The Night WWE Turned It's Back On Finishing The Story

What happens when the WWE can't shake its bad booking habits of the past? Last night's Smackdown debacle does.

The Night WWE Turned It's Back On Finishing The Story
Photo Credit: WWE

I'll admit that I defended Cody Rhodes losing the Wrestlemania 39 main event against Roman Reigns for the WWE Universal Championship because there was so much money left in how he would make his way back. Initially shocked, but when I heard fans blasting the Reigns theme in the SoFi Stadium parking lot, I knew there was more meat on the bone. It felt like for the first time in a while. WWE had elected to invest in this long-term story where the payoff sees the top babyface defeat the ultimate heel, and everybody goes home happy.

For two years, this was a gimme for them to complete later this year within the confines of Lincoln Financial Center. Cody Rhodes has been the consummate company man, a merch mover, and the focal point to finally take down the unstoppable force that is Roman Reigns and the Bloodline. It was due to interference from Sola Sikoa that he even lost in the first place. We could presumably guess that if Cody hit that last Cross Rhodes, he was going home with the belt. He had beaten Brock Lesnar in a best of three, brokered a deal to get Jey Uso on his own (then won the tag team titles together), fought off Shinsuke Nakamura, and became a two-time Royal Rumble winner. To punctuate it all, he left no room for second-guessing and immediately pointed to Roman Reigns. And we're off...right?!

Well, no, because there was always the specter of The Rock hanging around to swoop in and steal this main event. With his appearance during Raw Day 1 and the "acknowledgment" of that catchphrase, I wouldn't blame you if you felt some apprehension about Cody's trajectory. But even then, I reasoned within myself that WWE would somehow shed its need to appease the names of yesteryear and lean into highlighting the glutton of great talent they have right now. Last night, you had a Smackdown show where Tiffany Stratton, Naomi, Bron Breakker, and Jade Cargill were highlighted on top of the fantastic Damage Control segment. The need for a part-timer to swoop in and elevate an already sold-out Wrestlemania is absurd.

Especially when you consider where this story could go. Previously, I wrote what I think should happen with this Rock/Rhodes/Reigns conundrum. A match between Roman Reigns and The Rock should happen before you get to Wrestlemania, where Reigns would then beat The Rock and assume his ultimate place as "head of the table." Then, when Cody beats him, he loses everything: the belt and probably the respect of the remaining Bloodline members. When CM Punk returns, you can run a program with Paul Heyman. It's almost too easy. But that is not to be.

The ending of last night's Smackdown wasn't a moment at all — it was an admission by the WWE that they can't break bad habits and perhaps a break of trust to an apprehensive audience that had just settled into a cadence that they will do the right thing. Seth Rollins' doctrine is that he is a fighting champion who shows up week after week to defend his title. He's trying his hardest to work back from a knee injury to make this year's Wrestlemania. It's a dedication that should be rewarded rather than ignored. CM Punk's tricep injury was an unfortunate accident, so Rollins's plans had to be changed. However, I did not have to beg Cody Rhodes to choose to fight for his title in the cards (with elaborate video packages, even). This guy has beaten him three times, even with a torn pectoral muscle. I understand Rollins is trying to hold on to the desire of main eventing Wrestlemania, but it doesn't make sense going hobbled himself. Roman's promo further diminished what that RAW championship is compared to his.

For Cody, CM Punk's promo almost feels revelatory now. He went through hell or high water to get to Roman Reigns, beat 29 other men to point to that covered sign for a guaranteed chance in April, and the lasting image is him walking out of the ring while The Rock and Roman Reigns have their moment. The man who predicated finishing the story on defeating his greatest obstacle willingly gave it up to a man who hasn't wrestled a match in years. There is no longer going back or asking the fans to reinvest in this "overcoming the odds" story. It's Wrestlemania 40 or nothing. Given how things have shaken out, if you do Cody vs. Seth at Wrestlemania 40, it feels like winning the second-place ribbon at the science fair.

In terms of The Rock, this does no favors to the reputation (whether earned or unearned) that he likes to use his power to supplant plans in motion and that he needs the WWE more than the WWE needs him. Yes, Roman Reigns vs. The Rock on Wrestlemania graphics will get eyeballs from the press and some casual fans — WWE already had this. They have been selling out shows worldwide, and the actual investment in the product is at peak levels. So, what's the need to return to an old formula if the new one works so well? When The Rock stood in the ring across from Roman Reigns, it signaled that the old era was over, and the last gasp was clinging for one more crack at the big time. For whatever reason, WWE and The Rock won't allow a new story to bask in the limelight. Wrestlemania is the spectacle and the event, but the story is the lead.

But last night, WWE decided it didn't want to attend its own victory party and let everybody else with the bill.