When the news dropped Tuesday that WWE star Roman Reigns had been suspended for 30 days, it capped a wild 48-hour period for the company, but also provided Vince McMahon and his team of writers with an opportunity to finally pull the trigger on a move they should have made months ago.
Reigns was suspended for violating the WWE’s Talent Wellness Policy, which tests for a long list of substances. Reports immediately began to circulate that the WWE knew about the violation prior to Sunday night’s Money In The Bank event. Reigns lost the title that night to a returning Seth Rollins, who in turn lost it to Dean Ambrose a few minutes later. The following night a match many assumed would be saved for WrestleMania (or perhaps maybe SummerSlam) was booked for the slightly-less-notable Battleground special event: Reigns vs. Rollins vs. Ambrose, the three former Shield members duking it out for the title.
The fact that Reigns was able to drop the title before serving his suspension isn’t a surprise, as it’s been the standard for a while. Here’s what Stephanie McMahon said in a 2007 interview with the U.S. House of Representatives Committee on Oversight and Government Reform, which was investigating steroid abuse and illegal drugs in pro wrestling at the time:
“So I find out that a talent is suspended. And that talent will either be suspended right that day, or if they are a champion, say, and we have to get the title off of them, we have to wait until the next TV, which is normally just a few days. It is never more than a week to get that title off of that person.”
What is a little odd is the fact that Reigns was immediately booked for another title match, which conveniently takes place a few days after his suspension ends. On SmackDown Thursday night there was no indication that he was going to be removed from the match, meaning that Rollins and Ambrose will have to do the heavy lifting of building to the match on their own, a task which they are more than capable of completing.
There’s also a precedent for wrestlers bouncing back following suspensions under this policy. Randy Orton has been hit with two wellness violations — with his first strike coming in 2006 and the second in 2012 — and he went on to win world titles and headline the main event at WrestleMania after each instance. Jeff Hardy was suspended in 2008 for 60 days but was back on the main event scene upon his return, winning the WWE title twice the following year.
Considering the investment put into Reigns so far, it seems likely that he’ll be given the same chance at redemption. They’ve done nothing but promote him as their star of stars for the last two years, and are barreling towards a brand split that will increase the need for big names. But if they want this to work, the WWE has to radically reposition Reigns — which means abandoning the idea of him as a good-guy fan favorite.
The crowd, which has mostly booed Reigns since January 2015, has gone completely nuclear against him. Monday night brought “You can’t wrestle” chants despite the fact he had competed in three consecutive, very enjoyable pay-per-view main events.
Reigns’s month-long absence will likely not make the crowd’s heart grow any fonder — and “Where is Roman?” is probably one of the nicer choruses he’ll hear.
All of this means that the suspension has given the WWE the perfect opportunity to do what they could (and should) have done at a dozen different points since the boos first reigned in Philadelphia 15 months ago: Complete the heel turn and embrace Roman Reigns as a bad guy. Quit pretending he’s some kind of lovable underdog and have him cut loose as a dominating, arrogant, remorseless monster. They can use whatever method they like — just beating the hell out of his old friend Ambrose should do the trick — but it’s high time for this guy to go dark side. Let that run its course, and the crowd will eventually, probably, clamor for him to turn ‘face in 12-to-18 months.
There’s a precedent for this in Reigns’ own family, as his cousin Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson initially failed to find traction as a babyface, so he turned heel and eventually became one of the biggest stars in the history of pro wrestling —and later, an international movie star.
In the meantime, the WWE will have no shortage of heroes for the fans to support. The crowd adores Ambrose. They will happily love Rollins if the WWE wants to go that direction, especially after the tremendous documentary about his comeback from injury. John Cena is back, and some people — especially younger fans — like him. You have Cesaro, Sami Zayn, Enzo, Cass, the New Day and potential call-ups from NXT (Shinsuke Nakamura), returns from injury (Randy Orton, Neville) or ‘face turns (Bray Wyatt, Rusev) to further fill out that side of the ledger. Despite what Vince McMahon’s instincts have been telling him for a long while, his company doesn’t need a babyface Reigns to thrive. Let him beat Brock Lesnar or win the title or whatever Vince needs to happen at SummerSlam, but let him do it wearing a black hat and with no illusion that the crowd is behind him.
The 30-day suspension will likely be just a minor speed bump in the career of Reigns, but if the WWE takes this opportunity to embrace the hate of the crowd, it could be a blessing in disguise.
WWE Raw airs Mondays at 8pm on USA. Smackdown airs Thursdays at 8 p.m. on USA.