A shared experience between all wrestling fans is that we sometimes get more invested in the what-could-have-been rather than reality. We’ve all fantasy booked to some degree and mentally constructed our idealistic storylines. The most invested of us have a tendency to perceive the product by what we want to see then get frustrated when the fantasy doesn’t align with reality. Vehemently, we stand by our imagination and insist we can do a better job than the actual bookers.
Mentioning how unprecedented 2020 is tiresome at this point. To avoid reiterating something that has been said countless times too much, there’s a very fair chance certain storylines were scrapped or altered to align with the global situation. An example could be Blood & Guts, an event at which many had predicted the breakdown of the Elite, with Hangman Page or Kenny Omega and The Young Bucks touted for heels tuns following the relentless teasing at the conclusion of their Revolution bout. Personally, I don’t think the storyline amongst the Elite would have lasted until now if three out of five members didn’t have to quarantine for two months.
Obviously, I’m not a booker but rather a fan with an opinion and a platform to express such. I’m going to look at a perceived missed opportunity, likely affected by the necessary changes that had to be made so that wrestling could co-exist with COVID-19; Cody’s direction following his loss to MJF. If we solely looked at the ending at Revolution, it would seem that one of wrestlings greatest storytellers was set for a downward spiral. In this article, I’ll look at the seeds planted by AEW for this storyline, the actual outcome, and the outcome I would have enjoyed.
Cody began 2020 embroiled in an intense feud with his former protege MJF. This storyline had been built since the inception of the company, with Being The Elite showcasing the duality of Maxwell’s character, unbeknownst to Cody, which came to a head at Full Gear. MJF threw in the towel, betraying Cody and permanently robbing him of the opportunity to challenge for the AEW World Championship. Watching Cody have a heartbreaking loss to Chris Jericho and fail to recognise his deceitful protege built him as wrestling’s most sympathetic babyface. Cody desperately had something to prove. So much so he accepted MJF’s ludicrous stipulations just to be able to get his hands on him. As a testament to his determination, Cody would meet all of MJF’s stipulations moonsaulting from the top of a steel cage, despite him being afraid of heights, and enduring ten lashes in one of wrestling’s most gut-wrenching segments of the modern era.
But then Revolution happened and suddenly everything was becoming a living nightmare for the American Nightmare. Dazed, he crouched in the ring as MJF’s theme flooded the arena around him. It wasn’t Cody in that ring, at least not the Cody we had seen throughout AEW. It was a hollow version of him experiencing the crushing realisation that all the criticisms about him were true. His heart, his soul, his everything had left his body. I’m not Cody’s largest fan but I was heartbroken for him at this moment, simply for how behaved in the moments after the referee counted three. The final nail in the coffin for me was when he turned to the camera whilst walking away and mouthed “I’m sorry” multiple times. Too broken to even say the words aloud, this was directed to all the fans and all the people who believed in him. He was sorry that all the great things we believed about Cody were outright lies.
2020’s Magic Touch
It is unknown what direction AEW intended to follow after Revolution as in the space of two weeks we witnessed our first empty arena show. Despite the images at the conclusion to his loss at Revolution, we needed a strong figure to open the first empty arena Dynamite for us and it had to be Cody. As the world was seemingly falling apart around us, we needed something to latch on to. I remember being gripped by a great uncertainty; I was told I wouldn’t be attending college indefinitely, I was terrified by the rising figures surrounding the virus and yes, I was worried that there would eventually be no new wrestling for me to watch. As Cody spoke the words “I refuse to live in fear because that’s not living at all”, it spoke to me in a way nothing in wrestling had before. I needed that opening, I needed Cody to be strong for me in that opening.
Existing storylines were seemingly abandoned as the empty-arena era set in; Cody was an image of strength and the Elite as a collective were a vision of unity, agreeing to stand together despite the tension we had witnessed in the months prior. It was a necessary image and the only way we could have begun the unexpected empty-arena era.
Following this Cody participated in the tournament to crown the first TNT champion and seamlessly transitioned back to his usual self, winning the whole tournament at Double or Nothing. This then leads to his open challenge, in which, at the time of writing, he is undefeated. To see this Cody, you would think the shattering loss to MJF never happened.
The Missed Route
Revert your mind back to the uncharacteristic mouthed apology made by Cody following his loss. This atypical act remains ingrained in my mind as it was jarring to see a usually stoic Cody so defeated. He didn’t behave this way following his other largest defeat to Chris Jericho; as he laid in the ring following that loss, his inaction could be more accurately attributed to physical pain as opposed to the emotional burden of never being able to challenge for the title again. On the following Dynamite, the American Nightmare appeared on the stage visibility seething as Jericho and MJF stood in the ring. In his pursuit of revenge, wallowing in defeat became secondary. Perhaps Cody was so broken at Revolution as his second major loss also carried the burden of his first. He could blame the first loss on Maxwell but the second one was his fault alone.
We can assume that the TNT championship tournament was going to take place regardless of the global pandemic, there just would have been more competitors and Cody was most likely always going to be one of them. Idealistically, he should have been absent from TV before being announced for the tournament. Distraught from his loss, the man shouldn’t have been able to show his face in front of the fans due to the insurmountable shame of his defeat. As he entered the tournament it would have been interesting to see how the Nightmare Family, and perhaps even the Elite, treated Cody, most likely walking on eggshells to try and reassure him of his talent without reinforcing his overbearing feelings of failure.
It almost seemed as if AEW were teasing this side of Cody at the beginning of the tournament as Cody analysed each of his opponents, christening them with their roles yet being unsure of his own. Arn Anderson proclaimed that Cody “needed” this title, hinting that this was the last slither of validation available to him, to prove that he was more than just a WWE reject and that he could be the main event star. The man himself mused “has my sword been sharpened or have I not answered the call?”, speaking in a monotone voice and appearing as a deflated version of his usual self. He expanded further on this self-doubt, questioning “Am I the three-star general midcard for life?” and reinforcing it with “you hear something enough times it starts to get comfortable like old leather, am I comfortable?”. This promo alone demonstrated the Cody I desired to see post-Revolution; a man drowning in his uncertainty with his only lifeline being the shiny, new TNT Championship.
However, this seemed to be the only time this Cody was going to appear. He got through his tournament matches with ease, although the match with Darby Allin was on the cusp of swinging in Allin’s favour. He seemed to approach his matches in his usual fashion, no added desperation, no extra tenacity and despite getting dominated by Lance Archer, he won the final and returned to his usual stoic self during his open challenge.
He was soon back to being cocky, even becoming more lackadaisical in his matches and underestimating his talented opposition, an example being his misjudgement of the threat posed by Sonny Kiss. It seems odd how he could return to a sense of security so quickly just from winning a title. Imagine how intense every defence would be if he truly felt threatened by his competition and the fear of absolute failure instead of the heelish person who thinks he can breeze through each challenger. Of course, this sense of security could be entirely false, we don’t know what variation of the American Nightmare we will see once he drops his beloved title.
For me, Cody is best enjoyed as the sympathetic babyface overcoming great adversity. Perhaps there are reasons why AEW didn’t fully pull the trigger on this character arc. Other than the glaringly obvious global pandemic, the main reason for the storyline not being as developed as I would have liked could have been that it would have been the third of its kind in AEW, and for Elite members, to have a crisis of confidence. Both Kenny Omega and Hangman Page doubted their abilities and talent whilst Dynamite was in its early days.
However, exploring this with Cody would have been the most believable route possible; Kenny Omega has already demonstrated his talent in Japan and Page is still young and has years ahead of him to prove himself. Cody, on the other hand, is probably under the most immense pressure to prove himself as main-event calibre talent after being irrevocably tarnished with the brand of “failed WWE midcarder”. As said by Arn Anderson, Cody doesn’t want wins, he needs them. He needs to prove that he is just as capable as his peers, that he was underutilised in WWE, he needs to silence his detractors or else he will always be an example of wasted potential.
I personally think this is a story that is easy to emotionally invest in to; if you love Cody, seeing him suffer through his self-doubt would make painful yet engaging viewing whilst on the other hand, the fear of failure is probably one of the most innate human experiences.
It would have been interesting viewing to see AEW take a different approach with Cody post-Revolution. As an ending thought, any route was always going to end with a heel turn and I’m interested to see where Cody goes once his open challenge has finished.