One of the better ways to consider Roman Reigns’ legendary title run as the Undisputed WWE Universal champion is to see him as wrestling’s very own Thanos. He is the longest-reigning Universal champion in the company’s history and is on the heels of breaking Hulk Hogan’s 1474-day title reign record (Roman stands at 946+ days as of the time of this writing). He’s beaten both rising and well-established superstars in his 28 title defenses, a list that includes John Cena, Brock Lesnar, Drew McIntyre, and Sami Zayn.
On the second day of Wrestlemania 39, Roman Reigns defeated Cody Rhodes to remain the champion, shattering the American Nightmare’s dream of taking the title in wrestling’s biggest stage. He had help from The Bloodline, his own team of actual blood relatives that includes Jey Uso, Jimmy Uso, and Solo Sikoa (oh, and Paul Heyman who definitely isn’t family). Reigns is their Tribal Chief, the head of the clan’s table.
If it wasn’t obvious already, then Wrestlemania 39 made it crystal clear: Roman Reigns is the WWE’s supervillain, the mountain that must be climbed if anyone wants a shot at becoming the face of the company in any capacity. His Elimination Chamber 2023 opponent, Sami Zayn, once said that fighting Roman was like stepping into the ring with someone who’s on God Mode.
So, we’re talking about a 6-foot-3, 265-pound titan that demands everyone acknowledge him in every city he visits, like a conqueror that takes over everything and then expects total submission to his rule. This transformation came down to the way that the WWE made everyone truly believe that Cody, the Chosen One, would get to finish his story as the Universal champion and drop the curtain on the event. But that didn’t happen.
Wrestlemania 39 was set up as the fall of The Bloodline. The USO’s were expected to lose the tag team titles to Sami Zayn and Kevin Owens (they did) and Roman was heavily rumored to fall to Cody Rhodes, who had quickly risen to become the WWE’s superhero. Cody’s essentially the show’s very own Captain America. His American Nightmare persona even features a winged skull symbol imprinted with the American flag on it and his in-ring attire bears the country’s national colors.
Going against expectations, and surprising fans to the point of heartbreak, Roman beat Cody after Solo Sikoa interfered in the match’s final moments and opened up the #1 contender for a brutal spear from the champ to seal it. After all the story that went into Cody returning to the WWE with a mind to finish the story that his father Dusty Rhodes started, which included being the first one in the family to main event at Wrestlemania, the loss hit hard. This was his moment, but Roman took it from him.
Imagine if Thanos had beaten the Avengers in Endgame even after the big assemble moment that brought the entire MCU onto the battlefield. That’s what it felt like to see Cody lose at Wrestlemania.
To be honest, the decision came across to me as a bit of a copout. Legacy was on the line just as much as who would be the future face of the company. Having Cody not break Roman’s streak and then step on the ashes of The Bloodline felt a bit like a missed opportunity, a missed shot at genuinely having one of those elusive Wrestlemania moments that turn superstars into legends. While not the same to any extent, the degree of excitement and satisfaction that was felt the moment The USO’s were defeated by KO and Zayn, which also came after months and months of story and buildup, would’ve skyrocketed had Cody come out with the win on that stage.
It even felt somewhat cruel to go and dig into the Rhodes family history to hype up the encounter only to have Cody fail at the peak of the rivalry. I even question whether keeping The Bloodline on top of the food chain won’t result in fatigue from fans hoping to have someone different at the helm, though stripping away the tag team belts from the USOs can open up some very interesting storytelling avenues in the post-Wrestlemania 39 landscape.
Despite this, the WWE’s Thanos won the fight everyone expected him to lose. He’s still the undisputed Universal champ and with Cody out of the way, there’s now a kind of void in the championship contender spot that no one seems to be able to convincingly lay claim to as of yet (although if the RAW after Wrestlemania is any indication of, Cody might be shooting for a rematch, and rightfully so).
In this sense, this is what having the villain win looks like if you ever wondered what that’d be like in comic books. This was Ultron finally remaking the world in his image or Darkseid invading Earth and imposing the anti-life equation on humanity while wiping out the Justice League in the process.
The moment the referee finished the 3-count to close the match, hope vanished, despair set in, and Roman Reigns became an even bigger event-level presence in the world of wrestling. Beating a hero that had successfully become the people’s choice to become the new champion is the difference-maker here. You don’t become a feared overlord by killing Hawkeye. You do that by breaking Captain America. That’s what Cody Rhodes was to Roman Reigns in Wrestlemania 39, the fallen savior, and it’s what finally pushed the champion into supervillain territory.
It’s kind of brilliant if you think about it, telling a story that refuses to make fans feel good for such a long stretch. It makes the loss settle deep with no apologies for the pain. This isn’t Hogan, the Greek god-like hero of the Eighties. It’s the opposite, the man you love to hate while secretly hoping he keeps the title just a while longer to see how far he can go with his record-breaking streak.
For the Avengers to lose to a crisis-level threat means the death of hope. For Cody to lose to Roman means the same here. This acquires a different dimension when you think of it in terms of comic book traditions regarding heroes and villains. It’s very difficult to imagine a cannon-altering story in which Batman is killed by the Joker or where Thanos’ snap is never reversed.
Comics, for a variety of reasons that go from editorial interference to long-standing storytelling practices, have rarely been allowed to entertain the shattering of the status quo. The WWE has done the opposite with Roman Reigns by turning the villain into the status quo. The NWO and its leader Hollywood Hulk Hogan is another example of this, but their presence found their strength in numbers and in being a disruptive alternative that represented an entire new order of things in wrestling. Roman Reigns prefers to speak of islands of relevancy and in the drawing of lines that separate him from the rest of the WWE.
Comics could learn from this, to take a villain’s victory and go for a years’ long streak that obliterates hope without a set timeline for its return. Perhaps the death of Superman by the hand of Doomsday could be argued as an example of this, but Superman did win his match. He sacrificed himself to beat evil and keep the world safe. Roman Reigns would’ve beaten Superman, buried him, and then demand that Metropolis acknowledge him.
The truth of the matter is, be it Cody or any other wrestler (I’m hoping Seth Rollins gets another shot at it with the odds in his favor), there’s no denying that it doesn’t look like anyone has what it takes to dethrone Roman Reigns. He is the most dominant wrestler in sports entertainment now. He descends upon the ring with a sense of grandeur and physicality often reserved for event-type villains in comics, one that knows his victory is a foregone conclusion. We are living in the Age of Roman Reigns and his title defense at Wrestlemania 39 is where we got to witness his change from super-heel to full-blown supervillain.