It’s a Saturday night in Savannah, Georgia, and Roman Reigns has just finished a main-event tag-team match with Seth Rollins. Clearly tired from not only his performance that night, but from the grueling schedule that full-time pro wrestlers endure, Reigns stops to greet a fan and give him his gloves, creating a moment that surely will add to his complex legacy.
“To me, the most important part is the individual’s reaction,” Reigns told Yahoo Sports. “The guy there, he was so happy and to be able to see him get fired up and go through that emotional roller coaster, have that exhilaration, that huge smile on his face, that’s what it’s all about.”
— WWE (@WWE) August 6, 2018
For anyone not familiar with WWE, it would be easy to assume that the hulking Reigns is a fan favorite considering this particular gesture. While you wouldn’t be entirely wrong – Reigns is immensely popular, especially with kids – he is also treated as a villain by a subsection of WWE fans, ones who rain down boos whenever his music hits at any event.
“I think they’re like closet lovers to be honest,” Reigns said. “You can say whatever you want, but it’s how you say it that matters. The way they deliver it, they’re more connected to me than their so called ‘favorites.’ For me to be able to pull on whatever string I pull on, it just goes to show there’s a deep rooting there.”
Top WWE stars being booed isn’t a new thing. The great heels are always able to garner a negative reaction from fans, but with Reigns, fans jeer because they believe due to his lineage (he is cousins with Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson) and traditional superhero look, that he is getting an unfair push over stars “smarks” deem “more deserving.”
“It doesn’t really matter to me, as long as they’re really loud, that’s all I really care about,” Reigns admitted. “There could be certain moments where they try to hijack shows and all of that, but by the end of the match, they’re standing up so I’ve been blessed. I really do think that if they love to hate you, they still love you.”
It wasn’t always this way for Reigns. The 33-year-old burst onto the scene at the WWE’s highest level alongside Seth Rollins and Dean Ambrose as part of the popular Shield faction. For nearly two years, Reigns, Rollins, and Ambrose were one of the most popular acts in all of WWE. As part of the group’s breakup in 2014, Reigns and Ambrose were cast as the babyfaces, while Rollins turned heel – planting the seeds for the three to become even bigger draws for the company.
“We took this place by storm,” Reigns said. “It was also perfect timing as well. At that point, things like that needed to happen. John Cena worked his butt off for 15 years, you can’t ask the man to put in that much more work, he has a personal life, he has to worry about his health as well. This isn’t ballet, it’s very physical.”
While Ambrose and Rollins have each had turns as the WWE champion, it’s Reigns that is singled out by a rabid fanbase that scours message boards and peddles theories about how everything is a giant conspiracy to get Reigns “over.”
“We weren’t just welcomed in with smiles and hugs and kisses,” Reigns said. “They didn’t look at us very happy or want to give us what we have now. Throughout history our backstage and locker room has always been known as a shark tank, nothing is just handed over. You have to go in there and have a killer instinct and that’s what we did with the Shield.”
It is undeniable that Reigns has been afforded historic opportunities throughout his career.
Reigns’ match against Brock Lesnar for the WWE’s universal title at WrestleMania 34 marked the fourth year in a row he has been in the main event of the company’s biggest event, joining Hulk Hogan as the only pro wrestlers in history to do so.
In addition to that, Reigns was in the co-main event at “The Greatest Royal Rumble” in April – again against Lesnar – weeks later.
“I’ve been very blessed, very favored,” Reigns said. “It’s been a lot of hard work, a lot of days and nights away from my family or my home. I think when all of my children are grown up, they’ll be able to look at my body of work and know that I was out there doing special things. It was these very special things that took me away from them.”
Despite all of these opportunities and the notion that Reigns gets preferential treatment, he has never held the universal title and hasn’t held the WWE championship in more than two years.
While there certainly may be a degree of fatigue at this point, the ironic thing is that, as we approach the WWE’s second biggest event of the year, “SummerSlam,” Reigns is the best chance most fans have at seeing their biggest gripe resolved.
As Reigns builds up his third main-event match against Lesnar this year, the very real subject of Lesnar’s commitment to the company and his UFC championship aspirations have come into play.
While Lesnar does remain a popular figure – and box office draw – in WWE, the consensus is that him holding “Monday Night Raw’s” top championship is doing more harm than good. It’s a point that has been hammered home in recent weeks, not just by Reigns and the WWE’s creative team, but by the fans themselves.
“Business is business,” Reigns said. “We can’t worry about the things that happen in Vince [McMahon]’s or the main people’s office. The fact is, if we had a Universal Champion that showed up on Friday, Saturday, and Sunday, those live events are probably going to be a lot better. Attendance is going to be better. It’s going to be a better and more lucrative situation for business all around.”
By all accounts, Reigns is one of the more vocal leaders in the WWE locker room. Having grown up in wrestling as part of the legendary Anoa’i family, Reigns has an understanding of the business and clout that many others would take years to develop.
“I think I speak for everybody who busts their ass on all of those days, that yeah, we want to make more money, fill in more of those seats,” Reigns said. “I want to take [the WWE universal title] to every single locker room, take it out of my gear bag and make all the guys see it and want it. That’s what’s going to make us better. We have to compete within ourselves. If there’s nothing to compete for, if there’s not the grandest title, how are we going to get better.”
Reigns admitted he’s ready for what should be a hot crowd in Brooklyn, using the advice that his late brother Matthew, who wrestled in WWE as Rosey, gave him.
“He said, ‘You’re gonna have good ones, bad ones, great matches, it doesn’t matter, you have to wake up and do it again. That’s entertainment, that’s show business. Have thick skin out there and don’t worry about what people say.’”
Win or lose, cheers or boos, it’s safe to say Roman Reigns won’t be.
More from Yahoo Sports:
• Little Leaguer can’t travel to LLWS due to immigration issue
• Indians’ Martin in stable condition with deadly infection
• How a dinger-hitting 12-year-old became a viral star
• NFL star’s simple advice on Trump? Ignore him.