Wrestlemania XL Cody Rhodes Vs Roman Reigns: A Love Letter to Wrestling

Sunday night’s WrestleMania XL main event, Cody Rhodes vs Roman Reigns, has been more than a year in the making. Not only that, but Reigns’ inevitable defeat has been a long time coming after his 1,316 day-long championship run. Everyone and their nan has attempted to dethrone the Tribal Chief over these past four years, to no avail. But finally, FINALLY, we have a winner: the absolute workhorse, incredibly talented, deeply loveable, and squeakiest of squeaky-clean babyfaces, the American Nightmare Cody Rhodes. And boy, was it worth the wait.

A Brief History

Before I sink my teeth into the match itself, let’s rewind a bit. First of all, the Tribal Chief himself, Roman Reigns. Back in 2012, Reigns first debuted in WWE as a member of The Shield, a heel stable with Seth Rollins and Dean Ambrose (AEW’s Jon Moxley). The Shield ruled the roost until Rollins’ iconic betrayal in 2014, dealing the fatal chair shot to Reigns from behind. Keep that one in mind, it’ll be significant later…

After the dissolution of The Shield, Reigns began wrestling singles matches, being given a huge push that led to his 2015-2016 WWE World Heavyweight Championship run. He eventually lost his belt to Rollins. His most recent Roman reign (sorry, couldn’t resist) began in August 2020 when he defeated Universal Champion Bray Wyatt and Braun Strowman in a no-holds-barred Triple Threat match shortly after turning heel. At WrestleMania 38, Reigns also defeated then-WWE Champion Brock Lesnar in a Winner Takes All match, thus becoming the first-ever Undisputed WWE Universal Champion.

During this title run, Reigns has been built up as one of the biggest, undefeatable heel champs in WWE history. Sure enough, there have been some rocky times (no need to mention his million matches against Brock Lesnar), a fair few misses, and a helluva build-up, but ever since The Bloodline hit its stride, Reigns’ matches, promos, and altogether plot has been nothing short of phenomenal.

Roman Reigns resting his arms on the ropes, stood in the corner of the ring

The Bloodline officially formed in 2021 and centres around the Anoaʻi family, some of the most prestigious wrestlers in the industry. Aside from the Head of the Table, the Tribal Chief, members of the stable include Paul Heyman, Solo Sikoa, Jimmy Uso, and most recently, the Rock. Jey Uso and Sami Zayn are also former members, having both split from The Bloodline at separate times in 2023 in two notably excellent feuds with the faction and Reigns himself. Over the past year in particular, The Bloodline have dominated WWE, winning match after match with dirty tactics and constant interference. But, the cracks started to show when Sami and Jey left. The good guys started to prevail. Sure, Reigns still won every match, but the tides seemed to be slowly turning as hope became more prominent. More details on that soon.

Now for our challenger: the American Nightmare Cody Rhodes. Like Reigns, Rhodes is also from a famous wrestling family; his father was Dusty Rhodes, and his brother is Dustin Rhodes. He first debuted in WWE in 2007, working alongside his father, who trained him. He was also in a tag team with his brother at various times in their careers as The Rhodes Brothers, Cody Rhodes and Goldust, and Goldust and Stardust. In 2016, Rhodes left WWE due to frustrations over his Stardust character and storylines.

After working the independent circuit for a few years, as well as Ring of Honor, TNA, and NJPW, Rhodes launched All Elite Wrestling (AEW) along with The Young Bucks and Kenny Omega. Dustin Rhodes also signed with AEW, having a critically acclaimed match against Cody in 2019. Rhodes then left AEW in 2022 and returned to WWE in an incredible feud with Seth Rollins. Rhodes suffered a torn pectoral injury shortly before his 2022 Hell in a Cell match against Rollins and ended up being out for nine months as a result. Returning with a bang in the 2023 Royal Rumble, Rhodes was victorious and faced Roman Reigns for the Undisputed Championship at WrestleMania 39.

This is where ‘The Story’ really started.

The Feud: Rhodes Vs Reigns

Last year, I think it’s safe to say that most wrestling fans believed Cody Rhodes would finally beat Roman Reigns and win the title. The story was there; the build-up was perfect; it made sense. Rhodes’ return to WWE established him as a worthy opponent through his feud with Rollins, wrestling through such a nasty injury, and winning the Royal Rumble in his successful return. He fit the underdog role so well: the heroic good guy that has the audience’s full support, going against all the odds in taking on the Big Bad Undefeatable Champ. Alas, it wasn’t meant to be. Despite having Reigns on the ropes, so to speak, Rhodes couldn’t get the pin due to interference from Solo Sikoa. There he was, lying in the ring, defeated, mocked further by someone throwing a rubber chicken in. It was the ultimate, devastating loss.

Cody Rhodes lying in the ring after losing to Reigns at Wrestlemania 38, with a rubber chicken lying next to him

But Rhodes didn’t give up. Instead, he spent a year completing side quests via a feud with Brock Lesnar and a brief tag team with Jey Uso. Step by step, he rebuilt his reputation and confidence, getting the crowd to back him even more fiercely than before. Then, he went and won the Royal Rumble for the second year in a row, a feat only Hulk Hogan, Shawn Michaels, and Stone Cold Steve Austin have achieved before now. 

It seemed obvious Rhodes would challenge Reigns again to “finish the story”, but the Rock’s return threw a spanner in the works. For a very brief moment, it was going to be the Rock vs. Reigns in the main event of WrestleMania XL, but there was rather a lot of backlash over the decision. The crowd was rooting for Rhodes so hard that Triple H admirably readjusted and settled on Rhodes vs. Reigns at WrestleMania. 

On the Road to WrestleMania, we saw many intense and personal promos from Rhodes. It’s no secret that his main motivation for winning the Undisputed Championship was to fulfil the dream that his father never got to achieve. Dusty was renowned for getting screwed out of the title, so his son wanted to win it for him. There was, of course, the element of taking down The Bloodline as well. They’d hurt so many babyfaces over this past couple of years in a multitude of cruel ways that warranted revenge via taking their Tribal Chief’s belt. And this responsibility fell to Rhodes. 

However, the turning point which made the feud truly personal was the pre-WrestleMania press conference segment between Rhodes, Reigns, Seth Rollins, and the Rock. In this, Reigns and the Rock dismissed Rhodes, seeing him as a lesser opponent because of missing his chance in 2023. Reigns claimed he was “irrelevant… just like [his] dad”. Now, you can come for Cody, but if you come for his dad, you better expect him to snap back…Which he did, claiming that Reigns’ and the Rock’s grandfather would be “ashamed” if he could see them both now. A brawl between the four wrestlers ensued, and it was after this point that the promos got more emotionally charged. Once the Rhodes vs. Reigns main event was confirmed, Rhodes went on to discuss how he wanted to win the belt to hand it to his mother because he couldn’t hand it to his father in a tear-jerking promo. The Rock then responded by referring to him as a “crybaby” along with his fans, insulting both Rhodes and Rollins in a classic Rock concert, and threatening Rhodes’ mother with the promise of handing her his own belt covered in her son’s blood at WrestleMania. Oh, and he beat him up in the parking lot for a good while too.

The Rock and Cody Rhodes facing off in the ring

It’s interesting, but also fitting, that the Rock had more screentime shooting back at Rhodes than Reigns did in the build-up to WrestleMania. I mean, it’s the Rock for god’s sake—you’re gonna want him on screen as much as possible while you’ve got him. But I think it did a great job of representing Reigns losing his handle on his power and status as the Tribal Chief. In retrospect, it makes sense that he’d lose his title when he’s finally showing a level of weakness, almost submitting to the Rock.

Which brings us to…

Night 1: The Bloodline Vs Rhodes and Rollins

To put Night Two’s main event into context, first, we have to take a little look at Night One’s main event: the tag match between Roman Reigns and the Rock vs. Cody Rhodes and Seth Rollins. As was established beforehand, the outcome of this match affected the stipulation of Rhodes vs. Reigns; if Rhodes and Rollins won, then all members of The Bloodline would have been banned from ringside, but if The Bloodline won, then it would be under Bloodline Rules, which is essentially No Disqualification. So naturally, The Bloodline won, otherwise where would the drama be in Night Two?

The tag match ran for around 45 minutes (which, in my opinion, felt nowhere near that long), and every moment of it was compelling. For a large chunk of the match, Reigns and the Rock essentially just beat the living daylight out of Rollins while Rhodes could only watch from the apron, unable to be tagged in. Playing up to his real-life role as part of the Board of Directors, the Rock threatened referee Chad Patton with being fired if he counted The Bloodline out. Since his return, the Rock has been the nastiest heel he’s ever been throughout his whole wrestling career. Even when he has been a heel, it’s always been rather comedic and goofy, such as his Hollywood Rock schtick. But this time, he’s played a borderline creepy, sinister villain. As well as his outstanding performance, I think the Rock’s role here has been commendable as it provides a great contrast to wholesome do-gooders Rhodes and Rollins. Nothing beats a classic good vs. evil story, and the Rock’s involvement has amped this up to eleven.

There were a lot of nearfalls throughout the match, mostly between Rhodes and Reigns, creating a nice set-up for Night Two. Rollins played the support role for Rhodes incredibly well; it’s clear that he’s a solid babyface now, especially since he had nothing to gain from being in this tag match other than helping his friend. Neither Rhodes nor Rollins actually attempted to pin the Rock throughout the match, which is just one example of the choices that purposefully made him look like more of a dominant force than Reigns here. Another example of this is the Rock preventing Reigns from being pinned by pulling the ref out of the ring—Reigns could have lost them the match here, and the Rock was the one keeping them above water. Reigns also speared the Rock by accident when Rollins pushed Rhodes out of the way, which, judging by the Rock’s insane selling, was the most devastating move dealt on him in the whole match, putting them in a tenuous position for a hot second. In the conclusion of the match, despite Reigns getting a Spear over on Rhodes, he chose to tag the Rock in, who got the pin himself after performing the People’s Elbow on Rhodes.

The Rock holding his People's Champion belt next to Roman Reigns holding his Undisputed WWE Universal Championship, with Paul Heyman in the middle

It was the perfect Night One main event—it set the tone and high stakes for the next night and affected multiple matches ahead of it—not only Rhodes vs. Reigns, but also Rollins vs Drew McIntyre. Rollins’ beating put him at a disadvantage, which could be said to be the reason why he lost his own World Heavyweight Championship. Additionally, the Rock being the dominant force throughout the tag match and getting the pin meant that Reigns appeared weaker beside him. You could see the desperation on his face, that creeping doubt that he could actually manage to pin Rhodes and retain his title. Maybe, just maybe, the Tribal Chief is defeatable after all…

Finishing the Story

So. It’s the main event. Four years in, 32 title defenses, countless spears and Superman punches, all leading up to this moment. After the bell and initial stare-down between Rhodes and Reigns, the match kicked off pretty quickly. It was obvious from the off-set that Rhodes wasn’t pulling his punches. He wanted this. Badly.

The opponents brawled into the audience, with Rhodes suplexing Reigns on a table. In most of Reigns’ title defenses, he has played the role of arrogant champion, dismissing his challenger, sometimes even laughing at them. His style is slow, deliberate, calculating. In a way, he toys with his opponent, only going for the pin when he’s absolutely decimated them with finishers. In more recent times, this has changed slightly. As previously mentioned, the cracks have started to show; defeating Reigns has gradually become a realistic possibility. This showed in this main event more than ever. From the expressions on his face to the way he was selling, Reigns was letting Rhodes get to him and get moves over on him to an extent that he hasn’t in any previous matches.

It wasn’t as though Reigns wasn’t executing his usual moves—he attempted to pin Rhodes after a (wonderfully done) fisherman’s suplex, and powerbombed him through the announcer’s desk. In one of my favourite moments of the match, Rhodes got out a table to put Reigns through, and Reigns immediately folded and slid it back under the ring. But this really says it all: his stance was far more defensive than offensive. He was reducing the damage being done to him and struggling to avoid Rhodes’ attacks instead of dealing his own as consistently as usual. Rhodes was frequently countering or swerving Reigns’ standard moves, but Reigns wasn’t doing the same with Rhodes’. It was as though Reigns had gotten so arrogant, assuming since he’d defeated Rhodes once before, there was no question about doing it again, that he’d put no effort into learning how to combat his style. Rhodes, on the other hand, had gone through this all before and was refusing to let it get the better of him this time. There was a sense of urgency, speed, and assuredness to his style that contrasted nicely against Reigns. 

Roman Reigns facing off against Cody Rhodes in the ring

After a good while of Rhodes holding his own against Reigns, then the classic Bloodline interference began. We all saw this coming—this is how Reigns has won a majority of his matches in the past couple of years, after all. And with Bloodline Rules, it was part of the package. It started with Jimmy Uso preventing Rhodes from hitting his second Cross Rhodes, but he was taken out by his brother Jey spearing him off the ramp. Just extra salt in the wound of Jimmy losing to Jey in Night One. Next up was Solo Sikoa; in a reference to last year’s main event, he intervened with Rhodes’ second attempt at a triple Cross Rhodes. This was how he lost before, but not this time! Even after the combination of the Samoan Spike and Reigns’ Spear, Rhodes kicked out.

The first nice surprise was John Cena running out to take out Sikoa—as well as supporting the babyfaces, Cena had a personal motivation due to his match with Sikoa at Crown Jewel 2023, in which Sikoa brutally defeated him with a series of aggressive Samoan Spikes. Naturally, the Rock came out next, being Cena’s old rival, performing a Rock Bottom on him. The second surprise was when The Shield theme hit; for a moment, I actually thought Jon Moxley (Dean Ambrose) might make an appearance, but that was definitely wishful thinking. It was, in fact, Seth Rollins, dressed up in his old Shield gear and wielding a steel chair. At this point, we’re firmly in run-in clusterf*ck territory. As chaos unfolded in the ring, everything went black and a certain bell rang out. Lo and behold, the third and biggest surprise was the Undertaker’s appearance! Another old nemesis of the Rock’s, he took him out via chokeslam and teleported back out of the ring in classic fashion. This entire sequence was such deeply entertaining fan service, one that had me on my feet. For the 40th anniversary WrestleMania, it was perfect.

Once the smoke cleared, only Rollins was the spare left in the ring. Between him and Rhodes stood Reigns, holding the steel chair. This was the crucial moment that determined the fate of his championship. Would he take the obvious opportunity to bring Rhodes down and win? Or would he finally have his decade-long revenge on Rollins for his Shield betrayal? Letting his spite take over, Reigns chose the latter. And that was ultimately his downfall.

This decision allowed Rhodes to counter Reigns’ Spear and finally hit the three Cross Rhodes, getting the pin and becoming the new Undisputed WWE Universal Champion. And what a moment it was! The feeling of relief and elation was unparalleled; finally, after four years and endless devastating moments of babyfaces getting pinned, the big bad heel has been defeated. Not only that, but Rhodes got to honour his father by winning the belt he never could. He finished the story.

Cody Rhodes after winning the belt, arms outstretched

The End of an Era

Seeing all the fellow babyfaces, legendary wrestlers, and Rhodes’s family join him in the ring to celebrate his win was such a heartwarming scene to watch. As he told Michael Cole he would, Rhodes handed the belt to his mother right in the middle of the ring. His wife, Brandi Rhodes, was there too, as she’d also come out with him during his entrance to the match. There can’t have been many dry eyes in the house—even the commentators were tearing up as they congratulated Rhodes.

As fantastic as Rhodes’ win is, there is an element of bittersweetness to Reigns’ loss. As Triple H said in the post-WrestleMania press conference, Roman Reigns truly has changed the wrestling industry in his time as champion. Being the fourth longest-running WWE World Champion in history, he was bound to have an impact. Especially over the past couple of years, Reigns and The Bloodline have given us one of the best long-term storylines in wrestling. His methodical style, outstanding performances, and all-round stage presence won’t be forgotten in a hurry. The Tribal Chief really has been acknowledged. 

But now, the good guys have prevailed, and we’re firmly into a new era of WWE. I, for one, cannot wait to see what Rhodes adds to the legacy of the championship. Already I can imagine some stellar feuds; the Rock is right there, so that match feels inevitable. I’m certain Rhodes will feud with CM Punk at some point, and I’d like to see a proper Rhodes vs. Gunther feud too, especially now Gunther is no longer the International Champion anymore (congrats, Sami!). We’ll see what happens.

Ultimately, WrestleMania XL was a love letter to wrestling. It had the storylines, the banger matches, the surprise run-ins, and a whole lotta heart to it. It’s fair to say that wrestling actually feels cool again, and somewhat culturally relevant, for the first time in the last two decades. It’s a good time to be a wrestling fan—even more so, a Cody crybaby. All hail the American Nightmare! 

Written by Robin Moon

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