When fans speculated about who would be the first Superstar to swim against the strong current and leave All Elite Wrestling for WWE, Cody Rhodes was so distant a thought, so unlikely, that most probably didn't bother putting his name on the list.
But he might just be the first.
That's still stuck in the land of speculation now for now. AEW President Tony Khan recently announced that Cody and Brandi Rhodes were leaving the company, and Cody released a statement of his own. According to Ariel Helwani of MMA Fighting, Rhodes has talked with WWE about a return.
Prerequisites out of the way, it's easy to hand-wave this sort of move as a major win for WWE. And it is—WWE had drastically bled talent to AEW, ranging from modern legends like Bryan Danielson to guys finally getting to spread their creative wings like Malakai Black, to name but two. It was also AEW, not WWE, that lured CM Punk out of his seven-year hiatus.
But the line of thought that says it's great for WWE would also seem to imply that it's bad for AEW.
It's awkward losing an executive vice president who helped establish the promotion. But it's also hardly surprising. After some stunning feuds and moments (remember the 10 lashings?) in AEW's infancy, Cody's momentum sputtered, and a hiatus didn't help. He was either unwilling or unable to go heel, and by making good on a stipulation that he would never challenge for the company's top title, he started to lose ground with fans.
Speculation about why Cody wouldn't change up his character aside (the Cena-ish vibes and non-wrestling stuff sticks out), he just wasn't generating reactions in the same way another guy who has been there from the beginning like, say, Chris Jericho still does. Doing things like going through a flaming table and such stuck out in a weird way, not an endearing one. That Brandi didn't seem to be winning over fans either probably didn't help matters.
If and when Cody lands in WWE, he's hardly going to get lost in midcard or tag team purgatory. WWE's not going to spend the cash to get him back and not use him prominently. It is not going to miss a chance to highlight that it has managed to swipe an executive vice president from its main competition.
And that's great for AEW.
The last thing AEW wants is for anyone, but especially not a big name, to leave the company, go to WWE and be a jobber. That Cody will go over and likely hang around in a main event scene with the likes of Roman Reigns would just lend credibility to AEW and what it is doing, giving off an air of legitimacy. Cody effectively left WWE as Stardust—his return after an AEW stint as a monster main eventer would be quite the rebound.
Not only that, but also having Cody as a subtle AEW advertisement on the biggest wrestling show in town would also mean more free roster space for the company. That means more potential time on broadcasts for other Superstars with long-term futures in AEW. Cody's segments, even late in his run, weren't outright bad, but they tended to feel tonally different from the rest of the shows. The awkward no-title stipulation, standing as a founder, different feel, it's all removed now.
We could speculate endlessly on why Cody has left. Maybe he didn't vibe with the direction in which the other founders were taking it (this wouldn't be the first startup to have that issue). Maybe the presence of guys like Danielson and Punk in the locker room left up-and-comers gravitating to them instead as mentors. Maybe he just realized he straight up likes the formulaic WWE approach best.
Whatever the reason, Cody's got the lineage and talent to excel anywhere. But while WWE will try to drum this up as a massive win in the pro wrestling war, there's an angle wherein AEW gets a win with it too. It's less obvious and won't have WWE's marketing and hype men beating fans over the head with it, but it will be there.
And given how this has developed unexpectedly, maybe in a few years we'll be talking about how Cody's coming back to AEW anyway. But at this point in time, the company losing a name as big as Rhodes isn't going to be the loss it would appear to be at face value.