Pro Wrestling's Greatest Blood Feud Reignited in Startup All Elite Wrestling

Jonathan Snowden@JESnowdenCombat Sports Senior WriterSeptember 30, 2019


Pro wrestling's next great star, Cody Rhodes, sits behind a desk in a cluttered office, with a placard reading "Executive Vice President" the only reminder he's more than just one of the crew as chaos unfolds around him.     

There's a swarm of people in the building with him, and everyone seems to be working on four things at once. The most pressing project is a scramble to get the latest edition of Road to AEW on TNT up on the fledgling promotion's YouTube channel. Editors jump from computer to computer. All Elite Wrestling's Oct. 2 debut on TNT is weeks away, but the rush is on.

And Cody is in his element.

He, too, is doing four things at once. Gossiping about Chris Jericho's recent lost-and-found escapades with the AEW championship belt. Keeping track of announcer Tony Schiavone as he fights his way here through traffic. Strategizing with members of his team as they plot out story arcs for a wrestling character called "The Substitute" that they invented on the spot when Cody found out that Charlie "Clothesline" Ramone, one of the jack-of-all-trades trainees in his entourage, used to be a substitute teacher.

Oh, and being interviewed. Constantly in motion.

The desk is not his, nor is the building on the outskirts of Atlanta, nor even most of the video team. It's all largesse provided by wrestling legend "Diamond" Dallas Page, who has let the AEW team all but take over his DDP Yoga studio as it launches what could end up being the first true competitor to WWE that wrestling has seen in decades.

When Page walks in, Cody quickly replaces his nameplate with Page's, a bit they would later modify and steal for YouTube.

The mood is light, and Cody's eyes are bright, despite a schedule that would break most mortal men.

It's an energy level that is both exhausting and exhilarating to be around—and those in his wake say this is how Cody operates nearly 24 hours a day. He isn't merely a vice president for the purpose of YouTube sketches. He's working hard, seemingly nonstop, on getting the promotion off the ground. If he's not in a conference call to discuss business operations and budget, he's in one for marketing or for creative concerns.

Or, as he will later this day, he's sneaking in a workout, a reminder that in addition to his many duties in the office, Cody still has to step into the ring and deliver a world-class match, whether against Sammy Guevara in the opening night on TNT or in a title match against Jericho at AEW Full Gear, the company's next pay-per-view, scheduled for Nov. 9.

It's a delicate balance—the same one his late father, "The American Dream" Dusty Rhodes, pulled off for years as both one of wrestling's most potent in-ring attractions and one of its most powerful behind-the-scenes forces.

"I've never seen him not in this mode," Page said of Cody. "His old man was always positive, too. It didn't matter how gloomy s--t was, he never sold it. I would be like, 'Dream, how do you stay so positive?' He's like, 'That's the only way to be. You can't sell it, D. You can't let them feel it.' He was saying, 'Don't let them ever see sweat' before it was a commercial.

"Cody has that same confidence."

Schiavone sees the same quality. "He draws people to him. I think he's a natural leader like his dad was. His dad used to say, 'You've got to be able to walk a room like Richard Nixon.' Dusty always said that Richard Nixon could walk a room better than anybody. Dusty was like that, and I think Cody's like that too. I think you're immediately drawn to his confidence and the way he presents himself."

This, Page adds, is exactly what gave Cody the guts to walk away from WWE in the first place, despite being pretty much guaranteed a seven-figure paycheck and an all-but-guaranteed lifetime position with the leading company in his field.

He couldn't imagine life as just another corporate cog, a life where he never gave it his best shot.

"He wasn't afraid to walk away from the table because he knew he had something. Really had it," Page said. "And it don't matter who else sees it. He did."

And AEW will need every bit of that bravado.

Yes, it has the backing of the billionaire Khan family, which also owns the NFL's Jacksonville Jaguars among its many assets. Yes, it has a time slot on TNT, one of cable television's premium outlets (and, full disclosure, a corporate partner of Bleacher Report). Those are solid underpinnings to build on.

But entering what wrestling fans are calling the "Wednesday Night Wars," a head-to-head showdown with WWE—which is airing its own popular NXT show in the same time slot as AEW on TNT—this is still very much a startup trying to disrupt a corporate beast.

To succeed, it will need to summon every bit of bravado and energy and leadership Cody has in him.

If it does, it will be remembered as the culmination of a rivalry between two families as alike as they are opposites—families with the drive, creativity, energy and force of will to take a wild and woolly business in their hands and mold it into something remarkable.

While the leading roles in front of the camera have been played by Hulk Hogan and The Rock and Ric Flair, the Rhodeses and the McMahons have spent decade after decade battling for wrestling's very soul. Theirs is the story of two proud families, two distinct visions and just one business—one that the younger Rhodes is betting is big enough for both of them.

A Dream and a Rivalry

Dusty first became a force on the regional wrestling scene in the late 1970s and continued right through the fearsome battles of the '80s. Even in a world filled with big men and even bigger personalities, he was larger than life—275 pounds of blue-eyed soul who became one of the sport's true national acts thanks to the power of Ted Turner's SuperStation WTBS, one of the first cable stations widely available around the country.

His connection with the audience was legendary. In his most famous interview, he literally reached out to the camera, inviting viewers to do the same at home, to touch his hand so they might fight the good fight together. It's enough to give you shivers: emotional, powerful and poignant.

"When he talked, people f--king bought it," said Page, a family confidante. "Because he believed it. Invested 100 percent."

Dusty was savvy enough to make his greatest weakness a strength. Even in his younger days, tight perm shimmering with either sweat or blood, depending on how the match was going, he had a jiggle. By his 30s, there is no polite euphemism for what he was—a fat guy in a muscle man's sport.

Rather than work against him, his appearance was a differentiator. Dusty sashayed around the ring as the avatar of every guy in the audience who had gone slightly to pot but still fancied himself a tough guy despite outward appearances. He was the common man who hid heart, guts and sinew beneath a healthy protective layer of flesh.

But as big as he was in the ring, it was outside the squared circle where he truly made his mark on the industry. He had a vision for wrestling that was bigger than studio television, too big to be limited to National Guard Armories and the like in Florida.

His dream for America was an American Dream: big, grandiose, sometimes crazy and foolish—blood-and-guts action paired with powerful interviews—fueled by borrowed money and hope.

What it wasn't was boring, even for a second.

He created the modern wrestling supershow with Starrcade in 1983 and then powered Jim Crockett Promotions through the early stages of the wrestling wars with idea after idea—a series of stadium shows called the Great American Bash, an ultraviolent spectacle called WarGames and the cable television special Clash of the Champions, to name just a few.

"I don't think people realize the importance of what Dad did in the early 1980s," Cody said. "Boxing comes along later, but before all that, Vince and Dusty put pay-per-view on a map. And it's cool: Every year at the Hall of Fame, when my dad was still alive, he would kind of count the number of people who thanked him. Jokingly, he'd nudge you. Like eight people every year would say, 'Man, thanks Dusty for giving me my start. Without you, none of this would have happened.'"

The other version of wrestling was glitzier, a human cartoon. But while most critics preferred the Rhodes brand, Vince McMahon and his WWE won the wrestling war. Dusty had to swallow his pride, and in 1989 he went to work for his rival.

Put in polka dots as the "Common Man," he made the best of it, turning those yellow circles to gold in memorable, money-making programs with the "Million Dollar Man" Ted DiBiase and "Macho Man" Randy Savage. It was the Dream without the raw edges, and like most of what McMahon did in that era, it seemed to work.

"Him and Vince butted heads over many things," Dusty's wife, Michelle Runnels, said. "They had different ideas, and they both had really strong personalities. But he had nothing but respect for Vince and what he accomplished. Vince did a lot for this business. He took it from a world of regional promotions to a huge conglomerate. Dusty had nothing but respect for that.

"It was making money for the boys, and for Dusty that meant everything was great."

After a few years working with McMahon, Dusty went back to the WWF's competition until it finally closed up shop. He tried and failed with his own wrestling promotion in the southeast, spent time on the independent circuit, working well into his 50s doing the only thing he'd ever known, putting food on the table the only way he knew how.

Dusty spent his final decade working for the man who had bested him. When the McMahons offered him a lifeline and an opportunity to work with developing talent with their NXT brand, Dusty didn't hesitate. At NXT, he continued to fight for his vision of wrestling. Working this time mostly with Vince's daughter, Stephanie, and her husband, Triple H, he turned his attention to the future of the business.

McMahon may call the shots backstage at WWE Raw, but the passion and spirit that fuels the dreams of many WWE performers was nurtured by NXT's old oak, who often invited them to sit under his learning tree. There is a generation of budding stars who came through the WWE Performance Center in Orlando who call themselves "Dusty's Kids."

His legacy lives through them—and through Cody and Dustin, the original Dusty kids.

"Dad would be really proud of everything his boys are doing, especially Cody," Dustin Rhodes said. "He not only left the other company to go out and do his own thing, but he's actually attacked it and is in a position right now to do some amazing things. And I know Dad would be really proud. I wish he was here to enjoy it with us, because it's a fun time.

"We miss him terribly. We don't like to harp on it a lot, but we do. But we work and we keep going and we keep doing what he taught us to do. That's 'Do the work' as Cody says and 'Keep stepping' like I say. That comes from Pops. That's what we do. That's what our family was raised to do and what we've been doing for so, so long. I think our name, our legacy, is in a good place right now and we are continuing his legacy. And we will keep the name relevant and alive for years to come."

The Scion

Cody has been many things in his 34 years—athlete, actor, husband and executive, to name a few. But before he was any of those, he was a son.

"We were like the Addams Family," Cody said with a laugh. "We lived in a neighborhood full of lawyers and business people, and we were this weird family. [Dad would] come to the pool in his trunks, like his actual 'DR' wrestling trunks and his 300 something pounds...on the diving board. A lot of my friends from the neighborhood, that was their first exposure to me. Like, That's your dad? That guy?"

There is power in names. In some ways they define us, defying us to live up to the expectations that come with them or giving us something to run away from. For Cody and Dustin, their last name opened doors but also came with a price. Dusty spent a lifetime at the top of a very competitive industry, cultivating a few close allies and a much longer list of enemies and fair-weather friends.

So when Cody told Dad one day on the way home from Waffle House that he wanted to give up on an acting career and join him in the wrestling business, his father sat in his enormous F-250 pickup truck and cried.

"He did not want either of the boys to go into the business because there's a hardship," Michelle said. "There are expectations of them. People think they have it easy because of their father when in reality their paths were not easy at all. Dusty had been on both sides of the business, and he'd had a lot to do with people's careers. He made a lot of decisions, and most made one person happy and another upset. There was resentment against him from some people for a long time. And he was afraid those resentments would get transferred to his sons."

Dusty's fears, perhaps, were prescient.

It's easy to dismiss the big gold belts, to scoff at an athletic accomplishment that's gifted before either wrestler hits the ring for a match, but the truth is championships matter in wrestling. There is power in being positioned as the top performer in your industry.

And Cody, despite checking all the boxes one would normally expect a contender to check in his decade in WWE, never won a world championship.

Not that he'll give away responsibility for that.

"There's this long-standing kind of rumor that Vince has it out for the Rhodes family," Cody said. "If he does, it's deep in there. It's not...it was never on the surface. It's deep in there.

"What happened to me at the end of my career in WWE is not WWE's fault at all. Totally mine. It really is. I wasn't ready for the role I thought I was ready for. If you want to be John Cena, you got to do the exact same amount of work he does. And that's a lot of work. I wasn't doing the work that I should have been doing."

The promotion, right or wrong, never saw Cody as a wrestler at that level. And as uncouth as it is to admit, he craved it. He wanted to trade in the goofy gimmick he was wrestling under, Stardust, and ascend the few remaining rungs to the top of the card. The recognition could validate everything—from his decision to walk away from Hollywood to donning the face paint as Stardust to being a team player and making the best of every embarrassing thing he was asked to do.

Maybe it was parental and not professional judgment. Either way, Dusty saw things differently. He saw Cody as a champion, a talent with endless potential to achieve greatness. But by June 11, 2015, it still hadn't happened. Dusty Rhodes died that day of septic shock after a long battle with his own body.

The dream he inspired, however, was too big to ever fully pass into the great beyond.

"I got a boost of bravery when my dad passed away because all I ever wanted to do was be world champion while he was still alive," Cody said. "That was my biggest fear in life: I wouldn't win it. And I didn't win it. It was such a silly fear, but it came true. He didn't get to see it. He never asked for it. He never was pressuring me on it. It was my own pressure.

"But after that, I thought, 'I have zero to be afraid of.'"

Death crystallizes things. Powerful doubts and desires that might otherwise linger in the subconscious rise to the surface and demand action. Cody knew he was unhappy. He knew why. He even knew exactly what his dad would say about it.

"The one thing Dusty really wanted for all four children is for them to be happy and to live up to what he thought their potential was in whatever their chosen path ended up being," Michelle said. "Cody wasn't happy in WWE. Dusty would have said, 'Son, you need to do what you need to do. You do what is right for you.'

"Dusty made a terribly hard choice when he left Florida. Eddie Graham had been his mentor and had been like a father and was very upset, but he had to leave because he wanted the opportunity to be involved in wrestling on a larger scale. He would have understood and seen what was going on with Cody. I don't think he would have been surprised at all."

First Cody went to agents like Arn Anderson, telling them that he needed a change, that he wanted to put the Stardust gimmick away forever. Eventually, he found his way to Vince's office. At every step, he received pushback. And so, he and his wife Brandi decided to walk away. She gave her notice first, and that's when the company realized he might actually be serious about leaving.

Brandi and Cody Rhodes
Brandi and Cody RhodesAmy Sussman/Getty Images

"Hunter [Triple H, Vince McMahon's son-in-law and heir apparent at WWE] took it very personally because he had done so much for my dad at NXT," Cody said. "There was one conversation where he said, 'I'm shocked that you feel this way after everything I've done for your family.' But I told him, 'I'm not my dad. I can't stay here out of loyalty to you for giving my dad a job in 2005.' I get it, and the little boy in me really appreciates what you did for my dad. But I'm not him. He's not here anymore. I've got to be me. ...

"I think Hunter, he's been in wrestling long enough that he knew, 'Oh, this is a real one. He's not asking for more money. He's not asking for a title shot. Nothing would matter at this point.' I let the burn get too bad before I said anything, if that makes any sense."

WWE made an effort to keep both Cody and Brandi. They floated the pair contracts large enough to give pause. But understanding what the future held in WWE, Cody and Brandi ventured into the unknown, preferring the uncertainty of precarious potential over a comfortable stagnation.

"They made an offer," Brandi said. "I said, 'Thank you so much. I really appreciate you wanting to keep me here. But it's just not in my heart. I'm not going to be able to do what I want to do here.' And he said, 'Well, this is what we're going to do. We're going to go ahead and pay you through the end of your contract. You'll see real quick that money is going to go fast.' They were trying to scare us. Thank God we didn't listen."

Less than a year after Dusty's death, his younger son had cut all ties with the only real wrestling promotion he'd ever know—the place where he'd grown into an adult, met his wife and made lifelong friendships. When Cody posted the news, along with a list of all the dream opponents he could now face on the independent scene, the wrestling internet exploded. He was ready.

"I'm a big organizer and planner," he said. "So I had been in [WWE wrestler] Kevin Owens' ear, like, 'Hey, what does the world look like? I've saved a chunk of my money and I bought a home and stuff, but I want to make sure I can keep it. What does it look like out there?'

"And Kevin was the one who said, 'I'll introduce you to The Young Bucks. They're the masters of having marketed themselves outside of the company.' Me and Brandi were totally fearless in that moment. It was crazy."

Becoming the Elite

Cody took Owens' advice and connected with The Young Bucks, Matt and Nick Jackson, and through them Kenny Omega, who was building a reputation as the best wrestler in the world.

The Jackson brothers come from opposite circumstances as Cody—self-trained in their backyard on a trampoline and built, not with a famous name, but with a decade of grinding away at it until the audience couldn't help but embrace their passion and enthusiasm for wrestling.

"Cody likes to call us the extra-credit guys," Nick said. "It's really true that we had to do all the extra work to get popular and to get known."

The Jacksons convinced Cody to come to the promotion Ring of Honor for an extended run, scuttling his plans to be a nomad wandering the wrestling landscape like a character in the westerns his dad loved.

"It wasn't until after a few ROH shows that Matt asked me, 'Hey, do you want to ride with all the West Coast guys?' Which was him, Christopher Daniels, Frankie [Kazarian] and [Scorpio] Sky (the tag team trio SCU)," Cody said. "And in that minivan that they still ride in to this day was where all the fun wrestling stuff was happening."

The conversations were the cutting edge of wrestling, from "serious ROH stuff" to Being the Elite, the Young Bucks' viral YouTube show, which through hijinks like extended in-jokes and stunts like invading a WWE event has galvanized a fanbase looking for an alternative.

In the "Elite" stable of wrestlers, fans saw a reflection of themselves—like minds looking for an alternative to what WWE offered. And Cody saw a future.

"That's where I think they found my purpose in the group," he said. "My purpose in that group is as a promoter.

"We combine forces well. Kenny's a great bell-to-bell wrestler, Matt and Nick are tag team specialists, and they have this eye for the absurd and ludicrous. I bring my family's name value—not even my own: my family's name value—and my eye for the bigger picture."

Cody Rhodes with Adam Page, Brandi Rhodes, Kenny Omega and Matt Jackson.
Cody Rhodes with Adam Page, Brandi Rhodes, Kenny Omega and Matt Jackson.Mike Coppola/Getty Images

Soon, events were getting so big and raucous that they had to hire security for simple meet-and-greets with the stable.

By September 2018, when Cody and the rest of what would become the AEW leadership team promoted the event All In, they didn't just sell out the Sears Centre Arena in suburban Chicago; they sold out the arena that holds more than 10,000 immediately. It was the proof of concept that solidified things, proved to Tony Khan that his instincts were correct, that wrestling fans were ready for something new.

"We had for two years straight a field test to see what worked with the audience and what didn't," Cody said. "And when we saw Buffalo, New York, was just as popular as San Jose, we were like, 'It's real. You know? It's not just Chicago. It's everywhere.' And we started to think about what might be possible."

At AEW's last big event, All Out in late August, Cody stood in the middle of the crowd and basked in their love, a sea of people who believed in him, who were on this journey with him and his partners, going wherever it led.

"We are in it together with our audience," Cody said. "And anyone who's like, 'Oh, let's see how they maintain their enthusiasm when you get to weekly TV.'  Well, guys, how many times are we going to move the goalposts?

"The argument that, 'Oh, that's not a real audience; it's just a small group of hardcore fans.' That's a dead argument at this point. It's a very real audience. And there's a lack of crossover between our fans and WWE's, which is my favorite part. We had a lady say to us at the Houston Airport, 'I'm one of the returners. I was watching in the late '90s, and now I'm watching again.' And I thought, what a great way to describe some of these folks coming into this. Returners."

It was, as Cody dubbed it, a revolution. Others called it a cult. Either way, the idea Cody is anything but a superstar is downright foolish with the power of hindsight.

At WWE, at some point talent is slotted into a position. Changing that perspective, altering your destiny, becomes almost impossible. And Cody had been trapped in a maze with no exit. Perhaps that's why at AEW's first live event, Double or Nothing, Cody smashed a throne, symbolizing his freedom from tyranny.

"It's very romantic, very like Game of Thrones-style with these warring houses," Cody said. "When I left WWE in 2015, I didn't think, like, 'I'm picking up that sword, we're going to war.' It's a wild, wild series of events. There were so many combustible pieces that led to all of this. You throw them together, and suddenly we are in a situation where I'm standing in front of the Turner Mansion with Brandi, in exactly the same spot Dusty took the team picture with WCW. And we're taking another team picture with a billionaire NFL owner who's a mega wrestling fan, ready to launch another national wrestling promotion. ...

"Had Vince listened to me when I really wanted to make the transition back to being Cody Rhodes, we wouldn't be sitting here. It's that fragile."

Page sees it as the inevitability of a force that can't be restrained.

"I remember Cody telling me when he was in high school, 'Next year I'm going to win. I'm going to win the state championship,'" Page said. "And I said, 'Really? That's a bold statement, boy.' I said, 'You know what that's going to take?' He said, 'Absolutely. You got to put the work in.' He went undefeated.

"Look at his weight belt today. It says, 'Do the work.' You never know what's going to happen because this is a startup company. But this is f--king unprecedented. But I know that if it fails, it won't be because there's not a work ethic put behind it. Why do these people care so much? Because he does. When they say 'All In,' they're not talking about money, bro. That's them telling the fans, 'F--king A, we're going for it."

The Future

Back in Atlanta, when Schiavone finally makes it through traffic and arrives, he's wearing a brand-new blazer Cody just overnighted so he won't look the same in every video and is ready to film a segment for Road to AEW on TNT in front of a giant green screen.

The same harried team, led by Steve Yu, that makes these gorgeous promotional pieces has been tasked with creating a video opener for TNT. Deadlines for everything loom, and amid the excitement, there is also a very real sense that one major misstep could be the domino that topples a carefully balanced workload.

It's unique chaos in a way, but it's familiar in a startup.

Cody's consiglieri, Michael "QT" Cuellari Marshall, is there to offer support in all areas, with students from his wrestling school filling in wherever needed. One day, they might be building the throne that Cody smashed at Double or Nothing. The next, they're feeding his dogs during a busy day. There are opportunities here, to find hidden talents you didn't know you had and to step into the breach and be a hero. Marshall himself is a prime example of how quickly you can become indispensable in a company with more tasks than hands.

"We get to All In, and the guy we had hired to be one of our main producers in the 'go' position got drunk the night before, or he used something, and he got arrested in front of the hotel," Cody said. "He literally started up his car and passed out with it in reverse. He hit another car in the parking lot and got arrested."

Marshall, sitting nearby with a laptop, creating a mock advertisement someone will later clean up and present to a potential partner, continues the story.

"My student sang the national anthem at All In, and I drove her there. I was there to hang out and watch an amazing show. But when they needed someone, I stepped up."

Marshall had previously done commentary for Ring of Honor, which prepared him for the opportunity. "I used it as an internship to see how you did wrestling on TV," he said.

The team is filled with people with similar stories, people who breathe wrestling like it's oxygen.

"Now QT is an associate producer, and he's Tony [Khan]'s favorite," Cody said. "He sits in the go position for every match and tells the director and producer what shots to look for.

"We have a lot of will it into existence at AEW. Some of these guys don't have any specific reason for being here, but the only way you really learn about wrestling is to be around it a bunch."

The result is beauty in diversity.

You can see it in the promotion's YouTube channel, the Bucks' wild 'do-it-yourself' brand existing side-by-side with Cody's polished "Road to..." series that often features serious interviews like you might see ahead of a big boxing match.

And you can see it in the ring. While a WWE show can sometimes feel like a group of performers walking in lockstep for three long hours, AEW provides fans with multiple visions of what wrestling might be on a single show. Joey Janela is there for those who love hardcore stunts, the Bucks and Omega for high-flying precision. Cody represents a modern version of wrestling's yesterdays, the blood-and-guts style of his father presented in a package built for a 2019 audience.

"I think people want us to choose," Cody said. "They encourage us to choose. It's like, 'Well, what's it going to be?' It's all of it. Luchasaurus is on the same show with Arn Anderson. I mean, that's wrestling. I'd rather people have a lot of options."

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ARN ANDERSON IS HERE https://t.co/BtPx6xO73i

And he has them.

"It's not just Cody. He's got Nick, he's got friggin' Matt, he's got Kenny, who is a force in that world," Page said. "And now having Jericho and [Jon] Moxley, that's a f--king strong six. And you don't need a strong 28. You just need a handful of people the crowd really cares about."

Cody will be the one headlining the next pay-per-view, against Jericho.

It's a decision that has opened him up to online criticism that he's already using his authority to treat AEW as a vanity promotion, the same kind of vitriol his dad faced in some circles when he made himself the top star in WCW.

"I tell Tony, I tell Matt, Nick and Kenny every day almost, I'm like, 'Man, we need a home run every segment.' Because there's a microscope on top of a microscope on what we're doing," Cody said. "When people are like, 'He's doing the same thing Dusty did.' I always want to say, 'Yeah, well Dusty was one of the most over guys on the show.'

"I could only hope to do what Dusty did."

AEW has four wrestlers in executive roles, both for their expertise and to keep each other honest. Khan, ultimately, will have the final say and settle any disputes. The key, Rhodes says, will be self-awareness and a keen understanding of the audience.

"All of us want to be in the main event. But if you're not, you're not. It's a nice checks and balances we have with Matt, Nick, Kenny and myself. There's three guys who are going to tell you, 'Hey, I don't think it's as big as you think.' Or, 'Let's move on this. MJF is becoming a megastar, let's go this direction.'

"An old-timer wrestler will tell you, 'Hey, we lead them,' and that is not entirely incorrect. We do lead them because we present the product to them. But if they drastically want something different, it is OK to let them lead us as well. And I don't think we're afraid to let them lead a little bit. If the other company had been more aware, even 25 percent more aware, we would not be in the position or even have this opportunity."

It all comes back, as it eventually always does in wrestling, to WWE. The question, a simple one, has remained the same since McMahon expanded nationally decades ago. Can big-time wrestling exist beyond WWE's ever-expanding universe?

For the first time since WCW folded, an organization will truly try to answer it—all because one man refused to be just a gear in the machine.

"They're going to make mistakes, and they'll learn from them. They already have, you know. It's a process," Page said. "They got the hardcore fans. Now it's how does that work to pull over to the casual viewer or the WWE fan who doesn't really know they exist. But there's a lot of wrestling fans who never flipped over after WCW died. They just stopped watching. That's the fan they need.

"This is a David vs. Goliath story. And if that can get brought across to the people well—David versus Goliath always works."

Jonathan Snowden covers combat sports for Bleacher Report.