On Apr. 3, the wrestling world exploded after seven words echoed over the speakers at Wrestlemania, wrestling’s biggest night of the year.
“Wrestling has more than one royal family.”
The phrase comes as a sign that wrestling as a business has shifted. Those words were the intro to the theme song of Cody Rhodes, a man who has changed wrestling’s brand for over six years. This begs the question: what led to this moment?
Rhodes is a legacy name. Dusty Rhodes, Cody’s father, commonly referred to as the “American Dream,” gained popularity representing the common man, proving that anyone could make their dreams come true with hard work. He was and still is considered an inspiration in wrestling to this day. Naturally, Cody followed in his father’s footsteps, and was quickly sought out by World Wrestling Entertaining (WWE) because of his dad. He was treated like royalty when he made his debut in WWE, and earned a total of seven championships within the company.
However, his fall from grace nearing the end of 2014 saw Rhodes becoming a joke of a character, wearing a full-body suit and painting stars on his face. The portrayal was received as a joke in the worst of ways by fans. Even Cody himself said the gimmick failed. He pleaded with WWE management to end the storyline and was ignored multiple times. Cody eventually requested to leave WWE in 2016 and decided to take the time to reinvent himself.
After his departure, Rhodes traveled all around the world in hopes of regaining fan support. Taking the name of a new character paying homage to his father, the “American Nightmare,” Cody managed to win over independent wrestling fans’ hearts and began to sell bigger and bigger venues for his appearances. In May 2017, critics stated that no one other than WWE would ever be able to sell 10,000 tickets for a show. Rhodes took the insult as a challenge and announced “All In,” the largest indie wrestling event ever at the time. Tickets would sell out within just 30 minutes of them being available.
As a result of the success of the one-off show, Rhodes was inspired to create his own company: All Elite Wrestling (AEW). Many expected AEW not to live up to the hype, but AEW delivered, managing to get TV deals with TBS and TNT, networks who ironically also hosted WWE’s competition throughout the 1990s. AEW has even occasionally beat out WWE in television ratings, leading CBS Sports to say that AEW is the only company to have given WWE a run for its money in 20 years.
Rhodes backed All Elite Wrestling from 2019 to 2022, was a 3-time champion, and managed to get high-profile celebrities involved on the show, such as Shaquille O’Neal and Snoop Dogg. As a result, many were shocked in February when it was announced that Rhodes would be leaving the promotion. After all, he was the founder of the company! Surely this was just a publicity stunt? Despite constant fan speculation, weeks went on without Cody on AEW programming, even being removed from the show’s introduction. Fans started to speculate about whether or not this meant he was coming back to WWE after his ill-termed departure many years ago..
As if to be an ode to perfect timing, around the same time, WWE wrestler Seth Rollins needed a Wrestlemania match. Rollins wanted to have a huge moment at the “Showcase of the immortals”, but was unable to get a match booked for the event. Seth talked with the owner of the WWE, Vince McMahon, and McMahon told him that he was able to get him a match, but that his opponent would only be revealed once Rollins was in the ring. Thus, the stars aligned for Cody Rhodes’ triumphant return to the company that made him who he was. Although some remained skeptical towards the return, on the night that Rollins entered the ring, everyone in AT&T Stadium welcomed the wrestling icon back home.
Cody’s return marks a change in the way that wrestling has functioned for the past 20 years. The act of jumping ship from one company to another was once popularized in the 1990s with World Championship Wrestling (WCW) and World Wrestling Federation (WWF), a time that is often considered to be the golden era of the industry. This popularity introduced wrestling to the mainstream media, creating megastars like The Rock and allowing pop-culture icons such as Ric Flair and Hulk Hogan to make their mark. With Cody returning to WWE as a hero, the same company he once left as a disgrace, a resurgence of wrestling’s popularity seems highly probable.
To quote commentator Corey Graves as Rhodes made his way to the ring, “from undesirable to undeniable. The prodigal son has returned. Right now, high above the clouds, Dusty Rhodes is grinning from ear to ear.”