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WrestleMania 40: Perfect pivot led Dwayne 'The Rock' Johnson down a familiar WWE path

Recapping a winding path to WrestleMania 40's main-event picture

Roman Reigns and Dwayne 'The Rock' Johnson at the WrestleMania XL Kickoff
LAS VEGAS, NV - FEBRUARY 08: Dwayne "The Rock" Johnson and Roman Reigns during the WWE WrestleMania XL Kickoff on February 08, 2024, at T-Mobile Arena in Las Vegas, NV. (Photo by Louis Grasse/PXimages/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images) (Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)

Eleven years after his last official match at WrestleMania, Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson finds himself in uncharted — yet somehow also familiar — territory.

Johnson, one of the biggest stars of WWE’s beloved “Attitude Era,” had long since made the transition from professional wrestling to Hollywood, transforming himself into one of entertainment's most bankable blockbuster stars and a bonafide entrepreneur in the process.

Yet, at age 51, Johnson isn’t just dipping his toe back in the world of professional wrestling, he’s dived in head-first and is performing at a level fans haven’t truly seen him tap into in nearly a quarter century.

Rumors of a WrestleMania return for Johnson began in the run up to last year’s event, taking place in Hollywood at SoFi Stadium. Johnson was seemingly a perfect fit to take on — and potentially end — the nearly four-year-long championship reign of his cousin Roman Reigns (real name: Joseph Anoa’i). Johnson confirmed last September during an appearance on “The Pat McAfee Show” that a match was agreed to, but ultimately all parties were unable to nail down a compelling enough story to sell a main event-level match at WrestleMania.

"Me going back to WWE and wrestling a match always comes down to the reason why, and what can we create that's never been done before for the fans," Johnson said at the time, and would appear on Smackdown for the first time in four years that same night.

"The Rock headlining WrestleMania with Roman Reigns at SoFi Stadium, that was locked. We were doing it."

Fast-forward to January 1 of this year and Johnson’s appearance on “Monday Night Raw” in San Diego. A relatively standard promo from Johnson turned into a major tease as he closed the segment by finally hinting at a showdown with Reigns.

“San Diego, I love you, happy new year,” Johnson said. “And one more thing, tonight, after all this [butt] kicking, The Rock is going to go out in San Diego. I’m a little hungry. I’m going to go get something to eat. When The Rock goes out to eat something tonight in San Diego, should The Rock sit in a booth, or should The Rock sit at the bar? Yeah, The Rock loves the bar too. Or, should The Rock sit at the head of the table?”

Johnson’s very specific word choice was a direct reference to Reigns’ “Tribal Chief” gimmick. And with the Royal Rumble and a guaranteed WrestleMania main event spot on the line, all signs pointed to a Royal Rumble victory for Johnson and an all-in-the-family WrestleMania moment.

But, the Royal Rumble came and went, with Cody Rhodes winning for a second consecutive year — the first star to do so since “Stone Cold” Steve Austin in the 1990s. Rhodes, the biggest and most marketable babyface in WWE today, fell short against Reigns at last year’s WrestleMania and was in line to “finish the story” and win the WWE undisputed universal championship.

Until Johnson interjected.

Days later, Rhodes appeared to be stepping aside, opting to challenge Seth Rollins for the WWE heavyweight championship, while Johnson would — in fans’ eyes — hijack the main event of WrestleMania 40. The response from fans was swift and persistent, with #WeWantCody trending for several days leading up to a WrestleMania press conference in Las Vegas during Super Bowl week in February.

Professional wrestling works best when the lines between reality and entertainment are blurred, and in this case, with Johnson serving on the board of WWE’s parent company TKO, fans perceived the move to have him face Reigns as being forced or influenced by his power as an executive. At the event, rather than picking Rollins, Rhodes challenged Reigns and Johnson backed his cousin, turning heel for the first time in decades in the process.

In the weeks that have followed, Johnson, receiving legitimate and storyline heat (vitriol) from fans, has elevated his game in a way that only an all-time great could.

In many ways, Johnson is simply playing the hits. There are silk shirts that serve as a fashion callback to the late 1990s, there are clever, biting promos that sound like they've been lifted from the “Attitude Era,” there are subtle remarks and moments that leave fans questioning what his true motivations are regarding Reigns. Johnson has even worked a schedule that has gone above and beyond anything that was realistically needed from him to build a tag-team match against Rhodes and Rollins on Night 1 of WrestleMania 40.

“Whatever inning that we’re in, we’re dominating,” Paul Heyman said on the “Rich Eisen Show on the Roku Channel” last week when asked about WrestleMania and the Bloodline story as a whole.

“It’s a game that I would suggest may go into many extra innings as well, and some of that, we have to give credit to the 'Final Boss,' Dwayne ‘The Rock’ Johnson, for adding a whole new set of layers — and therefore innings — to the story.”

After what appeared to be a potentially disastrous decision, the pivot for WrestleMania 40 has been executed perfectly – so much so that it begs the question of how much of a divergence it really was in the first place.

Ultimately — to borrow a phrase from The Rock — it doesn’t matter.

What does matter is that after an 11-year layoff, Johnson’s expertise, creativity, passion and commitment have raised the stakes for all parties involved. When you combine that with the level of excellence Reigns, Rollins, Rhodes, Heyman have brought to WWE for years now, it’s setting up to be an unprecedented success.

We just have to wait and see what they’re cookin’.