The Biggest Pro Wrestling Stories of 2022, No. 4: Cody Rhodes’ Dreams and Nightmares

This one felt impossible. If you sat me down at the beginning of 2022 and listed out everything that would happen to AEW, I would’ve believed all of it except for this. Because for as chaotic as the year wound up being for the young promotion, all of the hurdles it dealt with felt plausible. This wasn’t the first time CM Punk’s relationship with a promotion soured. MJF’s rise to stardom had been teased for years. Jon Moxley was always going to be a consummate professional. And for as long as there’s been pro wrestling, there have been poorly-timed injuries that force companies to change plans. But the idea that Cody Rhodes would outright leave simply felt impossible.

When AEW first launched, “The American Nightmare” presented himself as its strongest defender. Tony Khan had the finances and the fandom to get the company off the ground. The Young Bucks had built up a following and merchandising empire off of a YouTube channel and years of success on the independent scene. Kenny Omega was finally getting his chance to shine in an American promotion. Hangman Page was the young prospect destined for main-event success. But Cody was a different breed among The Elite. He had climbed WWE‘s ranks but came to the realization that his potential as a main event star would never be recognized. He’d then spend the next two years proving all of his doubters wrong with successful runs in Ring of Honor and New Japan. And when AEW launched, he proudly championed it as the new alternative to WWE, never hesitating to call out his old stomping grounds.

He extolled the virtues of AEW in countless interviews. Both he and Brandi held multiple roles behind the scenes. His pro wrestling school had direct ties to the promotion. TNT even made a behind-the-scenes reality show about him juggling his career with newfound fatherhood. By every indication, he was AEW for life.

But less than two months into 2022, all of that changed. Reports of Rhodes operating without a contract began spreading online. And after an excellent ladder match with Sammy Guevara where he dropped the TNT Championship, Rhodes outright confirmed he was operating on a handshake deal. He and Brandi then announced they were departing from the company on Feb. 15. And despite the numerous interviews both Rhodes and Tony Khan have given in the 10 months since the initial announcement, neither side has outright confirmed what drove Cody to leave.

“There’s no nefarious tale that’s going to be told,” Rhodes told Variety in April. “There were all these different theories and none of them are correct. I mean, there were things about money and creative control. They were printed as fact and it’s been a very difficult two months to see that, when the reality is it was just time. It was a personal matter and we couldn’t move past it.

The departure also left one of AEW’s biggest storylines on an unfinished note. Rhodes spent the bulk of 2021 getting negative reactions from fans as critics pointed out how his storylines (dubbed by many as “The Codyverse”) seemed to operate in a separate world away from the rest of the product. Rhodes even started cutting promos where he outright refused to turn heel as though he was trying to build the same contempt from fans that John Cena experienced for so many years. It was never quite clear what AEW’s endgame was in all of this. Was Cody going to have some sort of dramatic heel turn? Would he eventually relent on his stipulation and become AEW World Champion? Despite everything that has happened since Cody left AEW, not even those questions have been answered. The closest we ever got to an answer was this tweet:

But all of that was just in the first two months of the year. The real craziness came later.

Rumors of Rhodes looking to go back to WWE popped up almost immediately. By the start of April, it was a poorly kept secret that he’d be back at WrestleMania 38 in Dallas, but even that came with its own surprises. In the face of every precedent Vince McMahon had established in the decades prior, Rhodes arrived on that WrestleMania stage with his AEW presentation completely intact. His look, his logo, his nickname, the “Homelander” ring gear — it was all exactly the same as his last match on Dynamite. Even his entrance music, with lyrics that might as well be giant middle fingers directed at McMahon, blasted throughout AT&T Stadium without hesitation.

Rhodes then upped the ante two nights later. He opened Monday Night Raw with a promo and confirmed his only goal was to finally win the WWE Championship, the title his legendary father never truly got the chance to hold. And for as momentous as this was for Rhodes’ career, the promo came with implications. It meant a match with Roman Reigns was virtually guaranteed down the line. It presented a potential finale for “The Tribal Chief’s” dominance over WWE’s main event scene. And, from a more cynical perspective, it was a message to AEW’s top stars that they’d be treated well should they ever decide to switch sides.

But whatever plans WWE had for Rhodes for 2022 were quickly derailed. Even though his intentions were aimed directly at Reigns, he’d spend the next few months continuing to feud with Seth Rollins. The two were booked to headline Hell in a Cell in Chicago on June 5 in the only match of the night with that titular stipulation. But days before the match, Rhodes suffered a torn pectoral while training and had to gut his way through the bout with about a quarter of his body resembling Thanos’ purple hue. It led to what many consider to be WWE’s best match of the year, but it also felt like WWE had a grand narrative prepared for Rhodes yet was forced to stop after completing its opening chapter.


Rhodes has been absent ever since. And while the company has undergone a pretty significant leadership change during his absence, the seemingly endless insider reports about WWE’s WrestleMania 39 plans keep bringing him up as the man to walk out of SoFi Stadium as a world champion.

So much of Rhodes’ story still feels unwritten, but 2022 felt like a pivotal year that will be linked to “The American Nightmare’s” career forever. It may have felt impossible, but it was still damn entertaining.