Beneath the boos, you can hear them if you listen closely—Roman Reigns' ardent, loyal fans.
They are graphic designers and college students. They are in the medical field and in accounting. They are in their 20s, 30s, 40s. They are men and women, kids and longtime fans.
It's easy to forget they exist.
No one gets a more visceral negative reaction at WWE events than Reigns. When he hits the entrance ramp anywhere from Newark to Montreal, boos rumble in the arena. Crowds push back against The Big Dog's rise, chanting at him to go away.
Online, there is no shortage of anti-Reigns sentiment.
The same arguments circulate on the web: "He is shoved down fans' throats." "He only has five moves." "He has no charisma."
As much as it seems to be the case when the building is rocking with chants of "You still suck," the Reigns hate isn't universal. The former WWE champion has plenty of supporters, admirers of both his in-ring work and his ability to shake off the haters.
The numbers speak to Reigns' popularity, to how robust his fanbase is despite how much it feels like the dislike for the powerhouse is uniform.
Clips of Reigns are regularly among the most viewed videos on WWE's YouTube channel.
As of this writing, a video of Reigns arguing with Raw general manager Kurt Angle has over 1.4 million views. More than 3.7 million people have watched The Big Dog addressing the controversy surrounding his steel cage match against Brock Lesnar at the Greatest Royal Rumble. Reigns' beatdown of Jinder Mahal has pushed past the six million-view mark.
And while some fans are busy jeering Reigns, others are buying his merchandise. The Wrestling Observer Newsletter (h/t WrestlingInc) noted last year that he outsold any other full-time talent in that department.
Reigns is, in a way, WWE's Nickelback, the act no one seems to admit liking but ends up making big money regardless.
The proud Reigns fans are out there, rooting on the tattooed bruiser amid the waves of antagonism against him. Rhiannon Ratliff, who works at a luxury resort in Florida, is one of them. The 39-year-old's passion for Reigns began at a joyless time.
The summer before The Shield debuted, her mother died of cancer.
Reigns provided a surprising dose of escapism during his 2015 feud with Kane.
"I started listening to him, and he made me smile," Ratliff told Bleacher Report. "He actually made me laugh for the first time in a long time. From then on, I started paying closer attention and, believe it or not, I actually started to feel alive again."
Her story isn't typical, but she isn't alone in her affection for the former muscle of The Shield.
I put out a call for Roman diehards on social media and was soon bombarded with emails. I've gone this route before for article research, and the response this time around was easily 10 times bigger than for any other topic.
Conversations with many of those fans, scouring the internet for positive Reigns talk and polling of Reigns fans in a fifth-grade class at an elementary school in southwest Houston helped get a good idea of the makeup of The Big Dog's fanbase.
Jake Gonnering, who lives in Des Moines, Iowa, admires Reigns' toughness. He knows firsthand what kind of punishment the wrestler endured when he was Joe Anoa'i, Georgia Tech defensive tackle.
Gonnering played college football himself. While at the University of Northern Iowa, the offensive lineman watched film of Anoa'i as his team scouted potential opponents.
"I have no idea how his body holds up after college and NFL football as a lineman," he said. "I'm only 30 and had to retire during an NFL training camp due to neuro and back injuries."
Reigns went from working his ass off on the gridiron to doing so in the wrestling ring. Some may dismiss his prominent position as him getting handed something, but he's done plenty of grinding in learning the art of wrestling and honing his craft. His supporters see that.
The themes of hard work and effort came up again and again in talks with Reigns' fans.
Ratliff is among those who appreciate those traits in him. "No matter what he does, he puts his whole heart into it," she said. "It's no secret he's been given some pretty awful storylines and programs, but he makes the best out of everything."
Despite him being 6'3", a top-flight athlete and handsome to the point that it doesn't seem fair, some see themselves in Reigns. He isn't your typical everyman, but there are elements of his story one can relate to.
Nicky Mataali from Los Angeles said, "He's like us—a family man, a guy that went through the struggles after his football career was over."
Many respect the fact he has embraced the hate he's received and used it as fuel.
Some simply prefer his in-ring style. High-flying athletes are en vogue, but many Reigns enthusiasts like their wrestlers to be hard-hitting bulls who crack guys in the jaw.
It helps that Reigns can morph from that into something much gentler. Many fans spoke highly of their interactions with the Superstar outside of the ring.
Imaan Hussein, a student from London, met Reigns recently at WrestleMania Axxess. "He was extremely nice and genuine, and you can tell he loves to interact with his fans," she recalled. "I can imagine how hard it must be for Roman since 80 percent of wrestling fans dislike the guy, but he still has never been rude or disrespectful to a fan."
The fifth-graders from Houston, not surprisingly, bought into Reigns in part because of his scripted success. They back him because he's a champion several times over, a dominant force, one of only two men to ever defeat Undertaker at WrestleMania.
When asked why Reigns is his favorite, one boy said, "He has only been pinned once." While not quite accurate, it speaks to how younger fans get caught up in the story WWE tries to tell.
The Big Dog's Best
There is no consensus on Reigns' best work. A good number of the fans I spoke with chose a different favorite match or moment.
Some loved his battles with AJ Styles or his brutal feud with Braun Strowman. His bouts against Daniel Bryan at Fastlane 2015, Seth Rollins on Raw last year and Big Show at Extreme Rules 2015 all earned rousing praise.
The variety of answers is a reminder that Reigns is no one-hit wonder; he's had a long list of strong performances, regardless of what his detractors say.
Jason Pires from Rhode Island has been impressed with Reigns since The Shield first charged on to the scene in 2012.
"I loved the intensity of their attack on John Cena and Ryback during their debut at Survivor Series," he said. "I loved their first sit-down interview with Michael Cole, and after seeing their first match against Team Hell No and Ryback at TLC, I was hooked. The Shield became my favorite act in many years, probably since the Attitude Era."
When The Shield disbanded, Reigns kept Pires' attention. The Juggernaut's ferocity is a part of that.
"What drew me to Roman was his intensity," he said. "I know some criticize him for having a somewhat limited move set, but I love that Roman doesn't seem to waste anything. Every move he does is impactful."
The man who once watched film of Reigns on the D-line, Gonnering, eventually began to watch him ram horns with guys in WWE. While Reigns' Extreme Rules clash with Big Show stands out in particular, Gonnering has been impressed by much of what The Big Dog has done.
"No matter the matchup, Reigns can do it," Gonnering said. "If it's a fast-paced match with Rollins or AJ, or a bruiser fight with Braun, KO [Kevin Owens], or [Samoa] Joe, didn't matter."
Some fans still hit Reigns with "You can't wrestle!" chants and dismiss what he's accomplished thus far. The powerhouse's followers, meanwhile, are busy savoring his slugfests each week.
Amid the Animosity
One could write a dissertation on the fans-booing-Reigns phenomenon.
To some, he's become a symbol of WWE's stubbornness, its unwillingness to listen to the crowd. To others, they would much rather see a work-rate wizard a la Finn Balor or Bryan in his place atop the food chain.
"Roman Reigns became the poster boy for the corporate, handpicked champion and became 'the guy WWE pushed instead of Daniel Bryan,'" Pires explained.
For those who enjoy Reigns' oeuvre, standing between packs of fans booing him can be irritating.
"As a Roman fan for over four years, it's frustrating to me," Hussein said. "They ignore the hard facts, Roman's skill and respect he has for the business. Most of the hatred comes solely from his booking, which is not Roman's fault."
Reigns having to endure jeering while taking a pounding for a living gives his supporters another reason to rally behind him.
In that way, he's the underdog. He is forced to prove his worth time and time again, fighting uphill against a legion of doubters. Ratliff believes he succeeds in that fight. "I know when he is in the ring he silences his critics," she said. "Whether it's TV, a house show or PPV, he gives everything he's got every time."
Hating on Reigns has become part of the fun of the WWE experience for some. Booing him is now a sport of sorts within the sports entertainment world.
As Gonnering put it, "It's just like yelling 'John Cena sucks' during his intro or yelling 'You suck' at Angle." Dyana Posner, a casting producer from New York, called Reigns "the Yankees of wrestling."
There may be a simpler answer at play here, though. One fifth-grader said of Reigns' detractors, "They are nerds."
Many thanks to all the Reigns fans who reached out on Twitter and via email as well as the fifth-graders who shared their opinions.