Tampa Bay Times

Roman Reigns embraces his heel role

- BY EDUARDO A. ENCINA Times Staff Writer Contact Eduardo A. Encina at eencina@tampabay.com. Follow @Eddieinthe­Yard.

TAMPA — Even when the cameras went off, Roman Reigns stayed in character.

After he slowly raised his WWE Universal Championsh­ip belt, minutes after cheating his way through a successful title defense at Sunday’s second day of WrestleMan­ia 37 at Raymond James Stadium, Reigns took to each turnbuckle to taunt the fans booing him, sarcastica­lly blowing kisses after the broadcast completed.

Reigns, a longtime good guy fans cheered and adored, returned to the WWE as a bad guy — or in wrestling terms, a heel — back in August. But on Sunday night, with fans in attendance for the first time for a live WWE event since the pandemic, Reigns had his crowning moments as a villain.

The lines have been blurred for years. In pro wrestling, allegiance­s aren’t as simple as fans cheering the good guys and booing the bad guys. Establishi­ng yourself as a WWE headliner is more about being someone fans want to see, and Reigns is someone who fills seats and puts eyes on television­s.

Since Reigns returned from a four-month absence during August’s SummerSlam event, he has been curious how a live crowd would receive him and his new snarling, narcissist­ic persona. Sunday’s main event, in which Reigns defeated Edge and Daniel Bryan in a triple-threat match, was the first time Reigns would hear the cheers and boos in person since turning.

“A lot of what we sell is the atmosphere that we create, the experience,” Reigns said leading into WrestleMan­ia. “To have a portion of that element back, I think it’s huge.”

Reigns promised a good show, whether fans embraced him or not.

“To see the kind of response I get, to see how our audience, how my fans and my detractors all take in my body of work, and then also what I’m going to do for them that night, it’s going to be interestin­g for sure.”

Sunday’s sellout crowd of 25,675 — Raymond James was filled to 36 percent capacity to adhere to health and safety protocols — didn’t compare to typical WrestleMan­ia crowds. Reigns won his third WWE heavyweigh­t title in front of 101,763 at AT&T Stadium in Arlington, Texas, five years ago. This year’s socially distanced, twoday total was 51,350.

As Reigns was introduced for his Universal title defense to an elaborate scene of fireworks and lasers only comparable to a Super Bowl halftime show, he heard many more jeers than cheers.

Edge, 10 years to the day that he was forced to give up the WWE title because of a neck injury that prompted his retirement, was the fans’ consensus favorite.

The pandemic took WrestleMan­ia out of Tampa in March 2020 and into a closet set at the WWE Performanc­e Center in Orlando. Reigns opted out of the event. He battled through two bouts with leukemia, and he wanted to protect his newborn children from the possible spread of the coronaviru­s.

When he returned, attacking “The Fiend” Bray Wyatt and Braun Strowman like only a bad guy could at SummerSlam, he lifted the Universal title belt and scowled at rows of LED monitors. As his “Head of the Table” persona played out, he seemed to master — and revel in — the intricacie­s of playing to the virtual crowd as a heel.

While the WWE’s ThunderDom­e set, which called Tropicana Field home and opens a residency at USF’s Yuengling Center today, offered fans a chance to attend matches virtually, the feel of the crowd was missing.

In Sunday’s main event, Reigns quickly was without his help, meddlesome cousin Jey Uso, who left the ring after getting injured. Soon enough the triple-threat match was one full of strewn bodies inside the ring and out. To the chants of “Roman sucks,” Reigns power-bombed Bryan into a table and yelled to the crowd.

Edge speared Reigns and soon after had him in a submission hold, but Bryan stopped Reigns’ hand just as he was about to tap out and put Reigns in a submission hold of his own. Bryan prevented another Edge pin of Reigns just moments later.

With menacing eyes, Edge put two folding chairs under the head of both opponents. But after Uso returned and interfered, he distracted Edge just enough to allow Reigns to get back to his feet. Reigns then sneaked up on Edge and speared him, stacked his opponents on top of each other and pinned them both to retain the title.

The WWE needed the Universal title match to deliver to help a second-day lineup that struggled to duplicate the excitement of Saturday, which saw Bianca Belair’s athleticis­m and magnetism shine through in her main-event win and Puerto Rican rapper/singer Bad Bunny draw cheers from the crowd by showing he actually had some wrestling skills.

 ?? LUIS SANTANA | Times ?? Fireworks fill the sky Sunday night during the opening of WrestleMan­ia 37 at Raymond James Stadium.
LUIS SANTANA | Times Fireworks fill the sky Sunday night during the opening of WrestleMan­ia 37 at Raymond James Stadium.
 ??  ?? Roman Reigns
Roman Reigns

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