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.
Controversial rise to stardom (2014–2015)
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 in the main event of Fastlane, and succeeded in doing so after beating Bryan 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' main event 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 episode 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, thus losing the world title. 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. Earlier in March 2016, Reigns changed his ring entrance to the entrance ramp (a default like other wrestlers) instead of coming out through the crowd.
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". CM Punk revealed that he was constantly reminded to make Reigns look "really, really strong" despite the Shield being scripted to lose to Punk at the December 2013 TLC event. Reigns was voted the 2013 "Most Improved" by Wrestling Observer Newsletter. At the 2014 Royal Rumble match, the live crowd cheered for Reigns over eventual winner Batista, despite Reigns being a heel. Anoaʻi later acknowledged the reaction as "a cool situation". In mid-2014, Stone Cold Steve Austin said 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. From July to September 2014, Reigns' positive crowd reactions were diminishing. 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?".
At the 2015 Royal Rumble, Reigns was booed heavily after his victory despite portraying a heroic character. By March, Anoaʻi wore blue contact lenses so the Reigns character had blue eyes. 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" negatively. Anoaʻi reacted by saying that all his critics "weren't wrestlers", expressing distaste when non-wrestlers who cannot "lock up" try to critique wrestlers. Going into WrestleMania in 2015, Anoaʻi declared that WWE "is my ship now, I'm the captain here", while Dave Meltzer said that Reigns was the least over WrestleMania main-eventer ever. At WrestleMania 31, Pro Wrestling Torch described Reigns as needing security for his entrance while receiving "universal boos" and middle fingers. Despite the fan backlash in early 2015, critics praised Reigns' performances at Fastlane, WrestleMania and Extreme Rules as exceeding expectations, while the negative reactions continued at Money in the Bank and SummerSlam.
In late 2015, critics described WWE presenting Reigns' character as a "hard-luck underdog" chasing the world title, with WWE having "spent an overwhelming amount of time" on Reigns, "bending over backwards to create new obstacles for him to overcome", "at the expense of almost everyone else on the roster". Reigns received a mixed reaction upon winning and losing his first WWE World Heavyweight Championship at the 2015 Survivor Series event, and a positive reaction on winning his second world title at the Raw after TLC, although a Wrestleview writer reflected that "it's been downhill ever since" for Reigns from then until March 2016.
In 2015 and 2016, WWE has reportedly taken several measures to hide fans' disapproval of Reigns, this included: confiscating anti-Reigns fan signs, editing out anti-Reigns fan signs for photos on their website, muting hostile crowds (including at WrestleMania 32), and piping in canned cheers during Reigns' appearances.
In 2016, Reigns has main-evented every WWE pay-per-view so far and was booed in all of them: Royal Rumble,Fastlane, WrestleMania 32 (which ended with a chorus of boos when Reigns won his third world title),Payback,Extreme Rules, and Money in the Bank.CNET described a "fan rebellion" against WWE "moving heaven and earth" to make Reigns "the face of the company... for the next decade"; while "many fans are aware" that Dean Ambrose "is the true dark horse, both on camera and behind the scenes".ESPN 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 it turned Sgt. Slaughter into an Iraq-sympathizing traitor in 1990". Leading up to WrestleMania 32, Stone Cold Steve Austin, Rikishi and Hulk Hogan called for Reigns to turn heel. Meanwhile, during interviews promoting WrestleMania 32, Anoa'i acknowledged the fan backlash but declared that WWE is a "kids show" and that he wasn't wrestling to impress "grown men" who boo him. He defiantly told his critics that he would not believe any of their negative opinions of him. As for his detractors, Anoa'i told them to "continue to be ready to boo. You're going to be mad a long time. I'm not going away".
On the Raw after WrestleMania, Reigns declared that he was now not a "good guy" nor a "bad guy", but "the guy"; this supposedly indicated a morally ambiguous tweener character turn. As soon as broadcasting for Payback stopped, Reigns reportedly turned on the crowd, yelling angrily at them. 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". In May, Dave Meltzer said WWE wanted Reigns as "the guy who does the charity work, so he has to be positioned as a babyface". Additionally, WWE's "new gimmick" was positioning that people actually "really like" Reigns and only boo because "it's fun to boo him", which Meltzer said was "absolutely not true" in reality. Critics wondered if WWE was "leaving money on the table" by not slotting Rollins as a face and Reigns as a heel, as this was the opposite of what fans wanted (fans were cheering Rollins and booing Reigns). Reigns wrestled against Seth Rollins at both Money in the Bank and the next Raw, where Reigns played a heel in the first match and a face in the second. Then, Reigns' suspension was said by Yahoo! TV to be another chance for WWE to "quit pretending he's some kind of lovable underdog" with a heel turn for Reigns, which "could (and should) have done at a dozen different points since the boos first reigned" at the 2015 Royal Rumble.