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The Royal Rumble frenzy begins: Who will face Roman Reigns at WrestleMania?

Cody Rhodes got the jump on everyone Monday night (Nov.28) when he revealed that he is officially entering the men’s Royal Rumble match next January in Florida. Rhodes was once considered the favorite to win the every man for himself spectacular. But times have drastically changed in recent weeks, and now The American Nightmare is one of several favorites who could punch their ticket to the main event of WrestleMania XL.

Since returning to WWE in 2022, Rhodes has stated that his goal is to win the WWE Championship for his late father, Dusty Rhodes. After becoming intrigued by a photo of his dad holding the championship that Dusty never won, Cody has made it his mission to bring wrestling’s most coveted prize to the Rhodes clan in honor of his father.

After winning this year’s Royal Rumble, fans thought a Rhodes win over Undisputed Universal Champion Roman Reigns was a foregone conclusion. But at WrestleMania 39, WWE shocked the world by booking The Tribal Chief to retain the title, leaving audiences with the image of a heartbroken Rhodes to close the show.

Cody Rhodes sits dejected following his loss to Roman Reigns at WrestleMania.
WWE.com

While many questioned WWE’s booking then, the decision to have Rhodes lose has since proved wise. Following his epic defeat, the former EVP of AEW got the better of Brock Lesnar in a thrilling three-match series that earned Rhodes an endorsement from The Beast. From there, he won the undisputed tag team titles with Jey Uso, albeit briefly. All of which has propelled Rhodes to being arguably WWE’s most popular star and one of, if not the top merch mover in the company.

But the ever-changing landscape of WWE took a dramatic shift last week at Survivor Series following the returns of CM Punk and Randy Orton. At the same time, the respective struggles of Drew McIntyre and LA Knight and their efforts to dethrone Reigns have become highly publicized, making them enticing opponents for the Undisputed Champ at WrestleMania.

In the case of McIntyre, he’s made a compelling argument for himself in recent months. The 2020 pandemic muted his career-defining moment when he won the WWE title at WrestleMania 36 in an empty building. In 2022, McIntyre had a chance to rewrite his story at Clash at the Castle in front of his family in his home country of the United Kingdom. But against Reigns, McIntyre was robbed of his chance to make it right, thanks to outside interference by Solo Sikoa.

Though he sees himself as the hero in his tale, McIntyre is slowly becoming its villain. His world title aspirations have sent him spiraling into madness. McIntyre’s growing envy of World Champion Seth Rollins and grudge against Jey Uso will likely lead him further from his title goals as he inches closer to turning into a full-blown heel.

As for Knight, he’s been quite vocal in his desire to get back in the ring with The Head of the Table after Reigns and company cheated him out of glory at Crown Jewel. However, the recent behavior of United States Champion Logan Paul may be a clue that the Megastar is on a collision course with the American influencer.

That makes the Rumble a three-horse race between Rhodes, Punk, and Orton.

With Punk, WWE has a ready-made program ten years in the making. Upon his acrimonious departure from the promotion in 2014, the Chicago icon made headlines during a controversial tell-all podcast, where he talked about how agents and producers kept telling him to make Reigns “look really strong” before a match featuring the two. Those comments didn’t do any favors for Reigns, who was struggling to catch on as WWE’s top act at the time.

Years later, Reigns responded by downplaying Punk’s place in wrestling, saying:

“When it comes down to it, CM Punk was not as good or as over as a John Cena. Wasn’t as good or as over and moved the needle like The Rock. It just was what it was.”

The apparent disdain among both men, whether real or played up simply for the press, is the type of juicy material that sells tickets. With a potential conflict of interest by Reigns’ special counsel, Paul Heyman, who once managed Punk to one of the longest WWE title runs in history, all the ingredients are in place for a championship grudge match for the ages.

And then there’s Randy Orton, who has made it clear that he’s got a bag full of receipts for the Bloodline. Orton, who was legitimately injured at the time, was written off WWE programming by taking a brutal beating from Reigns and his clan almost two years ago.

Such history serves as the foundation for a classic revenge saga, one starring an established superstar whose face on a poster opposite Reigns is enough to move tickets. That makes a third Royal Rumble match victory for the Apex Predator a very realistic possibility.

Another possible scenario is the emergence of a dark horse candidate like Gunther. The longest-reigning Intercontinental Champion of all time also has the record for being in a single Rumble match the longest, lasting more than 71 minutes in the 2023 edition. Aside from Roman Reigns, no one in WWE has been booked to look as dominant as the Ring General, whose presentation has made him appear unbeatable.

And though the Hollywood strike is over, meaning he’s likely to return to making films, one can’t rule out The Rock, as a mega showdown with Reigns was once a possibility. While a longshot, it could still happen next year at WrestleMania.

Suddenly, Cody Rhodes isn’t a shoo-in to face Reigns on the Grandest Stage of Them All. Unquestionably, Rhodes will finish his story and win the WWE Championship. He must. But the question going into the Royal Rumble is if Cody Rhodes’ story is the most box-office-worthy option for WrestleMania.

The answer will come on Jan. 27, 2024, when the Royal Rumble goes down in Florida. Until then, the speculation will only heighten what is traditionally one of the most exciting matches of the year for WWE.

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