The current reaction to Cody Rhodes, and what looks like a character change, is one of the most fascinating topics in pro wrestling right now.
The once-fiery babyface receives loud boos every week and online fans continue to reject his appearances on weekly television. However, it has been increasingly intriguing to watch him adapt and play into the negative reception.
All Elite Wrestling closed out 2021 with a shocking title change as Rhodes defeated Sammy Guevara for the TNT Championship on the Christmas Day episode of Rampage. The win made the polarizing executive vice president the first three-time champion in the history of the company to the dismay of many of his vocal critics.
Guevara will challenge The American Nightmare to a rematch Saturday at Battle of the Belts. So, The Spanish God could quickly reclaim his mantle, but Rhodes already feels like a much more interesting option. For better or worse, AEW has tapped into a consistent reaction that doesn't come off as go-away heat.
Instead, they have a character in the new champion who fans love to hate. The reasons why are a bit complex, but this is undeniably something that has growing potential.
Still, the question remains: Is Rhodes a delusional heel who played us all or a neurotic good guy who is willing to give us someone to jeer like John Cena. It's also entirely possible he is neither and we haven't seen his true intentions yet.
Perception or Reality
AEW has always been hyper-aware of its core fanbase and its view of its most popular character. One of the company's greatest strengths has been its ability to take its online presence into account and craft interesting storylines and character moments around it.
Rhodes seems to be doing just that lately as he expertly offers winks and nods to savvy hardcore fans. That may not work as well for casual viewers but the second-generation star clearly knows what he's doing at this point.
After all, brandishing a golden shovel during the Atlanta Street Fight against Andrade El Idolo wasn't exactly a subtle reference to comparisons to Triple H. This is also why he keeps executing a double underhook as an allusion to the WWE Superstar's finisher, the Pedigree, only to deliver a Tiger Driver 98 instead. Even more, his ostentatious entrance and patriotic ring gear seem to get more and more obnoxious with each passing contest.
Surely, no one is this obtuse, and the 36-year-old is far too obsessive to be this daft. He even deliberately went to exit through the heel tunnel after his exchange with Guevara on Dec. 8 and quickly turned around to go down the proper path. These are the moves of a man who knows what others think of him.
More precisely, these are the actions of someone who knows that many of his detractors believe he has become the very thing he claimed to hate. The perception is that Rhodes is an executive who books himself to compete in high-profile spots on the card and beat up-and-comers. Moreover, he's seemingly not the self-described revolutionary he makes himself out to be, as he's just a hypocrite who co-founded AEW as a place to make himself and his friends the highest priority.
On the surface, this criticism of the EVP may seem valid, but it isn't quite that simple. Rhodes has helped to make others like Darby Allin, Ricky Starks, Eddie Kingston and MJF stars during his tenure with AEW. However, this take remains prevalent online because of questionable optics or confounding decisions like his extended feud with Malakai Black.
Still, it doesn't matter if it's true or not because perception often trumps reality. Rhodes is smart enough to understand that pro wrestling is at its best when it blurs the line between the two. He's going to keep giving us glimpses of what we want to be true and masterfully snatching it away at the last minute. It's a classic bait and switch.
The Burden of Truth
Logically, this would suggest Rhodes has been a heel for some time. Knowing that certain aspects of his character will encourage viewers to boo him but doing it anyway is the trait of a villain, isn't it?
In fact, the three-time TNT champion even worked his matches like the antagonist for weeks, taking on absurd amounts of punishment to resounding cheers. Re-watch the Street Fight with El Idolo from the Dec. 1 episode of Dynamite. This time pay attention to how many times The American Nightmare tries to showboat for his hometown crowd and his opponent rewards them by making him pay for his arrogance.
The Atlanta native even addressed everything in an incredible promo on Oct. 28. In speaking to the audience, he revealed that breaking his vow to never challenge for the AEW World Championship because that is the easy way out and he would never turn heel. The Agganis Arena crowd booed in disapproval, but one could argue this very act was a turn.
A babyface wouldn't knowingly refuse to give the fans something they want, right? To further confuse you, Rhodes proved during this speech that he still knows how to garner both cheers and jeers. He may be divisive but he does have a tremendous mind for this business. That promo felt like the proverbial fork in the road for his character and what seemed like a definitive answer was everything but that.
Honestly, there is only one person who knows his true intentions and that is the newly appointed face of TNT. Time will tell if he's what he seems or if he has been quietly playing us like a fiddle.
Kenny Omega left a void for the next top villain to step into and The American Nightmare has enough to heat to do so. There are other credible contenders, such as MJF or Adam Cole, but Rhodes undoubtedly commands more star power than the two of them and has received louder boos recently.
It may be the right time for the prodigal son to take his rightful place as AEW's top heel, but it's difficult to say he has done so just yet. The ambiguous nature of his character and his ties to pro wrestling history could make him the most compelling main antagonist the company has seen in some time. Still, this isn't even his final form.
This will be an interesting year for Rhodes but he's not a high-echelon villain yet. We could have a very different conversation at the end of the year, but for now, it's fun to follow all the breadcrumbs he leaves behind and analyze all of his matches and segments.
The same ambiguity that makes for such engaging television also makes it hard to call him an outright heel at the moment. There is a fair argument that he isn't a face either and he's deftly breaking the boundaries between both roles. The American Nightmare famously told Ring Rust Radio (h/t WrestleView) that he doesn't believe babyfaces and heels exist anymore in 2017 during his time with Ring of Honor.
His current character could be what the second-generation wrestler sees as the evolution of pro wrestling storytelling. Nevertheless, he isn't a traditional heel, at least not yet. So, we can't name him the creme de la creme but his current run with the TNT title could eventually change that.