Head of the Table’: The Rock’s Shocking WWE Return Sets the Stage for a Mega-Match and Raises a Big Question

Finally.

WWE legend The Rock made his surprise return on the year-opening edition of Monday Night Raw, hinting one of the biggest possible matches in wrestling is finally on the cards.

But at the same time, it creates as many questions as it answers.

After a few days hyping up the return of a former WWE champion, with many fans expecting AEW wrestler and former WWE star Andrade to appear after his contract expired on December 31, the crowd was left underwhelmed by the appearance of Jinder Mahal – a long-time jobber who had an awful mid-2010s run with the World Heavyweight Title.

But this was, of course, a classic pro wrestling swerve with The Rock soon interrupting Mahal to an enormous ovation.

After going through his trademark phrases and beating down Mahal, The Rock turned his attention to why he was really back, just in time for the peak of the WWE calendar – the road to WrestleMania, which includes Januaryโ€™s Royal Rumble.

โ€œIโ€™m gonna go get something to eat,โ€ he explained.

โ€œShould The Rock sit in a booth?

โ€œOr should The Rock sit at the bar?

โ€œOr should The Rock sit… at the head of the table?โ€

This was a clear pointer to a long-awaited match with long-time Undisputed WWE Universal Champion Roman Reigns, who the company has been trying to build up as one of the all-time greats with a historically long title reign.

His grip on the Universal Championship (which was unified with the WWE title at WrestleMania 38) has lasted over 1200 days, putting him in striking distance of Hulk Hoganโ€™s 1474-day reign between 1984 and 1988.

Reigns will never catch the all-time leader, Bruno Sammartino, who held the WWWF World Heavyweight Championship for almost eight years (unless they really go crazy), but surpassing Hogan along with Bob Backlundโ€™s 1470-day reign (WWE does not include Japanese legend Antonio Inokiโ€™s stint with the title or the ensuing vacancies, thus crediting Backlund at 2135 days) is entirely plausible.

The problem, of course, is a marathon title reign made sense back in the territory days of pro wrestling because if the wrestler was still the top draw, they deserved to hold the title. But in modern pro wrestling, where titles will sometimes change hands multiple times in the same night, Reignsโ€™ run is a wild exception.

His presentation as an unbeatable force – which is puzzling, since he keeps needing interference to win his matches – has worked. He is now a genuine needle-mover in the sport, after a long-time push as the good guy head of the company replacing John Cena never really stuck. And his Bloodline storyline has, at times, been incredibly hot (especially in early 2023 with credit to Sami Zayn and Cody Rhodes).

But modern storylines, with monthly premium live events, arenโ€™t really built to go this long. And Reignsโ€™ stint with the title has meant wrestlers like Rhodes, who seemed to have the perfect story at 2023โ€™s WrestleMania – crossing from AEW, being a super-hot babyface and winning the title his father never did – have instead been left hanging.

WWE has even had to create a new World Heavyweight Championship, won by Seth Rollins back in May, to give the other wrestlers a title they can actually theoretically win. Itโ€™s hard to buy this title as a true world championship because of the Reigns factor – he is clearly the top guy in the company.

Cody Rhodes wrestles Roman Reigns for Undisputed WWE Universal Title Match during WrestleMania Goes Hollywood at SoFi Stadium on April 02, 2023 in Inglewood, California. (Photo by RONALD MARTINEZ / GETTY IMAGES NORTH AMERICA / Getty Images via AFP)Source: AFP

The question has always been, who will finally end Reignsโ€™ historic reign? After all, the entire point of building someone up this strongly is for someone to beat them to take their momentum – or in wrestling parlance, โ€˜get the rubโ€™.

Rhodes made a whole lot of sense for the reasons mentioned above, but instead Reigns used interference to retain the title, in a shocking and somewhat baffling result. With Reigns effectively now a part-time wrestler – he had just four more televised matches across all of 2023, two of them tag team matches – it made the companyโ€™s top title unaccessible.

It would have made all the sense in the world to give Rhodes the title, so he could actually defend it, while Reignsโ€™ storyline continued over the title of โ€˜Head of the Tableโ€™ and โ€˜Tribal Chiefโ€™, because the characterโ€™s biggest priority is actually respect. He has had to cheat his way into holding his position, which is what makes him a bad guy. Itโ€™s stolen valor. (Theoretically, anyway; again, this story is muddled because of how fans react positively to Reigns, and how the commentators consistently speak of him as a dominant force.)

Reigns basically could have had the exact same 2023, just without the worldtitle. But instead, he still holds it, and now heads into WrestleMania season without an obvious opponent.

Thatโ€™s where The Rock comes in. For years, WWE has been keen to book the legend against Reigns, since heโ€™s the true biggest name in the Samoan wrestling dynasty. Reigns couldnโ€™t be the head of the table until he knocked The Rock off the throne.

But The Rock is just too successful in the acting world. Getting the time off he needs to get into proper wrestling shape has been a problem – and heโ€™d be giving up plenty of money by committing to wrestling for a few months instead of a film.

Plus, the last time he had a proper match at 2013โ€™s WrestleMania 29 he suffered major injuries (abdominal and adductor tendons torn from his pelvis), delaying filming of the Hercules movie and costing studio Paramount millions. That has made it very hard for any studios to agree to letting him return.

Dwayne Johnson attends the 95th Annual Academy Awards on March 12, 2023 in Hollywood, California. (Photo by Neilson Barnard / GETTY IMAGES NORTH AMERICA / Getty Images via AFP)Source: AFP

But, it seems, the time has finally come for the match to occur. The Rock would not have come out and made a very obvious allusion to wrestling Reigns if it wasnโ€™t actually going to happen – it would be a bizarre misdirection and disrespectful to the fans.

The obvious place for the match is Aprilโ€™s WrestleMania 40 in Philadelphia – the biggest stage for the biggest match. Reigns-Rock wouldnโ€™t actually help WWE sell any tickets to this event, because theyโ€™ve already virtually sold out both nights (approximately 57,000 tickets out with a set-up of 58,910, via WrestleTix), but WrestleMania always sells itself anyway.

There are two alternatives – the next Saudi Arabia mega-show, since WWE always gives big matches to those events because the Arab nation gives them a bigger payday than any WrestleMania does, or the Elimination Chamber event on February 24 in Perth.

Australian fans would obviously love that option, but it seems unlikely, given the show will start at 4:30am American east coast time – so most of the companyโ€™s home fans wouldnโ€™t be watching live anyway. Still, given the big financial commitment from Western Australia to lure the show, itโ€™s possible. And The West Australian reported last month WA tourism officials had asked about the chances of getting The Rock for the Elimination Chamber show.

Itโ€™s also a new era for WWE, now united with UFC under the TKO brand, with the company prioritising selling big shows to cities around the world (like Elimination Chamber: Perth) to raise profits and thus the stock price. They also donโ€™t need to sell subscriptions, like they did for the WWE Network, or traditional pay per views, because in the US (where they get most of their money) the NBC-owned streaming service Peacock already paid for all of their premium live events.

WWE no longer operates in the traditional โ€˜get fans to pay to see X event because itโ€™s how we make moneyโ€™ model – itโ€™s โ€˜build the brand and get more money next time the TV and PLE rights deals are on the marketโ€™. For example, at the moment the rights to Monday Night Raw are up for grabs in the US, so building the Raw ratings are the current priority.

The benefit to not holding Reigns-Rock at WrestleMania would be Reigns can wrestle someone else at the event. Someone like Cody Rhodes, who needs to actually beat Reigns to โ€˜finish the storyโ€™ – The Rock, aged 51 and seemingly about to wrestle for the first time in a decade, doesnโ€™t need to be WWE Champion (especially since heโ€™d then have to wrestle again to lose the title) and certainly doesnโ€™t need the rub.

There are no easy answers. If Reigns-Rock happens pre-WrestleMania, Reigns can lose the title at WM40, but then he wonโ€™t set the modern record by beating the length of Hoganโ€™s reign. If Reigns-Rock happens at WM40, he can hold onto the title for another year and surpass Hogan, but then WWE has to spend another year stretching out his story – and already many fans are getting a bit tired of it.

We havenโ€™t even mentioned CM Punk, who has already proven to be a genuine ratings and ticket-mover since returning to WWE at Survivor Series. Heโ€™s effectively another part-timer and can finally main event a WrestleMania by appearing on the Saturday show while Reigns-Rock headlines on Sunday, but if heโ€™s the biggest star on the show (which, based on the numbers weโ€™ve seen over the last month, he is) surely he needs to go for the top belt?

But at least the match weโ€™ve been waiting years for finally seems to be happening. And, as mentioned before, itโ€™s perhaps the biggest thing WWE could possibly book right now.

So youโ€™re well within your rights to just be very bloody excited.