As 2021 draws to a close, AEW World Champion “Hangman” Adam Page sits firmly atop the pack as the most-beloved character on the roster. Alternatively, “The American Nightmare” Cody Rhodes somehow finds himself among the most hated. It’s an odd sentence to type when you think back to the days before AEW was formed.
I remember the infamous list Cody shared on social media where he spelled out all the talent he was excited to work with now that he was a free agent (a list, by the way, which he fulfilled). I remember Cody confidently taking Dave Meltzer up on his doubt of a non-WWE product being able to sell-out a 10,000-seat arena (and winning). I remember Cody making a new name for himself by sheer willpower and effort, performing in front of smaller crowds than he was used to but still laying it all out as if it were Madison Square Garden. Hell, I attended an ROH show at the War Memorial in Ft. Lauderdale where Cody was slammed onto a bed of thumbtacks in front of maybe 1,000 people and still stuck around to take pictures with everyone after the show. In that era, Cody was the definition of grassroots marketing, and it was working.
Pre-AEW, I was admittedly not as familiar with Adam Page. He came into AEW with a lot of fanfare however and was instantly catapulted to the top of the card where he would eventually face defeat at the hands of Chris Jericho in AEW’s first-ever World Championship match. While there was clearly potential there, something wasn’t quite clicking yet for The Hangman and he soon settled into a more one-dimensional midcard role. I remember wondering whether they had given this young star too much too soon and was worried it would be to his detriment. At the same time, Cody was leveling up and positioning himself as the next challenger for Le Champion’s newly won title.
And as memory serves, Cody at this point still had that authentic grassroots support from the audience. Afterall, he had spent the last three years cultivating said support. The content of his promos was something everyone could get behind, his matches were hard-fought and grueling, and he came across as a true star, almost akin to an old-school NWA style babyface. His plan was working, and his character was on fire. Sure, by now he already had the grand elaborate entrance and had started toying with his perceived reputation as the “Triple H of AEW”, but by-and-large he still had the support of most fans.
Then a noticeable shift happened. Whereas Cody’s on-screen presentation became more heavy-handed, the subtleties of Hangman Page’s character started to shine. As each week went by, I (and hundreds of thousands more) started to grow a soft spot for the Anxious Millennial Cowboy. We could all relate to failure, and at times even repeated failure. We could also relate to needing a crutch in the face of failure. Who hasn’t been down and out and lost friends along the way? Adam Page felt like a real person with real-life conflicts (both internally and externally) who was at a crossroads in his life.
On the flip side, disdain for the Cody character was slowly starting to grow. And how could it not? At this point, we had witnessed Cody get smacked in the head with a steel chair by former friend Shawn Spears, betrayed by his other so-called friend MJF, forced to relinquish his opportunity at ever challenging for the World Championship again, sustain 10 barbaric lashes to his back on national television, threaten to retire at least twice, get betrayed (yet again) by a segment of his Nightmare Family, and most recently even put himself through a freaking flaming table. The blatant attempts to garner sympathy were simply too much and it seemingly lost a lot of people along the way. The neck tattoo and divisive “American Dream” promo likely didn’t help either.
And as that shift in the support of Cody’s character was unraveling, the love for Hangman was at its peak. I remember sitting in the audience for Dynamite in the James L Knight Center during the build-up to Full Gear as Adam Page spoke to us about his trials and tribulations since 2019. He spoke of his newborn son and his journey towards redemption against Kenny Omega. And all throughout, there was a silence in the venue that was unlike anything I’d ever experienced before. Silence out of respect for the story he was telling; we were hanging on his every word. And while the content of the promo was reminiscent of Cody promos of the past, it was not as unabashedly self-serving. Everyone in that arena could relate in some way.
Now personally, I enjoy both performers and find them to be among the best in the industry. I never fast-forward or switch the channel when either are on my screen, so they are each doing something right in their own way. But it has been fascinating to watch two “good guy” character arcs veer so wildly in different directions, all without a heel turn. At the end of the day, this is the type of stuff that makes me a wrestling fan, and I look forward to what’s next.