Has the Roman Reigns experiment finally reached its end?

Roman Reigns lays prone in an ever-expanding pool of his own blood, viciously sliced open at the hands of Brock Lesnar moments prior. The hero of this story refuses to quit, even as he’s losing blood from the top of his head at an alarming rate. He’s taken multiple F-5s, the devastating finishing maneuver of the Beast, the man who’s held the WWE Universal Championship hostage for the past year, almost to the day. In a valiant, defiant display of courage, however, Roman keeps getting back up.

All the while, as his face disappears into a thick crimson mask, the crowd of 77,000 chants "this is awful!" Beach balls are inflated and tossed around the arena, seemingly holding the audience’s attention better than the culmination of years of build between the Beast and the Big Dog. The silence after each F-5 kickout is deafening. Even more deafening is the silence following the three count, when Brock Lesnar pins Roman Reigns, defying an outcome assumed by many to be a foregone conclusion; a mere formality in the never-ending quest by WWE to coronate Roman Reigns as the guy in this industry.

As it’s been said many times by representatives of the company, it doesn’t matter if the fans are cheering or booing; as long as they’re making noise, the wrestlers are doing their jobs. It’s an ethos the company had been forced to adopt following years of fans rejecting former golden boy John Cena, whose squeaky-clean persona elicited some of the most vitriolic hate from the crowd for the better part of a decade. But, merch sales remained high, ratings steady, and PPV buyrates enough, so it was hard to argue that Cena wasn’t just a polarizing figure — either a man you loved, or you loved to hate. When fans began to turn on the not-quite organic ascent of Roman Reigns in much the same way, it was easy to see it as more of the same; as long as the fans are tuning in, buying merch and making noise, it doesn’t matter.

Then the fans stopped making noise. Yes, Roman has plenty of fans — apparently, enough to keep having the main events of WrestleMania after WrestleMania marred by the most hardcore fans of WWE, the segment of the audience who hates his position in the company and isn’t afraid to express that displeasure, showering who should be a conquering hero in choruses of boos. However, at the end of last night’s WrestleMania 34, fans didn’t even seem to hate the guy. They just didn’t care. What went wrong?

There are a number of outside factors that contributed to the deflating main event finish. First of all, no matter how stacked a card is, seven hours of wrestling is too much wrestling. By the time WrestleMania concluded with Brock beating Roman, it was past midnight on the east coast. It was clear the fans in attendance were completely exhausted by the time this match rolled around — even a dream match between two guys the crowd generally adores in AJ Styles vs. Shinsuke Nakamura had a hard time keeping the crowd invested.

Perhaps more importantly, though WWE ultimately shocked us by going in the other direction, Reigns slaying the Beast had seemed like such a foregone conclusion that it was hard to care about anything leading up to the coronation. WWE likely thought the swerve ending would be enough to send the fans home happy, but it took so long getting there that it just didn’t resonate like it should have. And in a night of absolutely bizarre finishes and baffling booking decisions (John Cena being squashed by the Undertaker in a matter of minutes, Asuka’s streak ending, an unknown 10 year old boy becoming Raw Tag Team Champion), maybe we were just all shocked out.

It’s important to address the elephant Beast in the room as well. Brock Lesnar is a gifted, freak of nature, once-in-a-lifetime athlete. WWE has done a phenomenal job building the legend of Brock Lesnar up to almost mythical proportions — in fact, they may have done too good a job. Brock Lesnar is a god-tier competitor; WWE’s final boss. The problem is, there’s only a small handful of guys who could credibly defeat Brock Lesnar and take his championship. Much smaller standouts like Finn Balor or Seth Rollins look almost silly going toe to toe with Lesnar. It stands to reason that a man like The Miz, who has spent years making himself into one of the most entertaining Superstars in the company, wouldn’t last three minutes against the Beast. The only men who have been built up enough and have the physique to try to take down the champ are Roman Reigns, John Cena, The Undertaker, and maybe Braun Strowman. So that’s one new credible challenger WWE has built in the past four years.

The last time Brock was beaten for the title, it took a returning Goldberg to do so, another near-mythical figure in the annals of kayfabe with a resume big enough to slay the Beast. Combine this lack of credible challengers with Brock’s very part time schedule, and Brock’s reign becomes a snooze-fest. For a while, the world title rarely appearing on the show added to its prestige. Now, it feels like it’s been held hostage.

It’s hard not to feel bad for Roman. Very little, if not none, of the miscarriage that has been his push is his fault. He’s a talented wrestler with a great look and an impressive resume of his own. He’s had memorable matches with many different dance partners. But unwavering defiance on the part of WWE in trying to manufacture the ultimate sports entertainer — the larger-than-life feel of Hulk Hogan, combined with the intensity of the Ultimate Warrior, the suave confidence of The Rock and the perpetual underdog status of Daniel Bryan all paradoxically rolled into one — has put him in a hole that is nearly impossible to climb out of. He’s just a man doing the best he can with the material he’s given, so to watch him literally spill pints of his own blood on the mat to entertain the audience while they chant "this is awful" and "boring" in response is heartbreaking.

But where can the character go from here? Short of a heel turn, which seems like the easy answer but one that WWE seems hell-bent on not pulling the trigger on, it becomes clearer with every passing WrestleMania (Reigns has been in the main event of the past four straight WrestleManias, a feat topped only by Hulk Hogan in the event’s nascent years) that the Roman Reigns experiment, as it exists today, is a failure. And it’s hard to blame anything but stubbornness on WWE’s part.

Though the match’s outcome went against nearly everyone’s prediction, WWE must have thought they succeeded at least a little bit in getting the crowd to like Roman Reigns. This type of defeat, one in spite of a never-give-up defiance in the face of insurmountable odds, is typically meant to garner sympathy and respect from the crowd. Unfortunately, judging from the open rejection the crowd gave the match, that was not the end result. Even a surprisingly creative buildup to this match that saw Roman peel back the curtain and position himself as the hard worker who loves this business and shows up every day while Brock misses appearances and doesn’t care about anything other than money wasn’t enough to get the fans to cheer him when it came time to throw down. What will?