The stage has been all but set for a coronation at Wrestlemania 32.
Unless plans change, which is always a possibility in WWE, Roman Reigns will be officially given the keys to the kingdom on the grandest stage of them all.
With only one pay-per-view (Sunday night's Fastlane) left until Wrestlemania on April 3, it appears a virtual lock that Reigns will be challenging current WWE heavyweight champ Triple H for the crown at AT&T Stadium in Arlington, Texas, in what is being billed as one of the biggest events in company history.
All he has to do first is become the No. 1 contender at Fastlane by outlasting Brock Lesnar and Dean Ambrose in a Triple Threat match.
Only problem is that Reigns, despite the best efforts of Vince McMahon and the creative team, remains the target of a backlash from many fans who feel that he is being shoved down the collective throat of the WWE Universe.
Fans in 2016 can't be force-fed heroes to cheer and bad guys to boo. That type of emotional investment must emerge organically. The days of a company successfully pushing a handpicked performer are long gone. The fans make that decision, and in many cases they can either make or break a star.
The problem in the case of Reigns has less to do with the performer than it does the company machinery strapping the proverbial rocket to his back. Many fans view Reigns as the corporate choice for champion, and that strategy has rarely worked in the current era of sports entertainment. More often it's the anti-establishment renegades such as Steve Austin, C.M. Punk and Brock Lesnar, or underdogs like Daniel Bryan, who have shown the ability to curry widespread popularity and support.
Reigns has shown considerable in-ring improvement since his debut. As the enforcer of The Shield, the second-generation star was well on his way to becoming one of the biggest heels in the company. But when the group was dissolved and Reigns was turned babyface, many considered it premature to begin pushing him as the eventual face of the company. With little cosmetic change in his appearance and a struggle at times to master in-ring promos and connect with the audience, an audible should have been called.
The fact that there's very little suspense going into the company's biggest match on the biggest show makes for a fairly predictable Wrestlemania.
The 30-year-old Reigns' opponent is 16 years his senior, a former WWE champion whose last main event at Wrestlemania was seven years ago when “The Game” defended the title against Randy Orton. Last month Triple H became the second-oldest winner of the Rumble at age 46 (Vince McMahon, at age 53, was the oldest Rumble winner in 1999). He also set a new record with the longest time between Rumble match victories (his last win came in 2002).
WWE may have to work some real magic heading down the road to Wrestlemania.
One way to ensure that Reigns is cheered at the end of Wrestlemania 32 would be to enlist the services of Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson and put him in his cousin's corner. Until now, The Rock's involvement in the mega-event has been kept secret, with little more than a special appearance promised.
There's also a chance that “Stone Cold” Steve Austin could be brought in as special referee, a move that would generate considerable mainstream buzz. Former WWE champion Batista, Triple H's former stablemate in Evolution, was offered that role last month but declined.
The post-match coronation and celebration must be something epic and memorable befitting the event. While Reigns recently held the title for a brief stint, Wrestlemania could be the start of his first significant title run. Having The Rock and possibly Austin involved would give it a good chance of doing just that.
Due to the expected outcome of Sunday night's three-way battle, there's always the outside chance that Ambrose could be placed in a three-way match at Mania with Reigns and Triple H. Vince McMahon might choose to add a little unpredictability leading up to the big show, and plugging Ambrose into that spot could accomplish that.
WWE also risks the real possibility of having its heir apparent heavily booed at Sunday night's show, and could decide to reverse course and put the increasingly popular Ambrose in Reigns' spot at Mania and pull the trigger on the “Lunatic Fringe.” Ambrose would be a fresh option to fill the role as the underdog hero who overcame the odds, and a huge post-match celebration worthy of a Wrestlemania finale would be virtually assured.
As for Lesnar, there's little to be gained by sending him back up against Triple H. Putting him in the ring with Reigns would provide Mania with a much more intriguing double main event.
But denying Reigns the big prize again might be too much to ask.
The Samoan superstar was scheduled to win the title from Lesnar last year at Wrestlemania 31, but because of fan backlash, the decision was made to give the belt instead to Seth Rollins. It could have been Rollins headlining at Wrestlemania 32, but a serious knee injury suffered during a WWE show in Ireland last November took him out of the picture.
When the smoke clears, look for Reigns vs. Triple H to headline Wrestlemania 32. Too much buildup has been put into this program to change direction at this stage. Mania will be Reigns' chance to shine.
Brie Bella, one half of the Bella Twins and wife of the recently retired Daniel Bryan (Bryan Danielson), told ABC's Good Morning America last week that she plans to retire this summer.
“It's time for me to hang up the boots,” she said. “That day is very close.”
Bryan recently stated that the two wanted to start a family soon.
He also said that he wants to spend his time now educating young athletes to the seriousness of concussions. His wife said she knew about his post-concussion seizures, but Bryan begged her not to tell anyone in WWE because he might be forced to stop wrestling.
Bryan's last seizure was about four years ago and has not been a recent issue.
WWE exec Triple H (Paul Levesque) said it's key to protect athletes from themselves.
“Athletes are like thoroughbreds. Someone has to pull the reins,” he told ABC News. “They will run themselves into the ground if given that opportunity.”
With speculation running rampant following the controversial suspension of Titus O'Neil, it now appears that the popular WWE star was suspended for 60 days as a message from Vince McMahon to other WWE performers.
O'Neil, who playfully grabbed McMahon's arm after a recent Raw, explained that he was merely trying to let Vince's daughter, Stephanie, exit the stage first following Daniel Bryan's retirement celebration. Apparently it wasn't the time or place for O'Neil to be giving McMahon a lesson in chivalry, and the WWE owner promptly made O'Neil an example to his colleagues.
In addition to the 60 days, which were reduced from an initial 90, O'Neil also was slapped with a fine in the neighborhood of $5,000, according to WWE Hall of Famer Jim Ross. McMahon reportedly wanted to fire O'Neil over the incident, but cooler heads prevailed.
Steve Austin said on a recent podcast that while he thought the punishment was too harsh, he understood why McMahon issued the suspension.
“Vince is 70 right now and that was a serious moment for him. He was totally in character. He cares about Daniel Bryan. He gets jerked pretty forcibly over there to Titus O'Neil and it was completely inappropriate ... This may be pro wrestling, sports entertainment, whatever you want to call it, but that was a serious moment. It's not a time to be shucking and jiving out there, so lay some type of punishment down. Fine him, this, that or whatever.”
How O'Neil is booked upon his return may decide his future with the company.
An autopsy confirmed that Axl Rotten, whose real name was Brian Knighton, died from an accidental drug overdose, according to BaltimoreSun.com.
Police said Knighton, 44, was found unconscious and not breathing Feb. 4 on the bathroom floor of a McDonald's in Linthicum, Md. Knighton, who was found with drug paraphernalia, had a long history of substance abuse issues.
Knghton had pulled down an infant changing table, where he had put his drug paraphernalia, including a “burnt tablespoon with a crystalline residue,” the Sun reported. Police also suspected an unlabeled pill bottle, found on the scene, to contain heroin, according to the report.
The wrestler had battled a number of health issues in recent years, including a debilitating back injury, and was forced to leave the business.
Rotten had told Chris Jericho on his podcast that he had missed bouts in the past looking for heroin.