Compelling TNT Championship Defense Proves Cody Rhodes Is AEW's Big-Game Player

Jonathan Snowden@JESnowdenCombat Sports Senior WriterJune 4, 2020

Photo courtesy of AEW

AEW is stacked top to bottom with some of the very best performers in all of professional wrestling. Let Wednesday's episode of Dynamite serve as the perfect example—Kenny Omega, Britt Baker, Orange Cassidy, Big Swole, Chris Jericho and the newly signed FTR all played key roles, showcasing not just the depth but also the diversity of talent available to AEW President and CEO Tony Khan and his team on a weekly basis.

The promotion is like a buffet where every entree is the house specialty. High-octane moves, funny skits, compelling promos—no matter what moves you about wrestling, AEW likely has someone who not only does it but also has a special knack and aptitude for it.

But when AEW needs a guaranteed win, one man stands out among the many, always there to deliver.

Cody Rhodes isn't the best in-ring talent in the promotion. He's not be the best promo either, not so long as Jericho is around and still spitting fire. As a total package, however, few do it better.

Rhodes was featured in the inaugural match in AEW history. When they set up a cage for the first time, Cody was there as well, leaping off the top in a highlight-reel moment that will live forever.

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His was the first blood feud too, the anger and anguish in his eyes all but burning a hole through your television set as MJF taunted and whipped him. His relationship with the audience is different than any other in contemporary wrestling, a throwback to the days when fans lived and died with their favorites. His struggle is their struggle too, his successes recast as victories for his "family."

AEW fans have adopted him as "their guy" representative of the entire movement, a human embodiment of an idea. Most wrestlers are lucky to get a crowd reaction at the beginning of their match and at the finish. Cody has them under his spell throughout. It's a connection that's hard to explain if you've never been there to witness it in person.

Cody's personal bond with the crowd made me worried about his matches in the era of COVID-19, afraid that without the audience interaction and energy from his people, he'd lose what makes him special. Instead, he's taken on the challenge the only way he knows how—head on and full speed.

He and Lance Archer had an excellent match to crown the first-ever TNT champion, and his bout with "Jungle Boy" Jack Perry to defend it for the first time was even better. Cody, frankly, isn't the smoothest wrestler in the promotion. His execution sometimes doesn't exude excellence. Occasionally, his matches can feel stilted, awkward beats between moves threatening to take fans out of the moment at inopportune times.

But when Cody gets his timing just right, his matches stand out even on a roster filled with more explosive talent. Because of the feeling he can evoke, Cody can hit emotional story beats that others just can't match. Whether built through a rivalry like with MJF or Jericho, or constructed in match with a timely slice of the razor blade, Cody finds a way to carry a unique intensity from bell to bell.

Even when he wins, Cody makes the other performer look strong, expertly garnering sympathy for himself while helping the other wrestler look quite formidable. Against Sammy Guevara, Darby Allin, MJF and now Jungle Boy, his opponent comes out of their conflict looking better than they did going into it—even if it's Cody who got his hand raised in the end.

In a sport where everyone else is looking for the best ways to copy and paste from their peers, Cody is doing something entirely different. He borrows from the stalwarts of the past instead, modernizing their stories for 2020 while keeping the essence of yesterday alive. It's nostalgia, but nostalgia with an active heartbeat that leads to truly compelling art.

When AEW needs something special, Cody is their big-game player. No one delivers as consistently, impressively or as memorably as he does. WWE didn't see his potential to be a difference-maker. But fans did—and he's rewarding us week after week with spectacular wrestling.


Jonathan Snowden covers combat sports for Bleacher Report.