After several sleepless nights and bouts of nervous vomiting, All Elite Wrestling superstar and vice president Cody Rhodes is as ready as he’ll ever be for the debut of AEW Dynamite — a weekly live TV show going up against WWE, which has been a monolith in the industry for the better part of two decades.
Rhodes, son of legendary wrestler Dusty Rhodes, learned the business through osmosis. He credits his success as a vice president to the three decades he had learning the business from his father, both as an in-ring performer and an executive. The new promotion isn’t trying to win new fans, but bring people back into the fold.
Rhodes calls them “the returners,” a phrase he borrowed from a fan he met in Chicago. It’s representative of wrestling fans whose interest lapsed after years of dissatisfaction with the sport. He hopes these “returners” will form the foundation of the AEW fanbase based on the promise that the wrestling they once loved would return to TV. AEW’s mission to marry old-school sensibilities with new-school concepts to better represent modern society means offering storytelling that appeals to fans on multiple levels, blurring the line between fiction and reality so fans can get to know wrestlers on a human level.
“It’s a little bit of the buffet,” Rhodes says. “People often give us a hard time and say, ‘There has to be one vision for this. There has to be one.’ No! There’s not one fan in the audience, there’s millions — worldwide.”
The traditional structure of wrestling uses weekly TV programming as advertising for live events, the cash cow of the industry. Instead, Rhodes sees the company’s sole focus being on its weekly TV product, giving them more freedom in storytelling. When paired with a less grueling pay-per-view schedule (four to five events per year vs. WWE’s 12) this means meaningful events like title changes and plot shifts can happen on the weekly show. The aim is long-form storytelling, using a variety of mediums to achieve its goal.
The show will primarily lean on in-ring action in an environment where “wins and losses matter,” Rhodes says. Similar to MMA, there will be an established pecking order, moving away from more haphazard title matches as WWE has grown accustomed to over the years.
AEW fans are also given opportunities to engage with the company’s stars in different ways. Weekly YouTube series Being The Elite is more akin to sketch comedy than traditional wrestling promotion. “[It’s] the absurd. It’s the Deadpool of wrestling,” Rhodes says. AEW’s Road To series (also on YouTube) appeals to a very different kind of fan, using classic territorial-style storytelling to appeal to old-school Southern “wrasslin’” fans, as Rhodes puts it. “It’s what makes this brand function.”
Rhodes emphasizes the common thread in all AEW programming: human connection. He believes mainstream wrestling lost its way and the adherence to character over humanity caused fans to become less invested in the product. Rather than asking fans to buy into a company-produced vision of a superstar, AEW is giving its talent room to express themselves. There’s also a call to action with AEW voraciously wanting its fanbase to tell them what they like and what they don’t. This extends into representation, which AEW sees as vitally important to its success. The goal isn’t to check boxes on inclusivity and diversity, but produce a show that feels real.
“We wanted to put a product out that’s congruent with today’s society and a snapshot of America and the world actually looks like,” Rhodes says. “We’re doing a good job, but that work is never finished.”
This desire to cater to many different themes at once is the reason the company can craft gritty old-school storylines while also creating characters like Luchasaurus — a masked man whose canon in the company is one of being a 65 million-year-old wrestling dinosaur. The serious and absurd blend in a way that might not work for everyone, but allows fans to pick and choose what they like.
When asked what AEW’s biggest strength is, Rhodes’ simple answer is an outstanding in-ring product. He doesn’t hesitate to make a broader point directly aimed at their competition.
“Our biggest strength is all the things that we have been talking about, and complaining about, for 20-something years.”
It’s an approach that’s gotten attention. WWE’s first move when AEW announced the Wednesday night show was to secure a new TV deal for NXT, its developmental brand, to air at the same time on USA Network. It prompted AEW executive and wrestler Kenny Omega to publicly brush off NXT in saying AEW would showcase “real superstars, not developmental stars.”
Rhodes downplayed Omega’s remarks, saying he has “nothing but good things” to say about the developmental brand.
That said, he won’t be watching to see what NXT does during AEW’s first broadcast.
“Their move to USA [...] was a reactionary move towards us. So they can watch us.”