The Rock Roman Reigns WWE WrestleMania Screen grab: WWE

After Cody Rhodes won the men’s Royal Rumble match last Saturday, the main event for WrestleMania XL appeared to be set. In fact, Rhodes even went as far as to celebrate his victory by pointing at Roman Reigns, all but announcing that he would be challenging “The Tribal Chief” for the WWE Universal Championship on wrestling’s biggest stage.

So as Rhodes went face to face with Reigns on Friday’s episode of WWE SmackDown, an official announcement regarding what would be a rematch of last year’s WrestleMania main event seemed inevitable. Only the segment ended with Rhodes stepping aside — literally — to allow Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson to seemingly challenge Reigns for his title.

While an official announcement regarding a WrestleMania main event between The Rock and Reigns has yet to be made, all signs point toward it happening at a press conference in Las Vegas on Thursday. WWE has already advertised The Rock and Reigns for the event, as well as Rhodes and fellow superstars Seth Rollins, Rhea Ripley, and Bianca Belair.

On paper, a WrestleMania main event between The Rock and Reigns is a literal dream match — a showdown between two of the biggest stars in wrestling history, who both happen to be a part of one of the industry’s most storied families. Ever since Reigns began his current championship run in 2020, all signs have pointed to an eventual matchup with The Rock, who hasn’t participated in a true wrestling match since 2013.

But while the fans in attendance at SmackDown on Friday reacted with the excitement you’d expect from a surprise appearance by The Rock, the reaction on social media was far less joyous (albeit, just as enthusiastic). By Saturday morning, “WE WANT CODY” was one of the top trends on X (formerly Twitter), with Rhodes’ exclusion from the main event match having become the subject of fodder among fans.

So why would WWE fans be upset with a match that should seemingly be the biggest main event you could have in wrestling? It really has much more to do with Rhodes than The Rock.

For the uninitiated, Rhodes is the son of the legendary Dusty Rhodes, an everyman superstar of the 1970s and 1980s best known for his legendary feud with Ric Flair. But despite the younger Rhodes being a once-promising wrestler, his first run in WWE fizzled out, as he transformed into a cartoonish, clown-like character known as “Stardust.”

Rather than accepting his spot as a comedy figure, Rhodes requested his release from WWE. He proceeded to set out on a three-year tour of pro wrestling’s booming independent scene, establishing himself as one of the hottest stars in the industry.

Rhodes’ run on the indies and in Japan played a major role in the creation of All Elite Wrestling (AEW) in 2019, with the promotion serving as WWE’s biggest competitor since it bought World Championship Wrestling (WCW) to bring an end to wrestling’s famed “Monday Night Wars” in 2001. But just as his time in AEW — where he also served as an executive — seemed to be getting stale, “The American Nightmare” jumped ship, making his improbable return to WWE at WrestleMania 38 in 2022.

Rhodes’ return to WWE established him as one of the industry’s undisputed top stars and he immediately set out on a mission to win the WWE championship — something his father never did. His superstardom was only amplified after he worked a brutal Hell in a Cell cage match with a torn pectoral muscle, which resulted in him being sidelined for the latter half of 2022 before returning to win the 2023 men’s Royal Rumble match, putting him on a collision course with Reigns at WrestleMania 39.

Despite most figuring Rhodes would dethrone Reigns, he ultimately fell short. While WWE’s decision to have Reigns beat Rhodes was polarizing, most agreed that it would only make the payoff of Rhodes eventually defeating Reigns all the sweeter.

After Rhodes won Saturday’s Royal Rumble — something he wasn’t necessarily expected to do — that plan seemed to be in motion. Which brings us to Friday night, where Rhodes cut a lengthy promo about his desire to challenge and conquer Reigns before stating that he would eventually do so — just not at WrestleMania.

Enter The Rock.


While a match between The Rock and Reigns had been heavily hinted at in the lead up to the Royal Rumble, most figured those plans were on hold after Rhodes won the Royal Rumble. After all, it wouldn’t make any sense to have Rhodes win the Rumble and do anything but challenge Reigns, considering that winning the WWE championship has been his primary objective since returning to WWE two years ago.

(It’s worth noting that WWE currently has two world championships and Rhodes will likely challenge Rollins for the other one at WrestleMania. Still, the title Reigns holds has long been established as the one that Rhodes covets in his “story”)

And yet, despite everything about Rhodes’ two-year run having been relatively flawless to this point, there he was, stepping aside to allow The Rock to take his spot against Reigns in the WrestleMania main event. Rhodes (or WWE’s writers) did his best to explain the lack of logic by explaining that he didn’t want to just win the title, he wanted to take everything away from Reigns, including his status as “the Head of the Table” (which only The Rock could do since he’s a member of Reigns’ family). But the disappointed — if not outright sad — look on Rhodes’ face during the segment did little to sell the still-flawed explanation.

As for why WWE would reverse course just days after Rhodes had all but challenged Reigns following the Royal Rumble, there are a number of theories that fans and reporters alike have come up with. The two most prominent: that CM Punk’s injury resulted in a reshuffling of the planned WrestleMania card and that WWE is using The Rock’s return as a way to divert attention from the ongoing Vince McMahon sex-trafficking lawsuit/federal investigation.

But regardless of the rationale, there’s still no reason that Rhodes should have won the Royal Rumble if he wasn’t going to challenge Reigns. Fans don’t seem to be furious about The Rock facing Reigns so much as they are about the lack of logic of Rhodes merely stepping aside after putting himself in a position to “finish the story.”

With WrestleMania still more than two months away, plenty can change — including the possibility of Rhodes being added to The Rock vs. Reigns match to form a triple threat match. This isn’t the first time fans have been upset about a WrestleMania build — ironically, Cody was playing The Rock’s role last year — and WWE has often shown a willingness to adjust on the fly.

But regardless of how any of this plays out, it’s hard to view the current situation as anything but WWE unnecessarily squandering the two-year build of arguably its most reliable star in favor of two part-time performers. But what ultimately seems to make fans most upset is that you still could have gotten to The Rock vs. Reigns without sacrificing Rhodes’ story.


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.