WWE has the biggest WrestleMania main event in over a decade on tap, one that can penetrate the mainstream more than any other matchup the pro-wrestling promotion can do.
And some fans are furious about it.
Every indication is that Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson will return for his first legitimate match since 2013 against Undisputed WWE Universal champion Roman Reigns in the main event of the two-night WrestleMania 40 on either April 6 or 7 in Philadelphia. Johnson is as recognizable worldwide as anyone else on Earth. Reigns has been the face of WWE during this era, is in the middle of a record-setting title run, and, by the way, happens to consider himself to be Johnson’s cousin — even if not by blood.
Reigns vs. The Rock has been teased for years. Reigns’ storyline, the best one WWE has done in a long time, is called The Bloodline, and it’s all about Reigns and his family‘s legacy in wrestling. Johnson fits into that perfectly.
In a vacuum, the match is a no-brainer. It checks all the boxes. Yet, if the online reaction is any indication, the most ardent pro-wrestling enthusiasts are pushing back hard on it. Or at least its timing. As of Sunday night, the full Smackdown segment on WWE’s YouTube channel has more than 500,000 downvotes, compared to just over 100,000 upvotes.
Their ire could be misguided and misplaced, but this is a phenomenon WWE has to keep a close tab on. WWE would be foolish to miss out on what is likely a small window of time for this match to happen due to Johnson’s age — he’s 51 now — and busy schedule. Remember, Johnson is one of the most sought-after actors in Hollywood, involved in blockbuster after blockbuster. Waiting another year and hoping Johnson is in ring shape and not involved in some movie or TV project could be too risky.
The mainstream attention gained by Reigns vs. Rock outweighs any current storyline direction, as good as those have been. Per WWE, there have been more than 79 million social media views for the Johnson segment Friday, as of Sunday night. Who else can put up those kinds of numbers? And a match with Johnson only raises the profile of Reigns, who, while being the biggest name in pro wrestling currently, has not yet crossed over to the more casual audience in the way others before him have. No, the match does not need the title on the line, but that’s a small point for the majority of potential viewers.
But let’s address why everyone is so mad online.
If Johnson were not around, Reigns would have almost certainly faced Cody Rhodes in the WrestleMania main event, a rematch of last year’s show which saw Rhodes get storyline-screwed by Reigns’ cousins — The Usos and Solo Sikoa — en route to a heartbreaking loss. In fact, Reigns vs. Rhodes 2 was reportedly the plan until very recently.
Rhodes, the son of the legendary Dusty Rhodes, is an excellent professional wrestler and the WWE fanbase is fully invested in his character and arc. Cody Rhodes was named ESPN’s 2023 male wrestler of the year, a well-earned honor. He returned to WWE in 2022, after being one of the founders of All Elite Wrestling (AEW), as a prodigal son. He vowed then to achieve his goal of winning the top championship in WWE, which his father was never able to do.
Over the last two years, Cody Rhodes has battled back from a badly torn pec, won back-to-back Royal Rumble matches (the first time anyone has done that since “Stone Cold” Steve Austin in 1998), headlined WrestleMania 39 and been on the cover of the WWE 2K24 video game. Rhodes is the kind of babyface that has been a staple of WWE programming forever, going back to Hulk Hogan. Kids adore him, and he’s a wonderful ambassador for the promotion — handsome, sharply dressed, and well-spoken — the kind of guy you send out to morning and late-night talk shows alike.
More importantly than all that, fans are absolutely invested in Rhodes to “finish the story,” meaning winning the top title, which has been his catchphrase since returning to WWE. His status and the way he has been booked have built an impressive amount of goodwill.
That was clear on Saturday when, just hours after the first faceoff between Reigns and Johnson, the hashtag #WeWantCody was trending on the social platform X. The comments on YouTube of the SmackDown segment from Friday night were overwhelmingly negative. Ditto for the comments on Johnson’s social media, which is bizarre given how beloved The Rock is.
The whole thing was odd because the reaction to Reigns vs. Rock, if it had been the obvious direction a few months ago, would have been overwhelming excitement. And let’s be clear: The negative reaction could be coming from a very vocal minority because there is still plenty of buzz around the match, especially among lapsed fans and mainstream outlets.
If you know the history, you can understand why some WWE fans are irritated. They have seen this before, after all. Fan favorites like CM Punk and Daniel Bryan were pushed aside years ago from potential big-time WrestleMania spots by former WWE stars-turned-Hollywood actors like Johnson and Dave Bautista.
But this is not the same WWE, and Paul “Triple H” Levesque has earned trust as the promotion’s head of creative, given how much better and more coherent WWE has been booked since he took over. Plus, Punk and Bryan remained incredibly popular despite getting cast aside.
All of this is also happening in the shadow of a lawsuit filed against former WWE owner and promoter Vince McMahon, accusing him of sexual misconduct. McMahon resigned as executive chairman of TKO Group (which encompasses WWE and the UFC) hours after the Wall Street Journal report came out and further reports have stated that McMahon is the subject of a federal investigation.
There has been some speculation that Johnson returning for this match against Reigns is a way for WWE and parent company TKO Group to distract from those allegations. Johnson was just appointed to the TKO board of directors.
But Johnson and Reigns have talked publicly about this possible match for years. Well before the lawsuit news came out. ESPN asked Reigns about facing Johnson at a media event four years ago, and he proceeded to pitch the idea of a WrestleMania match to Johnson through the gathered media.
The booking en route to Reigns vs. Rock was less than graceful. That part is true and has to be mentioned. Rhodes won the Royal Rumble, which is supposed to earn him the right to headline WrestleMania against WWE’s top champion, who is Reigns.
Friday on SmackDown, Rhodes came to the ring to face off with Reigns. He said he was still coming for Reigns and the undisputed WWE Universal title. But he wanted to take everything from Reigns and would not be challenging him at WrestleMania. Cue Johnson, whom Rhodes called his counsel. Johnson entered the ring, hugged Rhodes and faced off with Reigns as the show went off the air.
The segment was a bit ham-fisted. It did not make Rhodes’ character look all that good, deferring to Johnson. And that can be damaging to him in the long term. However, if the fan reaction has been any indication, there is more support for Rhodes than ever. Like Punk and Bryan before him, Rhodes has a chance to turn this perceived slight into part of the story he is trying to finish. There are potential reasons for the Rock pivot, including CM Punk missing WrestleMania with an injury and the reported removal of Brock Lesnar from storylines in the wake of him being referenced in the Wall Street Journal pieces regarding the McMahon lawsuit.
WWE can’t test fans’ patience much longer, though. Some have said that Rhodes should have won the first match with Reigns at last year’s WrestleMania, which would have avoided this situation. But you can’t retcon the last year.
Rhodes has to end Reigns’ historic title run this year, perhaps even beat Seth Rollins to win the world heavyweight title before unifying the belts with a victory over Reigns. That would be an appropriate way for Rhodes to finish his story and become the new face of WWE, with Reigns inevitably shifting to a part-time role to focus on other ventures. Rhodes does not have to finish the story at WrestleMania and his finally winning can still be an epic moment.
ESPN asked Reigns last year, prior to WrestleMania 39, if an eventual matchup with The Rock is what he wanted.
“At the end of the day, I want what is gonna be biggest for the fans, because that’s gonna reflect what I was able to accomplish,” Reigns said. “And if that’s one of the biggest ones out there, then let’s do it.”
It’s the biggest, there’s no doubt about that. The question will be whether the fans in the arenas over the next few weeks and months completely — and vocally — reject it. That started a bit over the weekend at a non-televised house show when WWE showed the SmackDown segment on the big screen. Many fans booed. If that continues, it would be disastrous and could somehow force WWE to alter its plans.
As things stand now, though, The Rock is headlining the biggest WWE show of the year, despite the timing and story being a bit clumsy. It won’t matter, ultimately. Reigns vs. The Rock is undoubtedly the biggest match WWE can put on, one that will achieve the most mainstream coverage and potentially sell the most Peacock subscriptions. Remember, WWE has next-rights deals sewn up for its shows, but not for its premium live events like WrestleMania.
Reigns vs. The Rock will be remembered forever, like Hogan vs. The Rock at WrestleMania 18 in 2002. And there’s probably only one chance to make it happen, which is why it has to be at WrestleMania 40.
Rhodes’ story will have to wait a bit longer, as business takes precedence.