Editor's Note: This first appeared on Fightful Select last weekend
In one of the most controversial moves in wrestling booking history, The Rock is poised to face Roman Reigns at WrestleMania 40 instead of Cody Rhodes.
We will preface this story by stating that nothing has been officially announced, and as always in pro wrestling, plans can change – just as they did over the last week. There are many in the company that are cautiously optimistic that if the reaction that WWE received Friday night doesn't change, maybe a pivot could be in order.
As of now, the plan for WrestleMania is The Rock vs. Roman Reigns, Cody Rhodes vs. Seth Rollins. Sources in creative confirmed that as of recently, the working plan was Cody Rhodes vs. Roman Reigns, and CM Punk vs. Seth Rollins. Punk’s title shot was to be set up at the WWE Elimination Chamber PLE. Brock Lesnar vs. Dominik Mysterio at Elimination Chamber and Lesnar vs. Gunther from WrestleMania were also canceled from creative plans, as Lesnar and Punk were eliminated from creative moving forward.
While Cody Rhodes professed loudly at Royal Rumble that he was coming after Roman Reigns, there were some in the company that claimed that they heard as of that afternoon that The Rock had agreed to face Reigns. We’ve also heard that there was Rock “Head of the Table” WrestleMania themed merchandise prototypes within the company by that weekend.
Nobody we spoke to could make the order of operations make sense, but many were hopeful that WWE and TKO would see the reaction and pivot. You can see many of the reactions we’ve garnered below.
Those that we’ve spoken to said that The Rock had not only pushed to work the match, some thought he was even pushing to win the match. Regardless of what the finish will be, multiple sources said that they viewed this as a political move that TKO believes will result in more immediate money than what would have been with Cody Rhodes vs. Roman Reigns. Sources within TKO swore this wasn’t done out of malice to Rhodes, and value him as a talent, but believe that those involved with the decision making underestimated how the patience of the audience has worn thin on the situation.
There have been some creative shakeups within WWE of late, and sources on the creative team expect Rock’s longtime business partner and friend, and former WWE creative member Brian Gewritz to factor in heavily to the Rock’s creative plans moving forward. He’s expected to be around from time physically, as well. Fightful reached out to Gewirtz about his role, but were not immediately able to get comment unless it was an interview approved by WWE. TKO sources did say they valued Gewirtz’s skill set and that they could see him in a key WWE role creatively if the right situation aligned between all parties.
Regarding the timeline of events, we’re told that Cody at least was informed as of Friday that this was the decision, and he didn’t travel to Smackdown without knowing. Talent, including The Rock, had all been booked for the February 8 press conference in Las Vegas by that time, though The Rock’s involvement wasn’t clear.
Naturally, Fightful asked if this move was done in order to take attention or publicity away from the WWE, Vince McMahon and John Laurinaitis scandal and lawsuits that were going on. Sources in the know claimed that The Rock was actually pushing for this before, but admitted that it couldn’t have hurt the process to get any mainstream publicity that was not associated with the scandals.
It’s work noting that The Rock and Ari Emanuel have had a long standing relationship, and The Rock is the biggest star tied to the Endeavor brand. Fightful had heard as of three weeks ago there was a talent element being pitched for his role with TKO, as both sides wanted to maximize the huge deal they made around the board position, licensing fees, and rights of “The Rock” name.
For those wondering, the early word is that The Rock will attempt to work a full-length match, but there’s no word on if he’d be open to continuing to wrestle. There were some concerns about him working a WrestleMania main event-length match after his recent appearances.
All parties involved will be at the Las Vegas media presser Thursday. Fightful's Sean Ross Sapp and Instinct Culture's Denise Salcedo will be on the scene.
Reactions Within WWE
For the sake of transparency, Fightful reached out to over three dozen contacts within WWE across all departments. None that got back to us even played devil’s advocate for the decision to run The Rock vs. Roman Reigns, and the decision was universally panned from those we spoke with.
“I’ve known Dwayne a long time,” one wrestler told Fightful. “Not only did the look on Cody’s face tell a story, the look on Dwayne’s told a story. I think in that moment he knew that this decision wasn’t going to work out quite the way that he imagined it. He was experiencing the same thing that he and Roman experienced in Philadelphia. He was being co-signed for something the vast majority didn’t want.”
Everyone that we heard back from understood the business implications of running the match, but believed it wasn’t a good decision for long-term WWE business.
“The Rock vs. Roman made sense several years ago when we were running back Roman and Lesnar repeatedly. It could have made sense this year had Cody won the title last year. This is one of the few years it just doesn’t make sense in any capacity,” one former world champion told Fightful.
A source in creative said that many on the team were deflated, and it felt like a decision they’d hear about being made under the previous regime at the expense of helping cultivate new crossover talent.
Another source that had worked with the Rock was much more stern, saying “The Rock eroded his trust with the comic and superhero community, with the film community, maybe with the football community, and might do it with the one he has almost universal goodwill with. He’s not a bad guy, don’t mistake that or get me wrong – he’s a great guy. However, bad timing and overexposure and fatigue will make fools of us all. You have to know when to take a back seat.”
PWInsider was told that the move was not done to politic Cody out of his main event with malice, and one top talent sent Fightful a screenshot and said “I truly believe that The Rock wasn’t being malicious. Not being malicious with intent and actions not having malicious repercussions aren’t exclusive.”
Another longtime member of the creative team said “there have been numerous meetings, pitches, attempts to get The Rock in on this match, or really any match, for years and it never happened. One year the excuse was that the story didn’t make sense. Not only does it make less sense than ever right now, it’s undermining one of the biggest stories we’ve ever told and turning off a lot of our fans.”
“The Rock’s family passed the McMahon family in the past week as far as power dynamic in pro wrestling, and it’s probably not going to change any time soon,” said one person who has worked with all parties involved numerous times.
The Weekend that followed:
Two days after the Cody Rhodes, Roman Reigns and Rock saga, its still a hot topic online, and within the company
Sources we spoke to said that Cody Rhodes was professional backstage around the situation, but probably seemed somber in retrospect now that many know what was happening. WWE had definitely taken note of posts that highlighted polls, dislikes on social, and mainstream coverage. There is no way we can rule out this potentially being a work from the start or becoming one, but will continue to get reactions and news from within the company. If it is a work, or is on the direction to becoming on, it’s being kept close to the vest.
The reactions we’ve gained from additional WWE talent and staff is a little adjusted today from what we heard initially, as many in the company think that WWE either had motives, or may course correct. Please note, these are the opinions of those within the company, not reports of adjusted creative plans.
One WWE source said “well, this is preferable to the coverage of Vince McMahon, but that’s not going anywhere either. At least with this there can be peaks and valleys, and some sane people can justify it. With the coverage we were getting last week, it was all negative.”
This was a sentiment echoed by many, with one saying "maybe the company prefers to appear inept than malicious by proxy of Vince."
For the record, we will continue to cover all of the above. We are actively working to aid a couple of mainstream outlets in navigating the wrestling landscape and help gather information on the lawsuit and additional allegations as well.
There were some in WWE we spoke to that were in denial over the situation being as one-sided as it was, both in online reactions and the live reaction at the live events. Most understood the gravity of the situation, and several pointed to the fact that nothing had been officially announced.
We did hear from a couple of talent that didn’t seem as doom and gloom as others. One top talent said “I think Rock vs. Roman is a great match to have at Mania. Fans are excited and Cody will still get a huge match and all this will do is make the fans rally behind him even more coming out of it anyway so it’s still fine.”
Another newer WWE talent said “Dwayne is impossible to dislike if you meet him, and I think that a lot of what he’s built himself on would be undermined by actually going through with something like this. If you listen to so many of the things he’s said, especially to people like me, it just makes me think that it won’t happen the way it appears.”
To be clear, people within the company are under the impression Rock vs. Roman and Seth Rollins vs. Cody Rhodes are the planned WrestleMania matches, but top matches at WrestleMania have been changed multiple times within a couple of months of WrestleMania. It’s pro wrestling and anything is possible.
There was one wrestler who told us they believe this week will be a big test: “Rock got cheered at Smackdown, and booed on the screen at the house show. They’ll show it on screen at Raw, then the presser in Vegas and Smackdown will be telling. Will he even be around for Smackdown? I don’t know.”
No talent or staff we’ve spoken to is concerned on how Cody Rhodes will come out of this, as they all seem to expect him to roll with the punches.
Another talent said “If I know Dwayne like I think I know him, perception is very important to him. So I think the chances are high that he takes this head on and addresses it in some capacity.”
When we asked a higher up if there were any issues with Reigns or Rollins taking shots at each other’s championship, the higher up said “look who we’re in business with now. That happens all the time. One champion has a reason their title is more valid than another’s. Perception is reality in that kind of situation. We definitely want to create that discussion. Do you value the guy who isn’t around as much and beat everyone, or do you value the guy who is around all the time and Roman didn’t actually beat? It’s not an accident.”
We’ll have more on this throughout the week, and will be in Las Vegas for the presser Thursday.
Brock Lesnar's plans were indeed scrapped from the Royal Rumble, and the immediate future.
Fightful has learned that multiple reports regarding Brock Lesnar and his immediate status in WWE were true. Fightful reported last week that Lesnar was at least planned for the WWE Royal Rumble. By Thursday and WWE's lawsuit that alluded to him, that was no longer the case. Fightful learned by Friday, plans for Lesnar to travel into Tampa were canceled.
Wrestling Observer reported that Bron Breakker was effectively given Brock Lesnar’s spot, and eliminations, which Fightful has since learned was accurate. This surprised many, as Dominik Mysterio ended up eliminating Breakker, however POST Wrestling also accurately reported that Lesnar was scheduled to face Dominik at WWE Elimination Chamber.
This was immediately in response to the WWE/Vince McMahon lawsuit that emerged last week.
In addition, Lesnar was discussed as a potential opponent for Gunther at WrestleMania, which has not been discussed throughout the weekend nearly as much. In the fall of 2022, there were internal documents that had Gunther vs. Brock Lesnar listed as a WrestleMania 39 match. However, by the time that document emerged in December 2022, that match was off the table, and Gunther vs. Sheamus vs. Drew McIntyre was planned.
As a result of Lesnar, and now Punk, a big part of the top of the WrestleMania plans have been shuffled.
One WWE source said that it could be a long time before we see Lesnar again, unless something drastic changes.
Kazuchika Okada is officially a free agent, and he's already causing a stir on the free agent market.
On Tuesday, much was made of PWTees being informed that they needed to remove Kazuchika Okada merchandise from their stores within 24 hours. However, it was reiterated to us that this was related to his NJPW contract expiring this week, and isn't connected to WWE or AEW. However, we have learned a lot more about how talks are already ongoing.
Those we've spoken to said that though he was still technically under NJPW contract, NJPW has been very understanding of Okada speaking with other companies, as he made it clear he was finishing up with them. New Japan sources have claimed that things have been amicable between the two sides.
WWE sources confirmed that there have been talks between Okada's side and WWE. There have been WWE talent that confirmed that over the last few weeks, Okada has been in contact with others on the roster to gauge his offers, WWE's approach, and to help weigh a decision. We have not heard of any creative plans in place for Okada, or any specific pitches that may or may not have been thrown his way.
AEW has been fairly confident over the last month that they would land Kazuchika Okada, to the point to where there were tentative plans in place to debut Okada, which would be well over a month from now. We're told that AEW made what they consider a "substantial offer."
Every source that we've spoken to claim that no contract has been signed. Okada has been in contact with Barry Bloom about representing him, which wasn't finalized until fairly recently, but was rumored well before.
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