SPOTLIGHTED PODCAST ALERT (YOUR ARTICLE BEGINS A FEW INCHES DOWN)...
WWE vs. AEW, NXT vs. Dynamite, McMahon vs. Rhodes, and billionaire vs. billionaire. Such is life for pro wrestling in 2019. The war is on.
Anyone want to place bets on the winner? Me either, but the formula for success is relatively simple. Create the next major babyface star. Easier said than done, but facts are facts. The first company to create a star babyface and allow that star to grow outside the bounds of its brand will be the company that critically leads the wrestling business into the future. Enter Cody, with mainstream momentum finally on his side. All eyes on him.
Yes, that Cody. Cody Rhodes. Stardust. An Executive Vice President of All Elite Wrestling. The man that graciously and willingly left the WWE and financial stability to realize more of himself inside the business his family helped build. What a story, right? Wrestling fans certainly think so and they’re flocking his way. Last Wednesday, Cody was the first to walk to the ring on AEW’s premiere episode of Dynamite on TNT and the fans raucously responded with a loud ovation and passion beaming through their eyes.
It was a moment. Not because of the millions watching, but because of what the entrance meant to the millions watching. Because his story resonates and because he was the first to leave the WWE and get himself over in an impactful way, he’s become not only an entertaining wrestling figure to watch, but a symbol for passionate wrestling fans. They gravitate to him in an effort to take their business back. He’s an act fans are proud to get behind because he represents them. That’s powerful in the 2019 wrestling landscape and a sturdy foundation to build off of in becoming a transcendent babyface star that alters the Wednesday wars. How does he do it? By recognizing what got him to this point, manipulating those efforts further, and adjusting those efforts as his star power grows.
Cody won with accessibility. As a fan, if you wanted to meet him, you could. He walked around the halls of Starrcast with confidence oozing off his shoulders, but with fans around in every direction soaking him in. When he left WWE, he put his list out on Twitter for the world to engage with. That list became their list too. He lets fans into his life. They know his wife, they know his house, and they know his dog. The psychology of that approach will continue to help him, but will have to be adjusted as he continues to grow and gain star power. At some point, there will need to be exclusivity surrounding Cody. That comes with the territory of becoming a mainstream star and one that he’ll need to willingly adapt to in order to take giant steps up the popularity ladder. He can’t be an indy star and a mainstream, war changing star at the same time.
He’ll need to continue executing an in-ring product that’s suitable on a main event level in 2019. Work rate is king these days and for as much as stories matter, that work rate is an unavoidable benchmark. If you watch Cody on a Comic-Con panel or at a Starrcast event, it’s clear he’s able to tell entertaining stories that engage an audience. He showcases that in his wrestling matches and it’s carried him and been an effective crutch. To become the next mass appeal star, he’ll need to develop the work rate part of his game and mirror that with his pristine storytelling.
As essentially the promoter of AEW, Cody will need to ignore his detractors looking at his family history and feature himself prominently on the card. Not because he’s the promoter, but because it’s best for the entire company. The Dusty Rhodes criticism is rooted in Rhodes as the promoter featuring himself ahead of other worthy draws simply because he could as the booker. Right now, Cody needs to own that and react to it, but stay the course in pushing himself as AEW’s top star. He’s the one getting the biggest reactions. Fans are passionate for him and he’s drawing the eyeballs to the product. Running from that to avoid an incorrect comparison to his father strangles his momentum and deprives the audience of something their obviously clamoring for.
Babyface stars have always been the bedrock of a successful wrestling business. Bruno Sammartino, Bob Backlund, Hulk Hogan, Stone Cold Steve Austin, and The Rock. All key babyfaces that held their company on their shoulders. What about John Cena? Roman Reigns? Good arguments, but all with dark shades of gray. Cody is on the path. He’s captured the diehards and has the gimmick with a personality to rope in new, casual viewers as well. All eyes on him.
NOW CHECK OUT HEYDORN’S PREVIOUS TAKE: Optics of imbecilic chair shot hurt AEW’s inaugural moment to capture new audience