The most interesting part of Seth Rollins’ months-long angle about the former Universal Champion trying to find a route to a WrestleMania match is the angle isn’t really about Rollins at all. Rather, it almost certainly leads to Cody Rhodes returning to WWE. The former Executive Vice President of AEW is expected to be the opponent selected by Vince McMahon to “surprise” Rollins on night one of WrestleMania on Apr. 2. What can we expect when Rhodes comes down the aisle at AT&T Stadium?
The Cody Rhodes that’s returning to WWE is much different than the Cody Rhodes who left. The situation is unusual as well. It’s been a long time since the wrestling business was in a place in which WWE could sign a star from another company in what could be a lateral move. How will Rhodes be portrayed and treated? The answer will be one of the more intriguing stories of 2022.
A long journey
It’s been nearly six years since Rhodes requested his release from WWE. He had been with the company 10 years, starting with OVW before moving to the main roster in 2007. He asked for his release publicly when that was a rare occurrence. There was no AEW yet, so departing wrestlers had little leverage. Without a big-money organization to jump to, Rhodes made the choice to navigate the waters of independent and smaller-company wrestling.
Rhodes’ decision to bet on himself was considered a huge risk, one that paid off. He became a bigger star outside of WWE than he was within it. He dropped the Stardust character he on his last run and brought out his own personality. Rhodes worked for Ring of Honor, TNA, New Japan and other major independents. In doing so, he went from a WWE mid-carder to top draw.
After being a key part of the wildly successful All In independent pay-per-view, Rhodes was one of the original group signed by Tony Khan to be both on-air talent and Executive Vice Presidents. He was among the top stars of AEW for his entire run.
His contract with AEW expired in early 2022, with Rhodes working on a handshake deal for a few weeks before his departure. Rhodes will be the first major AEW name to jump to WWE. He will also be the first in many years as a “steal” from another major company. It also stems the tide of wrestlers flowing from AEW to WWE.
It’s made the ears of fans perk up, certainly. There’s mainstream interest and even a Twitter handle devoted only to answering the yes or no question of whether he’s in WWE.
— New York Post Sports (@nypostsports) March 28, 2022
While AEW’s balance sheet is small compared to WWE’s profits, AEW has made inroads in ratings, particularly in the key 18-49 demographic (you can read Paul Fontaine’s weekly columns about the ratings battle here on this site). WWE’s actions since AEW’s debut, such as counter-programming, show they consider AEW to be a threat whether it’s admitted publicly or not. That makes this signing an even bigger deal.
WWE has been without major competition since the collapse of WCW in 2001. McMahon bought what was left of his once-fierce rival that year at a bargain price. With no major company left in the U.S. to push him, McMahon took the WCW talent he wanted and beat them in a WCW vs. WWF-themed rivalry to prove his team was “better all along.” Putting over some WCW talent and drawing the rivalry out would have been a smarter move, but with no one knocking on the door of the top spot, McMahon felt comfortable burying WCW out of spite.
WWE faced no pressure for the next 18 years. The days of contact battles with other companies were over. They simply signed people they felt would help them, or to hurt potential upstarts such as with the formation of NXT UK.
The company would portray new signees from other organizations or the indies as being wrestlers ready to join the big time. Most fans understood those signees were going to WWE for more money, or at least a steadier paycheck. But none were seen as WWE taking someone from an organization it considered a major rival.
The closest was when WWE signed a batch of New Japan talent shortly after they were in major WrestleKingdom matches. AJ Styles, Shinsuke Nakamura, Karl Anderson and Doc Gallows all joined WWE in 2016. Even so, New Japan was no rival to WWE’s worldwide dominance.
Not since WCW was still a threat in the late 1990s did a WWE signing seem like a blow struck in a war with the competition. Rhodes’ return to WWE is the first since those days.
Prodigal Son Syndrome
Leaving WWE and returning has led to mixed results. Brock Lesnar left a major star, worked for New Japan and UFC and came back as a monster attraction again. Bobby Lashley is another who has done well.
Others have had a tougher road. R-Truth and John Hennigan each left WWE, found success elsewhere and then returned. Truth has been a regular on WWE TV, but his character is not to be taken seriously. Hennigan spent years working for IMPACT, AAA and others, building a reputation as much-improved worker. He returned, only to find himself in a tag team with the Miz again, exactly where he’d been before he left. He was one of the many released in 2021.
Matt and Jeff Hardy left and returned twice, including once as a WrestleMania surprise. They are examples of those who had success upon their return. Each time they came back they were treated well and spent most of their time in important roles. It wasn’t all main events and title reigns, but they were in and out of prominent angles throughout their time.
Drew McIntyre might be a better point of comparison. McIntyre was pushed early in his career but released by WWE in 2014. He moved on, improved and became a bigger star outside of WWE than he was before. That led the company to re-sign him in 2017 and he’s been a major star in a better position ever since.
“I’m happy for Cody (Rhodes), that’s (WWE) where he wants to be,
That’s home and everybody wants to go home.”
– Gerald Briscoe
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— WrestlePurists (@WrestlePurists) March 30, 2022
The McIntyre approach would be the smarter way to go. Burying Rhodes might be tempting to WWE creative, showing a top star from the other channel can’t hang with WWE stars. This would be short-sighted. Giving Rhodes a strong push would not just create fresh matchups on top. It would also show potential free agents WWE might treat them well should they think about jumping.
There is little doubt Rhodes will be portrayed as a big deal right off the bat. Rollins is one of WWE’s most reliable—and relied upon—performers. Putting Rhodes in with Rollins shows they are taking his return seriously. Still, big debuts in WWE doesn’t necessarily lead to big long-term pushes. Will Rhodes’ return lead to a new WWE main eventer? Or will he end up in the mid-card again just to prove AEW “isn’t so good” after all? Both fans and wrestlers with contracts coming up soon will be paying close attention to find out