In 2008, Anoaʻi was signed by the Edmonton Eskimos of the Canadian Football League (CFL). Wearing the number 99, Anoaʻi played for one season with the Eskimos, featuring in five games, of which he started three. Anoaʻi's most notable game came against the Hamilton Tiger-Cats in September, where he tied for the team lead with five tackles and had a forced fumble. Anoa'i was released by the Eskimos on November 10, 2008, and proceeded to retire from football.
After WWE rebranded FCW to NXT, Anoaʻi, with the new ring name of Roman Reigns, made his debut on the October 31, 2012 episode of NXT by defeating CJ Parker. After defeating Chase Donovan two weeks later, Reigns wrestled his last match on the December 5 episode of NXT by defeating Gavin Reids.
The Shield then indistinctly ended their association with Punk while beginning a feud with John Cena, Ryback, and Sheamus that directed to a six-man tag match on February 17 at Elimination Chamber, which The Shield won. The Shield had their first Raw match the following night, where they gained success against Ryback, Sheamus, and Chris Jericho. Sheamus then formed an alliance with Randy Orton and Big Show to face the trio at WrestleMania 29, where The Shield emerged victorious in their first WrestleMania match. The following night on Raw, The Shield attempted to attack The Undertaker, but were stopped by Team Hell No. This set up a six-man tag team match on the April 22 episode of Raw, which The Shield won. On the May 13 episode of Raw, The Shield's undefeated streak in televised six-man tag team matches ended in a disqualification loss in an elimination tag team match against Cena, Kane and Bryan.
In March, The Shield began feuding with Kane, which turned all members of The Shield into fan favorites in the process. Over the next few weeks, The Shield continued exchanging assaults with Kane, who was joined by The New Age Outlaws (Road Dogg and Billy Gunn), leading to a match between the two teams at WrestleMania XXX, which The Shield won. The feud with Kane also prompted The Shield to sever ties with Triple H, who reformed Evolution to counter them. The Shield defeated Evolution at both Extreme Rules and Payback. After Batista "quit" WWE the following night on Raw, Triple H initiated his "plan B" which involved Rollins turning on The Shield and aligning himself with Triple H and The Authority.
World title pursuits and reigns (2014–present)
Reigns in April 2014
After the dissolution of The Shield in June 2014, Reigns (now a singles wrestler) was quickly inserted into world title contention that month, and he headlined the next two pay-per-views; the first when, two weeks after Rollins' betrayal, Reigns won a battle royal on the June 16, 2014, episode of Raw to gain a spot in the vacant WWE World Heavyweight Championship ladder match at Money in the Bank, but failed to win the title during the main event match. The second pay-per-view was July 20's Battleground, where Reigns again unsuccessfully challenged for the world title, this time in a fatal four-way main event match (also involving Kane, Randy Orton and defending champion John Cena). The following night on Raw, Reigns started a feud with Randy Orton, which led to a match between the two, on August 17, at SummerSlam, where Reigns defeated Orton. Meanwhile, Reigns' former team-mates Dean Ambrose and Seth Rollins had been feuding over Rollins' betrayal; with Rollins beating Ambrose in five matches, and ultimately injuring Ambrose in the storyline. This led to a feud between Rollins and Reigns, where a singles match was set up for Night of Champions. However, six days before the pay-per-view, Reigns cleanly defeated Rollins in a singles match on Raw. Then, Reigns developed a legitimateincarcerated hernia which required surgery a day or two prior to Night of Champions, and as a result, Rollins was declared the winner via forfeit, while Reigns was ruled out of action indefinitely.
James Caldwell of the Professional Wrestling Torch Newsletter, in February 2015, on Reigns' background compared to that of his Shield teammates
Reigns returned to WWE television on the December 8 episode of Raw, accepting the 2014 "Superstar of the Year" Slammy Award. Six days later at TLC: Tables, Ladders and Chairs, when Big Show interfered in John Cena's match against Seth Rollins, Reigns attacked both Big Show and Rollins, helping Cena win. This started a feud between Reigns and Big Show, in which Reigns defeated him multiple times by countout and disqualification. On January 25, 2015, Reigns, entering at number 19, won the 2015 Royal Rumble match by eliminating the other entrants in the final four: Big Show, Kane and lastly Rusev. The following night on Raw, Reigns acknowledged being part of the Anoaʻi family for the first time on WWE television. On the February 2 episode of Raw, Reigns suffered his first pinfall loss in a singles match on the main roster when Big Show defeated him after interference from Rollins. Reigns was then forced to defend his WrestleMania title shot against Daniel Bryan at Fastlane and succeeded in doing so after beating him via pinfall. Post-Fastlane, Bryan and Paul Heyman endorsed Reigns with "two shockingly transparent promos... attempting to illustrate Reigns' greatness". On March 29, at WrestleMania 31, Seth Rollins cashed in his Money in the Bank contract while Reigns' match with Brock Lesnar was in progress, turning it into a triple threat, which Reigns lost when he was pinned by Rollins.
On the October 26 episode of Raw, Reigns won a fatal four-way match (also involving Alberto Del Rio, Dolph Ziggler and Kevin Owens) to become the number one contender for the WWE World Heavyweight Championship. However, on November 4, then champion Seth Rollins legitimately injured his knee and vacated the title, which led to a tournament to crown a new champion. Following this, Triple H attempted to persuade Reigns into joining The Authority by offering him a bye into the tournament finals which Reigns declined. He then defeated Big Show in the first round,Cesaro in the quarterfinals,Alberto Del Rio in the semifinals and Dean Ambrose in the finals at Survivor Series, to win the WWE World Heavyweight Championship for the first time. Triple H attempted to offer congratulations, but Reigns hit him with a spear and Sheamus then cashed in his Money in the Bank contract and pinned Reigns, thus ending Reigns' reign at only 5 minutes. Reigns then failed to regain the title from Sheamus in a Tables, Ladders, and Chairs match at TLC, after being helped by his fellow League of Nations members Alberto Del Rio and Rusev; subsequently, Reigns would attack the trio and also Triple H, who came out to stop him.
The next night on the December 14 episode of Raw, Mr. McMahon granted Reigns a title rematch against Sheamus, with Reigns' career on the line, and after overcoming McMahon, Del Rio and Rusev's interferences, Reigns defeated Sheamus and regained the WWE World Heavyweight Championship. On the January 4, 2016 episiode of Raw, Reigns successfully defended his title against Sheamus, despite McMahon acting as the special guest referee. Reigns was then slated to defend his title in the Royal Rumble match at the Royal Rumble pay-per-view, where Reigns scored a total of five eliminations after entering first, heading backstage for much of the match after an attack by The League of Nations, and was eliminated upon his return by eventual winner Triple H. At Fastlane, Reigns pinned Dean Ambrose in a triple threat match also involving Brock Lesnar, to receive a WWE World Heavyweight Championship match against Triple H at WrestleMania 32, where he defeated Triple H in the main event to become the WWE World Heavyweight Champion for a third time.
Persona and reception
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While in NXT in 2012, Roman Reigns' character was a "businessman" who was "always dressed to impress" and viewed himself as "the most valuable commodity in WWE". After transferring to WWE's main roster, his character was changed to the "powerhouse" and "heavy hitter" of The Shield, as well as an "exceptional athlete". Noted as the least talkative of The Shield members, in mid-2013, Reigns' character was tweaked from "the quiet muscle" to being an "ultra-confident" source of leadership with "quiet strength" and only needing "a few words to make his point". CM Punk revealed that he was constantly reminded to make Reigns look "really, really strong" during his match with The Shield at the December 2013 TLC event, despite The Shield being scripted to lose. Reigns was voted the 2013 "Most Improved" by Wrestling Observer Newsletter. At the 2014 Royal Rumble match, Reigns broke the record for most eliminations and finished as the runner-up. The live crowd cheered for Reigns over eventual winner Batista, despite Reigns being a heel. Anoa'i later acknowledged the positive crowd reaction as a "cool situation" and a "surreal moment". In mid-2014, Stone Cold Steve Austin said that he saw great potential in Reigns, while David Shoemaker of Grantland wrote that Reigns had "mystery and intensity", as well as "superstar written all over him".
After The Shield disbanded, Reigns (unlike the other former Shield members) retained much of The Shield's aesthetic including ring attire, theme music and ring entrance. It was noted in July 2014 that Reigns was receiving a "vocal seal of approval" from live audiences, but suffered "continually fading reactions" each week by September. Reigns' win of WWE's 2014 Superstar of the Year Slammy Award garnered surprise to the point of accusations of vote-rigging, but both PWInsider and Dave Meltzer stated that the fan vote was legitimate. Reigns then finished in second place for Wrestling Observer Newsletter's"Most Overrated" award in 2014, a feat repeated in 2015. Writers from the Pro Wrestling Torch Newsletter criticized Reigns in 2014 and 2015, for a "very limited" in-ring moveset, "forced promo delivery" and a "petulant and annoyed" attitude ill-befitting of a top babyface. Fellow pro wrestler Mikey Whipwreck said Reigns was "trying to be like John Cena", who was "very polarizing".
"I don't think I'm headbutting with [hardcore fans], I feel like they are headbutting me. [...] One thing that kind of confuses me is that it is a performance, it is a show, there is a storyline. When people start doing the 'He deserves this, He deserves that', really did Brad Pitt deserved [sic] to be Achilles in [the film] Troy?".
From late 2014 to early 2015, various critics raised concerns that Reigns, despite being "not fully ready", was "being pushed too hard, too soon" while WWE tried to make him their next "flagship star", "no matter how fans reacted". Dave Meltzer was asked if there had been anyone less over than Reigns while main-eventing WrestleMania: Meltzer answered, "No, there has never been". Several WWE personnel defended Reigns; Triple H said that no one could be really ready to be thrust into the company's top spot, while Paul Heyman said that the "talented" Reigns "has adapted to this business as fast as anyone I've ever seen".
At the 2015 Royal Rumble, Reigns was booed heavily after his victory despite portraying a heroic character and being endorsed by The Rock. Going into WrestleMania in 2015, A'noai declared to the media that WWE "is my ship now, I'm the captain here". Saying that all his critics "weren't wrestlers", A'noai stated that "it really does pop me" when non-wrestlers who cannot "lock up" critique wrestlers. On another occasion, A'noai ignored dissatisfaction based on him not doing "what Daniel Bryan or your other favorite wrestlers did", and told crowds that "when I'm talkin', shut the hell up and let me talk". Lastly, A'noai reminded "smarter fans" to "think about the kids, think about what kind of example you're setting", since WWE is rated PG and targeting families.
At WrestleMania 31, Pro Wrestling Torch described Reigns as needing security for his entrance while receiving "universal boos" and middle fingers. Reigns was also booed on the post-WrestleMania Raw. WWE reportedly confiscated a number of anti-Reigns fan signs both pre and post-WrestleMania 31. Despite the fan backlash in early 2015, Reigns' performances at Fastlane, WrestleMania and Extreme Rules were widely praised by reviewers as having "delivered" and "exceeded all expectations", including "a star-making performance" at WrestleMania. Yet, Reigns continued to face negative crowd reactions at 2015 PPVs such as Money in the Bank and SummerSlam.
In November 2015, Forbes wrote that "WWE continues to manufacture Reigns as a hard-luck underdog" chasing the world title. At the 2015 Survivor Series event, Reigns received mixed reactions from the crowd on his way to winning and losing his first WWE World Heavyweight Championship. In December, a Rolling Stone writer argued that WWE writers "spent an overwhelming amount of time" on Reigns "at the expense of almost everyone else on the roster... basically bending over backwards to create new obstacles for him to overcome". However, at the Raw after TLC, Reigns got a pop after winning his second WWE World Heavyweight Championship. The Wrestling Observer then complimented WWE's booking of TLC and the following Raw, saying they "pressed the right buttons" with Reigns when he "beat up two of [fans'] biggest targets: Vince [McMahon] and HHH". Yet, a Wrestleview writer reflected in March 2016, "From that one December night when finally everything went right for [Reigns], it's been downhill ever since... Reigns got to the mountaintop once and immediately lost all of his steam".
During the 2016 Royal Rumble match, Reigns was booed again, over eventual winner Triple H; with a similar negative reaction at Fastlane.Dean Ambrose being cheered over Reigns not only happened at Fastlane, but also during two previous world title matches (Payback and Survivor Series in 2015). Even a prolonged, bloody attack on Reigns on the post-Fastlane Raw led to Reigns' adversary Triple H being cheered, including "Yes!" chants.CNET described a "fan rebellion" against WWE "moving heaven and earth" to make Reigns "the face of the company... for the next decade"; as despite Reigns being the storyline "ultimate underdog... forced (and routinely able) to overcome increasingly insurmountable odds", "many fans are aware" that Dean Ambrose "is the true dark horse, both on camera and behind the scenes". On March 29, pro wrestling journalist Wade Keller concluded that Reigns has been an "utter failure" in his top babyface role. Around March 2016, Reigns changed his ring entrance from through the crowd to the (default) entrance ramp, due to WWE wanting him to "get to that ring as fast as possible".
WrestleMania 32 ended with a chorus of boos when Reigns won the WWE World Heavyweight Championship for the third time. Leading up to that event, Anoa'i gave several interviews due to his starring role; acknowledging fan backlash, but still claiming "a lot of supporters". Declaring that WWE is a "kids show"; Anoa'i said he was "in this business for the families" and "not really" for "grown men" who boo him. Then, Anoa'i defiantly taunted his critics: "There's nothing that anybody can say negatively to me that will make me believe you are correct. It's just your opinions... If you’re going against me, we're sorry for what's going to happen next". He went on to advise detractors to "continue to be ready to boo. You're going to be mad a long time. I'm not going away".ESPN reported that WWE muted the WrestleMania crowd's negative reaction to Reigns, and described that "WWE started building Roman Reigns as the next great hero of the company about 18 months ago", but Reigns instead became the "most despised wrestler WWE has had since" 1990's Sgt. Slaughter.
On the Raw after WrestleMania, Reigns declared that he was now not a "good guy" nor a "bad guy", but "the guy"; while this supposedly indicated a morally ambiguous tweener character turn, The A.V. Club reported Reigns lacked heroic attributes with a condescending attitude. Also in April, Pro Wrestling Dot Net reported that WWE "went out of their way to use [the charity] Make A Wish in hopes of getting [Reigns] over as a good guy".