesnar ducks another one and hits a second German. Reigns smiles as Lesnar hammers him with forearms. Lesnar hits a back suplex and then the camera catches him saying “Suplex City, Bitch!” Who needs an entire department of marketing drones when Lesnar can ad-lib a line and turn it into a license to print money?
The crowd boos as Reigns lands a few shots but then turn on a dime and cheer when Lesnar hits back with knees and yet another German. And then another, making four in total. More stiff knees from Lesnar and then he drapes Reigns on the top rope. Lesnar lands a barrage of knees to Reigns’ head and then clotheslines him to the floor. Reigns climbs back onto the apron and Lesnar charges…but he runs into Reigns’ knee. Reigns knees Lesnar’s head a second time and starts kicking him through the ropes…that is, until Lesnar catches his leg and clotheslines him so hard he falls back down to the floor.
Lesnar shoves Reigns back into the ring and then lands a vertical suplex with such force it sends Reigns across the ring and out to the floor on another side. Lesnar follows with an overhead belly-to-belly suplex over the ropes and into the ring, bringing the suplex count to eight. F-5 by Lesnar. Reigns kicks out. Lesnar takes his gloves off and slaps Reigns hard in the face. Reigns talks smack defiantly so Lesnar gives him some more. Reigns grins in the face of those slaps so Lesnar hits two more German suplexes. A third F-5 connects…and Reigns kicks out once more.
Lesnar dumps Reigns to ringside but Reigns pushes Lesnar face-first into a ringpost. Lesnar’s bleeding quite a lot but he still makes it into the ring at the ref’s count of nine. Reigns fires up and hits a Superman punch. Lesnar stays standing but a second punch gets him down to one knee. Reigns tries a third. Lesnar dodges and tries another German. Reigns fights out and connects with the third Superman punch. Spear by Reigns. Lesnar goes to the ropes for safety. Reigns follows with a second spear. One, two, Lesnar kicks out. Reigns charges for yet another spear…and runs into a fourth F-5. Both men collapse.
Suddenly someone else’s music plays. It’s Seth Rollins! The crowd goes absolutely nuts as Rollins sprints towards the ring, MITB briefcase in hand. Rollins cashes in his Money in the Bank briefcase. This has now become a Triple Threat match.
Brock Lesnar vs. Roman Reigns Brock Lesnar vs. Roman Reigns vs. Seth Rollins
Rollins dumps Lesnar to ringside and hits a Curb Stomp on Lesnar. He checks on Reigns to confirm he’s not moving and goes for a second Stomp. Lesnar catches Rollins on his shoulders for an F-5. Lesnar turns around and eats a spear from Reigns. Rollins Curb Stomps Reigns. One, two, three! Rollins wins the title!
Winner and NEW WWE World Heavyweight Champion after 16:45: Seth Rollins
When it comes to unpredictability there are few matches and moments in modern WWE history that top this one. It goes without saying that this was the biggest and best MITB cash-in ever and Rollins’ surprise appearance saved this match from being a disaster. As I mentioned earlier, WWE was in a lose-lose situation with Lesnar and Reigns as winners, but Rollins was the wild card that this match needed. That surprise led to one of the most memorable moments in WrestleMania history…it’s just too bad that the match that preceded it was so pedestrian.
There wasn’t that much to this contest aside from the crowd’s reactions. Lesnar demolishing people is fun to watch but I was expecting so much more out of Reigns. For a guy pegged to be a future world champion he had so little fightback here. He took a monstrous beating sold for Lesnar incredibly well, only to suddenly and magically power up and start fighting back. He was on defense for most of the match and suddenly he found an opening yet it didn’t come across as believable. He never looked like he earned his comeback and when he was attacking Lesnar everything he did lacked the same sort of power and credibility that Lesnar had.
It’s as if Reigns was pretending to be Hulk Hogan only without Hogan’s charisma and ability to connect with anyone watching. The contrast between Lesnar on offense and Reigns on offense was like night and day; as a result it caused the match’s pacing to shift weirdly. Lesnar’s offense looked painful while Reigns’ did not; as such, it was hard to believe that Reigns was actually hurting Lesnar whatsoever.
Worse still, there was simply no logic to what Lesnar did early on. Lesnar hit a German and an F-5 thirty seconds into the match yet didn’t cover. Knowing what kind of opponent he was dealing with, why would he – or anyone in his position for that matter – just let his opponent get back up? The whole “he’s toying with Reigns and wants to make him suffer” argument doesn’t make sense. If he was going to just hit more finishers anyway, why not cover Reigns to make him expend more energy and sell the idea that a fall could actually happen at any moment?
Final Rating: **3/4
It’s a pretty sad state of affairs when the two most memorable things about a match are a surprise entrant changing the match itself and a random phrase uttered by one of its participants. Everything else was the same sort of WWE-style main-event involving monsters that has been seen time and again: a protracted exchange of signature and finishing moves stretched far beyond its natural life without any real excitement.
This was the law of diminishing returns in action. Lesnar spammed Germans and F-5s while Reigns did the same with Superman punches and spears, and in the process both of those moves came across as devalued. As a result individual near-fall sequences ended up having far less tension and the match’s sense of excitement began dissipating.
Having witnessed a lot of the events leading up to this match firsthand, I thought that the big match between Lesnar and Reigns would deliver; unfortunately, they didn’t, and the hype was more interesting than the final product. People talk up the conclusion to this match as a great moment and they’re right: Rollins stealing the title was a great moment. But the contest that led do it was bland, unoriginal, and completely forgettable.
Both Reigns and Lesnar had much better matches before and after this. The only reason to revisit this match is to rewatch Rollins’ historic cash-in. But judging from the comments various fans have made online, no video will ever do justice to the atmosphere live in the moment.