You Can Debate If It’s A Sport. You Can’t Debate If It’s Epic.

I freely admit I’m anything but the most astute or invested observer in professional wrestling.  It’s much like Star Trek or Game of Thrones to me.  It’s something I SHOULD have developed a deep understanding of long ago, and should be as invested in as the millions who will somehow scrape up the funds to watch climactic pay-per-view events to see how weeks of what effectively have been build-ups for it pan out.  Perhaps that’s been my main barrier to entry.  I’m aware enough to know that the results have been effectively scripted already, and it’s not like HBO makes anyone pay a surcharge to see how a season finale pans out.

But plenty of people I respect and admire clearly feel otherwise, and even Wikipedia knows exactly how big a deal the 40th iteration of WRESTLEMANIA is to its rabid and invested fans:

WrestleMania is WWE‘s flagship pay-per-view (PPV) and livestreaming event, having first been held in 1985. It was the company’s first PPV produced and was also WWE’s first major event available via livestreaming.  WrestleMania is ranked the sixth-most valuable sports brand in the world by Forbes,[5] and has been described as the Super Bowl of sports entertainment.[6] Much like the Super Bowl, cities bid for the right to host the year’s edition of WrestleMania.

And this year, 25 years after it last hosted the event, Lincoln Financial Field in Philadelphia will have the honors of trying to control the zealots and uberfans who will treat this with even more dedication and emotional investment than a Super Bowl or a World Series.  And for a Philadelphia crowd that has been known to boo Santa Claus, that’s a high bar.

Apparently, it’s an even bigger deal than had even been anticipated, and a lot has to do with the real-life and unscripted drama that has played out with WWE itself.  CBS Sports’ Connor Casey did an excellent job framing it:

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? 

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.  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.

Now the plot thickens more with the reemergence of a far more familiar personality with dramatic reinvention:

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. 

And at the top of tonight’s kickoff card for the two-night extravaganza, we get, per BLEACHER REPORT,

  • The Rock & Roman Reigns vs. Cody Rhodes & Seth Rollins

And at the top of tomorrow night’s coda:

  • Undisputed WWE Universal Championship: Roman Reigns (c) vs. Cody Rhodes
  • World Heavyweight Championship: Seth Rollins (c) vs. Drew McIntyre

Whew.  No wonder Netflix is paying so much for all of this, and why TKO was considered untouchable even for Endeavor’s new financial benefactors.  This is arguably one of the best storylines ever concopted anywhere in entertainment, let alone sports.

And we didn’t even go into the rest of the cards.  As Mike Chiari continued on BR:

The Rock’s in-ring return is a massive deal, as is the fact that arguably the two biggest stars in the company in Reigns and Rhodes are working double duty.

Additionally, both women’s titles will be on the line, Gunther will look to extend his record reign of over 660 days as intercontinental champion, only the third brother vs. brother match in WrestleMania history will occur between Jey and Jimmy Uso, and Jade Cargill will compete in her first non-Royal Rumble match for WWE when she teams with Bianca Belair and Naomi against Damage CTRL.

On top of the scheduled matches, there has been speculation regarding legends such as “Stone Cold” Steve Austin, The Undertaker and John Cena making an appearance, which would add even more cachet to an already highly anticipated event.

So on a weekend when an awful lot of traditional sports are either just beginning their seasons or a week away from their own finales, it’s pretty obvious to even this casual observer why WRESTLEMANIA XL is, well, worthy of that title.

Those of you who can afford to see it, enjoy.  I’d love to turn over this space to someone who does because, frankly, I’m damn curious how it all plays out.

 

 

 

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