The inside story on WWE's fan-driven WrestleMania pivot with The Rock

Illustration by ESPN

CODY RHODES SAT in a director-style chair last November inside a production warehouse in Sylmar, California. The WWE star was in Los Angeles' San Fernando Valley for a multimedia shoot for the WWE 2K24 video game.

Rhodes found out shortly before that he'd be on the cover of the game's box, the latest signifier that he had emerged as one of the faces of WWE -- if not the face.

Two months later, Rhodes would win the Royal Rumble for a second straight year, the first back-to-back winner since the iconic "Stone Cold" Steve Austin in 1998. Even before that Rumble victory, which was supposed to earn Rhodes a title shot in the main event of WrestleMania 40, all signs pointed to Rhodes challenging Roman Reigns for the Undisputed WWE Universal championship on pro wrestling's grandest stage, just like he did in 2023.

Sitting in that production space back in November, Rhodes was asked about one potential obstacle in the way of another WrestleMania headlining spot: Dwayne "The Rock" Johnson, one of the biggest superstars WWE has ever produced and Hollywood's highest-paid actor, who also just happens to be Reigns' cousin.

"I don't consider him in my way," Rhodes told ESPN. "Maybe he is and I'm being naïve to it. Maybe he wants to get in, I don't know."

Johnson returned to WWE on Jan. 1 and indicated in a promo that he was eyeing a matchup with Reigns, a bout wrestling fans had been salivating over since even before Reigns embarked on his record-setting title run in 2020. On Feb. 2, Rhodes appeared to step aside in favor of Johnson in a hotly debated segment on SmackDown when The Rock and Reigns faced off for the first time.

And WWE fans hated it.

Johnson, one of the most beloved wrestlers of all time, was booed. A "WeWantCody" hashtag trended for days on X, and the crowd at events echoed it with chants. WWE decision-makers had no choice but to pivot away from what was expected to be a marquee Reigns vs. Rock WrestleMania main event.

Pro wrestling is one of the most unique forms of entertainment in that fans can provide real-time feedback about characters and storylines with their voices at live shows. That simply does not exist in any other medium, and WWE has had to change months of planning to meet the vocal demands of its raucous fan base. Rhodes has been adopted by WWE fans as their guy, even more so than the legendary Johnson, which was illuminating to some in the writer's room. By extension, Johnson had almost no choice but to "turn heel" and become the bad guy at the behest of the masses, dubbing Rhodes fans "Cody Crybabies."

Rhodes will indeed challenge Reigns for WWE's top prize in the main event of WrestleMania 40's second night on April 7 in Philadelphia. On the first night, Reigns will team up with Johnson in a tag match against Rhodes and Seth Rollins, the WWE World Heavyweight champion.

The road to get there was not one any of the above could have foreseen.

"I've been in that situation before where people just get behind you and you have no real explanation for it," Rollins said. "You just got to ride it. You ride that wave, and I know how good it feels, too. And for Cody, I don't know that he expected that. And you get to a point where you don't want to disappoint those people who believe in you. And it stops being less about what you want and your story, and it becomes more about not disappointing the people who love you, who've gotten behind you, who've invested in you."

THESE SCENARIOS ARE not foreign to WWE, especially since the dawn of social media and podcasts. Fan reaction on those platforms can fuel in-arena crowds and vice versa. Ultimately, it's up to WWE brass to determine whether to shift things due to fan sentiment or stand firm with the original plans.

"We've been through eras where it's like, 'Don't listen to the vocal minority,'" said Brian Gewirtz, a former longtime WWE writer who still writes for Johnson and is the senior vice president of development at Johnson's Seven Bucks Productions. "Are they a vocal minority? [The feeling has sometimes been], 'It might be a vocal majority, but they're not going to dictate to us -- we're going to stay the course and do what we have to do.' And sometimes that's proven to be successful, and sometimes it was like, 'Wow, you really should have listened.'"

WWE's fan base got behind CM Punk as a straight-edge, anti-establishment figure who spoke truth to power in the early 2010s. While he had a record-setting title reign, he never got the WrestleMania main event he and his supporters always pined for. The best chance for that was in 2013 against his rival John Cena, but Punk was booked to lose the WWE championship at the Royal Rumble to Johnson, who went on to face Cena at WrestleMania for the second straight year.

Fans were hoping for Punk to be in that spot, but Cena and Johnson were the most prominent mainstream names in the promotion, not to mention some of the most famous names WWE ever produced. It's hard to blame the promotion for putting its best foot forward for the casual audience on its biggest annual show.

The plan was to do something similar a year later when Dave Bautista -- known as Batista in professional wrestling -- returned to WWE from Hollywood after four years. Batista promptly won the 2014 Royal Rumble match, setting him up for the WrestleMania title match against Randy Orton -- to vociferous boos. This time, the fan base, still frustrated that Punk had been spurned, decided that Daniel Bryan, the bearded, scrappy everyman, was the wrestler they'd throw their weight behind.

The fan reaction was so intense that it spurred what has been referred to as the "Yes Movement," after Bryan's "Yes!" catchphrase, to propel Bryan into the Mania headliner. Crowds chanted for Bryan, took over live shows and left WWE with no choice but to alter. Bryan ended up in a triple-threat match with Randy Orton and Batista for the WWE World Heavyweight championship in the main event of WrestleMania 30 -- and won. And that was after beating Triple H to kick off the event.

"Bryan is one of the most fun examples ever of a real, organic groundswell," Rhodes said. I wish Batista would come back now because I felt so bad. Like, you're booing Batista. This is Drax [from Guardians of the Galaxy], right? He's such a lovable and wonderful character."

Rhodes said he has heard pundits say that WWE is trying to make the "We Want Cody" support just like the "Yes Movement," but he feels that was "its own thing."

"Maybe the stories are similar," Rhodes said. "Rock and Roman would've been amazing at WrestleMania 39. My gosh. But [Rock] didn't come back and we started something else."

SINCE RHODES' RETURN to WWE at WrestleMania 38, he has been pushed as the promotion's top babyface, a star in the mold of Cena who moves merchandise and possesses the clean-cut look advertisers adore.

Rhodes' affable charisma jumps off the TV screen and has endeared him to fans, the same ones who willed him into the main event of WrestleMania over The Rock. His quest to "finish the story" is genuine. Rhodes truly does wish to win the one title his legendary father, Dusty Rhodes, never could.

"I got so many people when I first came back, like, 'Hey, they'll be booing him in two months. Oh, they'll be booing him in a year,'" said Rhodes. "I have the privilege, but also the burden of, I'm playing myself. This is a real story. My father, I wanted him to be WWF Champion.

"I still have that title. And the fact that he didn't get it and I felt he deserved it. And in his absence, after he passed, you hear so much about him now. It's that one little piece that nags at me, that's really finishing the story."

That long-game story arc -- which has played out since Rhodes won the Rumble last year and the subsequent loss to Reigns at WrestleMania 39 -- has been executed seamlessly. That was until Rhodes seemed to yield that main-event slot to the returning Rock, even though he had already won the Rumble for a second time.

Fans revolted. They, too, wanted to see Rhodes finish the story, a narrative brought to life by Rhodes' real-life, scratch-and-claw climb to the top of WWE following years on the indie scene and in AEW.

"Would the fans be as adamant Cody needs to finish his story if he didn't win the Royal Rumble?" Gerwitz asked. "Once he won the Royal Rumble, then I think there was a certain element of, 'Hey, don't screw with us now.' You can't dangle the Royal Rumble win and then take it away. And I think everyone, Rock included, was like, 'Yeah, they're right. We should continue this story as it naturally would play out if this were real life.'

"If this were real life and he won the Rumble and he didn't win last year's WrestleMania, there's literally no logical reason -- even though you could try to make one up -- why he wouldn't want to face Roman and win the title."

They tried anyway, but it didn't work. On that Feb. 2 SmackDown episode, Rhodes conceded his championship shot at Reigns in favor of The Rock and headed toward yet another match with Rollins. The fans weren't pleased. They let Johnson, WWE and Rhodes know exactly how they felt -- loudly. Chants of "Rocky sucks" echoed in arenas, as if Johnson wasn't one of the most recognizable people on the planet.

Surely, WWE didn't want a repeat of January 2015 -- an event that also took place in the infamously hostile Philadelphia wrestling market -- when Reigns won the Rumble rather than Bryan. Boos cascaded down on the budding star, and even The Rock's appearance couldn't stop the crescendo.

"I was booed, historically," Reigns said in a trailer for his upcoming "Biography: WWE Legends" episode. "You think about these moments. You dream about them. And the moment that it actually happens, it's like they're playing the worst soundtrack of all time over your moment, ruining your party. That's how the Rumble in Philly felt."

So, this time, WWE's creative team, led by Paul "Triple H" Levesque, made the prudent move later in February and pivoted. At the WrestleMania XL Kickoff event in Las Vegas during Super Bowl week, The Rock, Rhodes, Rollins and Reigns met on the stage at T-Mobile Arena.

And Rhodes officially chose to select Reigns rather than Rollins for the title shot earned by his Rumble victory. The Rock was already being booed when he viciously slapped Rhodes on stage in Vegas, officially signaling the star's shocking heel turn and pushing himself on a different road to WrestleMania.

This is also new territory for WWE's creative process, which appears far more fan-driven than in years past. Levesque is now at the helm of the promotion's storylines, the position once held by his father-in-law, Vince McMahon, since WWE's inception in 1982.

While McMahon seemed to pen storylines in permanent ink -- an attitude that he knew what was best for the fans and if they didn't like it, oh well -- Levesque seems to approach weekly programming from his gorilla position behind the curtain through a more collaborative lens.

"Now it's a different time, and the way I do things is slightly different," Levesque, WWE's chief content officer, told ESPN. "My career, I learned from being here, but there were things along the way that I always thought I would do differently. In this time now, I get to make those calls and with a large team of people. Whether people will want to believe it or not, I think we were sort of looking at this as here's where we're going to go to get this started and it has the opportunity of going this way or that way.

"We always have to call audibles every single week. Everything you do is dependent on reactions. That's what we do as an industry. ... The beautiful thing with this group and with Cody and Roman and Rock especially, everybody's got their ear to the ground. ... And then we all just get together and figure the s--- out."

Of course, Johnson had to be on board with the storyline departure, too. Especially since it involved him turning heel ahead of his first match in 11 years. Surely, that meant setting his ego aside to do what's best for business, as Levesque liked to say when he was an on-screen heel authority figure. While The Rock is still in the main event of WrestleMania's first night, it pales in comparison to Rhodes' slot alongside Reigns to close out Night 2.

It also means that Rock won't have a singles match and instead must share the spotlight with three others. When you're a star on his level -- and few are -- it would be easy to veto the storyline twist and stay the course. After all, Johnson is on the board of directors of TKO Group, WWE's parent company. More so, The Rock is so respected and generates so much business that if he wanted to remain in a championship match with Reigns, he likely would have.

"Obviously it's not his first rodeo, so he knows very well of the old axiom, 'Card subject to change,'" Gewirtz said. "I think he went into this with Rock vs. Roman, we have like 95 pages of merchandise and all these kinds of things. But also we had a meeting that day on Jan. 1 with Triple H, Nick Khan, myself and Rock. We talked about it, it's like one of those things where WWE needs to do what WWE needs to do."

Despite Rhodes' wild success and staying power at the top of the card, even he was surprised by the fans' outpouring of support. Again, this is The Rock we're talking about. But it's hard to swim against that current when a wave rises in pro wrestling.

"I think he might just have come back at a strange time, which is wild [for] the most popular wrestler of all time and one of the most recognizable faces on Earth," Rhodes said. "Just the fact that one person is booing him out there throws me. It means we're doing something special here. And I'll say it until I'm blue in the face, [Disco Inferno] and those [podcasters], they get real mad at it, but we're doing bigger business than the late '90s. And the business in the late '90s was incredible."

In the end, the boisterous "We Want Cody" chants that reverberated through T-Mobile Arena eventually gave way to the "Cody Crybabies," those passionate Rhodes fans Johnson labeled as such for essentially complaining about WWE's creative direction.

Maybe The Rock will never have another singles match now that Rhodes grabbed his spot. He's 51 and owns a dizzying schedule between his many business ventures and starring Hollywood roles. Whatever happens this weekend, Johnson seems to be enjoying it all for what it is: pro wrestling at its core.

"I loved it," he told ESPN in Las Vegas regarding the unwavering support for Rhodes. "I think the internet is just doing what they do, there are very passionate Cody Rhodes fans. And I love that. I respect it. I've been in this -- I was born into this business like Cody. So, we have a tremendous amount of respect for the business.

"Now, there's Cody Rhodes fans, and then there's Cody Rhodes, and then the special Cody Rhodes fans who were going crazy and insulting and [sending] death threats and things like that, that were just horrible. So I call them the Cody Crybabies, OK? Because there's a difference. Cody Rhodes has his passionate fans as we all do. But then those are the fans that take it a little bit too far. So I called 'em the Cody Crybabies."

Dry eyes or not, the fans made their choice: Rhodes. And, this time, with clear eyes, WWE listened.