WrestleMania favorite moments, pro athletes to watch and bold predictions: Roundtable

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WrestleMania XL will take place Saturday and Sunday at Lincoln Financial Field in Philadelphia. This year’s much-anticipated event is one that could feature historic moments in sports entertainment for years to come.

As we prepare for what WWE annually calls “The Grandest Stage of Them All,” a few questions linger. Could we see a champion finally lose after 1,300 days of holding a title? Will there be unexpected heel turns or babyface turns? (Will the good wrestler turn bad … or vice versa?) And what about the expectations for and final results of first-time WrestleMania participants?

For the longtime wrestling fans: Could Philadelphia be the last time we see Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson compete in the ring?

The 40th edition of WrestleMania marks the first time the event has been in Philadelphia since 1999. Fans will be treated to Roman Reigns, Cody Rhodes, Seth “Freakin” Rollins, Rhea Ripley and other WWE Superstars. They also will see The Rock as a part of in-ring competition for the first time in eight years — and his last appearance lasted only six seconds.

The Athletic’s Chris Vannini, Jason Jones and Eric Koreen teamed up for a roundtable to discuss WrestleMania XL and what they’re expecting this weekend.

WrestleMania returns to Philadelphia for the first time in 25 years. How do you think the city will respond?

Jones: This is the perfect city with WWE leaning more into its “Attitude Era” style of promos. The shows leading up to this weekend have had an edge to them. Philly is going to eat up all of the Cody Rhodes/Seth Rollins/CM Punk/Drew McIntyre/Bloodline shenanigans. There’s no better city to have this kind of ‘Mania. Plus, Paul Heyman is entering the Hall of Fame. When he’s introduced with the Hall of Fame class, that crowd is going to go crazy. Heyman created an unbreakable bond with the city thanks to ECW (Extreme Championship Wrestling was based in Philly).

Koreen: Philly is one of the “smarter” crowds around, but I’m not sure you can fill a football stadium with only that type of fan. There will be some booing and cheering against the booking, but I don’t think it will be anything … extreme. All the same, WWE probably should be glad an April snowstorm isn’t in the forecast, because snowballs would be launched.

Vannini: I’m just wondering how Philly-centric it’s gonna get. We know rapper Meek Mill will be there. Will recently retired Philadelphia Eagles offensive lineman Jason Kelce get involved in something? (That’s gotta happen, right?) And what about Rocky himself, Sylvester Stallone? You know WWE would love to have Stallone raise someone’s hand in victory or throw in a working punch to knock out someone.

Which wrestler(s) do you want to see the most this weekend?

Vannini: Is it cheating if I say The Rock? He hasn’t competed in a match in eight years. He will be in a tag-team match Saturday night, so he won’t have to carry the full load. He also seems a bit leaner than the last time we saw him. But also, he’s The Rock, and his new villain persona has been a breath of fresh air. This has legitimately been his best work in more than two decades — and I’m including “Fast Five.”

Koreen: It has to be The Rock, but I’m especially interested in how his presence impacts Roman Reigns. This is Reigns’ fourth straight WrestleMania holding the Universal Championship, but he also feels nearly incidental in the buildup to this story. With or without the title, he has to come out of this weekend feeling more central to the Bloodline story than he has since The Rock’s arrival.

Jones: Jade Cargill is first on my list. WWE has been very strategic in how she’s been presented. She was impressive in the Royal Rumble, and pairing Cargill with Bianca Belair and Naomi has already created an iconic photo and moment. Cargill has the makings of a crossover superstar, and I want to see how she performs in her first WrestleMania. Of course, I also want to see how The Rock does in the ring. I’m digging his “Final Boss” persona. And finally, CM Punk will be in the building. He’s going to do something to disrupt things, right?

Sports figures becoming a part of WrestleMania is common. Which athlete would you like to see involved?

Jones: Since there’s no chance of an injured Joel Embiid taking part in anything in the ring, I look at the NFL. Who could rile up a Philly fan base on either night? Give me Dak Prescott. Yes, I’d be rooting for an absolute eruption of boos. It would be hilarious. I’m here for it.

Vannini: My pick is Jason Kelce. He’s freshly retired from the NFL and is as famous as he’s ever been. He also wore a Kansas City Chiefs luchador mask during Super Bowl festivities. The man was built for this moment. Take the shirt off and deliver a “Tush Push” wrestling move.

Koreen: If they want to dig deeper into the Philly well, Bryce Harper is one of the few baseball players whose personality is high-wattage enough to work in the ring. I’m doubtful the Phillies can insure his contract to include much physicality (not to mention his team is playing in Washington that weekend), but maybe he comes in with Chad Gable to take out Imperium and even the odds in the Intercontinental Championship match between Gunther and Sami Zayn. Give the man a bat and let him take BP on Ludwig Kaiser.

Which wrestler is on watch for a heel or babyface turn?

Vannini: Randy Orton. The Viper’s been back and getting cheers since Survivor Series, but he’s always been a more natural villain. It’s been quite a while since we’ve had a heel Orton. I think Logan Paul retains the U.S. title and Orton turns on Kevin Owens, perhaps either setting something up between them or making Orton a top villain for “SmackDown,” someone to come after Cody Rhodes.

Jones: Seth Rollins. He begged Rhodes to be his opponent. Rhodes chose Roman Reigns. But then, what if CM Punk somehow costs Rollins his World Heavyweight Championship? Or better yet, what if Rollins beats Drew McIntyre, but Damian Priest cashes in on his Money In The Bank contract? You’ve got wrestlers in promos saying Rollins’ wife, Becky Lynch, runs the family. There are plenty of elements there for Rollins to snap, go after Rhodes or Punk and go on another run as a heel.

Koreen: Roman Reigns. He has been so good in his heel role for so long, but how long can we see the same match format: Reigns on the cusp of losing his title before The Bloodline helps him out to keep the title in the family? The thing about this storyline that has mostly gone unsaid: There IS money in a Reigns-The Rock matchup. You get there with The Rock excommunicating Reigns from The Bloodline after a loss, and then Reigns getting hoisted by his own petard in several matches in the second half of 2024 against family members until WrestleMania 41 — when he finally gets his hands on The Rock.

What’s your favorite WrestleMania moment of all time?

Koreen: Give me a good underdog story. Daniel Bryan and Kofi Kingston each climbing the mountain in WrestleMania 30 and WrestleMania 35, respectively, tops the list for me. As a proud Canadian, Sami Zayn and Kevin Owens holding up the tag-team title belts at the end of night one last year after ending The Usos’ record-breaking run was pretty special to me, too.

Vannini: The Rock versus “Hollywood” Hulk Hogan at WrestleMania X8 (18). I still think it’s the greatest wrestling match of all time. It’s not the best wrestling, obviously, but the moments, the crowd, the energy and the Hogan hulk-up into the finish were absolutely electric.

Jones: The Bianca Belair-Sasha Banks moment right before their match at WrestleMania 37 was special. Never before had two Black women been the main event, and it was as if the two wrestlers — and the crowd as a whole — recognized at the same time that history was being made. I loved that Kofi Kingston’s run to the championship at WrestleMania 35 felt 100 percent driven by the fans. I still don’t think anything tops the electricity of The Rock versus Hollywood Hogan at WrestleMania X8.

What’s your bold WrestleMania XL prediction?

Vannini: “Stone Cold” Steve Austin returns to deliver The Rock a stunner in the main event Sunday night. I may have hyped it up too much in my head, but what the heck. The Rock and Roman Reigns win Saturday, setting up all hell to break loose Sunday during the Reigns-Cody Rhodes main event. Jey Uso takes out Jimmy Uso. John Cena returns to take out Solo Sikoa (they’ve got history). Drew McIntyre and Seth Rollins take each other out. And then the glass shatters and out comes Austin, delivering a stunner and The Rock’s patented flippy sell. It all clears the ring for Cody to win, “Avengers: Endgame”-style.

Koreen: I’ll stay out of the main events here. I’ll say Damian Priest cashes in on the Intercontinental Championship after Gunther and Sami Zayn tear the house down, and he leaves WrestleMania with two belts (he and Finn Bálor are the tag-team champions, defending in a six-team TLC match). I also think Rhea Ripley beats Becky Lynch and, what the hell, Dominik Mysterio and Santos Escobar beat Rey Mysterio and Dragon Lee to make it a perfect weekend for The Judgment Day.

Jones: Rhea Ripley leaves as a babyface but still the Women’s World Champion, setting up a heel turn for Becky Lynch. (Along with her husband Seth Rollins?) Ripley’s star is so bright that I don’t think anyone wants to boo her (unless Dominik Mysterio is with her, but those boos are strictly for him). Also, Damian Priest cashes in his briefcase on night two. Against whom, I have no idea, but I think Priest leaves with a singles title.

(Photo of Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson: Louis Grasse / PXimages / Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)

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