Cody Rhodes, Sami Zayn Proving WWE Can Still Create Major Stars

WWE, for the better part of the past decade, has struggled in its attempts to create babyface mega-stars. Just ask Roman Reigns.

But times are changing, and for the first time in what feels like forever, the No. 1 pro wrestling company in the world has mutliple red hot fan favorites who are changing the game. The two most obvious, of course, are Sami Zayn and Cody Rhodes, the former of which has spent most of his career wallowing away in the midcard and the latter of which hasn’t even been back in WWE for a full year and was injured for most of it.

There is something to be said, however, about the tremendous job WWE—under the guidance of Triple H—has done with its protagonists. Not just Zayn and Rhodes, but also Bianca Belair, Sheamus, Drew McIntyre, Becky Lynch and a slew of other stars who have given WWE a boatload of likable babyfaces to keep its upper midcard and main event scenes fresh and exciting.

Zayn and Rhodes, who have emerged as huge merchandise sellers for WWE, have become massive stars in such a short span because of something that was largely missing from WWE in the now-gone Vince McMahon era: Quality storytelling.

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There’s a reason why Erik Beaston of Bleacher Report just ranked Zayn’s storyline with The Bloodline, which was originally meant to be a short-term thing, as the greatest storyline in WWE history. Given the length of this narrative, the countless layers to it and the way it’s elevated Zayn, Roman Reigns and the Usos, it’s hard to disagree with that assessment, just as it’s impossible deny what this has done to catapult Zayn to superstar status.

Zayn is now the most popular star in pro wrestling, and Rhodes is right there with him. That was evidenced perfectly on this week’s edition of Monday Night Raw when the two stars had a masterfully crafted promo segment that somehow turned both men into even bigger babyfaces. In an era in which top babyfaces—such as the Reigns of a few years ago—find it extremely difficult to get and stay over, Rhodes and Zayn are having no such difficulties. In fact, they’re making it look relatively easy.

What has resulted is two stars who are not only delivering riveting television on a weekly basis but a star in Rhodes who is proving to be a major live event draw and a beloved babyface in Zayn whose enthralling main event segment at last month’s Royal Rumble pay-per-view quickly amassed more than 20 million views at a time when SmackDown viewership is soaring, thanks largely to the incredible angle involving Zayn and The Bloodline.

It can’t—and shouldn’t—be taken for granted just how impressive this is. For much of the past decade in the post John Cena-era, it’s been a common complaint among fans that WWE “can’t create new stars,” particularly when it comes to fan favorites. For the most part, that has been true, but Triple H’s laser focus on long-term storytelling is ensuring that this is no longer the case.

There are, quite clearly, so many stars who are becoming household names, like Belair and her real-life husband Montez Ford, who are getting their own reality show on Hulu. Lynch, Seth Rollins and Rhea Ripley are other names who continue to make waves as well, and there’s even reason to be optimistic about up-and-coming heels like Austin Theory, who has all the potential in the world to become WWE’s next breakout star.

Look, no one should pretend that WWE is perfect. There’s still a lot of work to be done, particularly in the women’s division, which has been largely neglected outside of a few select names despite being deeper than it’s ever been. The tag team division, of course, still has its ups-and-downs outside of the Usos.

But strides are clearly being made where it matters most: In the singles scene, which is what typically creates the Hulk Hogans, Steve Austins and John Cenas of the world.

With Rhodes and Zayn shouldering the load, WWE is taking a page out of its old playbook and realizing that individual stars can still carry the load even though its the brand as a whole that sells. When you closely examine Smackdown viewership, you’ll see a consistent elevation that has resulted from names like Reigns and Zayn bucking the years-long trend of a star or two in particular being unable to make a mark difference in fan interest.

John Cena has long been able to do that, and if the recent success of Rhodes, Zayn and Reigns have shown anything, it’s that individual stars—when booked right—can create magic, and perhaps more importantly for WWE, they can create bona fide stars who will elevate the company to new heights in 2023 and beyond.