With WWE Backlash fast approaching, Roman Reigns and Samoa Joe have a case for the most important match within storyline, despite not being for a title, and despite effectively being a placeholder match for both men. With Samoa Joe moving to SmackDown Live as a result of the Superstar Shake Up, this match seems like a high quality bout for the sake of having it one last time. In reality, depending on the outcome of the match, it may have large kayfabe implications for both men in future storylines.
Samoa Joe has been on a tear in recent weeks with his promos and in stating his intention to go after the WWE Championship, while Roman seems to be trending in the opposite direction after consecutive losses to Brock Lesnar. While losing to Lesnar is the norm for virtually everyone on the roster, Roman managed to accomplish it at WrestleMania 34, and shortly after at the Greatest Royal Rumble.
While Lesnar has been built up as an unstoppable force, fans do take notice of losses piling up, even if modern kayfabe would dictate that wins and losses don’t always matter. Depending on the outcome of this match and the storytelling in its immediate aftermath, both men could trend in drastically different directions on screen and in the eyes of fans.
The case for Samoa Joe
Before his recent return post-WrestleMania, Samoa Joe had been out of action since early January with a foot injury. Due to this injury Joe was removed from the Mixed Match Challenge, did not compete at WrestleMania once again, and saw the expected halt in his momentum that comes with being absent from the eyes of television viewers. When Joe came back, he came back with a vengeance, cutting Roman Reigns down to size about how he’s never really gotten the job done against him or Lesnar, and how Joe would finish off whatever Brock Lesnar left for him after the Greatest Royal Rumble. With Joe then appearing on SmackDown Live as a part of the Superstar Shake Up, he continued to take verbal jabs at Roman, but also inserted himself into SmackDown’s main event scene in the process. With scathing promos towards WWE Champion AJ Styles, he made it clear that once he is done with Roman, his sights are set on his first main roster championship, whether AJ retains at Backlash or Shinsuke Nakamura dethrones him.
Samoa Joe has had a strong career outside of the WWE, and a dominant run during his time in NXT. He is a very capable mic worker who can carry a program with Shinsuke Nakamura while Shinsuke pretends he can’t speak English as a foreign heel championship. He has a track record of putting on strong performances with AJ Styles outside of the WWE, and all three of these men can potentially put on wrestling clinics. That said, Joe has missed plenty of time due to bad injury luck in consecutive years, and a casual audience may not fully be sold on him as a challenger. While casual fans may remember the sights of him choking out Roman in the center of the ring months ago, being built into a very credible threat against Brock Lesnar in the past, or even his debut of destroying Seth Rollins, they may not truly know Joe the way hardcore fans do. A fan who has watched Joe’s pre-WWE work would be familiar with clashes with the likes of AJ Styles or legends such as Kurt Angle or Scott Steiner. The NXT fan watching the WWE Network may be more familiar with the history that commentators have mentioned between Samoa Joe and Finn Bálor.
Samoa Joe is a legitimate badass who should be taken seriously by anyone watching the product or anyone stepping into the ring. If he can’t back up his words against Roman Reigns though, what will the casual audience think of him once they’re reminded that he didn’t get it done against Lesnar either, that he was on the shelf during the most important time of the year, and that he also came up short at the Greatest Royal Rumble during the ladder match? Joe has an aura of toughness that demands respect, and many fans view the “Samoan Submission Machine” as a true threat to anyone, but in the interest of logic, he needs to either choke out Roman as he has in the past, or look very strong in defeat or a no-contest.
The case for Roman Reigns
Roman spent weeks on the road to WrestleMania mentioning how Brock Lesnar is “Vince’s boy”. Over the past few years fans have been resigned to the idea that Roman is ironically the one who should have that title. Then at WrestleMania 34, Roman Reigns looked very strong taking F5’s repeatedly and not giving up, but then he stunningly lost. While the live crowd was far from receptive of the match, eventually it was reasoned that Roman would simply win at the Greatest Royal Rumble and exorcise his demons in the process. In my opinion this rematch was a much better match, but in the end, Roman lost once again, albeit with a more questionable finish. Despite Roman’s dominance on weekly television and a smaller but vocal contingent of fans constantly trashing him for the sake of it, there is some truth within Joe’s promos about Roman not getting the job done. The best heel promos are the ones that either have a root in truth, feel realistic, or make a fan somewhat understand where the villain is coming from. Joe’s attacks on Roman don’t ring hollow, because the results we’ve seen during the major Pay Per Views back him up.
Since becoming just the second person to defeat Undertaker on the stage of WrestleMania, Roman has not won a Pay Per View match in which he hasn’t been a part of a team. He has lost every multi-man match and singles match he has competed in, despite his television dominance. While he has gone against strong competition, he has only pulled out victories with Seth Rollins and Dean Ambrose by his side. Whether this is intentional to back up the idea of “One versus All” or not, the sun keeps setting on the Roman Empire when the lights are the brightest. Backlash will be Roman’s third major Pay Per View match in about one month’s time, and although his other two losses were to Brock Lesnar, he may be more desperate for a win than Joe for the sake of credibility. While a casual audience tunes in and sees Roman dominate Raw on a weekly basis, they’ve also gotten to see the highlights of Roman being defeated each time, no matter how strong he has looked in defeat.
Samoa Joe can afford to look strong in defeat, even in a comeback feud that is set to reintroduce him to the WWE Universe. Can the same really be said about Roman Reigns after looking strong in defeat twice in the past month during marquee matches? He already has a vocal fan base despite what some on the internet like to believe. He may not be an “indy darling” or perpetually over in the way that Daniel Bryan is, but these hardcore fans are not every fan of the product. Kids like superheroes, and Roman is presented as such on WWE television and in merchandise. At some point, the hero needs to overtake some of his villains when the most pressure is on. That is of course, unless the hero sees himself become the villain. If Roman Reigns is not set to stay as a hero for much longer, looking strong in defeat and slowly letting him lose his mind may actually be the right way to book him. If he is to remain credible as a tough hero or antihero of sorts, he needs to start winning again when it counts, rather than relying on the rub of one iconic win.
Despite being a clear holdover feud with Joe’s move to SmackDown Live, the stakes are higher than they seem for both men. Roman Reigns and Samoa Joe need a win to stay credible for a casual audience. In Joe’s case, he needs to reassert himself due to missed time and make sure fans forget about his shortcomings. In Roman’s case, he needs to back up his top dog status with a win on a Pay Per View, not just wins on the television screen. Both men are strong main event competitors, and should have plenty of title runs left between them. In the short term though, the villain can ultimately afford to look tough in defeat, but the hero needs to conquer an opponent who has repeatedly kept him down at times. If we’re to assume that there won’t be a non-finish, disqualification, or double-count out, Roman needs a clean victory more than Samoa Joe does if the status quo is to the stay the same in terms of their character alignments.