Cody Rhodes won the Ring of Honor world title this past weekend at Best in the World. He beat Christopher Daniels in a good but not amazing match, after which he delivered a good but not amazing promo about how he was now the hunter. He's facing Kazuchika Okada on July 1st for New Japan's IWGP heavyweight title. The bout is in California and will be live on AXS TV. Cody, the guy WWE created then discarded, is headlining New Japan's biggest push into the American mainstream yet—the promotion is unveiling a United States championship and the two-day event in Long Beach is serving as a preview of the annual G1 Climax tournament, a grueling six week-long affair held every summer.
There is a strong possibility that Cody walks away a double champion. The storyline in NJPW is headed toward a showdown between Okada and Tetsuya Naito, the probable winner of the G1, at Wrestle Kingdom in January. Cody winning would mean Naito could get the heavyweight title off of him to set up that blockbuster, while Cody could end up wrestling Kenny Omega in a fight for the soul of Bullet Club.
Winning the IWGP heavyweight title from Okada would be a perfect punctuation to Cody's post-WWE career, as much as a segment of fans is dreading the possibility. At the very least, it would serve as a fitting spit in the eye to WWE if Cody Rhodes, the one who should've been but got away, ends up being the most decorated pro wrestler of 2017. At most, he could finally be the superstar some of us still think he can be.
If you were tasked with making a perfect pro wrestler, you'd base your decision on pretty predictable traits: someone a shade over six feet tall and around 230 pounds—big enough to be strong and intimidating, yet small enough to do the nimble work necessary in the modern landscape; a chiseled jaw and even more chiseled abs; the ability to cut a good promo and the mind to put together a coherent match on the fly; a family pedigree, with a parent and siblings who worked in wrestling, preferably with glory days long before your wrestling Frankenstein's monster started, to lend a sense of historical weight to the proceedings.
In other words, you'd probably end up with Cody Rhodes. And yet nobody really seems to root for Cody Rhodes that much these days.
Cody's career (and it is Cody now, since the Rhodes' real last name is Runnels and WWE cruelly owns the rights to the Rhodes last name as it applies to Cody) has always seemed just on the cusp of greatness. That bought him a bit of good will in a Dolph Ziggler, let's cheer for the guy who's not being pushed sort of way. During his long WWE run—from training in their developmental system in 2006 until 2016—he was a solid midcarder most of the time, a two-time Intercontinental champion, and an opener towards the end. But he never really threatened to be more, which never made much sense.
In theory, Cody was precisely what WWE wanted. And prior to his departure, he was wholly created by WWE. They sent him to training. They figured out workout regimens and promo styles. They determined his storylines. They created his characters. They had it all planned out, and they screwed it up.
Pointless character changes. A decade of storylines that went nowhere. Everything culminated with the Stardust gimmick at the end, a sort of comic book supervillain that was both a tribute to his brother's paint-and-vinyl suit career and a reference to his dad's nickname for everything from Cody to the Crocketts' private plane during the 1980s. Cody was thrust into face paint and a matching body suit, delivering barely coherent promos about stars and how his family overshadowed him. (If you're watching that second link and wincing at Cody telling Dusty Rhodes that his father is dead to him a scant four months before he actually died, well, you're not alone. Pro wrestling is a cruel business).
Cody hated it. He still launched himself into the character. There's no better mark of Cody's professionalism than the fact he took on a gimmick he didn't like, worked his ass off at it with complete sincerity, and then cut out when he realized his bosses at WWE were never going to actually give him anything decent to work with. On his way out, he released a remarkably telling statement worth reading in full. The basic gist is that he kept trying to do what the company wanted and yet it became apparent that they weren't going to make him the wrestler he wanted to be.
It was and is a remarkable thing: WWE created a wrestler to their specifications and found out they didn't like him. And then they brought in indie workers who had a look and a style which they historically insisted they would never push and they pushed them. It all seemed remarkably unfair to Cody Rhodes, the company guy, the star of their developmental territories. He could've been working the indies and creating a character that wasn't fucking Stardust, just like Dean Ambrose, Seth Rollins, Kevin Owens, Asuka, and a host of others did.
After leaving WWE, Cody briefly worked TNA before moving fully to the indies and New Japan. He's become a member of Bullet Club, the supergroup of postmodern heels in NJPW. He's on record as stating that he respects WWE (I have personal, unfounded doubts as to how true that actually is) but he's not interested in coming back because he's making more money than he ever has. He is, finally, his own man, his own creation, able to tailor his character and style to his personal preferences. He's a swashbuckling freelancer in a pro wrestling world which still has a sense of romance about the drifting grappler jetting from city to city and ring to ring.
Cody's doing his own thing, but the thing everyone claimed to have wanted for him hasn't translated into much good will—he's still on the cusp and nobody thinks he'll make it. He is good enough for plenty of fans but scant few will say he's the man. He's making money and winning titles, yet he still feels strangely adrift. He works the WWE style—which is all he's ever known—in small venues suited for intimacy and risk-taking. He's doing pantomime violence in the quasi-real maelstrom of New Japan. What got him this far doesn't always seem suited to what he's made for himself. And there seems to be a gap between what the wrestling world's promoters, wrestlers, and media (I adore Cody, to be transparent) think of him and what the fans think. It's an odd place he's in, both successful and as adrift as he was in WWE.
And yet here he is, on the cusp of becoming 2017's wrestler of the year.