News about Cody Rhodes’ departure from All Elite Wrestling is still fresh. While I’m not entirely sure his leaving isn’t just a storyline and an attempt to draw fans and wrestling media into an ornately constructed heel turn, I think it’s worth noting just how his supposed leaving has become a significant news story. Since his departure from World Wrestling Entertainment back in 2016, Cody has served as a model for talent in getting themselves over on the independent scene and returning to greater visibility in other contexts. Cody went from an afterthought in WWE to a genuinely hot commodity in the years since. With a potential second WWE run on the horizon, it’s worth noting how his approach has helped others, whether they have WWE experience (like Matt Cardona) or not (like Danhausen).
But first, a tip of the hat to Cody himself, whose last outstanding AEW promo laid the groundwork for this column. On January 19, Cody called out fans’ infatuation with CM Punk’s “pipebomb” promo in the wake of the latter’s signing a significant contract with AEW. Cody picked apart the elements of that promo — the shoot shoutouts and list of promotions where Punk might take the WWE Championship if he were to leave. Cody noted that once Punk ultimately did finish with WWE under acrimonious circumstances, he did none of that, opting for an attempt to reinvent himself as a mixed martial arts fighter, with limited success. Instead, when Cody left WWE he took his ball and instead of going home he ran with it, through a list of prospective opponents, to Japan, to Ring of Honor and the rebuilding National Wrestling Alliance (NWA). Cody won world championships in both organizations, and increased his value and marketability to the point that when he mused about launching the independent pay per view that would become “All In” — the precursor to AEW — he drew a house and viewing numbers that dumbfounded his critics.
Through hard work and hustle, Cody went from afterthought to A-lister, even if his creative ambitions with AEW were reportedly stymied. When Cody left WWE in 2016 after requesting his release he had attracted some notice for acting alongside eventual Heels star Stephen Amell in Arrow but was largely mired in the lower mid-card as “Stardust”, an apparent play on older brother Dustin’s longstanding “Goldust” character and reference to one of Dusty Rhodes’s nicknames. The two sons of “The American Dream” had a successful tag team but after being broken up Cody foundered. He put on solid matches and committed to a decidedly weird reading of this character but was clearly lost in the WWE shuffle. One wonders whether a prospective return would turn into a bump up the card like Drew McIntyre or Bobby Lashley, or a return to an uninspired mid-card like John Morrison.
Wherever Cody ends up, his barnstorming of wrestling outside WWE serves as a modern template for wrestlers looking to bet on themselves. His hustle meant leveraging the notoriety he achieved on the biggest stage available and turning it into actual credibility with smart fans in promotions that put wrestling ahead of spectacle. Cody took advantage of natural storylines and put on solid matches with the best talent available.
One wrestler who seems to have learned this lesson well is Cody’s real-life friend Matt Cardona. Cardona was released from WWE in 2020 after a 15-year run. During that time he was an early adopter of social media and built a solid fan base which was oddly never recognized by his employer. Cardona’s hustle began long before his free agency, but since leaving WWE he’s proving his supporters right. A brief stint in AEW followed almost immediately, but he quickly moved on to a host of smaller, regional promotions, building back to runs on top with Game Changer Wrestling (GCW), Impact Wrestling and now the NWA as well. For a wrestler who caught a few short secondary title runs in over a decade on the main stage, he has similarly transformed himself and fans look forward to his next move. His new persona is driven in part by the lack of recognition he received from management in WWE, fueling an arrogant heel gimmick which at once celebrates his reaching his potential and catches the irony of a long term enhancement talent ‘big timing’ those around him. At one point, I might have thought this would end up with a sustained AEW run, but friendships and office relationships being moving targets, maybe Cardona doesn’t need that stage just yet.
At the other end of the spectrum we have someone like Danhausen, who in a few years has emerged from the most independent of the indies to his own spot in AEW. Working a gimmick that he describes as “Conan O’Brien possessed by a demon,” he wears horror-movie face paint and a Dracula cape, keeps a jar of teeth and routinely attempts to curse his opponents. Without these gimmicks, he’s a guy named Donovan, indistinguishable from any number of tattooed indy wrestlers. His character originated with his annoyance at a promoter who wanted him to use a more generic name since fans couldn’t pronounce “Danhausen”… so he works “hausen” in as a suffix across his promos. At 5-foot-10 and well under 200 pounds, he would be unlikely to make it to WWE even when it had a robust cruiserweight division, but he’s attracted mainstream notice on the strength of his commitment to this wonderfully weird, original character. And if you follow such things he introduces new merchandise early and often. His hustle translated to a run in late-era Ring of Honor (ROH) and just recently he’s started with AEW with fellow cult favorite Orange Cassidy (I’m really hoping this turns into an Orangehausen tag team, but that’s just me).
Despite their different career trajectories, all three wrestlers have created significant buzz outside of WWE. Through hustle and hard work and more than a bit of creativity they’ve turned themselves into compelling performers who leave me wondering “what’s next”. Through their graft, they’re showing fans how to sell fire to Hell.
TOP IMAGE: Cody Rhodes as NWA World champion at All In, in September 2018. Photo by Ricky Havlik