Cody Rhodes' Path From AEW Founder To WWE Royal Rumble Winner

When Cody Rhodes made the decision to leave WWE in 2016, the second-generation wrestler bet on himself, jumpstarting a chain reaction that would ultimately change the face of professional wrestling. For a couple eventful years, Rhodes traveled the world, competing in promotions such as Ring of Honor, Impact, and New Japan Pro-Wrestling. Then, in 2018, the former Stardust teamed up with Kenny Omega and Matt and Nick Jackson of the Young Bucks to put on the biggest independent show in the history of American wrestling – All In.

The success of that show would wind up being proof, in the eyes of billionaire Tony Khan, that there was room for another mainstream wrestling promotion on TV. A few months later, at the beginning of 2019, All Elite Wrestling was announced, with the four performers behind All In joining the promotion as Executive Vice Presidents. After putting several pay-per-view events under their belt, the company debuted "AEW Dynamite" on TNT in October of that year, with Rhodes as one of the promotion's top stars.

Rhodes' first storyline on "Dynamite" saw him feud against AEW World Champion Chris Jericho. In the lead-up to the pair's match at the inaugural Full Gear pay-per-view, Rhodes announced that if he were to fail to win the title from Jericho, he would never challenge for the AEW World Championship again – a decision that would later come back to haunt him. "The American Nightmare" came up short against Jericho, removing himself from the title picture permanently.

TNT Champion and AEW Departure

Following a loss against former friend and future AEW World Champion MJF at AEW Revolution, Rhodes was ready for something fresh. In March 2020, the company debuted the TNT Championship, and Rhodes was a part of the tournament that would decide the first-ever TNT Champion, going on to defeat Lance Archer in the finals at Double of Nothing that year and capturing his first title in AEW. Rhodes held a series of open challenges in the weeks that followed, eventually dropping the championship to the late Brodie Lee in August. After a brief leave of absence, Rhodes returned in late September and regained the TNT Championship with a victory over Lee in what would be the Dark Order leader's final match.

Around this time, Rhodes' storylines and promos would begin to draw divisive feedback from fans. After losing the TNT Championship to Darby Allin at Full Gear 2020, Rhodes would feud against QT Marshall and promising prospect Anthony Ogogo, followed by Malakai Black. All three storylines left a tepid taste in the mouth of many fans — some pushed for Rhodes to lean into the backlash and turn heel, while others believed the conflicted back-and-forth nature of his character was a purposeful choice on Rhodes' part. Regardless of the truth, after winning the TNT Championship for the third time at the end of 2021, Rhodes would quickly drop the title to Sammy Guevara and announce his shocking departure from AEW just weeks later.

WrestleMania Return and Feud with Seth Rollins

Immediately following Rhodes' exit from AEW, rumors began to swirl that he was headed back to WWE. Those rumors would prove fruitful, though it would be a couple of months before everything was made official. As WrestleMania 38 drew closer, it became clear that WWE star Seth Rollins had no opponent lined up, and Rollins continued teasing different possibilities. However, it was heavily insinuated that Rhodes would be the one to challenge Rollins.

When WrestleMania finally arrived, the months of rumors and teases would finally come to a head. On the first night of the huge event, Rollins stood in the ring, waiting for his mystery opponent to come out and confront him, and Rhodes made his first entrance in front of a WWE crowd in five years — complete with the same appearance and entrance music from his days in AEW.

Rhodes would come out on top in the pair's first meeting, but the feud between these two was only just getting started. "The American Nightmare" took the opportunity the following night on "WWE Raw" to declare that his eyes were set on the WWE Championship, but he was interrupted by Rollins, who made it clear that they still had unfinished business. They would have a rematch the following month at WrestleMania Backlash, and once again, Rhodes would win, this time using a roll-up. Despite two losses to Rhodes, Rollins was not ready to move on from his new rival.

Rhodes Suffers an Injury Prior to Hell in a Cell

The night after WrestleMania Backlash, on "Raw," Rhodes challenged Theory for the United States Championship. Just when it looked as though Rhodes was going to win, Rollins attacked, causing a disqualification and signaling to everyone that their feud was not over. The next premium live event would be Hell in a Cell, and there was no rivalry better suited to the intense stipulation than the one between Rhodes and Rollins. However, a complication arose – Rhodes suffered a torn pectoral muscle just days before the match, jeopardizing the end of the carefully-crafted story.

Despite the injury, Rhodes made the decision to go through with the match. The two were set to main event the show and, unlike previous years, they were the only Hell in a Cell match on the card. Even with the injury to Rhodes, the match was not light on brutality, with Rhodes finally downing Rollins with a sledgehammer and picking up his third victory over "The Monday Night Messiah."

Following their third battle, Rhodes would make one last appearance on "Raw" before taking time off to recover. There, Rollins would initially act as if he was ready to put the past behind him before lifting the ruse and brutalizing Rhodes with the sledgehammer from the night before. From there, Rhodes would be out of action for an extended period of time to heal.

Royal Rumble Victory

Over the course of his time on the shelf, wrestling fans began eyeing the 2023 Royal Rumble as an opportune time for Rhodes to make his return from injury. The timeline seemed to be about right, and there's no better way for a major star to come back in the lead-up to WrestleMania. Just before the end of 2022, Rhodes appeared on a highlight episode of "Raw," teasing his return and all but solidifying the time and destination as the Rumble. Weeks later, Rhodes and the company made things official in a video package, and Rhodes was announced as an entrant in the 2023 Royal Rumble.

When the night of the Rumble finally arrived, the match featured standout performances from GUNTHER, Sheamus, Drew McIntyre, Rhodes' old foe Rollins, and more. One by one, entrants came out to fight for the opportunity to main event WrestleMania 39, but Rhodes was nowhere to be seen ... until it came time for the 30th competitor to enter the fray. It was, of course, Rhodes, who eliminated five men to secure his goal to face Roman Reigns for the Undisputed WWE Universal Championship at the company's biggest event of the year.

The following night, Rhodes appeared on "Raw" to issue an official challenge to "The Tribal Chief." It was quickly confirmed that the match would be the main event for one of the two nights of WrestleMania, with Rhodes attempting to take down Reigns and end his dominant title reign.