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Cody Rhodes’s Shocking AEW Departure Sets Up Even More Shocking WWE Return

Landing one of the faces of AEW would be Vince McMahon’s biggest victory yet in the ongoing war for wrestling supremacy.

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Cody Rhodes signing with WWE holds literal—and symbolic—value

It isn’t out of the ordinary for Vince McMahon to state during his quarterly investor calls that All Elite Wrestling is not true competition for WWE.

If he ever utters a mention of AEW, McMahon is quick to criticize. Calculated and ruthless, he’s mentioned AEW’s propensity for blood-and-guts content and insinuated that the company’s roster is full of former WWE talent. McMahon won’t concede even the possibility that Tony Khan has laid the foundation for long term success by creating a popular product that airs on TBS and TNT. But McMahon has been in control of his industry for the vast majority of the past five decades, and he knows competition when he sees it. AEW is a real threat to WWE, already serving as the impetus to change the entire NXT model, reaching the point where its current version is nearly unrecognizable from that which Paul “Triple H” Levesque built.

If you need another reminder that AEW is on McMahon’s radar, look no further than WWE’s soon-to-be newest superstar, Cody Rhodes.

Rhodes is no longer under contract to AEW. He is a free agent, and sources close to the situation have confirmed that his next destination will be back where his career started in WWE.

Rhodes is a product of the WWE system, starting with then-developmental Ohio Valley Wrestling in 2006. A decade later, frustrated over a lack of direction, Rhodes exited WWE. His dissatisfaction was directed at certain members of the writing team, particularly as the Stardust character. That will be a non-factor in this return, where he is expected to have a far different relationship with the writing team and McMahon.

After he left WWE, Rhodes worked under the mononym Cody. WWE controlled the “Cody Rhodes” name despite the fact it was the one his father, Dusty Rhodes, used throughout his legendary career (inside and outside WWE). Yet Rhodes generated a genuine buzz even without the iconic last name. He put forth must-see matches on the indies, had a stint in Impact Wrestling, and helped bring excitement to Ring of Honor and New Japan Pro-Wrestling. Rhodes then went on to star in AEW, where he also worked for Khan as an executive vice president. His list of accomplishments in AEW is incredibly noteworthy, with his Double or Nothing match in 2019 and his feud with Chris Jericho still standing as some of the most compelling content the company has produced.

But the AEW that Rhodes helped create and build has evolved.

While Rhodes was never intended to overstay his welcome in the world title picture, one key factor that led to this exit was losing all responsibilities involving booking. That is a role where Khan, who is the head of creative, has taken full rein. Originally, Rhodes was part of that process. As great as Dusty Rhodes was as a performer, his contributions as a booker are an integral part of his legacy. For Rhodes, AEW represented another chance to pay homage to his father as a booker while also further cementing his own legacy. Losing that opportunity in AEW hurt Rhodes more than any loss he suffered in the ring.

Once Rhodes signs with WWE, which is expected, it will mark the first major free agent defection from AEW to WWE. And it brings extra satisfaction to McMahon knowing he signed away Rhodes, a founding father of AEW.

Per multiple sources, Brandi Rhodes is not expected to join her husband in WWE. This is not to imply her wrestling career is over, as Rhodes just revealed to SI that she is determined to win championship gold in wrestling. Obviously, that won’t happen any time soon in AEW, but she could still wrestle elsewhere. And after working as AEW’s chief brand officer, the talented Rhodes will continue to find success wherever she goes.

As for what happens next with Cody, it’s important to remember that this is the pro wrestling business. Were this part of a major swerve—a modern-day Brian Pillman duping WCW to sign with WWE—and Rhodes remains with AEW, it would be a massive story. But that is extremely unlikely. Every indication is that his next destination is WWE, potentially even as soon as filming segments at the Performance Center this weekend. And while Rhodes would add value to this year’s WrestleMania, he would also be a major reveal on the Raw immediately following ’Mania.

Rhodes will have the opportunity to work the top stars in WWE. If he becomes its world champion, that is a feat neither his brother Dustin (aka Goldust) or father ever achieved. His star will grow considerably, opening up options outside of pro wrestling (even if the second season of TNT’s Rhodes to the Top is canceled). AEW also won’t stop growing, though it will certainly be strange to see the Rhodes family not interconnected with Tony Khan’s company.

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AEW is most certainly competition and bringing Rhodes back to WWE only intensifies pro wrestling’s battle for supremacy. That is an area where McMahon has a history of wiping away his opponents, but Khan has shown over the past three years that he is intends to be a legitimate player in the industry.

The fight pitting WWE against AEW is only getting started. The moment Rhodes appears in a WWE ring, it will be a major victory for McMahon and his team.

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The (online) week in wrestling

  • Brandon Thurston did an outstanding job detailing the bevy of problems that are involved with WWE performing shows in Saudi Arabia. 
  • It is still hard to believe that WWE couldn’t find a place for Keith Lee, who is a massive addition to AEW. And credit to Private Party, who played a critical role, bumping and selling to make Lee look like a star in his debut. 
  • On a Raw that featured an appearance from Tommaso Ciampa, viewers also saw Rhea Ripley go 44 minutes in the gauntlet match before losing to Bianca Belair. This is a pivotal stretch for both Belair and Ripley, as Belair is likely to have a title match at WrestleMania—but what happens with Ripley? 
  • Brock Lesnar appeared as a guest on the Pat McAfee Show, and it was fascinating to get a glimpse into the mind of Lesnar. 
  • Lesnar, who is expected to leave Elimination Chamber as WWE champion, again looked dominant on Raw. 
  • Credit to Matt Cardona for making himself so relevant in his post-WWE journey. Cardona won the NWA world title this weekend, which is a great move by the NWA after the Trevor Murdoch run did not inspire much fanfare. 
  • Go Shiozaki lost all three of his matches last week at Korakuen Hall. Firmly removed from title contention, the next chapter of his story should be very interesting to watch unfold.
  • Richard Holliday turned on former partner Hammerstone, setting up an interesting feud in MLW.

Josh Alexander exits Impact Wrestling

Josh Alexander is no longer employed by Impact Wrestling.

After becoming the face of the company throughout 2021, Alexander is now a free agent. In addition to the end of his contract with Impact, his United States work visa has also expired. Alexander had been extremely active on the indies, but since he is unable to leave Canada to work in the U.S., he was forced to cancel upcoming bookings later this month with Terminus and AML Wrestling.

It is rare that a company and performer merge together as well as Alexander did with Impact. There was faith from the company, taking Alexander, who appeared to be the complementary piece of a successful tag team in The North—where Ethan Page was seen as the breakout singles star—and gave him a platform to star in the X Division. Working with Ace Austin and TJ Perkins allowed Alexander to showcase his skill as a singles performer, and that success carried over to the main event. After Kenny Omega and Christian Cage each had turns with the Impact title, Alexander made the belt feel even more meaningful when he wrestled it away from Cage last October at the Bound for Glory pay-per-view.

That moment didn’t last long, as Moose immediately cashed in his title shot to rip the belt away from Alexander, but that set up a long-term story of Alexander restarting his championship pursuit. He defeated Jonah in a solid match at the Hard to Kill pay-per-view, and it appeared to be only a matter of time before he thrust himself back into the world title picture.

A smoking gun in this story could be the Feb. 2 episode of Dynamite, when Brandi Rhodes insulted Page in a promo in her program against Dan Lambert and the Men of the Year and name-dropped Alexander. Even though AEW has had a working relationship with Impact, mentioning an Impact star on Dynamite is still a bit of a surprise.

In time, we’ll learn if there were plans to bring Alexander to AEW. If that was the case, was it set up through Cody or Brandi Rhodes? Or is this a case of Impact and Alexander unable to agree on market value? Questions remain, but what is certain is that this is a missed opportunity—a long championship run halted before it could even begin.

Does Alexander fit in AEW? Or New Japan Strong? He is an exceptional talent, but there is no denying that he had a perfect home in Impact.

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Justin Barrasso can be reached at JBarrasso@gmail.com. Follow him on Twitter @JustinBarrasso.

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