WrestleMania 39: How Cody Rhodes' departure and return to WWE changed an industry

LAST MARCH, CODY RHODES was simply looking for closure.

He set up a meeting with then-WWE chairman Vince McMahon and senior vice president Bruce Prichard to talk about what went wrong at the end of his tenure with WWE in 2016, his subsequent launching of rival promotion AEW and his public gripes about his former employer.

"I have such a respect for the George Lucas of our industry, that being Vince [McMahon]," he said. "And I just wanted to see them and talk to them. I was going to have that moment.

"And then everything changed."

Rhodes wanted to apologize for the way he left the company, even though he felt justified in his decision. He'd been in the company for eight years and had yet to establish a main event role. He'd been feeling the strain of the Stardust character -- a take on his older half-brother Dustin's Goldust character -- who painted his face and carried himself like a comic book supervillain. Rhodes was getting lost behind the face paint.

"Charlotte Flair introduced me to a little kid at a show once," he recalled. "She told the kid 'That's Stardust.' But I wasn't in my Stardust get-up. And [the kid] was confused. When I said I used to be Cody Rhodes, he did not know who [that] was. I remember thinking 'We're in trouble.' I'd been in active [programs] with Randy [Orton], Hunter [Triple H], Rey [Mysterio], Undertaker. Had I never gotten that taste, I would've not been in any pain. But it was like a drug that I could never get again. I knew there was a way to get back to it, but it was going to be by far the road less traveled."

He also had the support, motivation and encouragement from his wife, Brandi.

"You're not a tree, so f---ing move," Brandi said at the time. "There comes a breaking point where it's not worth proving something to anyone if you are beaten down to the ground by it. It was time to reset, rebrand and start over."

Rhodes left on his own terms and was critical of the company. "For a decade I tried to convince both Vince [McMahon] and Triple H that I could be their star player," he posted on social media. "It seems we have reached the point where neither saw that in me. It's been said to never leave money on the table, but no money is worth being less than you are."

Nearly seven years later, everyone sees what Rhodes always knew. He's redefined himself by channeling the wrestling and entrepreneurial spirit of his father and WWE icon, Dusty. From traveling the wrestling world, launching AEW to unexpectedly repairing his relationship with McMahon, Rhodes was unintentionally setting himself up for his WrestleMania moment.

And on Sunday night in Los Angeles, he's going to get it.

RHODES' DEPARTURE FROM WWE provided him with a variety of opportunities. He had a list of matches he wanted to have and traveled the independent circuit. He wrestled in tiny venues like in Pittsfield, Massachusetts, to massive arenas like the Tokyo Dome. He built his name in organizations like Pro Wrestling Guerrilla and found a home on television with Impact Wrestling. That time away provided him with what he felt was missing.

One talent Rhodes shares with his father is his mastery of the wrestling business. While Dusty was a superstar on camera in the 1980s, his storyline booking and innovation challenged the all-powerful McMahon. After all, Dusty's Starrcade set a blueprint for wrestling pay-per-views in America.

"[The Rhodeses are] royalty just like the McMahons," said Diamond Dallas Page, WWE Hall of Famer. "[They've] lasted a test of time too. Dusty was such an innovator. He made more careers than anybody."

That generational gift showed itself in 2017 when wrestling journalist Dave Meltzer tweeted that Ring Of Honor wrestling -- one of the most popular indie companies in the world -- couldn't sell out a 10,000-seat arena. Rhodes took it as a challenge and bet that he and the popular tag team, The Young Bucks, could do it. The result: 2018's All-In card in Chicago that sold out in minutes, hitting that 10,000-seat mark easily.

That one-off would lead to Rhodes' greatest contribution to the wrestling landscape while away from WWE in 2019, when he joined forces with some of the best independent wrestlers in the world -- The Young Bucks and Kenny Omega -- and Jacksonville Jaguars owner Tony Khan to form All Elite Wrestling. The company has become the first legitimate competitor to WWE in the 21st century. Not only has AEW allowed for an alternative to the behemoth WWE, but it also gives wrestling fans extra hours of programming each week.

"How many people could ever go off and go against the McMahon family?" Page said. "They did really good down there."

But for Rhodes, a large part of the benefit comes from how AEW has helped increase earnings for everyone involved in wrestling.

"There's more money now in the business because me and my friends went out and started a rival promotion," he said. "The money now in this business is through the roof."

In February 2022, Cody left the company he worked so hard to build. He told Stone Cold Steve Austin on "The Broken Skull Sessions" that he felt the role of gatekeeper -- where he is the wrestler used to get young, newcomers over -- was becoming difficult. He wanted more. He wanted to stand out.

"I just didn't want to be a gatekeeper," he told Austin. "I grew up in the business wanting to be the WWE champion, because it's the one that got away. This one got away from [Dusty], but I don't want it to get away from me."

RHODES ANNOUNCED HIS departure from AEW, and the immediate speculation was that he was heading back to WWE. A couple of weeks after Rhodes left AEW, WWE started a storyline where former champion Seth Rollins desperately sought an opponent for WrestleMania. It didn't take long for fans to connect the dots that the opponent Rollins would find would be a returning Rhodes. But that was all news to Rhodes, who hadn't even met with anyone at WWE yet. That meeting didn't take place until March.

And when it happened, the conversation didn't go according to Rhodes' plan.

"I wasn't going in there to sign," Rhodes remembers. "And I left thinking, 'Are you about to sign?'"

"I really wanted the meeting to be about saying I'm sorry for [how I left]," he said. "I hope you guys are sorry about some things too. I wanted to hear that I was right about one specific thing: Stardust had run its course. Sometimes you need to see the destination for the journey. And that was something I wasn't getting from anybody."

He also needed to make sure McMahon was clear on one thing: "I told Vince McMahon I was the best wrestler in the world. I think I have been for a while. And he didn't argue with me about that."

A few weeks later, he made his return at WrestleMania 38.

"He [was a] 30-year-old kid. Thirty-year-olds in our business, you're still a kid," Page said. "You're making, I don't know, like half a million bucks a year, and you walk away from that because you believe you are not a big-card performer?

"The bottom line is he proved it so much, so they really wanted him back."

The crowd's reaction told the story. Across eight hours of WrestleMania weekend events that saw the return of Austin, Brock Lesnar wrestling Roman Reigns and an all-star match between Bianca Belair and Becky Lynch, Rhodes' return got arguably the loudest reaction.

The 45-minute classic between Rhodes and Rollins was a showcase of all he learned while he was away. He and Rollins meshed an independent style of innovative high spots and near-falls with the dramatics and showmanship that translate to the biggest stage in all of wrestling.

"The thing I was missing was a connection with the audience," Rhodes said. "I didn't realize how important it is to connect with them. You can't do this amazing high-speed, unbelievable sequence if no one's watching. You gotta bring them into it and then you can do whatever the heck you want."

Last April, WWE was struggling to find a suitable challenger for Roman Reigns, who had been dominating wrestling for two years. He had become so dominant that no possible contender seemed realistic. And overnight, Rhodes became that real threat. A shining babyface to usurp the Tribal Chief.

THEN IT ALL fell apart. Literally.

A few weeks after his WWE re-debut, Rhodes hit the gym for his routine weightlifting. Rhodes went to bench 295. As soon as the weights were off the rack, his right pectoral muscle ripped off the bone. A tear like that can keep wrestlers out for months. Rhodes was scheduled to main event Hell In A Cell in another rematch with Rollins a few days later, and there seemed to be no way he could have the match.

Rhodes wrestled anyway. In many ways, to prove to himself he could.

"What I thought was, 'maybe I don't have it,'" he told Logan Paul on his ImPAULsive podcast last month. "Maybe I don't have what John [Cena] has. That's why I was so adamant that we're not going to do some stupid thing backstage [to write me off in storyline]. Not knocking that. You should never wrestle in jest. I just wasn't going to have it any other way. I had to have the match at least."

Rhodes ended the match as the hottest babyface in America -- a position his father held through much of the 80s. But he also ended the match needing to take months off at the height of his stardom. The lingering concern of 'What if I'm replaced while I'm out' lingered in his head.

While Rhodes was recovering, Reigns and The Bloodline were putting together one of wrestling's most compelling stories. The slow burn of Sami Zayn and Jey Uso's tension with Reigns became one of the most emotionally resonant stories in wrestling history. Zayn could have realistically been Reigns' main event opponent. So could Uso. But as fans clamored for a Bloodline-centric Mania feud, Rhodes and the WWE creative team stayed the course.

"I wanted there to be a point where the audience decided," Rhodes said. "And that's scary, but when you're a young wrestler you always get mad at other wrestlers doing well. But as you get older, it's like, oh, great, that's awesome. I didn't have a clue where it was ending or where it was going. But I knew there was going to be a positive. I knew the wave was coming for me."

Rhodes made his return with a victory in the Royal Rumble. An hour later, the Zayn/Bloodline feud would reach its emotional high. At any moment, the wrong promo or the wrong crowd could turn on Rhodes for the Bloodline foils, who are at the front of everyone's minds. But it never happened.

Crowds kept cheering for Rhodes. And when he needed to remind everyone that he was still coming for Reigns, Rhodes would say the right thing at the exact moment.

"I don't think there's a better talker in the business right now," says Page, who has known Rhodes his whole life. "He's been that guy for a couple of years now. His old man could talk you into the building, and that's what Rhodes' doing. He's running on all cylinders right now."

THREE WEEKS AHEAD of his WrestleMania match, before 75,000 fans cheer on Rhodes in Sofi Stadium, he's in the middle of a wrestling ring surrounded by six onlookers in a small gym about 30 miles southeast of Atlanta, in a town named McDonough.

Rhodes is slammed by a skinny 22-year-old named Michael, who stands 5-foot-6. Michael, and the rest of the audience, are beginner students at Rhodes' Nightmare Factory wrestling camp. Rhodes is training with them in the ring, trusting a bunch of newbies to slam him and toss him less than a month before the biggest match of his life, where one wrong move or injury could put the biggest moment of his career in jeopardy.

"It's stupid," he says with a laugh. "But I love being in there with them."

It's about passing on knowledge, something Dusty loved to do. For Rhodes, this moment ahead is where decades of backstories and histories can converge. That moment is when he walks through the curtain to try to win the championship that eluded his family for 50 years. In doing so, defeating one of the most dominant champions from one of the most iconic families in wrestling, proving he is the best wrestler in the world.

"Just to see the respect [Reigns] commands because of what he's done for WWE. I've never seen anything like it," said Rhodes of his opponent. "Roman takes on that sense of royalty. That's really special because that's what's happening in Mania -- two families who really both want to leave with the title."