By Colin McGuire, ProWrestling.net Staffer (@McGMondays)
But something occurred to me when I saw Mr. Rhodes walk down the gigantic WrestleMania ramp to re-debut with WWE. It was something I was hoping I’d have answered once I saw him appear on WWE programming. It was something so obvious, it felt like it couldn’t be real. That something?
A DIFFERENT NIGHTMARE
Cody was right.
He was right to leave AEW. He was right to go to WWE. He was right to do everything he’s done over the last handful of months.
I instantly thought that when I saw his demeanor. He didn’t look scared, but he didn’t look like he was at ease, either. There was an odd lack of comfort to his entrance and opening minutes of his match with Seth Rollins. He signaled to the crowd, trying to pump them up, multiple times, as he did so often in AEW. He yells. He raises his arms. His face looks like a thousand veins are going to pop out of it.
The thing was, the crowd ate it up. They were fully behind him — so much so that I’m not entirely sure I remember an AEW crowd, at any point in his run in that company, being as into Cody as that WrestleMania crowd was into Cody on Saturday night. If wrestling is in the business of reaction, Dusty’s son did a pretty great night of business.
And for a guy who kept his theme song, ring gear, and suspect neck tattoo, he looked different. There was an air of arrogance in so much of what he did in AEW. Saturday night? Not so much. It was as though he felt like the leader of the pack, the biggest draw, the most important wrestler when he was in the company he helped find. In WWE, though, he seemed grounded, more focused. This wasn’t a guy flanked by Arn Anderson and a thousand other guys in tracksuits.
On Saturday, it was just Cody. That’s it. Cody. And only Cody.
Which leads me to this …
“I’m the best wrestler in the world. And to go further with it, I actually don’t think there’s a close second.”
That was part of a story written about Cody that was published over the weekend. While it initially took me aback, I got to thinking about it and came away with something: Maybe this is why Cody Rhodes wanted to go to the WWE in the first place. Everybody and their mother is going to say that the best wrestling in the world is currently in AEW, and that’s probably not wrong. But AEW could never provide the superstar platform that WWE can, and perhaps that’s what Cody is chasing.
It’s the whole big fish in a small pond thing. That’s not to say AEW is a small pond (and to be fair, that’s not even to say Cody was the biggest fish in that pond to begin with), but it is to say that WWE is the only wrestling company in America that transcends what it does into the pop culture lexicon. Cody tried with his reality series and the “Go Big Show”, but those things also didn’t necessarily endear himself to the AEW fans.
Such is to say, to be viewed by a mainstream audience as the best wrestler in the world, he has to go to the most mainstream company out there. Keep in mind, that equation has as much to do with popularity as it does with actual wrestling. Cody’s match with Seth Rollins was very good, but I’d be hard pressed to say Cody was even the best pure wrestler in that match, let alone the world.
But then again, maybe that’s not the point, and instead, the point is being the biggest name on the biggest stage. If that’s what he wants to do, he’s in the right place to do it. In fact, maybe that’s why Brandi Rhodes isn’t with him. Maybe that’s why he isn’t aligned with anybody. Maybe that’s why there’s no manager. Maybe he’s just a guy who wants to go out there and stand out on his own as, in his words, the best performer in the world.
I admire that. I even kind of admire the quote. If you’re going to be on an island, go be on an island. Cody leaving AEW to go to the WWE certainly puts him out there. It would be reductive to flirt with anything else suggesting you want to come play with the rest of the kids at this point. He’s clearly carving his own path in his own way. It’s hard not to respect that.
It’s also hard not to respect …
TIME TO GO
… his self-awareness.
At some point, for some reason, the AEW thing turned around on him. If that company is the cool kids table of pro wrestling, that cool kids table also splits itself into its own factions and, bless him, but Cody did not have a seat at the cool kids table, even if the entire lunchroom was filled with cool kids. He never had the credibility that Kenny Omega had. He didn’t have the edge that Jon Moxley had. He could never compete with Chris Jericho’s star power.
Still, that didn’t stop him from trying. Look at all the blood he shed in AEW. Look at the moonsault from the top of the cage. Look at him falling onto a burning table. Look at all those Very Serious, Very Long promos he cut. He searched for acceptance from a crowd that isn’t kind to those it doesn’t like or respect, and he never quite got it.
Yeah, they chanted his name, and sure, the first 80 percent of his run, he was treated kindly enough by the fanbase. But they liked him until they didn’t. And once they didn’t, there was no turning back. You can point to any number of those teary promos or even the dramatics of almost taking off his boots to retire after realizing he was never going to beat Malakai Black. Perhaps it was a combination of many things, but once the first few boo birds began to fly, it was inevitable that the wheels were going to fall off.
And they did. And instead of turning heel, Cody was persistent in his commitment to being a babyface. Or, at least that’s what we’re told. Who knows what the truth is. All I know is it wouldn’t surprise me if Cody was smart enough to know that even if he turned heel, it wouldn’t solve the problem. The AEW fans, by and large, were over him. Wrestling requires you to be loved or hated. A heel turn from Cody would have just been another stop on the road to apathy, which is the path toward the end of a career.
So, he had to go. And he knew it. He didn’t want to veer into Ronda Rousey Land and become indignant toward fans — especially with his commitment to the AEW community team, a venture that he seemed genuinely excited to participate in. Sticking around in AEW would have ultimately ruined his career in the long-term, and if his goal was to be the best, most popular, highly regarded wrestler in the world, that goal would have never been met.
Speaking of goals …
REWRITING A LEGACY
… Maybe Cody had some demons he needed to exorcise if he was to ever feel his work was complete in pro wrestling.
Don’t forget: His story is not the same story that Nick Jackson or Matt Jackson or Kenny Omega shared. Cody’s story involves an initial run in WWE that he walked out on because he didn’t feel he was being used properly. While he showed a bunch of promise during that time, he ultimately ended up with a painted face that was sometimes used for comedy. A mid-carder to the core. He felt he was worth more.
So, he went and got it. He rebuilt himself on the indies and in Japan, helped start a company and completely changed his narrative (take that, EC3). Maybe part of that narrative was always the ability to go back to the WWE to do right by his time there and not forever go down as just some guy. Perhaps he felt like he needed to take this version of Cody Rhodes — the grown-up one, the popular one, the leading one — to the WWE to see if this one could gain some traction on the big stage.
And let’s not get upset about things he might have said four years ago, either. Not for a second do I hold against him the talk about the revolution or the fact that he, the Bucks, Omega and Page would never split up. You need someone saying those things to get the operation off the ground at first; 10 out of 10 times, I would stand up for all those rah-rah comments he made when AEW and All In first took shape. Saying those kinds of things created the bond and camaraderie that put the company over the top in the beginning, taking an idea and turning it into a wildly successful business venture.
So, I don’t care about anything he might have said years ago. If he always knew he’d go back to WWE if the timing was right, the money was there and things went sideways with AEW, that’s just called being smart and preserving one’s self. Nobody should be mad at that. If there’s one form of entertainment in this world where the phrase “never say never” takes on a fully realized life, it’s pro wrestling, so we should all know that no matter what people say today about their future in the wrestling business, those words could be rendered meaningless by tomorrow.
Actually, with tomorrow in mind …
… What happens now?
This is where the fascinating stuff begins. There’s no way you put Cody Rhodes out there, debuting at WrestleMania, and have him lose. So while it was no surprise that he beat Seth Rollins on Saturday, where we go from here is anybody’s guess. He’s supposed to speak tonight on the Raw after WrestleMania, and though it’s hard to imagine fans booing him this close to his debut, I am curious to see if the reaction he’ll receive Monday will be on the same level as the reaction he received Saturday.
On top of that, what’s going on with his creative? Will he be strapped to television writers for his promos or will he have free rein to do what he wants? There’s only one Big Deal Title in the company now; does Cody set his sights on that? I’d proceed with caution if I were WWE because if you aren’t going to beat Roman Reigns, and that’s going to mean Cody Rhodes will take a loss this early into this run in WWE … well, that’s not ideal.
Either way, the answers to these questions aren’t as important as the answers to other questions we can only ask down the road. The most discussed one? Will he consistently be a top guy? Don’t forget that we’re coming off a WrestleMania without a U.S. or Intercontinental Champion defending their titles. And those guys, Finn Balor and Ricochet, were can’t-miss signings beloved by fans far and wide for the longest time. We all know that once Vince McMahon gets bored with you, that’s the end of that. So what’s going to happen when we first get that Stardust appearance that’s supposed to be ironic at first and then becomes the full-time gimmick?
All these things, we have to wait and see. For now, though, Cody Rhodes is reborn. Yes, he brought the music, and yes, he still comes up from underground and yes, he looks the same in a WWE ring as he did in an AEW ring. But this is new. This is one of the biggest “betting on yourself” moves wrestling has seen in quite some time (or, well, since AEW was founded, really). Cody should be commended for that, even if it means the road won’t be easy.
Will he ever go back to AEW? I think so. If he does, will that be viewed as a failure? I don’t think it should be. But that’s another conversation for another time. On this, the Monday after WrestleMania, it’s all about the here and now. And the here and now is Cody Rhodes wrestling in WWE.
Not only with his colleagues, but perhaps, as he rebuilds his story in that company, with himself.