Looking back at Roman Reigns’ historic title reign ahead of showdown with Cody Rhodes

For years, WWE fans rejected the idea of Roman Reigns as the top star in the promotion. The pushback came from feelings that WWE had forced Reigns down the WWE Universe’s collective throat, removing the organic ascension that has marked professional wrestling’s biggest all-time superstars. Perhaps no moment had exemplified WWE’s seeming desperate need to push Reigns as “the man” as much as the 2015 Royal Rumble, a match Reigns won as the crowd chanted “We want refunds” and where The Rock showed up to provide a sort of endorsement of his cousin, with even the superstar’s appearance doing nothing to win the crowd over to Reigns’ side.

Things finally changed for Reigns in August 2020. After choosing to skip WrestleMania earlier that year and remain on the sidelines for months at the start of the COVID-19 pandemic — a personal choice for being immunocompromised from multiple battles with leukemia — Reigns made a surprise return at SummerSlam.

Reigns, having transformed his already impressive physique into an even more impressive physique while on the sidelines, appeared after the main event between universal champion Bray Wyatt and challenger Braun Strowman to demolish both men. By the following Friday, it was official that this was a new Reigns, aligning with Paul Heyman and turning heel — a move fans had long demanded as they had clearly rejected the idea of him as the promotion’s top babyface — in preparation for an Aug. 30 triple threat match with Wyatt and Strowman for the universal title at Payback.

Reigns won the title as he chose to not even join the match until the final moments and finish off Wyatt with a low blow and Strowman with a spear. In that moment, a historic title reign kicked off and signaled that Reigns had become so much more than he ever had been before.

Carrying the ThunderDome era
Reigns’ return and new persona had created a buzz, and it was a buzz WWE needed as they embraced the new world created by the ongoing pandemic, launching the ThunderDome, an experience in arenas where fans appeared on LED boards as a virtual crowd while WWE piped in artificial noise, making the best of an unprecedented situation.

The ThunderDome also allowed Reigns to develop his character in ways that would not have been possible with live crowds. Reigns leaned on a lot of in-match dialogue in those early months as champion, working a slower, more methodical style all while talking to his opponents every step of the way.

That new style was quickly put on display in Reigns’ first feud after becoming champion, a very well-received program with Jey Uso that not only cemented Reigns’ new heel persona but also elevated Uso to a new status as a believable main event star.

The rivalry with Jey — and his twin brother, Jimmy — also established The Bloodline. After Reigns defeated Jey in an I Quit match inside Hell in a Cell, he forced his cousin to acknowledge him as “The Tribal Chief” and new leader of the legendary Anoaʻi family.

A dominant run to the undisputed title
Having brought The Usos to his cause, Reigns continued to steamroll contenders to his universal championship. This included great rivalries with Kevin Owens, Edge and Daniel Bryan — in a rivalry that ended Bryan’s WWE career. Just shy of one year after winning the universal title, Reigns defeated John Cena at SummerSlam, adding another big name to his championship resume.

Things were not perfect, of course, and keeping consistently positive momentum for a yearslong championship reign is an impossible ask.

At times, The Usos constant interference to tilt things in Reigns’ favor could grate on audiences. And a match with Finn Balor at Extreme Rules in 2021 sticks out as a particularly sore spot, with Balor appearing in his “Demon” persona only to lose the match when the top rope “broke,” causing him to fall to the canvas and allowing Reigns to pick up the win. This angle never went anywhere, the program with Balor was ended and both men moved on as if nothing had happened.

Challenger after challenger stepped up and was swatted away, all leading to a showdown with WWE champion Brock Lesnar in a unification clash at WrestleMania 38 in April 2022, more than 580 days after Reigns won the universal championship. Slightly more than 12 minutes after the match started, Reigns was officially the undisputed WWE universal champion.

The Bloodline drama escalates
Reigns becoming undisputed champion coincided with a new contract that saw him on television far less. Since WrestleMania 38, Reigns has defended his titles on television or pay-per-view a total of six times, with four other matches in which he teamed with Bloodline members.

The Bloodline, however, continued to be the premier storyline on WWE television. Solo Sikoa, cousin of Reigns and The Usos, joined the group, as did Sami Zayn. Zayn first began pushing for inclusion in Reigns’ inner circle in the weeks following Reigns’ WrestleMania win over Lesnar and pitched himself as an honorary member of the group, or an “honorary uce.” While The Usos, who went on to unify both the Raw and SmackDown tag titles, initially welcomed Zayn as something of a joke, he helped them win matches and took bullets for Reigns, slowly gaining trust until August 2022 when Reigns presented Zayn with his own “honorary uce” shirt. All the while, Jey Uso was the lone holdout on trusting Zayn, only fully coming around when Zayn was put “on trial.”

Sikoa, meanwhile, joined the group when he debuted to save Reigns against Drew McIntyre at Clash at the Castle, one of the moments many felt Reigns dropping the title would have been the right call, with a rabid crowd in England behind their countryman, only for The Bloodline numbers game to win out again.

Reigns eventually pushed Zayn too far during this period. Despite Zayn repeatedly siding with Reigns over his former best friend, Kevin Owens, it never seemed that Zayn had done enough to earn Reigns’ loyalty. That built to Zayn snapping and hitting Reigns with a steel chair, rather than a defenseless Owens at January’s Royal Rumble.

The betrayal led to a singles match between Zayn and Reigns at February’s Elimination Chamber. Again, Reigns was able to retain his title in front of an opponent’s hometown crowd. And again, Reigns turned away the challenger, disappointing a rabid audience both live and watching at home.

Zayn also lost his final connection to The Bloodline when Jey Uso turned on him in the wake of the loss to Reigns, again cementing that all members of The Bloodline stood with Reigns above all else.

Cody Rhodes and the road to Roman Reigns’ fallen kingdom
Zayn and Owens eventually reunited and set themselves to challenge The Usos for the undisputed tag titles at WrestleMania, the same show where Reigns would be forced to defend his undisputed title against Royal Rumble winner Cody Rhodes.

Like many of Reigns’ challengers over the more than 940 days since he first won the universal championship, the crowd is firmly behind Rhodes. But perhaps only McIntyre and Zayn have had the same level of time, place and momentum with the fans to be “the right guy” to end Reigns’ incredible run with the title.

And, quite frankly, not having Rhodes win at WrestleMania would be a WrestleMania mistake on par with Triple H defeating Booker T at WrestleMania 19.

Fans were deflated when Zayn didn’t beat Reigns in February. Zayn had become arguably the most popular member of the entire WWE roster and his story had built so perfectly to a shot at Reigns. Similarly, since returning from helping create All Elite Wrestling, Rhodes has been red-hot both in the ring and with the fans, with only injury hampering his momentum.

To have the two most popular babyfaces on the roster lose to Reigns in back-to-back matches would be a mistake that would loom over the promotion and Reigns.

There is good news for Reigns, however. The story of the fall of a king and the aftermath can often be more interesting than their time on the throne.

Reigns has sat atop the WWE for nearly 950 days, fending off challengers, navigating familial drama and controlling every top title in the promotion. What happens when The Usos are no longer undisputed tag team champions and Rhodes takes Reigns’ two world championships? Can Reigns hold The Bloodline together or will failure shatter the bonds that have been built during the longest WWE world championship reign since Hulk Hogan held the WWE championship from January 1984 to February 1988?

Reigns’ time as champion has had incredible highs and some forgettable lows, but he has elevated every current and former member of The Bloodline. The Usos are now superstars whether as a team or as singles, Sikoa has become a legitimate force on the roster and Zayn reached a level of popularity few ever manage in professional wrestling while the group combined to tell one of the best stories in WWE history.

It’s time to move to the next step for both the story and for Reigns as an individual. It’s time to see Reigns sitting in the middle of a fallen kingdom, finally forced to reckon with his own mortality.

We’ll see if WWE pulls the trigger and sets Reigns down that path on Sunday night. Not doing so would be the biggest mistake the company can make.

Leave a comment