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Injury, bad timing and WWE's Roman Reigns problem

Is the customer always right?

Roman Reigns was reviled Sunday night. Hated by a crowd so fiercely that not even The Rock's intervention could save him. Arm raised in victory to a choir of disapproval, the ending of the 2015 Royal Rumble became a microcosm for everything fans have found wrong with WWE creative.

The unfortunate result is a promising young superstar being cut off at the knees when he doesn't deserve it, all because Reigns found himself at the wrong place at the wrong time. It wasn't long ago, a year in fact, that Reigns was the golden child in the eyes of wrestling fans. His multi-elimination rampage in the 2014 Royal Rumble foreshadowed a push many wanted to see. It was predicted that a year later he'd win the Rumble, go on to Wrestlemania and either be the man to win the title or break the Undertaker's streak. At the time everyone was okay with it, a year later the concept is detested.

It isn't because Reigns changed, it's fundamentally because he's the same. As part of The Shield, he was buffered by Seth Rollins and Dean Ambrose, carried along as the strong, silent type who was unquestionably the most physically gifted of the three. The stable was destined to breakup, just like all stables are, but along with that came the promise Reigns would develop in the ring and on the microphone. A full year build up to prepare him for the show.

"While WWE couldn't anticipate or account for Reigns' injury, they didn't adapt to the changing landscape they created."

Suddenly the landscape changed around him. Daniel Bryan was lost to injury, then Reigns himself suffered a hernia at the worst possible time -- right in the middle of the arc that would take him from top-level talent to main event status. While he only missed two months of competition, it felt like an eternity. The vacuum left by Bryan paired with WWE's decision to use Brock Lesnar like a prize fighter created a scenario where new main eventers needed to be found quickly. Rollins was already on the rise, but he was joined quickly by Ambrose and then Dolph Ziggler -- the three were pushed and put over to no end, and crowds responded positively. This is where the Reigns problem began.

It's one of agency. Fans holding onto the concept of "the customer is always right," while WWE itself mirrors its own gimmick, pushing what was "best for business." Wrestling fans -- or to borrow a corporate term "The WWE Universe" -- forgot about Reigns. They fell in love with the stars in front of them, and bought into what WWE was selling. That these young guys on their TVs were the future of the company, but that future didn't include an absent Reigns. WWE did its best to remind you he was there, sticking him on the jumbotron to deliver stilted, angry-sounding lines about what he would do when he returned to the ring, but it wasn't enough. The injury derailed his development, both as a character and superstar. Everyone forgot Roman Reigns existed.

Except for the people in charge.

Here's where the problem lies. While WWE couldn't anticipate or account for Reigns' injury, they didn't adapt to the changing landscape they created. Consider Daniel Bryan: the whole Yes! movement wasn't so much about Bryan himself, but served as the catalyst for fan agency. They were going to cheer for Bryan, non-stop, until WWE took notice and stopped trotting out the same stars seen for a decade in new variations of the same storyline.

From the SB Nation blog network: Cageside Seats' Royal Rumble recap

In pushing Rollins, Ambrose and Ziggler, fans were given the Bryan concept threefold. Young hungry athletes who were embraced and pushed. The timing was perfect with Bryan out, and instead of having one talented superstar WWE didn't think it could market as the face of the franchise, it created three more. It's unlikely creative saw Dean Ambrose having the impact he did, or that saving Survivor Series would push Dolph Ziggler into the stratosphere, but they created this problem. Either the powers that be could lean into their new-found stars, or stick to the plan -- they chose the latter.

That's why fans booed in Philadelphia Sunday night, and why "#CancelWWENetwork" began to trend without the fanfare or trumpeting of Michael Cole. It was a sign that for the second straight year the WWE would force fans to like something, rather than allowing them to feel like they had agency -- even if it was fool's gold.

Reigns went from loved to public enemy in 365 days. Not because of who he is, but who he isn't. Reigns was booed for what he represents, and that's a shame. The 29-year-old is talented enough that he can make an impact, and while he'll never have the charisma required to be John Cena or The Rock, he could definitely fill the roster's void left by The Undertaker and become the athletic big man whose actions speak louder than words. That evolution can happen, but not like this.

The result of the Royal Rumble leaves WWE at an impasse without an easy out. They hit the red button and utilize the nuclear option of making the main event Wrestlemania another triple threat match, but they were forced to hammer that button a year ago when Batista won (for some unknown reason). There's no easy out except the path less traveled, which involves breaking kayfabe and let Reigns have his CM Punk moment.

He could win back crowds by having a heartfelt discussion on how he belongs. Lean into the anger for simply being injured at the wrong time and reminding fans that they once loved him, but that won't happen. Instead creative will put him on TV with The Rock as much as possible in the next two months, hoping the People's Champ's reflected glory will be enough to put just enough light on Reigns that he can get over in March. It won't work, but they think it will.

Reigns will likely win the title at Wrestlemania, start an immediate feud with John Cena and drop the belt within months. Then he'll be required to make the long climb back up the ladder. Right now that seems like the only trajectory this missile can travel, and while it's not fair to Reigns, perhaps it really will be "best for business."