A few nights earlier, Cody Rhodes (performing, as he has been for legal reasons when on TV, as simply "Cody") kicked Jay Lethal in the nuts and hit a conclusive Cross Rhodes, capping off a memorable Ring of Honor debut at its premier pay-per-view, Final Battle. Strange as it may seem, given Rhodes' 10-year stint in WWE, breaking through with the Baltimore-based promotion felt like a singular milestone. "To me, it was everything and more," he confirms while en route to a booking with Gulf Coast Wrestling Alliance in Corpus Christi, Texas.
The reasons behind his atypical renaissance are myriad, as were the motivations for walking away from WWE earlier this year. Over the course of a wide-ranging conversation, Rhodes offered self-reflection on his new and uncertain journey, how every night on the road is a path toward acceptance of his late father Dusty Rhodes' passing and his refusal to indulge passé industry jargon. Oh, and that not-insignificant announcement that he's the latest member of New Japan/Ring of Honor's wrecking crew, Bullet Club.
Should there be any ambiguity about this, or is it meant to be clear that you're the new Bullet Club member Omega was referring to and you're coming to New Japan at least for Wrestle Kingdom?
Crystal clear. The "American Nightmare" rides with the Bullet Club.
And was the idea of a mirror image "American Nightmare" character something you've had in mind for a while, or did it come into focus as you've been on the road and mindful of your father's legacy?
I think it's just a name that fits me. I believe in the cream rising. I believe in hard work. But I believe in vindication as well. You have a few nightmares I imagine before you reach your dream.
Should we expect the next year or so of your career somewhat resembles other Bullet Club-ers who've spread out among ROH and New Japan, and does this mean you'll be doing fewer smaller bookings?
I have bookings as far out as November of 2017. Some places that hold 250 people at full capacity and places like the Tokyo Dome that hold 40 thousand plus. My exclusivity is to the pro-wrestling fans.
Was Final Battle the moment you’d envisioned when you left WWE?
I'll be totally honest: I wasn't expecting it to get rolling as much as it got rolling. A lot of times, guys leave WWE or get fired by WWE, but there's always that little bit of buzz right when they get out on the scene, but like all buzz, it fades. But I feel really flattered that, for whatever reason, it seems to be trending upwards. It's damn exciting that without the biggest wrestling company in the world, I'm able to build a brand and be successful. It's hard to stay on top of it. I had to hire a staff. It sounds so silly. I had to hire a kid to do social media work for me. It's really cool.
Did it cross your mind that you're kind of doing a traditional wrestling-career arc in reverse?
The part that shocks me the most is that professional wrestlers today do not need WWE. WWE is the biggest, most wonderful company, and they have WrestleMania, so almost any professional wrestler is going to seek that goal. However, it's no longer needed, because in the era of social media and streaming, wrestling fans have more options than they've ever had. So instead of feeling backwards to me, it’s almost feels linear. It feels like, "OK, I'm no longer just a WWE guy, but you can catch me with Evolve, Ring of Honor, TNA." Originally, I had the same thought process you did, especially coming from second or third generation. There used to be a rule in the business that you would go to Japan when you were a youngster, even if you only went for a month, when you were second or third generation. And then you would be able to say, "Oh, well I've wrestled in Japan," so there was this cred. But it was kind of a lie when second and third-generations' fathers would kind of put their kids up to it.
Only several years ago, it felt like WWE had no competition. So when exactly did it change so dramatically?
If you're really breaking it down from a history standpoint, if you go back to the infamous "pipe bomb" interview with CM Punk – it's not the interview itself, but the interview definitely has a great deal to do with it – and then if you look at the success Triple H has had with NXT, it's somewhere in the last four or five years. WWE started hiring guys for what they were, not for what they wanted them to be. Good example: Samoa Joe is a man-killer, badass wrecking ball. Well, we're not gonna change him to Samoa Samurai, you know what I'm saying? That breeds competition. Now people look into it. They want to see New Japan. They want to see what's on FlowSports and what's on streaming. That's definitely, for somebody who studies the industry, a great case study to look at: When did competition come back in wrestling? Because it is fully back. Some of it's cooperative. Evolve and WWE have a great relationship, but I know [Evolve co-founder] Gabe [Sapolsky] would love to have a better show than WWE. That's your job – to have the best product.
The question, then, is where a wrestler wants to be in order to have the most satisfying career.
I don't know the full answer as to where I'm going. I wish I knew. My wife asked me the other day, "What if they called you and said, 'Come back at the Royal Rumble'?" I said, "No, I don't think I'd be interested in that." She said, "What if they said, 'Come back at the Royal Rumble, and make it about you and Triple H and head to WrestleMania with that'?" And then my answer really changed. Maybe in my heart, the end game is to go back to WWE, but it's definitely not in the forefront of my mind. Each time I go out there, I find out a little bit more about where I'm ultimately happy being.
Sounds as if you're careful to never say never.
I think people who say, "I'm never going back to WWE," I don't understand that. I had a lot of gripes, and those are things that I'd be a hypocrite if I went back and didn't try to make right. But I think it's silly when people say never, unless you've been burned that bad. I really can't even say I've been burned at all.
But how does someone like, say, Ricochet who's never been in WWE approach that conundrum of where they're best off?
I had a young kid who asked me, "Am I crazy for wanting to get to the place that everybody's running away from?" I told him not at all. The bubble's burst on the fact that people think WWE's this massive money conglomerate. It pays really well, but WWE has always had something more than money to offer, and that's opportunity to be in the biggest game in town, to be on a WrestleMania. So if I'm somebody like Ricochet, I think that's a natural progression for him. You've gotta take that to the biggest stage of them all, and that's WrestleMania. But having done what he's done on his own, he's not some naïve kid that should take a low-paying developmental contract and just be happy-go-lucky that he's on WWE programming. That's one of the best things about today: Guys have the ability to take their services everywhere.
So if you were in a program with Ricochet, would you put him over, so to speak?
Yeah. I hate the term "putting over," but there are times when you know it's about you, and there are times when you know it's about them. There was a lot of guys who made it about me as I was in my 20s and needed it more than they needed it. Rey Mysterio wasn't gonna be any less popular the day after WrestleMania in Atlanta when I defeated him, but I was going to be a whole new person, a marked man. So with somebody like [Ricochet], I'd have no issue with it.
Does it irk wrestlers when Internet fans and media kind of hijack lingo like "putting over"?
Years ago said I hate insider terms, and people thought it was self-righteous, so now I don't say anything at all. I don't use them. Some of the young promoters that use me on smaller brands, it's like they got their law degree and they use all the terms. And I can always tell they're really shocked when they talk to me, because I'll listen, and I know what you're saying, but I don’t use them. You'll never hear "heel" or "babyface" come out of my mouth, because they're not accurate anymore. What would you call the Bullet Club? Are they heels? Are they faces? No, they're fucking TV stars. The terms don't mean what they used to mean, so when people use them, you kind of laugh a little bit. My dad never used the terms, so I guess I got that from him.
Pop culture in general's gotten more nuanced, so why shouldn't wrestling?
Yeah, we have to grow with the rest of entertainment. We, as wrestling fans, always look to put wrestling on the same platform as our favorite TV shows, our favorite movies. So let's not live in the Stone Ages of the language about it. You can really confuse somebody with insider terms. [Laughs]
What is it about the modern wrestling audience that didn’t get behind your commitment to character during those last couple years in WWE?
The biggest part of WWE that people forget a lot of times is the live events. The live events are the heart and soul of WWE, not the TV. That's where the majority of the money for the company comes from, and the commercial that is Monday Night RAW and SmackDown, that's where you see the matches – that's where the sports part of sports entertainment is. One of the things about Stardust that was successful that not a lot of people show was I had a really strong live events presence. I was allowed to do whatever I wanted to do. My live events reputation was not matched to where I was at when it comes to television. But Stardust came at a bad time. At the time, Finn Balor's doing a demon on NXT, Kevin Owens is debuting on television and Cesaro's the strongest man on earth. I'll just be flat honest: Stardust wasn't as good as any of those guys, and I had it on my mind that I couldn’t take Stardust to that level, in terms of the professional wrestler side. A.J. Styles comes to the Royal Rumble, and his whole body of work has led to this. Everything about A.J. Styles – he's got it. And here I am putting on this rubber body suit, and I thought, "Well, if I had a shot at competing with these guys, I'm handicapping myself even further." And that was why I expedited the exit. I wanted to try and be the greatest of all time.
It's interesting, because I didn't view the character's limitations that way at all.
Maybe it was just doubt. When I lost my dad, I probably should have taken a long time to let that all settle in. I guess I got the idea in my mind that I was gonna pick up where he left off, and I can't do that as Stardust. To me, he was the greatest wrestler ever, and if people don't know that, it's my job to make them know that. Even though they're not watching him, they can just watch me. I know that sounds fucked up, but that's my dad. I don't know any son who has not wanted to stand in that presence of their father. So when it happened, that's probably the biggest reason that I lost faith in Stardust.
It sounds as if rediscovering yourself on the independent circuit has been therapeutic.
Oh, 100 percent. There can be a headstone and flowers, but I don't feel his presence there as much as I feel it in the buildings I've been in lately. I'm one of those weird Millennials; I don't really have faith, I'm not a religious person, I don't know what happens when we die. But I know if I can get people to make enough noise, maybe he's watching. I feel a connection with him more on this independent tour. I also feel more of a connection with the business. Territory wrestling was what I was obsessed with, especially as I got older. In this modern era, there are territories again, they're just not called territories.
Stardust is done and gone, but might we see your theatrical side again?
Because of what happened with Stardust and I, that does not mean that I would look at it with a stiff upper lip. I just want to be the one who's in control of it.