It’s not as big a talking points as it was shortly before and after his return at WrestleMania 38, but we’ll still see the occasional comment wondering when WWE audiences will turn on Cody Rhodes.
Part of that was because, for much of the 21st century it seemed like the universally loved babyface wrestler was a thing of the past. With regards to Rhodes, it was also because we’d watched — and in a lot of cases been a part of — the AEW audience turning on Cody during his three-plus years there.
In response to the increased boos he was getting on many (but not all) episodes of Dynamite and Rampage, Rhodes started to lean into some of his character traits that were rubbing fans the wrong way. This winking approach was even dubbed a “meta heel turn” in some circles.
During an interview with Sam Roberts on NotSam Wrestling in support of his new Peacock documentary, Rhodes admitted he was being a little too clever with his character during his last year or so in Tony Khan’s employ:
“I think at the end of AEW — I was talking to my students about this the other day, it’s just a case of — I‘ve never underestimated our audience, in a sense that’s why I use a lot of big words in promos. People will say, ‘Oh, he’s talking down to them.’ No, they’re not down. These people, some of them are doctors. Some of them are lawyers. Some of them are industrial workers. It doesn’t matter. It doesn’t mean they’re not educated. The wrestling audience is as educated as any audience.
“But at AEW, I think trying to do what I was doing there at the end was just a bit too meta. ‘Hey, the thing we want is you to turn heel.’ So for me to do that, to turn heel, is by saying verbally out loud, ‘I’m not going to do it’ — which is being a heel. But that’s not — it didn’t work, in a sense. And it did because I had a really fun match with Ethan Page where the crowd was just going nuts, and I love the polarized crowds, the split crowds... I love the polarized, split crowds because obviously I am part of the Cena era of our industry so I loved it. But it might have just been over the heads of people, but everything was going in such a unique direction, you know, multiple shows and money was through the roof in the industry. It was really wonderful.”
Once he arrived in WWE, Cody didn’t change much about his character. But as Raw crowds were cheering him and fans everywhere made his merchandise top-sellers again, he did drop the winks and doubled-down on the earnestness. That helped make his quest to “Finish The Story” more authentic, which is why Rhodes thinks the response is so different:
“The reason I think that the WWE audience took to it in a completely different way, as if they dismissed whatever was happening — and this is just my hope and belief, could be wrong — I think it’s because they knew what you were seeing was real. There’s always that gray matter and that suspension of disbelief, but I think they knew, ‘Oh, his return is more than just an individual returning.’
“This is somebody who’s been away for I think six or seven years at the time. This is somebody whose song is almost a rallying cry against WWE almost, and here it is playing out loud. I think maybe at its core, most people can understand a lot of what you’ll see in the doc is you can be the most talented, you can not be talented at all, all these things, but betting on yourself, and I think maybe that’s it. Maybe that’s what they saw is, ‘Yeah, he was this guy and he helped create a promotion, and yes, they did this, and yes, he smashed the throne and all this, but also bet on himself and look where it led us.”
That still sounds like something fans would eventually tire of if this were five or ten years ago. But as Rhodes & Roberts also discuss during their 40 minute conversation, the babyface has made a big comeback the past couple years. In 2023, Cody, Seth Rollins, Kevin Owens & Sami Zayn and others are being embraced in a way few big acts were back in 2013.
Will The American Nightmare continue to be beloved as he chases the title his father never won? That will probably depend on a lot of things, but as of right now Rhodes is still getting big pops.
No reason to think that won’t continue... unless maybe if Cody gets too clever for his own good again.