If WWE had a standard job posting that listed the desired skills and qualifications for someone trying to be a professional wrestler, it would read like a description of Cody Rhodes. And so it's the height of pro-wrestling strangeness that, at the prime age 30, Rhodes was released by the company last week.
The son of the legendary Dusty Rhodes, Cody was tailor-made for today's WWE of his own accord. Cody checked off every box the world's foremost wrestling organization seeks in its so-called superstars. Being the offspring of one of the five most recognizable names in the history of the sport is important; some of wrestling's biggest stars—Randy Orton, The Rock, Roman Reigns—are second- or even third-generation grapplers. This was often leaned on as an obvious storytelling tool for Cody Rhodes, but he brought more than nepotism to the table.
At six-foot-two and 215 pounds, Rhodes is perhaps a little small for Vince McMahon's notoriously beefcaked ideal of a top star, sure. Then again, the two most important men's matches at the Extreme Rules pay-per-view on Sunday included Sami Zayn (6'1", 212 lbs.) and A.J. Styles (5'11", 218 lbs.), and the show closed with the return of Seth Rollins (6'1", 217 lbs.).
Rhodes looks like an athlete rather than a bodybuilder or a luchadore, and he wrestled like an athlete. He seemed largely incapable of a bad match, regardless of opponent, script, or story. There was something innate about his fluidity in the ring, which makes sense given his background. His father became an instrumental figure in WWE's new system for developing talent; his brother has been in and out of the company for the better part of two decades under the alias/facepaint of Goldust.
That link wasn't lost on WWE, who used that history soon after Rhodes' debut. After initially appearing in a tag team with Bob "Hardcore" Holly, Rhodes quickly joined with Ted DiBiase Jr., the real-life son of The Million Dollar Man. They expanded into a three-man super-group with Orton, fittingly known as Legacy, which existed primarily to further Orton's mega-push as he rose to become one of the company's key players. When the group split, putting DiBiase and Rhodes as good guys opposite uber-heel Orton, it felt like WWE had plotted their freshman years out perfectly, and with just the right amount of meta.
In what would become a hallmark of Rhodes' tenure, though, things didn't play out that way. Orton was booked to beat his protégés, and WWE opted not to commit to the easy, obvious, potentially star-making partner-against-partner feud between Rhodes and DiBiase. Both characters floundered, and DiBiase would hang up his boots altogether in 2013, opting out of the industry into which he'd been born.
Rhodes, meanwhile, entered the next stage of his career, where feud after feud, gimmick after gimmick, he would be handed a challenge—often, it was table scraps—and told to get it over.
"So there I was," Rhodes posted on Twitter after his release, "having done everything I could possibly do for ten years to make the most out of both large opportunities and even the half-cocked ones like 'paint-up like your Brother.' Chicken shit into chicken salad became my specialty; and with those worthy opportunities afforded me ... I can only hope I fully executed."
Rhodes became Nu Rick Rude, a narcissist obsessed with his appearance in a Patrick Bateman–adjacent way. When he broke his nose and required a Rip Hamilton mask, it became a part of his gimmick. He became a sort of Phantom of the Squared Circle Opera, disgusted by his own completely normal, handsome, not-at-all disfigured face.
It wasn't much, but Rhodes made it work. This repeated itself through the years. He scraped his way to the Intercontinental Championship, pushing hard behind the scenes to return the once-legendary title to its former prestige and even reportedly spending out of pocket to commission a new belt that drew on the championship's history. Rhodes forced himself up the card repeatedly, changing how the company's second-biggest title was viewed. When his apprenticeship at the second level was complete, instead of making a jump, he found himself back in the tag-team ranks, making chicken salad again. This was how it went: Rhodes would get himself over, only to have the rug pulled out from under him.
In 2013, Rhodes landed opposite The Authority, the kayfabe (and real life) power structure of the WWE led by McMahon's daughter Stephanie and her husband, Triple H. Rhodes, fighting for his job, wound up in a tag team with his brother, and the two soon found themselves facing WWE's hot new hot trio, The Shield—Reigns, Rollins, and Dean Ambrose. In the process, Rhodes cut the most passionate, memorable, and effective promo of his career. Rather than build on this momentum and return as conquering heroes, the brothers won the tag titles for their payoff and became, well, just another tag team.
Rhodes could have given WWE one of the hottest everyman stories they've ever booked. His grandfather a plumber, his father an unlikely hero who captured the heart of a nation, Rhodes fought not just to preserve that legacy but enhance it. He could have been every person whose parents lifted their family from poverty and struggled to make the next jump themselves, every employee who felt overlooked in their job, every earnest person left to question whether doing things by the book was the best way to get ahead. Dusty famously was "the son of a plumber" and a real life everyman. Despite his father's fame and his own good looks, athletic fortune, and early opportunities, Cody organically embodied that, too. And WWE didn't want anything to do with it.
If this was the promotion's crowning failure with Rhodes, it wasn't their last. He continued his tag-team with Goldust, an entertaining run that eventually drifted into another losing streak. Once again, Rhodes would make the most of a bad spot. After feeling like he failed his brother as a partner, he went in search of new partners for Goldust, eventually revealing himself as Stardust, an equally out-there painted weirdo, and a name Rhodes had long hoped to use a tribute to one of his dad's old AWA aliases.
Stardust eventually turned on Goldust, and rather than a major WrestleMania payoff for a very hot angle with a very simple story—brother against brother, as old a story as exists on Earth—the feud ended with an anticlimactic roll-up loss on a B-level event.
The Stardust character grew aimless, and Rhodes did his best to hiss and emote and wrestle his way through the mid-card, making a feud with Stephen Amell work and helping get over debuting micro-hero Neville, all the while making what should have been a character ready-made for curtain-jerking into a legitimate mid-card act. When toiling in the mid-card under facepaint got old, Rhodes petitioned WWE to let him revert to his original Cody Rhodes character. As he wrote in his farewell address on Twitter, he lobbied McMahon and Triple H, the head writers of the respective shows, and anyone else who would listen. He pitched different angles and ideas, and was unrelenting in doing so. Instead of being misused or told no, he was given a far worse treatment: he was ignored.
It's unclear why. It's possible he fell out of favor at some point. Some have speculated that the elder McMahon's own personal feelings toward Rhodes' father played a part. Other suggest it may have been unfortunate timing, with Rhodes arriving just before a fairly notable change in power structure that left him without a supporting voice. Sometimes things just don't work out the way they should in a scripted environment, just as they don't necessarily work out in the real world.
It's unclear what comes next, but Rhodes has hinted that he wants to take up his late father's mantle. Dusty was one of the last vestiges of the territorial era, and maybe Rhodes can undertake a sort of new-age barnstorming tour once the alleged dispute between him and WWE over his availability clears up. Others like Rhodes, including WWE's new favorite toy, Styles, have taken many of the same strengths and weaknesses and used them to great effect in Ring of Honor, TNA, or, perhaps the most appealing destination, New Japan.
"This was never about the money," Rhodes wrote in his statement. "This was always about the moments, and I'll be dammed (sic) if my father's legacy is 'stardust' or a series of sizzle-reels for NXT. It's not my job to pick up his sword. It's my privilege."
Whatever the case, this all seems a colossal waste. Maybe Rhodes wasn't destined to be the face of the company, and his ring- and mic-work were closer to good than exceptional. But there's a lot of value in a solid player who can help lift those around him, in wrestling as in every other sport. Most vexing, none of this seems to be Rhodes' fault. He had the look, the pedigree, the work rate, the mic skills, and an almost uncanny ability to get uninspiring angles and characters over. He seemed like the total package. All he doesn't have is any idea what might have been missing.