(NEXSTAR) — Cody Rhodes, one of the founders of WWE’s top competitor All Elite Wrestling, made a surprise appearance at WrestleMania at AT&T Stadium in Arlington, Texas defeating former world champion Seth Rollins.  The 36-year-old son of legendary wrestler Dusty Rhodes ignited the crowd of more than 70,000 fans during the first of two nights of WrestleMania action.

Rhodes versus Rollins was a story of which athlete could outdo the other. While beating up his opponent throughout the match, Rollins regularly yelled “welcome back” as if to mock Rhodes. It looked as if Rhodes’ return wouldn’t have a happy ending after Rollins powerbombed him against the barricade separating the ringside area from the crowd and then delivered an inverted superplex from the top rode. However, a resilient Rhodes continued to battle back throughout.

In the end, Rhodes hit three of his signature Cross Rhodes maneuvers and a Dusty Rhodes tribute elbow for the victory. Based on the reaction from the crowd, it’ll be viewed as one of the best matches of the night.

WWE CEO Vince McMahon earlier this week told Rollins that he’d hand pick an opponent for him at the year’s biggest show and the opponent wouldn’t be revealed until moments before the match.  Rollins had been teasing possibilities like John Cena, Bill Goldberg, Scott Steiner, and Rob Van Dam on his Twitter account throughout the week.  Most wrestling insiders predicted Rhodes would be the opponent.

“The American Nightmare” last appeared in WWE back in 2016.  He chose to leave the world’s largest sports entertainment company after expressing frustration over how he was being used creatively.  In the years that followed, Rhodes set out his own path becoming one of America’s most popular independent wrestlers before helping launching rival group AEW with Jacksonville Jaguars co-owner Tony Khan.  In AEW, Rhodes both wrestled and served as an Executive Vice President.   He and his wife shocked the wrestling world earlier this year when they announced their departure from the group. 

As soon as that happened, speculation about a return to WWE began.

From son of Dusty to Stardust

Rhodes began his wrestling career in a WWE developmental territory in 2006.  Roughly a year later, he’d make his debut on WWE’s RAW program and begin wrestling against the sport’s biggest stars. 

Rhodes would eventually form a group alongside other wrestlers with famous fathers: Randy Orton and Ted DiBiase.  “Legacy” is where Rhodes experienced the majority of his success in WWE.  Though still young in his career, he appeared set on a path to become one of the company’s top performers.

(L-R) Wrestlers Ted DiBiase, Randy Orton and Cody Rhodes appear during the WWE Monday Night Raw show at the Thomas & Mack Center August 24, 2009 in Las Vegas, Nevada. (Photo by Ethan Miller/Getty Images)

In the years that followed, he never quite broke through the glass ceiling to become a headlining act.  He won the Intercontinental Championship on two occasions and tried a variety of character changes – eventually transforming into Stardust — a character similar to Goldust, who was played by his half-brother Dustin.

While Rhodes fully engrained himself into the colorful comic book character, it wasn’t the long-term direction he wanted for his career.  Shortly after WrestleMania 32, also held at AT&T Stadium, Rhodes asked to be released from his contract.

Changing the wrestling game

After leaving WWE, Rhodes posted to social media a list of what he hoped to accomplish outside of the company.  In the years that followed, he’d fulfill many of those things — wrestling for Ring of Honor, New Japan Pro Wrestling, Impact Wrestling, and numerous other promotions.

He eventually hosted his own pay per view wrestling show with The Young Bucks, Matt and Nick Jackson, in 2018.  “All In” was the largest independent professional wrestling show produced over the last two decades selling more than 10,000 tickets at the Sears Centre right outside Chicago.

The success of the show sparked the launch of All Elite Wrestling months later under Khan.  Rhodes was a top executive as well as one of the featured performers.  The new wrestling promotion found immediate success and eventually signed a television deal with WarnerMedia bringing primetime professional wrestling back to TBS and TNT.

During his time in AEW, Rhodes was the company’s inaugural TNT champion in the ring and led many community-based initiatives outside of it.  He was also featured on the reality show “Rhodes to the Top” and competition series “Go-Big Show.”

Over the last year, Rhodes’ appearances in AEW were less consistent and rumors floated around about a power struggle behind the scenes.  He had been silent about his future following his February 2022 departure from the company. 

Gallery: Cody Rhodes through the years

Other WrestleMania notes

  • YouTube superstar Logan Paul earned a WrestleMania win after his tag team partner The Miz pinned Rey Mysterio to defeat Rey and his son Dominik.  After the victory, The Miz turned on Paul hitting the Skull-Crushing Finale and leaving him laying.
  • Bianca Belair captured the RAW Women’s Championship defeating champ Becky Lynch.
  • WrestleMania is headlined by Sunday night’s showdown pitting WWE champion Brock Lesnar against Universal champion Roman Reigns in a “winner take all” match.
  • On Friday night, wrestling legend The Undertaker was inducted into WWE’s Hall of Fame as part of WrestleMania weekend.  The ceremony took place at the American Airlines Center in Dallas.
  • This year’s WrestleMania takes place both Saturday and Sunday beginning at 8pm ET. It’s available exclusively on Peacock, NBC’s streaming platform.