The American Nightmare is Runnin' Wild

The American Nightmare is Runnin' Wild

"So, what do you want to talk about?" Cody Rhodes so eloquently asks each live crowd by their city name as to spark up an authentic, casual conversation. The Grandson of a Plumber has captivated the pro wrestling world over the past year and a half. As one of the final superstar links to wrestling's glory days, WWE has hitched their wagon to Rhodes, hoping he carries them to the promised land. So what do I want to talk about? I want to know if Cody's push to become the new Hulk Hogan can jumpstart a wrestling renaissance. 

In 1983, Vince McMahon saw the reaction Hogan was getting from crowds, and envisioned a larger than life superhero to build a company around. With a unique look and build, and charisma to match, Hogan and McMahon married that to the patriotism that defined mid-1980's America. They were going to make Superman jump off the pages of the comic book. Their formula for pitting Hulk against foreign bad guys or big monster heels was what sold the "training, saying your prayers, eating your vitamins" and "truth, justice, and the Hulk Hogan Way." The WWF revolved around Hogan for 8 years, but really had a four and a half year peak run. He was 31-39 years old during that period.

Cody is 38 now, so there's little time to waste in riding this rocket to the moon. Last week, WWE dropped their script for this on Peacock with the launch of "American Nightmare: Becoming Cody Rhodes."  The 2-hour docudrama perfectly lays out his Hero's Journey. If you are aware of the monomyth popularized by Joseph Campbell in the late 1940's, the Hero's Journey is a cyclical path punctuated with a decisive victory. Midway along this path is called "The Abyss". It's where several obstacles and challenges have changed the hero in such a way, they gain a rebirth of resolute knowledge, strength, and perseverance to move towards their ultimate destiny.  This is the point where Cody's at.

He kicked off his return to WWE last year with three consecutive wins over Seth Rollins. The last of which, was with a gruesome torn pectoral muscle that required surgery and put him on the shelf for 8 months. When kayfabe storytelling needs a real life boost, look no further than Cody's gutsy Hell in the Cell match last June. He won the war but lost the battle, as all the momentum he had built since his return at WrestleMania 38, had to be put on pause.  That can be either good or bad in wrestling. However, he banked a ton of goodwill from fans and wrestlers for that performance. Cody didn't lose a beat upon his anticipated return. He came back as the 30th entrant into the Royal Rumble, winning the first major event of the year, and earned his shot at headlining WrestleMania against Roman Reigns.

Most fans felt this was finally the time Reigns would drop the belt, while Cody was embraced for (in his words), "Finishing the Story." The beginning of the Hero's Journey is their "Call to Adventure." For Rhodes, this meant an impassioned plea to accomplish what his late, great father, Dusty, couldn't do. Win the WWE Championship. In many ways, Cody had completed his journey, with several obstacles overcome, and beating Reigns was looked at as just a formality to realize his dream. WWE said "not so fast." Cody had the win cinched, before Reign's henchman Solo Sikoa saved him at the last second. It left a lot of people pissed. However, kudos to WWE for realizing there is a lot more meat on the bone in creating the ultimate modern babyface. Some of the best storytelling comes from zigging when everyone thinks you're zagging. Giving Cody more heartbreak was the correct decision for his character arc.

For Hulk Hogan, his ability to be an American superhero at a time when the U.S. was reaffirming its place as the preeminent world superpower against "evil" foreign nations, allowed fans to live those values through him. He was the beacon for all that was good, and he did it with an intensity that drew you in with every wild promo, shirt rip, Hulk Up, and pose. His journey was a repeat formula for getting beat down by a bad guy threatening to kill Hulkamania.

Each match was the same journey, as just when Hulk looked defeated, he called on the Hulkamaniacs to provide that united strength which allowed him to fight back from the brink of defeat. Good would overwhelm and beat evil to win the day and send everyone home happy.  This is how Americans viewed their country. We were the cool, asskicking good guys, fighting back threats to our safety and freedom, and keeping our thumb on the bad guys. We lived vicariously through the Hulkster. Luckily, there was a huge bevy of fitting opponents that kept this formula fresh as long as it did. It was a simpler time, and we wanted Hulk, Arnold, Sly, Mr. T, and Chuck Norris to destroy every evil put in their path.

Like Hogan and Cena, Cody "gets it". He understands what's required for the public interface and the massive responsibility that comes with that job. There's a new generation of kids witnessing this long story, who sing along with his intro music, hang on his every word, and buy him at face value. However, is it enough to bring in a bigger, more casual audience? Pro Wrestling/Sports Entertainment has a lot of other major factors that seem to limit its broad appeal, although Cody's Hero Journey is compelling. Hogan resonated as a real life American superhero at the right time for that. Austin was every person's fantasy of rebelling against their boss, so we loved the creative ways that rebellion unfolded. The Rock had a timing, delivery, and comedic nature that had never been taken to such entertaining levels. So how does Cody become the next star that casual fans can identify with?

While Hogan's hero theme was built on patriotism, high energy, wild charisma, the Three Demandments, slaying giants, and the Largest Arms in the World-- Rhodes' American Nightmare battles with the suffering that comes from being cast aside, dealing with his father's death and living in his shadow. For every great promo segment, win over Rollins, and Royal Rumble victory, he's pulled back down into the sludge by a pec tear or losing the biggest match of his career on the biggest stage, and then Brock Lesnar torturing him.

Cody's hero journey still has a huge patriotic theme to parallel Hogan's, however their meanings are different. Where Hulk was Reagan, Wheaties, MTV, and rampant consumerism, Cody resembles the struggles many deal with today. The world is a meaner, colder, and more isolated place than ever before. It can be nightmarish for many. Rhodes' well noted perseverance came after leaving WWE to rebuild his career, gamble on himself, rally around his family after Dusty's passing, assist with developing a major wrestling promotion, and to just keep grinding. That's the new American Dream. If you really want to accomplish something, Cody's story of fighting through the nightmare is the perfect lesson everyone can relate to in finishing their own story.

Hogan and Rhodes share a special ability to tell stories and connect to the audience, and that is one of the biggest prerequisites to becoming the face of the franchise. It's also the reason Vince McMahon flew to Cody's house to convince him to re-sign with WWE. In some ways, Cody is like a young Vince in how they had to creatively go about their business to rise above the large shadows cast by their fathers. Whatever personal reasons Rhodes claims for leaving AEW, that company is still discovering who they ultimately want to be. They appear to want to build around the action in the ring first, second, and third. WWE is about telling stories first, and no one in the industry can make you feel the build for a pro wrestling story in this era like Cody Rhodes. Just go back and watch the feud with his brother Dustin and the match at Double or Nothing 2019. There hasn't been that many fans bawling in the crowd since Randy and Liz reunited at WrestleMania VII. That match can sum up why Cody is in the main event position he's in now. Vince needs a storytelling powerhouse, in and out of the ring, to lead the company back to greater heights.

WWE has hired writers from Marvel to oversee their long term storytelling, and if you look closely, Cody has a lot of parallels to Steve Rogers' Captain America. Starting off as the skinny kid with a big heart who nobody wanted, then transforming to a guy who fell in love, ended WWII, only to crash and burn and wake up 70 years later. Now he has to embark on this insane up and down roller coaster ride with other colleagues all vying for the top spot. All he wants is to save the world and get to his Saturday Night slow dance. Cody is past his Winter Soldier portion of the story and moving into his Civil War. We have a ways to go before he gets to his Endgame. 

I'm writing this shortly after Rhodes' SummerSlam slaying of the beast Brock Lesnar. The significance of getting 2 clean wins out of 3 matches over the most dominant wrestler the past 20 years, says his Jedi training for the main event is wrapped up. How he repositions to get back on track to take the gold off of Reigns will be the next big storyline for the company. The Bloodline story is jumping the shark, and its time for the company to test out a new babyface champion for his staying power and draw. How we get there, most likely at WrestleMania 39, will be intriguing.

Expect some wins and high profile moments for Rhodes with some frustrating setbacks too. When he gets that ultimate win and dethrones Reigns, it will be emotional, and set a new tone for the company. What's great about Cody, like Hulk, he'll be a great babyface champ...for awhile. The eventual "Corporate Cody" heel turn is going to be equally as fun. 

Wrestling is always at its best when it makes you feel something emotionally. The Rhodes Family are masters of that craft. Cody grappling with the hard times of overcoming his Nightmare in order to achieve his Dream, is the American way. Hogan fought for the Hulkamaniacs and the U.S.  Austin fought The System. Rhodes is demonstrating how to fight life, and that's something every common man and woman can relate to. Can WWE parlay that into something bigger?

Sound off below!

- Matthew McMahon

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