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The relationship between talent jumping between WWE and AEW so far has been a one-way street. Talent gets released from WWE, or their contracts expire, and they end up in AEW. With the exception of someone like Ben Carter, who did a few appearances on AEW Dark before signing with WWE and placed on the NXT UK brand, no talent from AEW has made the jump to WWE.
That is until Cody Rhodes, who after having his contract expire with AEW, seems primed to head back to WWE in a stunning development that almost nobody could have predicted. A founding member of AEW, Rhodes was the most vocal out of anybody in AEW about the need for the company’s existence in the face of WWE’s iron grip on the wrestling industry. Yet it will almost assuredly be Rhodes who will become the first significant AEW star to make the jump to WWE.
Rhodes leaving AEW will be a blow to the company; Rhodes was one of the biggest stars the company had, someone who consistently delivered strong ratings for their major matches, and was very selfless in helping elevate new talent. While AEW has added enough established star power, while also creating some new stars, to survive Rhodes’ departure; the company is clearly weaker with Rhodes no longer in it.
Rhodes’ return to WWE does signal a return to wrestling normalcy within the relationship of two major wrestling companies, both with deep pockets and national TV platforms that can be enticing to ambitious talent. While Rhodes is not a perfect performer, he is perhaps the most ambitious wrestler in the world today and is the kind of person who would stand to benefit the most from having multiple options available.
Going back to the 1990s, top stars switched from company-to-company on a regular basis, and in a lot of cases, the situation they jumped to was superior to the situation they left. Kevin Nash went from a lost career in WCW as Vinnie Vegas and Oz, to being Diesel in WWF, and then back to WCW under his real name. With each transition his career benefited and he became a bigger star.
Many of the Monday Night War era spent time in both companies; Hulk Hogan, Steve Austin, Bret Hart, Triple H, The Undertaker, Mick Foley, Randy Savage, Nash and Scott Hall, Lex Luger, The Giant/Big Show, Ric Flair, Chris Jericho, etc. all spent time in both WCW and the WWF, and for the most part, their careers benefitted when they switched promotions.
In wrestling, it is natural for talent to want to seek out better opportunities for themselves. There is only room for a very select few names at the top in any given company, and the ambition to become one of those top names will drive talent to want to seek work elsewhere. It was what drove Rhodes out of WWE in the first place and perhaps, is still what is motivating him to return to the company in 2022.
This is a sign of a healthy wrestling environment; historically talent will benefit from shifting back and forth, and the companies benefit from additional star power, and the avoidance of a stale product. It doesn’t solve any problems directly; the creative direction still needs to be interesting and the fans need to believe in the characters presented to them, but it does help the industry as a whole when premium talent have options available to them.
Cody in WWE will be an interesting experiment. He is theoretically coming into the company at a great time; WrestleMania season, and WWE really could use an infusion of a new top name that has some credibility, that is still in their physical prime and can work every week. Just like how AEW will be weaker without Cody Rhodes, WWE will be stronger with him on the main roster.
Rhodes has two things working against him; the first being that he is coming in from AEW and historically, Vince McMahon has resisted wanting to put the top names from other promotions over his own existing stars. If you look at the names listed above from the Monday Night War era; the talent that fared the best going from WCW to the WWF, like Triple H, The Undertaker, Kevin Nash, Steve Austin and Mick Foley, were not necessarily top names in WCW and closely associated with WCW. Instead they were midcard or undercard acts that Vince largely remade in WWF.
For names that were major stars in WCW, like Ric Flair, Vader, Bill Goldberg and Sting, there were some headaches in their transition to WWF and in many of those scenarios, McMahon balked at those names being put over his top stars. WWE would benefit if Cody was presented as a top star and someone that beats a lot of established WWE names because they need more credible main event challengers, and it also stands to benefit WWE when it comes to being an attractive option for future AEW talent that comes available.
If WWE would like to poach top AEW talent in the future, it is important that from a booking perspective, they really nail Cody Rhodes. Talent that is considering making the jump may be turned off on the idea of going to WWE, a place with a bad reputation for handling certain types of wrestlers and the AEW locker room is full of ex-WWE talent who can share horror stories with them. If Cody Rhodes is booked poorly and flops in WWE, that will be another strike against them. On the flip side, if Rhodes is booked well and becomes a top star in WWE, it can be used as an example that WWE is in fact serious about pushing a former AEW wrestler on their programming.
The second thing working against Cody in WWE is that he has already been in WWE before, and back then Vince McMahon did not view him as a top star, which ultimately led to Rhodes leaving the company. If Vince himself does not believe in you as a top star, there will always be a glass ceiling for talent in WWE. Cody could be super over with the live audience and putting out great performances each week, but if Vince doesn’t think he can be a top guy, he won’t be presented as such.
Some talent, most notably Bobby Lashley and Drew McIntyre, did leave WWE and returned to be pushed as legitimate top talent. The difference between Lashley/McIntyre and Rhodes is that Lashley and McIntyre were both people Vince originally saw as big stars; unlike Rhodes, who was overlooked once Legacy broke up and slotted firmly in the midcard for the remainder of his tenure. Things went awry for Lashley and McIntyre in WWE, but deep down Vince always viewed them as potential top stars. I can’t say the same for Rhodes.
Perhaps Rhodes has done enough to convince Vince that he is really a top star, and worthy of pushing even if he has been associated with AEW. I feel confident that at least at first, Cody will be over with the audience at WWE shows and fans will view him as an exciting new addition to the company. Overall, that is the benefit from having two strong wrestling companies. It gives a chance for both wrestlers and the companies they work for to remain fresh and exciting, and creates more opportunities for new stars to emerge.
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