Since the destruction of one of WWE's most beloved tag team trios, The Shield, in 2014, each of its members -- Seth Rollins, Dean Ambrose, and Roman Reigns -- has gone on to be successful as singles wrestlers. While Rollins has risen as one of the "New Era's" greatest heels over the course of the past two years, and Ambrose has ascended to become a true top babyface (if an unlikely one) as WWE world champion, Reigns' character and his portrayal of it have struggled to find footing.
The WWE has attempted to make Reigns the most clear-cut good guy imaginable, with his various fights against The Authority -- primarily composed of Rollins, Triple H and Stephanie McMahon -- standing as his primary storyline over the past two years. The key problem lies in Reigns' fan reception when battling at the main card: He's written to be the kind of face that John Cena has represented for the company over the past 11 years.
While Reigns faces a similar level of disdain to Cena's from most older fans, he also gets at least a little bit less support from the younger fans that are typically able to balance the "Cena sucks" chants with "Let's go, Cena" to articulate just how much support Cena retains to this day.
There have been some signs of a change in Reigns' current feud with United States champion Rusev, as this move feels like a demotion; Reigns has been in the WWE world championship picture for the past two years, winning the top title three times.
Before he can get back to fighting for the top title on his brand, the Universal championship, Reigns still needs a character makeover.
These are the hurdles he faces going forward.
Problem 1: His opponents
Roman's problems as a character begin with his opponents.
In the majority of his feuds and premier matches, Reigns has faced off against some of the top headliners the business has to offer -- many of whom hold a significantly higher amount of respect from the WWE Universe. Right from the start, his earliest singles feuds included Rollins, Randy Orton, Big Show, Triple H, Bray Wyatt and Brock Lesnar.
The feuds with those aforementioned names have had Reigns, as a character, with his back against the wall. Even against the likes of Rollins and Triple H -- two classic heels in their feuds with Reigns -- the crowd embraced the bad guys, for one reason or another. Reigns failed to garner the intrigue of the fan base, and part of it stems from who he has faced.
Problem 2: The writers
WWE's writers have given Reigns one of the heaviest uphill battles to becoming a main event contender in recent memory. Rollins hit the right notes early and quickly received a ringing endorsement from live crowds and fans in his new role as the guy you love to hate. Ambrose went through the classic buildup of being a mid-card attraction as United States champion and later Intercontinental champion, before lifting himself up into the main event by winning the WWE world championship.
Reigns' fight against authority is familiar to WWE fans, and it has worked before. In the Attitude Era, this strategy worked extremely well for Stone Cold Steve Austin, who often feuded with Mr. McMahon, and it was similarly effective for D-Generation X (Triple H and Shawn Michaels), who did the same. The storyline isn't broken, but the way the writers have approached it with Reigns is.
Even in Reigns' greatest moments -- his 2015 Royal Rumble win; his Wrestlemania 31 fight with Lesnar; and his big win at Wrestlemania 32 over Triple H -- the reaction from the crowd was tepid; fans either rooted for his well-respected opponents or didn't react at all. That's not good.
Problem 3: The mic work
Reigns' biggest flaw is on the mic, where he lacks the one key component that can get a wrestler to win over fans, no matter how good they are technically in the ring. Being able to talk is what makes some of the best talent in the WWE as good as they are.
Getting back to Problem 2, wrestlers who are bad at this have historically had managers for them. For example, Brock Lesnar has struggled at times on the microphone during his current tenure in the WWE, but his manager Paul Heyman more than covers up for his faults -- and makes Lesnar look menacing as the silent and dangerous brawler. Greats like The Undertaker and Kane had Paul Bearer, solving the potential issues their silent demeanor might cause -- and making people excited for their characters. This could work for Reigns, who out of the ex-Shield trio certainly has had the most trouble on the mic.
Problem 4: The suspension
On June 21, Reigns was suspended from the WWE for violating the company's wellness policy. While specifics of the violation are not known, if Reigns and the WWE want him to be the face of the company, representing them poorly does each party no favors.
Even though he returned for Battleground and performed well with Ambrose and Rollins for the title, Reigns' suspension puts a blemish on his career that he truly couldn't afford at that particular moment, given his current standing with fans.
WWE could have rolled with the punches and given in to popular demand, using the incident to push Reigns towards being a heel. It would be a more natural fit, given crowd reactions and the bad guy stigma of a suspension, and the silent persona mixed with certain heel-like elements of his look -- his unkempt beard and all-black gear that's an artifact from when The Shield broke into the WWE the most prevalent among them -- but WWE simply didn't pull the trigger.
For the time being, it appears to be Rusev.
Despite the predicament they were in, it looks as if the WWE writers have found a solution for Reigns in the perfect stereotypical heel that Rusev is. Not only does it give Reigns the chance to remain in the spotlight with a title shot (and a potential win) going into one of the biggest pay-per-views of the year, but it also gives him a chance to build from the ground up, similar to Ambrose's journey.
His problems, in the end, aren't about his wrestling ability, which has gradually improved over the past year and was fully on display in his feuds with A.J. Styles and his Shield brethren. He has shown his prowess as a strong competitor in the ring. His signature moves -- the Superman punch and the spear -- certainly come with charisma and history of their own, although he'll inevitably be compared to previous stars, such as Edge, Goldberg and others, who made the move so popular.
By fighting someone like Rusev, who is as universally hated by the fan base as any character in the company at this moment, Reigns has the chance to truly rise to the occasion as the kind of good guy that the WWE has wanted him to be since the dissolution of The Shield. The only difference is a big one: He'll get the chance to emerge into that spotlight naturally, rather than being forced there.
If he beats Rusev, it's possible we'll see Reigns battle it out with the likes of Wyatt, Sami Zayn, Kevin Owens, Cesaro, Darren Young and Titus O'Neil -- providing ample opportunity for Reigns to climb the proverbial ladder and garner some respect from the fans. There are pitfalls to be wary of there too, though: Most of those opponents already have tremendous support from the crowd, and the wrong move could undo the positive steps Reigns has taken of late.
A win for Reigns at SummerSlam and a chance to run with the United States championship could be the beginning of the proper reformation of his character.
But no matter what, it's abundantly clear that Reigns has a long way to go before he reaches the level that the WWE has tried to push him toward as a main event player.