The Reaction to the AEW Defection of Cody Rhodes

(Editor’s note – this is a big long post about wrestling. It’s a self-indulgence that has been mentally blocking my writing about other topics, so I decided to get all the thoughts out because I think it is an interesting topic.)

This last weekend was WWE Wrestlemania 38. It was an amusing enough show, and despite having sworn off of it, I did watch the first night for a central reason – the rumored return of Cody Rhodes to WWE after helping found their chief competitor, AEW. This is a significant topic that has generated a lot of buzz and interest, such that WWE’s social media platforms have been inundated with Cody Rhodes content from the moment his personally-commissioned theme music hit on Saturday night and fans have had a wide array of opinions, from disappointment to betrayal to intrigue.

To discuss this topic and make it accessible, first we must understand the answer to a key question – who is Cody Rhodes, exactly, and why is he such a polarizing figure in the first place?

Written in the Star(dust)

Cody Rhodes is the son of American pro wrestling legend Dusty Rhodes and brother of iconic pro wrestler Dustin Rhodes, who you may know better as Goldust. Cody got his start in pro wrestling in the mid-2000s, coming up through WWE development before appearing on TV. His time in WWE was a mix, but he was generally not regarded as a big deal, spending most of his time in midcard feuds and generally capped out at the Intercontinental Championship level, a title that has been devalued by the lack of creative focus WWE gives midcard titles. In 2014, aligned with his brother, Cody became the character Stardust, dressing in a full-body suit like his brother and with facepaint in the shape of a star. While Goldust was a cerebral Hollywood sendup, Stardust was…a weird alien, billed from the “Cosmic Wasteland” and hissing at fans, especially when they would chant Cody.

He stayed with this gimmick until May 2016, expressing some measure of support for it publicly before reaching a breaking point, requesting and being granted a release from his WWE contract. He had expressed some measure of unhappiness with WWE – that he was capped as a perennial midcard act, that a feud between him and his brother has been at one point planned for a Wrestlemania and then pulled forward to an insignificant PPV event, and had been dealing with the very real emotional stress of his father’s passing in 2015. In many ways, Cody’s link to the business was his father, and he often expressed a desire to live up to the legacy that Dusty had left, a legacy he could never meet under the booking he was given in WWE at that time.

Cody leaving created a huge buzz, as he started self-styling himself in a far different way. He was back to Cody, but his father was the “American Dream,” the son of a plumber who hit it big by being a charismatic, larger-than-life figure in wrestling, a career that succeeded beyond wildest dreams for his dad. He was, in some ways, the opposite – charismatic and hardworking, but nothing really stuck for him, so he became the inverse, branding himself the “American Nightmare” and putting on the affectations of a WWE top-card guy – wearing suits everywhere, big charismatic entrances and in-ring promos, and above-average matches. He made a list of indie wrestlers he wanted to face and took on nearly all of them, being signed to Impact Wrestling first before moving to Ring of Honor, a move that impacted his path forward in many, many ways. He became the ROH World Champion as a cocky heel, having a diamond ring made that he would make opponents kiss and generally turning up his character work to 11. It made him stand out in a way that he didn’t in WWE.

ROH’s biggest impact on Cody wasn’t that title reign, but rather that it put him into contact with the Bullet Club and The Elite. The Bullet Club, very shortly, is a group of wrestlers (mostly all foreigners) in New Japan Pro Wrestling, who were heels because they did American things – big taunts, crude behavior, overmatched beatdowns on opponents, and the like. The Elite was a subgroup within Bullet Club, made up of a smaller group of foreign (to Japan) wrestlers that stood apart on match quality and were often seen as the leaders and driving force of the Bullet Club. Originally, that group was brothers Nick and Matt Jackson (the Young Bucks) and Canadian wrestling savant Kenny Omega. Cody ended up joining up with Bullet Club and the Elite in short order, and began appearing on the popular YouTube series Being The Elite with them. At that time, BTE as a show was largely a travel vlog, a peek behind the curtain of what top-end indie wrestlers had to endure in travel, meet and greet sessions, and planning for the future, but with Cody on board and the addition of other talent like Hangman Adam Page and (since outed as a nonce) Marty Scurll, the show went in a more theatrical direction. The members of the Elite used the show as a launching pad and platform to tell their in-ring stories more, to build up angles that they could pay off at ROH and NJPW shows, and it became more and more of a must-see show and less of a curiosity.

During this era, one interesting Tweet exchange set this group on a vastly different path. When wrestling journalist Dave Meltzer was asked if he could see ROH selling out a 10,000 seat arena, Meltzer was skeptical and dismissive, which Cody took as a bet and accepted the challenge. In collaboration with the Young Bucks, this group put on the independent wrestling supercard All In in September 2018. The show was largely produced by Cody and the Jackson brothers, but was helped with production assistance from Ring of Honor and had talent from ROH, NJPW, and a lot of indie prospects. The show was a hit, selling out the Sears Centre arena in suburban Chicago and drawing a ton of PPV buys via online platform FITE. This show exposed the vision of the Elite to a larger audience, bringing the hijinks and fun of BTE to an actual wrestling show that was fully booked and promoted via a YouTube show, and it was a good vision! This got the attention of billionaire wrestling fan Tony Khan, the son of Shahid Khan, who owns the Jacksonville Jaguars and Fulham FC. Tony convinced his father to let him start a wrestling company, and Khan was in touch with the Elite and discussed the founding of their own promotion. The Elite would have contracts coming up in December 2018 and January 2019, with the Bucks and Cody having lapsed ROH contracts in December and Omega’s NJPW contract coming up in January.

Slowly, the news began to bubble. Khan had used his private jet to get a cameo from wrestling icon Chris Jericho at All In, flying him out to a Fozzy (Jericho’s awful band) concert from the show immediately after so he could keep the tour date and not tip fans off. Trademarks for an “All Elite Wrestling” began to surface, with a weekly show to be called “Dynamite” and the trademarks registered out of the Jacksonville Jaguars’ office in Florida. The episodes of BTE in the leadup to January 2019 focused on a sort of somber process of departure, with the Bucks and Cody fulfilling their remaining ROH dates, the group traveling to Japan for Wrestle Kingdom at the start of January, and goofing on how they all lost their matches and titles. In Japan, via a BTE skit, they announced the followup event to All In – Double or Nothing, however this would not be an indie supershow but instead the debut event for AEW – All Elite Wrestling. They were indeed involved with Khan’s efforts and would use the momentum they’d built over the last several years to launch a promotion.

AEW doesn’t start without a million little pieces falling into place – Cody leaving WWE, the Young Bucks getting immensely popular on the indies through self-promotion, the growth and scale of BTE as a YouTube show (they got a Hot Topic distribution deal for the group’s shirts and Funko Pops solely because of their popularity, which ROH and NJPW piggybacked on), Omega having banger matchups in Japan, and the increasing void of easily-accessed, solid North American wrestling. WWE was bleeding fans, as their audience cut itself in half over a 6-year period, from TV having 4 million viewers in 2014 to 2 million or less in 2020. There was an audience of wrestling fans who had self-selected out of the WWE fanbase, and I personally was one of them.

Early AEW was clearly the creative endeavor of the Elite members, who are executive vice presidents of AEW. The first 10 months or so of AEW were defined by a solid run for Cody, who put on a series of absolute classic matches (against his brother at the first Double or Nothing, with his brother against the Young Bucks at Fight for the Fallen, against Shawn Spears at All Out, leading to a title match against Chris Jericho at the first Full Gear event) and even better promos. Cody was unleashed, and with a few years of indie self-promotion under his belt, he was arguably at his apex as a performer. Early AEW was also chaotic because it lacked a single unifying creative voice, so segments were all over the place, and while most episodes of Dynamite (their weekly show) were great, some were below-average because the lack of cohesion hurt the show. A particularly bad episode in December 2019 sparked a creative change, with owner Tony Khan taking the reigns of creative from the EVPs, still welcoming their input but largely controlling the show himself.

The AEW Decline of Cody Rhodes

One person particularly impacted by this change was Cody. Cody’s earliest creative blunder in AEW was the Full Gear 2019 match against Chris Jericho, where he personally stipulated that if he lost, he would never be able to challenge for the AEW World Championship again. He lost that match, and it immediately put a ceiling on where he could go, in theory at least. At the time, with the EVPs in control, they were all booking themselves timidly – they didn’t want to be seen as being too heavy-handed with self-promotion or putting themselves over at the expense of other talent, at least it seemed. With Khan in charge, that changed pretty quickly, and within a year of the disaster episode of Dynamite, the promotion would see the Young Bucks as tag team champions and Kenny Omega as World Champion, while Cody became the signature titleholder of the new TNT Championship, having a great series of matches via an open challenge series that saw some of AEW’s current mainstay performers get their first chances with the company, like Eddie Kingston and Lance Archer.

Cody had a great feud with MJF that expanded on their early AEW storyline, culminating with a match at AEW Revolution 2020, and from there Cody kind of…lost steam. His act was hot with crowds, and the COVID-19 pandemic took that away. He had some creative pull still, booking the open challenge in collaboration with Khan, and that set him up for a great feud with the debuting Brodie Lee, which was unfortunately cut short as the lung issue that ultimately took Brodie’s life came about in the fall of 2020 and shelved him after a particularly brutal dog collar match with Cody. Rhodes was disappearing from TV more and more, as he was working on outside projects – the TBS game show Go Big Show, an additional cameo role on the TV show Arrow, and he and his wife Brandi were preparing to welcome their firstborn child into the world. As limited crowds began to return to AEW events, Cody’s loss of steam was apparent. He was presented as a face, designed to be cheered, and the fanbase of AEW that was at those pandemic-era shows in Jacksonville were not having it.

But what led to this? Ultimately, it was a mix of creative stagnation for Cody and a sort of self-absorption that could not be ignored any longer. Cody still had some measure of creative input and control, and AEW doesn’t script promos for wrestlers, so he lived or died on how well he could talk the crowd into his story. He was struggling with that, as the open challenge often made him a gatekeeper to the company for strong indie talent. He was also given to more pomp and circumstance – AEW has two entrance tunnels on the stage, for faces and heels, but Cody always came out down the middle through his own elevator entrance. AEW uses pyrotechnics sparingly, but Cody’s entrance had more pyro than anything else on the show to an obnoxious degree. Cody and his wife (also a wrestler and EVP of the company) did a gender reveal for their daughter on an episode of Dynamite, a whole segment which had no storyline purpose, build, or payoff – it was just a sort of weird moment of self-congratulation.

Cody began 2021 working towards a feud with his training partner QT Marshall and a group of his wrestling students, now called The Factory, and their star pupil, British Olympic boxer Anthony Ogogo. The feud was…bizarre, to say the least. The student overtaking the teacher is a great story, but Cody muddied the waters by making it into a WWE-style “American vs. Evil Foreigner” story, with Ogogo using a knockout gut punch to lay Cody down under a British flag. Cody then cut an awful promo about racism in America, saying that anyone can make it (while white, his wife is Black as was his opponent in Ogogo) that was so tone-deaf and, frankly, stupid, that it became derisively known as the “Cody solves racism” promo. His segments started to feel like timewasters, losing their appeal rapidly and embodying the worst instincts of Cody the person. They did a weigh-in for their first full live crowd that didn’t work, with a doctor’s scale and insistence on reading the actual shoot weights of the competitors. The scale didn’t work well and the segment bombed. The match with Ogogo was interesting, but Cody won and effectively squashed any build that could have happened from that match.

From then on, Cody was the gatekeeper for most new talent to AEW, with a swath of former WWE performers being stuck in an obligatory, go-nowhere feud with Cody. During the first of these, against Malakai Black, Cody appeared to signal his retirement by leaving a boot in the ring, and yet came back for more. Cody’s segments were so clearly his own work and were so disconnected from the rest of AEW’s storylines that it started to be derisively called the “Codyverse” by fans. The expectation was that he would turn heel – he was leaning more that way, dressing like Homelander, and Cody has always seemed self-aware to a point, at least when it serves him well. Instead, he spun his wheels aimlessly, became a 3-time TNT Champion, and then in January of 2022, word was that he was working without a contract. He lost the championship after some insane matches and crazy bumps (flaming tables, big ladder drops), and in February 2022, through public statements from AEW and Cody plus his wife, confirmed that he had left the company he was pivotal to founding.

Cody Returns to WWE, But Why?

The rumor mill went heavy on this news, because the public statements were largely friendly and reconciliatory to a point – Cody’s was professional and expressed appreciation for the time in AEW, AEW’s statement had respect and appreciation for Cody, and the silence was deafening. There had been rumors that he was not exactly friends with the other EVPs anymore, as he had disappeared from the BTE series early into AEW and within the first year was fully spun out of the storylines involving the Elite on TV without the reason being addressed. The reality show Cody starred in for TNT, Rhodes to the Top, showed the backstage moments at a few pivotal points, largely the “Cody solves racism” promo, and point to Cody having been the architect of the baffling moments of his late AEW tenure while Tony Khan looked on in disbelief and tried at least somewhat to rein him back in.

The Young Bucks book, Killing The Business, explained that Cody was the last one on the dotted line to form AEW, and that he was waffling hard between starting AEW with the rest or taking a return deal to go back to WWE at that time. The book, alongside other interviews and snippets that have popped out over the last few years, also painted Cody as the person who pushed AEW to compete, rather than being an alternative. He wanted to fight the WWE machine, and his on-screen character reflected this – at the first Double or Nothing, he broke a throne with the iconography of Triple H, WWE superstar and executive, on it, and he frequently would invoke metaphors that were unkind to WWE – that it was a prison, that AEW was freedom, that WWE had bad creative and was a stifling place to be. On the other hand, most of the EVPs wanted to remain as an alternative – no need to chase them or even mention them, but instead to just be their own thing for the fans that wanted that – an audience that was serving AEW quite well.

The rumors pushed on a few things – Cody had wanted more money, and saw himself as in a league of his own, above even the biggest AEW acquisitions like CM Punk and Bryan Danielson. Tony Khan, it would appear, did not want to offer him that level of money, especially since Cody had capped his own potential with the no-world-title stipulation very early into the company’s run. He also seemingly wanted to stay a face – to be cheered and adored by the fans, but that was self-sabotaged by his own presentation, which most reports indicate he had a fairly large amount of control over. Khan was pushing for him to turn heel, and it organically made so much sense with how he was seen by the average AEW fan. Hell, they could have had lightning in a bottle if he turned heel and went back on his word to challenge for the world championship, and a lot of fans (myself included) expected that and really wanted it. Cody, however, seemingly did not.

There’s also the very-real desire to meet and exceed his father’s large legacy in the business. Cody wanted to be the WWE Champion, a title his father never held, after he had secured the NWA World’s Championship at All In, which was the title his father most held and was identified with.

The biggest thing overall seems to be a combination of these things and other little tidbits. He wanted to be the creative force behind the company, but Khan had squashed that as the owner and was doing exceptionally well at booking the show himself while Cody’s creative started to miss the mark more and more. He wanted to be a face and to be adored by fans, but his own booking and lack of awareness at crucial moments made it impossible for fans to buy it. He was always, throughout his tenure with AEW and even the indies, a WWE superstar by training and template – in early AEW, he did it well enough that he stood apart from the rest positively, but as his own vision of his creative direction worsened, that turned into a detriment all its own. He was putting forth excellent matches with a ton of insane spots that he seemingly thought would win the fans back, but short of cheers in that moment or “holy shit” chants, he couldn’t really pull the audience back to his side. His wife’s angles on TV were often the worst part of the show, with her Nightmare Collective faction being the first storyline that AEW simply stopped doing because fans hated it, and her last promo was a bizarre interaction with Facebook boomer Dan Lambert, where he said a lot of shitty misogynistic things against Brandi and was cheered for them (wrestling has a fair number of shitty fans, who would have thought?).

So Cody couldn’t get the money he wanted, the control he wanted, and the fans were basically revolting against his desired presentation while being pretty shitty and awful to his wife (whose performance, while terrible, did not deserve the vitriol she got in any way whatsoever), while the other EVPs basically got their vision of what AEW could be – and the fans love that vision of the company. Cody himself was not as sold on AEW as it had seemed, with the Young Bucks book and other reports confirming that he was basically on the fence and had only decided to jump in late to make potential history.

And, to be clear, he is a big part of that history. Whatever fans can or will say about him, he was the MVP of that first year of AEW and the company itself doesn’t happen without him. If he doesn’t leave WWE in 2016, if he doesn’t push for All In with the Bucks, if they don’t all agree and sign on the line with Tony Khan, AEW never happens. His role in pro wrestling history is massive and will always be substantial and important to the business on a global scale regardless of what he does from here.

So then the rumors are that he is being courted by WWE, and the storylines on WWE TV show Seth Rollins not having a match at Wrestlemania, but they keep focusing in on that detail. WWE is objectively pretty bad at storytelling, but it’s clear that something is going to happen and Seth will have a match at the show. But against whom? When he is finally confirmed to have a match, the opponent is stated to be one “of Mr. McMahon’s choosing” and that solidifies much of what people thought – it has to be Cody, surely. He’s been too quiet and the rumors keep growing, not to mention the sneaky references to Cody that commentary would pop in to the moments where Seth Rollins would be frustrated with his lack of booking at the biggest show of the year.

So on April 2nd 2022, with a large crowd in attendance, Cody Rhodes returned to WWE with a match against Seth Rollins – Cody presented exactly as he was in AEW, same music (an absolute rarity only possible because Cody owned the rights to his theme), the same moniker, and the same styling, including an over-the-top amount of pyrotechnics and an entrance elevator. His team put out a release and a slew of interviews went out, where Cody was basically mum on much of AEW and put his goal simply – to hold the championship his father challenged for but couldn’t win. The word is that he has a sweetheart deal with WWE that allows him to do external projects, gives him a measure of creative control over his character and promos, makes him the executive producer of a WWE biopic in partnership with A&E for his father, and likely backs up a truck of cash to his mansion in Atlanta. Sure enough, his first promo back was exactly in the AEW style he had, a longer monologue with voice cracks and emotive appeals. Cody was back in WWE, self-improved and ready to win what his father never could.

The Complicated Legacy of Cody Rhodes (And My Personal Take)

Cody leaves behind a tangled mess, which is part of why fans have so many takes on this one change, I think. He marks the first major defection from AEW to WWE, after a long string the other way around. In many ways for WWE, handling Cody’s current run there is vital to ensuring that top talent in AEW consider the company in contract negotiations to come, as one of the big reasons many wrestlers cite for choosing AEW is the freedom of the creative process and the ability to build their brands effectively. In the 90s, this was huge for the WWE vs WCW war, as talent moving back and forth often did so not just for money but also for better creative and more opportunities. Regardless of what it actually was that held Cody back in AEW (since it seems to have been himself, largely), creating the perception of a positive outcome is key for WWE in the years to come.

For AEW, losing Cody is both a big moment (he was foundational to the company after all) and yet also has not been felt that much, as Cody was creatively spinning himself out in his own direction for well over a year at the point of his departure while AEW has had an influx of fresh talent to run with. It does have a narrative impact, as it paints the picture that perhaps all is not rosy with AEW as it seems from the outside, but at the same time, Cody’s own portrayal of the environment paints something of a clear picture of himself as the outlier.

WWE fans seem pretty happy to have him, and I think it’s good that he made the switch. His style definitely fits WWE more, and he has more fresh matchups there with talent who have come up in the 6 years he’s been gone from WWE. He gave the company a pretty big bump on his return, as his shirts quickly sold out in-person at Wrestlemania and the satellite events and the episode of Raw after the show had its biggest ratings bump since 2015 for a post-Mania show. He’s been all over WWE’s social media this week and was even hastily added to tonight’s Smackdown show to capitalize.

For AEW fans, Cody leaves behind a complicated set of feelings to process, and this is where I find myself. Cody is a good to great pro wrestler with a somewhat unique charisma and style. He was absolutely the star of AEW’s first months of operation, and his role in the foundation and establishment of the company as a force for change in wrestling cannot be overstated. He was floundering in a creative hole of his own creation for much of the last year and change, and fans were connecting the dots on an obvious creative direction for him, with a heel turn that was exciting in theory and had the potential to revitalize his character in the promotion and spark something special, and that was cut short because he seemingly didn’t want to do it for whatever reason. It’s hard to have a lot of sympathy for Cody in the situation – most fans would not put him over CM Punk or Bryan Danielson in terms of value, he capped his own earnings potential by taking main event title feuds off the table, and if what he truly wanted was creative control, his own storylines were showing why that was perhaps a bad idea.

Cody’s presence in AEW spoke to the disaffected wrestling fan and presented a narrative that was interesting and true – that WWE had left us behind and didn’t care what we thought about the quality of their show, but AEW did and they were here for us. He could not stop himself from deriding and degrading WWE every time he had a microphone in his hand on AEW TV, and to the perspective of a lot of fans, it was acceptable because it was true. It made his early face run easy to stand because even when it was corny (that thronebreaking moment), it was still something that felt authentic and spoke to fans who had grown tired of WWE. Him going back to this place he referred to as a prison, as stifling, as creatively inept and unfitting for a real professional wrestler is something that cuts against that early investment many fans, including myself, had in him as a performer.

A lot of the hyperbolic fan reaction that he “betrayed” fans or AEW is pure over-exaggeration to me. Ultimately, he made the decision that he believes will make him happiest, wealthiest, and most able to secure his legacy in the industry and the future for his family and newborn daughter, and I cannot and will not fault him for it. Having a kid changes a lot of things for people, and while I disagree vehemently with his assertion that he is the best wrestler in the world and should be paid as such, it comes from an understandable place of wanting to provide and the kind of self-confidence a world-class performer needs to have, even if the audience feels it is misguided. At the end of the day, he doesn’t owe AEW fans or the company anything more – he stayed past his contract end date to finish up storylines and get things settled, and while he’s made remarks that can be interpreted as pot shots at AEW staff in the last week (Tony Khan is the money guy, the EVPs sit around hating on me, etc), the separation of the two entities has remained largely neutral and respectful.

For me as a fan, I risk admitting to being “worked” here, but I feel like my respect for Cody is down because of everything around this move. I believed his promos against WWE and I think they were true reflections of the company’s inner machinations that a lot of fans see time and time again through hundreds of promising stars being chewed up and spit out by the WWE machine. I had a lot of respect for Cody for forging his own path and how that path became far more valuable to the industry as a whole as one of the many factors that led to AEW being started. I am a weekly watcher of wrestling again because of AEW, and so at least partially because of Cody. I feel like a rube for having invested in his modern storytelling, for believing that it was leading to a heel turn when he was fighting against that for his own reasoning and lowering his stock in the process. I wanted to see that storyline play out and not getting it feels like wasted potential. Cody has been labeled “someone who loves to lie and is very good at it” by Bryan Danielson and I can see it in his WWE press blitz – he talks about not needing money but then minutes later says he needs the money for his daughter, he spent years spitting facts about how WWE was a constrained and bad system that needed change and he went back to it, only securing the change he needed for himself, and while his early days in the company look promising, WWE tends to take the shine off quickly and it remains to be seen how well they keep his polish up as the weeks wear on.

Cody sold me a vision of wrestling in AEW that I like and believe in, and he didn’t even believe in it himself, and that kind of makes me not want to watch him, in spite of him being a great performer with some measure of control over his destiny. I did watch that first night of Wrestlemania to see if he came out, to see how he was presented, and while the wrestling was very good on both nights of the show, the presentation and format reminded me of everything I loathe about WWE.

In the end, I think Cody owes nothing to AEW or its fans that he hasn’t already given, and I am genuinely happy for him on a human level for securing the bag and building up what he feels he needs for his family and child, and I can’t fault him for that. I feel like his self-inflation and an unusual lack of self-awareness have made the last year of investment into his AEW character feel wasted and created one of wrestling’s big “what-ifs.” And while I like him and did tune in to see that re-debut in WWE, he’s not compelling enough a performer to get me to sit through weekly WWE television to see what he is up to, even if he defies all expectations.

Best of luck on your future endeavors.

One thought on “The Reaction to the AEW Defection of Cody Rhodes

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