Hard Time Blues: The World of Pro Wrestling

Hard Time Blues’ WRESTLEMANIA 40 Ode to the Codester

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Welcome to Hard Time Blues: The World of Pro Wrestling from Merry-Go-Round Magazine! It’s a great time to get into professional wrestling. In each Hard Time Blues feature, MGRM contributors Luke Phillips and Max Flynn will be exploring the wild, weird, and wooly world of the squared circle, and all of the angles, feuds, gossip, and evil wizards therein.

The Showcase of the Immortals, WWE’s flagship WRESTLEMANIA event, enters its 40th iteration this weekend. Fans and casuals alike can expect the blowoff to major angles, surprise appearances and run-ins, and the stage being set for the next year-plus of WWE programming. The long-anticipated return of The Rock to the TKO executive board and WWE TV has drawn plenty of attention to the event, but for anyone following WWE as of late, all eyes are set on Hard Time Blues’ personal hero Cody Rhodes (son of Dusty). Will Cody triumph over The Rock and his evil cousin Roman Reigns’ machinations? Does Cody have what it takes to Finish the Story? HTB’s Luke Philips, Maxwell Flynn, and Paul Zyburski got extremely high and talked about Cody Rhodes for 35 minutes.

Luke Phillips: Hell, these motherfuckers do one good episode of RAW for once in their lives and suddenly everyone’s back on their good side.

Maxwell Flynn: Everybody’s back in business—all in on WWE!

Paul Zyburski: Still under debate on whether or not that was a good episode of RAW, which gets me to the most important part of this conversation: What is wrestling and who is it for in 2024? That is up for debate at large, really. If that was a good episode of RAW—if that’s what the bar is—we’re in some pretty dire straits.

LP: People have been desperate for ANY good wrestling content lately. There have been pretty… decent… episodes of RAW within the past year, in terms of coherently tying together angles and matches throughout the show in a satisfying way. After the last 20 years of McMahon-brained bullshit, people are finally realizing they can have it so much better.

PZ: While that is true, they still can’t tie it together with the bell-to-bell portion. “WWE-Style Wrestling” is still a hard thing to explain. I don’t know if it’s for wrestling fans or non-wrestling fans. I can’t tell who it’s for? I mean, frankly I can’t even tell you what I’m watching when I watch WWE.

LP: That’s the test for this WRESTLEMANIA this weekend, considering this will be the first McMahon-less Mania. Kevin Dunn is gone. This should be TKO’s mission statement moving forward. I think this will be a test balloon for the new Netflix programming—they’re going to soft-launch it.

MF: They’re going to introduce the modern casual fan to The Bloodline.

PZ: *defeatedly* God damn it.

LP: WWE is nothing if not defined by its eras. So, what is WWE in 2024? I think they’re expecting us as fans to be reckoning with that question as well, just as much as they are. They’ve reintroduced blood. I don’t know if that’s just The Rock throwing his weight belt around—literally and figuratively—being able to do what is verboten, or if we can expect blood on the product more frequently… a more edgy, classic sensibility that we’d expect from the product, moving away from the family-friendly product of the last 15 years. I can’t see them completely abandoning the huge base they have at the moment.

PZ: The question is, can they do both? They have the Netflix deal now. SMACKDOWN, whether it continues on FOX or another major cable product—can they do both? Can they have one show be for one and one show be for the other, and combine them for their “Premium Live Events”? Is that something you think they can pull off?

LP: I think that’s definitely the plan. That’s what they’re testing out with RAW, since RAW is the show heading to Netflix. They’re planting the seeds—when you watch WWE on Netflix, you can expect The Rock. You can expect Cody to bleed all over the place. You can expect CM Punk to say a cuss.

MF: There’s such pushback against blood on TV in wrestling, it’s centered as a mark against AEW by their critics. Do you think that’s something they’re worried about?

PZ: I say no, because those arguments are in bad faith. Anyone who makes the decisions for what goes on television or not is beyond that.

LP: I think the people in WWE who thought that were Vince and his boys, and now there’s a whole new set of boys who want to see blood.

PZ: TKO knows blood sells, they’ve been selling blood on UFC for a long time.

LP: The “blood and guts” shit was pure Vince. It was just fucking Vince projecting. I think Triple H wants to see Cody bleed.

PZ: Well, that makes two of us.

MF: That makes four of us.  

The Rock and Cody Rhodes

PZ: That brings us to the most important part of this conversation. We talk about WWE possibly setting a standard for their next era, we’re talking about blood returning to TV—we need to bring the convo around to the reason we’re all here. The subject of said blood. The possible bearer of said standard…

LP: DOES *claps* CODY *claps* FINISH *claps*  THE *claps* STORY??

PZ: I can’t believe it’s taken us this long to get to Cody. Cody Rhodes is the main character of professional wrestling.

LP: He’s the anime protagonist of professional wrestling, as we’ve said in this column before.

PZ: Some people might not like that, or might not be willing to admit that because Cody is not their specific cup of tea, or may not be the person they want for this, but just like John Cena before him… too bad. He’s the Guy. Get with the program. 

LP: Cody carried AEW on his back, he was basically the foundational babyface and singular star of AEW. What he brought to the program and what they lost once he left is undeniable. He’s living the gimmick. He’s living the Ultimate Gimmick—his life is the gimmick.

PZ: I’m so glad you said that Luke—some people might miss the forest for the trees on what “The Story” really is. That’s the fault of the WWE-ification of wrestling, the narrow scope. Cody has taken the meta angle, and taken his life, and made it The Story.

LP: There are precious few wrestlers in this world who can do that. Cody Rhodes is one of them. 

PZ: The Story is so much more than the angle itself. It’s about his journey.

LP: Really, though, the reason we all love Cody and are rooting for him is because he’s telling the Millennial story. We want to see him succeed. The odds are stacked against this guy. Even though he was an EVP at a major wrestling promotion, he became an EVP partly off of pure goodwill from wrestling fans that was built over several years of work. For so many wrestling fans now, what Cody Rhodes represents is the all-encompassing, extremely nerdy but free-for-all love of what professional wrestling is and was and could be. In all capacities, internationally. That’s what Cody did on the indies. He built his name post-WWE at any promotion that would have him.

MF: When he left WWE, he truly went on a missionary-style voyage. He completely rebuilt himself and his own notoriety. 

LP: He took that same spirit into AEW—talk about the Forbidden Door, Cody is the guy who invented that shit. Cody had the TNT run with the open challenges. Cody brought in Eddie Kingston. So many of “Cody’s guys” are beloved in AEW for good reason! Because he’s the fucking man and we all love him! If you don’t love him because he’s corny or whatever, you’re just not on his level.

MF: You don’t like professional wrestling if you can’t handle a little corniness. 

PZ: It’s part of the whole package, it’s part of the whole character. The corny wholesomeness is a big part of it. I think when we talk about the everyman, people have a certain image of it. The lunch pail, blue collar guy—the guy Dusty was supposed to represent. Cody is the everyman for a new generation. His Story and the things he’s gone through are identifiable for a lot of different people in our generation. The issues with coworkers and with friends. Feeling like you’ve put everything together, and you have all these tools, but then getting kicked when you’re down just as you’re about to reach that next level. There’s always somebody or some sort of force—whether it’s work, it’s friends, or it’s external forces. Whether it’s loved ones telling you you can’t do it—there’s always somebody telling you you can’t when you know you can, even when you know you’ve got the skills. When all you’ve got is that opportunity, and even when everybody else believes in you, there’s always somebody or some force standing in your way. Cody is so great at embodying that and encapsulating that. There’s always that force in Cody’s way, and it’s so easy to attach it to Cody and say “I’m Cody, I’m with you, I will overcome this with you.” Now it’s The Bloodline. Before, it was The Elite—arguably, all of AEW, at one point. As fans, we were kind of telling Cody “YOU need to break out,” at one point. It was WWE at one point! People want him to break out of his creative ruts, even. When he was Stardust, it was like, “You need to get out of this thing so you can do the next thing!

LP: He is so smart about the business. Even looking at it in hindsight—Cody Island, all that shit—those 18 months where people fucking hated Cody in AEW? Dude, it was by design!

PZ: I’m gonna go on record and say I loved all that shit. I was there in Atlanta when Cody lit himself on fire. He died for our sins.

MF: That shit was the best.

PZ: None of you ingrates appreciated it!

LP: Even when I was hating it, I was loving it—because I love Cody!

MF: In retrospect, it’s so funny everyone was begging him to do a heel run, when that’s what he was doing in plain day.

PZ: If you had turned Cody heel, he would have babyfaced it immediately afterwards anyway. He already successfully did it. He was doing it every day. His quote unquote “go away heat” was getting the largest reactions on the shows every week. He still is! When you turn on WWE, he still appears to be getting the largest reactions every single week on that show. We really are in a “love him or hate him” territory. He did that promo a couple years ago where he said he’s the most self-aware wrestler in the game—I super agree with that.

LP: Oh, 100%. He thinks about the world like it’s The Business, because he was raised in it. He speaks purely through wrestling terminology. Speaking to Cody as Ultimate Millennial, though… this is also a guy who has inscrutable Star Wars rankings, this is a guy who made Corey Graves quote from OCARINA OF TIME when he returned to WWE. 

Zelda Cody Rhodes

MF: I’ve been thinking about it a lot. Part of me still thinks he’s not going to win.

PZ: Shall we get a prediction going, boys? I’ll just say it right now: I think Cody’s losing.

MF: I think he’s losing too. I don’t think he’s going to win.

PZ: You want me to go further? I kind of want him to lose. I don’t think it’s time yet.

LP: Yeah. I’m expecting him to lose.

MF: The Rock has overshadowed all this. He needs to win and win clean to Finish the Story. It’ll be forgettable with the inclusion of The Rock and stuff, this year.

PZ: Cody really can’t lose either way, in my opinion. Cody losing is just as effective for Cody’s popularity as Cody winning.

MF: It makes him even more endearing.

PZ: That’s the ultimate victory for a professional wrestler. Cody goes out there and gets more popular no matter what he does.

LP: The flip side of that is… does Cody losing screw the pooch? It really just depends on the story they tell in the ring.

PZ: If Cody loses, Cody wins. His fans will still chomp on him and galvanize him harder. If he wins, he’s the damn champion. I ask you, Max and Luke: How does Cody lose? How does Cody come out of this looking objectively worse?

MF: If they do one of those House of Torture Bloodline finishes, even if it’s not terrible, it will leave a stink.

LP: My biggest fear would be for it to be a rehash of the main event from last year, but with The Rock.

PZ: I don’t necessarily think this is the Bryan Danielson route—though WWE has certainly tried to make that happen over the last couple of years. Bryan and Cody are such different people and people want to support them in such different ways. You can’t do that Bryan type of insurgency with Cody, because Cody is more of a frontrunner than an underdog, it’s just kind of how it works.

LP: Cody is much less of an underdog. He’s The Guy. He lets himself get shit upon to be more relatable. 

PZ: He’s just really good at taking an ass beating, which is an incredible skill for a professional wrestler to have. He’s really good at getting beat up.

LP: It’s a great skill set for a babyface, and he’s so good at it! I’m still thinking about the segment with The Rock from that RAW. I keep showing it to non-wrestling fans, being like, “Look at this shit!!” Do we think The Rock and Roman will go over on the tag match, or do you think Cody and Seth will win clean?

PZ: I could sort of see Cody and Seth winning just for there to be the intrigue of The Bloodline not being there, but I think even in that scenario there will be some nefarious means to take the match away from Cody. That would be the way to take everybody off guard. Make everybody think The Bloodline is out of the Sunday match, and then find a way around it. If Rock and Roman win, then you’re torpedoing everyone’s anticipations, because everyone will smarten up to Cody losing that much quicker. The “What is going to happen??” factor matters more if Cody and Seth win.

MF: It opens up so many more possibilities for a finish.

LP: How long is Rock going? 

PZ: How long does one Rock Bottom and the elbow thing take? 48 seconds? 48 seconds.

LP: Will he perform them competently, or is he going to completely blow up in the ring?

PZ: I think he will perform one-and-a-half moves competently and make one-and-a-half moves look really, really embarrassing. 

MF: Honestly I hope one of his muscles explodes.

PZ: He’s going to tear something.

LP: I’m so excited to see how much of a bozo he comes across. He’s been so fun in this run! The Final Boss! He looks like Genie from Aladdin.

PZ: I am not a fan of WWE’s proclivity to give everything a nickname, but I will say: classic Rock heeling off works. There’s a reason this guy was so successful at this thing.

LP: I agree with Phil Brooks, though. I don’t like him calling himself a heel. I don’t like him exposing the business. Okay, this is the final question regarding The Cody Match… what is going to happen during the Cody match?

MF: It’s going to be like one of those Eddie Kingston odes to Puroresu except it’s just a scene for scene remake of The Rock vs. Hogan.

PZ: I can see them doing some sort of homage to Dusty in there, I can see Roman being really into that. Some sort of re-creation of a Dusty/Flair match. That wouldn’t surprise me. I’m interested in who will be producing and booking that match. I’m expecting the classic Roman Reigns cinematics and talking to the camera.

LP: I’m getting so tired of that shit.

Roman Reigns Cody Rhodes copy

PZ: It’s really an indictment of WWE’s actual Top Guy that we haven’t spoken about him at all for this entire conversation. 

LP: He’s being overshadowed by his more famous cousin.

PZ: He’s sort of a side character in this story. That’s all you need to know about Roman Reigns and what he’s been to wrestling as The Top Guy.

LP: Everyone’s been waiting for The Rock to show up the entire time he’s been champion.

MF: He’s a set piece in this entire thing, he’s not a full-fledged character.

PZ: He sort of always has been, too. His entire run as champ and as top guy has been predicated on people waiting for Seth or waiting for Moxley to show up and get up next to him. A lot of his success is directly tied into Jon Moxley’s, whether they’ll say so or not. Being at the top of their respective companies has a lot to do with each other’s success.

LP: They pulled the trigger on heel Roman as the top guy right at the moment they needed to, after all the groundswell of support with his cancer and taking leave. You wanted to buy into The Head of The Table, because finally you actually wanted Roman to be cool and be the top guy after they poorly forced it down our throats for nearly a decade. It’s pure goodwill.

PZ: He’s charismatic, he’s got a great look—we’ve seen Roman at his best, and we’ve seen the best he has to give—we’ve seen his ceiling. I think the State of Wrestling is part of all this; if THIS is what wrestling’s top guys are, it’s never going to be much bigger than this.

LP: Roman is the guy who represents the past decade of WWE—even in a metatextual sense. He’s the guy WWE corporate brought into The Shield, he wasn’t Punk’s choice to be in The Shield.

MF: I would like to see Goldust show up.

PZ: Dustin showing up would be fantastic.

LP: Who is showing up during the Cody match? Who are the Codyvengers? Who does he Assemble? 

PZ: The elephant in the room’s name is Maxwell Jacob Friedman. Do we realistically think MJF even has a shot of showing up?

MF: No way. He definitely signed a new contract with AEW.

LP: The reason we have not seen MJF on AEW in so long is because he works there. MJF showing up at Mania would be a Rick Rude or Brian Pillman Sr.-level contract fuckery.

MF: If MJF showed up, it would be one of the nails in AEW’s coffin.

LP: I’ve thought a lot about how AEW has a track record of bullying their top babyfaces out of the company…

PZ: Cody and Punk are definitely examples of this, and CM Punk talked a lot about Tony Khan and his perception of TK as a leader and person backstage. That sort of thing doesn’t jive with people who are wrestling-business-determined the way Punk and Cody are. The way that they grew up. I think people forget that CM Punk was raised by guys like Harley Race and Nick Bockwinkel. He was raised by men of The Business. CM Punk is a businessman. Through and through. He’s not there for the matches, or for five stars. I think people have seemed to have forgotten that about him because he was so good at presenting his character. He loves wrestling for the business, and he’s good at it.

LP: He’s Terry Funk! Terry Punk! 

PZ: The same goes for Cody—these guys love The. Wrestling. Business. Not wrestling. They’re fans of it, but they’re businessmen. They’re insiders in a way that you nor I nor other people nor us as fans perceive professional wrestling. Tony Khan does not perceive professional wrestling the same way Cody Rhodes and CM Punk perceive professional wrestling. It’s fundamentally different.

MF: Cody and Punk played Tony Khan like a mark. He’s a money mark!

PZ: People assume that they’re two entities that cannot coexist, but I think AEW has its place and has its purpose and offers a fundamentally different product with a fundamentally different set of goals than WWE. I’ve started to become more of a—how you say—casual fan, and have stopped devoting several hours to watching wrestling programming per week. The WWE-style, opt-in, opt-out, know exactly what you’re getting format… I’m starting to appreciate, if not the presentation and the execution, than the stated goal of that type of thing. I can just turn on this thing on Monday night, and know exactly what’s happening. If I turn it off, great. I can have everything I need for Saturday. You don’t have to be completionist. Everything is there and presented for you. As opposed to AEW, where its matches, matches, MATCHES, and you have to watch all of these MATCHES, but make sure you watch this match before you see this match because you won’t be able to understand the context of the MATCH. Sometimes I just don’t want to watch all those matches! Sometimes I wanna get the gist of it, see some fun guys do some fun stuff—play the hits, have some fun, get on out of there.

LP: AEW makes you do homework.

MF: It’s completely like the MCU now.

PZ: Even back when it was just DYNAMITE, all you had to watch was DYNAMITE, and you got it! Now, with the way they present their content, it is so much more involved. It requires a bit more loyalty.

MF: If you want drop-in, drop-out wrestling, watch the Friday night CMLL show!

PZ: Is there any other wrestling we’re excited for this weekend?

MF: I’m looking forward to Dragon Lee and Rey vs. Dom and Santos Escobar. I like that there’s a multi-generational lucha tag match on the show. Makes it worthwhile.

LP: I’m really excited for the Kaiju Big Battel 30th anniversary show.

PZ: There is a Gringo Loco match at Spring Break that has had several crazy replacements. First he was going to face Dralistico, then he was going to face Volador Jr. Now he’s facing Amazing Red.

MF: That work-shoot fight between Nic Nemeth and Speedball Mike Bailey at Bloodsport should be fun.

LP: I’m way more excited for Shayna vs. Masha at Bloodsport than fucking Ziggler.

PZ: Dolph Ziggler in a work-shoot match is really all you need to know about the state of pro wrestling right now.

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