The Rock Cody Rhodes WWE Wrestlemania Attitude Era Screen grab: ‘WWE Raw’

There was a moment during Monday night’s episode of WWE Raw where superstar Drew McIntyre broke the fourth wall for viewers at home.

During a lengthy promo segment featuring CM Punk, McIntyre and his Wrestlemania XL opponent Seth Rollins, Punk — who is injured — weighed his options for how he could still be involved in the match. As the audience in Rosemont, Illinois, made it clear they wanted him to serve as the special guest referee, the Straight Edge Superstar did his best to persuade them that he isn’t fit for the role.

“In all fairness, I really I don’t think I could be objectively fair with these two dips***s ,” said Punk, who has on-screen conflicts with both McIntyre and Rollins.

“PG, brother,” McIntyre replied, in reference to the TV-PG rating that has largely defined WWE programming since the late-2000s.

McIntyre’s quip appeared to be just that — a lighthearted line in what was one of the better promo battles in recent memory. As it turned out, it helped to set up the swerve of all swerves, as Raw went off the air an hour later following a segment that was anything but TV-PG.

As you may have heard, Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson is back in professional wrestling, involved in a multilayered WrestleMania main event feud featuring Roman Reigns, Cody Rhodes and Rollins. For the uninitiated, I’ll try to be brief:

Rhodes won the annual Royal Rumble match and was set to challenge Reigns to a rematch after losing to the WWE Universal champion at last year’s WrestleMania. For reasons that remain unclear, Rhodes seemingly handed his title shot over to The Rock — Reigns’ real-life cousin — which led to a revolt from WWE fans who wanted to see Rhodes “finish his story.” Rather than sticking with its plans, WWE pivoted, turning The Rock heel (bad guy) and having him team with Reigns against Rhodes and Rollins on Night 1 of WrestleMania XL. If The Rock and Reigns win, then the Night 2 main event between Reigns and Rhodes (who took his title shot back from The Rock) will be “Bloodline Rules,” meaning anything goes. But if Rhodes and Rollins win, then the title match will be interference-free, a clear advantage for Rhodes considering Reigns’ matches often contain copious amounts of cheating on his behalf.

Got it?

Yet despite WrestleMania XL being less than two weeks away, neither The Rock nor Reigns were advertised to appear on the penultimate Raw. But as Rhodes — the son of professional wrestling legend Dusty Rhodes — cut a show-opening promo, it was interrupted by a surprise appearance from The Rock, who made his way to the ring, whispered something to the American Nightmare and then left.

In an ensuing segment, backstage interviewer Jackie Redmond asked The Rock what had said. The People’s Champ responded by telling her to ask Rhodes and proceeded to seemingly leave the arena for the night.

But as the main event match between Jey Uso and Shinsuke Nakamura devolved into a backstage brawl, Rhodes found himself fighting off Reigns’ Bloodline cohorts Jimmy Uso and Solo Sikoa. After successfully doing so, Rhodes was then attacked by another member of The Bloodline — The Rock — who handed out one of the most memorable ass-beatings in professional wrestling history.

Over the course Raw‘s final six minutes, The Rock made his rival bleed, threatened his mother, spit on him, called the audience “pieces of s**t” and told Rhodes “this is what happens when you f**k with the final boss.” The PG Era, this was not. If anything, it was reminiscent of WWE’s famed “Attitude Era” of the late-1990s.

For the uninitiated who have somehow made it this far, a quick refresher: In the mid-1990s, WWE (then-WWF) was involved in a heated battle with rival promotion WCW. After losing several stars — Hulk Hogan, Macho Man Randy Savage, Bret Hart, Diesel and Razor Ramon, etc. — to WCW, WWF was left without much of an identity, as it had previously thrived with larger-than-life, cartoon-like characters.

Enter the Attitude Era, in which WWF embraced realism, violence, sexuality and cursing while constantly blurring the lines between fiction and reality. With stars like Stone Cold Steve Austin, Shawn Michaels, Triple H, Mankind, The Undertaker — and of course, The Rock — the pivot proved seismic, as WWF not only defeated WCW, but purchased its competition in 2001.

For many wrestling fans of a certain age (including this author) the “Monday Night Wars” of the late-1990s is considered professional wrestling’s glory days, with the Attitude Era serving as the gold standard of what a promotion can be capable of. In the time since, WWE initially failed to recapture that magic before ultimately shifting to a more family-friendly strategy that has proven plenty profitable, but also opened the door for new competition, such as All Elite Wrestling (AEW).

That’s not to say that WWE hasn’t been enjoyable — in fact, its post-pandemic product has largely been considered its best since the Attitude Era. But for as much as WWE’s creative (and production) has improved since Vince McMahon’s departure from the company, there has still been an underlying sense that this is still a product aimed at selling John Cena (or Cody Rhodes) t-shirts to elementary school-aged kids.

And truthfully, that will always be a huge part of the product. Even the Attitude Era, for better or worse, appealed to kids. There’s a reason why nostalgia-based meme accounts still post about sixth graders doing the DX crotch chop 25 years ago (if you know, you know).

But the beautiful thing about pro wrestling is that it’s a variety show; there’s something for everybody. And thanks to this year’s WrestleMania build, for the first time in a long time, that also includes the adults.

Not just because of the nostalgia provided by The Rock’s return, but also because of the storyline surrounding it. WWE isn’t just listening to its audience — it’s getting ahead of it. A Rock and Roman Reigns tag team or Cody Rhodes being beaten to bloody pulp wasn’t even something anybody realized they wanted until WWE had already made both happen.

And yeah, cussing and blood are cool, but this is actually good storytelling too. The feud between Rhodes and the Bloodline is intertwined with nearly every other aspect of WWE’s current product. When WrestleMania XL wraps up next week, it won’t just feel like the culmination of a single storyline, but an entire year’s worth of WWE programming.

The big question in all of this is how much of this Attitude Era 2.0 is here to stay how much of it will disappear when The Rock returns to Hollywood? At this point, it’s impossible to know. But WWE’s growing partnership with Netflix bodes well for such hopes, as does McMahon’s permanent departure from the company.

WWE’s build to WrestleMania XL hasn’t been perfect; based on how the storyline has played out, many are rightfully wondering why the Night 2 main event will feature Rhodes vs. Reigns and not Rhodes vs. The Rock. But that also leaves the company with an exciting mix of obvious direction and unpredictability moving forward.

That’s something it hasn’t been to say since… well, you get it.

About Ben Axelrod

Ben Axelrod is a veteran of the sports media landscape, having most recently worked for NBC's Cleveland affiliate, WKYC. Prior to his time in Cleveland, he covered Ohio State football and the Big Ten for outlets including Cox Media Group, Bleacher Report, Scout and Rivals.