When it was over, Paul Heyman dropped his mic. Mission accomplished.
Fifteen feet away, eyes blazing, Cody Rhodes seethed.
In the stands, the crowd sat in almost rapturous silence, witness to a kind of improvisational magic that exists only within the four corners of a wrestling ring.
All involved knew they had been part of something special, a moment that would live long in WWE lore—the promo that saved WrestleMania.
It’s easy to forget now, just a little more than two months after that February 6 Raw segment, how precarious it all was, how close to disaster.
Cody, resplendent in a peacoat so burgundy it almost shimmered purple, the color of royalty, looked every bit the champion he longs to be as he made his way to the ring. It was a Monday night in Orlando, the old stomping grounds of his father, Dusty Rhodes. Here, Cody’s old man had exuded an indefinable energy as he ran over and through a litany of wrestling’s most historic names. Harley Race. Terry Funk. Ric Flair. The Giant Baba. They all fell to the force of his bionic elbow, and Orlandoans in the early days of the theme park revolution were enthralled by this son of a plumber, who was putting on a show every bit as spectacular as anything happening in the Magic Kingdom.
Ancient history, sure. But the American Dream’s title chase was a history that hung over Cody’s quest to win the WWE championship, and it was a history WWE was counting on to hold the Orlando crowd’s attention and pull at heartstrings.
“The chase has been my whole life,” Cody told The Ringer from a studio he’d set up in his home, never for a moment wanting to look like anything but a star. “Not just my whole professional life, my whole life. It’s very different than what the American Dream went through in Florida. It’s a much longer story, and that’s what I feel maybe puts a lot of pressure on it. I’m not trying to add to the pressure or become anxious about it, but when it’s your whole life that’s the chase, the stakes are high.”
Cody, decades after his old man wore his polka dots, years after occupying what felt like a permanent place on the undercard in his Stardust makeup, months since his decision to leave the upstart company he’d built to compete with the WWE machine, would finally, finally finish his family’s story.
“So,” he asked the Florida Raw crowd, “what do you want to talk about?”
The answer was Sami Zayn. They wanted to talk about Sami Zayn, and they chanted another man’s name as the babyface challenger for WWE gold stood in the ring.
In the back, where executives and superstars watched the show from the Gorilla Position, you could almost hear an audible gulp. This, safe to say, wasn’t going according to plan.
Everyone in WWE, of course, was happy to see the crowd energizing behind Zayn, the Canadian journeyman who had wowed the wrestling world with his desperate attempts to ingratiate himself with Roman Reigns’s Bloodline. It was a brilliant bit of storytelling, well acted by all involved, to the point that it almost felt too good for wrestling, as if an HBO drama had been carefully copied and pasted into a place once occupied by the ham-handed dramatics of Hulk Hogan and the Macho Man.
“The entire Sami story was built on the very basic human emotion of acceptance,” WWE legend Heyman, consiglieri to the Tribal Chief Reigns, told The Ringer in an exclusive interview. “Sami wanted to be accepted by the Bloodline. And anybody that’s ever been in high school, you can recall sitting there going, ‘I want to sit at that table.’”
Heyman, a one-man play in a custom suit, proceeded to act out both sides of a theoretical conversation about the ubiquitous desire to take that elusive seat at the cool kids’ table.
“But those guys are assholes.”
“Yeah, but I want to sit at that table.”
“But those guys are assholes.”
“But they’re the center of attention, and I want to sit with those assholes.”
“And then you sit with those assholes and look around one day and go, ‘Man, they’re really assholes, even to each other. That’s not what I expected.’ So everyone could relate to the Sami story.”
Relating to Sami’s story was one thing; hijacking WrestleMania by loudly proclaiming that Zayn should replace Rhodes in the main event of WWE’s Super Bowl is something different entirely. It’s the lifeblood of the industry, an event that powers the company’s billion-dollar revenue engine. Hard-core fans can name every main-event match since the first one all the way back in 1985. It’s kind of a big deal, the sort of event you don’t want mired in controversy or derailed by the mayhem of an angry crowd.
Wrestling is a business of curation. The powers that be select the most palatable performers from their roster and push them to the forefront. Sometimes it works. But sometimes, the audience has a mind of its own.
When you choose an act, the way the crowd has chosen Zayn, it just hits different. It’s the distinction between being served up a song on pop radio, the corporate machine playing it until you can’t help but have it stuck in your head, and finding a B side in your friend’s garage when you’re listening to old records. That feeling of discovery makes a great tune even more special than if it had been forced into your earhole over and over again.
WWE has actually been here before. Nine years ago, a crowd revolt led the company to reevaluate its plans and insert Daniel Bryan, a beloved underdog and work-rate machine, into the top match in New Orleans. The result was a spectacular moment: Confetti fell in the Superdome as tens of thousands chanted “yes” in unison.
But that was a different time, and the proposed main-event players are quite different too. As in 2014, there is organic, real, and powerful energy behind Cody, who was, in a way, picked out by the crowd much as Zayn had been. After all, he had originally been rejected by the WWE machine. Cody was inserted into the main-event picture only after he went out and cultivated his own audience in All Elite Wrestling, showed he could stand among the sport’s elite, and then took the chance to come back to WWE and prove his worth.
He was our guy first. I remember being in the crowd at All Out, AEW’s second pay-per-view event back in 2019, as Cody stood in the audience, the lights hitting him in a very spiritual way, the crowd drawn in by this man in a manner that felt almost surreal. In the moment, my wife turned and asked, “Have we joined a cult?” And maybe we had. That was the power of wrestling, the power of Cody Rhodes.
“In moments like that, it’s like we’re one,” Cody said. “The crowd and myself. Why those moments feel the way they feel and they’re so special, and they’re so loud, and they’re so, I guess the word would be ‘electric,’ … because they don’t actually happen that often. Wrestling is real noise and real numbers. … Can’t be argued. But we also are in this world of entertainment where it’s not always easy to tell what’s real.
“You know when you go to an event and you have a moment like that and feel it, that there’s something. This is real. We’re invested in this wrestler … this individual up onstage. What I feel in those moments is that I am equally invested in you. That might sound very much like trying to try hard, but it’s not. I just don’t take them for granted,” Rhodes continued. “What I think about in those moments is that there’s something special here that’s being shared between the competitor, the performer, and the audience. And that you just want it to last forever.”
Cody had experienced moments like that in the WWE ring too, before a pec tear led to an extended absence. WWE brass was confident he was the right choice for a lead role on the largest stage of them all after his return. WWE just had to convince the audience that it had been right about Rhodes, remind them why they had embraced Rhodes with such full hearts, the toxic irony of this era pushed to the side long enough so that the crowd could live vicariously through another man’s joy.
Enter Heyman, a longtime ally of Cody’s father. In fact, Dusty caught Heyman sitting in on a production meeting back in the ’80s when he was just a teenager and helped make his career. Today, Heyman is one of the most powerful people in WWE both in front of and behind the camera. As he introduced himself to the audience at Raw yet again, his name like a litany they chant back at him, the Wiseman thought about the mission in front of him. WrestleMania is business. Big business. But this was also deeply, profoundly personal.
I felt a great obligation to Cody because he had worked so hard for so long and has been so great in what he’s been doing. That one misstep by me could completely derail his first WrestleMania event push. So I felt a great obligation to measure up for his sake. I felt obviously an obligation to Roman Reigns because I’m representing him. Paul Heyman being out there is Roman Reigns being out there.
I felt the great obligation to myself because of my own legacy and my own body of work because I can be entrusted to kick off a WrestleMania main-event program and in someone’s very first WrestleMania main-event program, which by the way is the very same thing I did with Roman Reigns in his first WrestleMania main-event program.
And I felt an obligation to Dusty Rhodes because this was his son and we were invoking his name. And the one thing that I passionately did not want in this is the typical invoking of Dusty’s name, which would be … “Your dad’s rolling over in his grave. Roman Reigns is going to beat you and spit on Dusty’s grave.” We’re not going there. We weren’t going to disrespect Dusty. If anything, we were going to praise and respect and show great love for Dusty in this because that’s the story also. And this whole story has been based on the truth, which is what I said on television … is … the most gangster thing we can do, Roman Reigns and I can do, in this story going into WrestleMania. The most villainous thing we can do is to just tell the truth.
There was a buzz in the crowd at Raw as these two titans stood there in their four-figure suits; there was a feeling that anything could happen. Cody started the proceedings, telling a story about his family’s darkest hours. His father was so broke he was doing local car commercials just so the Rhodes family’s ride wasn’t repossessed; $100 in a Wachovia checking account was all he had to show for his thousands of miles on the road and the countless smiles he’d generated as one of wrestling’s top stars in an era before million-dollar deals, when the matches were held in a National Guard armory in Tampa more often than inside the confines of a football stadium.
“He got a phone call,” Cody told the national TV audience. “[Heyman] called him. You told him ECW was in town. You told him that Steve Corino was going to talk a little smack about him. And that if he would just agree to appear on camera, if Dusty Rhodes would be on ECW, you would pay him and you would pay him well. You kept your word. In addition to the money that we sorely needed, ECW gave my father his confidence back, and I can never, ever repay you for that. Thank you very much.”
There was a pause as Heyman collected himself. The two men had known broadly what the other would say, but neither knew the specifics. Cody’s highly personal story left both with tears glimmering in their eyes. A few were no doubt shed in living rooms across the country as well.
Roman Reigns is genuinely the biggest box office draw in wrestling in quite some time. Everything, every superlative you wrote about the champion, is on point and accurate. I know that me trying to take that away, and how important it is to me to take it away, makes something personal that really normally wouldn’t be personal. Knowing all that, having that all boiling up in me, it was important when I talked to Mr. Heyman to tell him the story, the story that he has never heard from me.
I’ve heard him tell the story about what it meant to be invited by Dusty into that production meeting and what it did for him. I’ve heard him give the old man a great amount of props in terms of getting him going and started. I’ve heard that. I don’t think he’s ever heard the story about what it meant to me as a teenager at the time to see my father, my hero, get his confidence back.
That sounds so simple on the surface, but it’s so deeply not simple if you think about someone who should have been the most confident, someone who entertained and inspired millions, who was ostracized from the industry and his history revised to a degree. For him to have doubts in the first place, a guy who you never thought had doubts—what ECW did for him, I could spend days talking to you about what that meant for me as a teenager. And I just wanted Mr. Heyman to feel it. As viewers, you guys got to experience a real moment.
That genuine passion killed any doubts from the viewers about Cody’s timeline, whether’s he the right choice for this WrestleMania match, and whether WWE should have kept him in the match or gone in a new direction because of Zayn’s rise in estimation. When Heyman gathered himself, he told his own story, also about Dusty, also from the heart. He sang a song of the Dream’s greatness, an ode to his work building a generation of WWE Superstars, including the Tribal Chief himself. And then, just when it seemed like the two might very well break into “Kumbaya” and hug it out, Heyman stuck the knife in deep.
“God, Cody, I can’t convey in words how much I loved your father,” Heyman told him in the ring. “And I can tell you straight to your face, man, did your father love you. I’ll tell you this one personally—in my last conversation with your dad, he told me you, Cody, were his favorite son … but Roman Reigns was the son he always wanted.”
You could see the moment Cody’s heart dropped, feel his pain. It’s one of his best attributes as a performer. His face cannot tell a lie, making him potentially the world’s worst poker player and best wrestling hero at the same time. The crowd was with him, something vitally important to someone with Cody’s emotional makeup; he’s someone who can’t hide his disappointment and vulnerability from the audience.
“I’m an emotionally available guy. That’s often poked fun at a little, and I love it. It’s funny. It doesn’t bother me,” Rhodes said in his interview with The Ringer. “I have the privilege and the honor, but also the burden [in that] I don’t play a character. I’m myself. So perhaps my emotional state does linger in people’s hands on occasion. … I don’t know if necessarily my emotional state depends on [the crowd], but I do know that when they’re there and they’re behind you, you very much realize that they are helping you do it.”
In the weeks that followed Rhodes and Heyman’s conversation on Raw, Rhodes and the Bloodline built on this dual theme of jealousy and legacy. The best wrestling stories are grounded in something true. Even if, strictly speaking, the narrative is a construct, the feelings can burn if they’re relatable and real. In some ways, Rhodes is hard to relate to. Few possess his natural gifts, his famous name, his track record of success. For all his bleach-blond, bespoke glory, when he talked to Heyman, Rhodes seemed like just another guy grappling with the loss of his father, an icon whom he shared with the world—even his biggest enemies. Zayn’s story of acceptance is universal. But so is Rhodes’s tale of jealousy, pain, and perseverance.
“It’s a lot easier for me when there’s truth involved,” Heyman said in the interview, explaining that talking up Reigns, Brock Lesnar, and even ECW worked for him since he believed in them so deeply. “Because I’m a terrible actor, and I will always go by Method acting first because it makes it much easier for me. … It makes my job much easier to just come from a perspective of the truth.
“We can be villains doing nothing but presenting the truth because an audience can relate to it and it resonates with that audience. … By telling the truth, we are really sticking it in Cody’s face and just smashing him over the head with emotional baggage that he has no control over. Because these are things that happened earlier in his life with a parent that’s no longer here. He can’t even talk to the parent about it.”
When I profiled Cody three years ago, he was engaged in a battle to become his own man. As much as he loved and cherished his father, he wanted to be Cody, not just “Dusty’s son” but someone who carried weight as a person, not just an avatar for a past that can never be recaptured. Here, he faces the challenge of invoking his father’s name, or centering him in the story, without being overwhelmed by him and engulfed in his formidable shadow.
“The story of a parent and a son or daughter and the feeling of wanting to be as tall as them and the feeling sometimes of envy and jealousy when they perhaps pick others, it’s all very relatable in a way,” Cody told The Ringer. “There’s [going to be] no polka dots. There’s no ‘Common Man Boogie.’ That’s on the surface [a] tribute and special. … But the Dusty I’m carrying into WrestleMania, I would prefer to be more internal. I would prefer it be more in my blood because he’s always with me. I’m the man I am because of him. But I’m very much coming into WrestleMania Cody.”
Like an NFL team peaking just as the playoffs begin, Cody has reached new levels of performance since returning to WWE. WrestleMania is the largest stage any wrestler can occupy—and so far he’s risen to the moment. For Heyman and Reigns, the response hasn’t been fear or worry. It’s more like it’s about time someone showed up to meet them at the mountaintop.
“Cody’s greatness will only enable Roman and I to be ambitious enough to raise our game,” Heyman said. “It’s a wonderful feeling to reach down and pull people up onto an island of relevancy. Literally. And it’s even better when someone has their own relevant position from which we can compete and collaborate. And that’s where we are.
“A rising tide raises all ships, and so someone who can keep up is just someone that is going to inspire and motivate us to aspire to greater heights and even new levels of presentation. We can look at adding more unique, innovative, forward-thinking progression into our act because we realize someone is quickly coming up to achieve a level that only we had been able to achieve at this time.”
In 1979, Dusty finally won the NWA World Heavyweight Championship, arguably the most prestigious wrestling title ever to exist outside the WWE umbrella. Fans in Tampa plowed into the ring to share in the moment, which had been five years in the making.
Soon the celebration moved backstage, where the Dream shared a few words with his public.
“This is an example for every man, woman, and child. Every one of my children can look right now,” Dusty told the camera, blood and champagne dripping from his head. “Get a dream, hold on to it, and shoot for the sky.”
It’s a promo Cody has watched hundreds of times and one that speaks deeply to him now more than ever.
“It didn’t come across in that interview as a request of me,” he said, gathering himself to talk about it. “It came across in that interview as a directive. Whether that’s right, wrong, or indifferent, I look at it as a directive. … At some point I might have the chance to see him again, and I want to make it clear I heard him. Everyone else heard him, but I want to make sure he knows I heard him. And his entire family, for the first time ever, will be together at WrestleMania. Win, lose, draw, we’re trying to do our dang best to let him know we heard it.”
Jonathan Snowden (@JESnowden) is the author of Shamrock: The World’s Most Dangerous Man, Total MMA: Inside Ultimate Fighting, The MMA Encyclopedia, and Shooters: The Toughest Men in Professional Wrestling. He works for the Department of Defense and lives in Alabama with his wife and two children. He thinks about professional wrestling. A lot.