AJ Styles vs. Cody Rhodes (WWE Backlash) Match Review

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Occasionally, you just have a feeling. Granted, it didn’t require naive optimism to be hopeful for the first-time matchup between AJ Styles and Cody Rhodes, but I was particularly bullish about this scenario. It had been a thin few years for Styles, as uninspired creative combined with frankly overdue injuries for some of his weakest campaigns. Speaking of such, this would somehow only be Styles’ seventh PPV singles match since the famed Boneyard brawl with The Undertaker.

One of those bouts would be interrupted by The Miz, while the others were generally categorised as “solid,” seldom climbing beyond that. On paper at least, this occasion felt different though, armed with a palpable main event gravity. After finally finishing his story at WrestleMania, this would be Rhodes’ first televised title defence, closing an electric show in Lyon, France. Tasked with following Reigns’ marathon reign, Rhodes had a statement to make and more importantly, a style to shape.

This had to be different, a return to the timeless basics of main event wrestling. The Bloodline formula produced some undeniable triumphs across Reigns’ near four year dynasty, but there was minimal value in Rhodes playing a mere cover of those tunes. Instead, this reign must be defined by his own bell-to-bell blueprint, resetting these title tilts to something more traditional, with competition as the centrepiece. With that in mind, Styles felt like the perfect first opponent.

It hadn’t emerged out of nowhere either, with Styles showing promising form since returning to the ring in December. Even with an almost jarring increase in muscle mass, Styles has seemed noticeably sharper, attacking each exchange with that familiar ferocity. It’s a shift that’s been reflected by his character too, portraying a heel that’s desperately fighting against father time. Styles is grappling with the inevitable, struggling mightily to maximise this final chapter of his career.

In this particular build, that was especially interesting, as Styles was far from a moustache twirling villain. Flashes of those extremes were left opposite LA Knight, as Styles’ presentation was much more grounded on the road to Backlash. That allowed he and Rhodes to paint a picture before the first bell, taking immediate steps towards the latter’s ideal headline house style. As a result, their pre-match interactions were almost limited, forced to colour inside the lines.

Fortunately, that wouldn’t matter much in Lyon, though their go-home segment packed a punch regardless. Either way, this crowd was going to be extraordinary, just as it had been for the night’s undercard. Rhodes is wrestling’s biggest star right now and while the result was never in doubt, this was the perfect setting to fully unlock this pairing. Styles’ legend status is most apparent here, being greeted by a crowd that’s hardly ever seen him live.

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In some ways though, Lyon’s excitement provides a challenge or two. They are going to make noise regardless, the key is directing them in a fashion that marries with the match itself. For almost the entirety of this main event, they manage that delicate balance with ease. Other than maybe one burst in the middle, they are hardly ever overwhelmed by the atmosphere, taking the people on a ride rather than being swept up in their enthusiasm.

The pace is pivotal in that regard, instantly finding that fabulous main event cadence. Even as they take their time early, it’s never without intensity, instead sporting a tension befitting the occasion. Each lockup is a duel of its own, rich with bravado and ego. There’s a caution underneath the aggression too, like a prizefighter that’s hesitant to launch a knockout blow in the opening round. It creates a sense of danger, even as they scramble on the mat.

It’s a combination of aggression and ego that escalates things though, with Rhodes’ return slap sparking a firefight. From there, they find a seamless seesaw rhythm, trading momentum shifts throughout. While this matchup has a clear babyface – heel dynamic, the crowd is more split than that and they wrestle accordingly, working with a touch more balance than they may have stateside. Styles still takes a brief control segment or two, but they’re quickly erased by the more explosive encounters.

Admittedly, that does impact the match’s narrative at times, which isn’t crystal clear. Styles flirts with targeting both the shoulder and back, neither of which fully stick. Rhodes’ selling is spotty in that sense, but they don’t go far enough in any single direction to make it overly jarring. In addition, there are some wonderful touches within this extended shootout, adding immense colour and detail to the consistent physicality.

Early on, Rhodes runs a Styles play, having success with the challenger’s famed dropkick sequence. In response, Styles simplifies things, ignoring his usual setup and instead launching into a heavy dropkick of his own. It’s a small moment in the match’s opening act, but does so much for Styles’ current trajectory, adjusting to his age by emphasising power over speed. In reality though, it doesn’t seem like he’s sacrificing much in that category either, wrestling like a man possessed.

This is very much the AJ Styles show, which I don’t mean as a negative reflection of Rhodes’ own performance. Cody is very good here, also providing the match with a gravity and spectacle that simply wouldn’t exist without his presence. This match is Styles’ domain though, the kind of main event that made him king a decade ago. As a result, this quickly becomes an encapsulation of Styles’ greatness, steadily collecting examples of his many strengths.

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Just one month shy of his 47th birthday, Styles’ every step arrives with a snap, pairing effortless timing with bruising velocity. There’s such spite to his work, using this persona to be even more intense, yet still flying high for that gorgeous 450 splash. Styles remains a league leader in both bumping and selling too, producing perfection in two distinct skill-sets that feel increasingly distant. As they get more expansive, Styles is only further at home, offensively thriving within the epic nature of their closing stretch.

Rhodes is more comfortable in the first half, climbing high with sharp fundamentals before taking bigger swings late. He can be prone to reaching a little further than necessary when chasing those modern thrills, but Styles’ timing elevates his offence where necessary. Again, this is a very strong first outing for Rhodes as champion, making a beautiful comeback along the way, culminating with his snappy powerslam. Moreover, those fundamentals are a highlight throughout, including some terrific punches late.

They frequently trade right hands in fact, which is incredibly refreshing considering the current landscape. The Burning Hammer spot is one of the match’s aforementioned big swings, with Rhodes kicking out at 1. Context is everything and so, the kickout itself didn’t bother me, though I did struggle with just how rapidly the tide turned from there. Speaking of such, the bout’s final exchange isn’t quite as sharp as what preceded it, but they’re too close to home to fall short of the finish line.

 At just over 27 minutes, this is an ambitious main event that has a clear destination in mind. The foundations are timeless, classical main event building blocks that should define Rhodes’ reign as WWE Champion. With those established though, they reach for something more glossy, chasing and ultimately catching a genuine epic. In history, this’ll hopefully signal Rhodes’ first step in reshaping WWE’s main event style but for now, it’s place in Styles’ story feels like the headline.

This match was a reminder, finally returning the spotlight to a generational great. For the first half of Styles’ WWE stint, he was the constant highlight of an incredibly frustrating promotion. He’d been in that position before, famously dragging TNA up a hill that they often refused to climb. Weirdly though, WWE’s recent rebuild has coincided with Styles’ quietest career chapters yet, slowly fading him into the background of this increasing boom.

Backlash reiterated that those prior efforts were far more than the best of a bad bunch however, restating Styles’ substantial case an all-time great. Form is temporary, class is permanent and at 46 years old, in a WWE that’s transformed around him, AJ Styles is still capable of being the best wrestler on a triumphant PPV night. Even in 2024, “Phenomenal” remains wrestling’s most apt nickname.

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