The subplots to 'WrestleMania Goes Hollywood,' explained
It’s a once-in-a-lifetime rarity to see two lauded dynasties clash on a worldwide platform. When two superstar talents with over a century of combined legacies meet face-to-face — it’s the type of dramatic conflict and spectacle of the human spirit only found in a pro wrestling ring. It’s Roman Reigns. It’s Cody Rhodes. It’s WrestleMania. And it’s this weekend.
This year, the event’s 39th installment will take place at Los Angeles’ own SoFi Stadium on April 1 and 2 with a build that’s truly special. For an event dubbed “WrestleMania Goes Hollywood,” the emotion and real-life circumstances surrounding WWE’s biggest event of the year couldn’t be more genuine.
The last time WrestleMania took place in L.A. — WrestleMania 21 in 2005, to be exact — the “Hollywood” subtitle wound up being rather prophetic, as the evening’s two biggest moments featured future Tinseltown A-listers John Cena and Dave Bautista winning their first WWE Championships. But 18 years later, beneath the glitz, glamour and pageantry that millions flock to Hollywood and WWE for, the stars have aligned for a reality-injected drama that no screenwriter could have put together. Allow us to provide you an easily digestible breakdown of all the plots to pay attention to in between body slams.
A family affair generations in the making
The story of the main event features the first-ever one-on-one meeting of current Undisputed WWE Universal Champion (a title so big it requires two belts) Roman Reigns and, in his first-ever WrestleMania main event, fan favorite Cody Rhodes. A glance at this year’s WrestleMania poster, and one could surmise that the core of the match is a morality tale where the seemingly unstoppable villain will clash against the inspirational charismatic hero who seemingly has all the odds stacked against him in his valiant effort to make history. A story like that on its own sells tickets, but it’s what brought Cody and Roman to this moment that makes this showdown already feel like the stuff of legends.
If you don’t follow current WWE but the name Cody Rhodes sounds familiar, there’s a good chance it’s ringing a bell because of his late father, “The American Dream” Dusty Rhodes. As one of wrestling’s all-time-greatest attractions, Dusty was every bit of a WWE Hall of Famer known for his gift of gab. He was also the visionary behind the original wrestling supercard Starrcade; the inaugural 1983 event predated the first WrestleMania by 18 months. Dusty connected with audiences all over the country, created beloved match variations that are still held today and, after retiring, was still a beloved onscreen character until his death in 2015.
Dusty was alongside his son Cody for his WWE debut in 2007, and while Cody quickly became a weekly fixture of the company’s "Monday Night Raw" and "SmackDown" television series, Dusty found fulfillment in his twilight years training and polishing the next generation of WWE superstars. One such talent that Dusty worked with closely before his WWE debut in 2012 was the man who would become the company’s flagship franchise player for the next decade, and Cody’s WrestleMania opponent, Roman Reigns.
But beneath Dusty’s coaching is a generations-long lineage of WWE megastars whose blood pumps through Reigns' veins. Part of wrestling’s celebrated Anoa’i family, Reigns' father is Sika of the memorable ’70s and ’80s tag team the Wild Samoans. Among his cousins who’ve found massive success in the WWE are Hall of Fame members Yokozuna and Rikishi, as well as Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson, whom Roman made his acting debut alongside in 2019’s "Fast & Furious" spinoff "Hobbs & Shaw." In addition to main eventing six of the last 10 WrestleManias, Reigns made headlines for a very different battle in 2019 when he returned to wrestling after relinquishing his championship following a recurrence of leukemia. The following year, in a televised match from an empty arena during the summer 2020 COVID lockdowns, Reigns began a WWE Universal Championship domination that continues today, over 900 days later.
Now surrounded by his real-life cousins, Solo Sikoa and WWE Tag Team Champions the Usos (who have their hands full at WrestleMania battling beloved Canadian imports Sami Zayn and Kevin Owens), as well as his “special counsel,” Paul Heyman (a longtime veteran talent whom Dusty Rhodes is credited with discovering in the early 1980s and who, two decades later as the promoter of renegade Philadelphia wrestling promotion Extreme Championship Wrestling, returned the favor by giving Dusty his confidence back through a brief run as a performer), Reigns has become the loathsome unstoppable ultimate bad guy. The perfect antagonist for any Hollywood blockbuster.
Further showing the full-circle serendipity of this particular WrestleMania main event is how this journey to the biggest night of his career brings Cody back to where he started before he had any real WWE aspirations. A successful high school wrestler, winning back-to-back state titles in Georgia his junior and senior years, Cody instead took a detour to Los Angeles to follow his acting dreams.
“When I was out there at 19 years old, I was thinking acting would be it for me because I thought physically I wasn’t big enough to be a wrestler, which is hilarious because I’m now one of the bigger wrestlers,” Cody tells The Times. “I had a great experience with Howard Fine, who was my acting coach. … Going through Howard’s comprehensive technique class and teaching out of the book of Uta Hagen "A Challenge for the Actor" was very, very helpful when I realized that I was in the wrong world.”
Cody says he continues to carry everything he learned from Fine, to the point where even today, when teaching the beginners camps at his wrestling school, the Nightmare Factory, aspiring wrestlers are assigned either a copy of "Fine on Acting" or "A Challenge for the Actor."
Today, Cody’s face can be seen once again on Sunset Boulevard, only this time on a billboard positioning him against Reigns. It’s one of many comebacks that’s become one of Cody’s signatures since returning to WWE at WrestleMmania last year after parting ways with the company in 2016. The years in between saw him further hone his craft and reinvent himself as “The American Nightmare,” competing internationally as a focal point for a myriad of wrestling promotions and expanding his IMDb credits with a reality show, a recurring role on the CW’s "Arrow" and as one of the judges on TBS’ "Go Big Show." Cody’s return saw him win a trilogy of instant classic premium live event matches before an unexpected real-life injury took him out of WWE for the second half of the year. His big return at the 2023 Royal Rumble has galvanized a reaction in fans who’ve watched his journey from a rookie in 2007 through his return to the company, so much so that entire live crowds have taken to singing along with every word of his entrance music, Downstait’s “Kingdom,” a track written specifically for Cody that he’s used since his reinvention began.
WrestleMania comes once a year, but a main event storyline with so many organic real-life implications makes 2023’s feel once-in-a-lifetime. When asked if these connections Cody has between Reigns, Heyman and his family are ever particularly challenging to implicate on television, Cody said, “I have the privilege and responsibility, but also the burden that I don’t play a character. I play myself. … My whole life has been the road to WrestleMania. It makes it difficult to know where the line is, but … I feel I’ve really mentally set myself up that I’m OK with it. In a world where it’s hard to tell, it’s real.”
WWE Women’s Revolution continues to make history
That same palpable “realness” can be felt elsewhere on the card as well. One such superstar who has inspired tears of joy from an entire WrestleMania crowd is the reigning WWE Raw Women’s Champion Bianca Belair. Two years ago, Belair was one-half of the first-ever WrestleMania main event to feature two black women, where she emerged both victorious and a fully cemented new star for the company whose personal popularity surged with the return of live crowds. “Anytime anyone brings up the WrestleMania where I got to main event,” Belair tells The Times, “it’s still surreal. … I only ever watched that match back maybe once or twice because I get so emotional just watching it, I feel like I’m in that moment all over again.” Last year she began her current championship reign, the longest of any black singles athlete in WWE history, by pinning Becky Lynch, the only other woman to have ever won a main event at WrestleMania. Being a talent who's only ever had title matches at the biggest show of the year becomes even more impressive when you factor in that Belair’s journey began not only without any sort of wrestling family, but with no real wrestling experience at all.
A collegiate track and field All-American, with an additional background in weightlifting and CrossFit, Belair’s first step ever into the ring was at the 2015 Arnold Classic.
“During intermission, they brought us out, and we had to try out in front of an audience. I had no idea what I was doing. I had to grab a microphone and cut a promo in front of a live crowd. I didn’t even know what a promo was! It helped me though because that’s when I realized I loved being in front of a crowd.” Belair was signed and continued to learn the fundamentals of wrestling in front of a live audience, developing a unique style combining power and speed that earned her the moniker “The EST of WWE” (as in fastEST, strongEST, etc.). Being a completely WWE-trained creation adds a unique dimension to her featured match this year at WrestleMania, where she is set to face Asuka, a dominant force for the better part of a decade in WWE who prior to that was one of Japan’s biggest stars, using a unique stiffer style that she’s been leaning into again since the match was announced. This WWE vs. the World aspect is, again, an organic happenstance that makes this year’s event seem special.
Controversial celebrities contribute to the Mania
But it wouldn’t be WrestleMania without the stars, right? This year’s event, hosted by former WWE Champion and MTV "Real World" alumni (as well as this year’s NBA All-Star Celebrity Game standout) Michael "The Miz" Mizanin, has already lined up appearances from Snoop Dogg, Becky G and Jimmie Allen, as well as some names from the entertainment world who will be stepping into the ring itself. Polarizing social media star Logan Paul will meet former WWE Champion Seth “Freakin” Rollins for Paul’s second consecutive WrestleMania foray. WWE/UFC’s Brock Lesnar will have the rare occasion of being the smaller of two athletes when he meets the 7’3” "Nigerian Giant" Omos.
Longtime WWE favorites have also been announced for matches, with "Peacemaker" star Cena having his first WrestleMania match in three years against young upstart Austin Theory, and Attitude Era standout Edge meeting rival Finn Bálor in the notoriously ominous roofed cage match dubbed Hell in a Cell. Bálor’s stablemate Rhea Ripley will challenge wrestling legend Ric Flair’s decorated daughter Charlotte Flair for the SmackDown women’s championship, and, the night before WrestleMania, Bálor and Ripley’s fellow partner Dominik Mysterio’s father, legendary luchador Rey Mysterio, will be inducted into the WWE Hall of Fame.
As of press time, more matches are likely to be announced, but even with the card as it is now, the build the the WWE’s flagship event has been one of its all-time most captivating. Having the real-life elements blur the line between storyline and reality has only enhanced the spectacle. It’s a series of stories told through physicality — a medium that’s been slowly perfected over the last 5,000 years, from the Sumerians’ scriptures into the Snickers-sponsored “Showcase of the Immortals” you see streaming on Peacock today. If there was ever a time to experience such a ringside spectacle at its most potent, this is it.
This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.