The Hart family had Bret.
The Guerreros had Eddie. The Maivias had The Rock.
The Bloodline has Roman Reigns.
But there has never been a member of the famed Rhodes family to wear the WWE title.
For Cody Rhodes, his return to WWE marks the time to fulfill that destiny.
“My father Dusty, my brother Dustin, they’re both legends, but they never held the WWE title,” Rhodes says. “Everything I’m doing is very real. This is my path and my burden. Whether or not it is unobtainable, it is mine to seek.”
The 36-year-old Rhodes made his return to WWE last month at WrestleMania 38, a massive moment that nearly outshone the first “Stone Cold” Steve Austin match since WrestleMania 19. Rhodes emerged as the mystery opponent for Seth Rollins, and the crowd exploded with cheers. He returns to WWE a far more polished performer than the one who cut his teeth there in 2006 before departing in ’16.
“I remember Triple H, who is a big part of my career, telling me, ‘Everybody has a role to play,’” Rhodes says, referring to a conversation before the end of that initial run in WWE. “I told him, ‘I want to play a better role.’ I understood what he said, but that wasn’t the role I wanted to play. So I went away and showed that it was possible.”
Six years ago, Rhodes believed he possessed the all-encompassing skills to become a main event player in WWE. Yet that was the belief shared by the power brokers of the company. So Rhodes left, faced a list of opponents that energized the indies, then had runs in New Japan Pro-Wrestling, Ring of Honor and Impact Wrestling before becoming one of the founding fathers of All Elite Wrestling.
Rhodes was never AEW champion, but he helped define the company. He was part of the foundation of the company that was the answer to WWE, one rooted in pro wrestling. And he took great pride in his wrestling—look no further than his final string of matches against Sammy Guevara and Andrade to see the way he added to those AEW cards, in addition to his role as executive vice president. But the stakes have now changed. There is one goal left to conquer, and Rhodes is exactly where he needs to be to conquer it.
“I don’t want my wrestling legacy solely to be that I helped start an alternative wrestling company,” Rhodes says. “I’m really proud of that and I want it to be part of my legacy, but what I’ve always wanted is what I’m after right now. I’m getting a second chance at that, and that is my entire focus.
“I want to do this for my whole family. My wife, my daughter, my sister Teil, my mom. If I can’t hand this title to my dad, it would be wonderful to hand it to my mom.”
Rhodes has continued his spectacular run in the ring during his WWE return, exceeding his already high standard. His match against Rollins will endure as a genuine WrestleMania moment, and there was a captivating bout against Kevin Owens on Raw. There was also the rematch against Rollins at Backlash, which turned out to be an even better performance than WrestleMania.
“I understand that sports entertainment is the proper term in WWE, but Backlash was a wrestling card,” Rhodes says. “Bell-to-bell, there were stories told in the ring and there was competition and there was violence. It just felt different. If me being back helps bring that identity, then good. Because I’m not changing. I’m going to be me.
“When it comes to Seth, I was really satisfied with our two matches. It was pure wrestling. I thought that chapter was closed, but I’m looking forward to what’s next between us. That curb stomp last week on Raw was right on my forehead, so we’re not finished yet.”
The three-hour time slot for Raw leads to a more drawn-out show on a weekly basis, yet Rhodes is undeterred by the challenge of carrying the show. Whether it is WWE, AEW, or the indies, Rhodes feels at home in a wrestling ring.
His heart and passion for pro wrestling are undeniable. Whether that means crashing through a burning table or spending extra time after a show with fans, Rhodes is ready to bring a quality to WWE that does not quite subsist without him.
“Think back to when I wrestled Kurt Angle in NEW, and I know you were there,” Rhodes says, referencing a rainy night in Waterbury, Conn., in 2017 when he wrestled Kurt Angle in a steel cage match. “I did a moonsault off the top of a very rickety cage. I treated that like it was WrestleMania.
“That’s what I do and I will always do. I’m not the type that less is more. WWE has accommodated their meet-and-greet schedule because of me. The press conference at WrestleMania. I want that to continue on nights I win and nights I don’t. People are getting everything I have and more. I’m paid pretty damn well. I should deliver.”
Rhodes has invigorated the Raw brand over the past few weeks, where there is a blend of meeting familiar opponents and brand-new ones, like he did last week in his match against Theory.
Theory is a 24-year-old emerging star from McDonough, Ga., only a 30-mile drive from where Rhodes grew up in Atlanta. As the two shared the ring last week on Raw, it was impossible not to notice the glaring similarities.
“Watching him in the ring made me think back to a time when I was really young and full of arrogance and bravado,” Rhodes says. “I also saw a little doubt in his eyes. That’s what makes this game so fun. He may not admit it, but I was there on the other side, too, and I felt that. It’s a good edge for me to have now in the ring.”
In order to fulfill his very lofty goal and become WWE champion, Rhodes will need to dethrone Roman Reigns. Reaching that pinnacle necessitates a weekly pursuit of greatness, one where Rhodes must be better tonight than he was yesterday—and better this week than he was the week prior. If he wants a program with Reigns, then Rhodes needs to constantly be a must-see performer.
“Roman Reigns and I, we haven’t had any interactions yet,” Rhodes says. “We haven’t crossed paths in the ring. I’ve seen enough to know he is incredible, and even better when you see him up close. So this isn’t the easiest path I’ve chosen. But I know I can do this.
“I think I’m the best wrestler in the world. And I think it’s by a large margin. That upsets a lot of people, but I don’t mean it to draw ire. This is all I do. I’m not in charge. I’m here to hone my craft, build my body, and win matches. Every week, I have to be better. That’s the ultimate clarity for me.
“I’m on the flagship show. Look at the pyro and grandeur. Hats off to Kevin Dunn and his team for taking the ‘American Nightmare’ and expanding upon it. I know I must be better every week. That’s the only way I can stay the best in the world. Week to week, I’m putting myself under a microscope. Go ahead and put all the microscopes in the world on me. I want Fox to come calling. I did it for Turner Media and I got a great education at my last spot. Bring it on; I want it all.”
If Rhodes believes he is the best wrestler in the world, he was asked, does that mean he is better than Reigns?
“I can’t answer that question until we’re in the ring,” Rhodes says. “The difference between the two best wrestlers in the world is that one has both titles to prove it. The WWE championship is the biggest title in the game. That’s never been in dispute, and that’s not a knock on any title anywhere else. The way to define the best in the world is the one holding the belt, and that’s Roman Reigns.”
As frustrating as it was for those in AEW to lose Rhodes, there are qualities of his homecoming to WWE that just feel right. And for those fascinated by the interactions between Rhodes and Vince McMahon, Rhodes was asked about McMahon’s reaction upon first seeing his neck tattoo—which, unsurprisingly, WWE will soon be selling as part of their merchandise line.
“Vince hasn’t said anything [negative] about the tattoo,” Rhodes says. “I’ve been waiting for some of these guys who knew me back in the day to say something, specifically Bruce [Prichard] and Michael Hayes. Even Randy [Orton] hasn’t said anything, and that was a shock to me because I wasn’t a tattoo guy and he was covered. But it’s a good thing to have.
“Temporary tattoos are going to be released by WWE Shop, and people now see it as an extension of me. That’s what it is. When I was here before, everyone tried to tell me who I was. That wasn’t a bad thing—I was searching, too. Now I’m reaching my final form. That’s why I am sticking to my guns about my character, keeping it as close as possible to who I am. But I’ll promise you this—I’m not getting another one.”
There is money to be made with Rhodes back in WWE, as well as great matches to be had in the ring. Rhodes is embracing his role on Raw, building an old-school program with Rollins that appears destined to have its next chapter in the cage at Hell in a Cell.
No matter what he is doing, Rhodes will not lose sight of his focus. The WWE title is his goal. To win it, he will ultimately have to prove he can do it better than Reigns, a seemingly unstoppable force who has been champion for over 600 days.
“Eventually, we’re going to find out,” Rhodes says. “Right now, I’m not wrestling Roman Reigns. I have unfinished business with Seth Rollins. But with Roman, it’s going to happen. And when it does, we can look back at this interview and have a real answer to that question.”
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Justin Barrasso can be reached at JBarrasso@gmail.com. Follow him on Twitter @JustinBarrasso.