BETRAYAL of the Tribe: Or How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Build to WrestleMania 39
The Pro Wrestling Musings site is a lot of things: a place to talk about unique perspectives on our shared hobby of pro wrestling fandom, a place to discuss pro wrestling in a more quantified way... But one thing it's never been is a place with a lot of coverage of the long-dominant wrestling promotion, WWE. It's no secret that the reason behind that is that the contributors here are for the most part not really fans of WWE for varying reasons. Many would jump to the conclusion that this is purely tribalism: LOVE AEW, HATE WWE!
In the mud
Personally, I have always tried to take stands against tribalism as a fan: Let people enjoy what they enjoy; if a show isn't for you, that's fine; neither hatewatching nor parroting criticisms of a show you've stopped watching are worth anybody's time. I decided over three years ago that WWE programming was not for me, purely aesthetically, and have almost never watched it since then. But if that makes me part of an Anti-WWE Tribe, then, for the past couple months, I have been something of a double agent, a turncoat, even a traitor—thus the title of this piece!
I definitely would dispute any assertion that this is based on mindlessly following any promotion-jumping talent: when I stopped watching WWE, they had Daniel Bryan Danielson on their roster, and I like his work specifically a LOT more than any of the AEW originals. But I'll admit, the very different reaction and trajectory Cody seemed to have upon his return to the WWE, compared to the latter days of his AEW run, made me curious. Why were the WWE crowds eating Cody's act up after the AEW crowds had rejected him so thoroughly?
Remember Armed Anderson?
One theory I remember hearing was that all of the rebellious fans who aren't willing to uncritically accept whatever they are given had already defected to AEW, leaving the WWE crowds populated by easily-led sheep. I have trouble buying into this theory, partly because I think for the most part people are people... and partly because if it WERE true, I have zero doubt that Roman Reigns would be the second coming of Hulkamania, and notorious industry plant Austin Theory wouldn't be getting mocked by John Cena for being unable to inspire fans to care about him one way or another.
The Triumphant Return
But, if not that, what is different between WWE Cody and AEW Cody? Because the presentation hasn't changed: he has the same iconic entrance song, the same hyper-patriotic entrance robes and ring gear, the same aw-shucks smile and crocodile tears. But the fans in WWE didn't just accept Cody, they embraced him, with a fervor a promotion is, normally (we'll come back to this!) lucky to see for their top babyface once in a decade or two. I have recently come to some conclusions about this question...
The idea that upstarts in AEW were being "let" to beat Cody long before they should have is a laughably self-serving rewriting of history—Cody in AEW lost very rarely. But Cody has landed very near to the truth in spite of himself. The issue with Cody in AEW was never how often he lost or who he lost to, but the pupose he had for trying to win. Brian Danielson famously says "if you fight for your dreams, your dreams will fight for you." But once Cody lost his only AEW World championship match, and enacted the self-imposed stipulation to never again challenge for the World title, he was no longer fighting for anything, but only fighting as a spoiler. People will say that stipulation never made sense, but it was logical, in it's way: Cody was rightly concerned about creating the perception that he had invented a promotion for the sole purpose of being the champion of it. And if Cody's heart had been in playing the gatekeeper for AEW, he could have been fantastic in that role. But Cody wanted the role of the beloved hero of the people—and he has all of the chops to pull that off! But with no dreams to fight toward, he couldn't engage the fans in his fight, even with all his chops, and all his attempts to win the fans back to his side simply came across as more and more desperate.
...If you weeeell...
In WWE, contrariwise, Cody had no ceiling, and, in spite of everything, he was surrounded by an aura of destiny. By "everything," I mean that he was coming into WWE, a promotion not known for:
allowing anybody less physically imposing than their archetypal champions such as Hogan, Cena, or Reigns to have center stage and be the man with the ball
treating former competitors with respect—see Cody's dad's run in the then-WWF where he was put in ridiculous polka dots!
going with the flow of something organic that the fans maybe love a little more than the promotion had originally planned (we'll come back to this, as well!)
That last one is a bit hypothetical—it is quite possibly that the WWE planned from the start for Cody Rhodes to be the next face of the company... but the first two factors indicate some of the reasons for that to seem a bit surprising, if so!
Damn. Seth was an Asshole for wearing THOSE tights...
After earning a lot of repect for a gutsy performance working a brutal Hell in a Cell match with a grisly-looking massive bruise from a torn pectoral muscle, Cody Rhodes needed surgery and several months away for recovery. It's a credit to the perception of momentum he had already accrued that almost nobody expected that time away to significantly effect his Wrestlemania destiny: to go into the biggest and grandest wrestling show of the year as the chosen champion to slay the dragon that had been terrorizing the WWE landscape and hoarding all of its gold for years at this point—the six-headed beast known as the Bloodline!
One of these is not like the others
With the exception of one (dramatically perfect) weakness, the Bloodline is the perfectly-built machine of an antagonist faction, with each player knowing their role and fitting that role to perfection, and each role built to fit with the others and make them all work together as a unit. We have:
The Brains—the faction has their schemes, plots, and general chicanery covered by the man widely acknowledged as one of the greatest managers of all time, Paul Heyman
The Brawn—the little brother of the group, Solo Sikoa, rather than being treated as the roookie or sidekick, is the stone killer, and he has the dead-eyed glare to make you believe it.
The Leader—Roman Reigns, the man the promotion had tried to fit into the role of blue-chipper hero for years, finally easing into a role that better suits him: a ruthless and stoic gang paterfamilias.
The Soldier—Jimmy Uso holds the thankless role of the perfectly loyal foot soldier, a trait that might be dramatically uninteresting, but for how it ties in with keeping his twin in line!
The Lancer—Jey Uso is the doubter for good and for ill. His doubts let him see things from a different perspective that can help the group, but he also doubts Roman's leadership and his needless cruelty. However, his worries for his twin brother keep him from going entirely rogue.
With these five members, you have a perfect evil twist on the Five-Man-Band of trope theory, with the Soldier role replacing the usual fifth role, by using Jimmy's ideal loyalty to counterbalance Jey's doubt and rebellious streak. Normally, in a Five-Man-Band hero group, the role of mediating the differences between the Leader and Lancer would fall to "the Heart," the emotional core of the group who perhaps represents their ideals. But a villain group like the Bloodline is a stoic, armored hydra, and the last thing it needs is a still-beating and bleeding heart to wear on its sleeve! And thus, along comes our Sixth Ranger, Sami Zayn...
He's just that damn genuine
The Heart—Sami Zayn is a jangling, exposed nerve of a man, a bottomless pit of need for validation, which at first ties him to the group (and to the ultimate source of validation in Roman Reigns,) even tighter than any of the others. But his pathetic Daffy-Duck antics ultimately make him relatable as well, and hiding just under that grasping surface is a deep genuineness and kindness that can't possibly be denied forever.
A great video by Red of OSP on the role of the Heart in a 5MB
The faction member who can't stomach the villainy anymore and takes down the bad-guys from the inside has been a classic trope in pro wrestling at least since the fondly-remembered slow-burn face turn of Batista on the Evolution faction some 20 years ago. The Bloodline had already played that story mainly straight, except with the antagonist winning in the end, when Jey fell back in line after losing an "I Quit" match to Roman. But skinny, ginger Sami Zayn has to be the most unlikely "Batista" ever. And the fans embraced him all the more for it, roaring and chanting for him, even as, Hamlet-like, he equivocated for weeks over which course of action to take.
If you'll remember earlier in this piece there were a couple of points I said we'd get back to? One was that a promotion can consider itself lucky to have one top-level babyface who the fans simply embrace and take to heart as their own every couple of decades. And the other was that WWE is not known for pivoting smoothly if the audience happens to decide to love somebody they hadn't intended them to.
An Embarrassment of Riches
With Cody Rhodes's childhood dream and Sami Zayn's rebellion coming to a head at about the same time, WWE had an enviable problem. Having two heroes that the audience desperately wants to see take down the bad guy is amazing and great, but also a problem, as only one would actually get to take the singular World title away from Reigns. Cody Rhodes won the annual 30-man Royal Rumble match to determine the Contender for the World title at WrestleMania. Later that night, the other shoe finally dropped when Sami refused to continue beating his long-term frenemy Kevin Owens while he was down, setting up his match with Roman for the last big show of the year before WrestleMania, which just so happened to be in Sami's hometown of Montreal!
You handed him the chair, Roman!
Many expected, with his destiny in conflict with the beloved Sami's, the fans would turn on Cody, but in spite of it all, they continued to love and cheer both men. One bullet dodged, but the problem remained. Many possible solutions were theorized about:
Split the World title back up into one Raw and one Smackdown championship to be exclusive to each weekly show, and have Roman defend one against Sami and the other against Cody, possibly on nights one and two of WrestleMania
Sami beats Roman in Montreal and so faces Cody in the WrestleMania main event in a scientific classic
Roman beats Sami in his Hometown and moves on to the challenge of Cody. Meanwhile, Sami still wants to defeat the evil of the Bloodline and free his friend Jey from Roman's influence, but that doesn't work out, but reuniting with Kevin Owens does, leading to a Tag-Team championship match between the Usos and the Kevin & Sami team at Wrestlemania
Though the details were fuzzy, the third option seemed likeliest and simplest, and, as you probably are aware, that's the route they went with. But despite the plusses, that direction has some pretty big minuses as well, which led to some fans opting out of their investment in the story. I was uncertain at first, myself, but as Sami's estrangement from Jey and reconciliation with Kevin played out, I came around.
With apologies to anyone I may be straw-manning by paraphrasing their arguments: the case against that third route was "if you were watching a show, and the guy you've come to root for and engage with emotionally fails to beat the bad guy, and in the climax a different good guy who was gone for months suddenly comes in and takes out the bad guy, while our hero mops up with some henchman, wouldn't that be an awful story?"
I get the sentiment: it seems wrong not to reward the complex and engaging work that Sami has been doing with more than a supporting role, while Cody Rhodes, with his much simpler and fundamentally less-altruistic motivation, (Cody wants to fulfill a childhood dream and win the World Championship, the vanquishing of any evil is a happy accident!) is rewarded with the climactic victory.
But Jey Uso isn't just a faceless henchman, and Sami's story has never fundamentally been about achieving glory or vanquishing villains, it's been about reconciliation and healing. One of the big unknowns of "Route 3" was "why would Kevin Owens reconcile with Sami, when he's said for weeks that he isn't interested?" The resolution of that question was one of the best moments to come out of this whole story:
(By the way, for more background on the incredible deep lore of the Sami/Kevin relationship, I highly recommend Mith's amazing series of essays on the topic on Substack. In fact, if you've gotten this far in this essay, I'd call it required reading! Go, read them now! I'll wait!)
Now that you know how deep the brotherhood in shed blood between these two men has been, I hope that gives some context to this twist: that the obstacle to Kevin accepting Sami's overtures all along was that he was only proposing a pragmatic alliance, and not an actual reconciliation—not because Sami didn't WANT a reconciliation, but that he didn't dare to hope that far.
A Long Awaited Reconciliation
Meanwhile, Jey is motivated by the same thing as always—he's taking the side he knows is in the wrong, because it's the only way he knows to be there for his twin, Jimmy. The Tag Team titles have always been seen as a far lesser prize than the Singles Men's World Championship, but Sami and Kevin have taken great pride in being the greatest tag team, going back over a decade...
...and bringing tag-team wrestling to an unforeseen prominence by making it the centerpiece of the best story of WrestleMania is, in many ways, a more fitting prize than defeating Roman Reigns. (Not to say: seeing Cody do just that should also be a lot of fun!)
You may note that I have spilled a lot of ink ostensibly to discuss the build to WrestleMania 39, but I've only ended up talking about one storyline leading into two matches. That's a pretty small proportion of a sprawling show taking place over the course of the next two nights! But sorry to say, for me this is a two-match show. Other matches will almost certainly also be quite good, but only these two have engaged my imagination and emotions. But still, that's a heck of a turnaround from the zero-WWE diet I'd been on for a couple years before the last couple months.
If you are an AEW fan like me, this may be the WWE show to check out, to take the temperature if the show is any more worth your time than when you left. Everybody's mileage varies, but I would make the case that they've done a genuinely excellent job of building to this climactic moment!