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WrestleMania 40: How Cody Rhodes went from an afterthought to one of the biggest babyfaces of the modern era

On May 28, 2016, six days after WWE confirmed they were granting Cody Rhodes’ release, Rhodes posted a picture of a checklist on Twitter and set minds racing across wrestling fandom. The checklist was a list of goals Rhodes had as he left WWE and hit the then-hot world of independent wrestling. The journey that followed not only elevated Rhodes to his current status as one of the biggest stars in wrestling — he will headline his second consecutive WrestleMania this coming weekend — but changed the entire wrestling landscape.

Rhodes requested his release from WWE in 2016 as he’d grown increasingly frustrated by his direction in the company. He’d gone from a somewhat featured player on the midcard to the character of Stardust, which unintentionally became something of a joke. Rather that riding out a contract that paid him well, Rhodes chose to go out into the wild and prove he was as good as he believed he was.

In the Peacock documentary “American Nightmare: Becoming Cody Rhodes,” Rhodes discussed one of the experiences that cemented the realization that things were not going to get better if he stayed with WWE.

“I was ready to tell the story of becoming Cody Rhodes again and that wasn’t even on their radar,” Rhodes said of a period following the death of his father, the late Dusty Rhodes. “This is the end of the Stardust chapter. I’m thinking there’ll be another thing. This is the same company that has raised me. They’re absolutely going to have something new for me to dive into. Now what? And now what was a whole lot of nothing.

“I remember writing so many emails, like, ‘Reset me.’ At one point, I went to talk to one of the writers and they ignored me. They actually did the hand shun and they were typing on their laptop. I leaned in and looked and the laptop was powered off.”

Rhodes didn’t go half-way once he was granted his release. In 2017, his first full calendar year after leaving WWE, Rhodes wrestled 119 matches, just 29 more than he’d wrestled for WWE and their notoriously difficult travel schedule in 2015.

Rhodes was traveling the world, wrestling in Japan’s Tokyo Dome and in Knights Of Columbus halls in Ontario as he proved his point that he was a draw and a workhorse who had been badly mishandled by WWE during his first run with the company. Rhodes was a star and if WWE didn’t see that, he’d force them to open their eyes.

Rhodes’ time on the indies built to a crescendo with All In. After wrestling journalist Dave Meltzer responded to a reader that Ring of Honor, one of Rhodes’ primary independent wrestling homes, couldn’t sell 10,000 tickets to an event “any time soon,” Rhodes took up the challenge.

Rhodes worked with The Young Bucks to put together All In, which was associated with ROH but also partially self-funded by the wrestlers. The event was scheduled for Sept. 1, 2018 in the Chicago suburbs and was loaded with many of the biggest names not signed to WWE.

Putting on the event was a big risk that also carried the possibility of embarrassment for all involved if tickets failed to move.

“We were trying to go on the site to buy tickets, and I’m thinking, ‘If the site is frozen, we’re screwed,’ or, ‘Is it blowing up? Can it crash?'” Rhodes said on “Dale Download” with Dale Earnhardt Jr. “It crashed immediately. It was 11,236 in 28 minutes. I said, ‘We need this,’ that welcome to the Indies letter. ‘It can be bigger.’ I like to think big. It was all in front of us, and we had to execute and make it happen. A wonderful memory.”

The success of All In, which also reportedly drew around 50,000 pay-per-view buys, proved that big shows could exist outside of WWE and laid the foundation for the creation of All Elite Wrestling, which was founded by Tony Khan and included Rhodes and The Young Bucks (as well as wrestler Kenny Omega) as executive vice presidents.

AEW grew with Rhodes as one of the centerpieces of pay-per-views and, eventually, weekly cable television shows. While AEW has not reached the heights of WWE, it has emerged as a major second American wrestling promotion, with five hours of weekly television and multiple yearly pay-per-view events.

As Rhodes’ contract with AEW expired, that unfinished business in WWE — both for himself and his late father — drew him back home.

Rhodes had done so much in a few years, taking his career into his own hands and proving he was a big enough star to change the entire wrestling landscape. Now came the time to prove he could be that superstar on the biggest stage.

Coming home

Rhodes’ return as Seth Rollins’ mystery opponent at WrestleMania 38 saw the crowd respond in a fashion that matched what Rhodes had earned in his time away. But there were plenty who didn’t believe Rhodes would continue to be seen the same way once the freshness of his return wore off.

“I got so many people when I first came back, like, ‘Hey, they’ll be booing him in two months. Oh, they’ll be booing him in a year,'” Rhodes told ESPN. “I have the privilege, but also the burden of, I’m playing myself. This is a real story. My father, I wanted him to be WWF Champion.

“I still have that title. And the fact that he didn’t get it and I felt he deserved it. And in his absence, after he passed, you hear so much about him now. It’s that one little piece that nags at me, that’s really finishing the story.”

“Finish the story” has been Rhodes’ mantra since his WWE return. His father had a legendary career, but the WWE championship eluded him. Rhodes is seeking to finish his own story of leaving WWE and coming back to become champion, but it’s also the story of his family, a wrestling dynasty whose accomplishments have carried the asterisk of none ever being the top guy in the business once WWF decimated wrestling’s territory system in the 1980s.

Rhodes’ momentum has not lessened since he returned to WWE, even when injury threatened a major setback.

As Rhodes was in the middle of a feud with Rollins, he was lifting weights in the gym when his pectoral muscle — initially torn during a segment on WWE Raw — came off the bone. Rhodes went ahead with his Hell in a Cell match with Rollins, wrestling the match with the right side of his chest and much of his right arm a deep shade of purple.

Rhodes won the match, which drew rave reviews from fans and media members, before being sidelined after surgery to repair the torn muscle. But Rhodes gutting through the match — and delivering one of the greatest matches in modern WWE history — further cemented himself as WWE’s top babyface star.

Rhodes returned at the 2023 Royal Rumble, winning the match and punching his ticket to a match with undisputed WWE universal champion Roman Reigns in the main event of WrestleMania 39.

Everything had come together for Rhodes to finish the story. He was the hottest babyface on the planet and had a perfect rival in the dastardly Reigns — always flanked by “The Bloodline,” a collection of his family members from another wrestling dynasty, the Anoa’i family — who was riding the wave of an historic championship run.

Except it wasn’t to be.

Rhodes lost the match, cheated by The Bloodline, as has almost always been the case during Reigns’ more than 1,300 days as world champion. Fan reaction was primarily a mix of shock and anger. They’d been on the journey with Rhodes and it felt the timing was perfect for him to have his moment.

WWE chief content officer Paul “Triple H” Levesque spoke to the media in the aftermath of WrestleMania 39, addressing the decision to have Reigns retain the championship.

“For a lot of people this was a shocking outcome,” Levesque said. “What I will say about that is that it’s always interesting to me when people say, ‘How could that happen?’ or ‘How could they do that in that moment?’ It’s almost perfectly spelled out in this story. ‘I need to finish the story.’ In WWE, the story never finishes. Tomorrow night on Raw, it’s sold out Crypto Arena, the story continues. The story takes another chapter, we just got to the end of another chapter but the story continues and that’s where this gets interesting to me. That is what’s the most amazing thing about this business, the story never ends.”

Levesque’s words didn’t quiet the criticism from fans but they were left in the same position as Rhodes, with nothing to do but move forward and hope the eventual payoff would be worth the wait.

That payoff could come on Sunday, when Rhodes rematches Reigns in Night 2 of WrestleMania 40, though that match almost got pushed aside after Rhodes won his second consecutive Royal Rumble this past January.

Many factors went into a near shift to Reigns vs. The Rock, rather than Rhodes.

CM Punk, who returned to WWE at the 2023 Survivor Series after a contentious split with AEW and was likely set for a big match with world heavyweight champion Seth Rollins at WrestleMania, suffered a torn triceps muscle in the Royal Rumble, taking him out of plans for the immediate future. This came just days after Vince McMahon was forced to resign from WWE after another round of allegations of sexual assault and reported investigations by federal law enforcement.

At the same time The Rock returned to WWE, joining the TKO board of directors amid rekindled interest in a long-teased showdown with Reigns, his cousin.

Despite immediately pointing at Reigns after winning the Rumble, Rhodes suddenly appeared to change course and deferred to The Rock on an episode of SmackDown.

Once again, fans revolted against the idea of Rhodes’ moment being taken away. #WeWantCody trended on X for days as The Rock, one of the biggest stars in wrestling history, was loudly booed at WWE events. It was too much to ignore and WWE pivoted back to the original plan, having The Rock turn heel and join forces with Reigns.

Rhodes, who once couldn’t even command the attention of a single WWE writer, had become such a star that an entire writing team had to pivot the plans for one of the biggest shows in WWE history to place him back in the main event. First, however, Rhodes will team with Rollins to face The Rock and Reigns in a tag match on Night 1 of the event, with the result determining the rules for Rhodes vs. Reigns on Night 2.

While Levesque may be correct that the story never finishes in WWE, Rhodes’ tale of going from WWE afterthought to undeniable champion should reach its conclusion on Sunday night.

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