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How AJ Styles and Cody Rhodes bet on themselves — and succeeded — in becoming stars outside of WWE

Professional wrestlers in the WWE are referred to as superstars. It’s a nifty marketing tool to distinguish its roster from the wider industry, but it also rings true. WWE superstars have a level of celebrity that most pro wrestlers won’t achieve. As a result, WWE talent are often tied to their WWE characters. The main event of WWE Backlash in France this Saturday is a rare example to the contrary.

AJ Styles challenges Cody Rhodes for the undisputed WWE championship in Lyon, France. It’s a first-time meeting between two performers who spent significant portions of their careers in WWE but are forever tied to their work outside of it. Styles, a two-time WWE champion, has been a full-time WWE roster member longer than The Rock, but he’ll forever be praised as the exhilarating high-flyer and technical wizard who inspired a generation of wrestlers elsewhere.

Styles joined New Japan Pro-Wrestling in 2014 after a messy divorce from his longtime home promotion, TNA Wrestling. He spent his tenure as the face of Bullet Club, New Japan’s modern-day equivalent to WCW’s New World Order. The faction welcomed future WWE champions Styles, Rhodes and Finn Balor (its original founder), future AEW champs Kenny Omega, “Hangman” Adam Page and The Young Bucks and many other notable names. Styles’ evolution in Japan, which included a pair of world title reigns, proved he wasn’t just “Mr. TNA,” but a worldwide main event talent.

“I think it was a moment in time where we said, ‘Let’s just have fun.’ And if you’re able to have fun, people will have fun with you,” Styles told CBS Sports about his time leading Bullet Club. “That’s exactly what we did…”

“The one thing is we weren’t handcuffed when we were in Japan. Not at all. We could say and do anything we wanted.”

Styles arrived at the WWE as a surprise entrant in the 2016 Royal Rumble match. He admittedly had no clue if the WWE fanbase would recognize him. The crowd watched in quiet confusion as an unfamiliar theme song played through the arena. But once the words “Phenomenal” crawled across the big screen, the fans erupted into one of the loudest roars you’ll ever hear. It was validation that hard work done outside of the WWE can be acknowledged. Mere months after the independent scene’s most beloved veteran stepped through the WWE curtains, Rhodes was on his way out.

Starting in a WWE feeder system — Ohio Valley Wrestling — as the son of “The American Dream” Dusty Rhodes guaranteed Rhodes a headstart. But by 2016, he’d been saddled with the soul-sucking Stardust gimmick. It was a cartoony, cosmic supervillain in the vein of his half-brother, Goldust, and far from a main event act. Four months after Styles signed with WWE, Rhodes asked for and was granted his release.

“Cody and I passed by,” Styles said. “He came to Japan as I came to WWE.”

Rhodes executed his career reinvention in the reverse order of Styles. Entering the world of independent wrestling for the first time, Rhodes hit up all of Styles’ old stomping grounds. He joined Ring of Honor and TNA before signing with NJPW while using “The American Nightmare” nickname that he carried back to WWE six years later. Rhodes quickly joined Bullet Club, played a pivotal role in its “Civil War” storyline and was a founding member of the All Elite Wrestling promotion — WWE’s largest North American competitor since WCW folded in 2001.

“I think as I grow old I’ll probably wax poetic and grow even fonder of the things I was able to be a part of,” Rhodes previously told CBS Sports. “The people I was able to team with. When we were a group, The Bullet Club, The Elite, the idea was to change the world. We really did actually change, at least, our world.”

Rhodes and Styles enter Backlash with conflicting desires to be world champion. It’s a scripted art form, but the competitive strive to prove yourself the superior performer is very much alive. Still, Styles has deep sympathy and respect for what his dance partner on Saturday has overcome in the last eight years. The man who defeated Roman Reigns at WrestleMania 40 is not the wide-eyed son of “The American Dream” or a gold-painted cosmic goon. It’s “The American Nightmare” Cody Rhodes, a man decidedly his own.

“I know what it’s like to bet on myself and that’s exactly what Cody did,” Styles said. “He knew he was worth much more than they were giving him at the time. He had to go and show them and prove to them, ‘Hey, man. I don’t have to be Stardust. I can do what needs to be done. I can be a top guy if you’ll just give me the opportunity.’ He showed them by going somewhere else. I totally understand that. I get it. I respect the heck out of him for doing it.”

Having fun served Bullet Club well as a guiding principle. It’s an ethos that is currently leading WWE to a new era under the direction of WWE chief content officer Paul Levesque, also known as Triple H. Levesque was primarily responsible for bringing Styles into the WWE fold in 2016 and now steers the ship that reintroduced Styles to the main event scene. Levesque echoed the same sentiments about fun when rallying the superstars backstage minutes before WrestleMania 40 went live.

“We’re having fun. I want everyone to have fun,” Levesque said at the WrestleMania 40 post-show press conference. “When the signature was playing, I picked up the headset and said, ‘Biggest thing we want to remember tonight, everybody, have fun. Enjoy this.’ If this is fun, everybody loves it. If we have fun making it, you’re going to enjoy watching it. That’s what I believe.”

Styles has wrestled all around the world for a quarter century, working under various leadership in major promotions including WWE and WCW. Styles complimented Levesque as a nurturing and compassionate leader who has rejuvenated WWE’s historically cutthroat environment.

Check out the full interview with AJ Styles below.

“He’s really smart and he really cares,” Styles said. “That’s what we need. We need someone who not only wants to put on a great product but cares about the people working for him and doing their best.”

“I can appreciate the fact that he cares about Cody because I’ve seen so many talent that had a right to be in the WWE but we didn’t give them enough time to develop,” Styles added. “I feel like we kind of ruined their lives to some degree because this is the peak of wrestling and we just said, ‘You’re not good enough. See ya.’ I hate that. That’s not true, mind you. But that’s what we’ve said doing what we do. I don’t think Triple H is willing to do that without giving someone a chance.”

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