As a wrestling fan, I try to keep the bigger picture in mind. It’s easy to react with disgust on a week-to-week basis when you see how some people are booked or certain match results. I’ve written before about how the regularity with which that happens leads to me losing interest in WWE’s main roster product. But I can deal with bad booking or the lack of a character if I can at least see where it’s going, and I try to give stories a chance to play out before judging them.
Long-term storytelling is when wrestling is at its finest. Last November I wrote an article looking at how Becky Lynch’s momentum and stardom seemed so organic, and that was down to small nuances over several years. Now the crest of that wave is taking her to the main event of Wrestlemania.
Look at NXT. Yes, short-term rivalries like Aleister Black v Velveteen Dream can live long in the memory, but the nuances of Johnny Gargano v Tommaso Ciampa has made it arguably the greatest story ever told within the confines of NXT – and it may not even be over yet. It has already spanned three and a half years, and there could easily be more chapters left to write.
In a lot of ways, long term stories on the main roster in recent years have circled around things that weren’t even WWE-related. Kevin Owens and Sami Zayn will forever be intrinsically linked together in the annals of wrestling history, but that would have been the case even if their story had never been acknowledged in WWE, such was the work that had gone into it for years on the independent scene.
AJ Styles is another one. His rivalry with John Cena produced some epic matches, but would it have meant as much if Styles hadn’t spent so long outside of WWE before being signed? Would it have meant so long if it wasn’t Mr TNA v Mr WWE over the last 15 years? It certainly added another element to it, and that was the long-term build.
That’s not to say that Raw and SmackDown have been completely devoid of it in recent times. I’ve already mentioned Becky Lynch’s success, but the stories that have built up over years on the main roster seem to either have been lucked into or at times ignored by the commentary team – the very whose jobs it is to tell those stories.
I can’t ignore Daniel Bryan in this. The build up to his WWE Championship win at Wrestlemania 30 made him the most popular superstar in the company, maybe even the entire wrestling industry. But, and I am certainly not the first to say this, that worked in spite of WWE’s booking, and not because of it.
Ironically, maybe the best effort at long-term booking going into Wrestlemania next weekend also revolves around Daniel Bryan, and his title defence against Kofi Kingston. But on that front, I get more of the nuances of why this is so impactful from Twitter than I do WWE.
But I feel like there is one story that WWE are on the cusp of that could be the main roster version of Ciampa v Gargano, at least the closest thing to it in years. It is a story that, if done properly, could easily lead to the main event of Wrestlemania next year, starting properly next Sunday but having roots right back to November 2012. And once again, to this point, WWE may have lucked into it.
What happened at Survivor Series 2012? The Shield debuted. The trio of Dean Ambrose, Seth Rollins and Roman Reigns were for a solid 18 months the best thing about Raw and SmackDown. They were the one thing that even when it looked like WWE was about to kill momentum everywhere else, survived. Making three “unknowns” from NXT into three of the top stars in the company took time, but it was well worth the investment.
When The Shield went their separate ways back in 2014, it had become pretty clear that Roman Reigns was earmarked to be the top guy. The next John Cena, or whatever you want to call it.
He main evented Wrestlemanias in 2015, 2016, 2017 and 2018. Three of those matches were for world championships. In 2016, he defeated Triple H to win the WWE Championship. In 2017, he seemed to end the career of The Undertaker. He went over two of the most protected guys in the company in what was the most promoted match of the biggest show of the year.
But it is 2015 and 2018 that could play crucial parts in this story. In 2015, he challenged Brock Lesnar for the WWE Championship after winning the Royal Rumble. It looked like it would be his crowning moment, when he would finally be cemented as “the guy”. The Roman Empire was about to begin. Until Seth Rollins cashed in his Money In The Bank contract and left Wrestlemania as the new champion.
In 2018, Reigns again faced off against Brock Lesnar for a world title, this time the Universal Championship. Again, it looked like the story that WWE had wanted to tell in 2015 was finally about to come true. There was plenty of speculation about Lesnar’s contractual situation that meant there was no way he could leave with the belt, right?
Wrong. After a year of nobody kicking out of the F5, Reigns not only kicked out but kicked out of five of them before a sixth kept him down and the Beast Incarnate’s title reign continued.
Reigns would go on to beat Lesnar for the title in August at SummerSlam, but his leukemia diagnosis meant he had to relinquish the belt in October. By extension, that meant that it still doesn’t really feel like Roman’s crowning moment has come, and we have yet to really see his run at the top.
In Reigns’ absence, Seth Rollins has tried to pick up the ball and run with it. He won the Royal Rumble and will challenge Brock Lesnar for the Universal Title at Wrestlemania. Now, this is why I am writing about this now instead of waiting a few months. Seth Rollins needs to beat Brock Lesnar clean at Wrestlemania.
That is the key to this whole thing. No interference, no weapons, just generally no shenanigans. Seth Rollins needs to beat Brock Lesnar 1-2-3 in the middle of the ring next Sunday.
Here’s why. How would Reigns react to that? Sure he’d be happy for his friend that he won the belt, he’d be happy that someone managed to dethrone Brock Lesnar and bring the title back to Raw full-time instead of sitting on the sidelines.
But wouldn’t there also be a part of him that’s jealous of Seth for doing what he couldn’t – beat Lesnar at Wrestlemania? Wouldn’t it make it worse that, in 2015, it was Seth who took away his opportunity to do just that? Roman has spent the last five years telling everyone that he is the best, he deserved to be champion and that this is his yard now. How long will his friendship with Seth last before they have to put that to one side and face each other for the title?
I know this sounds scarily like yet another suggestion of a Reigns heel turn. For me, that is the best course of action for this story. It seems unfathomable that people would boo Reigns, or maybe more that WWE would turn him, after what he has gone through in the last six months. But didn’t we all say exactly that about Daniel Bryan last year? Look at him now, he’s the top heel on SmackDown and has been for four months, just a year after his miraculous recovery.
And it doesn’t have to be Reigns. How would Rollins react to the big dog challenging him for the title? Would he think he only won the Rumble because Reigns wasn’t there to beat him for it? Was he only the top guy by default because Reigns wasn’t around? Even if he wasn’t, Reigns has headlined the last four Wrestlemanias, but when it’s Seth’s chance the main event spot gets taken by the Raw Women’s Championship match. Not him. Can he really feel like the top guy in the company even with the title around his waist with all that?
If he can’t, isn’t the only thing he can do to prove himself – maybe not to the crowd, maybe not even to the McMahons, but to himself – to face and beat Reigns? What if he can’t? What does that mean for Seth Rollins?
I’m not sure this would work with any other two people that don’t have the history of The Shield behind them. Maybe The New Day, but that would be about it. That’s why this is such a unique opportunity for WWE to tell a more nuanced story than they have in such a long time. It can be a rivalry based on respect, but wanting to prove who is better and someone’s inability to handle the idea that they’re not. Either man can go heel and make this work. Both men would have realistic insecurities about their spot, and both men would have enough legitimacy to make this so interesting.
It can be a slow burner. Reigns and Rollins will presumably stay friends in the immediate aftermath of Wrestlemania. That can last a good few months before anything big has to happen. But the story would start next Sunday, if it hasn’t already with their history.
There are a lot of questions about what happens after Wrestlemania. Who will be on what show? Who will get called up from NXT? Who will be in the title picture and who will be cast aside in favour of new faces? With Reigns and Rollins, it is difficult to imagine them anywhere other than near the top of the card. Keep the two of them together with a story like this and you might just have your main event for next year’s Wrestlemania sorted.