It appears that top execs at TKO planned to go with a Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson vs. Roman Reigns main event at WrestleMania 40 all along, that Cody Rhodes and even Paul Levesque weren’t made aware of the plans, and that the blowback from WWE fans caught the suits by surprise.
“Sources backstage at WWE ‘Raw’ said that they expected a passionate reaction for Rhodes, but weren’t necessarily expecting ‘Rocky sucks’ chants,” Fightful Select wrote of the ongoing situation, which will hit its next benchmark on Thursday at a press conference to tout the upcoming WrestleMania show.
It is expected that the Rock-Reigns match will be made official at the presser, despite speculation that the intense pushback from fans could end up swaying WWE to either go back on the move to replace Rhodes, the winner of the 2024 Royal Rumble, from the world-title match, or to add Rhodes into the mix to make the main event a triple-threat match.
That move would be akin to what was done in 2014, when a fan revolt over the announced Randy Orton-Batista world-title match led to the insertion of Bryan Danielson into the match, with Danielson scoring the upset win.
Fans attending the “Raw” show on Monday in St. Louis noted on social media that “We Want Cody” signs were being handed out, which might indicate that WWE is trying to fuel the fan uproar to recreate the “Yes!” movement that backed Danielson on his quest for the WrestleMania 30 title-match spot.
It’s not clear if the signs were the product of the company or fans – remember the “Cesaro Section” signs that a fan brought and passed out at a “Raw” a few years back?
The reporting from industry insiders including Fightful Select, PWInsider and Dave Meltzer, the editor of the Wrestling Observer newsletter, seems to come to a consensus that Johnson leveraged his way into the main event behind the scenes as he was negotiating with TKO higher-ups to return to the WWE fold.
Johnson was announced as having been added to the TKO board of directors on Jan. 23, and it’s now being reported that the deal to put him on the board was actually put to paper on Jan. 3 – and that the agreement included having Johnson return to an on-air role of some sort on WWE TV.
An inevitable Rock-Reigns WrestleMania bout has been rumored for the past few years, and seemed to be definitively in the works for WrestleMania 39 last spring, before talks between Johnson and WWE, which at the time was still under the control of the now-departed Vince McMahon, broke down.
The idea of going with Rock-Reigns now could serve a few purposes for TKO and WWE, most notably, to get the attention away from the most recent McMahon scandal, the lawsuit filed by former WWE employee Janel Grant alleging horrific sexual misconduct and sexual trafficking by McMahon involving former WWE exec John Laurinaitis and former WWE and UFC champ Brock Lesnar.
Even aside from that, Rock-Reigns would clearly have more mainstream appeal, given Johnson’s status as a Hollywood star, though that status has taken a hit of late, from the fallout of his failed push with “Black Adam,” and the cancellation of his NBC sitcom that was forced by low ratings and tepid reviews.
The balancing act there is going for the mainstream appeal of Rock-Reigns at the possible expense of the steady base of WWE viewers who watch “Raw,” which was just snatched up by Netflix in a 10-year, $5 billion media-rights deal, and “Smackdown,” which is moving from Fox to USA in a five-year, $1.4 billion arrangement.
I’d be surprised to see TKO and WWE revise the plans to go with a Rock-Reigns WrestleMania main event, or to alter the match by adding Rhodes in as a third participant, a la what was done with Danielson in WrestleMania 30.
I can see a scenario that was spelled out in another Fightful Select report that would have Johnson defeat Reigns and Rhodes defeat Seth Rollins for the lesser-regarded second WWE world title, then set Johnson and Rhodes for a title-unification match to main event SummerSlam in August.
It’s pro wrestling, so, the thing to keep at the top of mind is, everything is a work.