WrestleMania Breakdown: Did Cody Rhodes Just Become My Favorite Wrestler?
The AEW founder's jump to WWE is looking like pure genius.
A story of WrestleMania this year was the event outperforming generally lukewarm expectations — while I saw a lot of negativity about the build-up, the event (especially night one) seemed very well-received. Part of this is that a couple stories WWE told felt like they didn’t snap into place until the show, at which point all of their seemingly odd decisions made sense to me. That’s the case with Cody Rhodes’ debut, which most people saw coming but few saw going this well.
The circuitous route to get here was Seth Rollins desperately trying to find an opponent for the show, and Vince McMahon eventually accommodating Seth with a mystery opponent whose identity would be revealed at WrestleMania. As arguably illogical and silly as this story was, it succeeded in its goal of creating a lot of intrigue over who this mystery opponent would be, and even people generally clued into the Cody rumors could let their minds wander that maybe it’d be The Undertaker, Shane McMahon, or any other random guys. Before Cody even debuted, it felt like this was a big deal because WWE successfully played into the rampant speculation, especially among the more hardcore fans who are aware of Cody’s time in AEW.
I’ll get a little tribalistic here, because this debut showed a massive gulf between WWE and AEW, and that has to be part of this discussion. When AEW gets a wrestler who was just in WWE — which happens about twice a week — they debut them randomly on their show with little fanfare, put them in a dull 10-15 minute match against someone they’ll obviously beat, and then they meander around the card for the next few months until everyone forgets they exist and they’re replaced by the next new toy. The first night always gets that big pop from the WWE-hating fans (who sure seem to love WWE’s wrestlers), then over time they realize why Vince McMahon let the person go (the only ex-WWE guys who are any good in AEW were guys Vince wanted to keep). Here, WWE finally got a defector from AEW and the difference was astronomical. Cody Rhodes debuted on the biggest stage in wrestling, with tons of intrigue built up around his possible appearance, he got an entrance that made him look like a mega-star, and then he got to have one of the best matches of the weekend against one of the best in-ring guys in the world in Rollins. Meanwhile, Jeff Hardy is probably going to kill himself flying through tables against mediocre indie wrestlers no one has ever heard of.
I don’t think WWE really cares about AEW, except in the way someone cares about an annoying gnat buzzing around their head, and I imagine this presentation of Cody Rhodes was more about maximizing their own investment. But it nonetheless sent a pretty clear message: Cody Rhodes is in the major leagues now, and if you really want to be a star who people will remember, WWE is the place to be. Simply put, Cody got to have a major performance on a platform that AEW will never be able to equal, and that’s just a fact.
Cody comes out of this looking like an absolute genius. In AEW, he wanted to be the pure John Cena babyface, but due to some miscalculations on his own part, the fans rejected him and were booing him out of the building. Instead of turning heel and potentially damaging his vision for his character and “brand,” he jumped over and now looks like the top babyface in WWE. AEW just lets their wrestlers go out and do whatever they feel like, which is part of its appeal, but Cody looks like someone who will benefit from WWE editing his worst instincts and keeping him on a solid booking path. Not only that, Cody now gets to perform in front of crowds with normal people and kids instead of trying to please the AEW fans who are 95% jaded white dudes who subscribe to the Wrestling Observer Newsletter. I suspect his babyface schtick will be much more effective in this context.
On Monday’s episode of RAW following WrestleMania, Cody cut a promo that was probably familiar to AEW fans, but felt refreshing in the context of WWE. He talked about how his father, Dusty Rhodes, never won the WWE title, and how Cody will win it for his dad and the fans. It had the usual melodrama and emotion from him, and it remains to be seen if this gets old for people, but WWE has been lacking a male babyface like this for a few years so it felt nice to hear such a straight-forward, sincere promo that had a clear mission behind it. I find myself getting swept up in this, and I didn’t have high expectations for Cody Rhodes in WWE except for the novelty factor. I thought he’d make an impact the first night then fade back into a middle of the card guy.
Instead, it feels like Rhodes is on a long-term collision course with Roman Reigns, and is almost certainly going to do his father proud and win the WWE championship. It basically took two weeks of WWE wizardry for me to go from “Cody Rhodes is ok I guess” to “Cody Rhodes is the greatest man who ever lived and he must become champion.” He’s been the most cheered person on each episode of WWE TV so far and I think WWE will keep the momentum going by giving him wins and making sure he doesn’t start coming to the ring with his entourage of 25 people like he did in AEW. When Cody left AEW, many fans wondered what he was thinking — now it is quite clear.