TAMPA — Even when the cameras went off, Roman Reigns stayed in character.
After he slowly raised his WWE Universal Championship belt, minutes after cheating his way through a successful title defense at Sunday’s second day of WrestleMania 37 at Raymond James Stadium, Reigns took to each turnbuckle to taunt the fans booing him, sarcastically blowing kisses after the broadcast completed.
Reigns, a long-time good guy fans cheered and adored, returned to the WWE as a bad guy — or in wrestling terms, a heel — back in August. But on Sunday night, with fans in attendance for the first time for a live WWE event since the pandemic began, Reigns had his crowning moments as a villain.
The lines have been blurred for years. In pro wrestling, allegiances aren’t as simple as fans cheering the good guys and booing the bad guys. Establishing yourself as a WWE headliner is more about being someone fans want to see, and Reigns is someone who fills seats and puts eyes on televisions.
Since Reigns returned from a four-month absence during last August’s SummerSlam, he’s been curious how a live crowd would receive him and his new snarling, narcissistic persona. Sunday’s main event, in which Reigns defeated Edge and Daniel Bryan in a triple-threat match, was the first time Reigns would hear the cheers and boos in person since turning.
“A lot of what we sell is the atmosphere that we create, the experience,” Reigns told the Tampa Bay Times leading into WrestleMania. “To have a portion of that element back, I think it’s huge.”
Reigns promised a good show, whether fans embraced him or not.
“To see the kind of response I get, to see how our audience, how my fans and my detractors, all take in my body of work, and then also what I’m going to do for them that night, it’s going to be interesting for sure.”
Sunday’s sellout crowd of 25,675 — Raymond James was filled to 36 percent capacity to adhere to health and safety protocols — didn’t compare to typical WrestleMania crowd. Reigns won his third WWE heavyweight title in front of 101,763 at AT&T Stadium in Arlington, Texas, five years ago. This year’s socially-distanced, two-day total was 51,350.
As Reigns was introduced for his Universal title defense to an elaborate scene of fireworks and lasers only comparable to a Super Bowl halftime show, he heard many more many boos than cheers.
Edge, 10 years to the day that he was forced to give up the WWE title because of a neck injury that prompted his retirement, was the fans’ consensus favorite.
The pandemic took WrestleMania out of Tampa last March and into a closet set at the WWE Performance Center in Orlando. Reigns opted out of the event. He had battled through two bouts with leukemia and wanted to protect his newborn children from the coronavirus’ spread.
When he returned, attacking “The Fiend” Bray Wyatt and Braun Strowman like only a bad guy could at SummerSlam, he lifted the Universal title belt and scowled at rows of LED monitors. As his “Head of the Table” persona played out, he seemed to master — and revel in — the intricacies of playing to the virtual crowd as a heel.
While the WWE’s ThunderDome set, which called Tropicana Field home and opens a residency at USF’s Yuengling Center on Monday, offered fans a chance to attend matches virtually, the feel of the crowd was missing.
In Sunday’s main event, Reigns quickly was without his help, meddlesome cousin Jey Uso, who left the ring after getting injured. Soon enough the triple threat match was one full of strewn bodies inside the ring and out. To the chants of “Roman sucks,” Reigns power-bombed Bryan into a table and yelled into the crowd.
Edge speared Reigns, and soon after had him in a submission hold, but Bryan stopped Reigns’ hand just as he was about to tap out, and put Reigns in a submission hold of his own. Bryan prevented another Edge pin of Reigns just moments later.
With menacing eyes, Edge put two folding chairs under the head of both opponents. But after Uso returned and interfered, he distracted Edge just enough to allow Reigns to get back to his feet. Reigns then sneaked up on Edge and speared him, stacked his opponents on top of each other and pinned them both to retain the title.
The WWE needed the Universal title match to deliver to help a second-day lineup that struggled to duplicate the excitement of Saturday, which saw Bianca Belair’s athleticism and magnetism shine through in her main-event win and Puerto Rican rapper/singer Bad Bunny draw cheers from the crowd by showing he actually had some wrestling skills.