WWE fans have been clamoring for The Rock to return for years. The Hollywood mega-star is, by just about any measure, one of the ten most popular wrestlers in WWE history, and it’s been a dream for many to see him lace his boots back up and deliver a few more People’s Elbows. Now, after a surprise appearance on SmackDown last night, it looks like that’s going to happen. You’d think that would be a cause for celebration, but unfortunately, thanks to the way it was done and what storylines it might affect, WWE fans are revolting and screaming on social media in a way they haven’t since at least the 2015 Royal Rumble. Here’s the full backstory for those of you who might be out of the loop.
The Rock’s cousin Roman Reigns is The WWE Champion and hasn’t lost a singles match in more than three years. He’s The Guy to an even greater extent than The Rock was The Guy during his own time in WWE in the late 90s and early 2000s. Reigns is a villain, or in wrestling terms a heel, and his main foil, the most popular good guy or babyface, in WWE storylines is Cody Rhodes. He’s been on a mission for the last two years to beat Roman Reigns and win The WWE Championship, which his late father, Dusty Rhodes, came close to winning but never could decades ago.
Last year, Roman and Cody faced off in the main event of WrestleMania 39, and Roman won thanks to outside interference from one of his cornermen that the ref didn’t see. Fans were furious at the time. I was there, and I’ve never seen a crowd that deflated. Most thought Rhodes would win for sure, but everyone sorta took the loss as an exciting surprise and a chance to create more adversity and a better emotional payoff later. Cody has spent the last nine months on WWE programming vowing to win The Royal Rumble so he’d have his pick of WrestleMania opponents and could challenge Roman Reigns in the main event again. He told fans he was going to “finish his story.” Well, last weekend, he won The Royal Rumble, only when it came time to challenge Roman Reigns on SmackDown last night, he said he decided to finish his story later and introduced The Rock.
While it wasn’t directly stated, the pretty obvious implication was The Rock and Roman Reigns would main event WrestleMania 40, and Cody Rhodes would instead face Seth Rollins, who holds the second most prestigious title in WWE. Fans inside the arena mostly cheered for The Rock, but the response on social media produced the strongest backlash to any booking decision I’ve seen in years. The general consensus was that it makes no logical sense to the storyline WWE has been running for the last year. Many derisively compared The Rock to Hulk Hogan, who famously inserted himself into storylines when his character was well past his prime, and the clear takeaway was that most wrestling fans want to see Cody Rhodes and Roman Reigns, not The Rock and Roman Reigns. In fact, the YouTube clip is already the most disliked in WWE history with more than 200,000 downvotes, more than three times the number of likes.
So, what the hell happened here? Well, it’s a lot more complicated than WWE just making a terrible booking decision. The Rock recently joined the board of directors of WWE’s parent company. Over the last year, he’s made several appearances on programming to massive fanfare from wrestling fans, who have been stoked to see him back. In the most recent of those appearances, prior to last night, he made a very deliberate reference to “sitting at the head of the table,” which is a phrase his cousin Roman Reigns often uses, and fans got very excited about the possibility of seeing them wrestle.
Rumors swirled that The Rock and Roman Reigns could headline WrestleMania 40. Some fans were behind it. Others wanted WWE to hold off on that match so we could get Roman and Cody. That chatter has been largely quiet the last month or two, however, and when Cody won The Royal Rumble, most fans felt it was the right decision. WWE would give us Seth Rollins and CM Punk as the night one main event (which is a very exciting match for its own complicated reasons), Cody and Roman as the night two main event and then The Rock and Roman sometime down the line, maybe at WrestleMania 41. Unfortunately, CM Punk tore his triceps at The Royal Rumble and is out for several months, and whether it’s fair or not, the assumption most fans are making is that WWE panicked and decided to change course.
I can’t speak for all wrestling fans, but from where I’m sitting, I’m not mad we’re getting The Rock and Roman Reigns. I love The Rock. Given their family history and Roman Reigns’ obsession with sitting at the head of his family’s table, it makes all the sense in the world for them to fight. I’ve been writing articles asking for this match for an entire year. What makes me really mad is that WWE did not do the storyline work to get us there. It built Cody and built Cody and made his singular obsession fighting Roman again and winning this belt for his father, and then, he stepped aside for no logical reason whatsoever and said he’d do this later—- for a fifty-one-year-old who has appeared on WWE programming two or three times over the last year. It just feels like a slap in the face to everyone who watches the show every week and who got behind Cody and invested in this story and a slap in the face to Cody who was just made to step aside like he's nothing. It’s like if we all watched the first two hours of a Captain America movie and then right before the final battle, he said I’m gonna step aside and let Thor finish this off. It’s not that I don’t like Thor. It’s that I’m not watching his movie.
So, now we have to wait and see how WWE reacts. There is a news conference planned for Thursday to kick off WrestleMania. The plan is assumedly to announce Roman Reigns and The Rock for WrestleMania 40. From a business standpoint, I get it. The Rock is certainly going to generate more crossover excitement than Cody Rhodes would, but it’s been almost a decade since WWE’s fanbase was this mad about anything, and with wrestling generating more buzz and fan excitement than it has in a long time, it’s going to be interested to see whether Triple H, Nick Khan and company choose to stay the course or listen to those buying the tickets and give fans what they want.