Cody Rhodes on How AEW ‘Dynamite’ Sent Shockwaves Through the Wrestling Industry
When Cody Rhodes left WWE in 2016, he bet on himself. And looking at his success in the years that followed, it turns out the decision worked out pretty well for him. The son of the late “American Dream” Dusty Rhodes paved his own way, becoming one of the driving forces behind All Elite Wrestling (AEW).
The buzzy company headed by Tony Khan made an unheard-of ascension. In less than a year, WWE’s new alternative found itself selling out major arenas and securing a multi-million dollar TV deal. One that was extended into 2023 shortly after the numbers for the Wednesday flagship Dynamite on TNT proved solid, regularly besting WWE’s NXT.
With the show gearing up to celebrate its one-year anniversary on October 14, we thought there was no greater time to check in with the “American Nightmare.” Here the EVP and current TNT champion reflects on the journey so far. We also get an early tease of his involvement in TBS’s new competition series Go-Big Show.
How do you feel about AEW Dynamite’s first year?
Cody Rhodes: For me, I’m really just gleamingly proud of what everyone has done. I remember telling my mom after the first Dynamite that we’ve changed the business…This business has fed our family since the 1970s. And it has irrevocably changed, and it has changed forever. It was this village that was AEW that did that.
The shockwaves sent when we started Dynamite extends far beyond AEW. It has changed every business. It has changed WWE, Impact, ROH, all for the positive. It is very much a rising tide. It’s something that when you put it in perspective, there is a lot to be proud of. It’s not always, “Well, was my match the biggest draw?” This role as executive vice president I’m rooting for every single person on this show. Every single minute, every single second of this show. I’m very proud of this crew and this locker room.
It’s challenging enough when you’re a company trying to gain your footing in year one. Add in a pandemic, venue changes, schedule changes and everything in between.
The big thing is Tony Khan did not flinch when the pandemic took hold. He took a step back and thought about what this is, and how it would affect our world. The first thing he instituted was testing, quarantine measures. I was proud that we were the first to lead the charge in terms of wrestling and getting tests for everybody, quarantining all talent. It’s a lot of work. It’s definitely a headache and operation overkill, but that’s the only way to run a safe production. Not only that, we partnered with the Mayo Clinic here in Jacksonville for the potential positives we might see. Most of the time false positives.
Then we are even blessed further that we are in Daily’s Place, an open-air amphitheater so we can slowly implement fans coming back in pods only. With entertainment, live concerts, pro wrestling, people want to start filing up these arenas again. We’re on a staircase. We can’t get from the top step from the bottom step in one week. We have to move up the staircase and move up the banister slowly but surely. Otherwise it will ruin it for everybody.
As far as AEW is concerned, the iron was incredibly sharpened by the pandemic. We had a title that was born amid coronavirus. The title goes hand-in-hand with the fact that the world had shut down everywhere, but AEW was able to give you entertainment Wednesday nights. I can’t say enough how proud I am of Tony Khan, Doc Sampson and the team of people that were brought in to make sure talent was safe and the fans were safe.
AEW is known for taking input from fans. What have you learned about effectively funneling out the noise and channeling feedback in a constructive way?
For me, I know that early on I put out a nice post that I wanted everyone’s feedback. I wanted to hear what they liked, what they didn’t, what worked and what they thought didn’t work and why. I still very much stand by that. There absolutely is this background noise that exists on certain social platforms. Twitter is kind of dying out to a degree in terms of its potency. One of the mistakes I made in management early on is I talked a lot. I talked a lot in terms of the product will be this. This is how the product will be presented. I was basically trying to frame up what our goals were for the company. But when you talk so much, the show almost draws the ire of many fans.
I’ll admit everyone in MGM Grand loved when i broke the throne. But there are people who consider that a very real shot [at WWE]. They take it very seriously. When it comes to social mentions, we have a full data report after every show. If you follow them, you can clearly see where you find actual credible thoughts. It’s then you can see the hurt WWE fan that is pretty much going to say what they want to try and draw attention. A lot of times we have given them attention. We’re learning slowly and surely that Twitter is really aging out in terms of its value and what it can offer. That’s what I learned in year one. Talk less as a member of management and show more.
— All Elite Wrestling (@AEW) October 8, 2020
As a performer you’ve done well shining a spotlight working against younger talent like Sonny Kiss. You’ve provided the ultimate opportunity to really sink or swim on the big stage.
It’s the only way you’re going to learn. Sonny Kiss is not going to get any better wrestling other people on Sonny Kiss’ level. You can learn from someone who is absolutely terrible or can learn from someone better. Either you’re pulling them up or they’re pulling you up. Nothing in the middle. Being on a live TV show, that’s an area we all have to sharpen our skill set. Sonny is someone I was immensely proud of in terms of ceasing that moment, hearing the time cues, understanding this is not an independent wrestling match where you have 40 minutes to use every gimmick available.
Showcase Sonny Kiss to the world. Make them want more Sonny Kiss. He did such a wonderful job with that. It is trial by fire, but in our recruitment, we thought we recruited people who can do that. I think nine out of 10 times we were absolutely right. At 20 years old I was put on TV myself and couldn’t handle it. I ended up having to make up for that first initial splash over the course of several years. Consistency and staying power are such a big part of wrestling. But there is a sink or swim measure, and we have a roster that absolutely knows how to swim.
You came back after seven weeks to the ring. How would you describe the Cody we’re seeing now?
I think the Cody you’ll see on TV is genuinely who I am. A long time ago I drew some fire online, and probably rightfully so, because I made a blanket statement when it shouldn’t’ have been about there not being heels and faces. There are definitely heels and faces, but there are also heels, faces and stars. We know and look every Thursday about who is drawing on the show, who is selling merchandise, who is getting general social interest. We know the difference. When I said that, more of what I meant is I no longer play a character on television.
Wrestling is so much more real than some people understand. Everything I do is authentic to who I’ve become. I’m in this upper management position helping Tony lead this ship. That’s a whole new world for me. I’m not just one of the boys anymore. I want their respect more than their friendship. That’s different and me dipping my toes into new water. When it comes to me and what you’ve seen on screen, it’s authentic.
I don’t think I’ll ever be a bad guy in wrestling again. It would be swimming upstream. There is so much general data that supports what a young audience I have, specifically to me. If I can offer them any hope and something to get behind, I’m definitely not going to be turning my back on that by any means. I worked my whole career to have people care about me. Here I am at 35 and the lightbulb goes off and I’m in the prime of my career in the best run of my career. The idea of me ever being a bad guy or a heel, I can’t see it. Never say never in wrestling, but I can’t see it.
Fans really pay attention to every tweak or change, like your hair color, for example.
A hair change is sometimes an identity crisis. Sometimes you’re watching a grown man try some things. It’s not always war and peace. I think what you see with me is a character that goes to my character and this company. Before we sell you Marko Stunt the astronaut, I want to sell you Marko Stunt the authentic individual. Everything else will tailor itself out. People decide who they cheer for and against.
For me, the number one thing beyond being a heel or babyface is being authentic and true to the fans that we garnered. It’s not easy to get new fans, jaded fans, hardcore fans, engaged fans, it’s not easy to keep them in 2020. That’s the challenge we’re presented with, and it’s a beautiful challenge.
You have a solid partner in WarnerMedia generating synergy. You were recently revealed as a judge on TBS’ upcoming competition series the Go-Big Show. Quite an eclectic panel with yourself joining Rosario Dawson, Jennifer Nettles and Snoop Dogg.
The Go-Big Show was a wonderful experience. To be able to sit there and be entertained and be given the role of a judge for some of these heartland American and international acts during a time like now in a pandemic. It is really good to see the world come together in a sense with some very different acts. Snoop Dogg is really the captain and the lead of Go-Big Show. On the second night I think he said, “Nobody is here by chance. Everyone here is in an upward trajectory.”
That stuck with me. I’m there not solely because of my management team or myself. It’s because I represent AEW, and AEW is on this upward trajectory that is amazing. If you think about it where we started and what we’re doing now, the business is forever changed. I don’t mean that with hyperbole or bravado. I say that with pride because I love wrestling and want to see it change.
You’ve been working on a number of projects out of the ring. Your friend Stephen Amell is helming the wrestling-centric Starz series Heels in the works. Does he get your input on making it as authentic as possible?
It was really funny that there was a report going around that I was involved in Heels. I have no involvement with Heels. Stephen is a friend. I think if it’s a show regarding wrestling, which I understand it is, he will do everything he can because he loves wrestling. He will try his best to represent it the best way. I think my name has floated around with it because there is clearly, whether they want to admit it or not, some heavy parallels between my genuine life and the show itself. You have two brothers on the wrestling scene in Georgia. It sounds very familiar. I wish them the best of luck. I hope they provide really good wrestling people to help with the wrestling.
As I told Stephen, I’m here as his friend and supporter. He got through that match with Christopher Daniels at All In in glorious fashion. I would love for Stephen to have another match. If it’s on Heels, great. If it’s in an AEW ring, that’d be fun too. I really wish them a lot of luck. It’s very hard to get the wrestling fan to care about a show indicating wrestling. We’re a unique fan base. They have an uphill battle, but I think Stephen can do it.
What do you want to see from Dynamite and AEW going into the second year?
We have to move from novelty to commodity. One thing we’ve continued to do is recruit. People wonder why we’re recruiting when we only have this two-hour bullseye to hit. We know that this third hour is going to present itself soon. And I don’t mean a third hour of Dynamite. I mean a separate hour on a WarnerMedia network. We’ll be able to diversify and freshen up the content on a regular basis.
That’s why I think recruitment is vastly important, even in this two-hour window. The word was fresh when we started. Let’s recruit fresh. Let’s look fresh. We have to continue to be fresh. Our opponent in this space was unopposed for 20 years. We’ve already been around a year plus and always been opposed. That opposition will make us continue to pivot and provide fresh content for all the major stars, middle card stars and stars at the bottom of the card. That’s what you want A stories, B stories.
Everyone gets to grow that way. I think it’s a matter of keeping the viewer on the edge of their seat. I think we have to push the envelope. I really believe in pushing the envelope. Wrestling is so many things. It doesn’t have a single identity. There is a dog collar match on the show in 2020. There is blood, cursing, unscripted promos. It’s not trash TV as much as it is artists going out there and painting that picture and playing their own music and building a fan base and letting AEW bring them in as part of the team. I really am excited for what we do in terms of the second year of Dynamite. We have so many different flavors of ice cream.
It’s fun to hear about what some of the armchair bookers would do. I love that discussion. Some good ideas come out of that. One thing I want to hit and stress is the industry has changed. The pay-per-view is no longer the lifeblood of a company. The pay-per-view is not what generates and feeds you. The television does.
In our case, Dynamite. That television contract is what we need to honor more than anything. When people say save it for the pay-per-view, hell no. We still have an idea of long-form and where we want stars like MJF, Darby Allin, Anna Jay of where we want them to be in year two and three. We still have that in our minds. Dynamite needs to be the spot you come to each week, destination programming. Save nothing because you’ll think of something else. We have enough smart people to do it. That’s my thought.
AEW Dynamite, Wednesdays, 8/7c, TNT