Three years ago, it was hard to imagine that Cody Rhodes would ever return to WWE after he famously smashed a throne at Double or Nothing.
This divisive act of defiance at All Elite Wrestling's first pay-per-view signaled the beginning of what he dubbed a "revolution." In the process, it's impossible to deny that the 36-year-old helped to change the industry for the better.
To start 2022, Rhodes' free-agent status became one of the biggest stories in professional wrestling. He wouldn't go back to the place he often derided, would he? He couldn't conceivably leave what he helped to build in AEW and return to the company he openly challenged in hopes of creating an alternative, right?
Well, the second-generation star put all the rumors and lingering questions about his next destination to rest as he returned to WWE at WrestleMania 38 as Seth Rollins' mystery opponent. That's right. The American Nightmare once again took his talents to Stamford, Connecticut. It was surreal, to say the least, but his re-emergence was one of the highlights of Night 1 of The Greatest Spectacle in Sports Entertainment.
From Undesirable to Undeniable
No matter what you think of Rhodes or his decision, he succeeded in his six-year trek to reinvent himself and prove his detractors wrong. On a night when "Stone Cold" Steve Austin returned to have one last match, the former AEW EVP was the most talked-about subject online. At the time of publishing, his appearance Saturday night has garnered more than 2.8 million views on WWE's YouTube channel.
To put that in context, the clip of his entrance dwarfed all three videos of The Texas Rattlesnake's contributions to WrestleMania. That's quite a feat for someone who was in a creative rut the last time The Showcase of the Immortals took place at AT&T Stadium in 2016. It's even more impressive because this was unquestionably a result of the work the Atlanta native put in to construct his brand.
Everything special about his entrance was a product of his time away. WWE surprisingly used every aspect of his character and presentation, and it worked exceptionally well. The company used The American Nightmare moniker that he popularized, his entrance, the logo that Rhodes tattooed on to his neck and his tagline: from undesirable to undeniable.
This was his moment. Moreover, his match with Rollins was paced and structured like the matches he had elsewhere. It would be easy to say that this was so effective because of the controversy surrounding the first AEW star to jump ship for WWE. However, one has to respect the fact that Rhodes went away, made himself a bigger star and forced the company to recognize that his ideas were the best options.
After all, WWE has taken heaps of criticism lately for repackaging notable indy wrestlers like Pete Dunne and Walter. There were even rumors that there were plans to change Adam Cole's look and character. Conversely, the prodigal son came back with leverage and immediately paid dividends.
It's tempting to say that that's a good sign for the future of WWE, but Rhodes is a special case. He can insist that, unlike many of his peers with less notoriety, he doesn't need to change anything. Frankly, that's a testament to his drive and effort to make himself undeniable.
The Road Ahead
We can wax poetic about how great Rhodes' return was, but there are still so many questions. Some fans will obviously continue to wonder what caused him to leave AEW, but we probably won't get a satisfactory answer on that front for a long time.
It's easy to say that some of the loyal enthusiasts he cultivated should just let it go and be happy about the next step in his career. However, it's also fair to admit that the lingering drama following his exit is distracting.
Nevertheless, reservations as to whether his second run with WWE can live up to all the fanfare surrounding his return are just as prevalent. Admittedly, this is a complicated question. It depends heavily on what viewers hope to see and what The American Nightmare hopes to accomplish.
Those are two distinct standards to consider when evaluating where this could lead. Fans will always maintain certain hopes and expressed biases. Regardless, Rhodes clearly has personal reasons for going back to the company and attempting to gain validation from winning its top prize, which he seemingly rejected years ago.
Some critics will admonish this move if the three-time TNT champion doesn't become a consistent main eventer. That's a legitimate concern, and one would have to imagine he didn't come all this way to go back to being a midcarder. In contrast, it would be difficult to argue this wasn't beneficial for him if he just wants to reestablish himself as a consummate babyface and handle some unfinished business.
Rhodes' passion and determination to make something of himself makes him so relatable. It's even more admirable to watch him strive to live up to the legacy of his father, Dusty Rhodes. This is what made his NWA Worlds Heavyweight Championship triumph at All In so poignant. It's also a large part of what made him such a compelling protagonist during his first year with AEW.
The Son of The Son of a Plumber had become so polarizing over the past year. Even more, he seemed to lose that fire that made him so endearing before the infamous Anthony Ogogo feud. In less than a week, the change of scenery has already created a positive buzz for him. His renewed quest to become WWE champion is also much more interesting than what he was doing for the past few months.
During his promo on Monday's episode of Raw, he quoted the French poet and fabulist Jean de La Fontaine. "A man often finds his destiny on the path he takes to avoid it," he said as he laid out his reasons for returning and his need to do what Dusty Rhodes never did.
It was an apt excerpt that could lead to a long-overdue WWE Championship win, but then what? That's the million-dollar question. His initial push will be important for many skeptics, but consistency will determine whether this run will succeed or fail.
Still, it had to be quite a victory for the man who said he wanted to kill the Attitude Era during his feud with his older brother, Dustin Rhodes, to momentarily overshadow its biggest star at WrestleMania 38. It may be too soon to say that kind of momentum will last. However, it is a signature moment for him, and it certainly won't be the last one of its kind.
Rhodes is a star. He has proved that many times over, and he will continue to make an impact on the wrestling industry with WWE. Some fans won't understand his appeal. That's the nature of the beast, but his earnest approach to storytelling and mind for the business will shine no matter what.