What is Next for Cody Rhodes after Backlash?

Cody Rhodes defended his WWE Championship against AJ Styles in a stellar match in Lyon, France. AJ was a great challenger for the one-off match, but what is next for Cody Rhodes after Backlash? His options vary, and all come with positives and negatives. The contender WWE chooses will depend on the direction of the product for the next several months.
Backlash France
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Cody Rhodes defended his WWE Championship in a phenomenal (la la la la la) title match with AJ Styles. With minimal build, though, AJ is not a long-term foil, so what is next for Cody Rhodes after Backlash? Putting on fantastic matches that don't matter isn't ideal, but that is all WWE has on Smackdown for Rhodes at the moment. Even as the crowds go wild for him like they did in Lyon, assuming another crowd can match that energy, ratings will suffer if the main character of a new era doesn't have anything to do. He is not Roman Reigns, so keeping him away and letting the heels work out who is next up is also not a great option. In scouring the landscape of Smackdown, some feel like they could be long-term rivals, others less so. There are highlights and drawbacks to the challengers for a match with Cody Rhodes for his kingdom in the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia. 

Randy Orton

Randy Orton is the sentimental favorite, meaning that the loudest reaches of the internet have declared him the only real option. In fact, the vocal internet contingent against Cody winning the title often cited that as a reason for Cody not winning at WrestleMania 40. That was probably a lousy take to have, given the success of WrestleMania 40 for everyone involved.

However, Randy Orton does come with a lot of positives as Cody's next opponent. First, though, the reasons why it can't be Randy. Orton is busy teaming with Kevin Owens against the Bloodline, and he is not a heel at this moment. Face vs. Face is never as good as people want, especially not for a longer story in which Orton vs. Rhodes would almost certainly end up being. 

If WWE ignores that, Orton and Rhodes have a well-documented history. WWE tried hard to create lore out of absence in Styles vs. Rhodes. They would have no such issue here. There are obvious similarities between Rhodes and Orton; Orton helped launch Cody's career just as much as Dusty Rhodes did (in storyline). Orton and Rhodes are also a dream match, partly because of that history and partly due to a similarity in style and ring psychology.

The last and most significant reason is that he is the most credible challenger on Smackdown right now. A 14-time former champion is always a threat to win the title. Because so many fans are also calling for this match, saying it is the closest replacement available for The Bloodline saga in the main event, it is possible WWE will adjust to make this work. 

Austin Theory

If WWE needs current heels for Cody to feud with, the options are less prominent than those of a future Hall of Famer. A Rhodes program with Smackdown's current crop of bad guys will almost certainly involve working with younger talent with little main-event exposure. One of the few that has, ever so briefly, been a genuine threat to win the world title is Austin Theory, who is undergoing a career resurrection thanks to his association with Grayson Waller.

Theory was all but abandoned by fans, especially the more involved contingent. Even a WrestleMania match with John Cena wasn't enough. However, that match was terrible and not all Theory's fault. This time around, it would look very different. Thanks to Waller, Austin Theory has direction and a true character now. 

As a young wrestling fan in the early to mid-2000s, nothing felt like a lock more than the idea that Carlito and Chris Masters, a tag team at the time, would be future world champions. Austin Theory and Grayson Waller feel exactly like that. That doesn't mean either will do it, and it certainly doesn't mean they beat Cody Rhodes. If it was good enough for peak John Cena, Cody Rhodes can make it work. They can hold their own on the microphone against Cody, and Theory vs Rhodes should deliver on the big stage. Waller probably needs extra time to be ready for the spot; losing would hurt him considerably.

Theory has already seen the bottom fall out, so he is, in a weird way, safe in defeat. The only downside is that it takes the tag team titles off the table for the Saudi Arabia shows. Of course, Raw can have a tag match, and The Bloodline likely will, too. So, the only other downside is whether people will care about it. Only WWE can prevent that by giving the feud the time it needs. 

Carmelo Hayes

Carmelo Hayes made his Smackdown debut after a staggering and historic third overall draft pick by calling out Cody and main eventing the draft episode that same Friday night. AJ Styles was already the number one contender, so the match was a one-and-done, but it didn't need to be. On the Smackdown side of things, there are intentionally not many major heel acts. This is likely to give Roman and The Rock a clear runway to the title when they return.

So, in the meantime, Cody's early reign will need to be highlighted with young guys, the new era guys for which Cody is team captain, stepping in for a chance at his spot. Hayes has done it once, meaning there is now some history around which to build a feud. Cody is publicly saying perhaps that Melo isn't ready yet, or Melo disrespecting Dusty as he never had Rhodes as a mentor like so many other NXT alumni. They aren't complex feuds, but they don't need to be. Through the performers' actions, a story can be made compelling, and we have seen that matches would be, too. 

The biggest reason not to book Carmelo Hayes next for Cody Rhodes is that he will lose. Anyone who isn't the Rock will almost certainly lose at this point. Later in the run, fans might buy into a surprise loss and eventual rematch where Cody takes the title back, but they still need to. Giving Hayes a second loss, instead of a victory in something like Money in the Bank or King of The Ring, is risky. It could paint Melo as a loser amongst casual fans unfamiliar with his NXT days, which would be a real shame. It is better to take time with potential stars like that, so if WWE can find another option, then it might be best to use it. 

Decoding what is next for Cody Rhodes heading into King and Queen of The Ring

Ultimately, fans want Randy Orton. He is the only person on the roster who can have a rivalry with Cody that feels anywhere near as big and full of lore and drama as The Bloodline story that ran Smackdown to its best-rated, most compelling episodes in an extremely long time. Picking Orton has drawbacks, but it might be the right call if The Rock and Roman Reigns arrive after SummerSlam. If The Rock and Roman Reigns are slated to challenge Cody in Cleveland, it would be wise to let Orton conclude his feud with The Bloodline first.

In this scenario, WWE would need a month or two of matches. Austin Theory is the most logical choice for the Saudi Arabia show. Having a partner and their undeniable microphone skills could provide the talented Cody Rhodes with a compelling storyline for weekly television. This arrangement benefits both parties, and it's a rare opportunity to build a championship reign without diminishing the opponents. Ultimately, it all hinges on WWE's long-term plans for its fans in 2024.