babyface boo

Meeting Roman Reigns.

I went to the World of Wheels auto show in Rosemont today and met “The Big Dog” Roman Reigns. To be honest with you straight up, I was never a huge Reigns fan. I preferred Ambrose in The Shield and always felt Roman receieved too bulletproof a push to the proverbial moon when the crowd reaction just wasn’t there. Fans in my own personal demographic (male, mid-late 20s, smarky) hate his booking and how inorganic his rise to the top has been. A stubborn, insistent Mr. McMahon loves “The Guy,” so he’s pushed as Superman babyface while the crowd boos. Would it be easier to satisfy fans and just turn him heel already, so the boos match his actions in the ring? Nope. And I learned why tonight.

For starters, Reigns is over like a motherfucker. There were, I would estimate, in the neighborhood of 650 people gathered trying to get a piece of the Roman Empire. I arrived to the convention center two and a half hours early, around 1:30 p.m., for a scheduled 4 p.m. signing. I didn’t get to shake his hand (forgot to shaka or fist pound, damn it) until about 6:15. And when I got out of the line, finally, there were about 300 people still waiting in line for a chance at meeting him. It’s funny: there were more men in line to meet him than just about any other demographic. Weird, right? When I met him, I actually jokingly apologized on behalf of my fellow adult male fans, and he also noted that there were more grown men there than anybody else. There were definitely tons of ladies, though. And kids. Reigns draws them all out, but yeah, especially surprised by all of “my people.” Including two guys, a man in his 30s and his elderly father, who would serve as my line buddies for the afternoon. It’s always nice meeting fellow marks, and these two were cutely mark-y. Hating the heels like they’re supposed to and such. It was wonderful.

I wanted to document a bit of the scene of a WWE autograph signing for those who couldn’t be there, or were on their way and wanted to see what they were getting into, so I took some short clips and posted them to my Twitter. Before I knew it, I was being retweeted by 20, 30, 40, 50 people and fan sites. Little 10-second videos I considered inconsequential to anything or anybody, were “liked” dozens of times. Fans – almost all female and younger than 21 – replied to my tweets with affirmation. It really opened my eyes to the fact that Roman Reigns is the most polarizing WWE Superstar since John Cena, and those who love him absolutely cherish him, while those who don’t like him will pay $20 on top of $15 parking just to boo him. (That particular contingent was uproariously minuscule, and I can probably count them on my two hands, and I’m sure they were half-joking because seriously, “hating” Roman Reigns is “cool” now, and the “in” thing to do. I’ll admit, I boo him because it’s fun. And, accordingly, I will cheer for him when he turns heel. Because of course.)

A word about those under-21s: I teach middle school girls on occasion, so I understand them. Plus, I have a sister; I grew up with a teenage girl. But, man, what a contingent of folks. The bombardment of notifications on my iPhone throughout the afternoon, after using just one hashtag (#worldofwheels, take a spin, if you will) was incredible. These girls run in packs, and like most women, they are something us men do not comprehend: They are “there for one another.” When one Roman fan speaks out, so do others. And it’s all positive stuff. The meat and potatoes of Roman’s fan base, at least socially speaking, are, I guess, a bunch of “stans.” And I mean that in the best possible way. Having been a part of my own group of wrestling fans my own age and gender, it has always been difficult to see outside that bubble of fandom. Today changed that. Although I didn’t meet one of these stans, I have to say, I dig the positivity. I dig the good vibes they send this particular wrestler. These aren’t people to bitch about booking or backstage nonsense, or what rumors they heard. They’re just loyal fans who get excited over the giant Samoan guy similar to the way girls got excited by those fab four British lads way back when.

The highlight of the night for me, beyond shaking The Guy’s hand, was meeting a mother, father, and 13-year-old son, who happened to have special needs and was thus on the opposite side of the stage, where those with special needs wait for Roman to come down to meet them individually. Long sentence there, but we’re really cooking now. What astounded me about this happening was just how loving these parents were to their son. The mother said something to the effect of, “[Meeting Roman Reigns] is going to make his day. It’s going to make my whole world.” And the boy stood there, so patiently, so excited. But so patiently. Surrounded by fellow marks for five hours, some of whom counted the minutes with the tap of a finger on the face of their watch, some of whom panicked over what kind of photo they were going to get with The Big Dog. But this boy was quiet and so respectful. Talking to him, giving him a high-five, telling him that he’s about to meet one of the coolest wrestlers I’d ever met (and get a totally terrific one-on-one photo with him, as well)… great stuff. It felt wonderful, witnessing this family do its thing, taking such pride in their little boy, whose birthday is tomorrow, whose day was about to be made by meeting his favorite Superstar. To him, Roman was a hero. To experience the sheer joy of that boy, again, top stuff.

Stepping outside my comfort zone, meeting a wrestler I honestly was on the fence about, proved quite fruitful today. I got to meet a new group of fans that thought entirely different than me, and with more positivity than comes with being a fan my age, and that’s just one takeaway. I also walked away with a greater appreciation for the guy behind The Guy – how charitable he was with his time, how happy he looked to be there, I could go on. I’ve invested a lot of time over the years meeting my share of wrestlers, and Roman Reigns is up there with the coolest of them all. So respect to him, and his fans, for today, today was pretty all right.