WWE WrestleMania 40: How the promotion seemingly stumbled into its biggest main event in years (2024)

WWE's product hasn't been this hot in decades. And with the kind of momentum not seen since the Attitude Era, the promotion is barreling toward WrestleMania 40 this weekend in Philadelphia.

But if you haven't been watching lately, you might have a few questions regarding the show's two main events. Why is The Rock back? Why is he evil now? And what's this "story" people keep going on about with Cody Rhodes?

We've got answers for all of that, but there has been a lot going on in the last year to get to this epic point.

An unexpected nightmare

Having left the WWE in 2016 and reinventing himself on the independent scene -- while helping launch what's now the second biggest promotion in the world in AEW -- Rhodes returned to the company at WrestleMania 38 in 2022 and immediately established himself as one of the promotion's top babyfaces. He cut a promo on the first episode of Raw following his return and effectively called his shot -- he was back to win the WWE championship, a title that eluded his famous wrestling family for decades. That title now belonged to Reigns, who unified it with the universal championship the night prior.

Rhodes' journey to the championship would eventually receive its own tagline: "Finish the story."

But instead of immediately targeting Reigns, Rhodes wound up in a months-long program with Seth Rollins. He'd go on to score two more wins over "The Visionary," but Rhodes suffered a torn pectoral days before their scheduled match at Hell in a Cell 2022. He gutted his way through that match but was then kept off WWE TV for the rest of the year to undergo surgery and recover.

Rhodes made his in-ring return in the 2023 Men's Royal Rumble match, entering at No. 30 and punching his ticket to the WrestleMania 39 main event with a win. Meanwhile, Reigns was riding a massive wave of momentum thanks to a lengthy, emotional program with Sami Zayn. And between Rhodes being presented as the conquering hero and Reigns' Bloodline faction finally taking a loss at WrestleMania 39 Night 1, it looked like the stage was set for Rhodes to dethrone Reigns in the closing moments of WrestleMania 39 Night 2.

But then a funny thing happened -- Rhodes lost.

Rhodes had Reigns dead to rights by hitting his Cross Rhodes finisher twice, only for Paul Heyman to jump onto the apron and distract the referee. Solo Sikoa, despite being ejected by the referee earlier in the match, suddenly appeared behind Rhodes and nailed him in the neck with a Samoan Spike. Reigns then hit Rhodes with a Spear for the win, sucking the oxygen out of a sold-out SoFi Stadium.

To this day, the booking decision remains controversial. Based on backstage reports, it wasn't a last-minute decision, nor was it a surprise decree from Vince McMahon as the balance of power within WWE's front office continued to shift -- though we'll get to that.

It was, however, a decision that aged poorly.

Rhodes would go on to spend the rest of 2023 spinning his wheels, taking part in programs with Brock Lesnar, The Judgement Day and Shinsuke Nakamura. He never lost the support of the fans, but the nagging sensation that all of his big matches would've meant more with him as world champion lingered.

Meanwhile, the buzz surrounding the undisputed WWE universal championship took a nosedive thanks to Reigns' notoriously light schedule. He has defended the title on pay-per-view just three times since the Rhodes match -- a clash with Jey Uso at SummerSlam where the title took a back seat to Reigns' position as "Tribal Chief," a forgettable match with LA Knight in Saudi Arabia and an even more forgettable four-way match at the 2024 Royal Rumble.

But by the end of this year Royal Rumble, it looked as though WWE had learned from its previous mistake. Rhodes won the Men's Rumble match yet again and the show went off the air with him pointing directly at Reigns, who was seated in one of Tropicana Field's suites high above the ring. Reigns vs. Rhodes II appeared to be a lock for the WrestleMania 40 main event. And while we are still getting that match, things got much more complicated.

The people's champion

By 2015, Dwayne "The Rock" Johnson had fully transformed from ex-wrestler into one of Hollywood's biggest names. And while he was a few years removed from his WrestleMania duology with John Cena, the 10-time world champion still made a surprise appearance at that year's Royal Rumble and aided a much younger and less-experienced Reigns in winning the Rumble match. The decision was met with resounding rejection from the crowd inside Philadelphia's Wells Fargo Center, and the reasons behind why so many fans were vocally against Reigns' ascent within WWE is a lengthy story in its own right.

Regardless of that night's infamy, Reigns and Johnson were linked in the minds of fans from that point on. The idea of a dream match between the two cousins grew as years passed, even as the mixed reaction surrounding Reigns as a WWE main eventer endured. He underwent a long-awaited character transformation in August 2020, reemerging from a hiatus as the vindictive and manipulative "Tribal Chief." And once he started cutting promos about sitting at "The Head of The Table" and being the leader of his family, fans' ears started perking up as that family tree also included Johnson.

Once the Pandemic Era ended and WWE was back to touring in front of live crowds, rumors of Reigns vs. Rock became an annual affair. WrestleMania 39 was theorized to be the ideal event given its Los Angeles location and Johnson's extensive ties to Hollywood, but it never happened. Johnson confirmed last September on The Pat McAfee Show that the match was "locked" at one point, only for negotiations to fall through.

That McAfee interview was just one piece of a massive plan Johnson created to tease the idea of the match. That also included him discussing it in over a dozen interviews, Instagram promos from his "Iron Paradise" home gym and even on his "Young Rock" comedy series. The final tease arrived on the New Year's Day edition of Raw back in January when Johnson made a surprise appearance, quickly dispatched of Jinder Mahal and asked the fans in attendance if he should sit "at The Head of the Table."

Less than three weeks later, Johnson joined the board of directors for TKO Group -- which became WWE's parent company after a merger with UFC under the Endeavor banner. News dropped the same week via The Wall Street Journal that WWE executive chairman Vince McMahon was being sued for abuse and sex trafficking by a former employee, just one in a list of sexual misconduct allegations. With McMahon officially gone, Paul "Triple H" Levesque was now able to freely book WWE's weekly programming without any interference from his father-in-law. WrestleMania 40 would be the first event of its kind to have no input from its original creator.

The ultimate pivot

Even though Rhodes made his decision to challenge Reigns quite clear, Rollins attempted to persuade him in another direction. He pleaded his case on an episode of Raw that Rhodes should challenge for his world heavyweight championship instead as it was the true "workhorse" championship his father, "The American Dream" Dusty Rhodes, would've wanted rather than Reigns' "Hollywood" title. And while Rhodes' need to "finish the story" centered around him beating Reigns for his undisputed championship, Rhodes said he'd consider his options.

Rhodes then appeared on the Feb. 2 edition of SmackDown to confront Reigns. The champ also tried to push Rhodes to challenge Rollins instead. And, to the shock of the wrestling world, Rhodes agreed with him. "The American Nightmare" proclaimed he would eventually beat Reigns, but it just wouldn't be at WrestleMania. He then bowed out, visually and metaphorically, as Johnson arrived for a staredown with Reigns, who was visually unhappy to see his cousin.

The reaction from wrestling fans was as loud as it was angry. Despite Reigns vs. Rock being a long-awaited dream match, fans wanted to see Rhodes have his moment of triumph and refused to have nearly three years of investment casually brushed aside. "#WeWantCody" became a rallying cry on social media, still trending days after Rhodes' decision. With a potential disaster on their hands, the company opted to pivot.

WWE announced a "WrestleMania Kickoff" event on Feb. 8 at the T-Mobile Arena in Las Vegas, inviting reporters and fans alike as various wrestlers hyped up the two-night event. The special culminated with a segment involving Reigns, Rhodes, Johnson and Rollins. Rhodes announced he'd be challenging Reigns, while Johnson took exception to Rhodes mentioning the Anoa'i family lineage and Rhodes' fans, which he dubbed "The Cody Crybabies." By the end of the special, Johnson and Reigns were a unified force against "The American Nightmare" and all signs of the infamous Feb. 2 Smackdown segment had vanished.

The stakes were raised even higher in the weeks that followed. Johnson, sporting the new moniker "The Final Boss" and enraged that the fans forced his dream match to be scrapped, announced that WrestleMania 40 Night 1 would have a tag team main event -- Rock and Reigns vs. Rhodes and Rollins. If Rhodes and Rollins win, the Night 2 main event will take place without any interference from The Bloodline faction. But if Reigns and The Rock win, the Night 2 main event will be contested under "Bloodline Rules" -- all but guaranteeing Reigns will retain thanks to heavy interference from his family.

Looking back at the past four decades of WrestleMania, the idea that WWE would have such a massive match in its hands only to call an audible seems like lunacy. Were this company still under the Vince McMahon regime -- where good business overpowered what fans wanted nearly every time -- this kind of change likely wouldn't have happened. We'd be weeks into the company collectively burying its head in the sand, attempting to drown out fan backlash. But by deciding to make a change and create something that has all the potential to be even better, it shows WWE truly has entered a new era.

Instead of weeks of forgettable television, every episode where The Bloodline, Rhodes or Rollins are present is now must-see. We've been given moments like the return of "The Rock Concert" and Johnson brutalizing Rhodes in the pouring Chicago rain. We have Johnson operating at a level not seen in decades and three men all willing to match his intensity.

And all of that is without mentioning the other nine matches already confirmed for this weekend. After the company nearly drove the show off a cliff just two months ago, WrestleMania 40 might just be WWE's best show in years.

WWE WrestleMania 40: How the promotion seemingly stumbled into its biggest main event in years (2024)

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