We’ll start here, since this is the subject that appears to be the most contentious and contradictory. It began on February 3, the day after Dwayne Johnson’s “SmackDown” return, when Dave Meltzer of The Wrestling Observer reported several details in the F4W forums — most notably, that the change had come as a response to CM Punk’s injury, combined with fallout from the Janel Grant lawsuit that led to Vince McMahon’s resignation, which also appeared to implicate Brock Lesnar, resulting in him being removed from creative plans for WrestleMania.
“Dwayne pushed super hard for it,” Meltzer wrote. “The card changed when Punk & Brock were out and all the dominoes fell. Dwayne already wanted it and they felt they now needed it as well. Felt this was better to change the news flow away from Vince.
“Cody was the plan. Dwayne was going to face him later, maybe next year’s Mania, maybe Saudi. S*** happens with Vince and Punk, the Vince thing ends up worse than they thought and they changed the plan. I literally didn’t know until yesterday that it could change and then I was told it’s under lock. But 100% it was Punk vs. Seth and Cody vs. Reigns until Punk got hurt.”
Two days later, however, on February 5, Meltzer made a different claim on “Wrestling Observer Radio,” saying the decision had been made earlier in the month when Johnson signed a deal with TKO that made him a board member, gave him ownership of the “The Rock” trademark, and awarded him TKO stock valued at $30 million. Meltzer had previously reported that the contract, announced on January 23, had actually been signed on January 3.
“When he made the deal, on January 3, to come in, [the WrestleMania match] was part of the deal,” he said. “Why Cody Rhodes won the Royal Rumble is a question that I cannot answer, because nobody will answer it for me, but the belief was that it was Roman Reigns and Cody Rhodes, and nobody knew, but the deal had been made prior to that.”
Meanwhile, Pro Wrestling Insider published a lengthy report on the subject on February 3. In the report, PWI claimed that the decision to go with Johnson over Rhodes “was a push by The Rock to move into the Mania main event, backed by top TKO Group Holding execs.” While some of PWI’s sources believed the move was made to “save WrestleMania” following the unexpected unavailability of Punk and Lesnar, “others believe that Rock pushed for the move and likely would have no matter what, given his massive $30 million stock payday is, in part, contingent on him hitting certain milestones. Sources familiar with the situation believe one of those milestones was Johnson returning to the ring this year and that Johnson pushed for the match to happen sooner than later with the idea he felt Reigns vs. The Rock was the far bigger attraction for the company.”
Tuesday’s report from Fightful Select contains even more new information. Fightful claims to have heard that “the day of the Rumble, several in creative were told The Rock vs. Roman Reigns was the plan, and merchandise had been produced to promote it.” If true, this would indicate that Johnson vs. Reigns was the plan prior to Punk’s injury — but if those plans were in place as of January 3, Fightful doesn’t believe Rhodes knew about them ahead of time.
“We have heard from WWE sources that there were meetings on January 1, and others along the way that had indicated to Cody Rhodes that the creative direction had not changed, and he was slated to face Reigns at WrestleMania,” Fightful wrote. “Up until the week prior to the Royal Rumble, no other parties that we’d heard from or have spoken to since were made aware. To the best of our knowledge, a select group of people were informed Royal Rumble weekend that the direction had changed.”
Putting all these reports together, a potential scenario begins to emerge. It’s possible the contract stipulation Meltzer was referring to wasn’t for Johnson to wrestle Reigns at WrestleMania, specifically, but simply to wrestle at some point in 2024, as PWI’s sources claimed. With the McMahon/Lesnar allegations dropping two days prior to the Rumble, the idea that Johnson’s return for a WrestleMania match with his cousin was intended (at least in part) to distract from the Janel Grant lawsuit comes into sharper focus, with the Punk injury perhaps solidifying the choice. That timeline would match Fightful’s claim that nobody was informed of a change in direction until the weekend of the Rumble, and it makes sense that Johnson would like the idea of knocking out a presumably lucrative stock incentive early in the year — though it doesn’t explain why Rhodes was booked to win the Rumble match at all, much less immediately declare that he was coming after Reigns.
Some sources also told Fightful that “this decision goes all the way up to Ari Emanuel and Mark Shapiro, and was even above Nick Khan and Triple H,” a claim that corroborates PWI’s report that TKO executives backed the decision to go with Johnson over Rhodes.