His father was famously billed as the “son of a plumber,” but current Ring of Honor World Champion Cody Rhodes had different boots to fill as the son of former NWA World Heavyweight Champion and one of the most beloved performers/bookers/trainers in the business, the late Dusty Rhodes.
Cody Rhodes surprised the industry in May 2016 when he requested to be released by World Wrestling Entertainment, where he started his career in 2006. Career paths have tended to strive toward WWE, not away from it. Yet Rhodes’ success over the last year – as a free agent who has worked events for Ring Of Honor, New Japan, Impact Wrestling, as well as independent promotions like Big Time Wrestling (along with the growing popularity of those companies) – indicates the industry is changing.
That means all eyes are on Rhodes – and they should be, considering he’s doing the best work and in the best shape of his career. While he was relegated to low- to mid-card matches in WWE in recent years, now he’s a member of ROH’s hugely popular heel faction The Bullet Club.
In June, he became Ring of Honor World Heavyweight Champion and earlier this month he headlined New Japan Pro-Wrestling’s much-buzzed-about G1 Special in L.A. with IWGP Heavyweight Champion Kazuchika Okada. And on Saturday, he’s back at Ring of Honor’s Queen City Excellence at Concord’s Cabarrus Arena.
Rhodes, who’s billed as The American Nightmare (his dad was the American Dream), spoke to the Observer last week about his family legacy, the changing industry, and working with ROH.
Q. What was it like winning the ROH world title last month, given that it’s the first in your family since your dad’s NWA title in 1986? Were you thinking about that?
A. I tried not to. It’s been 31 years since he won a world title in our industry. That was a statistic that was brought to my attention prior. I try not to make so much of what happens now about him, because he would’ve hated it.
It was everything I expected and it was nothing I expected. We almost went off the air without decisive results. I got my lip busted open in the first 30 seconds of the match. I had to get stitches. There’s a pic of me with my world title on my waist and a doctor with a needle in my arm.
Q. You’re in a unique position where you aren’t tied to any one promotion. Is that where wrestling’s heading?
A. I’m champion, but I’m not exclusive and I have all these dates this weekend and none of those are Ring of Honor shows. Entertainment is changing so much because of the devices we have at our hands. I’m really proud to be on the forefront of that. You don’t have to work one place. It’s our generation. As much as we get knocks against us, we don’t accept non-quality work in our entertainment. We’re no longer force-fed. Wrestling is going through that.
Q. Did you do things to prepare when you left WWE?
A. I was just talking about this and it’s made the difference. When guys leave – whether they decide to leave or they’re forced out – there’s usually this period of time we see them around the world and they can ride that WWE wave and use it, and then it goes away. It loses its luster after a few months. I planned my escape for six months before I left. I loved WWE , but in the end I was unhappy. It was just like planning an escape from a maximum security prison. I’d released a list of potential opponents online so when the 90-day no-compete clause was up, I had matches booked on good faith. I thought about the follow-up.
Q. How are things changing given your example?
A. Guys are betting less on their employers. There’s a lot less fear now – not just because of me, but because the landscape has been changing the whole time. The discussions are more than ever (about), “If I don’t like this, I’m going to stand up for myself, if I feel like this is a detriment to the body of work I have laid out.”
Q. Do you think about how your dad would do things?
A. Essentially, I’m just impersonating my dad in a poor way as far as business is concerned. We were like-minded in terms of promotion, of how we handle ourselves behind the curtain. I’ve more than ever accessed that side of me. It feels like a team full of people, and he’s on it, even though I don’t see him.
Q. Do you have a good luck charm, so to speak?
A. I have this little tiny Dusty Rhodes figure they make in Japan that people always give me in my bag. I set it next to the title and took a picture of it in my bag. That was my big goal in the industry. I wasn’t able to achieve that in his lifetime, but he always believed.
Q. The G1 Special was huge. Did it live up to the hype?
A. It definitely superseded New Japan’s expectations as far as the yearning for their product in the U.S. They weren’t expecting the turnout to be as strong as it was. I want them to hit all these markets – Chicago, Atlanta. It gave them confidence to see where they want to go next. It rattled me a bit because the moment I stepped on the stage, I went from being the hero in Lowell, Massachusetts (where he won the ROH title) to being booed off the stage. I see a guy wearing my shirt flipping me double birds. It rattled me in the best way.
Q. How is it working with ROH?
A. It’s been a love-hate. I love the shows they put on, especially in their efforts for pure wrestling. I think they’ve had trouble with me, because I refuse to become exclusive. There’s a myriad of talent (there). The Young Bucks live is mind-blowing. The Women of Honor. I’m looking forward to the Concord show. Charlotte was the area where Jim Crockett and my dad put their flag in the sand.
Q. Have you enjoyed the independent circuit?
A. I cherry-picked the best of the best. I allowed myself to be available to the unknown. Nine out of 10 times, the unknown have been my favorite experiences – really small cities and towns and places outside the social media bubble. That’s been a challenge. Nine times out of 10, it feels like a political campaign and you’re in the town hall. You see the faces. In WWE, it was the ring, the spotlight, and this large body of people you couldn’t put a face to. It’s been educational to me.
Q. Given what you know now, would you have taken the same career path?
A. I think so. I love the journey my career has taken. I love that I started in Ohio Valley Wrestling and not NXT. OVW is like college. It weeded out those that didn’t like wrestling. I made lifetime friends in WWE. I started long before I was ready to start and grew up on people’s TV sets. I met my wife (Brandi) there and did international press, multiple Wrestlemanias and had wonderful opportunities. I held titles. I give the WWE a hard time on occasion, but the equity they gave me allowed me to go on and do what I’m doing now.
Ring of Honor’s Queen City Excellence
When: 6:45 p.m. Saturday.
Where: Cabarrus Arena, 4751 NC Hwy 49 North, Concord.
Details: 800-745-3000; www.ticketmaster.com