On the morning of February 15, AEW announced that Cody and Brandi Rhodes had left the promotion.

This is undoubtedly one of the biggest pro wrestling stories of the year, if not the decade. While it was known that Cody had been working without a contract for approximately six weeks, the prevalent feeling was that he and AEW President Tony Khan would eventually come to terms on an extension. Tony had stated in multiple interviews that the continual expansion of the roster would lead to contract renewals not being offered to some talent. A few wrestlers had departed AEW after their contracts expired over the past few months, but none had been consistently featured in high-profile positions like Cody.

While the departure of an AEW founder may be unexpected, it’s also the best career move he could make.

In 2022, Cody Rhodes no longer offers the same value proposition that he did at AEW’s inception.

Chris Jericho, Kenny Omega, Jon Moxley, Sting, CM Punk, and Bryan Danielson are all bigger stars on AEW’s roster than Cody was in 2019. Younger acts like Hangman Page, MJF, Darby Allin, Sammy Guevara, and Jungle Boy have been elevated since 2019 and continue to ascend. AEW also continues to acquire stars from WWE like Adam Cole, who has been featured more prominently than Cody since his debut. While Cody can cut great promos, he’s not necessarily AEW’s best promo. While he can have great matches, few consider him AEW’s best worker between the ropes. This isn’t to say Cody feuding with Punk, Moxley, Cole, or Hangman wouldn’t be main event level programs, but Cody’s utilization going forward projected to be as an opponent putting over bigger or younger stars. That placement in AEW’s hierarchy would lead to Cody’s value continually declining, so now is the right time for him to leave.

As an AEW founder and one of the three promoters of “All In” Cody will always have a prominent place in AEW’s history. Some fans believe AEW would have never become a reality without the involvement of Cody Rhodes. Others contend that he was the least valuable member of The Elite who gained popularity by association, and AEW would have been successful with or without him. Whatever side of the debate you’re on, those talking points make for a uniquely intriguing storyline. After some time away a Cody return instantly becomes one of the biggest storylines AEW could hope to produce; whether it happens in nine months or nine years.

Speculation and “sources” have indicated Cody could be heading back to WWE.

A successful run in the world’s biggest promotion would elevate Cody’s value, and there are reasons to believe Cody can succeed there. WWE’s aging roster creates opportunity within the main event scene for a fresh new act. Vince McMahon usually protects highly compensated talent at levels above the majority of the main roster. Presenting Cody as a top star would communicate to AEW talent that there are high-end opportunities for them in WWE. Additionally, whenever Cody’s rumored WWE contract elapses he’d find himself in a bidding war between two national promotions both raking in record-setting revenue via TV rights fees.

The obvious fear of Cody returning to WWE is that Vince McMahon will use this opportunity to punish an enemy.

Former NWA World Champion Dusty Rhodes was infamously placed in polka dots and seen plunging toilets in WWF vignettes. Fans remember how poorly the WCW stars were utilized during the invasion in 2001, or how Sting was presented during his short WWE tenure. While those fears are valid, there is a primary difference between Cody and the WCW alumni: Cody Rhodes was trained in WWE. His first match took place in WWE’s developmental territory OVW, and his first nationally televised match happened on Raw.

Vince McMahon may see Cody Rhodes as his own creation and be more open to pushing him as a top star. Drew McIntyre went through the WWE developmental system and was released by WWE in 2014 after a failed push lead to years as an enhancement-level comedy act. Drew later returned to WWE, won the 2020 Royal Rumble, defeated Brock Lesnar at WrestleMania, and spent the majority of the next year as WWE World Heavyweight Champion. On the other hand, John Morrison was also trained by WWE. He spent 8 years outside WWE headlining in various promotions across the world.  He returned only to be utilized in the same spot he had before. While it’s unlikely Cody would ever become Stardust again, Vince may never see him as the main event level star he spent the past few years being in AEW.

While Cody’s value to AEW at this moment may be at a nadir, he will retain a high degree of value regardless of how successful he is elsewhere. We’ve seen how Adam Cole, Miro, Malakai Black, Andrade, Keith Lee, and many more were welcomed by the AEW audience after limited or underwhelming utilization on WWE television. Losing frequently on Raw or Smackdown would not impact the unique storyline a Cody return could offer AEW. He’d be viewed as a traitor; the EVP who went from smashing the throne to kneeling in front of it. He turned his back on everything he created to rejoin the evil empire he once spoke so passionately against. Given Cody’s reception the past few months, he would have an organic case that the AEW fans turned their backs on him and took him for granted. In contract negotiations even Tony Khan took him for granted, so he went somewhere that was willing to pay up and make him feel appreciated. He sold out. No one could have as much heat in AEW as a post-WWE Cody Rhodes.

The promos really write themselves.

While such a storyline would contain elements of reality, roster turnover has always been an inherent part of pro wrestling. While some departures lead to permanent hard feelings (WWE and CM Punk), time generally heals all wounds (like with WWE and everyone that isn’t CM Punk). We don’t know if this departure was acrimonious or not, but sometime in the future Cody will likely be welcome back in AEW.

Cody’s tenure since Dynamite began airing was never all about him. The vow to never challenge for the AEW World Championship communicated that he wasn’t going to use his backstage position of authority to continuously place himself at the top of the card like his father. His next program elevated MJF into being one of the top heels in the industry. Cody’s run as TNT Champion not only introduced us to Ricky Starks and Eddie Kingston, but gave Brodie Lee his biggest career highlight and helped solidify an entire Dark Order act that had been struggling to find its footing. His 2nd TNT Title run ended by putting over Darby Allin who turned into a legit headlining act and ratings draw. After that Cody participated in an angle and match with NBA legend Shaquille O’Neal, only its focus was to introduce Jade Cargill, who became the inaugural TBS Champion and has developed into a bit of a ratings draw herself.

While Cody’s feud with QT Marshall may not have been as critically acclaimed as his previous work, it did introduce and obtain screen time for young talent like Anthony Ogogo, Aaron Solo, Nick Comoroto, Lee Johnson, & Brock Anderson. Cody’s subsequent programs with Malakai Black and Andrade El Idolo helped transform them from missing in action WWE roster members to stars regularly headlining Dynamite and Rampage. Cody defeating Sammy Guevara was the first match on the first episode of Dynamite. His last match on Dynamite was putting over Sammy Guevara in a classic ladder match for the TNT Championship; a perfect full circle encapsulation of Cody’s contributions to AEW.

Cody helped build AEW into a national promotion that no longer needs him to succeed. His AEW career was always about doing what was best for everyone else. Now it’s time to do what’s best for him.

Betting on himself in 2016 led Cody to bigger and better things. In 2022, he’ll try to make it double or nothing.

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