Wrestling has changed plenty over the past several decades, and it is a completely different world– and business — from the territory days.
However, there is one thing that has never changed about the business of pro-wrestling, and from the WWE down to the smallest indy promoter this constant says as much about the current state of a company as it does its future.
This fixture in the industry is the world title—the top prize in a promotion. While title designs have evolved through the years, the meaning of being the champion remains the same.
Being a company’s world champion means that you’re ‘the guy,’ the alpha, top dog in the locker room. More importantly, it means that the company believes in you, and the longer the title is held the more overt the display of trust.
ONE OF THE MOST DOMINANT REIGNS IN WWE HISTORY!
For example, current WWE champ, Roman Reigns, has held the title for over 1,200 days and counting.
He has been booked strong for years and is positioned as the sport’s biggest star.
Roman is currently chasing Hulk Hogan’s spot on the record books as the 2nd longest reign in history. Hogan had the title for 1,474 days, and Roman seems so unstoppable that the 200 plus days that separate them is achievable.
From the moment Roman, the cousin of The Rock, received his push in WWE it was obvious that they had huge plans for him. That said, I don’t think anyone could have imagined the longevity of his current reign.
In this era, the title changes hands far more often than it did in the early days of wrestling, pre-WWF/WWE.
It could be argued that Roman isn’t nearly as active as those performers of yesteryear, which is true. However, the rarity of this kind of title reign in this age of sports entertainment makes Roman’s achievement all that more special.
In the age of superstars like The Rock, Stone Cold Steve Austin, Bret Hart, Shawn Michaels, John Cena, and Brock Lesnar, it is Roman Reigns whose name will be etched in the history books ahead of all those names, and possibly Hulk Hogan.
Currently, Bruno Sammartino holds the record for longest title reign in history (2,803 days), but the fact is that record is complicated by mergers, in the same way the MLB, NBA, and NFL have current timelines separate from the pre-merger version of the league.
Reigns will defend his belt at WrestleMania, and after last week’s SmackDown, this week’s RAW, and last night’s WrestleMania XL Kickoff event, we have no idea what to expect at Mania.
LONG AND WAVING RHODES
It was announced a couple weeks before January 27th’s Royal Rumble that Cody Rhodes would be on the cover of WWE2K24 (Standard edition) with the phrase, “finish your story,” as the game’s tagline.
The tagline is a reference to Cody’s quest for the WWE World title, and the fact that Cody’s story is a sequel from last year’s Road to WrestleMania where he won the Rumble but lost to Reigns at Mania 39.
Cody’s storyline is multi-layered and intricate, and it plays on the best elements of storytelling: an easy-to-follow narrative coupled with a primal motivation that hits at the core of audiences.
When Cody returned to WWE following a six-year absence from the company, he made it clear why he returned.
The news of Cody’s departure from AEW, the company he helped found, was one of the biggest storylines in wrestling. But Cody admitted that he left WWE with a championship sized chip on his shoulder.
Cody’s father, the late-great “American Dream” Dusty Rhodes, never won the WWE—then WWF—title.
Dusty won many championships over his career and is solidified as an all-time great, but the “big one” in WWE always eluded him.
By coming back and immediately dedicating his run to achieving something his father was never able to—winning the title that says you are the best in the business, the top guy—Cody instantly gave his character meaning and a reason for fans to buy in to his motives.
But does WWE see Cody as a ‘top guy?’
NO RHODES TO THE TITLE
Here was Cody, underutilized and undervalued in WWE, hitting the indies with a point to prove. He put everything into AEW because he had a strong desire to provide wrestling fans with an alternative to WWE.
It had been years since WWE had real competition in the form of WCW, and the monopoly on wrestling created a stale product, virtually unwatchable for years.
With renewed interest in the sport, wrestling is currently experiencing a boom with Royal Rumble receiving the highest ratings and attendance in the event’s history.
The growth of wrestling is due to many factors, including the merger of WWE and UFC to form TKO, but there is no debate that Cody is both directly and indirectly responsible for the resurgence.
Following his loss to Roman last year, Cody went into this Rumble with the hopes of being only the 4th contestant to win back-to-back years. Cody achieved just that even with CM Punk and Gunther coming in as strong favorites to win.
This was the first consecutive Rumbles winner since Stone Cold Steve Austin did it in the years ’97 and ’98.
“Finishing the story” was an idea everyone could get behind and one of the best PR campaigns for any ‘babyface’ heading into WrestleMania since Bryan Danielson’s run as the ‘Yes Man.’
In an era where being a ‘heel’ is fun for the performer and cool to the audience, getting over as a ‘face’ takes creativity, dedication, and a vesting interest from the fans.
You can’t just go out there and ‘shoot’ on the local sports team, you must give fans a reason to care.
Cody made fans care.
Upon winning the 2024 Royal Rumble, fans eagerly awaited Cody’s announcement to challenge Roman Reigns.
Then, after RAW last week, we got the start of a storyline narrative that shifted Cody from Roman’s orbit and sent him onto Seth Rollins’—the newly crowned WWE heavyweight champion.
In that segment, the idea was introduced that Seth’s belt is the ‘real title’ and Roman’s belt is the “Hollywood title” that you politicked to get.
Rollins made other references to his title being the workhorse title, and then said Roman’s title is for part-timers and ‘posers.’
Cody left the ring that night with a promise to think on it.
Then, on SmackDown this past Friday, Roman addressed Rollins’ words and cut a scathing promo of his own on Seth and his title.
Roman called it the ‘loser’s title’ because he beat everyone that challenges for it.
Cody eventually came out and admitted that he went back and forth on the decision and decided to seek advice from friends, family, and legends of the squared circle.
This aspect of Cody’s promo was only to set up a confrontation between The Rock and Roman Reigns.
SmackDown went off air with Rock and Roman staring eye to eye as the camera would cut to an angle that framed the WrestleMania in the same shot as both men.
CAN THE STORY BE FINISHED WITH ROLLINS?
It had been reported that Rock, who was appointed a seat on TKO’s board during a week of announcements that included a Netflix deal to air RAW worth reportedly $5B over 10 years, would face Reigns at Mania.
A report from Wrestling Observer’s Dave Meltzer would come out claiming that Rock-Roman could happen later in 2024, possibly at one of the Saudi shows.
All of this played into the idea that Cody would get his rematch with Roman.
For these reasons, among others, the WWE universe did not react well in the days following SmackDown.
For some, the excitement for Rock-Roman does not outweigh the negative impact of Cody’s booking, and the idea that a part-timer will come in and steal the spotlight from one of the hardest working wrestlers in the game does not sit well with fans.
For Cody, the idea is winning the title that says you’re the top of the mountain, and Seth’s belt does not say that.
To start with, Roman’s title is still referred to as ‘undisputed’ which acknowledges the two titles—WWE World Title and Universal title—from which it derived.
Seth’s title has no lineage, even if he vaguely tried to get over the idea that his title was the NWA title from back in the day.
WWE put themselves in a dangerous place by beginning these feuds by burying both titles. Now, Cody and Seth must make the fans care, and they must get over the idea that there are real genuine stakes on the line.
Finishing the story for Cody means the same thing it meant last year, and WWE cannot just introduce a new title and force fans to buy in, no matter how much they try to sway.
Cody already beat Seth, and he made it count.
There is nothing left to settle between the two and trying to recreate the Mania moment with new players is like the Yankees being down to the Red Sox by one in the 9th inning, bases loaded, 2 outs, and then the defense is switched out entirely for the White Sox.
You can claim the winner is the World Series champion, but the continuity of the game says otherwise.
If Cody is set to face Rollins instead of Roman, and as for the Mania Kickoff presser, we still do not know for sure.
However, Cody did finally make a verbal commitment—deciding to face Reigns despite Roman calling for a match with The Rock at Mania.
With Seth, you cannot claim this is the finish to the story WWE has been telling for over a year now with Cody because the villain in that story is Roman—and the ‘damsel in distress’ is THE WWE world title.
From a narrative standpoint, this is like Batman spending the entire movie tracking Joker to save Robin, then, in the 3rd act, Batman fights Loki to save Louis Lane while Joker fights Black Adam in a completely different movie. It doesn’t make sense to fans.
The important part of all this is to sell a story that casuals can follow as WWE navigate through the “Road to WrestleMania,” and further complicating a plot at its crossroads serves to confound things further to the point that even hardcore fans are confused.
PRESSING THE ISSUE:
WWE has an issue right now, that much is clear. WWE fans are being very vocal about their displeasure with Cody being shafted in favor of Rock-Roman, but the promotion is telling a story about which the fans care greatly. The only thing worse than this much heat from fans is the fans not caring one way or the other.
There is plenty of time and direction left to right the ship in a satisfying way for fans, and there is a chance that this entire Cody storyline is all part of the plan, and if that’s the case then the WWE has us right where they want us.
If this whole thing is a work, then WWE creative is working on another level right now, but if these recent developments are reactionary then rolling with the punches is necessary.
For WWE, any focus on the product takes attention from the Vince McMahon lawsuit story—a story that has provided horrifying details that paint McMahon and his cronies as monsters—and if they can milk this they will, as evidenced by the presser’s ending Thursday.
With the WWE now seemingly giving in to the fans’ disappointment and booking Cody-Roman, we could be heading for a tag match with Seth and Cody versus Rock and Roman in a 2v2 super match, possibly at Elimination Chamber—WWE’s next Premium Live Event and the last major stop before WrestleMania 40.