On the Monday, March 28 edition of RAW, WWE Chairman Vince McMahon put an end to speculation regarding Seth Rollins’ role at this weekend’s WrestleMania 38,
After invalidating weeks’ worth of storyline wherein Rollins attempted to steal other superstars’ slots, McMahon grumpily advised that Rollins would indeed have a match with an opponent of McMahon’s choosing, who would not be revealed until Rollins hit the ring.
Internet-savvy fans around the country have sought to spoil the surprise, confidently chanting for Cody Rhodes, who is reported to have signed with WWE after his contract with AEW lapsed.
But from a storytelling and in-ring perspective, this doesn’t make sense.
Let’s be honest: A high profile match against an unannounced opponent does not make for a 45 minute, five-star classic.
The purpose of this match will be to put over the mystery opponent — most likely either a debuting talent or a blast from the past. It won’t be a long or technical match, but an excuse to establish the new guy as a dominant force or to garner a legacy pop from the crowd.
From Rollins’ perspective, if he’s meant to stay a conniving heel, then this is one more instance where he gets his comeuppance. If the plan is to turn him back babyface (which I would argue makes sense; WWE has many more effective bad guys than good guys these days) then a hellacious beatdown garners him the sympathy needed to start him on the path to righteousness.
The problem with either scenario is that they require Rollins to get his butt kicked… and much as I enjoy Cody Rhodes’ work, he has never been presented as a physically dominant performer. In fact, he and Rollins occupy similar positions among wrestling tropes. Both are athletic, strong and agile. They can both make their opponents look good and do a wide variety of things well as faces or heels — but the stories they tell in the ring are not about dominance like a Roman Reigns or Brock Lesnar; they’re more about cunning and resourcefulness, breaking their opponents down across a match and capitalizing on their foes’ mistakes. That’s not what’s required in this match. Rhodes is better left until the reset that will come the Monday after WrestleMania, especially if he’s brought in as a heel (and he’s a much better heel at this stage).
So, who will Rollins fight? Herewith, in descending order, a list of possible opponents:
1) GABLE STEVESON: Admittedly, a bit of a surprise pick, but no would-be superstar could benefit from this kind of platform more. Steveson stands to go from Olympic gold medal, to repeat NCAA Heavyweight champion, to debuting on the grandest pro wrestling stage of them all. Steveson is already a member of the Raw roster, having been ‘drafted’ in October 2021. It’s a beautiful story and Rollins is experienced enough to lead Steveson through a short, dominating performance. WWE has tried hot-shotting ‘legitimate’ athletes like this before, with mixed results. Kurt Angle and Ronda Rousey were immediate successes; Mark Henry less so.
— Gable Steveson (@GableSteveson) March 26, 2022
2) BRON BREAKKER: Assuming Rollins remains a heel, this is a perfect opportunity to launch a new talent. Breakker has relatively little in-ring experience but has impressed with his agility, power and pedigree. His recent run as NXT champion came to an abrupt end, which suggests that he may be permanently called up to the main roster soon. Paired with workhorses like Dolph Ziggler, Robert Roode and Tomasso Ciampa in NXT, Breakker has shown huge potential. A win against an opponent like Rollins will help cement his credibility. Breakker is already appearing at the NXT Takeover that will precede WrestleMania, and will likely get more airtime as his father, Rick Steiner, and uncle Scott, are inducted into WWE’s Hall of Fame on Friday. An in-ring celebration with his legendary family would make for a great WrestleMania moment, and an excellent excuse to drop his current silly ring name in favor of the ‘Steiner’ we all know and love.
3) GOLDBERG: I can hear you all groaning, and Goldberg’s contract finished with his last appearance at the Elimination Chamber in February, where he lost a Universal Title match against Roman Reigns. But a one-off appearance is always a possibility, and one can imagine the pop that would come with a quick victory over Reigns’ former Shield partner. If this is meant to be a short, dominant performance there are few who deliver better than Goldberg, and fewer who take the requisite beating better than Rollins.
4) THE UNDERTAKER: Perhaps less controversial than Goldberg, but for the fact that The Undertaker has officially retired… but then show me a retired pro wrestler and I’ll show you someone who just longs for one last appearance in front of the crowd. Between ’Taker’s Hall of Fame induction, this year’s WrestleMania taking place in his home state of Texas, and the fact that this will be the first WrestleMania in three years to happen in front of a full capacity crowd in a huge stadium, and a quick chokeslam/tombstone victory would give Undertaker the sendoff he deserves; certainly better than his empty arena Survivor Series goodbye or the cinematic match he had with AJ Styles.
5) BRAY WYATT: Understanding that Wyatt was released by WWE last summer after months of inactivity, this presents a great opportunity to rehabilitate his image with a strong performance and reinvent himself against a familiar opponent. Wyatt’s last WrestleMania appearance, a quick loss against Randy Orton, represented just how mishandled his Fiend character was; a convoluted storyline without an effective resolution, and a genuinely original character rendered ineffective by a series of losses. Still, Wyatt has proven himself capable of reinvention and is a creative force. The challenge is that his creativity requires resources to be implemented effectively. Wyatt has been on hiatus since his WWE release. Fans have speculated about him joining Impact Wrestling and AEW, but it’s not clear that either would have the cash to spend on bringing his gothic horror based visions to life. Like it or not, WWE may be the best place for him to end back up; a swift victory over Rollins may help set him up as the kind of destructive force that keeps us watching.
6) WALT—er, GUNTHER: A dark horse pick, if the aim is to turn Rollins face. GUNTHER recently joined the US version of NXT after dominating the UK brand, and barnstorming his way through the European and US independent scenes before that. At 6-foot-4 and nearly 300 pounds, Gunther (unnecessary name change notwithstanding) is big enough to produce compelling matchups across the roster, and at 34 years old is primed for a long run. He, along with his Imperium stablemates, brings a strong, old school wrestling-first approach to the ring, and would be a natural foil for showy performers like Rollins, or down the line a great rival for fellow smashmouth wrestler Sheamus and his crew. He does need something, which brings me to…
7) CESARO: One of many talents whose contracts ended this year, Cesaro recently departed WWE quietly. Fans and other wrestlers have long held him up as an example of a tremendous talent who was wasted by WWE. At 41 years old, if there were ever an opportunity to make him something more, now would be the time. A match with Rollins would follow a storyline set at last year’s WrestleMania. Imagine the difference if Cesaro were announced and laughed at by Rollins, only for him to issue a vicious beatdown instead of a technical classic. While Rollins lays broken at his feet, Cesaro stands over him, wipes his feet on the canvas and clasps his hands behind his back; signaling his new Imperium stable mates to come join him and start laying waste to Raw of Smackdown. Adding Cesaro to Imperium this way makes the NXT stable more familiar, and helps conceal WWE’s discomfort with accents behind a European Supergroup. With Swiss, Austrian, German and Italian members they could always forgo their Latin group name and just call themselves The Alpinists.
8) THE ROCK: OK, I’m cheating here but on a two-night WrestleMania card that already features plenty of non-wrestler and legacy talent, Cena and the Rock would play essentially the same role. The Rock’s presence in this respect would be redundant; he already squashed former Wyatt Family member Erick Rowan at Mania a few years ago. His value would be to tease some sort of confrontation with Roman Reigns down the line, even at next year’s WrestleMania. At 49 years old and given his injuries last time wrestled (against Cena almost ten years ago), and the difficulty in getting him insured for his film career, this feels unlikely, even if it would excite the audience.
9) JOHN CENA: A Cena appearance feels more likely; less of a Hollywood star than The Rock, Cena has worked overtime to build a career in Hollywood. As The Peacemaker he seems to have started breaking through to mainstream audiences. Cena is still young in wrestling terms, and while he has slimmed down, he has recently worked longer-term programs, including a run this past summer where, like Goldberg, he was ultimately beaten by Reigns. In a few of these scenarios, a dominant victory over Rollins helps established stars make good after being beaten by WWE’s current biggest villain. Cena’s last few Mania appearances were unremarkable: an earlier, equally confusing cinematic match against Bray Wyatt, a segment with the criminally underused Elias, his own semi-heel beatdown by The Undertaker and a cringeworthy-in-hindsight mixed tag victory/marriage proposal loss with Nikki Bella versus The Miz and Maryse leave Cena’s WrestleMania record in need of redemption. One might think this is his change. But I can’t see it.
#10) SHANE MCMAHON: Dear. God. No. Shane is a late add to this list since he was just spotted in Dallas. McMahon versus Rollins would not only aid in a Rollins face turn, but would be the one exception to my Seth Rollins Must Lose rule. McMahon doesn’t belong anywhere near a WrestleMania win unless he’s helping build the crowd’s reaction for a legitimate member of the roster as part of a tag team. The Internet Wrestling Community will say this matchup was the plan all along, so much so that Shane upended the Royal Rumble in order to get into the match and do more damage to the field than a 52-year-old non-wrestler probably should. Many would say that McMahon’s influence on that match was disruptive, and his being sent home after the Rumble would appear to confirm that read. But WrestleMania is a locus for improbable events, and McMahon getting his spot after all seems unfortunately unlikely. With Triple H scaling back his presence on camera, Stephanie without any meaningful program and Vince mostly scowling at talent from his desk, the card is light on McMahon presence, even if it’s heavy on celebrities, commentators and other offences to the hardcore wrestling fan. McMahon’s appearance does have a natural storyline. His commandeering the Rumble might leave Vince eager for punishment. Vince himself could handle the introduction as a misdirection, pointing out Rollins’ opponent being born into the business, a former champion, a trailblazer who left WWE to seek fame and fortune only to return a conquering hero… only for Shane to shadowbox his way to the ring to nuclear heat. A curb stomp later and Rollins gets his WrestleMania moment. Shane could then pop up on RAW Monday, only to be annihilated by Cody in his actual return — effectively turning two stars into more bankable babyfaces for the price of one. But seriously, if anyone who writes this stuff is reading, please don’t do this. Finn Balor sat out the Royal Rumble and is part of the Andre the Giant Smackdown Battle Royal despite holding the United States championship. McMahon’s involvement would not be cool at all.
TOP PHOTO: Seth Rollins on the March 21, 2022 edition of Raw. WWE photo