The road to WrestleMania is never a smooth one.

Especially this year.

In the run up to the 2023 Royal Rumble WWE Executive Chairman Vince McMahon was served with a damning lawsuit by a former employee, along with former executive John Laurinaitis and WWE as a corporation.

McMahon has denied the allegations even as Laurinaitis appears to have corroborated some. In any case, McMahon officially stepped down from his executive functions on January 26. He still holds a 12% stake in WWE’s new parent company, TKO. McMahon’s continued influence over the company, especially when it comes to creative decisions (like the WrestleMania build-up and card) remain subject to speculation. So does the future of long-tenured executives like Paul ‘Triple H’ Levesque, WWE’s Chief Creative Officer. Levesque has come under fire for his initial reaction to the lawsuit. He may also be replaced if he is found to have known about McMahon’s activities, or if TKO decides a full-scale executive reboot is required to save WWE’s damaged reputation.

The prospect of a lasting corporate shakeup has brought uncertainty to WWE’s direction going forward. I generally don’t like to see people lose their jobs, but if WWE’s executive knew what was going on with McMahon and did nothing — or worse, abetted his actions, I don’t see a way around their release.

From a creative standpoint the apparent chaos engendered by real world events seems to have bled into WWE storylines. WWE may feel pressure to distinguish its product going forward from McMahon’s vision, and in the short term desperately needs to change the channel after some horrific news cycles. As a fan I’m here for it. Despite the promise of a repeat of last year’s main event between Cody Rhodes and Roman Reigns, I’m genuinely interested to see where this year’s show goes — in large part because I’m not so sure that Levesque and the current WWE brain trust know either.

Since COVID, WrestleMania has been a two-night attraction. As I write this, at least one night’s main event seems to have shifted from Rhodes vs. Reigns to The Rock vs. Reigns and, following a Daniel Bryan-worthy social media outcry (more on this later), back again. The Rock started his WrestleMania run by denigrating Jinder Mahal in a promo battle, only to apparently turn heel and now support Reigns — you know, they guy he announced he would displace from the head of the table.

Let me back up a second.

A face-off between two former WWE Champions, somehow. Credit: WWE

A face-off between two former WWE Champions, The Rock and Jinder Mahal. Credit: WWE

On January 1, The Rock resurfaced on Monday Night Raw for a segment that ended with him asking the crowd whether he should sit at the head of the table.Fans patted themselves on the back for deducing The Rock’s intent to challenge Reigns for the Undisputed Universal Championship at WrestleMania, despite the presumption that Reigns’ challenger would be the Royal Rumble winner. As it happened, Rhodes won the Rumble and seemed ready to move forward with his own challenge, the fans by his side. But The Rock seemed to have other ideas. On a subsequent edition of SmackDown it looked like Rhodes would bow out of the Mania main event in favor of The Rock, in a segment that captured over 300,000 dislikes on social media.

Whether this was the fans’ legitimate rejection of a storyline featuring a returning hero (which has happened before), or a deliberate attempt by WWE to rally its Universe around Rhodes in his second consecutive shot at Reigns I don’t know. In any case WWE read the room.

On February 8, WWE held its first major press conference to hype WrestleMania 40 and immediately courted controversy between Rhodes, Rock, Reigns and Rollins (Seth, that is). The Rock leaned into the Bloodline — complete with a PowerPoint (the ultimate heel flex) showing the degrees of consanguinity between selected members of the broader Maivia, Anoa’i and Snuka families. (Tonga ‘Haku’ Fifita was unfortunately left out, which still gives me hope that one day I’ll see a War Games match between the Bloodline and Tama Tonga/Tanga Loa/Hikuleo/Bad Luck Fale. I’d pay to see that.)

The Bloodline family tree revealed at the WWE press conference in Las Vegas on February 4, 2024. Twitter photo

The Bloodline family tree revealed at the WWE press conference in Las Vegas on February 4, 2024. Twitter photo

Rhodes came out to announce his official challenge to Reigns, with Rollins in tow. The Rock reacted with gentle good humor, as wrestlers do, and slapped the taste out of Rhodes’ mouth — ensuring that the box office champ will have a prominent role in the drama ahead. Rock stormed out of the press conference demanding that Levesque (who’s now being announced under his real name on WWE broadcasts) ‘fix it’, or else he and Reigns would.

Side note: The Rock’s heel turn should by rights turn Mahal into one of the hottest faces in WWE. A Mahal main event run in would be bigger than the Ultimate Warrior at WrestleMania VIII (I’ll get there).

But that’s not all. Until last week, Seth Rollins tried to convince Cody to fight him in a different main event match. Rollins tried to manifest his version of the World Championship into the kind of title worthy of Ric Flair, Harley Race and Dusty Rhodes instead of the showpiece carried by Roman, which Rollins claimed hearkens back to Hulk Hogan, the Ultimate Warrior and ‘Psycho’ Sid (?).

I pause here not to point out the obvious flaws in Rollins’ reading of WWE’s title history. That’s a quick Google search if you’re motivated. I will say I dislike how Rollins (or his writers) seemed to stack wrestlers in different categories. For one thing, I like Sid. I could take or leave much of Hogan and Warrior’s runs (and I could definitely leave the racist and homophobic comments they made in retirement which tarnished their legacies). For another, Hogan and Warrior both held their titles for extended runs, working a schedule that seems unimaginable today. If you’re interested, check out Evan Ginzburg’s 350 Days documentary which gives an idea of how grueling life could be for a touring champion. Sid’s two WWF title reigns totaled 97 days — a little more than half of Mahal’s single reign, so it seems unfair to pick on him.

The Rock and Seth Rollins at the WWE press conference in Las Vegas on February 4, 2024. Twitter photo

The Rock and Seth Rollins at the WWE press conference in Las Vegas on February 4, 2024. Twitter photo

If longevity as champion is a standard, Dusty Rhodes’ three NWA title reigns lasted 107 days, which makes Sid one of his closest WWE comparators. In some respects, Dusty was more WWE than many WWE wrestlers. He was an outsized character who excelled in his trips to New York even if he never won the big prize. He stood out in the NWA in part because he was larger than life, a perennial underdog in an environment that placed more emphasis on in-ring action than character. While he could go in the ring he is remembered primarily for his charisma — more Hulk Hogan, Warrior or Bruno Sammartino than Jack Brisco, Harley Race or Dory Funk, Jr.

Rollins’ arguments fail for another reason. Through his current WWE run Cody has rooted the idea of ‘finishing the story’ in capturing the one world title that eluded his father (and brother). The WWE championship may be the ‘sports entertainment’ prize but for most fans, including the much sought-after casual fan market it’s the biggest prize out there. However the nameplates may have evolved, that’s the one that got away from Dusty, and has thus far eluded Cody Rhodes. Rollins’ WCW-remix title may be positioned as a ‘workhorse’ belt and a callback to NWA champions of yore — but it’s not.

The NWA title still exists. Dusty won it thrice. Cody held it himself. That story is complete. Rollins’ argument rightfully delivered Rhodes to his main event against Reigns, even if the better bout remains on paper. Even then, Rollins was Rhodes’ first opponent coming back to WWE. The two men had a fantastic series of bouts including Rhodes WWE return at WrestleMania 38. Rhodes won that feud conclusively. Faced with a choice between two WrestleMania repeats, Rhodes has mostly been kept away from the Bloodline for the past year. At least that match promises some freshness… if it happens.

I wonder whether Rollins’ recent appearance on RAW, where he acknowledged Cody’s choice and offered to be his former adversary’s ‘shield’ against the bloodline is meant to tease a tag team match between Rhodes and Rollins and Reigns and The Rock.

It wouldn’t have been a bad idea for the upcoming Australian Elimination Chamber Premium Live Event, which currently features a total of four belts and could use a bit more star power. With that card less than a week out, it doesn’t seem likely — unless they’re holding that tag match to one night of Mania. WWE did something similar a decade ago at Survivor Series, setting up the arc that led to The Rock’s two-year storyline with CM Punk and ultimately John Cena.

Women's World Champion Rhea Ripley, with Dirty Dominik Mysterio, at Coca-Cola Coliseum in Toronto for WWE's annual Holiday Tour on Fri. Dec. 29, 2023. Photo by Steve Argintaru, Twitter/Instagram: @stevetsn

Women’s World Champion Rhea Ripley, with Dirty Dominik Mysterio, at Coca-Cola Coliseum in Toronto for WWE’s annual Holiday Tour on Fri. Dec. 29, 2023. Photo by Steve Argintaru, Twitter/Instagram: @stevetsn

WWE is possibly signaling this by reforming The Miz’s and R Truth’s ‘Awesome Truth’ tag team. Miz and Truth united as heels last time out. This time they’re the faces after R Truth’s legitimately funny attempts to join the Judgment Day stable (I have yet to see a better use of ChatGPT than Truth’s slideshow a few weeks ago). I wouldn’t be bothered if they turned out to be the challengers in a WrestleMania tag title match either. While the Usos took those belts to the main event of the first night of WrestleMania last year, I don’t think that the Judgment Day has built nearly the heat that Reigns’ stable did. Dominik Mysterio still gets the loudest boos and he hasn’t found a spot on the card. Rhea Ripley has been a dominant champion but until Jade Cargill emerges I don’t think she has a logical challenger either. The Bloodline presented themselves as serious antagonists with a unity of purpose — as Paul Heyman never ceases to remind us. Down two members and with Mid Card Jey Uso primed to challenge Gunther for the Intercontinental championship, the Bloodline has underwhelmed this year. The Judgment Day has never really made sense as a stable. It relies too heavily on humor to be seen as a legitimate main event threat.

Judgment Day aside, a tag match weeks before WrestleMania seems rushed, but if The Rock’s schedule can accommodate it, great.

That said, a WrestleMania 40 tag match might also have the benefit of mitigating ring rust and the fact that no matter how hard The Rock works out or how many Zoa Energy drinks he consumes, he’s still 51 years old and hasn’t wrestled a full match on any kind of stage since 2013. Viewers were quick to note that once his verbal sparring session with Jinder Mahal gave way to actual sparring, The Rock got winded quickly. He had difficulty getting Mahal up for a spinebuster and was breathing heavily after a single People’s Elbow.

Logan Paul leaps Rey Mysterio at WrestleMania 38 at AT & T Stadium in Arlington, Texas, on April 2, 2022. Photo by Joe Camporeale / USA TODAY Sports

Logan Paul leaps Rey Mysterio at WrestleMania 38 at AT & T Stadium in Arlington, Texas, on April 2, 2022. Photo by Joe Camporeale / USA TODAY Sports

In my next column I’ll tackle the subject of celebrities at WrestleMania, especially how we’ve gone from athletically embarrassing cameos to credible performances by the likes of Logan Paul and Bad Bunny. The Rock (and to be fair Batista, John Cena and even late-era Steve Austin) may warrant their own division: they are instantly recognizable to wrestling fans and have had their share of great matches… but they’ve long since left their identities as consistently active in-ring performers behind. Do we treat the highly paid Hollywood actor as a celebrity or a worker? Steve Austin had a fun match against Kevin Owens a few years ago, and Logan Paul has put on dazzling performances although he benefits from access to training resources that most wrestlers lack. If the answer is the former, can we expect The Rock to pull off a reputable solo — or even tag team-main event match? And if he gets the spot, who loses out on a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity?

I prefer that kind of tag match to a rumored two-night WrestleMania main event that would see Reigns and Rhodes working against each other both nights, or Rhodes fighting Rock in order to get to Reigns. WWE has stacked the odds against its protagonists like this before. At WrestleMania X, Bret Hart lost the opening match to his brother Owen before beating Yokozuna for the WWF Championship to send everyone but Lex Luger home happy. At WrestleMania XXX, Daniel Bryan did the same thing — beating Triple H then surviving a Triple Threat against Randy Orton and rightful main eventer (and unpopular Royal Rumble winner) Batista to claim the title.

It’s tough to get around the argument that a tag match where one side is entirely composed of part-timers will result in a quality main event on the biggest show of the year. It also feels like a lot of Rhodes and Reigns across two nights, especially when Rollins as champion has been putting on very good matches against a variety of opponents. If Rollins is injured a tag match might help him the same way it would help The Rock. Cody could carry his team’s share of the match… but the whole thing seems like a waste.

The Rock’s involvement in WrestleMania takes place as he joins TKO’s Board of Directors. In a deal announced on January 23 (just before the McMahon lawsuit was made public), The Rock, as Dwayne Johnson, not only assumed his seat on the Board, he gained ownership of “The Rock” trademark and received $30 million in TKO stock that will vest through December 2025. I called this deal — or something like it — over a year ago when it first looked like McMahon would lose control of WWE. At the time I thought The Rock might buy the company outright, facilitated by his long-time close, personal friend, then-WWE CEO Nick Khan.

On its face, this was great public relations for The Rock and WWE. The Rock is unquestionably the biggest star to come out of the pro wrestling scene. He maintains a positive public and social media presence and following the allegations against Vince MaMahon comes across as McMahon’s opposite. The Rock revels in his role as a ‘girl dad’ and gets along so well with his ex-wife that they continue to work together on projects. The Rock champions mental health throughout his media appearances. He has been open about his own struggles in this regard and about his complicated relationship with his own father, Wade ‘Rocky Johnson’ Bowles. A media clip is circulating as we speak in which The Rock tells the story of Bowles being kicked out of his house at 13 years old, when his mother chose an abusive stepfather over Bowles.

The Rock slaps Cody Rhodes at the WWE press conference in Las Vegas on February 4, 2024. Twitter photo

The Rock slaps Cody Rhodes at the WWE press conference in Las Vegas on February 4, 2024. Twitter photo

And yet, it’s hard to get away from the cynical interpretation that The Rock’s involvement in WWE isn’t some kind of McMahon Trojan Horse. McMahon featured prominently in the press release welcoming The Rock to the Board, stating: “Very few people on the planet understand the convergence of sports, entertainment, media, and business like Rock. We are proud to have him join the TKO board to help take our company to new heights.” McMahon is also said to have played a role in bringing the Rock on board and had previously sold his ailing pro football league, the XFL, to the Rock, who has since unified it with the reanimated USFL to create a new league that will draw fewer viewers than the Canadian Football League. The Rock may help draw attention away from current scandal but it remains to be seen how different the new boss will be from the old boss.

I imagine that pro wrestling is like most forms of entertainment. Anything *can* work if the audience is along for the ride. Booking decisions can be etched in stone years in advance, as seemed to be the case when Superstar Billy Graham won the WWF championship from Bruno Sammartino, then lost it Bob Backlund as part of a year-long plan, or can be altered on the fly to pop a crowd or change the course of wrestling history, like Backlund’s promised year-long reign after beating Bret Hart in 1994 being shortened to three days as champion before losing to Diesel in a house show audible.

Assuming he stays on board with WWE, Levesque has an unprecedented opportunity to secure WWE’s — and pro wrestling’s — future as a mainstream entertainment commodity.

This is where The Rock’s involvement gets confusing. Nobody believes he’s back on WWE TV to stay. As great as the occasional nostalgia pop may be (and I admit, I’m disappointed that it’s looking increasingly unlikely I will see Stone Cold Steve Austin fight CM Punk at WrestleMania, even with Punk’s comeback and Austin’s surprisingly good Mania match a few years ago), WWE’s reliance on the likes of The Rock, or Brock Lesnar (at least until recently), John Cena, Goldberg and Edge to pop crowds hurts the overall continuity of the product and makes it harder for fans to get behind today’s stars. At the moment, it seems like Goldberg is done with WWE. Edge is toiling in AEW, putting on solid weekly matches over bewilderingly low stakes. Lesnar has been erased pending next steps in the McMahon case. Lesnar was not named directly in the McMahon lawsuit, but consensus among pro wrestling writers infers his involvement in McMahon’s alleged misdeeds.

WWE seems to have gone all in on Dwayne Johnson’s involvement in the main event scene. How that plays out in ring is either still being determined or a masterwork of audience manipulation if an endgame has been set. Armchair bookers (and I count myself as one) have concocted a range of scenarios from Rock challenging Roman Reigns for the WWE Universal championship himself, to a tag team match alongside Reigns vs. Seth Rollins and Cody Rhodes, to unlikely geriatric tilts against Paul ‘Triple H’ Levesque or ‘Stone Cold’ Steve Austin. I could potentially see the latter two under the previous regime, but following Triple H’s heart surgery and Austin’s acknowledgment of his own physical limitations they seem unlikely. A 51-year-old Rock could probably get himself in ring shape for a short match — it’s nothing he hasn’t done before — but the value of any such contest lies in his ability to showcase a rising star while said star makes him look competitive — in other words, for him to play the Hulk Hogan role in a modern version of WrestleMania 18.

As a heel, Rock may well know his role but Reigns doesn’t need that rub. I’d argue that Reigns doesn’t need anything other than to keep his title long enough to eclipse Hogan’s longest title reign. It may not mean anything to die hard fans given Reigns’ limited schedule, but I respect WWE’s determination to see 1980s records fall.

Like most sports, WWE is prone to debates about which era is ‘the best’ or how the sport and its rules and the athletes (and in wrestling’s case, booking philosophies) have changed. I disagree with those whose heads are stuck firmly in the 1980s or earlier. Sport and art evolve. As a hybrid of both, wrestling is no different. If streaks or title runs are plot points in an ongoing story, they should evolve too.

A record-breaking Reigns run serves an additional real-world purpose. At a time when WWE is beset by all kinds of allegations of impropriety, moving Reigns (whose record since he joined WWE has been relatively clean apart from a wellness policy violation in 2016 over the use of Adderall, a medication used to treat Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder) ahead of a discredited Hogan is a smart move.

You can’t argue with success, but you can question its terms. I’m sure that Lesnar, latter-day Undertaker or D-Generation X can still draw eyeballs to specific events, but what if those eyeballs are themselves increasingly aged, along with their spending habits? I was intrigued to see Edge or Lesnar or even Hogan and Hart set foot back in WWE… but I wasn’t going to spend money to watch someone I watched as a kid wrestle or (in many cases) cut a series of promos. I’m also past a point where I’d reliably buy merchandise. My WWE T-shirt collection has long since been trimmed to a few that I just can’t sell. I imagine most 40 somethings have more urgent wardrobe needs.

It doesn’t help that the matches they put on offer increasingly diminished returns.

While Cody Rhodes and his ongoing ‘finish the story’ plotline have been WWE’s focus for over a year, Seth Rollins has not-so-quietly made a case for himself as the focal point of the promotion. Depending on whether you prefer your wrestling in-universe or out, Rollins won/was awarded the inaugural WWE World Championship in May, arguably in response to criticism that Reigns, who has held the Universal Championship for nearly three years rarely appears on WWE TV. Rollins’ belt calls back to the early 1990s WCW ‘big gold’ belt and has figured prominently in WWE since Ric Flair first introduced a blurred out version in the early 1990s — but with a giant WWE logo stuck in the middle.

Outside the ring, Rollins has taken on an impressive amount of media duties heading into this year’s WrestleMania. For someone whose promos often feel forced, he’s become a quote machine and next to Levesque an impressive ‘company man’ in giving considered answers that tread carefully between work and shoot. Rollins was asked, following WWE’s merger with UFC, how he felt mixed martial artists would fare in WWE. He gave a classic pro wrestling answer, setting out the ‘real’ fighters’ strength and athleticism, and making clear that he doesn’t belong in their world (though he managed a dig at CM Punk’s foray into UFC), while also noting that they couldn’t survive the demands of a WWE schedule either. When asked about the current lawsuit against Vince McMahon, Rollins was blunt. Registering his disgust at McMahon’s alleged actions, he said what I imagine most of us are thinking — even as we wait for the wheels of justice to turn. These are polished media performances by someone who understands how to represent the company, and a shift from the blindly corporate talking points he used earlier in his career. Rollins has developed to the point that I’m not so sure whether in any situation he’s totally working or shooting. He’s mentioned his active dislike of wrestlers like Matt Riddle, CM Punk and Cody Rhodes, coincidentally people he’s feuded with in the ring.

Cody Rhodes shakes hands with Seth Rollins.

Cody Rhodes shakes hands with Seth Rollins on WWE Raw. Credit: WWE

At 37 years old, Rollins is about the same age as Cody Rhodes. He is arguably in his prime as a performer. He is also working through injuries including an MCL tear and back issues which were the basis of his last feud with Shinsuke Nakamura. Altogether he deserves his own main event slot; a fan service match against a credible opponent for those of us who still want to see a proper wrestling match among the spectacle. The opportunity to provide a dual focus is an advantage of the two-night version of WrestleMania. It reminds me of the time when John Cena, Daniel Bryan and CM Punk traded two championships between them. This approach guaranteed a fun match for the kids provided by Cena, and a wrestling clinic for older fans provided by Bryan or Punk. Good times.

In fact, nearly a quarter of WrestleMania main events have undergone publicly-disclosed changes. Pro wrestling has always advertised with the caveat that the card is subject to change.

Perhaps the earliest example of last-minute main event tinkering took place at WrestleMania IV. For those of you who don’t remember, this was the first Mania held at a future president’s hotel and convention center. It was mostly taken up by a single-elimination tournament to crown a new WWF Champion, after Andre the Giant, Ted DiBiase and Wrestling’s Greatest Monster Earl Hebner conspired to dethrone Hulk Hogan and anoint DiBiase the champ.

We all know how that played out. Hogan and Andre received a bye in the first round of the tournament but eliminated each other via disqualification. Randy Savage fought three  matches against ‘The Natural’ Butch Reed, Greg ‘The Hammer’ Valentine and the One Man Gang to make it to the finals. DiBiase had an easier go as a heel, beating ‘Hacksaw’ Jim Duggan in the first round and Don Muraco in the second. He received a bye into the finals after the Hogan/Andre schmozz. Savage beat Dibiase in the finals after Hogan waffled DiBiase with a chair and proceeded to grandstand like he owned the place. The lasting image of the night saw Savage hoisting his manager Miss Elizabeth, along with the newly-won WWF winged eagle belt on his shoulder.

It’s ironic that this victory would give rise to some of the best long-term booking of the era. Savage’s win and eventual heel turn precipitated by jealousy of Hogan would result in the main event of WrestleMania V, when the Mega Powers exploded and Hogan regained ‘his’ title. WrestleMania IV was originally going to end with DiBiase winning the WWF title, while Savage would have beaten the Honky Tonk Man for his second Intercontinental championship. Word has it that HTM refused to drop the title to Savage, who received the World title as a consolation prize. I don’t feel too bad for DiBiase. He would go on to proclaim himself Million Dollar Champion in what I still see as the ultimate heel move.

The Mega Powers in all of their glory. Courtesy: WWE.

Most of the changes you’ll read here happened behind the scenes. The audience only saw the results. If you were a fan without access to dirt sheets or wrestling hotlines (shout out to Norm DaCosta, wherever he may be) so far as you knew Mania main events either followed the dictates of match results or careful plotting.

WrestleMania VIII featured the first open main event course correction. After Ric Flair jumped from WCW to the WWF everyone knew a showdown with Hulk Hogan was imminent. ‘Smart’ fans had been pining for this dream match for years, egged on by the likes of Bill Apter and his magazines. The WWF went so far as to hold a press conference promoting a Hogan-Flair WrestleMania match, only to change direction within weeks. Instead of Hogan versus Flair we got the first ‘dual main event’: Randy Savage challenged Flair for the WWE Championship early on the card. Hulk Hogan sought revenge against Sid Justice (Vicious, Psycho) for eliminating him from the Royal Rumble, in the last match of the evening. Hogan-Justice is notable for a few reasons, including a botched run in by Papa Shango resulting in Sid kicking out of the Legdrop of Doom (off camera), the return of a slimmer, shall we say Penultimate Warrior, and the audience booing Hogan in a continuation of Hulk’s Royal Rumble reception. Hulkamania had grown stale.

The decision to move off of Hogan vs. Flair is attributed to a poor run of house shows between the two men leading up to WrestleMania, Vince McMahon’s belief that WWF fans had been conditioned to reject Flair as a credible challenger to Hogan given his lack of WWF experience, and Hogan’s limited availability going forward as he pursued a career in Hollywood.

WrestleMania IX was one of my first ‘WTF’ moments as a fan. As constant readers can probably guess, I was and am a huge Bret ‘Hitman’ Hart fan. Hart had won his first WWF Championship in October, beating Flair at a Saskatchewan house show. His win was a shock. Hart was small by the standards of the day. He was a great in-ring performer but even he would admit that his physical charisma didn’t translate to interviews. A repeat tag team and intercontinental champion, it had seemed like Hart had found his ceiling until he beat Flair (behind the scenes the steroid scandal might have had something to do with it).

Hart was a fighting WWF champion unlike Hogan, who’d turn up for promos occasionally but limited his title defenses to paying crowds. Hogan’s act had worn thin. Suggestions to turn him heel were rejected and a creative control clause in his contract was used to impede the development of other stars. Hogan was so played out that his role at WrestleMania IX was to endure a disqualification victory alongside Brutus Beefcake in a match against DiBiase and Irwin R. Schyster. A rare early night.

Or so we thought.

Hart lost the WWF Championship to Yokozuna in the purported main event following interference by Mr. Fuji. Yokozuna celebrated. Then Hogan came out. And challenged the new champion out of nowhere. In a fireable offence for any representative, Mr. Fuji agreed to the match. In a moment of diminished capacity that only seems to affect pro wrestling good guys, Bret Hart agreed to have Hogan fight for the title (history repeats itself. Bob Backlund blessed Hogan’s ‘last minute’ title shot against the Iron Sheik the night WWF’s version of Hulkamania was born). Hogan won the title in a sequence of events so poorly contrived it had to have been written on the back of a napkin at the McCarran airport on the way to the show. I stopped watching wrestling for a few months because it was all too stupid.

Skipping ahead, WrestleMania 13 had primed audiences for a repeat of the excellent hour-plus match between Bret ‘Hitman’ Hart and Shawn Michaels. This main event was scuttled when Michaels opted out of the match, claiming that he had injured his knee. He vacated the WWF Championship about a month before the show and justified his decision by claiming he had “lost his smile.” To this day fans vomit at the thought.

WWE was forced into some convoluted booking. The vacant championship was won by Hart in a four corners elimination match at an In Your House pay per view on the way to Mania. Hart then lost the title to Sid the next night on RAW, which set up a dire big man main event at WrestleMania where the Undertaker defeated Sid… and one of my all time favorite matches in the double-turn tilt between Hart and ‘Stone Cold’ Steve Austin. Histrionics or no, I didn’t miss Michaels then and I don’t miss him now.

Hart and Austin do battle during their bloody and brutal WrestleMania 13 match. Courtesy: WWE.

WrestleMania XV saw the first of three Austin-Rock main events at the height of the Attitude Era. It was almost turned into a Triple Threat match based on the audience’s overwhelming support for Mick Foley. Leading up to Mania, Foley, as Mankind, had been positioned as a world-beating babyface in a feud against The Rock. Foley beat The Rock to lift the WWF Championship on two occasions, including an empty arena match during that year’s Super Bowl. This being the late ’90s, the championship changed hands frequently, and reigns were often measured in days. The Rock defeated Foley for the title six weeks before WrestleMania and internally there was a push to add Foley to the main event — especially from head writer Vince Russo. I don’t love Triple Threat matches in general but I’ve long had a soft spot for Foley, who somehow infused his overtly deranged characters with a relatable everyman charm. I also think Vince Russo is an underappreciated wrestling genius and will die on that hill. Michaels talked McMahon and Austin out of the idea, arguing that a singles main event would be stronger — assuming Michaels wasn’t part of it. Foley would still have an impact as a guest referee.

WrestleMania 2000 saw a series of changes to its main event, most of them unwelcome. This card is notorious as the only WrestleMania to date to feature zero one-on-one matches. I appreciate wanting to cram as many wrestlers on the biggest card of the year as possible, but it made the show a bit of an overbooked mess. WrestleMania is often about ending old feuds and setting up new ones, which is difficult to achieve when you have a bunch of extra bodies flying around the ring.

Even worse, the four-way elimination match for the WWE championship put the match second to internecine fighting between McMahon family members. Vince, Shane and Stephanie hammed it up for the cameras. Linda looked like she’d rather be anywhere else. A quarter century later, we may know why.

In any case, Triple H defended his title against The Rock and the Big Show (who made their way to the main event following a disputed Royal Rumble finish)… and Mick Foley, who was brought back from retirement for the occasion. All of which is fine, except for the fact that early promotional material showed Chris Jericho in the spot that was taken by Foley. Jericho has stated that he was never officially booked in the match, though he got the same hints as the rest of us. It seems Jericho was axed by Vince McMahon, who didn’t think Jericho was WrestleMania main event material. I’m glad Foley got his main event after being turfed earlier. I don’t lose sleep over Jericho, who went on to main event WrestleMania X8 in Toronto… even if the earlier Rock versus Hogan match on that card (and more storyline McMahon meddling) made his fight against Triple H anticlimactic.

The Rock nails Hogan in their WrestleMania 18 class. Courtesy: WWE.

WrestleMania XXIII was set to feature a return match between John Cena and Triple H following their crackerjack showing a year earlier. Unfortunately Triple H tore a quadriceps muscle early in the year, leaving Cena without an opponent. Triple H’s D-Generation X frenemy Shawn Michaels answered the call and had his own solid match against Cena before going on to his series against The Undertaker.

Injuries to top stars have likely affected this year’s WrestleMania as well. The prodigal CM Punk had been primed for a top spot on the card, but tore his triceps during the Royal Rumble match. He is supposed to be out of action for the better part of the year. Perennial women’s main eventer Charlotte Flair, Big E, Braun Strowman, Rey Mysterio and Sheamus are also on the shelf, along with lower-card wrestlers like Erik of the Viking Raiders, Sonya Deville, Raquel Rodriguez, Nikki Cross, Indi Hartwell and Dakota Kai. Rollins will fight at WrestleMania but he’s working hurt, as is Kevin Owens.

That’s a pretty impressive list of sidelined talent. It’s also not the first time the injury bug bit hard before a WrestleMania. WrestleMania XXXII was beset by injuries to top stars, and I would argue that WWE failed to adjust sufficiently to present compelling matchups — see Dean Ambrose versus Brock Lesnar and Shane McMahon versus The Undertaker. While WWE was consumed in its annual project of building a babyface Roman Reigns, the injured reserve included John Cena, Seth Rollins, Randy Orton, Cesaro, Neville, Luke Harper, Sting, Nikki Bella, Tyson Kidd and Daniel Bryan.

The last ten WrestleManias have seen regularly revised main events. Some of this has to do with COVID, but I suspect that more has to do with Vince McMahon’s misreading of his audience (included sustained attempts to push Reigns as a babyface in the mold of Hogan, Diesel or Cena) and increasingly erratic decision-making, resulting in the need for course corrections.

Reading through this list, it’s unfortunate to see how many changes were caused by negative events: injuries to participants, contractual shenanigans, Michaels’ ego, bad booking and a global pandemic have all altered the course of WrestleMania history.

The Undertaker against Brock Lesnar at WrestleMania XXX. WWE photo

The Undertaker against Brock Lesnar at WrestleMania XXX. WWE photo

WrestleMania XXX stands in contrast to these changes. It marks a rare case where the audience rallied so strongly behind a performer who was otherwise dismissed by WWE brass that he not only had to be inserted into an unpopular main event, but he had to win the whole damn thing. WrestleMania XXX was originally supposed to have been headlined by a villainous Randy Orton defending the WWE title against returning hero Batista. Batista had earned his shot by winning the Royal Rumble. He was positioned as a fan favorite, a role that he acknowledges never quite sat right with him, especially after he’d left pro wrestling to jumpstart his acting career. Fans sensed this discomfort and weren’t thrilled with the idea of a part-timer parachuting into the main event of the year’s biggest show.

You’d think WWE might see a pattern there, but I digress.

In any case fans made their displeasure known, rallying around Daniel Bryan instead of Batista. Bryan, an insider’s favorite since his days with Ring of Honor, had figured out how to combine his superb wrestling skills with an untapped well of charisma brought to life in a ‘YES’ chant stolen from super-intense MMA fighter Diego Sanchez. Like the current plotline with Cody Rhodes, it’s debatable how much of Bryan’s late push to the main event was organic and how much was foreseen by WWE bookers, then molded into a program. Like Cody’s angle so far, Bryan’s felt real, and this ring of authenticity made for a hot main event with a satisfying conclusion.

A year after Daniel Bryan’s ‘YES’ movement altered the course of that year’s WrestleMania, WWE brass called an audible after the show started. WrestleMania XXXI was headlined by the first of many (many, many) main events pitting Reigns against Lesnar.

It was a different time.

Lesnar was in the middle of one of his ‘will he or won’t he’ contract renegotiations. Reigns had yet to discover the Island of Relevancy and was struggling under an overwhelming babyface push which was rejected by the WWE Universe. He won that year’s Royal Rumble and was booed so soundly that even a cameo by The Rock (him again) couldn’t salvage the evening. Reactions to Reigns versus Lesnar I were so tepid that, as the show went on, Money in the Bank contract holder Seth Rollins was pulled aside backstage and gifted one of the best WrestleMania moments to date. He was told to cash in his briefcase during the main event and win the WWE Championship in real time. Rollins was a full-blown heel but his victory over two drastically overexposed stars made him the belle of that ball.

A few years later WrestleMania XXXIV saw a rematch between Lesnar and Reigns. Reigns’ path to the main event was different (he won the Elimination Chamber match) but no more popular with audiences. Without Rollins’ surprise coup Reigns and Lesnar fought a stultifying match before a hostile crowd. Lesnar’s victory was a surprise — all storyline signs pointed to a win for a desperately — pushed ‘Big Dog’. Reigns ultimately got his title victory over Lesnar at SummerSlam, but with a week to go before WrestleMania, McMahon changed plans to have Lesnar retain his title when he realized that despite his best efforts, Reigns was still being booed mercilessly.

The Undertaker vs AJ Styles in the cinematic match at WrestleMania 36.

The Undertaker vs AJ Styles in the cinematic match at WrestleMania 36.

WrestleMania 36 might deserve a pass in this list. It was the first big show to take place without an audience, at WWE’s Performance Centre, in an empty building due to COVID. Outside the fantasy of pro wrestling, the real world was a scary place. Reigns had been scheduled to face then-champion Goldberg for the Universal title, but following doctors’ advice (Reigns had previously survived a bout with leukemia and had been told to isolate himself) he was a late scratch. WWE scrambled, inserted Strowman into the match and moved it out of the main event slot. Strowman won the title from Goldberg and fought a second time that night, unofficially off the card, when he defended his newly-won title against The Big Show in a match shown on that week’s RAW.

WrestleMania 36 was also the first show to expand to two nights, so we got a second unplanned main event — the cinematic match between AJ Styles and The Undertaker.

There have been a few documented near-misses over the years. Most notably, fans remember the main event of WrestleMania XIX for Lesnar nearly paralyzing himself in his attempt to execute a shooting star press during his match against Kurt Angle. They may forget is that in the run up to that match Angle was suffering from serious neck injuries rooted in his Olympic gold medal winning performance. Shortly before WrestleMania, Angle had been advised by his doctors to undergo spinal fusion surgery, which at the time would have put him out of action for at least a year (if he’d ever come back). Angle opted for a less invasive procedure instead, with a two-month recovery time. The WWF felt the need to hedge its bets and suggested that Lesnar should beat Angle for the championship before Mania. Chris Benoit would then step in for Angle to challenge for the title. Angle had his surgery and competed in the main event, although given his ensuing injury history and resultant substance abuse issues one may wonder if that was the right call.

If Vince McMahon is truly, finally gone from WWE, the next few months will be crucial in determining the survivability of the brand. WrestleMania and the weeks following usually offer fans a glimpse at where the federation, and the rest of the industry are headed.

For most of its life conventional wisdom has it that WWE has survived and grown through the force of McMahon’s will. In recent years the cult of personality around McMahon has grown problematic. His abortive return to power in order to facilitate the sale of his company has, hopefully, left him on the outside of the organization he once ran determinatively, then increasingly erratically. Without McMahon at the helm WWE feels less predictable. Uncertainty regarding this year’s WrestleMania main event may be planned as a way to build the tension leading to a cathartic Cody Rhodes victory (or another dastardly win for Reigns, increasing the likelihood that he overtakes Hulk Hogan’s spot in the record books). Or it could be evidence of a company in flux; a company that had long preferred it’s own counsel to the voices of its fan base and shareholders, now forced to adapt to market realities and give the people what they want. Either way, for the first time in a while I’m not sure where we are headed, and as a fan I like it.

That said, if Jason and Travis Kelce don’t headline next year’s WrestleMania, we riot.

I’ll get to that next time.

TOP PHOTO: Roman Reigns and The Rock at the WWE press conference in Las Vegas on February 4, 2024. Twitter photo