By Chuck Carroll
In the world of sports entertainment, WWE has been a trailblazer, ushering in a new era of professional wrestling. In fact, it’s ushered in a few. The global giant was the first to break free of the restraints that limited a regional wrestling promotion’s ability to expand. In the 1990s, WWE again pushed forward change with the raunchy “anything goes” Attitude Era, which helped catapult wrestling to its most popular time in history. And presently, a much milder version of WWE continues to carve its own path as family-friendly entertainment. The more wholesome and colorful presentation is driving record revenue and sending its stock price to near record levels.
That is business. But there are far more important trailblazers in the world. True change doesn’t occur in the boardroom. It begins with the people and an unrelenting drive to create a brighter future for each and every child that will be part of the next generation. WWE’s contributions have revolutionized entertainment, but it was the civil rights leaders who revolutionized the world.
Roman Reigns is forever grateful to those who came before him and helped pave the way for the third-generation wrestler to become one of the biggest stars in the business. While in Memphis, Tennessee for a recent television taping, the three-time WWE Champion had the opportunity to tour the National Civil Rights Museum, where the struggle for equality painfully adorns the building’s vast hallways. The exhibits would cause almost anyone to pause and reflect on how far we’ve come as a nation. For Reigns, those moving images began swelling him with pride, as he realized his family were catalysts for change in their own right.
I had the opportunity to speak with Reigns ahead of Sunday’s Elimination Chamber pay-per-view. We talked about his visit to the museum, the state of equality in wrestling, changes to WWE’s pay-per-view structure, and a potential WrestleMania rematch with Brock Lesnar.
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There is a long line of African American and minority wrestlers. Who would you say growing up was the biggest influence on your life and your career?
I would have to say my father. He’s not an African American man, but he is a man of color. He had a lot of experience with some of the pioneers for African American wrestlers, guys like Junkyard Dog. He wasn’t a full-time wrestler, but he brought so much publicity. And how can you not bring up Mr. T, guys like that? But also within our family tree, Rocky Johnson, the Rock’s father. There’s a lot of pride and a lot of great representation for African Americans in this month.
When you were in Washington you had an opportunity to visit the new African American Museum on The National Mall. You walk inside, you see all of the exhibits, you see the history — what emotions did that conjure up?
You can’t ever have enough knowledge, and that’s what’s great about these exhibits and these museums. And it’s family-friendly. It’s not a situation where you’re just reading stuff. It’s not boring at all. It’s very interactive, and I think just going through it, seeing the timeline of all the way where it’s starting with slavery and segregation all the way to the Civil Rights Movement with Dr. King. There was just such a huge history. And it just reminds you that we’re a country that has great ideals and beliefs, but it’s been a great struggle. Sometimes you’re gonna have some scars, but to build that body, you gotta just continue to fight and continue to do the right thing. One of the first things we saw is the big massive wall, where it looks like people are climbing. It’s to signify that we’re not there yet. We still have a lot of work to do.
Which pro wrestlers do you think should be featured? Who has a place in that museum?
I think you have to go with Rocky Johnson and Tony Atlas. Those two guys were pioneers. At that time, there weren’t an abundance of African American wrestlers. And the business … it was a lot more secretive. Nowadays it’s a lot different to be able to break in, and the mystique is not as thick as it used to be. There used to be a bit of a secrecy, almost like a fraternity, about being a professional wrestler. To be able to break in and keep that foothold, I think that’s awesome.
In your heart of hearts and your honest opinion, do you feel like it’s harder for a minority to climb the ladder in professional wrestling? Or is the playing field pretty level now?
I think I’m a great example of that. I’m a multi-racial man. I don’t think it has anything to do with your color or your background. It’s the man that you are and what you stand for, and obviously the performer that you are. That’s one thing that Vince [McMahon] deeply wants to be embedded in his guys, in his superstars, that they’re good people. That’s one thing he’s always told me from the beginning is, “I don’t care if you’re the greatest wrestler in the world. I don’t care if you’re the most charismatic talker in the world, but I do care if you’re a good person and I think that’s all that matters.” When it comes down to it, it doesn’t matter what you look like, how big you are, what color your skin is or hair or eyes, if you’re a good person, you’re a good person.
The Elimination Chamber is the final RAW-brand exclusive pay-per-view, and then moving forward, WWE announced that it is reverting to the co-branded pay-per-views. I’m curious to get your opinion on the change.
I think, like anything else, it has its pros and cons. It’s gonna increase the work schedule as far as pay-per-views, but if you don’t wanna perform in a pay-per-view, then what are you doing here? I think it’ll also keep storylines fresh. It’ll allow us to continue to dot all our “i’s” and cross all our “t’s” because we’ll have more weeks to continue those storylines and these rivalries, and we’ll be able to have more time to carry those out.
Monday night you had a gauntlet match. That was definitely of pay-per-view caliber. Where does that one rank for you in the annals of your matches on Monday night?
I’ve had some really cool nights. Honestly, my greatest one is when I was in Philly and I won the championship off of Sheamus, and it was my daughter’s birthday the same night. So the wrestling gods were just smiling on me that night. I don’t think the other night was gonna be that high up for me, being that I was the number-one entrant and I lost. But I think it was a great night for Seth and all of the business. It’s great anytime you see a performer take that step up and show just exactly what he’s worth. To be able to be out there for, I believe, 65 minutes, maybe more, was a great night for him. Good things are happening for him, and that means good things are happening for me and the rest of the business. I was proud of him and the work ethic and the endurance that he displayed. It just showed why he’s another main-event guy.
WrestleMania [is] coming up, and a lot of the rumors are pointing to you and Brock Lesnar in the main event. The last time that happened at Mania, Seth interfered. You didn’t get the clean finish. As a performer, you have to be somewhat relishing the opportunity — should you go down that path — to finally get rid of that unfinished business and see if maybe you can walk away with the title.
Yeah, we definitely have that. I think what puts validity behind this whole situation is we had a barnburner of a match. It’s one of my favorites that I’ve ever … Well, let me take that back. It’s not my favorite, because it didn’t feel good. But going back and seeing it and the outcome and the story and the reaction and just the rollercoaster ride that the crowd took with us, it was one of my finer days at work. There’s always gonna be that animosity to wanna finish the job. Not only towards Brock but towards Seth for interrupting that. The key is to be able to get to that point and deliver and capitalize. Hopefully I’ll get the shot. We gotta go through the Chamber on Sunday. We gotta make it out of that unscathed and then take a ride to Suplex City. It sounds a lot better than it really feels. Trust me.
Chuck Carroll is a former pro wrestling announcer and referee turned sports media personality who now interviews the biggest names in wrestling. He once appeared on Monday Night RAW when he presented a WWE title belt in the Redskins locker room.
Follow him on Twitter @ChuckCarrollWLC.