Cody Rhodes Leaving WWE was Wrestling’s Butterfly Effect

Cody Rhodes and the Butterfly Effect

Five years ago, Cody Rhodes bet on himself, leaving behind the safe job of WWE in order to re-find his love of pro wrestling. What ensued was a series of events that helped shape the landscape of pro wrestling today.

They call it the Butterfly Effect. A phenomenon embedded in chaos theory that seeks to explain how one small change can have a ripple effect felt miles away or years in the future. The common way this theory is explained is normally through the lens of a butterfly flapping its wings in one location, the result of which causes a tornado in a separate location. The pop culture adaptation of the Butterfly Effect is a little less scientific and simply provides reasoning/rationale between two events of varying degrees. It is through this example that many people regard the effect, looking at how one seemingly insignificant event can have a cascading impact that ultimately leads to a much larger event. The Butterfly Effect is more about causation than it is a correlation. Because, according to the theory, it is the butterfly flapping its wings that directly causes the tornado to occur.

Wrestling can be explained through a series of butterfly effects. What would have happened if Hulk Hogan had never joined the nWo? If the Montreal Screwjob never occurred? If Vince McMahon had never bought WWF from his father? If WCW announcers never spoiled Mick Foley winning the WWF world title, causing the unintended effect of people changing the channel, forever altering the Monday Night Wars? Imagine taking just one decision and changing it. Wrestling as we know it could and likely would tell a very different story.

Today’s wrestling landscape is unlike anything the industry has ever seen, and it is that way due to a series of events that have opened up partnerships that never would have seemed imaginable just a few years ago. At that time, WWE‘s grip as the wrestling superpower of the world was as firm as it had ever been. Now, make no mistake, WWE still is the wrestling juggernaut that it has been for decades, but now, its opponents are united in presenting a bonafide alternative. Former rival promotions are working together to serve the best interests of the fans and the wrestlers, and as a result, more and more partnerships are emerging in the industry. Of course, it’s possible all of this was bound to happen eventually, but if you believe in the Butterfly Effect, it’s far more probable that one decision marked the catalyst for the wrestling evolution we’re seeing today.

For it was five years this May that a butterfly named Cody Rhodes decided to flap his wings by leaving the promotion he called home since he was 18 years old. In his leaving of WWE, Rhodes set into motion a chain of events, and it’s hard to deny the impact those events have had on today’s wrestling landscape. Because without Rhodes leaving WWE, he wouldn’t have connected with Kenny Omega and the Young Bucks in Ring of Honor and New Japan Pro Wrestling. He wouldn’t have run All In, the largest independent wrestling event in history. He may not have met Tony Khan, a man who wanted to back a new wrestling promotion as much as Rhodes and his co-EVPs wanted to run one. Without Rhodes, Khan, Omega, and the Bucks’ connection, there may not have been an AEW and without an AEW there is no wrestling promotion capable of bringing others into the fold. Without AEW, big-name wrestlers like Chris Jericho, Paul Wight, Christian Cage, Sting, and Jon Moxley may not have been enticed to leave WWE. Without AEW, Omega doesn’t show up in IMPACT Wrestling, shattering anyone’s expectations and inviting a partnership no one would have seen coming. Without AEW, who knows if an IMPACT/NJPW partnership wherein FinJuice can win the IMPACT tag titles, materializes as well.

The last five years have changed the wrestling landscape as we know it and it’s all because Rhodes’ flapped his wings.

May 2016 – “My Work Just Needs to Be Elsewhere”

In May 2016, Cody Rhodes was just another cog in the McMachine. An increasingly unhappy and frustrated one, but a cog nonetheless. He showed up to work every day and continued to do his job. But all the while, something was stirring within him. His passion was slipping away. He was going through the motions. Everything he had tried to pitch, ideas he had wanted to run with, a costume he wanted to retire, it all fell on deaf ears. So finally, Rhodes made the biggest decision of his career. In late May, he asked for his release. Now, at the time Rhodes asked out of his contract, WWE was not the same company it is today. It is not the same company that reportedly failed to grant Andrade his release last week (UPDATE: WWE did in fact grant Andrade his release on 3/22) or the same company that wouldn’t let FTR (then, the Revival) out of their contracts last year. In fact, over the last two years-or-so, WWE has been less willing to grant releases as they once were, because they know where those wrestlers are likely to end up, in AEW, the promotion Rhodes helped create.

But before AEW and before WWE began holding their talent hostage in a manner of speaking, Cody Rhodes was happily granted his release. Truth be told, the company seemed not to have anything for him anyway outside of the Stardust character Rhodes was desperate to leave behind. The two sides agreed to a decision that seemed mutually beneficial. At least at the time. Little did WWE know that granting Rhodes his release five years ago would lead to wrestler upon wrestler after him, wanting the same. At the time Rhodes left WWE, after having spent the first 11 years of his career there, he wasn’t the first person to leave the company. Countless wrestlers had left before Rhodes, heading to ROH, TNA/IMPACT Wrestling, or NJPW, in pursuit of other opportunities. Some even found success, like Juice Robinson in NJPW and Sami Callihan in IMPACT. Years before Rhodes’ departure, Drew McIntyre and Bobby Lashley left WWE, both landing in IMPACT, and both being recruited to return to WWE, bringing more value than when they left. It was because they had the courage to walk away, that both are in the position in WWE that they are today, set for a WrestleMania match over Lashley’s newly-won WWE Championship.

But when Rhodes left, it felt different. Famously, CM Punk walked out of WWE in 2011, unhappy with his treatment and placement. Rhodes shared similar sentiments in the letter he penned upon his release. Stating that Triple H, in one of their last conversations, told him, “WWE is a play, and everybody has their role and needs to act it their best,” Cody Rhodes decided the role he was given was not the one he believed himself capable of. “For a decade, I tried to convince both Vince and HHH that I could be their star player, their varsity quarterback if you will,” Rhodes wrote in his letter, “but it seems we have reached the point where neither saw that in me.” So he did what was in his best interest and he left.

Much like those who left before him, Rhodes was confronted with an independent scene that was only just beginning to burgeon. But he didn’t care. Rhodes left to re-find his love of wrestling. It wasn’t about the money or the prestige. It was about him just wanting to be in that ring, making moments for the fans even more so than for himself.  Case in point, when Rhodes returned to the ring following his last WWE match on May 16, 2016, it was for EVOLVE and later Northeast Wrestling. Not in front of thousands, but in front of hundreds, in small venues and not big WWE arenas. Rhodes likely could have signed anywhere, as many WWE castoffs before him did, but instead, he opted to work the indies for the first time in his career.

It wasn’t until October that Cody Rhodes arrived in IMPACT for a series of matches, but even then, he didn’t stick around long term. He wanted to wrestle on the circuit more and he did so. Rhodes took part in Battle of Los Angeles and wrestled for Big Time Wrestling, WCPW/Defiant Wrestling, House of Glory, SMASH, Next Generation Wrestling, and more. He worked for small indies across the world before arriving in ROH in December 2016 for Final Battle. His appearance on the card meant that in one year, Rhodes had wrestled at WrestleMania, Final Battle, Bound for Glory, and BOLA all in the same year.

And while Cody Rhodes didn’t debut in NJPW until the beginning of 2017, it was in December 2016 that he formally joined Bullet Club, perhaps the most impactful decision of his post-WWE career. Because it was through this experience in Bullet Club, that the butterfly’s flapped wings began to have their first real industry-shattering impact.

June 2017 – First World Championship and Being Elite

Cody Rhodes spent 10 years trying to convince WWE he could carry the company as world champion. He didn’t have to convince ROH. Just six-or-so months after Rhodes debuted in the company, he had won the promotion’s gold. It was Rhodes’ first-ever world championship and one that he defended not just in ROH but in the indies as well. Rhodes continued to work non-exclusively. In addition to his ROH and NJPW defenses, Rhodes took the title and defended it in All Pro Wrestling, Glory Pro Wrestling, Chaotic Wrestling, Prairie Wrestling Alliance, Discovery Wrestling, and Revolution Pro Wrestling. While not entirely rare for the ROH title to be defended outside of ROH or NJPW, there was something that felt different about when Rhodes did it. Perhaps it was an early sign of the kind of working relationships Rhodes had always hoped to build in the industry.

Prior to Rhodes having that chance, however, he was immersed in a Bullet Club civil war, where he and Omega feuded over leadership of the group. The BCCW started to build in June 2017, prior to Rhodes winning the ROH World Championship, and lasted through July 2018. When things came to an end after Omega defeated Rhodes at the G1 Special, the Elite united against the other members of Bullet Club, then billed the Firing Squad. This marked the last major storyline for both Omega and Rhodes in NJPW as the two of them, along with the rest of the Elite, left ROH/NPJW a few months later. But before that happened, the ripple effect of Cody Rhodes leaving WWE continued in the form of a challenge accepted to prove Dave Meltzer wrong about the drawing power of independent wrestling.

September 2018 – Cody Rhodes Goes “All In”

In May 2017, longtime wrestling journalist and historian Dave Meltzer, instituted his own Butterfly Effect when he suggested that an independent wrestling show would never be able to draw the kinds of crowds WWE did on a nightly basis. Well, challenge issued and challenge accepted. Cody Rhodes, with the help of the Young Bucks, ROH, and the friends he had made over the last two years thanks to his time working the indies, sought to prove Meltzer wrong. But it wasn’t just about proving him wrong for the sake of it, it was about endeavoring to do something that had never been done before. Rhodes’ father Dusty Rhodes had been a wrestling visionary and Cody had always hoped to follow in his father’s footsteps. So after a year-plus of planning, Rhodes and the Bucks fully financed, booked, and promoted the first-ever indie wrestling show that housed over 10,000 people. And not only did it get the crowd but All In, which featured a card that included wrestlers from every major promotion except one, sold out in just 30 minutes.

Whether creating a new wrestling promotion was in Rhodes’ mind at the time or not, All In was a rousing success and it showed that wrestling could thrive outside of McMahon’s walls. It also showed the magic that could happen when everyone (NWA, AAA, ROH, NJPW, CMLL, MLW, and IMPACT) works together. Cody Rhodes and the rest of the Elite departed ROH later that year but when they did so, it was with a bigger vision in mind and a new friend who was more than willing to bankroll that dream. And much like the rest of this course of events, it was due to a chance relationship between the Bucks and Khan, and a decision by ROH/NJPW not to partner on a deal for the two brothers, that led to the next chapter in this story, the birth of AEW.

January 2019 – A True Alternative

On January 1, 2019, the rumors that had been swirling were finally confirmed. All Elite Wrestling was born. Even without a TV deal in place, the company had built a strong roster, with wrestlers of all companies who wanted something different. Much as Cody Rhodes did when he left WWE three years prior, these wrestlers were leaving what they knew to bet on themselves. AEW’s early roster was full of a diverse group of wrestlers, all of whom were/are incredibly talented and many of whom Rhodes and his colleagues had come to know from their time working on the indie circuit. While these were all great additions to the roster (MJF, Lucha Brothers, SCU, Britt Baker, PAC, Hangman Page, etc), they were still indie wrestlers or WWE castoffs, and to some, there was still a perception that they were in AEW because they couldn’t make it in the “big leagues.” Well, one may have been able to say that about many of AEW’s early signings, but that was not the case for one Chris Jericho, who instantly added credibility to the new promotion. Jericho left WWE because he wanted to be part of this new wrestling revolution. He believed he had something more to contribute, and in the early going, that’s exactly what he did.

Jericho was AEW’s first choice to be world champion, a decision that made a lot of sense. But while Jericho was the first to jump from McMahon’s empire, he wasn’t the last. At AEW’s first PPV, Double or Nothing, Jon Moxley, the former Dean Ambrose, made his debut and instantly became a major player for the company. Moxley defeated Jericho for the title and held it until earlier this year, when the coronation of Omega and all that came with it, began. But before all that, AEW seemed to almost be a haven, a place for wrestlers who knew their worth and took inspiration from the risk Rhodes had made three years prior. Only unlike Cody Rhodes, who left for uncertain waters, these wrestlers left WWE because there was something else viable out there. Joining Moxley in AEW were Shawn Spears (FKA Tye Dillinger), Jake Hager (FKA Jack Swagger), Miro (FKA Rusev), Dustin Rhodes (FKA Goldust), Christian Cage (FKA Christian), FTR (FKA the Revival), Matt Hardy, and Sting. But it wasn’t just AEW that was benefiting from this new landscape. As WWE was forced to grant releases due to the financial impacts of COVID-19, they watched their wrestlers go and become stars in IMPACT, ROH, and MLW. And in yet another Butterfly Effect moment, the impact of those releases is being felt industry-wide today. Because if WWE didn’t let Luke Gallows and Karl Anderson walk…

December 2020 – The IMPACT Heard Round the World

In April 2020, WWE made a series of releases. Many weren’t all that surprising as several seemed to be wrestlers who would have asked for a release anyway. But on that list were also Gallows and Anderson, very close friends of AJ Styles and two guys who had just signed lengthy contract extensions not long prior to their releases. Gallows and Anderson weren’t exactly being used to their full potential in WWE but the decision to release them still came as a shock to many. And it likely came as a shock to WWE when Gallows and Anderson made their next move, debuting in IMPACT Wrestling in July of that year.

The former Club rechristened themselves as the Good Brothers, and the duo wasted no time in getting to work on shaking up the industry in their own way. Gallows and Anderson brought back their Talk’N’Shop podcast, booked two Talk’N’Shop shows, and most prominently, got in touch with an old friend, in AEW’s Omega. Former Bullet Club mates with both Omega and the Bucks, Gallows and Anderson could have easily joined AEW. But they took the road less traveled and it is in no small part due to them it seems, that the IMPACT/AEW relationship that had been rumored for months prior, came to fruition. Of course, the real driving force was Don Callis, who fashioned himself the “Invisible Hand,” claiming to have had this grand plan with Omega from their decades of knowing each other. It was Callis who was the first IMPACT personnel to appear on AEW, doing so at the bequest of Omega. Callis helped Omega win the world title from Moxley and then broke the wrestling internet when he brought Omega with him to IMPACT, where Callis serves as part of the management team.

Kenny Omega had arrived in the IMPACT Zone. That’s a saying that no one likely ever expected to say or hear in their lifetime, but there he was, not just showing up for segments, but there to wrestle, and as Tony Khan would later reveal, all of it was Omega’s own idea. Omega reunited with Gallows and Anderson, facilitating the two of them coming over to AEW for several matches. But the partnership didn’t end there. No, not by a long shot. KENTA has appeared on AEW and Matt Hardy and Private Party have appeared on IMPACT as have FinJuice, representing NJPW. In fact, FinJuice recently won the IMPACT Tag Team Championship and soon, Omega himself may be IMPACT World Champion or Rich Swann could be AEW World Champion. It’s a wonderful time to be alive. As travel restrictions from COVID-19 ease, we may even see the biggest implication from this working relationship, Kazuchika Okada, back in an IMPACT ring.

All because five years ago, a butterfly dared to flap his wings.

Wrestling is a series of butterfly effects. What if WWE let Rhodes drop the Stardust gimmick and he stayed? What if ROH/NJPW offered the Bucks what they wanted and they stayed? What if WWE never released Gallows and Anderson?

We’ll never know the answer to those what-ifs. But what we do know is that the wrestling landscape as it exists today is as vibrant and collaborative as it’s ever been. Whether or not that’s because one man opted to take a risk five years ago, well, that’s part of the beauty of wrestling. Some mysteries simply aren’t meant to be solved.

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