After two record-setting, extremely well-received surprise appearances at WWE events over the last year, Dwayne The Rock Johnson returned to SmackDown again on Friday, this time to heavily imply he would be wrestling his cousin Roman Reigns in the main event of this year’s WrestleMania. Unfortunately, this appearance was not nearly as well-received. In fact, it has resulted in a backlash of negativity louder and more aggressive than anything we’ve seen in WWE since at least the 2015 Royal Rumble.
I covered exactly what’s going on pretty extensively in this article yesterday, but in short, WWE has been slowly but surely telling the story of Cody Rhodes trying to win The WWE Championship in honor of his late father, The American Dream Dusty Rhodes, who came close but never won the belt. Cody lost against Roman Reigns after outside interference in the main event of last year’s WrestleMania and has been building himself back up again for the last year, trying to earn another chance and "finish his story." He won The Royal Rumble, which gives him the right to challenge anyone he wants at WrestleMania, but instead of challenging Roman, as everyone expected, he said he’d do that later and introduced The Rock, who has apparently decided he wants to headline WrestleMania this year.
Fans are, of course, really excited about seeing The Rock again. They’ve long clamored for him to return and even to face his cousin Roman Reigns, but the way it was done has rubbed a majority the wrong way. Many, including me, feel they’ve watched Cody’s story on a weekly basis for two years, and it’s now suddenly being tossed aside because a 51 year old, who happens to be on the board of directors of WWE’s parent company, has decided he wants to wrestle again.
It would be tempting to say the backlash is nothing more than a social media echo chamber, but this isn’t just fifty influential people screaming about it on Twitter. Video of The Rock’s return on Friday has more than 500,000 dislikes on YouTube, by far the highest in WWE’s history. A clip is trending this morning of fans at a live WWE event booing The Rock when he was shown on the jumbotron. The Rock’s social media posts are being bombarded with fans screaming at him to move out of the way, and the hashtag We Want Cody has received more than 200,000 tweets since it launched over the weekend.
Fortunately, this is wrestling. Storylines are written and rewritten on a weekly basis. The Rock and company can simply carry on with the plan as usual and pretend like everyone is really stoked to see him back, which will probably result in the backlash continuing and fans booing The People’s Champ or they can pivot and try to fix this. I see three pretty clear paths they can go down that would at least partially solve the problem. So, let’s go over them one at a time.
Option 1: Cody Rhodes Can Also Wrestle Roman Reigns At WrestleMania 40
There are some on social media who think WWE should give us a triple threat match with The Rock, Cody Rhodes and Roman Reigns, but that doesn't make a ton of sense to me. The Rock and Roman Reigns' battle is over who is the real head of the table, who the greatest wrestler in The Bloodline/ Anoi'a Family Dynasty is. That lineage includes dozens of wrestlers with greats like Yokozuna, The Usos, Umaga, Peter Maivia, Solo Sikoa, Rikishi, The Wild Samoans and of course, The Rock and Roman Reigns, and the battle for tribal supremacy is a really obvious and clean story to be told. Cody doesn't really factor into that.
But that doesn't mean Roman Reigns can't do double duty and wrestle Cody Rhodes on Night 1 and The Rock on Night 2. I know he's closer to a part time performer now who doesn't show up on programming every week, but desperate times call for desperate measures. The fan base turning on your future WrestleMania Main Event is desperate times. So, both The Rock and Roman could do what's right for the business and put in hard work over the next two months.
Roman could build his program with The Rock on Friday nights on SmackDown. They can align Jey Uso with The Rock, maybe bring in Jacob Fatu or another family member and have Roman backed by Jimmy Uso and Solo Sikoa. There's a fantastic story that fans would absolutely love there, especially if The Rock becomes a weekly or near weekly presence for the next few months.
Then, at the same time, Roman can show up to Raw on Mondays and promote a match with Cody Rhodes. That can be about Cody trying to finish his story and claim the belt his father always wanted. If Roman is more focused on The Rock, that might even be some good material for Rhodes to dig into. Roman can act like he's not concerned at all, given he beat Cody last year, and Cody can act like Roman isn't taking any of this seriously, which is an insult to the WWE Championship.
This option would also allow Drew McIntyre, who is doing the best work of his entire career, to be rewarded with a match (and hopefully a win) against Seth Rollins in another major marquee match at 'Mania.
Option 2: The Rock Can Punt On WrestleMania 40 And Either Come Back Next Year Or Choose Another Major PPV
If The Rock were to come out on Friday and say, "I've done some soul searching and decided Cody is the right man for the job this year, but next year, I'm coming back and beating Roman Reigns' ass, whether he has the title or not," fans would love it. Everyone wants to see The Rock back, and every wrestling fan knows there is a fantastic story in all this Bloodline stuff. Why force it this year and step on a storyline fans have loved for the last two years?
Rumor has it The Rock only decided to come back and do this now because CM Punk got injured at The Royal Rumble and Brock Lesnar has been linked to some of these Vince McMahon allegations and pulled from programming. That's removed two of WWE's biggest attractions, and The Rock allegedly wanted to step in and help get 'Mania back on track. If that's true, The Rock's heart is clearly in the right place, but sometimes good intentions aren't rewarded. Sometimes you have to be honest about whether you're helping or hurting, and fans are making it clear they want to see Cody Rhodes finish his story this year. That's the number one priority for many.
I know it's awkward and uncomfortable. I know it has to be weird to be one of the biggest stars in the world and question whether you're wanted somewhere, but deciding to punt now and come back next year isn't some all-time shameful moment. Everyone who has been in the wrestling business long enough has seen themselves booed or seen some storyline that didn't come off as they expected. The smart move is to pivot. Nothing has been announced. This can easily be walked back now with minimal long-term damage to anyone involved. In fact, this might even be a great chance for The Rock and Triple H and TKO to prove they're going to run things differently than Vince McMahon and actually listen to fans. It's a dangerous game to change creative every week based on fan reaction in some random building, but when everyone gets this loud, it's also a dangerous game not to.
Option 3: The Rock Can Lean In And Become A Heel
This is the single best option everyone involved has. There is an opportunity here to give WWE fans one hell of a main event and build both Roman Reigns and The Rock's legacies in the process, but it's going to require some serious balls on Dwayne Johnson's part.
Right now, the perception from most fans is that The Rock went over Triple H's head and booked himself into the main event because he felt WrestleMania needed saving after CM Punk's injury. I don't know if that's true, but most people think that. They feel The Rock and TKO think there's more money to be made from having The Rock involved, even if hardcore fans don't want that, and they're willing to shove Cody Rhodes aside to make it happen. I think that's probably a bit harsh, but a really high percentage of hardcore fans feel this way.
Well, sometimes the best creative in wrestling is one that builds off real life perceptions. So, if The Rock has the balls and really wants to give fans the best possible show, he needs to lean into the allegations and say that's exactly what he did. He needs to play the heel. He's business tycoon Rock. He's the main event. He's the star. He knows it. Cody Rhodes is just some guy only wrestling fans know, and there's not a damn thing anyone can do about it. Roman Reigns can say he's head of the table, but The Rock sits at the Board Of Directors and the best thing for WWE would be for him to beat Roman Reigns and return as Champion. Only The Rock could build ratings back up to where they were in The Attitude Era.
Boos are a part of wrestling. You always need a character to root for and a character to root against. Some of the most famous wrestlers in history played a heel for all or part of their careers including Ric Flair, Hulk Hogan and The Rock himself. We have no idea if fans are going to boo The Rock when he makes his next appearance. I suspect it'll be a very mixed reaction. So, instead of accepting that mixed reaction, my advice is to lean into it and act like you want the boos. The upside there is enormous. It would only make Cody Rhodes more popular for when he inevitably tries again down the line. It would give fans a chance to properly root for Roman Reigns in a way they haven't in years, and it would give The Rock a chance to remind fans that he's one of the best to ever do it and should be remembered not as a top guy in The Attitude Era but as an all-time great who could make any storyline work.