ROMAN REIGNS STOOD face to face with Logan Paul, with the blue WWE Universal and black and red WWE championship titles draped over his right shoulder. With a scowl, Reigns stared down Paul, ignoring the blaring dance music that played at the pool party just feet away.
The unlikely pairing -- the modern-day biggest star in professional wrestling and a social media star with just one WWE singles match under his belt -- met one September afternoon to shoot promotional photos ahead of their then-unannounced main event match at WWE Crown Jewel, which takes place Saturday at Mrsool Park in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia (12 p.m. ET, Peacock).
The two reviewed the photos -- reacting to their work with approval -- then headed off to a suite at the Hard Rock Hotel in Hollywood, Florida, for a taping of Paul's podcast, "Impaulsive." During that podcast, the wheels for the storyline came into motion. Paul, 27, boasted that he could beat Reigns, the man who held the WWE championship for more than 855 days. Reigns, of course, disagreed, and one week later, on a stage inside the Resorts World Casino in Las Vegas, a news conference was held to announce the match between the two.
Celebrities have often participated in WWE events. From Mike Tyson to Bad Bunny to many others, WWE has welcomed outsiders who boast big followings with open arms, knowing that their fan bases will likely cross over to watch them in a completely different setting.
But ... a main event? Just months into a WWE career?
It's not just WWE's belief in Paul's athleticism and wrestling ability to put on an entertaining, premium-quality match with WWE's biggest star. It's also trusting that Paul, who boasts 24 million Instagram followers, has the promotional skills to build an intriguing story so fans see him as a viable challenger to the biggest prize in wrestling.
If there were doubts surrounding Paul's readiness, they were washed away by his eye-opening performance at SummerSlam in July, when he showed off an array of high-flying moves in a victory over The Miz.
"I wouldn't put him in the main event of a massive international event that's gonna have 60, 70 thousand people there or whatever if I thought he couldn't handle it, and certainly he had to prove that to me," Paul "Triple H" Levesque, a WWE Hall of Famer who is the company's chief content officer, told ESPN. "He had to prove that to everybody. He had to prove that to the world, right? To everybody on this team. He's done that, right?"
Roman Reigns retains titles, Logan Paul shines at SummerSlam
Roman Reigns was the last man standing at SummerSlam, which also featured Brock Lesnar flipping over the ring and Logan Paul impressing fans.
THE MIZ, a former WWE champion, is no stranger to the sort of challenge Paul faces. After all, The Miz was a star on the reality show "The Real World" before he pursued a wrestling career.
Miz put in his time, though, first on the independent scene starting in 2003 and then, after a runner-up effort on WWE's reality show "Tough Enough," he found his way to SmackDown in 2006. Now, he was being relied upon to show Paul the ropes, figuratively and literally.
After teaming up at WrestleMania, The Miz and Paul would face off in front of 48,000-plus fans in Nashville. The day before their match, the two gathered in a ring in the bowels of Nissan Stadium and laid out their match.
They began with a collar-and-elbow tie-up before Miz landed a series of chops on Paul in the corner. "I don't know how your wind's gonna be," The Miz said.
"My wind's gonna be good. I'm not concerned," Paul responded.
They continued to simulate the match without performing all the moves before Miz instructed Paul to "clothesline me and then hit me with the elbow."
Later, Miz coached Paul on arguing with the referee, advising him on pacing and facing the right camera. "Give that moment a little beat," The Miz said.
For this match, Paul was going to utilize Miz's finisher, the Skull-Crushing Finale, and the originator had a pointer for that, too: "I usually use my hand to slap the mat, but whatever feels more comfortable," Miz said, referring to the thwap sound he creates for effect.
Shane "Hurricane" Helms, a WWE producer who spent more than 20 years in the ring, observed as Miz and Paul went through the motions. Helms is tasked with training the various celebrities who have made appearances in professional wrestling, dating back to his time in WCW. In 1998, Helms guided NBA Hall of Famer Dennis Rodman ahead of his in-ring debut. Helms then went on to train actors in the WCW movie "Ready to Rumble" and even served as David Arquette's stunt double.
And at WrestleMania 38, Helms trained not only Paul, but also "Jackass" star Johnny Knoxville for his match with Zayn. "He's massively coachable," said Helms of Paul. "The most coachable talent I've ever trained; not one bit of attitude. There's no superstar demeanor. He's very humble in his training. He shows up in his gear. He's ready to go the whole time. ... As a trainer, you couldn't ask for a more enthusiastic student." Helms chimed in with plenty of advice during the walkthrough, including a reminder to Paul that he shouldn't telegraph that he'll recover from a knee strike.
They continued to simulate the match slowly until Paul practiced a springboard moonsault to the outside on a crash mat.
"I think you're exactly where you need to be," The Miz told Paul. "You hit everything on point. I don't want you to feel rushed tomorrow. I want you to feel relaxed and comfortable.
"If you hit me and I'm not knocked out, I'm good. I'm not going to do anything on purpose and you're not going to do anything on purpose."
Paul felt good after the run-through and embraced The Miz, thanking him for all his guidance along the way.
"I think The Miz is a vet and I think he has done an amazing job of welcoming me with open arms," Paul told ESPN following the rehearsal.
The following day, the match went off without a hitch. For over 14 minutes, The Miz and Paul delivered one of SummerSlam's most entertaining bouts.
The highlight: Paul's frog splash on The Miz from the top rope to the announce table at ringside. And, of course, Paul put The Miz away with the Skull-Crushing Finale.
"When you know how tough this performance is and when you see somebody who can catch on as quickly as he has, it's very encouraging, especially with someone who has such a following," Reigns said. "When you're dealing with someone like a Logan Paul, someone who garners so much attention and has so much buzz, you're not gonna hurt yourself dealing with someone and doing business with someone like that."
HELMS' FIRST MEETING with Paul came ahead of WrestleMania 37 in April 2021 when Paul was paired with Sami Zayn -- merely in his corner, not as a participant -- for a match against Kevin Owens. That was when Paul first took a bump -- a Stunner at the hands of Owens.
That moment in Tampa, Florida, piqued Paul's interest even further, and ultimately brought Helms to Puerto Rico, where he and Paul trained for six weeks -- on and off -- ahead of each of his matches, first alongside The Miz vs. The Mysterios, then against his former tag-team partner, and now vs. Reigns.
Immediately, Helms was struck by not just Paul's athleticism, but his eagerness to learn and soak up everything the longtime wrestler could teach him at the Paul brothers' private boxing gym in Puerto Rico.
"The first session, just right away, I generally try to gauge somebody's attitude," Helms said. "Do they really want to do this? Is this just a money thing? And if it's a money thing, that's fine, too, 'cause that's not my decision to make. I could tell that he wanted to do this, that he was excited and if he's excited, that makes it so much easier on me. So No. 1, his attitude was great. And No. 2, he listened."
Helms hasn't just relied on himself to prepare Paul for his three matches. Ahead of Paul's singles debut vs. The Miz, Helms enlisted the help of WWE's Cedric Alexander, a former cruiserweight champion known for his high-flying ability. Helms credited Alexander's guidance, especially regarding Paul's impressive springboard moonsault to the outside against The Miz.
"That's a coach's dream," Helms said. "Somebody that doesn't give you an attitude and they're able to take what you give them and make it their own."
Paul, listed at 6-foot-2, 205 pounds, was easily the biggest -- and strongest -- man in the ring in his previous two matches. That will hardly be the case against Reigns, who's billed as 6-foot-3 and 265 pounds. The former all-ACC first-team defensive tackle is a powerhouse wrestler, which means a different wrestling style for Paul (and likely far less high-flying).
"He was with The Miz. Being in the ring with me is a little different," Reigns said. "Being in a championship main event matchup, it's gonna be a little different. The intensity's gonna be different and then the expectations as he continues to grow in this part of his career are going to grow as well."
Helms had Paul train with Shawn Michaels, a wrestling icon, to prepare Paul for the contrast in style for one day at the WWE Performance Center in Orlando, Florida. Helms also sent Paul clips of the Heartbreak Kid's epic matches with Triple H, where Michaels was the smaller man contending with a far stronger opponent, just like Paul would encounter vs. Reigns.
"That was a huge learning experience for Logan," Helms said. "Some people I've trained, I have to show them something like 40 times. ... Logan just picks it up really fast. ... He comes from a fighting background, so his strikes are already good. ... And he actually has an amateur wrestling background as well out of Ohio. ... I think he's improved leaps and bounds."
Of course, there's far more to wrestling than the in-ring aspect. Those who excel are also larger-than-life personas who can deliver a cutting promo on the mic and develop a unique character.
Paul has a built-in advantage there, too, as someone who has grown up in front of the camera, ranging from TV appearances to YouTube videos that gain millions of views.
"He's used to finding that camera," Helms said, but he cautioned Paul not to go "too crazy in the beginning" with his character.
"We're going to build in terms of [his] emotions and [his] facial [expressions] and stuff like that. Just right away, he gets it."
So far, Helms said, there isn't one thing Paul can't do. But the real test comes Saturday.
"This ain't the deep end of the swimming pool," Helms said. "This is the deep end of the ocean."
PAUL HAS PROVEN his athletic chops in several exhibition boxing matches, including a mega event last year with Floyd Mayweather. Paul's lone professional boxing match came in 2019, a loss to fellow social media star KSI.
Meanwhile, his younger brother, Jake, is carving out his niche in boxing. He ran his record to 6-0 on Saturday with a decision win over UFC legend Anderson Silva.
But Logan Paul's place, it appears, is in a wrestling ring rather than the boxing ring.
"I like professional wrestling and I'm kind of good at it, so I figured I'd lean into it 'cause I have fun," Paul said. "I feel pretty comfortable in the ring as is, but after I saw the response from WrestleMania -- my friends, people that were close to me, people that I trust with their opinions and have been kind of guiding my career -- came up to me and they're like, 'Hey dude, this is you. This is the most you we've ever seen. You look in your element in that [ring], lean into it.'"
Presenting Paul as a viable challenge for Reigns is a daunting task. But there's another element that could bring issues: the locker room.
For years, wrestlers have griped publicly -- sometimes in storyline -- when a part-time performer returns to TV and is immediately fast-tracked into a major program. With Paul, those complaints could be amplified. After all, this is just his third wrestling match of any kind and it's not just for both championships, but against Reigns, a star wrestler young performers could receive a boost from sharing the ring with.
Wrestlers cherish those opportunities, and it's Paul who grabbed it in WWE's second-to-last premium event of the year.
"If you look at it and you say, 'Well, Logan Paul gets that opportunity, I don't get that opportunity,' you have very small, myopic thinking ..." Levesque said. "When Logan gets this opportunity, eventually he goes away or whatever. He is creating bigger opportunities for others. ... It's the bigger-picture thinking. I understand why people think that way 'cause your concern is your career. But the truth is in the overall picture, this is better for everybody."
Reigns, who has starred in WWE for 10 years, wasn't concerned about any criticism coming his way.
"I know I'm gonna have to dictate some things [with Paul] 'cause of my knowledge and experience to that particular setting," Reigns said. "It's just something that you get used to. John [Cena] did it, Steve [Austin] did it. Dwayne ["The Rock" Johnson] did it, Hulk [Hogan] did it. We all do it. And that's just a part of building that equity and taking on that role as the guy."
And while no one is expecting Paul to wrestle that status away from someone the caliber of Reigns, a man who looks like a real-life superhero, Paul might be here to stay on a part-time basis.
That's the impression Helms gathered from their various sessions and post-training conversations, where Paul laid out a vision for his wrestling career.
"There's an intelligence there that I think is very understated," Helms said. "He could literally go all the way. I mean, he checks all the boxes. He's marketable, he can work, he can wrestle and he can talk. He's a promoter's dream. He's a guy you can put on the posters. He's recognizable. He brings outside fans and ... as much as he commits, as much as he puts into this business, I think he'll get out. And I don't think there's a limit on how far he can go."
Paul, of course, will have myriad opportunities outside the wrestling ring. Besides his aforementioned podcast and dalliances in the boxing ring, Paul has experience acting along with many business ventures, including a hydration drink.
But if there's any doubt Paul is in wrestling for the long haul, look no further than his younger brother, Jake, who has already surpassed expectations by leaps and bounds with his longevity in -- and dedication to -- boxing.
"If you're just in and out like a lot of celebrities -- they do it once and they get their recognition and then they're done," he said. "But I wanna be more than that 'cause I think I can be, I know I can be. The only thing that's preventing me from being potentially one of the greatest in this sport is the time and energy that I put into it, which is the one thing I'm good at. So if I do that, I don't see why I can't get there.
"There's a lot of s--- I can do," Paul continued. "But something about wrestling is so exciting, right? It's entertaining. I get to be a showman. I get to be physical. I get to get highlight-reel clips on my social media. Pays well. WWE is very generous."