By Colin McGuire, ProWrestling.net Staffer (@McGMondays)
The curious case of Cody Rhodes. If he didn’t help change everything, he helped change a lot. After falling into the bottom level of the mid tier of the WWE oeuvre years ago, he looked around, said, “Nah, this ain’t for me,” set out on a journey that can only really be described as betting on himself and did the unthinkable: He won the bet. The guy went to Japan, popped up on indies, was part of the team that founded WWE’s only true competitor in years and then used that clout to walk right back into WWE’s doors as a new man.
There’s magnetism to him. I don’t think anyone can deny that. Color me guilty for not always understanding it, but ignoring the fact that it’s there wouldn’t be fair. The masses like him, root for him and even cry with him. A master of dramatic flair and The Man Who Taught Bryan Danielson How To Lie, Cody will stand in a ring with a microphone anywhere from five to 25 minutes, yelling, weeping, dropping to his knees – doing anything to incite emotion until he gets it back from the crowd (which, to be fair, doesn’t always necessarily happen).
His return to WWE was designed to harmonize the weapon of nostalgia with a contemporary feel-good story. The story is simple, effective and undefeated: Reach for the one prize the rest of your family – a family with rich industry lineage and an iconic imprint on the evolution of the very business you’ve given your life to – never obtained and obtain it. It’s an underdog’s tale backed by a privilege no one recognizes in the name of good storytelling. Work your way back. Achieve the goal. Celebrate accordingly as your name is etched in history.
Even with the cloud of predictability, the tale works for anyone who’s ever persevered through failure in order to get to where they want to be. It’s empathetic and inspiring, a hero’s ending of which dreams are made. In Cody’s case, from the day he stepped foot back into the WWE airspace at last year’s WrestleMania, the story felt like it was already written the only way it should be told. Within a short 12 months, he’d be back on that stage, reveling in a storybook ending that he orchestrated in an unconventional, masterful fashion.
But then he got hurt.
Only a handful of months after his return to WWE, he tore a pectoral muscle and missed the better part of his comeback year, a year that by all accounts was most likely once designed to tell the full story of a man cementing his family’s legacy. And if you aren’t around to tell a story, how can the story be told? Sure, listeners can fill in the most important blanks in their own minds, but what about the details? What about the ups, the downs, the anecdotes within the anecdotes and the unexpected twists and turns that make a narrative engaging enough to emotionally invest in? If you ignore those, you ignore the soul of the story. Its very fabric is lost.
Enter the Bloodline. 2022 saw the emergence of an unexpectedly beloved tale featuring a longtime revered wrestler – one, who himself wasn’t touching the top end of the top tier of WWE cards – falling in with the biggest star the company has created in years, among the most intriguing characters the company has developed in quite some time. Sami Zayn’s goofiness turned from “nice when it happens” to “need it now” on a weekly basis. And it wasn’t just how he worked his charm into the fiction that WWE was selling; it was the genuine connection he appeared to have with his fellow co-stars.
Before, he didn’t fit in with the In Crowd, but much like the simplicity of Cody’s journey, Sami’s has been one of relatability and sympathy. Who hasn’t been rejected by the cool kids at least once in this life? The answer is nobody, and Sami played the part to perfection, happily taking demands from the Head of the Table, all but begging for acceptance on a weekly basis and then finally feeling welcomed into the group as an honorary member. It was good for laughs, but it also struck a deeper, invisible chord with anyone watching. It wasn’t entirely dissimilar to what was supposed to be happening with Cody – a tale of perseverance in its own way.
The difference? Sami, along with the rest of the Bloodline, was around to tell it. The arch was so organic that the legend can’t be told without it often being reiterated that Sami’s story wasn’t supposed to last this long and go this far. But it did. And in the process of doing so, it captivated an audience and became the most must-see thing in nationally televised pro wrestling today. For proof, think back to last Monday’s Raw. Reporting on why the women’s cage match was cut from the show centered around the fact that the opening Bloodline segment went too long. Yet when it was time to distribute blame for the last-minute change, questions about WWE’s commitment to women’s wrestling bubbled to the top. Nobody blamed the Bloodline. How could they? At this point, WWE could devote the entire three hours of Raw to the story, complete with a pre-show, and we’d all order a pizza, take a seat on the couch and wonder why USA wouldn’t give the company a fourth hour, if only for a week.
Such is why, to me, the answer to the burning question coming out of Saturday’s Royal Rumble is as clear as a glistening neck tattoo on the Fourth of July: Sami Zayn has to be the person to dethrone Roman Reigns and end his historic run as WWE Universal Champion at WrestleMania.
I say this because the general consensus has come down to two options (yes, I understand Jey Uso is a plausible third, but let’s not muddy the waters too much … this week). The first option is that Cody works the WrestleMania main event and beats Roman Reigns to win the titles, completing his life’s journey and immortalizing the Rhodes name in the WWE cannon. Or there’s the second option, where Sami works the WrestleMania main event and properly puts a proper bow on one of the most captivating things WWE has done in years by earning his keep, taking the abuse and still finding a way to transcend the exclusivity of acceptance by earning his day under the sun.
The reasons for the conclusion range from practical to emotional, but at the end of the day, it comes down to two idioms – a story of legacy vs. a story of now. Cody’s story isn’t going away, no matter if he first wins that title tonight on Raw or at WrestleMania 50. And with the unexpected speed bump of having to sit out the majority of 2022, how are we supposed to believe he could heat up a program with Reigns to the extent Sami has over more than half a year in only two months? Why rush it? Why not go an entire extra year spotlighting the fact that Cody was primed for big-time gold, but luck wasn’t in his favor when he thought it would be?
Meanwhile, why should we believe Sami Zayn will ever be in a position like this again? And that’s not even a knock on Zayn – why should we believe ANYONE will ever be in a position like this again? Much to the consternation of some wrestling fans, this isn’t a Bryan Danielson situation. In Danielson’s case, crowds wouldn’t allow for anything other than what they wanted. It was peak hijack season whenever he came to the ring. The groundswell behind him was fueled by spite and stubbornness; Sami’s has been founded on investment and relatability. When fans saw themselves in Danielson, they did so while stomping their feet and mean-mugging The Man; when they saw themselves in Sami, they wondered how much things might be different if only they received those two or three breaks they once saw slip away.
Plus, you can’t forget the optics. For months, we’ve seen Zayn interact with the Bloodline each week on television. WWE even printed a few shirts for him. Having the story culminate with Zayn being the one to take down the one Big Boss that nobody else has been able to take down for the better part of three years after ingratiating himself within the texture of the Big Boss’s group makes a lot more sense then Brock Lesnar showing up before a few premium-live-events here and there, F-5’ing some people and wandering his way into another title match.
Take that further and you’ll also see that it makes more sense than trying to figure out what type of personal issue lies between Cody Rhodes and Roman Reigns right now. Yes, we know Cody’s mission and that was stated from the night he came back to WWE. But as I said earlier, that mission doesn’t need a timestamp and that mission is not specific to Roman Reigns. Cody could benefit from the rub that being the guy to beat Reigns would grant, but so would any other wrestler on the roster. If Cody is the star he and his fans and WWE believes he is, it doesn’t matter how he gets that title; it just matters that he gets it at all, because once he does, being the star he is, he’ll be able to adequately carry the torch in a meaningful way. Besides: With his inevitable title run being all but … well … inevitable, wouldn’t waiting another WrestleMania only add to the lore of his obstacle-filled journey anyway?
As for Sami … well, as for Sami …
“When you get this close and you’re in the periphery of the WWE title, it makes you think, ‘Well, I’m already here. Maybe winning it’s not totally unrealistic,” he told The Detroit News a couple weeks ago. “That would for sure be like a cherry on top of everything else. If it happens, awesome. If it doesn’t happen, it still would have all been awesome.”
And you know what? I believe him when he says that. “Whatever happens is whatever happens, but it’s fine because this has been a blast,” is precisely what makes Sami Zayn the leader in this conversation. Pro wrestling is at its best when it is entirely organic. It’s not being a great liar; it’s finding a way to guide people into the soul of an honest story. It’s not that I don’t believe Cody’s mission of solidifying the Rhodes name in pro wrestling history; it’s just that Sami’s represents how difficult finding authenticity between storyteller and story-consumer can be. Connective tissue isn’t a birthright; it’s accepted or rejected based on purity. Sami Zayn’s story with the Bloodline has cultivated that for as long as it’s been in motion.
Funny how a cherry on top for one man can feel more affecting than a generation’s worth of a family fighting to get to the top of an industry. But that’s pro wrestling in a nutshell. Plans change, stories evolve and investment, above all, is fleeting. And these days, in a world like this, when you have that much of it, it’s irresponsible not to pay those dividends out in perpetuity.
Sorry, it should absolutely be Cody.
Sami is without a doubt a very over baby face right now. But he got over as a loveable character. They did little to establish him as an in ring threat. Sure, he helped the bloodline at SS War games, but he is the guy to take the pin in the Owens/Cena tag.
Do you really think he has the in ring credibility to end the historic Roman rein (no pun intended)? A year ago, he was a comedy jobber who was seen as a comedy challenger for the top title (recall his being destroyed by Lesnar and Reigns).
Cody is the one. He is fresh and hasn’t been ruined by bad WWE booking over the last five years. He has the perfect story to tell that can easily continue despite the injury. Go with the proven commodity. Sami can still be involved with the EE and eventually cost Reigns the title against Rhodes. Sami will be a big part of the top storylines
Cody … and the accent to the prize his family never had. A great story to tell. Sadly this company will rush through it in 2 months for a ‘wrestlemania moment’ . The guy has been injured and since he got injured everyone said no30 win rumble. And in all that time … they couldn’t come up with anything else. Zayn has been fantastic … he’s earned his day in the sun. Its the natural conclusion to the story … built and culminating at mania for a real ‘wrestlemania moment’ and not a forced one. No wonder that company can’t make any stars.
Here in lies the problem with the WWE right now, there is no doubt in anyone’s mind that Reigns will still be the champion at WrestleMania, which means no one he defends the title against between now and then will be taken seriously or given the slightest chance of winning.
You seem to be neglecting option 3, which is Reigns dropping one belt to Cody and one to Zayn. Roman’s rage would be a fantastic story to watch coming out of Wrestlemania.
They need to be very careful with Cody. If the last 10-15 years have taught us anything, is that fans will turn on ‘superman’ booking very quickly, no matter who the wrestler is. We have already seen Cody beat one of the best wrestlers of the decade with one arm.