In All Elite Wrestling's maiden year, Cody Rhodes was unquestionably the best babyface in the company. During his initial run, he delivered countless memorable moments that helped the new venture. When you consider that, it's hard to wrap your head around his current status.
To say The American Nightmare is in a rut would be an understatement. If you needed any proof of just how much so, look no further than the loud jeers he received in Arthur Ashe Stadium. It was a jarring viewing experience that made for one of the low points on the Grand Slam card.
Although it may seem like it sprung up on Rhodes overnight, the reception for him has gradually become apathetic. Now, the fans who once applauded him have begun to outright reject him. This continued on Wednesday's Dynamite when fans could hear audible barbs directed at the former TNT champion and even some "Cody sucks" chants.
Throughout his tag match against Matt Sydal and Dante Martin, CM Punk continuously pointed out the mixed reaction to the 36-year-old. His partner, Lee Johnson, tagged himself in and ultimately earned the win for his team. Afterward, Arn Anderson shut his pupil down as he attempted to call out Malakai Black.
Then, the legendary member of The Four Horsemen proceeded to dress Rhodes down and leave with Big Shotty in tow. It was oddly symbolic and it seemed to imply that AEW is playing off the negative response to the second-generation star for his next storyline.
It's unclear where this will lead but Rhodes' current act just isn't working anymore and he needs to adapt to the growing tide of opposition soon.
How Did Rhodes Get Here?
Rhodes was originally one of the most popular wrestlers on the roster. So, it's hard to fathom just how much has changed since he cut that impassioned promo in Daily's Place to kick off AEW's empty arena shows on Mar. 18, 2020. This beautiful and solemn moment became a rallying cry during this era of the company.
He has lacked the heart and fire he displayed on that night for months. Something about his most recent feuds has felt superficial and even contrived. Even more, the absence of live crowds probably hurt him more than anyone else because he fed off of its energy and rose to every occasion early on.
His reception began to shift earlier this year during the Face of the Revolution ladder match. Rhodes sustained an injury and headed backstage. But he remained visible in the corner of the screen as if he would make a gutsy comeback and will himself to victory. This made his return to the ring appear self-indulgent and overly melodramatic.
As a result, the fans in attendance booed him for the first time. Scorpio Sky eventually went on to win the match but Rhodes' attempt at an act of bravery was distracting. This either became a theme, or the appeal of his style of matches became passe, possibly both.
His extravagant entrance and overwrought promos don't feel special anymore. Instead, they appear to be an effort to remain relevant on a show that has evolved past the need for his showy displays of superstardom.
Speaking of promos, Rhodes' infamous American Dream speech was the straw that broke the camel's back. His dated patriotism in the face of a foreign antagonist and teary-eyed delve into race in America sparked controversy online. The vitriolic response to the segment was so prominent that it forced him to address it several times, but the damage was already done.
His words and the actions that followed inadvertently caused fans to side with his opponent at Double or Nothing, Anthony Ogogo. Even more, the Olympic bronze medalist was a much more intriguing character at the moment but inevitably lost to the AEW vice president.
He never quite recovered from the perception that followed him after that feud. In fact, a similar dynamic with Malakai Black made some fans think Rhodes would undermine the recent addition to AEW. As such, they rooted for the Dutchman even though he is a heel, causing the chorus of boos at Grand Slam.
Has AEW Outgrown One of Its Founding Members?
Perhaps the biggest issue at hand is that the company has seemingly outgrown the need for his style of match and storytelling. Rhodes is no longer a big fish in a small pond now that AEW has popular stars like Black, Punk, Bryan Danielson and Adam Cole.
Unlike the other members of The Elite, The American Nightmare is struggling to find his place among the company's hottest acquisitions. He stands out like a sore thumb on the card now. Whether intentionally or not, his usage comes off as a push to stay relevant when he's just not a believable babyface anymore.
This has led many viewers to believe the best option is to turn heel and allow the fans to continue to boo until their hearts are content. However, Rhodes bristled at the idea during an AMA session with Bleacher Report.
“I'm of the belief that if you pay your money you can cheer, boo, etc," he said. "To go from a warm reception to an adversarial reception... I'll retire before I become a heel. I'm not going to make decisions that are bad for our youth to see. That's the challenge. How do I maintain where I'm at when the crowd wants to get a different flavor.”
So, embracing his dark side as he did with Ring of Honor and New Japan Pro-Wrestling may not be the result. However, the second-generation star has a great understanding of the business. He's smart enough to know when it's time to reinvent your character.
His quote above and his work on the latest episode of Dynamite could all be a part of his plan to do something different. Hopefully, that's the case because the audience is trying to tell him current performances are growing stale, and he would be foolish to ignore them.
If he wants to reverse his recent fortunes, Rhodes has to find the resolve that originally made his time with AEW so compelling.