How Cody And Dustin Rhodes Defied Expectations At AEW's Debut
AEW's first night gave the world an instant classic
When you watch excess hours of professional wrestling year after year, you tend to get a little jaded.
The tropes and patterns grow all too familiar, and nothing really surprises you any more. The only thing that can move you sometimes is not having your expectations met.
Usually, that equates to a negative, particularly when it comes to match quality.
When you theoretically hear that Kenny Omega is gonna face Seth Rollins, or Will Ospreay's taking on Rey Fenix, you immediately set the minimum acceptable "star rating" in your mind. If you're expecting, "four and three quarters, at least", and Omega and Rollins "disappoint" with "merely four and a quarter", it might ruin your night (though I'd really, really hope not).
Sometimes, though, your expectations get exceeded.
A lot of expectations were exceeded at the very first AEW Double or Nothing, thanks to one match in particular.
Right around this time two years ago, an audience craving an alternative to a predominantly-WWE landscape in American wrestling tuned in to the maiden showcase of All Elite Wrestling. In fact, the pay-per-view garnered the most buys for a non-WWE American wrestling pay-per-view in 19 years.
The advertised card proved to be quite enticing. A main event pitting Chris Jericho against Kenny Omega had fans buzzing (especially those that witnessed their wild Wrestling Kingdom battle). The Young Bucks vs. The Lucha Bros was another delectable attraction, based on the collective athletic talents and showmanship of the four involved.
That veritable double main event was predicated on two things: the name value of the performers (Chris Jericho's mainstream fame and The Elite's growing cult following, largely), and the expectations for match quality. If you buy into "star ratings", you'd have probably wagered that the two matches would range somewhere between "four" and "four-and-three-quarter" stars on paper, given what you knew about the men involved.
Ultimately, both matches largely met high expectations.
But it was another showdown on the card that came away as consensus "Match of the Night".
Five weeks out from the pay-per-view, it was revealed who foundational star Cody Rhodes would wrestle at Double or Nothing: brother Dustin Rhodes, who had just recently gained his freedom from WWE.
To many, Cody vs. Dustin was an interesting novelty, one that picked up a bit of steam after Dustin's reveal video (and the "sibling rivalry" story that Dustin managed to weave in just a few minutes therein).
But to most, the battle of the brothers Rhodes wasn't going to hold a candle to those other advertised bouts.
For one thing, this was a feud that we'd already seen four years earlier, though it was executed rather poorly then. The dissolution of Goldust and Stardust in 2015 led to a thoroughly-forgettable match at that year's WWE Fastlane, a nine-minute bout with a crummy ending. Plans to extend the feud into WrestleMania 31 were scrapped, and the feud abruptly ended. Going forward, neither man really had any momentum as a serious player in WWE.
In addition to that past, another negating factor was the perception of each man in the present.
Dustin had just passed his fiftieth birthday. While age does seem to be "just a number" more and more in this modern business, it's not like the former Goldust had a recent track record of in-ring brilliance. In fact, Dustin hadn't wrestled since the previous June, and had been recovering from double knee surgery in the ten month lurch.
Dustin may have been comparably aged with headliner Jericho, but Jericho's recent New Japan resume (particularly the matches with Omega and Tetsuya Naito) was solid proof that the former Y2J could still go between the ropes. Meanwhile, Dustin hadn't been a featured attraction for many years (thus he hadn't been in a position to deliver at that level), so he was something of a question mark in the spring of 2019.
Then you have Cody.
Cody certainly had greater momentum than his older brother by this stage of his career, and had carved a very strong image for himself in New Japan and ROH (not to mention the NWA title matches with Nick Aldis the prior year).
Nonetheless, the perception that he was "three-star Cody" (in spite of his largely-impressive match list over the previous two or three years) continued to rear itself. For some reason, Cody couldn't shake some of that negativity from fans and critics that continued to deem him "overrated" and/or "over-pushed."
But the criticism wasn't all "he's the worst" - some just continued to see Cody as the mid-level wrestler that WWE pushed him as, instead of the potential main eventer that he endeavoured to be outside of Federation auspices.
To put it mildly, it was hard to find general consensus on Cody. There were fans who greatly enjoyed his post-WWE run, just as there were fans that just didn't (or wouldn't) see it the same way.
Cody vs. Dustin at Double or Nothing in Las Vegas was a curiosity, but for largely the listed reasons (plus with consideration to the contemporary value of the other advertised matches), it was hardly the driving selling point.
Seven matches deep into Double or Nothing, we finally got the brother battle, and the pressure was high. For Dustin, it was his first high-profile match in years, and his first overall match in 11 months. For Cody, it was a chance to prove himself to the largest American audience he'd personally had in over three years.
Even before the bell sounded, Cody ensured the match's place in history during his entrance. Taking hold of a sledgehammer, Cody smashed a familiar-looking tHHHrone that sat upon the entrance stage, while the crowd of 11,000 egged him on. Whether he was face or heel for the match, Cody's act demonstrated which organization was the perceived babyface in the eyes of the Vegas revelers.
That explicit shot gave way to an emotional tug, as Cody and Dustin soon soaked in chants of "Dusty" from the crowd, legitimately moved to tears. Before they'd even locked up, this match was already better than that anodyne Goldust/Stardust match from four years earlier.
The match began with plenty of expert athletics and showmanship (including an apron senton from a man half a century old), but the match isn't exactly remembered for being a peppy spotfest.
No, it entered into wrestling mythos the moment Dustin began hemorrhaging blood from his head at an alarming pace. The reversal of a Cody figure-four gave us an Austin-esque shot of pained Dustin, looking like he'd been bobbing for apples in a pool of ketchup.
The crowd were loudly and firmly behind Dustin during his valiant comeback, in what had become a titanic main event struggle. A parade of near-falls kicked off, with Dustin holding on for as long as he could before finally succumbing after a Cross Rhodes, a vertebreaker, and then another Cross Rhodes.
What was hailed an instant classic received further acclaim for its final scene. When the startlingly-ageless Dustin went into the motions of an old gunslinger signaling his farewell, the once-angsty Cody (almost wearing as much of Dustin's blood as Dustin was) stopped his sibling rival. Cody noted he had a future match with the Bucks, and was going to need a tag partner.
Unable to fight back a flood of emotion, Cody said he didn't need a partner - he needed his older brother.
The Rhodes' tearful embrace nearly brought the house down.
The blood-soaked, highly-emotional roller coaster drew near-unanimous raves from all corners of the wrestling world. For a multitude of reasons, Dustin called the match the, "highlight of [his] career."
Readers of The Wrestling Observer Newsletter overwhelmingly picked Cody vs. Dustin as Match of the Night. Dave Meltzer concurred, rating it highest at a perfect five stars.
If you put any stock into Meltzer's opinions, know that Dustin Rhodes will probably go down in history as the only man to be part of a five-star match in both WCW (the 1992 War Games) and AEW.
On a scale of 0 to 10, 410 users of Cagematch.net give the match an average score of 9.32 (86 percent of the votes were either nines or tens). Readers of Pro Wrestling Illustrated voted it the Best Match of 2019.
That's a lot of acclaim for a match that, realistically, sat at third billing on a night of raised expectations.
Indeed, most fans came away from Double or Nothing agreeing that Cody and Dustin Rhodes stole the day. On a show where the Bucks and the Lucha Bros delivered what most figured they would, and where Jericho and Omega were maybe a hair or two below their Wrestle Kingdom epic, Dusty's kids produced the gold standard.
As a wrestling fan in 2019, it was nice to just see something surpass expectations, breaking through that diminished ceiling with flying colors. It was practically a revelation to be given emotional investment in a late-era wrestling match. Thousands of viewers were dragged into the story, hoping for a brilliantly-apt conclusion, while (contradictorily) praying that it wouldn't end.
Two years ago, AEW hit a whopping home run with its first ever event, the inaugural Double or Nothing. Between Cody vs. Dustin, and Jon Moxley's debut at the end, the lesson taken from that night was a simple one: in an ideal world, you don't need to lower your expectations.