WWE’s Roman Reigns vs. AEW’s Kenny Omega: Which Star Owns Wrestling in 2021?
Each successful period in professional wrestling history can be defined by the top stars of their respective promotions.
These select few men or women stand ahead of the crowd and set the tone for others to follow much like "Stone Cold" Steve Austin became a megastar and WWE molded The Attitude Era around his vulgar, no-nonsense, anti-authority characteristics. Similarly, John Cena guided the company into the Ruthless Aggression Era as the unquestioned top guy.
These days, it's a little harder to anoint someone the face of a company because fans are so fickle and a cynical sect of the audience will reject anyone whose rise appears to be contrived.
Cena spoke about this phenomenon last year during his appearance on Corey Graves' After The Bell podcast (h/t Douglas Canavin of Wrestling Inc):
“The crowd is so mixed that if the company puts its faith behind an individual, the knee-jerk reaction of the audience, even if they liked the guy last week, is to say ‘f--k you, you're not going to tell me who I like.' So the audience is also tipping the scales of this not being able to happen. Universal popularity will never happen because someone will see it and get on to it and be like, ‘he seems to be getting popular, let's stop this right now,' or, ‘she seems to be getting popular let's change this right now,' and I've seen it happen with guys who are really darlings of that underground crew make it, and as soon as they make it, the rug is pulled out from under them.”
This perfectly encapsulates how Seth Rollins' white-hot run in 2018 crashed and burned (no pun intended) by the fall of 2019.
Monday Night Rollins reached a fever pitch when he delivered incredible intercontinental title matches every week en route to his Royal Rumble win. He was the brightest star on Raw but once he became the universal champion those favorable reactions changed.
The infamous main event of Hell in a Cell against "The Fiend" Bray Wyatt was the nail in the coffin, and the backlash forced him to take on the villainous Messiah persona.
Is it any wonder that two of the biggest stars in the industry are narcissistic characters who don't want to be cheered? Roman Reigns spent years as one of the most divisive figures in WWE history, but his heel turn has made him into one of the most compelling figures on the roster. Meanwhile, Kenny Omega has taken on a familiar gimmick and set his sights on world championship gold in All Elite Wrestling.
Ironically, these two men are also arguably at height of their popularity at the moment as the flag-bearers for WWE and AEW, which has sparked debates about who's the best. That's kind of a tough question, and the answer is probably subjective. Nevertheless, let's establish who holds the top spot in the wrestling world.
Reigns' Ascension to The Head of the Table
Reigns' return at SummerSlam 2020 was legitimately one of the most shocking moments of the year.
The former Shield member had faded from most fans' radars after he went on a hiatus in April for health reasons. So, when he returned and transformed his often-maligned babyface character into a vicious and arrogant antagonist, the WWE Universe was taken aback.
Many viewers had been demanding a heel turn for so long that it felt surreal to see The Big Dog finally embrace his dark side. Even more, he aligned himself with the advocate of one of his most memorable rivals, Paul Heyman. It seemed like something that could only happen on someone's WWE 2K Universe Mode or a passionate pitch from some small messageboard.
Honestly, though, it's the best thing that could have happened to the second-generation star.
As The Tribal Chief, he is doing the best character work of his career. His motives draw on his Samoan heritage in a tasteful and riveting way. To that end, Reigns isn't a dated foreign heel who uses the fear of otherness for cheap heat. Instead, the storied Anoaʻi dynasty and his culture enriches his storylines and adds depth to his new outlook.
Since his Universal Championship win, the 35-year-old has legitimized the title, which often felt cursed. Now, it's seemingly more relevant than the WWE title, and SmackDown is easily the best main roster show most weeks.
On April 10-11, Reigns will inevitably headline WrestleMania for the fifth time in his career, and this time no one will bat an eyelid.
Omega’s Quest for Immortality
Similarly, many fans have been clamoring for Omega to turn heel and reintroduce The Cleaner, a character he popularized during his time with New Japan Pro-Wrestling.
NJPW viewers got their wish when The Best Bout Machine began making long and ostentatious entrances complete with dancers carrying brooms.
Omega had teased a change for months. But he finally revealed his master plan when his longtime friend, Don Callis, helped him beat Jon Moxley for the AEW World Championship on the Dec. 2 episode of Dynamite. Then, the two shocked the wrestling world when they took the title to Impact Wrestling a week later.
During his Impact debut, Omega proclaimed that he wouldn't stop with AEW's top prize, and he planned to collect championship gold from other companies.
The Cleaner already holds the AAA world heavyweight title and now has his eyes set on Rich Swann's newly unified title. At Impact Retribution, the 2018 PWI Wrestler of the Year will have his chance to strap a third belt around his waist when he challenges Swann in the main event.
This unprecedented win could make Omega one of the most hated men in the industry. On the other hand, it will also raise the bar and create more enthusiasm for the former IWGP heavyweight champion to challenge his ex-partner, Kota Ibushi.
The pair, who previously teamed up as The Golder Lovers, have been throwing shots at each other online and leaving breadcrumbs in their promos for eager fans all year.
Roman Reigns' Cool Factor vs. Kenny Omega's Droll Self Mockery
The major difference between Omega and Reigns is their personality traits and wants. The Tribal Chief is a much more grounded character. He feels the end justifies the means because this role has been thrust upon him by WWE and his family.
Sika’s youngest son is merely doing what he thinks is best for the fans, his family, and the company. In his mind, Reigns is the only one who can carry this burden and he no longer cares what anyone thinks about the tactics he uses to keep WWE and his legacy relevant.
Meanwhile, The Cleaner is essentially a cartoonish megalomaniac in search of world domination. While Reigns’ Island of Relevance is confined to Friday nights, Omega’s pursuit of other world titles is more grandiose and audacious. If Cody Rhodes planned for AEW to be a revolution, then Omega plans to warp those words into wrestling’s version of Manifest destiny. Unlike the universal champion, he’s not doing this for the greater good; he’s doing this, like Ibushi, to become a god among men.
Both characters are steeped in pro wrestling continuity but Reigns is more relatable. It’s harder for some fans to buy into Omega’s kitsch performance and many mainstream fans won’t understand all of the history he is referencing. Furthermore, The Tribal Chief is cool and brooding and The Cleaner is intentionally sniveling and dorky. It makes it easy to root against AEW’s third world champion, while WWE’s prodigal son has had women swooning since he ditched his trademark chest protector.
The Tale of the Tape
The deciding factor for some fans will be in-ring ability but Omega and Reigns are a lot closer in this category than most viewers are willing to admit.
The ninth WWE grand slam champion moves extremely well for his size and his knack for storytelling is extremely understated. He sells really well and his false finishes are some of the most convincing. Also, the addition of a more brutal-looking mat-based offense and the Guillotine choke makes his style less crowd-pleasing and more imposing.
The Best Bout Machine gained the moniker after his classic matches with Kazuchika Okada, Hiroshi Tanahashi, and many more. In this era where work rate is championed, Omega is one of the greatest. That’s why he gains so many year-end honors and five-star matches. His hard-hitting and spot-driven style may not thrill some purists but he is electric when he’s firing on all cylinders.
Still, The One-Winged Angel, the most protected finisher in the industry, is one of the few things that gives Omega an edge over Reigns. The one-handed electric chair driver looks better than the Superman Punch and it is a guaranteed victory. It’s also unique in a time where several wrestlers use similar move sets.
Wrestling is Omega’s greatest strength and AEW relies on longer, high octane matches. Reigns currently excels with WWE where character and promo work often trumps in-ring ability. That doesn’t mean the Big Dog can’t go, but The Cleaner is more renowned for what he can do in the squared circle.
Although Omega is having a fantastic run, Reigns is probably a better character right now. Also, his promos have vastly improved as a heel. Callis does the heavy lifting for The Cleaner in that department.
Surprisingly, Heyman doesn’t do the talking for The Tribal Chief as he did for Brock Lesnar. Instead, he acts as an advisor while his client savagely berates and humiliates his opponents.
More to the point, Reigns is doing his best work on a much bigger stage so more people outside of the wrestling bubble know who he is. Omega is more beloved by a smaller, niche crowd. That makes delusions of grandeur more intriguing in some ways but it also makes it difficult for some mainstream fans to interpret.
For those reasons, Roman Reigns is the bigger star and he owns the world of professional wrestling. That’s not something many of us would’ve said even a year ago and some people will undoubtedly still disagree. But he should be applauded for managing to turn his fortunes around and create such a brilliant character. He went from a polarizing good guy to the top heel in the company.