Finally, The Rock has come back to Las Vegas.
And he was nearly booed out of T-Mobile Arena by a raucous crowd during the WWE’s WrestleMania XL Kickoff.
The Thursday afternoon press conference, open to the public and streamed live on Peacock, was the culmination of one of the wildest weeks in the long history of the wrestling company.
What began with the Feb. 2 tease that Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson would return to the ring against his “cousin” Roman Reigns, seemingly replacing Cody Rhodes as Reigns’ opponent in the main event at April’s WrestleMania in Philadelphia, would spiral into a controversy that became a worldwide trending topic on social media.
That tease reportedly was the most-disliked video ever on WWE’s YouTube channel. And, for the past week, it appeared the WWE was caught between a rock and The Rock.
Now, some backstory.
The WWE had spent more than a year building up to the prospect of Rhodes getting to “finish the story” at WrestleMania by defeating Reigns for the title his legendary father, Dusty Rhodes, never won. The company had been trying for a dream match between Johnson and Reigns, who aren’t related by blood but consider each other family, for even longer.
But the fact that Johnson joined the board of directors for TKO Group Holdings, the parent company of WWE and UFC, last month left many fans feeling as though he’d forced himself into Rhodes’ spot using real life politicking.
Interest has been off the charts, and social media has been flooded with #WeWantCody, ever since.
The first question San Francisco’s All-Pro tight end and wrestling superfan George Kittle was asked during Super Bowl Opening Night was about which of the two men should face Reigns. (He favored a compromise of Rhodes vs. Reigns, with Johnson as the referee.)
Fans were so riled up, a ticket package for Thursday’s free press conference that included front-row seating and other perks sold out more than 48 hours before the event — at $2,500 a pop.
Part celebration, part infomercial and part live theater, the Kickoff showed the participants at the top of their collective games. Honestly, the WWE could have a residency here on the Strip. No matches, just some of their biggest stars jawing at each other. Maybe even make it a dinner show.
Women’s World Champion Rhea Ripley was surprised by her rival Becky Lynch in a fun segment that got fans even more worked up.
A confrontation between Reigns and flamboyant World Heavyweight Champion Seth Rollins, who no one seems to want to challenge, followed and grew to include Johnson. Interrupted by boos at every turn, it was an unfamiliar position for one of the biggest movie stars of the 21st century.
“Members of the press, (the) world watching,” Johnson said, “I introduce you to the Cody Crybabies.”
Jeers rained down on the man who is on a very short list of the most popular performers the WWE has ever produced. T-Mobile may not have heard that much vitriol since Evander Kane and the Sharks took the ice during the 2019 NHL playoffs.
Rhodes came out last, standing up to Johnson and Reigns, as Rollins stood off to the side, reacting to the various insults like a “Gong Show”-era Chuck Barris.
Things eventually culminated in organized chaos and numerous expletives after Johnson slapped Rhodes across the face.
The lines between scripted content and reality have been so blurred, even people who cover professional wrestling for a living aren’t entirely sure what’s transpired over the past week.
“It’s a unique situation, for sure. I’ve never seen anything like it,” Rollins, who’s been on the main WWE roster since 2012, said backstage following the event.
“I feel like in this company, you have to be ready for anything,” Ripley said backstage. The WrestleMania Kickoff was put together over the weekend and remained in flux until the end.
“To be completely honest, I didn’t really know what was going on coming into today,” she added. “Even walking out there, I was, like, ‘I’m not entirely sure what I’m going to say or do.’ ”
For his part, Rollins appreciated the rowdy crowd.
“I fully expected what we got out there. Them to be singing. Them to be chanting. Them to be going ‘boo’ and ‘yay’ and doing all the things they do. And filling up the place, especially on short notice. … It was very cool to see and very cool to be a part of.”
Fans wouldn’t learn until later, via a social media post, that Rhodes would face Reigns at WrestleMania.
At least that’s the plan for now.