Performing without live fans in attendance can be tough for anyone. Doing so for more than a year can feel nearly impossible, but as WWE looked to keep things rolling throughout the COVID-19 pandemic, some stars shined through. Namely, WWE universal champion Roman Reigns, who has become an elite performer and consistent highlight of WWE programming.
Now, as the promotion prepares to return to full-capacity events beginning with SmackDown on Friday night, Reigns is ready to prove the tweaks to his character over the past year can carry over to the traditional wrestling environment.
Reigns spoke of his legacy from the ThunderDome era ahead of SmackDown and Sunday's Money in the Bank pay-per-view, speaking genuinely before briefly appearing to slip into his on-screen character.
"The live crowd has always enhanced my presentation," Reigns said. "My reactions have always been, if not the very best, certainly up there with the very best. I've now showcased the layers as a performer to be able to do it without a live audience. I've had a strong hold on SmackDown and SmackDown being the very best portion of WWE. It's shown me as the number one guy.
"That's my legacy coming out of the ThunderDome. Hands down, without question, it can be debated for great content on social media and WWE.com to put these polls and try to make an argument. But there's no argument. There's been nobody to ever carry the WWE product like I have over the past year and I stand on that. You can throw anybody out. We can try and be nice and say, 'Oh, Bayley! She just got hurt. She was the best.' Come on, let's not lie to ourselves. The Tribal Chief has carried the WWE for well over a year now and there's no denying it."
Reigns did not perform in the early days of the pandemic, an understandable decision as he has battled leukemia over two different periods in his adult life. His surprise comeback at SummerSlam in 2020 created a momentum that has yet to slow down.
As the acknowledged locker room leader, Reigns understands that some may still have reservations about abandoning the virtual fan experience of the ThunderDome and returning to buildings packed with live crowds. Still, Reigns said the general attitude in the locker room is positive.
"I would say everybody's pretty excited. I would say, there might be some questions for each individual that I can't answer for. As far as being able to get back to what we do and creating an atmosphere and experience like no other, it's something that I think everybody in the locker room and the roster has been dying to do," Reigns said. "It was what it was with the ThunderDome and just having the ability to continue to provide entertainment for all of our fans globally going through the struggle of the pandemic and lockdown and quarantine together, that has been an awesome experience. Now, it's ran its course and I think everybody is excited to get back and feel that energy and feel that audience."
The return to live crowds could force Reigns to change some of the things that have made his character such a hit with fans since his heel turn. Reigns has incorporated dialogue into his matches in a way that works well in the controlled audio of the ThunderDome, but that may be harder to use to the same result in front of a cheering, booing and chanting live crowd.
Reigns acknowledged the need to be flexible as things move forward but expects to be able to navigate the changes necessary for continued success.
"I don't think I can just be stuck in any mindset or any pattern," Reigns said. "Like anything, there's some greatness to being able to evolve and to change. Sometimes there's some growing pains that come with that mindset that you have to get through to find that promised land. For me, I don't think it's something I have to stay concrete with. There's some things I'd like to keep in mind and some of these tools, the ThunderDome was a challenge and you had to show different layers and you had to source different tools and sharpen those tools and work on different parts of the craft. There's a lot of positive things we can carry forward to a live crowd and there's other things we have to adjust and evolve in real time week-to-week.
"Things like the dialogue in-ring, with a live crowd is going to be different, but is also something that can be enhanced. There's different things, such as chants, that can happen within the moment and that's something I'll be able to use to my benefit and use as an interaction tool. The tech is still the same, there's ring mics and the cameras have microphones that can be turned up to pick up the dialogue for the fans at home. At the same time, we want to enhance that live experience and showcase that to people watching at home to influence them to want to come to the actual show. It's something you have to keep in mind but I don't think there are any negatives. It's nothing but positives."