Roman Reigns & Tetsuya Naito: Same problem, different solution

Two wrestlers pushed too early, two very different outcomes. Where Naito has succeeded, Reigns has failed.

Toby Durant by Toby Durant

Roman Reigns and Tetsuya Naito have never met in a wrestling ring, and almost certainly never will. However, they are two wrestlers bound forever by a common experience, and extremely separate reactions.

In January 2015 Roman Reigns won the Royal Rumble and was firmly rejected by the audience. In August 2013 Tetsuya Naito won the G1 Climax and was firmly rejected by the audience.

The win gave both of them a shot at their company’s most prestigious championship at the company’s biggest show of the year. Both were being pushed to be a top star as the company sought to secure a future as their stars grew older. The fanbases saw both as too green, as not ready for it, and begged for anything else.

New Japan demoted Naito’s match to the #2 spot following a fan poll and had him lose the title match clean in the middle of the ring. WWE left Roman as the main event, but used Seth Rollins’  Money In The Bank to avoid any decisive outcome after booking Reigns as a never-say-die underdog. From there, the paths of these two wrestlers diverge massively.

Butting heads with a brick wall

WWE stuck to their guns with Reigns, booking him strong throughout 2015 and immediately putting the title on him when Seth Rollins got hurt in the fall. Despite continued vocal disdain for Reigns and falling TV ratings, Reigns was pushed through to another WrestleMania main event, where he would defeat Triple H for the title Rollins had “stolen” a year before.

The match was incredibly dull and met with overwhelming negativity from the record-setting audience. Reigns’ title run frustrated the same fanbase as he ran through newly-signed Karl Anderson and Luke Gallows before beating AJ Styles. He was eventually dethroned by Rollins, in the first clean singles loss of his career, at Money In The Bank 2016 before being suspended for 30 days due to failing a drug test.

Despite the consistently negative reaction Reigns continued to be booked as a babyface, and a plucky underdog despite his impressive physique and near-constant physical advantage.

WrestleMania 33 came round and once again Reigns headlined, in a non-title match against The Undertaker, defeating and retiring the wrestling legend. Once again he was met with extreme dislike for his position on the card, and while a recent blood-feud with Braun Strowman and the reunion of The Shield have dulled the dislike for him, Reigns seems set to win the Royal Rumble and headline WrestleMania for a fourth time as a babyface with a extremely unstable fan support.

The redemption of Naito

After Naito’s disappointing demotion to a semi-main event slot and failure to capture the IWGP heavyweight title he had an unremarkable 2014, including a very average G1 tournament before having a non-title match with AJ Styles at the next Wrestle Kingdom.

In 2015, with little on the horizon for him, Naito returned to Mexico to spend some time in CMLL, reuniting with his old friend La Sombra (now NXT’s Andrade ‘Cien’ Almas). La Sombra was a founder of the stable Los Ingobernables, the ungovernables. A group of disrespectful and uncaring heels, their style would rub off on Naito, who reinvented his image and character when he returned for the 2015 G1.

Naito took his time doing everything. His leisurely walk to the ring, the lengthy removal of his suit and then his reluctance to engage in opening lock ups riled up the fans. In a promotion where fighting spirit and respect is revered, where effort in the ring is beloved, Naito’s decision to simply not give a shit was the ultimate disrespect. NJPW had turned their attempted top babyface heel.

Naito spent the first few months of his heel run getting under the fans’ skin. He didn’t taunt or gesture to the fans, or even seem to notice their presence. He would take forever to remove his suit even if he entered first, and then immediately roll out of the ring to further delay the match. As dives to the outside grew more popular and expected his now infamous destino roll was born to further rile up fans. His finisher changed from the flashy and impressive Stardust Press to the Destino, a float-over reverse DDT.

Naito’s disrespectful attitude did what his clean cut babyface look had not done, and that was connect with the fans. He was incessantly booed, even over villainous gaijin like AJ Styles.

In October 2015, at King of Pro Wrestling, EVIL showed up to interfere against Hiroshi Tanahashi on Naito’s behalf. On the opening night of World Tag League, junior heavyweight Bushi would join the pair and Los Ingobernables de Japon was born.

Naito was quickly the top heel in Japan, with his impressive ring work and ability to endlessly wind up the crowd. Giving him stablemates that could run interference and work tag matches with him was just the icing on the cake. By early 2016 it was clear that Naito and LIJ were the next big thing.

He won the New Japan Cup, giving him the right to challenge any champion, and then with the help of the debuting Sanada he dethroned Kazuchika Okada, where he would further enrage the crowd by tossing the title in the air and walking away from his crown.

Naito’s heavyweight title reign was short-lived, but he would soon embark on a reign of terror over the intercontinental championship, basically destroying the belt by throwing it into ring steps and kicking it along the floor.

His heelish antics and great wrestling were quickly winning over fans though, and by the time Wrestle Kingdom 11 rolled around in January 2017 it was hard to tell who was more beloved, Naito or Tanahashi.

The 2017 G1 tournament was a remarkable thing, and the final between Naito and Kenny Omega is one of the best singles matches to ever take place. Naito won the tournament that four years previously he was too green for to an enormous ovation. His title match with Kazuchika Okada will not be bumped from Wrestle Kingdom’s top spot for anything this time.

The same, but different

Naito is everything Roman Reigns is not. His character is unique, he has strong support wherever he goes, he is respected for his in-ring work, and his presence in a main event feels earned, not handed out.

While Roman has improved in the ring since his first push back in 2014, he has never been able to win over large sections of the crowd, never mind all of it. His t-shirts sell well, but so do those of anyone who is booked like Superman. There has been no climb for Reigns, any obstacle has always been portrayed as extremely beatable if only people would stop interfering.

The WWE audience hasn’t been given a journey with Reigns, they were simply told to accept him as the guy and their rejection of that was ignored. NJPW listened to their fans, pulled back from Naito and the result has been one of the most over acts in world wrestling.

There are plenty of lessons to be learned from the recent history of both wrestlers, if people are willing to listen.

Naito’s journey of rejecting those that rejected him is everything that sections of the WWE audience has been begging for from Reigns, even if they didn’t know it. His blueprint will be copied by New Japan should another early push go awry. WWE will simply follow Sisyphus once again and keep pushing despite the reactions.

Wrestle Kingdom 12 will be a crowning moment for Naito. The triumph he was meant to have long ago, securing his position at the top of the company for years to come. WrestleMania 34 will be yet another Roman Reigns main event that will have backlash, and while it will likely see him beat Brock Lesnar like he was supposed to all those years ago it won’t come with the desired reaction, because there has been no change in Reigns, and no journey. Without the struggle, fans will not truly embrace someone as a hero. Naito struggled, Naito overcame. Reigns has not.

How do you think the struggles of Naito and Reigns were handled? Let us know in the comments below!

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Toby Durant

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