When Good Faces Go Bad: The Parable of Cody Rhodes

The summer of 2020 was a hard one for professional wrestling. As Covid lockdown mandates dragged from a few weeks to a couple months to nearly half a year of stress, worry and painfully ineffective half measures, wrestling limped along as best it could with no live crowds and the looming threat of illness hovering over its rosters. Financially speaking WWE and AEW were secure enough with their TV deals and national audience but the indie scene, the beating heart of wrestling, didn’t have the advantage of corporate money safety nets to get them through. In this time the Speaking Out movement flipped over a rock that brought to light the ugly nature of the abuse that has lurked within wrestling for so long, right on the heels Black Lives Matter movement re-erupting across the country into protests and violent police retaliations. We had to come to grips with a lot of tragedy all at once and at the same time confront the ways our communities were broken, how that brokenness hurt us, and the ways we may have hurt others. At the risk of understatement, we were all a little unsteady on our feet.

In the midst of this, Cody (not Rhodes, he didn’t have his last name back yet) stepped up as something of a beacon for the wrestling world. Presented with the daunting task of getting over a newly debuted, half-finished belt in empty arenas in the middle of a pandemic, he rose remarkably to the occasion. Sometimes when we are uncertain and in pain we need a hero to help get us through, and the way Cody looked at the camera and spoke so earnestly and so emotionally felt like that hero, and he could be a soothing balm on a lot of raw nerves.

It might seem a little dramatic when I say that Cody’s weekly TNT Open Challenge was part of what got me through the summer of 2020, but it’s true. Maybe it’s a bit ridiculous to turn to wrestling when there are so many issues in the real world to grapple with – especially when a lot of those real world issues were within wrestling – but Cody’s weekly struggle for victory emulated in a small, digestible way the struggles so many of us were having to get through the next week, or even the next day or hour. It was comforting to have him dedicate his fight to us when we were all fighting so hard right alongside him. It didn’t fix anything, but did it have to? Sometimes the human soul just needs to rest, and that can be enough for the moment.

It didn’t hurt that the matches themselves were so much fun, especially because when Cody said Open Challenge, he meant Open Challenge. People outside of AEW could be invited to challenge for TNT Title and fans had the opportunity to champion their indie favorites and see them on national television. Many of us got to be introduced to some new favorites for the first time, as I was to Ricky Starks and Eddie Kingston. Especially Eddie Kingston, who I can no longer imagine AEW without. Cody brought him into his company and his ring and gave him the space to shine in only the way Eddie can, and Cody deserves a lot of credit for that.

I remember Cody was so great about everything — and he actually asked me what I wanted for my walk-out music and I told him the truth: I said, “Why would I have music? I don’t work here. I wouldn’t have music. I should just run out and start beating the shit out of you, like I’m some guy. Because I am just some guy.”

And he said, “Alright, but let’s give you a microphone then.”

I think about it now and I get goose bumps. I didn’t even deserve it, but he let me have that moment, and it changed my life.

Eddie Kingston Got No Business Fucking Being Here” by Eddie Kingston, The Players Tribune

It’s not only in retrospect that we can look back and give Cody his flowers for all he did to augment the star power of other talent and raise the prestige of the TNT Championship; we knew that at the time. It’s because of him that belt didn’t end up a worthless prop buried in the midcard, it’s because of him that we have Eddie Kingston, and back then we knew that and we loved him for it. The well of fan adoration for Cody seemed inexhaustible.

Credit: AEW

In the Fall of 2021, on the September 22 episode of AEW Dynamite: Grand Slam, twenty thousand people nearly disintegrated the roof of Arthur Ashe Stadium in Queens New York as they let loose the full force of their animosity for Cody and their support for the outsider heel who had taken him off TV for six weeks before proceeding to systematically brutalize his entire family. It was a moment both completely shocking and utterly predictable; somewhere in the course of the past year people began to expect, and then demand, that Cody Rhodes turn heel. At some point people came to look at Cody and his character and his story and conclude that that was the only thing that made sense.

Cody had said over and over again for months leading up to this moment that he has no interest in turning heel, that he doesn’t want to model bad behavior for the children in his fanbase and his own baby girl, that there wasn’t a heel bone left in his body. But all that seemed to do was fan the flames of speculation. Sure he said he didn’t want to turn heel, but how could we know for sure it wasn’t a work? What if he was sowing the seeds now to really twist the knife into his sudden yet inevitable betrayal down the line?

The more time passed, the more certain people became that a heel turn was coming, and the more the resentment grew that it hadn’t happened yet. For the last year and change I have been fascinated by the way the rumblings of discontent towards Cody have slowly grown in volume and intensity; in a lot of ways it seemed to echo the way my own adoration for him as a character and performer has cooled to something more like fond exasperation. There have always been fans who have been unwavering in their support of him, and I think that speaks well of the way Cody is able to form such a deep connection with his audience; it’s one of the things that makes him really special as a performer. But somewhere along the line it’s undeniable that Cody has lost people, the only question is how, and why.

The progression of Cody’s relationship with the wrestling audience provides a striking opportunity to examine the ways an audience can be won and lost, the things that make people root for a babyface and the role storytelling plays in the successful presentation of any wrestler. How did Cody go from having a seemingly bottomless well of fan goodwill to being the subject of such intense controversy? Why is there such caustic debate among reasonable people over the question of whether or not Cody intends, or ever intended, to turn heel? What were the crossroads, if you will, where he might have lost us? 

As you probably could have guessed from my having written a whole-ass essay about it, I have some ideas. In order to get to them though I need to first go back to the time that made me love Cody to in the first place with.

*chef kiss* Iconique

Do You Remember When Cody Was On The Indies? Pepperidge Farm Remembers

Cody on the indies was an inspiration. A lifelong WWE talent who left to try to make it on the independent circuit? In 2016? Unheard of. People were on the independents in order to go to WWE, not the other way around. But Cody bet on himself and, with the benefit of a good word from Kevin Owens dropped in The Young Bucks’ ear, set off to unfamiliar territory to forge a name for himself on his own terms, with less money (although it must be said, far from no money after years of being a legacy act on the WWE payroll) and visibility but more creative control than he ever would have received in the company he grew up in.

And make a name he certainly did. As a heel in Bullet Club Cody had a supremely fun nasty streak that slotted in seamlessly with the cast of The Young Bucks’ Being The Elite, the Youtube show that stands as one of the main pillars of their success and the foundation upon which AEW was built. In New Japan Pro Wrestling his presentation evoked that of a rich mob boss, with his cigars and moodily lit vignettes that paired beautifully with his sparkling and extravagant ego. On BTE his acting chops and impeccable comedic timing produced a number of iconic moments and bits, and in Ring Of Honor he played the deposed princeling to exquisite perfection.

Not to be dramatic but I would die for him

This was the version of Cody I fell in love with; dynamic, intense, resplendent and dramatic. It was disappointing that when All In and subsequently AEW started to getting off the ground, playing that character became, if not impossible, then at the very least impractical. I loved him but I missed the theatrics of his joyful villainy, the same way I missed the heel versions of The Young Bucks and Kenny Omega. But the fans got behind Cody so easily, and he was so good in front of the camera and with publicity that it was only logical for him to lean into the groundswell of adoration forge the path forward as one of the faces of AEW.

It can be hard to remember now, but Cody as a babyface was unreal as a force of charisma and personality, and a fundamental amplifying force for the wave of fan excitement and hope that came with the creation of AEW. There was something about him that made it feel like he was speaking directly to and from the heart, and his genuine infectious enthusiasm bubbled out of the screen. He could also turn a phrase like no one else. That “From undesirable to undeniable” line? It just hit different, you know? Heel Cody was still my favorite and held a special place in my heart, but I was content with Face Cody both because he was just so dang good at it, and also because I was confident he would turn heel again somewhere down the line. 

As good as Cody is as a babyface, in my estimation he is unmatched as a heel. More importantly, and the work he did on the independent circuit alongside The Elite was a crucial part of the path that launched him to the top of the wrestling world. The story of that era had to be addressed, right? Surely everything that happened before 2019 would have an impact on his current character, surely he would one day have to dance with those that brought him and pick the dangling threads of those stories back up. Surely his past would form the foundation of arguably the most important phase of his career and be woven into the stories he would now be able to tell on the national stage, right?


It’s Story Time With Cody Rhodes Ba- Wait, Wrong Gimmick

I’ve thought about those questions a lot in the past year, but in the summer of 2020 most of that wasn’t really on my mind. All I really cared about was that I liked Cody and was invested in his story, and the story as I saw it play out went like this:

Barred permanently from the World Championship picture, the wrestling world off balance and emotionally raw, the TNT Championship was something solid for Cody to hold on to and – maybe more importantly – something solid he could give the fans at home to hold on to. He could turn this new, unfinished belt into a symbol of perseverance and determination, something that could uplift people, something inspirational that was worth fighting for. But to do that, to represent this belt the way it needed and deserved to be represented, he had to win. Obviously. After all, how could he elevate this belt, how could he uplift fresh faces, how could he inspire the fans the way they needed and deserved if he didn’t have the belt to defend?

The weekly open challenge was extremely ambitious, perhaps foolishly so. Defending the belt so often gave him little time to rest between bouts, and a lot of challengers had much more on the line than bragging rights over a title win. Ricky Starks had two dollars in his bank account before his TNT challenge and had a lot riding on whether or not he could bring Cody down. Eddie Kingston had had to sell his wrestling boots to pay his mortgage for the month and with bookings on the indie evaporating to almost nothing the chances he would be able to pay the next month’s didn’t look good, so with nothing to lose he went hell for leather against Cody and slammed him down on a mat full of thumbtacks. And all that hungry and determined independent talent was in addition to AEW’s own home grown crop of youngsters the likes of Jungle Boy and Sonny Kiss, whose youth took Cody’s experience to the limit before he could eke out a victory.

As the summer ground on Cody became more and more exhausted, and more and more desperate. That old viciousness from his indie days started to shine through. Maybe he’s venting his resentment on these young stars with so many opportunities ahead of them because his own youth was so wasted by misuse, I thought to myself as I watched him brutalize the beloved Jungle Boy in his quest to maintain this title that had become the center of his world. There was something so sinister in the way that he would become so nasty during the bout and then hug these young babyfaces so tenderly once he’d secured his own victory. It lent a disingenuous air to his grand display of himself as the Paragon, the symbol of goodness and light that would lead us all through dark times. It suggested that there was perhaps something other than pure altruism lurking under the surface of his character.

Not shown: two minutes ago, when Cody deliberately distracted the ref to rip off a turnbuckle pad

It was only a hint, though, and in the meantime he clung to his principles. Maybe he bent them here and there, but there were lines he wouldn’t cross. Lines such as hitting people with his weight belt, for example. In each match he came out wearing a weight belt and during each match there would come a point where he would take it off and stare at it for a few long moments. Striking people mid match with a foreign object in a manner so reminiscent of his own public humiliation at the hands of Maxwell Jacob Friedman, a humiliation which had eventually led to his being forever barred from the coveted AEW World Championship, was a bridge too far. He couldn’t do that. He couldn’t inflict that kind of pain on anyone else, no matter how desperate he became. But. He did think about it. He thought about it a lot.

Ultimately though, he would always throw the belt away. No matter how tempted he became when he was deep in a match staring failure in the face, he refused to take that final step. Cody always chose the righteous path. But the very fact of his hesitation, the way he kept returning to that inner struggle over and over again, teased at something even darker lurking underneath the shining surface. Cody’s quest to maintain the championship and inspire the people was framed as a noble thing, but these recurring moments and his increasing flashes of brutality pointed to more sinister motivations.

As the summer wound down and eased into fall there was a tension starting to build around Cody, both within his story and outside of it. He felt right on the brink of something, the pressure on his character building and his behavior continuing to hint at something more – darker. He was slipping, visibly exhausted, having to work harder and harder with each passing week to maintain control of the belt he was clinging to so with such wild determination. Cody needed this belt, he needed it to inspire the fans at home and maybe also he just needed it for himself, to prove that his place in the world was valuable, that he was worthy of the worship he had been receiving. The need built tension, the kind that sometimes led him to be at odds with his image as a good person and a role model. There was friction building between himself and Arn Anderson, the person whose role was to support him and coach him through all these tough fights and it was becoming clear that something was inevitably going to crack under all this pressure. He was teetering on the edge of some intensely impactful moment for his character…

But the thing is, he just stayed teetering.

Cody Fatigue

Let’s take a moment to pull back from the story itself and lay out a little more context.

In the fall of 2020, a few low rumblings of fan discontent started to emerge around Cody. It was nothing major, not yet, but it struck a small, sour note in what had up to then been a solid wall of adulation for at least a year and a half. The open challenge was a great concept, and Cody’s desperation to keep the belt after losing the chance to become AEW World Champion forever was a compelling premise, but that premise needed to be built on. In a story about Cody fighting tooth and nail to keep the TNT Title there needed to be believable stakes and a sense of escalating conflict leading to something more significant than just Cody winning a lot of matches. It’s all well and good that he was showcasing and putting over fresh talent but what did any of it mean? What was the actual story here?

Commentary may have made a few remarks about Cody being under intense pressure and getting increasingly exhausted, and some of the matches did seem to be constructed around that premise if you squint, but none of that was of any consequence once the bell rang and the match was won. Perhaps Cody was struggling with some grand inner turmoil when he kept teasing that weight belt spot, but that struggle didn’t progress and it certainly didn’t translate to any change in his relationships or the way he carried himself outside of the ring. His internal emotional state was either nonexistent or opaque, depending on how you look at it, and even the suggestion of strife with Arn never quite reached past the suggestion phase. Any tension there might have been in the beginning surrounding Cody’s mental state or his ability to keep the title or the approval of his manager was draining away, and the story was spinning its wheels.

Maintaining tension in a narrative is tricky, and timing is important when it comes to building and releasing it. Too soon and the payoff feels flat and unearned, or it simply fails to reach its potential for emotional impact. Too late and all that built up pressure begins to deflate like an old balloon, becoming irritating, repetitive, and exhausting so that by the time the payoff comes it’s difficult to care as much as one might have had that payoff come at the story’s peak. We’ve all seen a long movie that seemed to fly by, and a shorter one that dragged miserably on for a hundred years because of its poor pacing. It’s the same idea in wrestling but on a much longer time scale, told in weeks and months rather than minutes and hours. After months of the TNT Open Challenge resulted in win after win for Cody but very little else of consequence, the gimmick started to get a little stale.

If Cody is supposed to be the struggling babyface hanging on and persisting against all odds, but no one believes in the odds he’s persisting against and everyone assumes by default that he’s winning all his matches, all those inspiring speeches might start to ring a little hollow whether it’s “right” for him to be winning matches or not. The vast majority of AEW match outcomes are extremely predictable; it’s the stories around them that make engage people and capture their interest. People were losing interest in Cody’s story, and they were growing frustrated at the amount of TV time it was taking up in a period when AEW was especially catching a lot of flack for the treatment of its women’s division. The matches were good and he was still enhancing fresh talent, but even that lost its luster when each week we knew we would be getting another Cody match and we knew exactly how it would end up. LOL Cody Wins the end, nothing more to see here.

And then Brodie Lee came in and completely obliterated him.

Credit: AEW


Brodie Lee’s shocking squash of Cody was the shot of adrenaline straight into the arm of this story right when it was desperately needed. The way Cody could barely put up a fight revealed the toll the weekly open challenge had taken on his strength and uncovered the vulnerability of a character who had just a moment ago seemed tediously invincible. Over the course of five glorious minutes Cody was completely, thrillingly demolished. The spectacle of it all culminated in a beautiful, tragic tableau of the Dark Order laying waste to the Nightmare Family, including that iconic moment of Anna Jay locking Brandi in the Queenslayer, establishing not just Brodie but the entire faction as a credible threat to the rest of the roster.

The whole thing was a stroke of booking genius; Cody’s required absence from television in order to film the Go Big Show neatly explained during the perfect time to give everyone a bit of a break and let the heart grow fonder in his absence. Even better, once he returned he could dig into a really intense feud with Brodie Lee, with the Exalted One a monstrous figure that this time Cody would truly have to struggle to overcome. A babyface is only as good as the challenges they are up against, after all. It is difficult to thread the needle of making a wrestler look vulnerable enough to be interesting but strong enough to be a hero, but it’s necessary, and an attack like this as the potential to strike that balance. We know that Cody is strong based on his long success in the TNT title picture; now was the time to put his character under a lot of stress and pressure and see what made him tick.

Crushingly, we now know that this sort of program could never have been. I think it’s important to look at the parts of this time that were storytelling choices as storytelling choices, but I by no means want to undersell the abject tragedy that runs underneath this whole analysis. Brodie Lee was an incredible father, husband, friend, and wrestler who was taken from us all but most especially his family far, far too soon. We are all the better for his time in AEW and I want to cherish the work he did there and throughout his whole career, but it is viciously, horribly unfair that his life was cut so short. Rest in Peace, Brodie, you are always in our thoughts.

No one could have known that tragedy was about to strike when Cody and Brodie first met in the ring, and the storytelling possibilities opened up with Brodie holding the TNT title were magnificent. Brodie could take the TNT Title in a new direction in his own image, elevate the threat level of the whole of the Dark Order and be the kind of incredibly dominant monster heel everyone knew he would excel at. Then, when Cody got back, he could go through the sort of long, dark tea-time of the soul that would add much needed depth to his character. How would he react to having the monster who had hurt his family looming over his shoulder? How would he be able to cope with the fact that he was somehow, someway going to have to defeat him when he had no idea how? Maybe the stress of it all would cause him to snap under pressure and turn into the kind of sensational heel we know he can be. But maybe he would persevere under the strain, scrap and struggle for so long that he began to lose hope before finding his strength and standing tall over his nemesis with even more babyface fire than he started with. Honestly anything would do, just as long as he gave us a break for a little while and then really shook up his character on his return.

When he did come back – after hardly enough time to miss him and honestly a little sooner than I personally would have preferred if he was really going to use this moment to refresh his character – it seemed like that was exactly what we were going to get. He’d dyed his hair black, he carried himself with a menacing aura, and he fixated on Brodie with an intensity that suggested he would tear his own soul to shreds if he could only strangle Brodie with the pieces of it, and I was on the edge of my seat in anticipation for what would happen next.

“It’s not a phase, MOM!” (Narrator: It was absolutely a phase)

I was surprised that the rematch was booked so quickly on Cody’s return, it seemed hasty when there was so much story to potentially tell. But I am a simple creature; tell me there is a dog collar match and you will have my full attention. Storytelling is incredibly important to me but I am most certainly not above popping for a good gimmick and turning my brain off. Besides, I could see how this would work so clearly. Brodie would annihilate Cody again, and we would be there with him every step of the way as he regrouped and clawed himself back up from the bottom in order to finally, after a grueling journey, defeat his nemes- oh, nope, wait, Cody just took like 80% of this rematch and won.

I’m not mad, I’m just disappointed

The next week he’d dyed his hair back to blond and had the TNT championship after losing it barely six weeks before, ending Brodie’s reign at six weeks at a mere two successful title defenses. Before I come down too hard on this I have to acknowledge the possibility that this was a decision made during the first stages of Brodie’s oncoming health crisis; I have no way of knowing the exact timeline of decisions and events and I’m not insensitive enough to pick apart the little public evidence we have to manufacture proof in service of my point. No, absolutely not, I’m not going there. All I’ll say is, fair or not, based on the information available to me at the time, it was at this point that I started to lose faith in the storytelling around Cody and started to pick up on some worrying patterns that pointed to deeper, more foundational flaws.

Let’s Make An Unfair Comparison To One Of The Most Beloved, Intricate And Longest Running Stories In Wrestling Today

yee haw

Hangman Adam Page has had his sights set on the AEW World Championship since 2019, and it eluded him for nearly three years. Over that time we saw how much that loss affected him and influenced his choices, the way his sense of his self-worth and self confidence deteriorated. Kenny morphed from his partner to a monster standing between him and his dreams and his friends had turned against him for reasons that were at least partially tied to his own acts of self-sabotage. Hangman has struggled a lot, and grown a lot. He’s lost old friends and made new ones and just when it seemed like he was finally about to find his footing again, he was brutalized by the people he once loved and respected and spent months out of commission.

We are invested in Hangman because we have seen him struggle, and because those struggles have revealed who he is at his core, exposed vulnerabilities we can connect to but also strengths that can inspire us. He was always a top competitor with big wins under his belt, that had never been in question, but the things he’s experienced have changed him, and the wins and losses he’s taken have had an impact on who he’s become. We’re excited to see more of his story play out because we can see that he, and therefore us, are on a hell of a journey and we want to see where it takes us.

Not every story has to be like that of Hangman Adam Page and the Elite though, obviously. Not every story needs to stretch out over the course of years, across companies and continents. In fact, most are likely better off not doing that; some stories are meant to be brief, and that doesn’t make them less worthwhile to tell but it does make them a torment to watch when they’re stretched far beyond their life span. The thing that elevates the story of Hangman so highly amongst wrestling stories isn’t how much time it’s taken to tell, but how much growth and evolution he’s experienced and the weight those changes carry. Actions have always had consequences, no one is quite the same as they were when they began, and the stakes all flow naturally from these characters, their motivations, and who they are as people.

Hangman is different now than when he lost the Tag Team Championship, and he was different then than when he failed to become the inaugural World Champion, and he was different then than when he sided with Cody during the Bullet Club Civil War, and he was different then than when he turned on the Kingdom to join Bullet Club in ROH, and AEW World Champion Hangman Adam Page is worlds away from the young rookie who slunk his way into Bullet Club on an untelevised house show the day after Adam Cole’s pay-per-view main event shock defection, but all of those versions of Hangman are connected and we can see how every change was influenced by everything that came before. The moment Hangman won the World Championship was incandescent, a burst of relief and catharsis and joy so powerful not because it’s been a long time coming, not because he’s a babyface and Kenny is a heel, but because we’ve been with him every step of his journey and we know how much he’s struggled and how hard he’s had to work to overcome both his inner and outer demons.

Credit: AEW

Contrast to Cody.

Cody got a job as a judge on a talent show and had to be written off TV for a couple weeks, and then when he got back he could pick up right where he left off. That’s all the meaning there ultimately ended up being in the story of his first TNT Championship loss. That didn’t have to be the case, there were a lot of elements that would have reasonably had the sort of profound effect on a person that would drive a really engaging story, but that’s what it ended up being. Nothing about that brutality he suffered stuck with him, nothing about losing the TNT championship that he had fought so hard and so long to keep seemed to have any long term psychological impact. What could have been a story about how the crushing pressure to succeed can warp a person’s priorities, how terrifying it is to experience such complete destruction at the hands of a monster, how someone can dig deep for their inner darkness as they seek out revenge turned into… nothing. A collection of moments, impressive in isolation and narratively inert when taken as a whole.

After regaining the TNT Title at the moment of his return Cody went right back to being the beloved babyface playing with a mild, in-ring vicious streak, but I found myself disillusioned. I started to notice the shallowness of his on-screen relationships, I lost hope that any of his various feuds would have much emotional depth or character work, or that he would ever reference any of his past work that brought me to love him so much. Not to say it was all horrible or that I had decided overnight that Cody sucked and I hated him. I loved Cody, I still love Cody, and I wanted and still want to be invested in his work. The way his feud with Darby Allin paid off the seeds planted an an incredible match they’d had over a year before was wonderful and exciting to watch. The highs for Cody were very high and I was with him for them. But more and more I found I was losing patience for his lows.

Lows such as his match against Pentagon El Zero M. Penta had an arm break move that had in the past been used to brutal effect in Lucha Underground, putting people thoroughly out of commission when employed. Cody – as though to make some twisted meta-commentary on how the past is unimportant and irrelevant to the present – all but neutralized that move by no-selling it and handily winning a match that, in all honesty, he could have stood to lose. He did the same thing to Anthony Ogogo, who’s controversial liver punch finisher had been carefully built for weeks and which, you guessed it, Cody no-sold before getting the pin. And lord in heaven don’t get me started on the “Face of The Revolution” ladder match.

AEW Face of the Revolution ladder match
My supervillain origin story

Actually you know what, it’s too late, I’m getting myself started right now. Cody’s role in The Face of the Revolution ladder match was so bafflingly absurd that to this day I can’t say with any certainty whether the way it played out was intended or not. At one point, Cody was injured. He was escorted out of the ring in protest, and for large chunks of the match he could be seen through the entrance tunnel arguing with people and at several points agonizingly starting to make his way back to the ring before returning to argue some more. I want to say this was all a work, because when he did eventually return it (sort of?) fit some narrative where he argued down the doctor and his manager and made his triumphant comeback. But the execution was so messy and confusing and awkward, honestly, that it’s difficult for me to imagine it had been in any way planned. I hope it had been planned, because the last thing I would want is for someone to legitimately injure themself and then, even worse, argue their way back into the ring after the doctor made the call – I would hope AEW have learned to take wrestler safety more seriously then that – but that just leaves an awkward, overbooked mess of a story that fired the biggest narrative bullet in Cody’s gun into a goddamn wall.

Oh yeah, remember that weight belt thing I was banging on about a couple paragraphs ago? Weight belts are the most enduring recurring motif Cody’s work, reaching all the way back to his time in ROH and NJPW. He almost always comes out wearing one, they are often customized for a particular event or person, and for the months leading up to this ladder match he almost always had that spot where he would take it off, stare significantly down at it as though he were thinking of hitting his opponent with it, and then toss it to the side.

Before AEW, they were a significant storytelling element in the Bullet Club Civil War, when Cody was insisting Bullet Club was fine even as his actions were making sure that it very much wasn’t. During the time when tensions were highest and things were nearly at their breaking point, he gifted custom weight belts to (almost) all of Bullet Club, including Matt and Nick Jackson. It was a thoughtful gesture representing his appreciation and care for them, twisted into something insidious and deeply manipulative when put in the context of his active attempts to undermine Kenny’s authority and hammer wedges into The Elite’s relationship. Matt and Nick came to use them as a visual representation of their uncertain position stuck between Cody and Kenny. They’d both wear the belts to the ring but Nick, who most actively sought reconciliation with Kenny and was most skeptical of Cody’s intentions, took his off immediately while Matt, who was the most hurt and angered by Kenny’s actions and blinded by Cody’s charm, kept his on throughout their matches.

Rhodes to the Top is a rich text

Wrestling is a medium that relies heavily on repetition and symbolism to communicate meaning, and one of the most basic rules of storytelling is that things which are set up need to be paid off, otherwise you’re left with a thoroughly dissatisfying, thematically messy piece of work. So as an audience when we repeatedly see the weight belts we might think “what is the significance of those, do they relate in any way to the previous times we’ve seen them displayed?” And when we see Cody falling into vicious habits and staring complicatedly at the belt in his hands we might think “When is he finally going to snap and hit someone with that, and what is it going to mean?”

Cody had been doing that tease spot, over and over again, for months. It was built to in nearly all his matches using an object that had held symbolic meaning in the past. It is possible and often good to have narratives that stand alone, with no other background needed to understand the story being told. But it’s undeniable that additional context and history give a story more weight and impact. As a great fan of Cody’s work before AEW and someone who at the time understood him to be a creative collaborator with The Elite, masters of using the past to add depth and color to their present, I looked closely for that same kind of meaning in his present work. I knew the weight belts were a significant item to him, I’m familiar with his history of giving with one hand and pulling strings with another and smiling brightly all the while. Surely it all had to amount to something, some significant moment, some crossroads (there I go again) which would reveal something new and meaningful in Cody’s character. Otherwise, what was the point of any of this?

The moment Cody finally snapped and hit someone with his weight belt should have been meaningful. Deliberately hitting an opponent mid-match with a foreign object runs directly counter to his well established mission statement to be the babiest face whomst ever babied faces and violating that should herald an earthshattering change for his character. So, in the Face of the Revolution ladder match for the Number One Contendership spot for the title he had poured his heart and soul into, the title he made and which had come in a way to symbolize his importance and worth to the fans he had worked so hard to please, what did it mean that he had finally crossed that line and done the thing he had refused to do for the entirety of his his two reigns; hit someone with his weight belt? What significance did that action hold? What implications did it have for his character? What did this transgression mean for the future?

Well, it meant that Cody hit someone with a weight belt. That’s all. No condemnation for doing such a heelish thing, no indication that it was a deviation of his character, certainly no black mark on his image as a pure and shining babyface. In the wider wrestling world the moment went completely unremarked upon, and he would go on to occasionally do that tease spot and maybe even hit someone else once or twice. One of the strongest pieces of symbolism in Cody’s entire body of work (unless you count like, The Concept Of Triple H), one of the only ones that called back to the things that made me love him to begin with, and it meant nothing. Nothing. I couldn’t even tell you who he hit with that belt! That’s how little any of it mattered, in the end, and no I will not go back and check because what on earth would be the point?

It should have meant something, and the fact that it didn’t felt like a slap in the face. It was a dismissal of all the time I had spent finding meaning in his work and a condescending validation of every notion that wrestling fans are too disinterested or too stupid to care about good storytelling. People like myself who think wrestling is art and worthy of being treated as such are pretentious lunatics who spend too much time with their thumbtacks and string and need to go outside and touch grass. Stop being a delusional mark and shut up, turn off your brain, and enjoy the dumb punchy thing.

One of my favorite things about wrestling is its capacity for unintentional symbolism

Okay. Deep breaths.

Probably I shouldn’t take it so personally. Not everyone enjoys analyzing wrestling storylines or gets invested in characters the way that I do. Above all else Cody is sparklingly charismatic and wonderful to watch perform, and there’s a lot of value in things that are fun, uncomplicated and, simply speaking, just not that deep. And to be sure I love that part of wrestling every bit as much as I love the more complicated sweeping epics with the weight of decades behind them, and I think both of those kinds of stories are equally worthy of being told. I shouldn’t blame Cody for the misunderstanding I had about the kind of art he was interested in giving me.

Still. There is simple storytelling and there is poorly crafted storytelling, and I wasn’t willing to turn my brain off and accept the former as the latter, and a lot of what was going on with Cody in the following months felt a lot like the latter. How am I supposed to be invested in a violent schism in the Nightmare Family centered around Cody and QT when Cody was never not once shown on screen to have a meaningful relationship with any of those people? If Arn Anderson held a gun to my head I couldn’t have have named a single substantive interaction between Cody and his own faction in the previous six months leading up to the formation of the Nightmare Factory. Dustin felt more like a leader than Cody did, and he had even teamed with QT on Dark for an extended period of time, so why was he merely a stepping stone to the blow-off match with Big Boss Cody Rhodes when Dustin was the one with skin in the game? Who are even the people in these factions, what are their relationships with each other, how did they come to be in a faction together, and how did members of the Nightmare Family feel when the Nightmare Factory defected? No idea but hey, look at Cody locking QT in a figure four on the roof of a bus!

Interestingly, it was around this time that I noticed that those rumbles I had started hearing in previous Fall were starting to increase in volume. It really picked up after the Penta feud in particular. Pentagon is already an extremely popular wrestler, not a young talent in need of putting over. He had long ago proven his worth as a main eventer, though at in that period his character felt somewhat adrift. A big win would have done a lot to liven him up and as a well-established star Cody would have lost nothing by losing to him, so Cody felt like the wrong man to win.

With all that on top of the egregious armbreak mess, people really started to question Cody’s role and function on the roster. There still wasn’t much, not yet, and for all the grumbling about Cody there were even more who were powerfully supportive of him, and it’s not hard to understand why. This was Cody. He had done so much for this company, for the whole wrestling world, even. He elevated new stars, he was so generous in his matches, he was so sweet to his fans and he was so dedicated to charity and community outreach. It was easy to write off the naysayers as bitter, irritating edgelords just looking for reasons to dunk on Cody and farm outrage for that sweet sweet social media engagement. Nothing worth listening to, that’s for sure.

Perhaps I personally wasn’t I wasn’t enjoying him as much as other people but that didn’t amount to much in the grand scheme of things. I adjusted my expectations of what I could reasonably expect from a Cody storyline and enjoyed what I could. What did it matter if Cody wasn’t crafting these intense, nuanced long-term stories with focused attention to detail. There were plenty of wrestlers I could get that from, some of them working in that very same company.

Speaking of which…

The House Of Black: Villains Are Fun And Cool, Actually

Credit: @kimberlasskick, AEW

With interest in Cody’s one-note brand of heroism waning, in came Malakai Black. Respected as both a wrestler and a creative mind, fans loved his work during his time on NXT and then watched with increasing frustration as he languished on the main roster for months before he was unceremoniously dismissed, salt in the wound of prolonged misuse. He’s someone who obviously gave a lot of thought to his character and his history stretching back to his original time on the indies as Tommy End. When a youtuber did a deep dive on him he expressed a lot of appreciation and gratitude at the fact that people were paying such close attention to his work and picking up on the details he had given so much thought to. Leading up to his debut he released vignettes that stoked excitement for what he would be able to do with the creative shackles off, and when he first appeared in an AEW ring much sooner than anticipated (due to an error in his previous contract) he was greeted with intense excitement and anticipation.

Interestingly, Malakai Black did not shed his past the moment he stepped in to AEW; he kept part of his name and an eye injury he had received in a WWE ring. That story has flowed in to the new story he is telling with AEW, one where the progression of rot and darkness around his injured eye reflects his mental state and progression in the narrative he’s weaving. Scratch the surface of Malakai and there’s more to discover, and with him being a fresh face with such a cool look and moveset, just about all anyone wanted when he came on to the scene was see what he could do when he was let off the leash and allowed to run wild.

Malakai Black oozes craft. You can hear it in his promos and interviews, you can see it in his presentation, his charisma and the way he carries himself. He never entirely leaves the realm of kayfabe; even in public appearances where we can’t see the exposed bone and decay around his eye the iris is always discolored, an indication that whatever kind of being Malakai is, it never quite leaves the man that was Tommy End. His entrance is masterful and understated in a way that maximizes impact, and whether in a suit or wrestling gear his body language positively drips with a delightfully sinister aura. Even for someone who never once saw him before he stepped foot in an AEW ring it’s obvious that he’s good, damn good at his craft, and it doesn’t take an art critic or a pretentious twat like me to appreciate the exquisite pleasure of a skilled artist at work.

Something I’ve noticed that wrestling really struggles with – or rather, that the people with the loudest voices in wrestling seem to struggle with – is that villains are fun and people like them. We just do! It can’t be helped. We’ve got our Jareth the Goblin Kings, our Lokis and our Hannibal Lectors. We have our Catwomans (catwomen?) and our Harley Quinns and Poison Ivys. Not everything has to be a morality tale, sometimes it’s fun to watch bad people commit crimes with glee and excess. Sometimes there’s a catharsis to seeing a villain with pains and motivations one can identify with wreaking destruction on their enemies, sometimes they operate within a personal code we connect with that does not quite align with conventional morality, and sometimes there’s just an Id-driven delight in watching mayhem and destruction in the controlled space of fiction. It seems odd that a medium as closely connected to the Id as wrestling would struggle so much with the idea that sometimes it’s just fun to watch bad people do bad things.

(Stay tuned for my next piece, where I scream in frustration over people insisting that the likes of Britt Baker and Adam Cole should turn babyface despite everything about their appeal being centered around their heel personas.)

Malakai’s debut feud with AEW being against Cody put a bit of a damper on that fun. There’s a bit of a mismatch in putting someone with such a deep well of untapped story potential against a wrestler who, lets face it, has been telling the same story for over a year with very little variation. Everyone liked Cody just fine at this point, of course, but Malakai was so much more interesting and had been unjustly shackled for so long that there was a clear and obvious preference for who the audience wanted to see him succeed. Heel and face distinctions are one thing, but there is nothing that captures attention like a good story. Seeing the bland hero ultimately defeat the much more interesting villain was not ultimately the best available story, but it was the story that most everything involving Cody seemed to turn out to be: See Brodie Lee, see Pentagon el Zero M, and Anthony Agogo. Of course there was always the chance this could turn out to be a Darby Allin or MJF sort of situation, where Cody’s opponent was ultimately victorious and the feud ended with that, but it wasn’t exactly the most likely outcome.

But it wasn’t by any means an impossible outcome, so when it came time for Malakai Black and Cody Rhodes to meet in the ring for the first time the wrestling fans made their preference known the only way they had available to them; by cheering Malakai very loudly, and booing Cody’s every attempt at victory.

Wrestling Fans Are Tired of Cody Being Nice, They Just Want To See Malakai Go Ape Shitt

In Rhodes To The Top, Cody described his reception in an altercation between himself and Black leading up to their match as being “booed out of the building”, which with the hindsight of Arthur Ashe is kind of cute in an “oh you sweet summer child” kind of way. He got booed once, in direct response to that move of his where he drops on his back and slaps his opponent across the face. It’s one of my favorite moves of Cody’s, probably because it’s a heel af. I know we’ve been politely ignoring it (and also that push up spot) since he started babyfacing it up in AEW, but it’s totally a heel move, right? Look at it! It’s cheeky and disrespectful and finely crafted to irritate the piss out of any opponent. Cody got a heel response from a heel move, and then the crowd went to loudly cheering Malakai because he’s really cool and people are happy to see him and want to watch him succeed. At that point, I think the crowd response had very little to do with Cody at all. They were happy for and to see Malakai, Cody just happened to be in his way.

“I think I’m not into hearing boo’s, whatever they may be,” Cody said when QT Marshall asked him how he felt about the incident. He did genuinely look upset, like he might have taken the moment personally, which is a little heartbreaking. Cody works very hard, he puts his body on the line and he believes strongly in what he does, none of that can be denied. It is an incredibly vulnerable experience to create something with care and love and put it out there for people to see, and I empathize deeply with how hurt Cody seems in this moment and in the ones to follow. But I don’t think the crowd response was personal, at least for most people. I think that there was an outcome to this feud that could lead into a fresh and interesting story, and an outcome that would probably lead to the same old shit, and the crowd in attendance started using its collective and very limited communication tools to show which one it would prefer. The crowd wasn’t anti-Cody, who is perfectly nice. They were pro-Malakai, who they just wanted to see go ape shitt. Nothing personal, just business.

Live audiences have an interesting kind of inertia. Because any coherent crowd response comes from many thousands of people coming together by consensus, once the seething mass of its collective consciousness has come to an agreement it is very difficult to change its mind. There are so many thousands of people and voices and opinions that must come together and express themselves in one voice (or two, I love a good dueling chant), with no centralized decision making process or room for nuance. Any deliberate attempt to change course must be gradual and indirect, working with the energy of the crowd because to work against it is to pit oneself against an unstoppable force, and no wrestler, whatever they might like you to think, is an immovable object.

Because the crowd is such an important part of wrestling presentation, as we learned rather harshly during the no fans era, part of the wrestlers job is to convince the audience to react in a way that enhances their work. If the crowd consensus is broadly in line with the intent of the story it forms a kind of dialogue, a lopsided conversation where the performer can fine tune their words in a thousand different ways and the crowd can only react by agreeing (YAY!) or disagreeing (BOO!). If the consensus is not in line with the intent of whomever is telling the story it turns into an argument, and it’s much easier for one side to get its point across than the other.

People sometimes say that wrestling crowds are fickle, but I think it may be more accurate to say that they’re petty. That’s not a value judgment, only an observation of the basic impulse humans have when someone tries to force them to do something they don’t want to do. Direct moves against the will and desires of the crowd backfire, as fans who see through attempts to keep them from doing a thing will respond with a gleeful and contemptuous increase of the thing (writers note: I wrote this sentence before Cody cut that promo asking the crowd to pretty please not boo him. Big Oof). There are so many examples of this in wrestling history that I couldn’t possibly list them all, and yet inexplicably there continue to be people who keep trying. The promoter who thought they could beat the babyface fire back into the Bucks just ended up feeding into the audience bloodlust and abusing the performers. Doggedly insisting that this person really is a babyface, promise, please start cheering for him – well, you don’t need me to tell you about Roman Reigns and John Cena.

By the time Malakai arrived there was still a powerful inertia behind Cody as a beloved babyface in the company, but there had been signs that that inertia had been shifting direction for a long time. A disparate collection of small annoyances had started to coalesce into a powerful force; Cody’s repetitive storytelling, for one, and the way his matches and segments took up big chunks of TV time while delivering very little of substance for another. The content of some of his promos weren’t quite landing right and he started doubling down and arguing with people about it, and a couple of egregious booking decisions like with Pentagon and Ogogo and that interminable Nightmare Family/Factory feud started inspiring increasing levels of frustration.

Through all this, Cody smiled. He did charity work, cut heartfelt promos, and occasionally gifted weight belts to ecstatic fans standing ringside. There was still so much to like about him, so much excitement he could generate just by being present. He was exactly the same person that had been so comforting and got us through such a dark and hopeless period a year ago. But… that was a year ago. While his past work certainly counted for something, the immediacy of the horribleness of 2020 had given way to a grinding, exhausting pantomime of normalcy in 2021. The sweet, simple promos about truth, justice, and the American way just weren’t hitting quite right anymore. We needed something different.

Malakai Black was different. Where Cody had frustrated the desire to seek meaning in his work with his bland characterization and shallow on-screen relationships, Malakai materialized from the darkness with a fistful of small mysteries to be teased apart and decoded. Where Cody’s persistent positivity had begun to feel cloying, Malakai felt like some dark hunter stalking just out of sight, the suits he tended to wear outside of the ring serving only as a thin veneer of civilization stretched over the monster lurking within. Malakai Black didn’t just look cool, he wasn’t just the new shiny toy being dangled in front of a distractible audience. He promised a compelling kind of corruption, a believable reign of terror that could pose a real danger to anyone he targeted and make any story he was a part of instantly more interesting. In short, he offered things the fans wanted that Cody had proven himself disinterested in giving. That’s what made Cody’s defeat at the hands of Malakai so exciting, and their rematch on Cody’s return such a grim prospect.

Human brains are bad at a lot of things, but they are very good at identifying patterns. By the time AEW Dynamite: Grand Slam rolled around the feud with Malakai matched the one with Brodie Lee beat for beat. Their first matches were at the same time (August 13th for Brodie, August 4th for Malakai) for the same reason (so Cody could film the Go Big Show). Cody was gone for only a few weeks and the rematches were set almost immediately after his return (49 days after the first match on October 10th for Brodie, 55 days later on September 22nd for Malakai). It’s not a stretch to think that history might once again be repeating itself. With barely two months of matches and all of them related to the shallowly characterized members of the Nightmare Family, people weren’t ready to see him lose. I certainly wasn’t. My primary emotion when Cody and Malakai’s rematch was announced for Grand Slam was disappointment, not excitement. I was enjoying Malakai so much and I was unspeakably disinterested in seeing him take a loss so soon in his run in AEW, much less a loss against Cody that I had been conditioned to understand would hold no deeper meaning than another babyface victory, on to the next.

I was not alone.

Watching the match back, I find that as overwhelmingly loudly the fans made it known exactly what outcome they were rooting for, the recording does not quite capture the sheer force of their ire. When the crowd booed Cody the sound vibrated in the chest, the very air in the arena seemed to shake. There were of course people who loyally cheered for Cody the whole way through, that’s just kind of the effect he has on people. But the overwhelming majority were happy to follow one particular fan’s directive: “Boo this man! Booo!” Going in to Grand Slam, Cody getting his win back seemed like a foregone conclusion. It’s exactly what happened the last time this exact scenario happened, after all, and subversions when it came to Cody’s stories were few and far between and seemed unlikely in this case. We had waited for too long for some spanner to be thrown into the works to make whatever Cody was doing more interesting, and we had no reason to believe that this, of all the times Cody won a match he arguably should have lost, would be the one time he broke the mold. For all but the most dedicated of his supporters, there was no benefit of the doubt left for him, and if Cody really was going to do what felt so inevitable they were going to make damn sure they made their opinions about it perfectly clear. Especially when Cody hit the Cross Rhodes, Jesus wept. I’ve never in my life heard or felt such rage, or such shocking, overwhelming joy as the moment Malakai kicked out. Sublime.

If their feud had ended or at least went dormant for a few months after that, and Malakai had been able to break away from the Nightmare Family when he cut that promo about tiring of them, I think the fans would have been perfectly happy to go right back to cheering Cody. Happier, probably, because Cody would have proven that he wasn’t constantly and meaninglessly winning just because, that he could take a loss when the story demanded it and be vulnerable in a way that made him easier to sympathize with. Maybe he could have spent some time selling the consequences of the black mist, have another shot at that story of the conflicted babyface struggling with internal darkness that he fumbled the previous year with the weight belts. The way he was warmly (though not universally positively) received on the next week’s Dynamite provides some evidence for the idea that while no one was interested in seeing him beat Malakai specifically, they were more than happy to cheer for him in general. Unfortunately, instead of building up the last dregs of Cody’s goodwill, storytelling and booking choices ultimately squandered them to nothing.

Heel. Babyface. Winner.

The current situation is mindblowing for me. It really- it really is… So, I’m trying to lead them this way, but also you can’t, you’ve gotta ride the wave as well. So then there are times when I’ll lean in, you know. With Andrade we pulled out the golden shovel, we have fun with elements like that. As long as they’re happy and making noise, I could care less.

I don’t don’t know if I would root for me, if I really think about it

Cody Rhodes on Barstool Rasslin’ January 6, 2022

But that’s assuming that the point wasn’t for Cody to squander the last remaining dregs of his good will. The argument over whether Cody is turning heel on purpose or not has been raging for months. Cody Rhodes is a good wrestler and a great performer who grew up in the business and knows how it works as well as anybody, and it’s hard to imagine that such a huge shift in his reception isn’t at least a little deliberate. A heel turn seems like the natural progression of a character which has always had heel elements, from his entrance to his move set to his costuming, and when the shine started to come off of his character as a babyface it was the obvious next step to revitalize his character and start fresh – The easy way out, if you will. But I actually think this argument is something of a trap. When asking whether Cody is Heel or Face we’re gliding over more important questions, like “what are this character’s motivations?” “How has this character changed over time?” “What are the central conflicts driving this character’s narrative?” and, more abstractly “Are audiences interested in this character as a character, and are they invested in stories involving them?”

Certainly the audience is making a lot of noise at Cody, but is that a deliberately crafted response based on deftly woven storytelling choices? I understand why some would say that they are, I truly do, but when I look at all the deeply mystifying decisions made since Cody and Malakai’s second match and when I look at all the frustrating and unsatisfying decisions made in the year leading up to it, I can’t agree. For me to accept the premise that a span of booking that looks like a complete mess on every level is actually a clever and intricate bit of storytelling I would need to see evidence of that level of nuance and subtlety in any part of the rest of Cody’s work and to be completely frank, I simply do not. I didn’t see it when Cody bleached his hair from black back to blond and picked up the TNT title as if he never lost it in the first place. I didn’t see it when he brought his weight belt down on an opponent’s back during a ladder match. I certainly didn’t see it after he aligned himself with every babyface within reach and set himself on fire. As a storyteller Cody is very simple and very straight forward; what you see is what you get. That’s not a problem, but what is a problem is when that simplicity becomes repetitive, and that repetition turns to stagnation.

Surely there is a middle ground to be had here my dude

When discussing his character on his recent Barstool Rasslin’ interview, Cody said “We’re going the route of the guy who wins matches, because that’s what started pissing people off in the first place.” Okay, King, but what else? What effect does winning have on your character’s emotional state, his relationships with the people in his life, how he carries himself outside of the ring and how he speaks? What are the consequences for him if he doesn’t win, what kind of obstacles to his goals is he going to face and how will he respond to them? What, apart from cute jokey-jokes and crowd reactions, distinguishes this phase of the character from the one that came before? It’s fine to have a character who wins a lot but moving forward without answering these questions is, bluntly, a waste of everyone’s time. That’s what pissed people off, and stubbornly continuing to do the same thing as before isn’t heel heat, it’s refusing to tell a story.  

It’s funny, I’ve been writing this piece since the week of Grand Slam. The original plan was to start with the Fall of 2020 and end with Arthur Ashe, because those two events seemed like the perfect bookends to encapsulate one of the most fascinating one-eighties in public opinion I have ever witnessed. I had a really solid idea of what angle I was going to take and what I wanted to say, but as things have played out over the past weeks and months I’ve found myself bogged down by how much has continued to happen, and all the discourse around it. Each week there have been choices made that are so wild and mystifying that I was sure that I needed to discuss them in detail. For weeks at a time I found myself holding off on working on this piece to see if there would be some development that would change my stance or what I wanted to say, and each week that didn’t happen, but there were just enough hints to make me think that the next week, surely, would have some sort of status quo change that would make all twelve goddamn thousand words of this thing completely irrelevant, so I had to make sure that I captured that too.

And then at some point I realized something: What I was going through now was the same thing I went through in 2020 when the Summer started to cool into Fall and Cody constantly felt like he was inching closer and closer to some edge, some significant change in his character that would recontectualize everything that came before and set him up for the next phase in his story. But it didn’t come then and, even if he is forced into some kind of change in his behavior after this point, it would be foolish for me to wait for it to come now. It’s been three months since Cody Rhodes walked down the aisle of Arthur Ashe Stadium and its bones shook with the force of its rejection, and I feel confident in my assessment that whatever plans he may have had then did not much resemble the way things have turned out to be now, however things may shake out from here.

Conclusion (I don’t have a pithy header for this one – sorry guys it’s been three months and I’m tired)

So far I haven’t addressed the most common reasons people list for not liking Cody, and I don’t really intend to. Most of it just seems like the same shit the usual suspects tend to fling at AEW when they’re upset about something, not anything with any true basis in reality. Some of it is a lack of ability to express the source of their irritation, some of it is just thin excuses to indulge in the malicious glee of writing articles like “Cody Rhodes Needs To Fuck Off More Than Anyone Has Ever Fucked Off In The History Of Fucking Off” (a real article that squandered its objectively hilarious title on a garbled mess as factually incorrect as it was meanspirited) or weird hit pieces “implying” that he’s a real dick in real life who is despised by everyone around him. Which like, come on people. Get a grip.

There are some other things I haven’t gotten into either; like that bewildering fake retirement angle after the first match with Malakai, or the latest title win, or some of the more egregious booking decisions post-Arthur Ashe. I spent a lot of time lost in the weeds wanting to dig into the smallest minutia surrounding Cody Rhodes because my love language is exhaustive media analysis, but I had to stop somewhere. I came to realize that, while I think a lot of those choices are very much worth talking about, they mostly serve to tell a different story that is still being written. I don’t know where Cody goes from here, and his picking up the TNT Championship for the third time is certainly not the route I would have chosen. I have a lot of difficulty seeing how this helps him, or anyone else for that matter, and part of me wanted to address it. But the whys and hows and implications of that decision are ultimately irrelevant to an examination of how Cody came to be a subject of such intense debate in the first place, and those questions will have to be answered in the future. Answered by someone else, to be clear: Cody’s gotten more than enough words out of me.

I hope it’s apparent in my writing that it was never my intention to bury Cody or tear down his work. I’ve been a fan of his for a long time and he’s always going to have a special place in my heart, which is why I’ve been watching his progression with such fascination. It’s possible and even good to look at the things we like with a critical eye, to examine the craft of them and approach the art we love – whether that be movies or books or video games or even wrestling – more thoughtfully and with greater understanding. I felt so compelled to write about this the way I have because I am at heart someone who loves stories, and this period with Cody between the debut of the TNT Championship through to AEW Dynamite: Grand Slam is the perfect case study to show the importance of them. People may try to say that wrestling fans are too stupid or too disinterested to appreciate a well told tale, but it isn’t true. The Parable of Cody Rhodes is that even the most beloved wrestler in the world can be brought down by the want of a good story