From Hero to Hypocrisy, and back again… – An alternative take on the Cody Rhodes drama

As Cody Rhodes ventures into a new chapter in his career, Jason takes a moment to discuss the events that may have led to his shock departure from All Elite Wrestling, the fan reaction and why he believes that the rumoured WWE WrestleMania appearance is less of a shock than people think.

From Hero to Hypocrisy, and back again… – An alternative take on the Cody Rhodes drama

In February of this year, Cody Rhodes shocked the International Wrestling Community when he, and All Elite Wrestling owner Tony Khan, announced that Cody would be leaving AEW effective immediately, as he had been working the tail end of his tenure as a non-contracted free agent.

As a former EVP of the company, Cody was regarded as one of the pillars of AEW, a company founder – along with Matt and Nick Jackson and Kenny Omega – and both a staunch advocate of the ‘alternative’ and a scathing critic of the leading ‘Sports Entertainment’ juggernaut, WWE, which made his decision all the more surprising, unexpected, and for a lot of fans, disappointing.

In fact, disappointing would be too soft a word in this case. Cody’s actions have been treated by fans around the wrestling world as an unforgivable act of hypocrisy, and betrayal.

Chris Jericho maybe Judas in his mind, but it would seem that Cody has taken on the mantle of Judas in a far more literal sense.

Everyone is up in arms about how Cody has essentially kicked AEW, and their talent, to the curb and washed his hands of the company, but I think the framing for this argument is all wrong and at best, undersells the incredible work that Cody has done for the wrestling business since his departure from WWE as ‘Stardust’ and, at worst, heavily emphasises the entitlement and one-sided perspective of many wrestling fans.

Disclaimer - Please understand that this is an opinion piece, and that all these opinions are my own and are not necessarily shared or endorsed by the rest of the team here at Real Rasslin’. It's ok to disagree with these opinions, and we encourage a good discussion but please keep it respectful.

Stardust, Cody's final (?) gimmick in WWE

With that said, let’s dig in.

When Cody left the WWE what seems like a lifetime ago back in March of 2016, it was a reasonably big deal. Pushed into what many considered to be a role that was very much beneath him, Cody was entertaining the WWE masses as ‘Stardust’, the glitzy, flamboyant sibling of the equally glitzy and flamboyant ‘Goldust’, Cody’s real-life big brother, Dustin. Not exactly a failure in WWE, Cody had worked in the Legacy stable, re-debuted the Classic Intercontinental Championship design in one of his two reigns and captured the tag titles numerous times.

Nevertheless, as a direct result of mounting frustrations from the lack of input creatively and a desire to leave ‘Stardust’ in the rear view mirror, Cody requested his release, bet on himself and took his chances on an Indy market that was, in all fairness, booming.

Touring the world independently for three years between 2016 and 2019, Cody would make appearances for all the major, if smaller, promotions at the time, including (but not limited to) the National Wrestling Alliance, Impact! Wrestling, Ring of Honor (now owned by AEW owner Tony Khan in another of the year’s big stories) and Japanese giant, New Japan Pro Wrestling. During this time, Cody went on to capture World Championships for both the NWA and ROH, cementing the belief that he was capable of so much more than what WWE were offering.

It was around this time that he also built relationships with Matt and Nick Jackson, and Kenny Omega but it was a tweet from pro-wrestling dirt sheet legend (for better or worse) Dave Meltzer, that would spark the idea for All Out – the first independent wrestling event to draw in excess of 10,000 fans - and lead to the eventual founding of the current number two wrestling promotion that has taken the world by storm, All Elite Wrestling.

The history of All Elite Wrestling has been widely documented, and with the strength of the personalities involved, the name value that the Young Bucks had accrued through the years as the most successful wrestlers in the world to never join WWE, the affiliation with the spiritual NWO successor, Bullet Club, and the success of Social Media phenomenon Being the Elite, it seemed that Cody was the final piece of the puzzle; and the gang, with the help of investor, Jacksonville Jaguars owner and huge wrestling fan, Tony Khan, they were set to revolutionise the business.

And they did.

But with the news that dropped in February, and the ongoing speculation about a WrestleMania appearance, the revolution – at least for Cody Rhodes - seems to be an ongoing plan of attack.

When AEW started, it was assumed that a Cody World Championship run was an inevitability, a fixed point in time that we were just waiting to see especially based on history in other companies where workers doubled as prominent players behind the scenes. Instead, Cody, in what seems to be his modus operandi, stunned the fan-base by losing a match that ensured that he would never again get another opportunity for the coveted prize. He went on have lengthy mid-card TNT Title runs, but the big one would forever be out of reach. A huge concession, and a statement to Cody’s apparent selflessness at that point.

Following some incredible character work, and some superb matches (notably the Cody/Dustin match that, realistically, WWE ‘shoulda/woulda/coulda’ capitalised on and pushed both men above the station they stranded at) Cody found himself floundering. A failed feud with Anthony Agogo, the vitriol from fans that the TNT Title was the ‘Cody belt’ to replace the World Championship, and the (incorrect) notion that he buried talent, led to a John Cena-esque actuality where a Babyface Cody was suffering the indignity of being treated like a heel, but with real, searing aggression.

In addition to this, it was reported by the PWTorch that Cody was in fact unresponsive to others backstage and limited his engagement with, particularly, younger wrestlers. It’s worth noting that the report was shot down by QT Marshall and Fuego Del Sol, but the news was out there, which would only have added to the reaction of the fans, and the continued resentment to the former AEW hero.

This brings us to the current situation.

Cody gave up on AEW. He quit on his fans (didn’t they quit on him first?), He’s a Sellout, He’s going back (to WWE) for the money, he’s such a hypocrite, he’s quit because it’s all about Danielson and Punk and not about him. He sold people up the river with the talk of change and revolution.

These are all flippant comments, many paraphrased, that I’ve taken recently from Social Media that convey the feeling of many wrestling fans toward Cody. In fact, so vitriolic the reaction has been, that people have even taken to Tweeting Cody’s sister about his AEW betrayal.

The one that really struck a chord with me, was this – quoted in its entirety, with the exceptions of typo’s or spelling errors –

‘Your old man would be super proud that his corndog son creates a weird us vs them narrative, and then joined exactly what he spoke against! Cody always said that Dustin grew up around his Dad, not him. Makes sense’.

Firstly, people have a right to feel upset, it’s a big deal. But I’m going to try and give my reasons why this is not only less of a surprise than many think, but also why we should have seen it coming and why it’s justified.

First things first, and this is what some people seem to have trouble conceptualising - wrestling, in its purest form, is a work. It’s fictional. The vast majority of what Joe Public sees is fictional and done for entertainment purposes. The people involved in these companies are performers, who do a job. The ‘us vs them narrative’ – in this writer’s mind – is another example of subverting expectations and offering a worked product to a group of fans who believe they know better.

AEW, from the very beginning, was raised and created to be an alternative wrestling product that had homed in on the dissention and frustration among fans and had those people firmly in the crosshairs. It was a business decision to ‘rally the troops’ and to provide the narrative that they are the little underdog that has enough fight in them to take it to the big dog (not you, Roman).

Many fans are anchoring that disappointment to the fact that Cody said derogatory things about the WWE during his time with AEW and that in fact, in one, recently unearthed interview on the AEW Podcast, even went as far as to say that he would be with AEW forever. I’ll take a slightly off topic analogy and say that anyone who gets married in a church, also makes a similar statement to the person that they stand opposite. Yet divorce is a very real thing. As hard and bitter as a divorce, and those changed feelings can be, eventually, after some time, those feelings can soften and often the relationship – though platonic – can be healthier than it was.

We’re all guilty of making certain promises when we’re in our happy places, in the beginnings of new job roles, relationships etc. and as the novelty wears off, and the wonderful things revert to normal things, that we then go back on.

In an article from Fightful, they report on Cody having a chat with Justin Barrasso from Sports Illustrated. ‘I was arrogant’ Cody admitted. ‘I needed to be humbled. I hold no grudges about that situation. Two people (Vince McMahon and Triple H) didn’t see me in the main event, I can’t be angry about that’.

This doesn’t sound like a bitter ex-employee. This sounds like someone who reflected and saw reason behind decisions that were made, much in the same way that it’s easier to see the problems in a relationship after the fact.

This emphasises that the ill will that people had gleaned from the ‘Thronebreaker’ stunt, and any comments made about WWE, certainly weren’t as potentially aggressive as once thought.

The aftermath of the now infamous 'Thronebreaker' entrance, Double or Nothing, May 25, 2019.

Bringing it back to wrestling landscape, I’d compare this, in many ways, to WWE’s acquisition of ECW back in 2001 and the subsequent appearance of Paul Heyman on WWE TV, or even Bischoff and WCW.

Irrespective of the occasional working relationship that Heyman and McMahon had (ECW appeared on Raw in – coincidently enough - February of 1997, and there was the ECW title business in 2000) ECW was always positioned as the alternative to the corporations, the WWF, and Dubya See Dubya. Heyman regularly spouted rhetoric that would make the layman blush, Taz(z) would denounce the competition stating everyone was too scared to shop up in Philly – these are two examples, of which I’m sure there’s more.

It created a wonderful storyline that, in reality, was just that.

Because ultimately, no matter how enthusiastic you are for a company, for a property, to a fanbase – the reality is, that it needs to make you happy as much as the audience you’re catering for, and it needs to both pay the bills and feel worthwhile. When either of these stop being the rule, it’s time to rethink, irrespective of what rhetoric you may have spun earlier. Often what you set your mind to will grow alongside your expectation of what it should be, but equally as often, it doesn’t and you’re left with a venture that doesn’t necessarily work for you in the anticipated manner, leading to a rethink.

We also need to look at the reaction from the audiences toward Cody too. If the fans were behind him, then maybe that would have been enough to keep him fighting the good fight for AEW, but with the fans turning on him in unison, an apparent breakdown in communication with himself and the other EVPs (probably due to the change in company direction), the combined impact would have been one of frustration and disenchantment that would have led to his decision.

There are many things that can be said of Cody, and his decision to leave AEW. Some opinions, some factual. But the air of sanctimony that comes from many about Cody’s ‘hypocrisy’ is something I’ve struggled with as this decision was no-ones to make other than his. He’s hurt no-one, and yet suddenly the fans who wanted to see the back of him now have, and don’t like that either. This was clearly a Kobyashi Maru moment for Cody. It was a no win situation.

This supposed ‘hypocrisy’ is apparently illustrated through Cody’s early-days fight for the alternative, for the body of what AEW was - the anti-establishment, mainstream wrestling show for the hardcore wrestling fan -  only to turn his back on everything he was trying to achieve when the going got tough, and essentially letting down the people he was focusing on when their endeavour began.

This is wrong.

Controversial, but when Cody is on form, there's very few on his level with the mic.

With the help of all involved, Cody has changed the business. For the first time in 20 years, there is an alternative wrestling product that offers big money, and bigger opportunities to talent who may have been overlooked by the WWE. He’s built a monolithic enterprise that now has unbridled access to the biggest tape library, of some of the most iconic wrestling, since the fall of WCW and ECW, and is looking to promote shows using an renowned alternative brand, much in the same way that WWE uses the NXT brand.

AEW has been a success.

And it will continue to be, with or without him. The wheels have been set in motion, and there’s no stopping it.

What he’s leaving behind has a life of its own, as stated above. This is not the little dog in the fight anymore. With more star power than I’d wager anyone ever expected, thanks in part to the controversial, jaw dropping releases made by WWE over the ‘pandemic era’, two AEW cable shows, two separate brands including the aforementioned ROH tape library, and successful Pay Per View and merchandise revenue, they are the biggest brand in wrestling that isn’t helmed by a McMahon, and the biggest, highly regarded wrestling pop culture explosion since the Attitude Era.

A true alternative.

It’s been reported that AEW over the years has morphed away from what Cody’s original vision for the company was. And that is OK. It’s also OK to recognise it. When you’re building something, and you’re working so hard to nurture that creation, to see it develop in a way that you didn’t anticipate can have unforeseen effects.

I think this is also true for Cody’s character in AEW.

Insisting that a heel turn wasn’t in his future, on his Rhodes to the Top reality series, Cody questioned his standing. ‘Do I fit in the new AEW? I don’t know. But I know I won’t turn heel., I just can’t do that. There (is) no bitterness in my heart, but obviously my character is not as clear cut as I thought, and I don’t know if I have the energy to fix it. I am really tired.

Aware that not only the company, but additionally his own persona, were going in different directions, he made the decision to draw a line and start anew.

When discussing AEW, again through Fightful, way back in May 2019, Cody said – ‘You cannot be in a bubble. And you can’t be a mark just for the hand that feeds you. I’ve learned you have to explore the space and genre of this sport.’ And he’s proven this again, by moving on when the going is good. Again, this sounds like a person always needing something fresh and to feel like the work he is putting in feels as valued as he intends it to be. This emphasises that Cody’s principles have always been the same. Always keep moving, and don’t settle for less than you believe you can be.

AEW is the baby of Cody, Kenny and the Bucks. That will never change. But that baby has grown up and grown up fast. The other parents? Well, they’re sticking around to support their offspring. Cody has decided to let that offspring go and be who they want to be, knowing they’re in good hands. In doing this, he’s allowing them to grow and develop into their own new and exciting identity, he’s giving them the freedom to stretch their legs and spread their wings to become an entity that has outgrown what his initial limited thought process may have restricted it to. This is much in the same way AEW and what preceded it gave Cody that same chance back in 2016, allowing him to become more than what many believe he could be. These two have a symbiotic relationship, and Cody will be forever linked to AEW through this ‘parentage’, irrespective of wherever he goes next and whether or not he ends up working with AEW again someday (which I believe he will).

If he has taken this rumoured 3-million-dollar deal from the WWE, and no-one knows yet for sure except Cody and his own, then he has taken it because it’s the best decision for the Rhodes family at this time.

From here on in, the future, from a fan perspective is uncertain.

The one thing that is certain, is that Cody has accomplished everything he set out to do. Cody has given his soul to the wrestling business, leaving it in a far better place than it was following his first WWE run and to label him a hypocrite, a sell-out, a quitter or any other variation of those statements is nothing more than sour grapes and factually incorrect. By leaving AEW, he’s recognised that his vision just didn’t gel anymore and that it was better left in the hands of those who would continue to let it grow into what it could be. It takes great, great courage to walk away from something as inherently personal as this.

Yeah, Cody… Your Dad would be super proud.