From undesirable to undeniable! The prodigal son has returned!”
This was the call made by Raw commentator Corey Graves on night one of WrestleMania 38 as Cody Rhodes made his not so surprising return to WWE. Rhodes left the company six years ago due to creative conflicts with the intensions of proving he was more than just the son of his late father and wrestling icon, “The American Dream” Dusty Rhodes.
During his self-imposed exile, Rhodes experienced a career renaissance. Before his departure he portrayed the eccentric cosmic jester known as Stardust. But once he left, Cody proved he was confident, charismatic and meant to be taken seriously.
In the beginning of his post WWE run, Cody was celebrated for betting on himself and asking for his release. He was commended for being a star that was created within the WWE incubator that ventured out into the unknown wilderness that is the independent wrestling scene. Rhodes was not only able to adapt after saying goodbye to Titan Towers, but he also thrived.
The Rhodes Rebrand made Cody one of the most sought-after talents in professional wrestling. His newfound popularity amongst diehard fans peaked when he joined the popular New Japan Pro Wrestling based faction, Bullet Club. Now dubbed as “The American Nightmare”, Cody alongside The Young Bucks and Kenny Omega were now the new disruptors of the pro wrestling ecosystem known as The Elite.
Cody showcased his abilities as an all-around performer. He demonstrated an intellect for the behind-the-scenes aspects of the business that mirrored his late father’s genius. He took jabs at the likes of WWE legend and Executive Vice President Triple H by smashing his throne literally and figuratively and was brazen about the new frontier of pro wrestling he, The Young Bucks, and Omega were bringing to the masses. Fans embraced him for his assumed hatred for the company that kept him down and ignored their cries for authentic pro wrestling instead of overly produced and manufactured “sports entertainment”.
The Elite poked fun at WWE (and themselves) while selling tons of merchandise and delivering exciting matches and moments that were the talk of the internet wrestling community. They prided themselves on being the alternative to Vince McMahon’s vision of the artform. But the announcement of their own professional wrestling company in 2019 would be their biggest achievement.
The birth of All Elite Wrestling was the first time in almost two decades that a wrestling company had the popularity and financial backing to become WWE’s direct competition. With billionaire wrestling fanatic Tony Khan funding their rebellion, Cody and company became even bigger deities in the eyes of hardcore anti-WWE fans as the Executive Vice Presidents of AEW. But as Kenny and The Bucks were being praised as wrestling gods, Cody suddenly became Lucifer in the eyes of many.
Cody was front and center when AEW started to become an overnight sensation. He was in most of the high profiled matches and storylines and the most visible of the executive vice presidents when representing the company in public. In the ring he risked life and limb to show his commitment to giving AEW fans an incredible performance. He did moonsaults off the top of 20-foot cages, put himself through a flaming table, and even wrestled NBA legend Shaquille O’Neal. But while some saw Cody’s death-defying, attention-grabbing moments as entertaining, many started to feel he was trying too hard to push himself as the company’s main attraction.
Cody’s booking started to register as someone who was buying into his own hype. The elaborate entrance with him rising from the stage instead of entering through the designated babyface and heel tunnels gave the impression that not only did he not see himself as good or evil, but above every other star in the company. His promos went from passion filled roars about AEW being a revolution to a tone-deaf rant about a post racial America during his feud with Anthony Ogogo.
Fans and critics started to turn on Cody. Especially when more high profiled names like CM Punk and Bryan Danielson joined AEW. They started to grow weary of him and his wife Brandi’s forced attempts at connecting with the audience. This led to Cody being seen in the same light as WWE superstars like John Cena and Roman Reigns. Despite being a character of virtue and conviction, Rhodes to the AEW faithful became an overbooked and overrated egomaniac who used his status in the company to highlight himself more than everyone else.
At first, the rumors of Cody’s contract expiration in December 2021 didn’t raise many eyebrows. It was a forgone conclusion that he would re-sign and remain an influential figure on and off screen in AEW. But when news broke in February 2022 that he was leaving to possibly rejoin WWE, the pro wrestling world was turned upside down.
Cody’s shocking exit from AEW prompted a million questions. How could he leave the company that he started? What happened between him and the other EVPs? What had come of his relationship with Tony Khan? But the most important question was how could he go back to “the enemy?”
AEW had become a haven for former WWE stars who fell short in grabbing the proverbial brass ring to experience the same career rejuvenation that Rhodes did. Cody was the embodiment of what the possibilities could be if someone left Vince McMahon’s empire. He started his own “Kingdom”. But with his loyal subjects wanting him to relinquish his crown, it was now time for him to return home to his rightful place as the heir apparent to the WWE main event scene.
Everything would finally come to a head on night one of WrestleMania 38. While some fans were still wondering if Cody would show up as Seth Rollins’ mystery opponent, others were more curious as to which version of Cody would appear. Would it be the Stardust character that he detested that made him walk away? the “Dashing” narcissist? or a new version of Rhodes to separate himself from his AEW affiliation?
Rhodes would emerge from beneath the WrestleMania stage on his patented “Codyvator” with his theme by Downstait blaring in the background as the words “American Nightmare” appeared on the Titantron. Cody was the same as he had been seen Wednesdays on TNT for the better part of two and a half years. The anticipation of the response Rhodes received would be the true test of how the WWE Universe would welcome back the person who was just at war against them. The 77,000 plus in attendance at AT&T Stadium welcomed Cody back with open arms as he scored a huge win over Seth Rollins.
Fast Forward to Monday Night Raw. Cody opened the show with a heartfelt monologue about his father Dusty Rhodes and how him not winning the richest price in professional wrestling, the then WWF title, was the driving force that led him to becoming a professional wrestler. He declared he would win the WWE Championship to honor his father’s legacy and his family name. The earnest promo went over well with the often-disillusioned WWE crowd. However, as real and genuine Cody’s speech appeared to be, it was a precursor to what may render his WWE return a failure.
Although Cody’s grandiose packaging is better suited for WWE’s high production level, the actual man behind the character is someone who had the creative freedom to speak from his heart instead of having writers handing him material to recite verbatim. Though Cody claims he had free range on Monday to address the crowd, it’s a question of how long he will be granted this freedom until Vince McMahon decides to craft the American Nightmare in his image.
WWE fans also tend to be very fickle. The excitement for Cody’s return is still at an all-time high. His connection with the crowd may be strong now, but a combination of strong booking and the overly poignant promos will instantly make the fans turn on him like they have on many superstars in the past.
Cody is the obvious choice to end Roman Reigns’ history-making championship reign. If successful, he will have accomplished a family dream and silenced the pessimists. However, if he doesn’t become the same needle moving box-office attraction that Reigns is, then the sneers of being a mid-card talent with a Hall of Fame last name will ring true.
The option to return to AEW after his multi-year deal with WWE is a possibility, but another Rhodes defection may be akin to a LeBron James return to Cleveland. It can be seen as a triumphant come back to the house he helped built or an admission to not being able to remain at the top of the pro wrestling food chain without others propping him up. But much like LeBron, Cody isn’t moved by public perception when winning a championship is the goal.
For the foreseeable future, Cody Rhodes will be the most discussed figure in professional wrestling. But in returning to WWE, he may have isolated himself from the rest of the sport. His AEW run saw him labeled as an overindulgent overachiever trying to convince himself more than the fans that he is the best in the world. His WWE run has the potential of him becoming a parody of his AEW self. The move to go back to WWE has made Cody an outlier. He is someone who essentially made his own rules and broke them. Therefore, he can do anything and be anywhere if it suits his ambitions.
Cody Rhodes is too polished for the casual audience and is lacking a convincing amount of grit when it comes to pro wrestling snobs. His self-worth, creativity, and business acumen are far beyond your typical pro wrestler. Cody Rhodes is proving that not only is he bigger than a professional wrestling company, but he may also potentially be bigger than the industry itself.