WrestleMania 40 is the Fresh Start WWE Desperately Needed (2024)

A lot of comparisons have been made between WrestleMania 40’s main event and climactic cinematic events. Whether you call it wrestling’s Endgame or Return of the Jedi doesn’t matter, the important thing is, the whole fanbase has viewed the events of last Sunday as a finale for an era of WWE.

As I sat up in the stands of Lincoln Financial Field, tears streaming down my face as Cody Rhodes held up his newly won WWE Championship, it definitely felt like something important had come to an end, but in wrestling, you don’t get to dwell on that feeling for long. There’s always the next show, and just 24 hours later I was sitting across the road in the Wells Fargo Center watching Monday Night Raw, and sure enough there was the sense of a new beginning in the air, at which point something struck me: WrestleMania 40 is a fresh start for WWE, the likes of which they’ve never had before.

WrestleMania 40 is the Fresh Start WWE Desperately Needed (1)

This was the first WrestleMania in history to happen without any involvement of any kind from one Vincent Kenedy McMahon, after he was ousted from the company following a series of disturbing allegations leveled against him. Arguments about Vince’s legacy will rage on for years, but the important thing is that for roughly the past 15 years, fans have blamed just about everything they hate about WWE on Vince growing steadily more out of touch with the industry he once revolutionized.

Whatever great work he did in the ‘90s has now been buried under stories of a mad old man who hates sneezing because it’s something he can’t control, doesn’t know what a burrito is despite having one for lunch every day, and knows nothing about the modern wrestling industry.

So, this first year without his involvement in the company would speak volumes. It seems a little extreme to say that one man is responsible for all the missteps of a massive billion-dollar company, right? Surely, all of WWE’s problems wouldn’t be fixed overnight, right?

Turns out, yes, pretty much everything got better pretty much immediately.

Weekly TV instantly stopped being such a slog to watch, storylines became better paced, made more sense, weren’t randomly dropped without explanation, and most importantly, the stars that fans actually liked started to see greater success. These sound like basic things a successful wrestling company should do, but you’d be shocked just how much Vince’s WWE refused to do them over the past decade.

Hell, exactly ten years ago at WrestleMania 30 we experienced the story of the fan’s chosen hero being completely sidelined by what the suits behind the scenes wanted to do until the fan’s voices became so overwhelming that WWE had no choice but to cave and give us what we wanted.

In all that time, there was one wrestler who became the embodiment of this attitude; the personification of Vince’s style of “screw the fans, you like who we tell you to like” booking: Roman Reigns. He was the man those in charge pegged to be the new John Cena, the new Hulk Hogan, the new face of the company, and he was resoundingly rejected by the fans continuously from 2014 all the way through to 2020.

WrestleMania 40 is the Fresh Start WWE Desperately Needed (3)

After six long years of the company’s biggest “hero” being booed out of the building every week, 2020 finally saw Roman Reigns become the unstoppable monster of a bad guy he was always meant to be. In becoming the Tribal Chief, WWE finally got it right with Roman Reigns, but that didn’t suddenly make everything ok with the company.

The truth is, those behind the scenes were still relentlessly pushing Reigns against the fan’s wishes, just with a new coat of paint, and as Reigns’ world championship run became longer and longer, those negative voices started to appear once more. Sure, the stories were better now, but the outcome was still the same – Roman Reigns wins, screw whoever the fans like.

For 1,316 days this happened over and over, and when Vince was finally cast out of the company, Paul “Triple H” Leveque was put in charge of creative and had to find a satisfying way to end it. This wasn’t an easy task, but it presented a fascinating opportunity, one Triple H would execute to perfection last weekend.

There has been debate among wrestling fans as to whether Cody Rhodes was really the right guy to dethrone Roman Reigns, and ever since he returned to WWE in 2022 I firmly believed he was. Where Reigns is the embodiment of the old way of doing things – a hand-picked superstar shoved down everyone’s throats – Cody is the embodiment of the meritocracy that hasn’t been allowed to exist while Vince McMahon ruled the roost.

To sum up Cody’s life’s work in a couple of paragraphs: After rising to prominence as the son of legendary wrestler Dusty Rhodes, Cody always had clear potential in WWE, but never realized it. He floundered between tag teams and weird gimmicks that were good, but never of a world-championship calibur. Eventually, after a couple of years dressing up as a latex freak from beyond the stars, he took his ball and went home, quitting WWE in 2016.

Now free of WWE, he set about turning himself into the biggest wrestling star on the planet. He jumped between companies like TNA, ROH, and NJPW for a few years, became a member of the Bullet Club, and rubbed elbows with the hottest non-WWE stars in the industry. He spearheaded the biggest independent wrestling show of all time – All In – in 2018, and used that to get billionaire Tony Khan involved in founding AEW, a company that is now the number-two wrestling promotion in the world and WWE’s biggest competition.

WrestleMania 40 is the Fresh Start WWE Desperately Needed (5)

No writer came up with that, none of it was fictional, those are all real things that really happened to a real person. The blending of fiction and reality is one of pro wrestling's most incredible traits and one I don’t have the words to fully break down, but as far as Cody Rhodes goes, it meant that when he returned to WWE in 2022, the story of the real man was also the story of this fictional character re-entering a world he left eight years prior as a nobody.

“Undesirable to Undeniable” may be a cool catchphrase to sell t-shirts, but it’s also the truth of what Cody did for himself. Cody would come out in character and say that he’s fighting for his father’s legacy, and to prove that someone like him could be “the guy” over someone hand-picked for that role like Roman Reigns – these are two fictional characters talking through this weird meta lens about reality. The events and in-ring struggles he overcame along the way may have been fictional, but the real struggle of overcoming an industry designed for people like him to fail was not.

Roman Reigns vs Cody Rhodes at WrestleMania 40 would prove that the old WWE system was dead, and the company would see a new beginning like never before.

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Of course, when you’ve got a big finale, you need some over-the-top drama, and so it went. This match, though it was Cody’s story, also gave a potted history of the forty years of WrestleMania up until this point. John Cena showed up to help out, then he came face-to-face with The Rock, who in turn was confronted by The Undertaker in an exhilarating series of events that make the most of wrestling’s silliest yet most brilliant elements.

Even the final sequence of the match was an in-depth story moment only long-time fans would appreciate, where Roman Reigns cost himself the match because he couldn’t help himself from getting petty revenge on Seth Rollins – a moment that pays off a betrayal from 2014. For the first time in a long time, this felt like the most carefully crafted story coming from a team that genuinely cares about this sport. That’s why I was tearing up on Sunday as Cody made his entrance, that’s why I was too tense to even sit down for the majority of the match, and that’s why I couldn’t hold back my emotions when he finally got the win.

Reigns will still be around, of course, he’s more than earned his spot as a big part-time star who can make exciting new matches for big shows, but with the end of his title reign comes the end of WWE’s old system. A new man is in charge of the company, and a new wrestler is a champion going forward, and it makes WrestleMania 40 the perfect place for any prospective new wrestling fan to start their journey.

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As any wrestling fan will know, getting someone new into the product is not an easy task, and it’s often debated what is the perfect match to show someone new. You could show them a technical masterpiece like Bret Hart vs Owen Hart, but a new fan might not “get it”; you could show them something comedic like Kenny Omega vs a nine-year-old girl, but it might leave the wrong impression; you could show them something over-the-top and violent like Hangman Page vs Swerve Strickland, but that could easily turn people away.

But the truth is, it isn’t a match that truly hooks people on wrestling. Think back to your first experiences watching – was it really the in-ring action that made you want to dive deeper? For me, it was most certainly the characters and the stories that I actually cared about. I didn’t seek out the first match I ever watched – The Undertaker vs CM Punk – because of the in-ring work, I did it because I was fascinated by The Undertaker as a character, and I wanted to know more. I became enamored with his (then still intact) undefeated streak at WrestleMania and how it came to be.

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Before now, showing a new fan any random episode of Raw or Smackdown wasn’t the best idea, as there was a very good chance you’d hit a dud and there was no chance of hooking anyone that way. Now, things feel different, while this year’s Raw after WrestleMania wasn’t the flashiest with big returns or debuts, it shows a solid sense of story progression for everyone involved. It presents everyone in a way that introduces them to a new audience and allows you to easily grasp what each character is about.

In this new era, there is someone fans can trust at the head of creative, and while there are sure to be duds and missteps along the way, the overall direction of WWE is more positive than it’s been in decades. The WrestleMania 40 main event is the true embodiment of all that optimism I have for the future of this thing that I love, and while the debate will always rage on about what is the “greatest” match in WrestleMania history, I know in my heart that Roman Reigns vs Cody Rhodes will forever by my favorite.

WrestleMania 40 is the Fresh Start WWE Desperately Needed (2024)
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