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Cody Rhodes’ Next Chapter Is The Most Important Part Of His Story To Write

By 2 May 2024Opinion

By Joe Baiamonte

It is often said that, for any goal or ambition hoping to be attained in life, “it’s not the destination, it’s the journey.” 

This mantra was popularised by American philosopher Ralph Waldo Emerson in the 19th century. Fittingly, Emerson also railed against conformity, the power of institutions and how they corrupt the individual.  Through his Transcendentalism movement of the 1820’s, Emerson became a prominent proponent of the belief that people are at their best when self-reliant and independent.

Which revives memories of 2016. And a powerful institution losing what they believed to be a routine cog in their wheel, helping the engine purr reliably along without any drama. Only the engine was, in fact, sputtering to a standstill amid lack of interest and the person behind the wheel no longer had any sense of adventure or direction. So instead of remaining a cog, Cody Rhodes became The Little Engine That Could. All optimism, hard work and independence. He thought he could and he did. And then some.

Six years later, as one of the most important, era-defining figures in modern day professional wrestling, Rhodes returned to WWE, via reigns as Ring of Honor and NWA World Champion, a Bullet Club membership card in New Japan and, of course, an Executive Vice Presidency as one of the founders of All Elite Wrestling. As was repeated ad nauseam in the intervening 24 months between his comeback at WrestleMania 38 in Dallas and his historic coronation at WrestleMania 40 in Philadelphia, Rhodes had a story to finish.

As the prodigal son who showed the world what was possible outside of the turgid carousel of late-McMahon era creative, Cody Rhodes strode back into the old Northeastern territory like a king riding into a conquered city. He may not have had championship gold around his waist or over his shoulder, but he had the knowledge that his gamble on himself six years previously had helped generate the high tide that would eventually lift all boats. He returned with the wrestling industry in far more robust health than it had been in almost two decades. He returned a bona fide superstar. Not in the old WWE marketing sense, but legitimately in every sense of the word.

Image: WWE

It has been Cody’s passion, his emotion and his self-belief that have helped millions of wrestling fans invest in his story since returning to WWE. It is why, when he first encountered Roman Reigns in the main event of WrestleMania, the air felt like it had been collectively sucked from the lungs of over 60,000 people inside SoFi Stadium in Los Angeles. The decision not to pull the trigger on The American Nightmare, in the city he had once hoped to seek his fortune in as an actor, felt like a creative calamity not far off turning Steve Austin heel in the main event of WrestleMania 17, in his home state of Texas.

Then came year two of the return. The summer long trilogy of wars with Brock Lesnar. The tag title run and press conference libations with Jey Uso. A Rhodes returning to WarGames. The second consecutive Rumble victory, placing him alongside Austin, Michaels and Hogan. And then onto round two with Reigns and round one with The Final Boss.

Euphoria barely begins to describe the reaction within Philadelphia’s Lincoln Financial Field to the three count that finally confirmed Cody Rhodes as the new WWE Champion. There was palpable relief, which fuelled further delirium with every run-in that assisted Cody in his battle with The Bloodline. Jey Uso, then John Cena, then one-man Shield Seth Rollins, then The Undertaker, for so long The Final Boss of WrestleMania, reminding The Rock who’s yard this really was. The realisation that there was going to be no repeat of WrestleMania 39’s main event dawning on a collective throng of viewers who had so eagerly invested their time in one of the greatest stories the wrestling business has ever told.

There was delight in the stands and the press room of The Linc as we all witnessed the babyface locker room and Cody’s family empty from their positions and into the ring to celebrate with the new champion. There was the ear-to-ear grin on Cody’s face when he brought his big, gold, new best friend into the post-show press conference. There was the decibel shattering roar of another 20,000 fans inside the Wells Fargo Center on Raw the night after as they were presented with Georgia’s finest as their new franchise player.

Image: WWE

So where do you go when the journey is over? When the mission has been accomplished? When the story has been finished?

You put some more gas in the tank and work out which direction you are heading next. Only this time it’s not as straightforward a trip.

Are as many people going to spur you on to your next journey’s end? The same challengers who came to unseat Roman Reigns are the same ones now looking to stop Cody’s new chapter from having a happy ending. They also have the crowds behind them, unlike the Tribal Chief, who had cultivated his narrative, where the audience endlessly argued among themselves as to who was best suited to unseat him from the head of the table.

With the dust now settling on the 2024 WWE Draft, Rhodes’ maiden reign as WWE Champion can begin to take shape. A roster of potential challengers awaits the American Nightmare on SmackDown, beginning this Saturday at Backlash, in Lyon, France, with AJ Styles.

Styles, much as he did when Seth Rollins became Universal Champion at WrestleMania 35 in 2019, serves as an ideal first opponent for a new champion. He can work both sides of the aisle, is over regardless of alignment and is always a safe bet for a showstopping bout. Most importantly, his popularity isn’t such that the crowds at TV every week will be clamoring for him to have a run with the big gold W. For Cody’s inaugural defence(s), you couldn’t hope for much better than The Phenomenal One.

Image: WWE

But what after that? A post-United States Title Logan Paul would make a lot of sense and, once again, provide Cody with an opponent who will not be favoured over him. However, things start to hit more treacherous water after that. Kevin Owens has always felt like a natural long-term rival for Rhodes, given his time under Dusty’s learning tree in NXT and his longtime friendship with Cody’s fellow AEW founders The Young Bucks.

Owens, though, is beloved. Even a heel turn wouldn’t deliver unanimous jeers from arena crowds. He has been an MVP level talent for the last eight years and is certainly someone deserving of more than the solitary world title to his name. The bouts between Cody and KO would no doubt be wild, the promos on another level, but would pairing the formerly dashing one against such a passionately supported opponent be a tipping point that is best avoided?

The inevitability of a multi-month feud with Randy Orton could easily take in a couple of major Premium Live Events. Drawing on the 15-year history between the pair, stretching back to the Legacy days, when Orton was establishing himself as the company’s premier heel. It may be the Orton route that is taken after Styles as a way to keep Cody on track for a returning Reigns and, of course, the finality of that one-on-one showdown with The Rock.

Keeping The Bloodline on SmackDown during the draft was, of course, a very deliberate way of letting everybody know that we are a long way from done when it comes to Rhodes vs Anoaʻi. And while a Bloodline civil war does seem to be incoming with Solo readying the troops, recruiting Tama Tonga and, likely very soon, a freshly signed Jacob Fatu, a Reigns rubber match is likely a must to trigger Roman and The Rock’s eventual coming to blows. The main event of SummerSlam may very well beckon for Cody/Roman III.

Should Cody emerge from SummerSlam still carrying the gold, which way does the road veer coming out of Cleveland? When does he go one-on-one with The Great One?

Image: WWE

In all likelihood, Cody’s reign is set to run deep into the calendar. This is why it is slightly surprising to not see him presented with a dragon or two to slay along the way in the shape of a recently promoted Ilja Dragunov, Bron Breakker or maybe a Braun Strowman, Bronson Reed or, of course, GUNTHER.

A recently shared Instagram post from Mick Foley of him and Cody together was a stark reminder of how vital Foley was at establishing new champions, both babyface and heel, during the late ’90s. Shawn Michaels, Steve Austin, The Rock and Triple H all barely survived their crimson-soaked conflicts with Mankind/Cactus Jack/Dude Love while, in the mid ’00s, Randy Orton and Edge were similarly minted in a bloody barrage of barbed wire, thumbtacks and flaming tables.

As the shift away from the PG era continues, a couple of blood-drenched battles could solidify an edge to Cody in the eyes of WWE fans that they have previously haven’t witnessed (he did, of course, have a number of violent matches in AEW, although there are still a large number of ‘E fans who will not have seen them). This tactic, admittedly, may not have worked for John Cena who’s Judgement Day ’05 and Royal Rumble ’07 bouts with JBL and Umaga, respectively, were classics, but didn’t prevent crowds from showering him with heavily mixed reactions wherever he went during his peak years. However, when busted open by The Rock in the Chicago rain, the visceral reaction from fans appeared to be one that would happily stand behind Cody when waging into war.

Venturing into this sort of territory could keep those coveted members of the 18-49 demographic on Cody’s side as he gets deeper into his reign. Younger fans, much like they did with Cena, will remain devout, but the older generations often need that extra character development and less clean-cut presentation with their babyface champions. A title rival in the mould of a Foley, Vader, Bruiser Brody etc, that a champion doesn’t beat so much as he survives, can often be integral to keeping fans invested emotionally in a babyface on top.

For the time being, The American Nightmare tour bus is showing no signs of slowing down and there are no roadblocks or potholes on the immediate horizon. Thousands of fans will still snake around blocks for the chance to meet their all-conquering hero at a signing session, and the champ’s merchandise will fly off the tables at every live event around the globe. The “Whooooaaa” will remain deafening with every entrance he makes.

The question is, how long does the momentum last? Will The Final Boss be vanquished to a rapturous cacophony of cheers or the weary smattering of jeers from a notoriously impatient fanbase? Rhodes’ AEW run culminated with crowds readily returning his weight belts. Hopefully Triple H and co have plans in place to ensure lightning doesn’t strike twice.

WWE Backlash will emanate from Lyon, France on 4th May, 2024, available only on Peacock, WWE Network and PPV

Featured Image Credit: WWE