Well, if he’s going to lead a revolution then he’s going to have to come for the King.
Cody Rhodes, in his prime as a front office executive and top talent on television, is more than comfortable with needling Triple H and the WWE. The latest chapter of Cody’s story playing out in AEW is breaking new ground within televised wrestling. He’s not just referencing another company in WWE but creating a meta-narrative in which he plays a character playing off of another character from an entirely different show. He’s daring audience members in the know to boo at the obvious hypocrisy of his actions, all while he feigns innocence and bows for the cheers of everyone else. It’s an astonishing endeavor: Cody has created a plot that revolves around himself and another man that will never be actually present.
Cody Rhodes and Triple H have been chained together for as long as AEW has existed. That invisible thread between The American Nightmare and The Game (The King of Kings, The Cerebral Assassin, yada yada…) has guided a handful of shots back and forth between the two. Cody and his wife Brandi Rhodes took the same corporate titles with AEW as Triple H and Stephanie McMahon have with WWE (Executive Vice President and Chief Brand Officer, respectively). Cody opened his match during the first AEW show, Double or Nothing, by using Triple H’s signature weapon, a sledgehammer, to smash a throne decorated with an iron cross – a symbol present in almost all of H’s entrance trons, gear, and merchandise. Hunter responded at DX’s WWE Hall of Fame ceremony by referring to AEW as a “pissant company.” Are these just petty attacks between an angry ex-talent and his former boss? Maybe, but from Cody’s end at least, this was the opening of a story that is becoming more prominent and more explicit as of late.
Cody is very easy to hate. He’s also very easy to love. He is maybe the most earnest person in wrestling, at least among the big TV companies. He always, and with one hundred percent commitment, believes in everything he does. It’s part of why he has been able to succeed and grow since leaving his former company, moving through different indies and onto Ring of Honor and New Japan Pro Wrestling before helping found AEW. He is the only person in AEW or WWE that could conceivably pull off what he has been doing, and what you think Cody has been doing might depend on how in tune you are with Cody’s background, connections with Triple H, and his escape from WWE.
Cody’s current path began during his feud with QT Marshall, a feud that was solid enough but ended with Cody’s first low heat match in front of an AEW audience. He had been, for essentially the first year and a half, a hero to the fans. Conceivably, without Cody there is no AEW at all. I don’t think anyone could possibly make the argument that the crowd had turned on Cody, but there was enough indifference mixed in to make it feel like a turning point for him character-wise. This then led to his match with Anthony Ogogo, with a lead-up that featured one of the worst segments ever to be shown on Dynamite, and a promo with very mixed opinions from viewers. The story to this rivalry ended up being a very generic American vs. foreign heel concept, punctuated with a very forgettable match on PPV last May.
And so, by the summer, Cody was in a much more nebulous position with the crowd. Even his manager Arn Anderson berated and insulted Cody, and by the fall there was a healthy dose of boos anytime Cody showed up. How much of this was planned and how much is Cody adjusting on the fly is hard to know, and frankly, this ambiguity is an essential part of this story.
Triple H’s legacy is a key piece to understanding Cody’s story. The Game is undeniably one of the most famous wrestlers in American history. He is (or was, depending on what exactly is going on over in Stamford) one of the most important corporate figures in the biggest wrestling promotion in the world. He’s a 14-time World Champion in WWE, to go along with a bunch of other titles and accolades. He is a legitimate big deal! And, despite all of that, a very large swathe of people think of him primarily as the guy who buried their favorite wrestler: CM Punk, Booker T, and Zack Ryder, among others, all had good momentum killed by Hunter.
I don’t think it is wrong to assume that Cody Rhodes thinks of himself just as highly as Triple H thinks of himself. Confidence is why Cody was able to leave WWE and somehow become an even bigger deal. It is part of why crowds connect with him, and it is another ingredient in what makes this current iteration of Cody work. But what exactly is it that Cody is doing?
Cody, free from the shackles of the WWE, is now the first three-time champion in the AEW, having won his third TNT Championship. He has represented to the audience the personified backlash against WWE, a hero for those tired of the old order of wrestling. Since being sprayed in the face with black poison by Malakai Black, though, Cody’s soul is not quite right. He has been acting differently. Not all the time, but enough to make it noticeable. He isn’t cheating to win, and he isn’t using the heel tunnel to enter or leave matches, but he has been thinking about both. AEW already has bad guys. Miro is a fallen angel out for revenge on God; Malakai Black is sent by the devil himself; there are regular heels who go after the faces and insult the audience. Cody, though, is turning into something worse than any of those: he is becoming Triple H.
A long way from when he smashed Triple H’s throne, Cody is now teasing Triple H’s finisher, the Pedigree, to hammer the point home. Eventually, he is going to hit that move on someone and complete the transformation. One is reminded of when Seth Rollins became the acolyte of Triple H after his split from The Shield. He sold his soul to The Authority for a championship, and began to use the Pedigree as his finisher, too. What Cody is producing is not the same, however. Triple H, the character, isn’t in the shadows directing him. This is Triple H, the real man in a position of power in WWE, that Cody is alluding to. Cody isn’t creating a heel turn by becoming an AEW bad guy, he is becoming a heel by becoming a WWE bad guy.
This saga also warrants comparisons to Matt Cardona’s GCW persona. Cardona has been able to evoke hatred simply by being an outsider in a place that he does not belong. He is antagonizing the crowd by bringing WWE to a place where fans go to escape that sort of wrestling. Cody is working a similar angle, but with a few differences. He is not referring back to WWE as a whole entity the way Cardona does when he uses WWE-vocabulary like “superstars” and “sports entertainment.” Cody is playing this off in a more subtle way in front of a much wider audience. What that has meant is that the amount of boos he receives, relative to the cheers, varies by the crowd and their relative level of disdain for WWE and Triple H himself.
It’s clever, it‘s unique, and Cody seems to be having a blast playing this out. He’s been able to channel heat to himself from a guy who doesn’t even wrestle anymore, isn’t really present at WWE at the moment, and with whom Cody has no actual affiliation. It’s like if Superman were to turn into Thanos in a DC comic. Some fans might have no idea what was going on, while others would react incredibly strongly to the crossover, one way or the other.
Cody has brought Triple H back to the ring in a way no one could have predicted. There won’t be a match or even an appearance from Triple H, but there is no way around it: Hunter is there in the ring, chewing his gum, and laughing at the crowd every time Cody grabs the double underhook. This time, Cody is playing The Game.