By Colin McGuire, ProWrestling.net Staffer (@McGMondays)
On last week’s AEW Dynamite, Cody Rhodes climbed to the top rope and gave Andrade El Idolo a reverse superplex onto a flaming table. Andrade missed nearly all of the table and Cody was essentially the one to go through the flames and the wood. Then Cody covered Andrade and won the match.
This came after a lukewarm build between Cody and Andrade, who stuck his nose in Cody’s business while Cody was feuding with Malakai Black. The match on Dynamite was billed as an Atlanta Street Fight and the last time I checked, street fights were supposed to be reserved for blowing off months-long blood feuds.
Cody vs. Andrade was not that.
… It turned out to be the latest example of Cody desperately trying to stand out on a show dominated by tons of personalities that stand out. It also turned out to be the latest example of Cody trying to flip the narrative he’s been facing for quite some time now. That narrative?
The people don’t like Cody.
And it’s a curious thing. When AEW began a few years ago, Cody was poised to be the company’s breakout star. Yes, Chris Jericho was going to bring the mainstream appeal, and sure, Kenny Omega and the Young Bucks supplied the cool kids credibility, but Cody was in a class of his own, constantly seen in three- or four-piece suits, establishing an overgrown faction of his own and then even acquiring the services of one, Mr. Arn Anderson, who gives any wrestler a boost in cool points, no matter who you are.
But somewhere along the way, things got twisted. It’s one thing to make a statement by taking a sledgehammer to a throne as the company takes its first baby steps; it’s another to reach under the ring for another sledgehammer statement more than two years later. Yet that’s what he did last Wednesday, to which the only reasonable response from anyone could be … all right, so, um, when can we move on?
Still, it yet again illustrated the core of the mystery surrounding the Cody Rhodes likability saga in AEW. That mystery?
AN AEW PROBLEM
Is Cody really that tone deaf or is Cody really that desperate?
For as savvy as Cody Rhodes has been outside of the wrestling world, landing judge roles on TBS competition shows and ultimately parlaying that into a reality show of his own, it’s hard to think Cody would be so detached from the wrestling world that he’s oblivious to how the crowds react to him these days. And if he’s not, that would suggest he’s either insanely stubborn or he lacks an insane amount of self-awareness. Or both, I suppose.
Either way, it creates a conundrum not just for the fans — and not even just for Cody Rhodes — but also for AEW. I understand what the formula has been for incoming talent whose previous stop was WWE. The list includes, but is not limited to Brodie Lee, Malakhai Black, Andrade El Idolo, Shawn Spears, and even Chris Jericho (if you want to take it that far). Put them in the ring with Cody, the torch-bearer and arguably the face of the company. Give the new talent a win or two in the feud to establish them as main event players in AEW. Move on to the next one.
The problem? That’s not really working anymore. With Cody’s popularity waning, the task of getting people like Black or Andrade into the upper-echelon of the card has become more tricky. Case in point: Would Black feel like a bigger deal spitting mist into Pac’s eyes if he would have entered into AEW to work with … Darby Allin? Hangman Page? Even Orange Cassidy?
Maybe. But it doesn’t matter now because instead, it feels like Black is stuck spinning wheels as the character can’t seem to work its way out of second gear. Andrade feels like he’s suffering the same fate, which, to be fair, isn’t unlike how things felt when Miro debuted and people questioned if he’d be able to break out into something more attractive, something more interesting. Miro did, but will those two follow suit?
Only time can answer that question. But speaking of questions …
DUE FOR A TURN?
Perhaps the most common question surrounding the Cody Conundrum right now is the one that asks if he should dive into a heel turn. Cody insisting that he won’t do it has to be a conscious effort from everyone involved to draw the parallels to John Cena, which, if you’re Cody, isn’t the worst thing in the world. That, of course, goes two ways — one, the John Cena way, which is fine if you’re willing to suffer through the years of hate to get to the other side, and two, the Roman Reigns way, which certainly justifies pulling the trigger on a heel turn for a massive babyface because that has brought nothing but success to Reigns over the last year or so.
Me? I don’t think this is a John Cena situation. For that matter, I don’t think it’s a Roman Reigns situation, either. Instead, I think this is, above everything, a Cody Rhodes situation. Turning Cody heel won’t make the masses fall in love with him overnight. The guy has worked a heel style in more than a few of his AEW matches, if you go back and look at the tape. He may try to trick everyone into thinking he’s a white-meat babyface, but the truth is, he’s shown a lot of edge and at times, he’s even acted as a sort of tweener during certain programs (examine his TNT title runs for more on that).
Keeping Cody as a babyface, however, probably isn’t going to help the issue, either. The dude just fell through a flaming table in his hometown and it’s not like the roof came off the place, so unless if he’s thinking about booking some type of no-rope, barbed-wire-ring match against Johnny Gargano at AEW Revolution, there aren’t many other gimmicks left from which he can pull to gain attention.
So, how does it get better?
ABSENCE MAKES THE HEART GROW
Or, well, self-awareness and time. But we’ll get to that; for now, let’s look at the former. Ricky Morton said it in an interview last week: Take Cody off television for a few months and see what happens when he comes back. And while I tend to agree with that — by rule, absence surely does make the heart grow a lot fonder in the wrestling world — it should also be noted that it’s not like Cody is shoved down our throats each week. Between his other commitments, Cody is by no means a regular on Dynamite and in 17 weeks, I can’t even recall him being on a Rampage (though an appearance or two could be slipping through my mind).
So, while taking him away from the spotlight for a little while could probably do him some good, it would be a tricky line to walk if anyone thought it would be the ultimate cure for his popularity (or lack thereof) within the AEW fanbase. Plus, if he took the time off to go film any of those other shows, I have a hunch that fans would use it against him as they ponder their affection (or lack thereof) for him. This isn’t John Cena leaving for six months to film movies with Tina Fey or Vin Diesel; this is a former television champion heading out to judge how smoothly some rando from New Jersey can shove a sword down his throat.
Naturally, that leads me to the second element of the equation, which is the self-awareness part. When Cody began to take off his boots a few months ago in an attempt to retire, can someone please explain to me how Cody (or anyone in AEW) could have thought that’d be a good, contemporary idea? Let me get this straight. We’re supposed to believe that you’re going to walk away from the company you helped create, 30 months into the process, after you were toiling away in WWE for all those years and worked your ass off just to get to where you are now? And on top of that, you’re going to do it out of nowhere, on television, because you can’t beat the hot incoming act after a try or two?
The melodrama simply wasn’t real. First, AEW’s fanbase is one of the smartest in all the land, and second, even if you tried to put that on WWE TV, the majority of those fans would most likely roll their eyes, too. So, what’s that tell you? Well, it tells you the melodrama simply isn’t real. Trying to manufacture it makes things look that much worse, too, because everybody knows wrestling retirements never stick anyway. It was a cheap ploy to garner some attention and everyone saw right through it.
So … hell, I don’t know. Maybe be a little more self-aware in these moments? Quit pretending like it’s 1988 and wrestling fans still buy into retirement angles? If you can sense fans are turning on you and you’d like to come up with a way to stay on their good side, perhaps look forward rather than backward, perhaps add a bit of a realistic, relatable twist through which viewers can’t so blatantly see. Because the more you do what you did, the more …
LISTENING TO FANS
… You’re going to get the WWE comparisons. And herein lies the final issue.
AEW has set out to be the anti-WWE. When AEW gets things right for its fanbase, it very much likes to tout that it got things right for its fanbase. The notion that AEW listens to its fans while WWE does not is a notion that drives a lot of the division between the two companies’ supporters.
And so I pose this question: If the fans clamor for a Cody Rhodes heel turn, will the AEW decision-makers give it to them? And if not, will AEW start to get the same reputation that WWE has earned through the years when it comes to being stubborn about certain wrestlers?
I ask those things because when you think about it, this really is the first time AEW has been faced with a problem like this. That company has been perceived as one big happy family where everyone knows their parts, plays their roles and the fans love and respect them for it. This time around, though, the fans are clearly turning on one of the members of that family, and you have to wonder about not only how the family itself will react, but also how that family member himself might respond.
The inherent fear here, if you’re AEW, is that the fans don’t and won’t care which decision you make and instead, they’d rather just see the wrestler in question go away. In that case, Cody Rhodes and AEW find themselves in an impossible situation — AEW loses credibility with its credibility-obsessed fan base if Cody sticks around, or AEW throws Cody out (which, of course, is outrageously unlikely and absurd to even type), you send a message that the fans have more power than they’ve ever had before, and in that case the slope becomes beyond slippery.
It’s not a fun situation to be in, and while people like John Cena and Roman Reigns were protected from this sort of pickle for years, something tells me it’ll be harder to shield a wrestler from something like this in AEW. Those fans are rabid and that brand has an image that everyone has done a good job protecting over the last few years. How they handle this will be an interesting window into how the company has evolved since its inception, as well as how it plans to evolve moving forward. The stakes aren’t wildly high, but they’re new to this organization. And sometimes a new road can be a lot more difficult to navigate than one you’ve already traveled — even if it’s paved with good intentions.
An American Nightmare, indeed.