There’s a need to dispense with the positives first here. Sunday night at WWE’s Extreme Rules PPV, Roman Reigns and Finn Balor competed in an excellent match. Could we have done without the red lights, or the cringe convulsions from Balor? Probably, yes. Take that away and what we had until the end of the match was a great, brutal, exciting match that told a story of two champions fighting tooth and nail to claw the prestige of the title away from the other.
As the Demon King, Finn Balor appeared a credible threat to Reigns’ reign, and I believe the match met our expectations as fans in terms of what it needed to be: it needed to be physical, it needed to be entertaining and both needed to seriously threaten the other en route to a Reigns victory. Although we arrived at the result I’m sure many expected, the execution is what undermined the effort as so often seen in WWE programming, which in this instance does more damage than good.
Leading into Sunday, I believed we had two roads. On the one hand, Reigns should have gone over — for a multitude of reasons. You have the fact that he’s steamrolled an entire roster, that you have the Brock match in Saudi Arabia coming up and above all the rumoured match with The Rock at next year’s WrestleMania. More than anything though, WWE has invested in him and his heel persona with Heyman in tow for over a year and it wouldn’t make sense to pull the trigger on a title switch especially when Reigns is almost inarguably the best thing on WWE TV from week to week. Considering that, with him opposite the Demon — who’s never lost save for one defeat in NXT to Samoa Joe — it was an opportunity to check off multiple objectives.
Firstly, the Demon needed to lose the match. Despite being a fan of Balor and his penchant for dabbling in “war paint,” the aura that the Demon is unbeatable complicates the stories Balor is involved in. The way the company’s creative positions it, it’s the atomic bomb gimmick that ends feuds by simple nature of no one being able to match the aggression synonymous with the character. And so as the character’s portrayal has evolved over the last several years, the constant has been when Demon Balor arrives, his opponents lose. Although the entrance is fantastic, and the matches inject the notion of spectacle into the proceedings, the absolute constant has been victory; every time with a clear distinction being made between Finn, the man, and Balor, the Demon King in the booking surrounding those matches. And so, Sunday’s affair was an opportunity — with Reigns in all his dominance to meet the unbeatable force and clash over the Universal Championship — to put Reigns over hugely in defeating the Demon. Such a move, and to do it cleanly (or something in that vein) pushes the Reigns Tribal Chief narrative forward more so, but also unlocks broader story opportunities for the Demon as a persona in terms of what WWE can actually do with it.
While the result is what it needed to be, the road map there damaged the image of Reigns as an alpha champion. Reigns being saved by the Usos is no different than the Young Bucks saving Omega, or any other heel faction protecting its leader and champion throughout wrestling history. That was expected especially as the match’s back and forth efforts teetered eventually in Balor’s favour. As I said, as a match it was everything it needed to be, with the result we needed. However, at the sake of aiming to protect the Demon King persona from decisive defeat, the decisions made at the end of the match position Balor in a better position than the champion, while Reigns appears more lucky than dominant or decisive in his win.
This doesn’t serve either well long term, and it weakens the equity built up in Reigns as much as it positions Demon Balor as the greatest threat in WWE far beyond Brock Lesnar, Kevin Owens, Edge, Bryan Danielson or anyone else who has or will face Reigns for the title. It’s heavily implicit if you follow the chain of events leading into the moment. Dominant win after dominant win, excelling past everyone he’s faced to that point on Sunday. Yet, rather than outwardly defeating the Demon and serving both in the result, the simple act of spontaneously snapping the ring ropes (under the weight of a 190-pound man who’s far, far heavier than Sheamus…obviously) and having that directly lead to a Reigns win says that without his cousins and “an act of God,” he would not or could not have won. It was more about protecting the Demon than reinforcing Reigns’ aura which should have been the point. The match could have been executed identically, with Reigns winning without the rope snap spot and both would have been stronger for it with how the entirety of the bout played out.
Roman Reigns’ Universal title run since 2020 has been defined by exerting dominance over the roster and defeating them — some easier than others — en route to cementing his tribal chief persona at the apex of WWE’s landscape. Is it permanently damaging? Hardly. Yet, while the presumption is WWE would prefer us not to remember plot points, the mind will wander back to this moment the next time — likely as soon as Friday — when Roman proclaims himself “God’s” favourite champion or some random delineation of Miro’s gimmick (or much more likely a new Fatu is entering the mix?). The aura has a chink in it now, because that’s just how perception works and it’s a far better outcome if Reigns wins without oddity, and Demon Balor loses to open his own avenues for storytelling beyond “I am Demon, watch me win” in terms of the psychology of him putting on war paint to reflect his “inner demons.” What really differentiates the Demon from the Fiend at this point?
If all roads for Roman are meant to lead him to a showdown with The Rock at WrestleMania, or something as big, then what purpose does it serve for him to eek out a lucky win against someone who even in their transformed state he should put down if we accept the legitimacy of him doing the same to everyone else? The convention is to say, “let’s watch it play out,” but when it comes to Reigns whose storytelling since his return has been iron clad tight, there’s no luxury to be afforded here. He’s the guy, and to allow him to win uncleanly and by what you can categorize as a fluke leads me to think either Lesnar is putting over Reigns in Saudi Arabia, and that Balor and Reigns could meet again at the next PPV. And if not, then on to the next challenger (whomever that’s going to be), which drags us back to the lack of service of this outcome and how it affects Reigns and Balor separately.
The narrative was that the Demon will do anything to win, is un-fatigueable and was evidently the most serious threat to Reigns’ title. That WWE spent weeks building that fact plays to the strength they see in the character and seems to have also directed their move to protect its aura in spite of Reigns indirectly. Why that’s an issue is there’s a difference between Kenny Omega who’s driven entirely by the aura of success and his own egoism and to moreover appear as a smarmy chicken shit in passing, and Reigns getting lucky and acting like he’s amazing when it contradicts the year’s worth of storytelling he’s been building up — that being, his aggressive alpha-level dominance.
The Reign Continues
As for the next steps, our gaze turns directly to the Saudi show and Reigns’ set clash with Brock Lesnar. The danger we have arrived at with Reigns is that at this point with the “most dangerous threat Reigns has” dispensed, who’s left? The upcoming draft could present fresher options than another match with Kevin Owens or Edge, but we could see people like AJ Styles, Randy Orton and the like split from their current storylines and move over to Smackdown (or perhaps the Bloodline moves as a whole to Raw). If neither happens though, acknowledging the Lesnar match as one Reigns will likely win, it’s conceivable we may have another Balor match to actually pay off the feud properly — as it is, Sunday’s main event simply wasn’t it.
Problematically however, the issue with Roman’s booking (and the second pathway I saw), considering he’s cleaned out Smackdown, is if the endgame is a Mania showdown presumably with the Rock, that’s 6 months away and perceptively there aren’t enough challengers to keep Reigns occupied. It’s an issue to the degree that we have to consider how his reign ends and whom takes the belt off him. Is it Lesnar? Does Reigns successfully defend against Lesnar and do we circle back to Balor for one more match in which Balor prevails? Is it a series of contenders from Raw? Is it a new face from NXT, say Bron “Not A Steiner” Breakker?
A secondary issue we have now is if the endgame is the Rock, does Reigns NEED the title for that match? I’m sure he’ll carry it, but I’d argue Reigns and Rock sells itself considering Rock’s own notoriety and Reigns’ own equity in himself that he’s built over the last year (sans this past weekend). The one wrinkle with having the title in play is the result becomes predictable, and I think if you really want to run this match, the fans need to believe there’s a serious chance Rock will win which is achievable if the Universal title is elsewhere if only for a short while. Otherwise it’s less intriguing.
Reigns’ road ahead is a little murkier now, and if the plan is for him to hold the title until WrestleMania then he’s going to need a steady cast of opponents to occupy him in the meantime while also reasserting his dominance over a landscape he’s run roughshod over for a year.