Voices: Why have toxic fans ruined the Rock’s big wrestling return?

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Being a wrestling fan can be embarrassing. People are always asking you if you know that it’s fake, like you’re a kid who’s a little too old to believe in Santa Claus. Shows and conventions seem to exist in a parallel universe where deodorant was never invented. The entire industry is beset with tragedy and scandal at a rate usually reserved for Shonda Rhimes shows.

As bad as things can get, though, I’ve never actually been too embarrassed to admit to being one of those people who stays up until 4am on a work night to watch a B-tier pay-per-view. After the past few days, though, that might be about to change.

It’s been a particularly bad month for fans of WWE. While the year began on a positive note, with the announcement that the company’s flagship show Raw had been bought by Netflix for $5 billion, the good news was almost immediately overshadowed a number of sexual misconduct allegations levelled at former WWE boss Vince McMahon (accusations which McMahon representatives for McMahon have vehemently denied and vowed to “vigorously defend” him from).

The situation on screen hasn’t been much better. While January represents the beginning of what should be the company’s most high-profile and profitable season, beginning with the Royal Rumble and concluding with WWE’s biggest show of the year in April, the road to WrestleMania has been anything but smooth. Several high-profile stars have been injured, others have been removed due to their proximity to McMahon, and WWE has had to abandon or rethink a number of storylines that have been in the work for months, if not years.

The chaos reached a new crescendo on Friday, though, as WWE legend Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson made a shock appearance on SmackDown to challenge undisputed universal champion Roman Reigns to a match in the main event of WrestleMania. Johnson and Reigns are both part of the Anoa’i family – a Samoan wrestling dynasty whose members have dominated the industry since the early 20th century – and the current iteration of Reigns’ character is based on his belief that he is its most important and valued member. Reigns has held his title for four years, shattering records along the way, and fans have been eagerly awaiting the day that Johnson would finally show up to put him in his place.

So why is it that the YouTube video of their confrontation garnered more than 500,000 dislikes in less than 24 hours, becoming the company’s most disliked video ever? Why are thousands of fans trolling WWE social media posts across multiple with abuse? Why are prominent wrestling influencers publicly wishing for the Rock to become injured before WrestleMania?

If you haven’t been following WWE, the top guy at the moment is Cody Rhodes, son of legendary wrestler Dusty Rhodes. Cody left WWE in 2016 following years of perceived misuse by the company. Rhodes founded rival company AEW in 2019, which has achieved unexpected success and even seemed like it could be a contender for WWE’s throne. Rhodes left AEW and returned to WWE in 2022, and has proved extremely popular with fans ever since, being pegged as the “next John Cena”. Rhodes has yet to win the title that both he and his father never won, which fans refer to as “finishing the story”.

In many ways fans’ frustration isn’t with the Rock’s presence at ‘Mania, so much as it is Rhodes’ absence, and inability to “finish the story”. In fact, the top trending topic in America the day after the episode aired was #WeWantCody – and if it’s in a hashtag, you know they mean business.

This kind of thing has happened a few times before, most notably in the run up to WrestleMania 30 in 2014, when the WWE universe got behind indie darling Daniel Bryan in a year when the planned main event was company man Randy Orton vs wrestler-turned-Hollywood-actor Dave Bautista. In that instance WWE caved, and turned the main event into a triple threat between all three men, leading to an iconic finish in which Bryan won and the fans went home happy.

The situation is so similar that it’s caused a few people to wonder if the current situation is a deliberate attempt to mirror the success of that storyline, which at the time felt like catching lightning in a bottle. I really can’t see that being the case – the match between Reigns and the Rock has been teased for years, for a start, so there was no reason to believe that fans would turn on it.

Likewise, Cody isn’t really an underdog in the way Daniel Bryan was. I like the guy, but he’s a bleach blonde nepo baby with an American flag neck tattoo who dresses like Homelander. Not to mention the fact that his match with Roman, if it had gone ahead, would have been a rematch of the previous year’s main event – something that wrestling fans are usually pretty averse to.

It also doesn’t help that Cody’s supposed “story” is pretty thin. He wants to win the belt because his dad never did. Okay, that’s fine. But what does that have to do with ending Roman’s reign? What does that have to do with WrestleMania? If anything the only worthwhile “story” here is the one between the Rock and Reigns.

The toxicity of this entire episode has soured what could have been a great season for wrestling fans – and they have nobody but themselves to blame. Toxic fans are a problem for any popular piece of media, but wrestling is one place where they seem to outnumber the people who actually want to have fun. Sorry anime. Sorry Rick and Morty. Wrestling fans have you pinned for the three.

Maybe it’s because the line is so often blurred between fiction and reality in wrestling, and people struggle to tell the difference between what’s okay and what isn’t. Maybe it’s because this is what happens when people who don’t watch real sports get competitive. Maybe people just enjoy being contrarian because it’s easier than actually being smart.

No matter what the reason, WWE shouldn’t flinch on this, lest they just encourage more entitlement and whining from a fanbase that does enough of that already. They have a story to tell, and we should let them finish it.