It is difficult to build a heel around whom an entire wrestling company can revolve. WWE found this out in 2003, when it ensured the entire Raw brand revolved around Triple H to the groans of the audience, and in 2015, when Seth Rollins followed in his footsteps as the new face of the company.
The company's inability to take a page from Jim Crockett Promotions in the 1980s and develop a heel who can carry the top of the card the way Ric Flair did, in a manner that breeds stars while keeping the bad guy interesting, is well-documented.
Luckily for WWE, the turn that made Roman Reigns its lead villain at SummerSlam last August has proved hugely successful, leading to ratings success for SmackDown and both redefining what a heel in professional wrestling can be while also paving the way for the company's future.
A New Heel Centerpiece
There is something wholly different about Reigns in comparison to those WWE has tried to push as centerpiece heels in the past. He is not obnoxious and does not deliver meandering 20-minute promos that solve nothing and leave no one wanting to see the match it is intended to sell.
He's not over the top in his anger, rarely raises his voice and doesn't spend a huge chunk of his mic time yelling at the fans.
Reigns is cool and collected. He is cerebral in his approach. He thinks and, perhaps more importantly, oftentimes speaks softly. Like Jake "The Snake" Roberts proved over the course of his career, the softer you speak, the more the audience sits up and takes notice.
He won't overwhelm anyone by pummeling them, a la Brock Lesnar, and he isn't the cowardly, sneaky heel. He's the badass, confident and cocky bad guy who moviegoers end up investing in a lot more than the underdeveloped, white-bread babyface who opposes him.
Able to back up his own words but not afraid to rely on the help of his cohorts whether he needs it or not, Reigns has turned the prototypical WWE heel on its ear. All this while still being the relentless villain who does not care about the stars he must step over to preserve his throne.
In creating the character, Reigns has crafted the kind of engaging villain WWE has not seen since "Rowdy" Piper was so instrumental in the spread of Hulkamania during the Rock 'N' Wrestling Era.
The Tribal Chief has not only become the best thing about the WWE product, but he has also ensured its future by setting himself up as the launching point for new Superstars.
The Future Reigns
In building a dominant heel who actually beats wrestlers to back up his claim to being The Head of the Table, WWE has created a scenario where its most valuable asset to bridging the current era to the future is Reigns himself.
The Big Dog has built up such equity with fans and is so credible and believable in his role that the first Superstar to knock him down a peg is going to be a huge babyface because of it.
Big E and Cesaro come to mind.
Either of those stars—performers WWE wants to position to succeed—would benefit from doing what the likes of Edge, Daniel Bryan, The Fiend, Braun Strowman and Kevin Owens could not: beat Reigns for the Universal Championship.
Imagine what it would mean for Big E's singles career for him to step up and defeat Reigns. What would it do for Cesaro's stock as a potential main event competitor for him to overcome the interference of Jey Uso and fire off a barrage of uppercuts en route to beating The Tribal Chief?
Then there's the wealth of young talent beyond them, all of whom could find themselves instant stars by being the one selected to end The Tribal Chief's run.
Reigns is proving that the stronger, more interesting and developed a persona the top heel in the company has, the more people will care when someone finally knocks him off his perch.
He didn't do it by ripping off 1986 Flair or trying to replicate Triple H's poor imitation, though. Reigns has done it by building a new, fresh, intriguing character that fans can engage with and invest in emotionally. And now WWE, The Big Dog and the future of the industry are all benefiting from it.