On Sunday night, WWE Superstar Roman Reigns looks to complete a two-year journey to the top of the mountain when he challenges Triple H at WrestleMania 32 for the WWE World Heavyweight Championship.
But the road to Dallas has been a long and sometimes rocky one for the 30-year-old Samoan.
At this time last year, Reigns was preparing to face Brock Lesnar, then the WWE World Heavyweight Champion, in the first WrestleMania main event of his career. And while this year’s buildup parallels the one to WrestleMania 31 in many ways, Reigns is much more at ease this time around.
“It’s been a little bit different. I’m not quite as busy,” Reigns told Business Insider. “I was doing a lot of stuff out there in California and taping a lot of stuff for the WWE Network, but this year seems to be a lot more relaxed and with me having the experience from last year, I think it’s helped me out greatly.”
To truly understand what this Sunday means for Reigns, we need to travel back a few years to when he first arrived on the WWE main roster. During the company’s Survivor Series pay-per-view in November 2012, Reigns exploded onto the scene alongside his good friends Dean Ambrose and Seth Rollins as one-third of a team called The Shield.
The three men were linked almost since the start of Reigns’ time in NXT, the developmental brand of WWE. Both Rollins and Ambrose are actually younger than Reigns (Rollins is 29, Ambrose is 30 but a few months younger), yet the two men had several years of experience in the wrestling business when Reigns wrestled his first match in NXT.
That created a unique dynamic among the three men, as Reigns got to learn from his time on the road with his buddies, and he picked up invaluable lessons both inside the ring and out of it.
“They had tricks,” Reigns said with a smile. “They’re veterans.”
It’s hard for wrestling fans to think of Reigns without inevitably thinking of Rollins and/or Ambrose, so connected are the three men. The Shield broke apart in mid-2014, but Reigns for his part was grateful for their time together because of what he learned, and he never wants that education to end.
“As soon as you think you know it all or you’ve perfected it, you should be done. You should retire,” Reigns said. “I always think there’s something you can learn.”
Reigns was the powerhouse of The Shield, and he started to show his prowess as the muscle of the group. His first true breakout performance occurred one year after his debut at Survivor Series 2013 when he took out four men in a five-on-five elimination tag team match and stood tall as the sole survivor of his team.
Once The Shield broke up, Reigns’ climb to the top of the mountain truly began. He defeated future Hall of Famer Randy Orton at SummerSlam 2014 and then set his sights on Seth Rollins, who betrayed him and destroyed The Shield from within. But an incarcerated hernia required emergency surgery and put Reigns on the shelf for three months.
Around this time, fans started to turn on Reigns for a variety of reasons. Some felt that he was not ready for the role of the company’s top man. Others had a different horse in the race that they thought was more deserving of that spot. Some thought that he needed more experience and needed to add to his offensive arsenal. And still others wanted him to change his character.
The cheers he received were progressively drowned out by a chorus of boos. By the time the Royal Rumble arrived in January 2015, a significant portion of fans were showering Reigns with disapproval at every turn. The return of Daniel Bryan, the fan favorite who had earned the universal adoration of the fan base a year-plus earlier, certainly didn’t help matters.
When Reigns won the 30-man Rumble match and earned a shot at Brock Lesnar and the WWE World Heavyweight Championship in the main event of WrestleMania 31, the fans in Philadelphia (where the event took place) nearly revolted, and the outcry on the Internet was loud enough to reach WWE headquarters in Stamford, Connecticut.
The boos continued through last year’s WrestleMania, but they subsided a bit when Reigns moved away from the title picture and entered a prolonged feud with Bray Wyatt that took up almost half of 2015.
And then, finally, at Survivor Series 2015, Reigns won a 16-man tournament to become the WWE World Heavyweight Champion. He lost the title minutes later thanks to Sheamus who cashed in his Money in the Bank briefcase (a guaranteed title shot at any time of the holder’s choosing) and essentially stole the belt.
Reigns would win the title back a few weeks later, but lost it again to Triple H at this year’s Royal Rumble. And through it all, the boos grew louder and louder.
So Reigns’ road to WrestleMania this year mirrors his last in that way, and he is far from ignorant of that fact.
“It definitely affects me because it’s happening and I’m the one experiencing it out there,” Reigns said of the boos. But he undoubtedly has a significant contingent of fans, his Roman Empire, who cheer their hearts out for him and come from all over to see him perform, and he’s grateful to those people.
But rather than focus on the negative, Reigns has decided to take a different approach.
“I’m a former football player, so the way I’ve been looking at it is we have home games and we have away games,” he said. “A lot of people tune in to Monday Night Raw and they can hear these boos or these mixed reactions, but they’re not there for our Friday live event show, our Saturday show, our Sunday show. I get to experience a lot of very supportive nights where everybody is on my side.
“Sometimes, as a former football player, we have to go into that away game and silence the crowd,” Reigns continued. “And just let them know I am the man. I’m going to be here for a long time.”
Reigns certainly has had great success since he hit the main roster, but he doesn’t feel that success has come too soon despite the claims of many fans to the contrary.
“The way I look at it is you only live once, so for me I think it’s happening at a great time,” he said. “I’m very happy with everything, extremely grateful. That’s the thing. It’s so humbling because sometimes it doesn’t feel real to progress and experience success so fast but it’s a godsend. I thank God every single day.”
Another person Reigns thanks every day? His wife, who he says doesn’t get enough credit for getting him to where he is now.
“She’s always been there for me through the thick and thin, all our rough patches with no money. She always backed me,” he said. “She never faltered, and that’s what made me solid enough to do what I do.”
So when Reigns steps into the ring on Sunday, he won’t just be fighting for the WWE World Heavyweight Championship.
He’ll be fighting for his wife and daughter.
He’ll be fighting for his family and his proud Samoan heritage.
He’ll be fighting for the fans who have supported him throughout these last two years.
And he’ll be fighting for his place at the top of the WWE mountain, where he hopes to remain for years to come.
Check out the video below for our full interview with Reigns, including his thoughts on the backstage creative forces at WWE, his transition from football to the NFL, which wrestler he’d love to have a match with, and more.