Cody Rhodes rewrote his career's narrative in 2016 when he washed the face paint of the Stardust character off his face for the last time, waved goodbye to Vince McMahon's World Wrestling Entertainment and set out to prove he did not need the mass marketing machine of the biggest sports entertainment company in the world to be a star.
Acclaimed runs in Ring of Honor and New Japan Pro-Wrestling, friendship and a business relationship with The Young Bucks gave way to a spectacle known as All In, which drew 11,263 fans to the Sears Centre right outside of Chicago on September 1, 2018, sparking excitement for the industry at a time when it desperately needed it.
The success of the event inspired a business venture with Tony Khan, the co-owner of the Jacksonville Jaguars, and the formation of the first wrestling promotion to be real competition to WWE since 2001.
On May 25, All Elite Wrestling will deliver its first live event extravaganza, Double or Nothing, live from the sold-out MGM Grand Garden Arena in Las Vegas. Rhodes, the executive vice president of AEW, spoke with Bleacher Report about the staggering early success of the show, the state of women's wrestling and its place in the upstart company, and what fans might expect from AEW.
Bleacher Report: All In and Double or Nothing have been booked for 10,000-plus-seat venues. Is that something AEW will look to continue going forward, or will those buildings be reserved for the bigger shows?
Cody Rhodes: I think right now, one of the big lessons, there's all these different theories about the Double or Nothing sellouts. One of the realities is we just didn't have enough. We had a lot of demand and we had limited supply, and with 11,600 tickets, we just didn't have enough. It's been reported and it's out there that there were 43,000 different people in the virtual waiting room. That's individual people.
Most individual people don't just buy one ticket. I think...I have my sights set on a bigger venue as we go forward. Nothing that's been confirmed. That would be important to me. There's a lot of great baseball stadiums. There's something about these indoor baseball stadiums I'm really excited about. But right now, it's slow and steady. It's one at a time.
We're getting ready to announce the Jacksonville show, where that is and what date it is. I'm excited to have two shows on the books, and hopefully it gets more and more real for the fans because they're the ones taking this ride with us. I like when they can be vocalized and excited about things.
B/R: One of the goals of AEW is to provide fans with a true alternative to WWE. Considering Ring of Honor and TNA have attempted to do so in the past but ultimately ended up somewhat resembling WWE Lite, do you feel added pressure not to follow in their footsteps? More importantly, do you believe it is possible to be truly different in today's wrestling landscape?
Rhodes: I guess I feel a lot of pressure all the time to begin with. I know especially during the season we're in now with WrestleMania coming up, that's when you see the best of the WWE...and I think to some degree, it's so much superior to the rest-of-their-year product.
I feel a lot of pressure in general because in saying we want to provide the alternative, you have to be as good or better, but you don't have to take the same steps they did. I love what Ring of Honor does in providing a lot more of a high-spot-oriented, almost Japanese style of pro wrestling, but the problem with Ring of Honor is you can never find where it is, never find when it's on. They've made a lot of steps with Honor Club, and I really enjoyed my time with Ring of Honor.
But with us, I think the important thing is getting the product out there where people can see it and touch it. It's not so much about providing a different product, it's about providing a better product, and that's just across the board. I like a very...I like the type of pro wrestling that I know a lot of fans like and a lot of fans have been waiting for. I've been using the term sport-centric, and that doesn't lock it down, but I think people know when I say that what I mean.
Then I have Matt and Nick [Jackson] and Kenny [Omega] who like what they like, so you have that buffet for fans instead of some uniformed vision that can almost get monotonous. You can provide that buffet that can be all over the place. You can have this emotional long-form narrative and you can attach it to something silly and something that makes you laugh.
I think wrestling is supposed to do all those things. Make you happy, make you sad, make you laugh, and I think the huge thing that is missing in wrestling is you're never supposed to leave a show disappointed. Ever. That's the one thing pro wrestling can do more than any pro sport in the world. That's why I always put it a step above MMA. If someone is your hero, and you're going to see them, win, lose or draw, you're not going to leave that show unhappy.
I'm excited just to get to work on it all.
B/R: Speaking of Omega, he was the most sought-after free agent in wrestling a few short weeks ago. In your opinion, what is it that makes Kenny as popular and in-demand as he was?
Rhodes: I think what makes Kenny valuable is that he is the best big-match wrestler in pro wrestling. He doesn't wrestle as much as someone say, like, me or the Bucks, but when he does, there's such a commitment to it. You know he's going to give you something just really...something you can really sink your teeth in. He's a great example of quality over quantity. So he's like the best big-match, big-fight wrestler in wrestling.
He also has a really brilliant mind that is unrelated. He likes kung fu and he likes anime and he like all of these cinematic, artistic representations of violence and physicality. And he looks to those and he pulls from those. That's needed. That's special. He's not just stealing from the past. He's just creating right there on the spot. He's really special, a unique wrestler, and he's a hero to a lot of people. And I'm glad to have him flank me in that position.
B/R: Do you see him kind of becoming an attraction?
Rhodes: Well, time will tell. I think wrestlers go through phases and changes, and I think [to be] the most sought-after free agent...if you look into the contract for The Elite, for All Elite Wrestling, we're definitely going to be wrestling though every week because they are hefty contracts. I'm very grateful for them.
I don't know if necessarily he'll fall into that category or what, but I do know we have a really good roster forming. Some have been announced, some haven't, that are really starting to form the base and foundation of the company, and I think that would be really something to diversify the shows. You never want to give them something they've basically already seen before.
So I don't really know, to answer your question. I think that will be up to Kenny whether he wants to be more of an attraction or if he'll be more of a week-to-week, show-to-show.
B/R: Women's wrestling is as hot now as it has ever been. We're seeing WWE emphasize it. We see independent promotions like Shimmer around. It's taken on a much greater presence in the industry. What does the future of women's wrestling look like in AEW?
Rhodes: I think there is this really old, antiquated promoter's philosophy that women's wrestling doesn't draw. And I think that's probably the most fun thing to see right now, that women's wrestling does draw. Women starring...they do sell merchandise, they do sell pay-per-views. That's really special to see.
But in this era where women's wrestling is being so highlighted, I think we have the opportunity to take it even a step further, where it's not just a select few that are highlighted. We'll go out in the wild, a little bit, and find women that you haven't heard of; that are just as good, if not better.
Brandi [Rhodes] has done an exceptional job. It helps that she was in the ring herself, of course. That she was able to be part of Stardom in Japan and to travel. To go to Australia. To go on these scouting trips she did and be in the ring and see some of the best. And that's the opportunity we have, to present women's wrestling in a way that every week makes you a fan of someone different. Some special women's star that's out there worldwide. I am really excited about that.
We signed Britt Baker. I think she has the potential to be the ace of the division. But then again, we're a startup. Who knows? We may have plans but everything, you know, we've gotta get on this horse and ride it and see where it takes us. I'm a big, big fan of women's wrestling. Of all women's shows, of women's main events. It's cool to be part of this.
B/R: You're in a different boat from Matt and Nick and even Tony Khan in that you've been with WWE, you've seen what it takes to run the most successful wrestling company on the planet, and you also know what missteps they made during your time there. Do you think that experience benefits you in your role with AEW, or will you look to put that out of your mind and completely do your own thing?
Rhodes: From a creative standpoint, I think it doesn't benefit me necessarily, because that type of presentation they have isn't what I'm interested in. Creatively, it isn't something I lean on. Production-wise, I will say, having been there for the decade I was there and having grown up on television, there are so many things I was able to learn from my time with the company. So many things I want to implement; things I've learned not to do; a great deal of things that surround putting on a megashow.
A lot of that isn't from the standpoint of I want it to be like this. A lot of it is from the standpoint of being a talent in the locker room. When you're a talent in the locker room, you like that special treatment that comes from being on a big show. You like how a well-oiled production is done. You get used to it. When I left, I definitely wasn't getting the well-oiled machine of WWE.
I'm on record about treating talent. It's very, very, very important how you treat talent. The hot-dog-and-handshake era of our business is over. A fair wage for a fair day is important in wrestling for our stars. So, you know, I learned a great deal about production from my time there.
I'm excited to continue to utilize that.
You can follow Cody and All Elite Wrestling's build to Double or Nothing each week via his Road to Double or Nothing YouTube show. The second-generation star will be competing at the event but to this point, he has not revealed who is opponent will be, opting to keep it a mystery for the time being.
The May 25 event will be headlined by Kenny Omega vs. Chris Jericho in a rematch of their Wrestle Kingdom 12 classic and The Young Bucks vs. Pentagon Jr. and Ray Fenix.