Wrestling-themed group chats, including mine (shout out to the Superkliq!), blew up on Tuesday morning with the news that two of All Elite Wrestling’s Executive Vice Presidents (EVP’s) and cornerstones, Cody and Brandi Rhodes, would be departing the company.
Speculation immediately ran rampant all over the internet about what this means and what it will mean for the Rhodeses and for AEW, with the prevailing opinion being that the pair would be jumping ship to the WWE. The departing statements from AEW, Cody, and Brandi also expressed no animosity at all, suggesting that this break was a mutual decision.
The issue seems to be largely a financial one. Cody negotiated with AEW president Tony Khan for over six weeks, openly stating that he was working without an agreement, without coming to a deal on a new contract. We know that AEW has picked up a number of big-ticket signings over the past few months, including CM Punk and Bryan Danielson, with more reportedly on the way. Khan not granting what was likely to be an ask for a significant pay raise to Cody is probably a sign that the company is tightening it’s purse strings, either as a result of these recent signings, in anticipation of the next ones, or a combination of both.
For AEW, a move like this could have been devastating only six months ago. Cody was a major part of Dynamite, and more importantly, an ambassador of the company. With two Turner/TNT side projects in his reality show Rhodes to the Top and talent show The Go Big Show in addition to his wrestling and EVP duties, he and Brandi are critical envoys between AEW and the Turner brass. That being said, in the last year or so, Dynamite and it’s sister show Rampage have been doing pretty good ratings, usually falling within the top ten (and often in the top 3) shows in their timeslots. Turner is obviously pretty happy with them, Cody or no, and it seems inevitable that if the ratings remain at this level or improve, the company is in for an even better TV deal in 2024.
As much as money is likely the primary driver behind Cody’s decision to jump, the creative control factor, that old pro wrestling sticking point that has affected main event performers like Hulk Hogan, Shawn Michaels, and Bret Hart in profound ways, may be rearing it’s head here as well. Numerous wrestling pundits have speculated that Cody felt as though he should have more control over the writing and booking of segments on Dynamite, especially his own. In the last while, a raft of brand new signings have made the competition for AEW’s relatively limited TV time even fiercer, leaving little room for the garish pageantry of Cody’s several-minute ring entrance and long promos. Don’t get me wrong, both are major crowd pleasers (for the most part), but even that seems to be changing and Cody is starting to get similar reactions to the ones John Cena and Roman Reigns did when their characters began to wear thin with crowds. The American Nightmare (and Brandi) can barely do anything lately without being booed, despite – and perhaps because of – Cody’s steadfast determination not to ‘turn heel’.
In my humble opinion, there are dozens of ways in which a still-unconfirmed move to WWE could go wrong for Cody and very few where it could be a net benefit for him. WWE, from a creative standpoint, is in a state of constant turmoil that’s only mitigated by the fact that they can throw nearly any amount of money against it’s shortcomings. For example, the sudden departure of Shane McMahon over his booking of last month’s Royal Rumble has seemingly resulted in WWE making what has to be expensive overtures to Stone Cold Steve Austin, nearly two decades into retirement, to take Shane’s place on this year’s Wrestlemania card, approximately three months away. An environment like that with such drastic creative changes is not one where Cody, always thinking of the long-game and wanting more of a hands-on role in his fate, is likely to thrive. Coupled with the fact that WWE is still in the grip of Vince McMahon, a mercurial and often vindictive figure whose personal grudges against talent often play out onscreen, and this is could have his former competitors Cody and Brandi looking pretty bad on the other end, no matter how well-compensated they are.
With all this in mind, the story of how this has all played out will undoubtedly make for a fascinating documentary, shoot interview, or podcast one day. The motivation and reasoning for why Cody ended up leaving a company he founded, along with an executive position and a platform that seemed to cater endlessly to his whims, for WWE in 2022 are fascinating. Conversely, the endgame for Vince McMahon and WWE are equally compelling. Will they bring Cody in as a top star, give him any modicum of creative control or input, or allow him to do any of the side projects he’s expressed interest in? History would certainly say no, that Cody will be forced into a humiliating return to the much-loathed Stardust character, grimly echoing the treatment of his father Dusty when Vince forced him into a polka-dot outfit 30 years ago. But these are unprecedented times in more than one sense of the word. AEW is at a point where it very much seems like they’ll be fine without Cody, but there’s a nagging feeling that you can’t take the heart out of an organization like that without altering it in a fundamental way. One thing’s for sure – AEW’s EVPs have always said that they’re out to “change the world.” Over the past three years, they’ve done that in ways no one ever expected. They’ve, to borrow a phrase from Rhodes, “[done] the work.” I can’t wait to see what’s next.