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Much has changed since Dusty Rhodes headlined his way through Georgia as one of the hottest acts in professional wrestling.

Down the street from where the historic Omni once held National Wrestling Alliance and World Championship Wrestling events, Dusty Rhodes’ son, Cody Rhodes will strut into Center Stage in Atlanta, Georgia, on August 26 as the Ring of Honor World Champion. (You can buy tickets here.)

Cody Rhodes returns to his roots

Just one year ago, Cody Rhodes left WWE to embark on the independent scene and make a name for himself. Since then, he’s blazed a trail all on his own, touring the world as a true main event talent. His hard work is apparent by the title belt around his waist, as he returns home for the first time in his career as World Champion.

“I think that’s what makes it different for me,” Rhodes said.

“It’s been 31 years since a Rhodes was the World Champion. So much of my family’s history is ingrained into the history of Atlanta itself. It feels like a new chapter for Atlanta wrestling and the Rhodes family.”

Returning to Atlanta isn’t just about the champ coming home with the belt. For Rhodes, it’s recognizing the rich wrestling history of the city and reminiscing about growing up around the business.

“Growing up, the Omni was such a significant arena for a kid, a wrestling fan, as part of a wrestling family. There’s the Tokyo Dome, there’s Madison Square Garden, there’s these myriad of high-profile arenas around the world. Growing up for me, it was the Omni,” Rhodes said.

“The Omni, CNN Center, going up to those WCW offices, sitting under a desk while my dad and Tony Schiavone were recording commentary for WCW Saturday Night. It’s crazy to see how far it’s come, how much it’s changed.

“The players have changed, the plays have changed, but the connection remains.”

Cody Rhodes returning to Atlanta Ring of Honor WWE
George Tahinos/Ring of Honor

It’s that connection to pro wrestling that kept Rhodes hungry for the spotlight throughout high school.

Rhodes was a successful amateur wrestler, a two-time state champion from Lassiter High who had received a scholarship to compete at Penn State, a rarity for a kid out of Georgia. Rhodes turned down the scholarship, instead opting to chase his professional wrestling dreams. And while his father certainly had an influence on his career, Rhodes also credits the likes of former WWE standout Al Snow and Hall of Famer Robert Gibson for helping him truly develop.

“I took a lot of Al’s teaching and wisdom, and when Robert Gibson came around to teach fundamentals, it was the perfect situation all melting together for me,” Rhodes said.

“To be able to get fundamentals from one half of a Hall of Fame team. To be able to get psychology and more of a deeper level thinking from someone serving in that Attitude Era when business was red-hot was really ideal for me.”

Leaving WWE was a calculated decision for Rhodes

Rhodes would spend 10 years with WWE, transforming his character from a member of Randy Orton’s Legacy faction, to performing as Cody Rhodes and eventually Stardust. For Rhodes, behind-the-scenes frustrations pushed him to ask for his release from the company on May 21, 2016.

It wasn’t simply a moment of frustration or an off-the-cuff decision to leave — it was something Rhodes had planned, created a list of goals and accomplishments he hoped to achieve on the independent scene and put into action. It also wasn’t something he shared with everyone, detailing that even his brother and fellow WWE star, Dustin Runnels (aka Goldust) found out about his departure on Twitter along with the rest of the world.

“He didn’t hear about it. I didn’t really share it with him, I don’t know why. He found out like everyone else did that day,” Rhodes said.

A year later, Rhodes is clear in describing his reasoning for leaving the company.

“That was a decision where I can’t stay with WWE because you guys are honoring my dad so much. I’m an individual myself. I love my dad, but if I stay here because you guys are honoring his legacy, yet you don’t honor me and honor my hard work, then I can tell you the number one person who would be pissed off would be my dad.

Cody Rhodes Atlanta WWE Ring of Honor
Harry Aaron/Ring of Honor

“At the time I left, I wasn’t even in my prime yet. I’m not ready to write myself off. I’m not ready to hear terms like enhancement, hell, even undercard.

“I’m the son of Dusty Rhodes. I respect him lusting for the gold, the brass ring and all of that stuff. I admire that and I kept that attitude. I’m very thankful for my time with WWE — I wouldn’t be able to get any of this done without it.”

Rhodes’ exit from WWE was less than one year after his father passed away. He would leave the company with five tag team title reigns, two Intercontinental Championship runs and a handful of WrestleMania appearances on his resume.

Rhodes’ exit from WWE to the indies

Rhodes exited on his own terms with only a checklist in hand and a vision of what he wanted his career to become.

His booking dates filled up quickly over the coming months. He wrestled Zack Sabre Jr. at EVOLVE in Maryland, Chris Hero the next day. He competed at the Battle of Los Angeles and traveled back across the country to hit some Northeastern shows.

He and former WWE announcer and real-life wife Brandi bounced down to IMPACT Wrestling in Orlando, Florida, to stop in and “say hello,” to other opponents on his list. That one came together a bit differently than his other bookings.

“Brandi was watching Maria and Mike (Bennett) on Pop and she wanted to go. I didn’t have any plans to go, but I thought I could absolutely try to help make that happen. I didn’t have a bad outing at all or a single complaint. I do think it was a bit misleading to fans whereas I had only signed on to do 3-4 dates and I didn’t re-sign — I would have made everyone aware if I had re-signed. So it was a little misleading because I think they made it seem like I was part of the roster and I really wasn’t, I was just dropping in and saying hello on occasion,” Rhodes said.

“They let me do that, so I respect Impact for letting me do that. I really liked Dixie (Carter), really liked Billy (Corgan), really liked Jeff and Karen (Jarrett). No complaints.”

Rhodes took his time over the following months in figuring out his next moves, facing off against Will Ospreay, Ricochet, Colt Cabana, Kurt Angle and even his old trainer, Robert Gibson along the way.

Cody Rhodes Jay Lethal Final Battle 2017 Ring of Honor Hammerstein Ballroom
George Tahinos/Ring of Honor

He eventually signed on for the Ring of Honor Final Battle show in New York at the Hammerstein Ballroom against Jay Lethal in December. It was there the grandson of a plumber found what he had been looking for.

‘The moment I walked into Final Battle at Hammerstein Ballroom, and ran into Gary Juster, who worked for WCW and who’s been a friend of my family’s. The moment I saw how professional and how organized they were, I thought, this is the place that can do it for me,” Rhodes said.

“I left WWE not because the money, but I wanted my soul to fill up with wrestling. Ring of Honor does both for me.”

After defeating Lethal, Rhodes returned to Atlanta in January, his first appearance in his home state since leaving WWE. By that time, he’d joined Bullet Club alongside Adam Cole and the Young Bucks as arguably the top act on the independent scene. The response to Rhodes was overwhelming, and he continued his ascension to the top of Ring of Honor.

Despite remaining a true free agent, opting not to be locked down to one promotion, Rhodes would win the world championship by the end of June, pinning Christopher Daniels for the title at Best in the World.

Cody Rhodes takes on New Japan Pro Wrestling

Rhodes’ booking freedom has allowed him to wrestle all over the world, most notably for New Japan Pro Wrestling (NJPW) during its first United States tour in Long Beach, California, in early July.

Following the immensely successful series of NJPW shows and with Ring of Honor’s popularity only growing, Rhodes believes there’s plenty of reasons to watch either promotion over WWE.

“It’s just a matter of where you as a fan skew. If you’re someone from my generation who grew up with the more sporting style of sports entertainment, then you’re going to love NJPW. You might find yourself watching it over WWE because it plays to your heartstrings more. ROH happens to have several very hot acts in it. You may make that choice to watch them instead of WWE because it’s a certain place to catch guys like the Young Bucks exclusively,” Rhodes said.

“I think right now, it’s the best time ever to be a professional wrestler and to be a professional wrestling fan because no longer is it a matter of WWE being the end-all, be-all. The end-all, be-all is determined by the talent and by the fans. It’s no longer a matter of the WWE World Heavyweight Championship is the top thing. The top thing is whatever is the most popular or whatever makes the fans the most happy. And that is no longer just the WWE.”

Cody Rhodes only going up from here

In 2018, Rhodes is swinging for the fences, hoping to turn the independent scene upside down with at least one massive show.

“If I could add anything to (my checklist), I would add a 10,000-seat arena. I’ve seen with what New Japan Pro Wrestling was able to do in Long Beach with the G1 specials, what Ring of Honor has been able to do with the VOD shows and with the PPVs, I know that both companies together or by themselves are capable of filling a 10,000-seat arena,” he said.

“I really want to explore that option in 2018. Not just for the novelty of it, not saying ‘hey they’re not WWE, but they did this.’ But that the product was as good if not better.”

Rhodes also recognizes he still has work to do if he wants to maintain his meteoric rise in the pro wrestling world.

“The trail has definitely been blazed, but I don’t know if I’m a significant part of history just yet. 2018 will tell a lot. I think others saw this and they’re saying you know what, I want to give myself a shot too. Hopefully that happens. Not because WWE isn’t great, but because I hope more people get more confident in their own skillset and find themselves wanting to bet on themselves versus bet on the place they work,” Rhodes said.

“I think 2017, the end of 2017, has blown up as far as the Hot Topic deal being a physical indicator of that. To see WWE shirts are 39th on the charts, and the Young Bucks and Cody Rhodes are No. 2 and 3. Rick and Morty had us beat by one. Seeing that is some of the evidence as we go into the end of 2017, that there’s going to be more of that. We’re still climbing this roller coaster. I kind of don’t know where it ends, but all hands on deck.”

This is Part I of FanBuzz’s conversation with Rhodes. for Rhodes’ thoughts on Okada, the Young Bucks, Marty Scurll and the Revival, click here.

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