Cody Rhodes’ Bumpy Road to WrestleMania
The son of the Dream, the brother of the Natural, the American Nightmare, or simply Cody. The man who left WWE to find himself and founded the first real competition to the Fed since the early 2000s, before coming back to challenge for the Undisputed WWE Universal Championship as a respected Superstar. It hasn’t been a straight shot, though. A horrifying injury and unfortunate timing in the wake of one of the best storylines of all time have threatened to derail Rhodes’ rise to championship glory.
While Cody’s time in AEW was great, his current run is amazing and well-deserved. With WrestleMania looming, let’s review the return to the WWE, and the rise to its top ranks, for Cody Rhodes.
The return of Cody Rhodes at WrestleMania 38 coincided with Seth Rollins’ devolution into madness after Rollins lost qualifier after qualifier. Eventually, a visit to Mr. McMahon’s office led to Rollins being booked at ‘Mania against a mysterious “opponent of Mr. McMahon’s choosing.” That had internet fans going wild — who would his opponent be? Sure, Cody had left AEW, but would he, a man who helped found the competition, be welcomed back into the company? WWE, of course, had plenty of legends and outliers who could have fit the bill. But after a raucous entrance featuring a chorus of loudly-dressed people singing Rollins to the ring, and a dramatic and lengthy silence punctuated by Seth calling out his mystery opponent, the announcers and crowd assumed an uneasy silence. A series of explosions followed, startling Rollins, and the arena darkened. Sharp-eared viewers heard hopeful chants from several pockets of fans in attendance. Then the “thump thump” hit, followed by Cody Rhodes’ “Wrestling has more than one royal family.” With that, fans collectively lost their minds at WrestleMania 38.
Cody fully soaked in the adoration of the fans. All his AEW hallmarks came with him to WrestleMania — his entrance music, his weight belt giveaway, his robe, even the “Cody-vator.” This extended version of that, with all the pomp and circumstance WrestleMania brings, was all of that, and Cody himself, turned up to eleven. The match itself, while not the point, was still a lot of fun. Both Cody and Seth pulled out several lesser-used spots as well as all the hits. And yes, Cody won, kicking off a months-long feud with Rollins. More importantly, the return proved that WWE was willing to showcase Rhodes as a full-on, undeniable Superstar.
Cody Rhodes versus Seth Rollins
Despite it seeming like one of the longer runs between two Superstars, Cody and Seth’s epic rivalry only lasted from WrestleMania in April through the Hell in a Cell premium live event in June. Two months and three matches, four if one counts the Raw match on April 25 that pitted Rhodes, Ezekiel, and RK-Bro against Kevin Owens, Rollins, and the Usos. That’s not to say they only met three total times before their infamous Hell in a Cell match, however.
Cagematch recorded 23 Cody Rhodes matches between his surprise return at WrestleMania and his equally surprising injury reveal at Hell in a Cell. The majority of those were dark matches and house shows, where Cody frequently faced off against Rollins and Kevin Owens, with a couple wins over the Miz and a DQ victory over Austin Theory peppered in the mix. During that time, the differences between Rhodes and Rollins became more pronounced, as Seth turned more heelish and began to make excuses for Cody’s WrestleMania victory. Rhodes would officially defeat the maniacal Rollins at WrestleMania Backlash in May, but going up 2-0 wasn’t enough, and Rhodes challenged Seth Rollins to a match inside Hell in a Cell after weeks of unprovoked attacks. This also gave us one of the best lines leading into a HiaC match, as Cody ended his challenge to Seth with, “I’ll see you in hell!”
The Hell in a Cell Match
Seth Rollins entered the arena first. Already down 2-0 in his series against Rhodes, Rollins went right after Cody from the start with his choice in ring gear – he removed his robe to reveal a cutoff t-shirt and tights reminiscent of Dusty Rhodes’ attire, black with yellow polka dots. Rollins was clearly very proud of himself, cackling and leading the crowd in his entrance singalong.
Cody followed, with his familiar gear, entrance, pyro, and robe. Eagle-eyed fans (and writers rewatching the match for the first time since last year) noticed Cody didn’t raise both arms for his pyro, and his right hand was heavily taped. Not terribly out of the ordinary, but a little weird. Once he got in the ring, Seth taunted Cody by lifting up his new shirt. The ring announcer did his thing, Seth removed his fancy shirt, and Cody removed his robe.
And the entire arena gasped.
Rumors of Cody’s injury were widespread at this point. He’d had an injured pectoral muscle, and a light workout before this match ended up completely tearing the muscle off the bone. The bruising and discoloration almost looked faked – Twitter was abuzz with fans speculating on it being a great makeup job. The entire match, obviously, focused on the injury. The announcers sounded genuinely terrified when Cody removed his ring jacket, the crowd went silent, and Rollins just laughed. To their credit, Rollins and Cody put on a hell of a match, with Seth ruthlessly attacking the injury with a kendo stick.
That was the last time we’d see Cody Rhodes in a wrestling ring for almost eight months.
The Second Coming of Cody Rhodes at the Royal Rumble
Cody’s second big return to WWE in as many years wasn’t the surprise of the first. Actually, his Royal Rumble comeback was heavily choreographed, with vignettes airing over several weeks showing Rhodes’ surgery and rehab. Fans started to guess at his return date – ‘Mania? The Rumble? Elimination Chamber? But WWE had made their decision, and Cody’s completion of rehab aligned with one of the best times for a wrestler to return from a prolonged absence. At the end of a video package airing on January 16th’s Raw, Cody announced that, “…at the Royal Rumble, I’m back!”
2023’s Royal Rumble match was the best in years, featuring several story threads woven throughout the hour-plus contest. Sheamus and Gunther reprised their roles as the UK’s baddest Superstars, with the addition of Drew McIntyre a little later to make a trio that has kept their fire going all the way to their upcoming WrestleMania triple threat match. Gunther also had the honor of going bell-to-bell, and becoming the person with the longest time in a Rumble match. We also saw Logan Paul and Ricochet fly across the ring and collide in midair, Dominic Misterio continue his rise as the most hated bad guy in WWE, and the return of Edge. But in a Rumble full of great spots and moments, Cody returning at #30 was one of the loudest pops of the match. After he and Gunther basically wrestled a full match to close out the Rumble, Rhodes became the winner of the 2023 Royal Rumble and the opponent of WWE Undisputed Universal Champion Roman Reigns. However, the show went on while Cody was rehabbing, and fans were already questioning that win later in the show.
The Rise of Sami Zayn
During the months between Hell in a Cell 2022 and Royal Rumble 2023, Sami Zayn’s interactions with Roman Reigns and the Usos turned SmackDown into must-watch TV. The Bloodline’s rise (and the cracks introduced by the former El Generico) is arguably one of the best storylines in wrestling, ever. Roman’s paranoia, ego, and unmatched emotion as the Head of the Table has been a revelation. Sami’s realization that Roman really doesn’t care for any of the Bloodline has been slow and wonderful. Roman was being gradually revealed as a gaslighter and a frightened leader, and he was fully exposed when he tried to bully Sami into attacking his handcuffed friend after the Owens versus Reigns match that closed out the Rumble.
So WWE had a bit of a booking problem, according to the most vocal internet fans. Shouldn’t Sami get a shot at Roman since he turned on the Bloodline, showing his loyalty to Owens while also bringing Jey’s into question? Was the presumed tag team match we’d all fantasy booked between KO and Sami and the Usos in jeopardy, and even if it did happen, wasn’t that a step down for Zayn? Did Cody even deserve to wrestle for the title, despite him winning the Rumble match? Clearly someone thought all this through, and the weeks since have seen some masterful planning.
Sami got his title shot at Elimination Chamber, in a match few thought would go Zayn’s way until the bell rang, when we all became believers in the Underdog from the Underground. The stars were aligned for Sami Zayn. Owens was available as backup, despite his frequent assurances that he wasn’t interested in helping his former friend. The match was in Montreal, home to both KO and Sami. Sami’s family was at ringside. If it was going to happen, the title change was going to happen for Sami here.
And then it didn’t.
The Home Stretch
Cody verus Roman is WrestleMania worthy. Sami versus Roman might have also worked, but this isn’t a case of fans turning on Cody the way they did Batista when Daniel Bryan forced his way into a championship match years ago. The WWE Universe was simply split. Cody remains the best hope to dethrone Roman, but Sami won over the hearts of every fan in the building, every night he performed – especially that night in Montreal. Cody, to his credit, has soothed things over, both with the WWE fans and between Kevin Owens and Sami Zayn, using both his mastery over the microphone and some well-shot reactions to their reunion.
Cody is unique right now because he’s a straight-up hero. No shades of gray, just a knight in shining armor. Some fans are already booking his downfall – a podcast released just this week predicted Cody getting booed out of the building on the Monday after WrestleMania if he wins the titles. But enough fans pop when Adrenaline starts to play to tell us that Cody Rhodes is still over, and many of his supporters still want the kind of good guy that John Cena played for twenty years. It’s easy to forget that WWE’s crowds tend to skew a little younger than AEW’s, and what didn’t work for Cody in All Elite Wrestling is something that can send you right to the top in World Wrestling Entertainment – being the hero kids can cheer to victory.
Through no fault of his own, Rhodes has had to deal with two enormous setbacks on his journey to a WWE championship match. The injury was brutal, but he recovered. The timing of his return, and the Bloodline story that has overshadowed all of professional wrestling, seems to have been dealt with in a way that can make fans of both Rhodes and Zayn happy.
With WrestleMania coming up, it’s looking like “WrestleZAYNia” can still happen without Sami in the main event. He’s done the work, earned a spot on the card, and became the spark that lit the fuse that may bring Roman’s reign to an end. It’s just that while Zayn and Owens might be the dynamite that destroys the Bloodline’s foundation, Cody Rhodes is hoping to be the wrecking ball that brings the whole thing down.