WrestleMania 34, which starting from its 4 p.m. pre-show ended just a bit after hitting the 8-hour mark, was by almost every metric a triumph. Record-breaking attendance, superb matches, and a card that had something for everybody - thrills, surprises, technical matches and light-hearted comedy spots, star power, heart-warming family-friendly moments, the thrill of victory and the agony of defeat.
It was almost a complete triumph- almost, because although it seems a shame to weigh hours of world-class pro wrestling against one bad match, the bad match was the main event, and the crowd turned on it with a ferocity that was genuinely unsettling to witness. It was like the worst kind of social media pile-on, with the important difference that 78,000 bellowing hecklers were present in person.
[jump] The main event was Roman Reigns vs. Brock Lesnar for the WWE Universal Championship. I'd been looking forward to it; back at WrestleMania 31, Reigns and Lesnar had a great match until it was interrupted by Seth Rollins cashing in an "any time, anywhere" title shot mid-match to make the contest into a three-way. Anticipation for the Reigns/Lesnar rematch has been building since then, and in a different world would have marked the supreme coronation of Roman Reigns as WWE's top guy. Pundits have been predicting it for years. The fact that the match ended with Lesnar retaining his title is an interesting swerve, but the real story of the match is its overwhelming, terrifyingly intense rejection by those in attendance.
Reigns is controversial because many fans see him as a golden boy given opportunities he hasn't earned, anointed by management instead of being chosen by the fans. Some of this resentment has its roots in Reigns being elevated over genuine fan favorites like C.M. Punk and Daniel Bryan, but by any objective measure Reigns has proven himself worthy of his spot atop the roster. Although his range of wrestling moves is limited, he consistently delivers high-quality matches against a broad spectrum of opponents. I've been a Reigns critic in the past, but as it stands my only real complaint is that Reigns doesn't deliver the kind of ticket-selling microphone segments I think a wrestling promotion's top dog should.
Reigns is a brooding, moody kind of hero; he doesn't go out of his way to give fans a reason to cheer for him beyond that he's big, handsome and tough. This accounts for some of the negative reactions he's gotten, but not the kind of vitriol expressed last night. Until I witnessed a packed Superdome chanting "Boring," "Delete," "This is awful," and various other hostile things at him while he literally bled for their entertainment, I hadn't realized just how profound and widespread the hate for Reigns was.
It's likely some of this is spillover from the 15 years John Cena was the face of the WWE. Although Cena's talking skills and hard work in the ring could win over a given crowd on a given night, many fans who wanted an edgier, less kid-friendly pro wrestling product found Cena's sometimes corny and cartoonish Boy Scout superhero persona compared unfavorably to "Attitude Era" antiheroes like Steve Austin and The Rock.
The sentiment against Roman Reigns meant that many people would cheer whomever Reigns was facing. To take an extreme example, Braun Strowman repeatedly wrecking Reigns (including tipping over an ambulance with Reigns inside it) was the foundation of Strowman's current fan-favorite status.
At WrestleMania 34, however, Reigns was facing Brock Lesnar. Lesnar is about to return to UFC, and in the run-up to their match, Reigns criticized Lesnar as a part-timer who didn't care about WWE or the fans. Successfully making that case undercut the support Lesnar might have otherwise gotten from die-hard WWE fans who didn't like Reigns- and make no mistake, anyone who ponies up the tall dollars for a WrestleMania ticket is a die-hard WWE fan.
So the fans booed Reigns, booed Lesnar, booed all their moves and booed when security staff took away the beach balls the audience was amusing itself with rather than watching the match. Roman Reigns is wealthy and successful, but it's hard not to feel sympathy for him over the humiliating treatment he got inside the Superdome.
The question is: what now? What will WWE do with Reigns, both tonight at RAW in the Smoothie King Center and longer-term? Vince McMahon, still the unilateral decider within WWE's power structure, is famously hostile to rethinking his choices for who belongs where on the card. That said, WWE recently renaming its Women's Battle Royale in response to to social media backlash suggests WWE isn't entirely insensible to fan sentiment.
The obvious thing to do with Reigns is the same thing WWE should have done years ago: listen to the fans and cast Reigns as a villain. That's how the crowd sees him, so why not embrace it? He's got plenty of genuine justification for turning on the fans. The first Monday Night Raw after WrestleMania is notorious for its rowdy, aggressive crowd, but it's hard to imagine a more aggressive crowd than the one who crapped all over the WrestleMania 34 main event. It was an uncomfortable and unfortunate conclusion to an otherwise stellar WrestleMania.