Cody Rhodes: The 'American Nightmare's' dream come true

Cody Rhodes kicked off the biggest 10-day stretch of his wrestling career by becoming Ring of Honor world champion Friday night in Lowell, Massachusetts. Tim Fiorvanti / ESPN

"1 ... 2 ... 3."

The capacity crowd in attendance at the Lowell Memorial Auditorium in Lowell, Massachusetts, called out in time to referee Todd Sinclair's slaps on the canvas Friday night. Upon the third strike, the bell rang, and the main event of for Ring of Honor's "Best in the World" pay-per-view was over.

Cody Rhodes, "The American Nightmare," the son of a son of a plumber, had just become ROH world champion.

"I don't think it's hit me," Rhodes admitted the following afternoon to ESPN.com. But as much as it was an overwhelming moment, it also had a lot to do with a knock Rhodes took to the face during his world title match against Christopher Daniels. In addition to a wry smile, he was sporting some fresh stitches.

"I got busted open in the beginning of the match, so I spent my world championship evening in the hospital," Rhodes said matter-of-factly.

After a full day of television tapings, and a local independent show on Sunday, Rhodes spent a few days recovering at home. He celebrated his 32nd birthday (on June 30) a few days early, because this weekend, Rhodes has the chance to make the biggest 10 days of his career all that much brighter in Long Beach, California.

Just over a week after capturing the ROH world title, recognized worldwide as one of the two most prestigious wrestling championships outside of the WWE, Rhodes will face off with Japanese superstar Kazuchika Okada for the other half of that equation: New Japan Pro Wrestling's IWGP heavyweight title. That match will be the main event on the first of two nights of historic shows, as the long-time Japanese giant begins their push onto U.S. shores.

Rhodes finds himself in the middle of history, and there's no place that he'd rather be. But no matter where he goes, his father, the "American Dream" Dusty Rhodes, is never far from Cody's mind. He bears a simple tattoo that says "Dream" on his chest, and even as the scope and meaning of his title win sorts itself out inside his brain, Cody's been able to find further connection and meaning in his victory through the memory of his father.

"I carry this little Dusty figure with me. I don't know why -- I'm not very knickknack type guy, but I carry the figure with me," said Rhodes. "I had it in my bag next to the title. That was maybe the first moment that I thought, 'Oh, the drought's dead. Thirty-one years since we had a world title in the family. It's over.'"

The ROH world title, and everything that comes after it, is a vindication of Rhodes' decision to step away from the WWE 13 months ago. In an age where most major companies keep their champion under lock and key, Rhodes has a chance to be the kind of traveling champion that his father, Ric Flair and any number of other top guys were back in the heyday of the territory system.

ROH may yet lock Rhodes down, but for the time being, he's going to continue to pursue his mantle as one of the busiest men in professional wrestling. The results have clearly paid off so far, and from both an in-ring and character perspective, Rhodes has a firm grip on both his own style and how he fits within the greater wrestling ecosystem.

"I definitely didn't envision a single company, as much as I just wanted to travel," Rhodes said of his initial post-WWE vision. "I wanted to do wrestling that I wasn't accustomed to doing, at places like PWG, and places [that have me] outside my skill set, outside my wheel house," said Rhodes. "I wanted to, not to sound like a nerd, but I wanted to learn." Cody Rhodes

The wrestling business of 2017 looks dramatically different than it did just a few years ago. That Rhodes had the courage and confidence in himself to step out into a largely unknown world of independent wrestling at a time when many of the biggest stars are headed back in the other direction shows a tremendous foresight.

But it wasn't always easy.

Despite some groundbreaking moments, like actively performing for ROH, Impact wrestling, NJPW, PWG and other companies all over the world, Rhodes realized he had to keep his head up and adapt certain elements of his in-ring approach and persona to the kind of crowds he was performing in front of.

"To not adjust and to not change with the times, that's a death sentence, unless you happen to be doing a character that's stuck in history," said Rhodes. "I know I didn't want to be part of that death sentence. I love pro wrestling. If pro wrestling's gonna change, I'm gonna change with it.

"The writing's on the wall," Rhodes continued. "NXT's the best example. They're bringing in what I guess you [would] call 'super indie' talent. They're bringing in a different type of competitor."

Cody Rhodes was already making waves in his first few months outside the WWE bubble, but there's no denying he reached an entirely different level after joining the Bullet Club in the lead-up to NJPW's Wrestle Kingdom 11 in January.

But for as much as being a part of the hottest faction in professional wrestling has supercharged his career over the last six months, there was a certain trepidation in stepping into such a well-established group.

"I think initially, I was worried," said Rhodes. "I was like, 'Oh, the Bullet Club.' You've had Finn Balor, and you've had AJ Styles, and you have Kenny Omega. I was kind of worried. I wanted to trend upwards. All good things must come to an end, and I didn't know what the shelf life for the Bullet Club was."

But Rhodes quickly found a home within the Bullet Club. As the "American Nightmare", Rhodes turned up a few elements of his personality, but largely stayed true to what he'd been doing and who he really is. He's gotten tremendous reactions from New Japan and ROH crowds alike, despite some negative reactions from critics online.

He couldn't have signed on at a much better time. Balor and Styles laid the foundation before moving on to the WWE, where they've each won world titles, but the current iteration of the Bullet Club is taking the wrestling business to unexplored places. Rhodes' shirt is one of four Bullet Club shirts that have, without the coverage of an overarching company, become a big seller at Hot Topic outlets throughout North America thanks in large part to the popularity surge led by Omega and The Young Bucks.

And that's just the tip of the iceberg.

"It's trending upward still," Rhodes noted. "We just had a conference call with a certain toy manufacturer, that does toys for the biggest company in the world, who wants to do Bullet Club stuff. Not ROH. Not New Japan Pro Wrestling. Bullet Club. Just Bullet Club. It blows my mind.

"I thank the Bucks for their merchandise savvy and their edginess. They go with their gut, always, and I go with my gut always, so that's cool to be around guys like that."

Going with his gut has taken Rhodes a long way, and the wave of congratulatory messages following his victory on Friday night was massive. WWE stars including Cesaro and Tye Dillinger, and personalities from throughout the wrestling world gave their props.

"That was really cool, the overwhelmingly positive reaction from some of my peers. Some of them I don't even get along with," said Rhodes.

But you can't please everyone. As much as the "too-sweets" and sea of red-white-and-blue Cody Bullet Club shirts in the crowd in Lowell (and elsewhere) seem to indicate otherwise, there's always going to be those who aren't satisfied.

"You'll look on social and it will be overwhelmingly negative. You can't always tell what it is," said Rhodes. "I think the only way to know for sure what it is, is to feel it. Like last night, to feel it like, 'OK. We're doing something right. Let's keep doing this. Let's not be distracted. Let's not make this about pleasing everybody.'

"That's the quickest route to failure," Rhodes continued. "Last night, it felt like this is the right direction. I hope Long Beach is the same."

The crowd in Long Beach on Saturday and Sunday will be another interesting test for Rhodes. No matter what the result was in Lowell, the nine-day stretch between an ROH world title shot and an IWGP heavyweight title shot is basically unheard of.

Now that Rhodes holds the ROH title, he's positioned to do something no one has ever done. If he does it, he'll be happy to throw salt into the wound of the wrestling "purists" who have discounted his in-ring abilities.

"I thought I was enthused about Long Beach, but now I'm more than that," said Rhodes. "If I'm able to win the IWGP title, from the most pure, sport-like organization left, New Japan Pro Wrestling -- the last sanctuary for these pen and paper nerds who don't do anything positive for our business, but instead just criticize it. If I can win out there, nothing would excite me more. Nothing would excite me more.

"Every now and then, I feel bad, like, 'Oh, maybe they've got a point,'" Rhodes continued. "Then we do something like we did last night and I go, 'No. This is the way things are going. It's a huge match. I respect Okada intensely. I respect New Japan Pro Wrestling. I just hope people are okay with what happens."

The expectations have never been higher for Rhodes, who will have a lot to live up to and follow on an absolutely stacked card on Night One of the G1 Special.

"Kenny Omega and Michael Elgin are wrestling on that show," said Rhodes. "I guarantee they're gonna have an absolute just barnburner of a contest, which will then leave me doing jumping jacks backstage, sweating profusely, trying to figure out how I'll follow that."

The pressure is sure to mount as the hours tick away, but Rhodes has had enough of watching friends and contemporaries stealing the spotlight.

"You have moments when you watch other wrestlers, and you're jealous of where they're at," said Rhodes. "I watched [Wrestle]mania this year, there's a couple guys [and I was feeling], not so much jealousy, but you think of yourself. 'What could I do in that role?'

"It's funny when the shoe is on the other foot," continued Rhodes. "That's why I say I'd be pissed if it was anybody but me, because this is the one that I want to be in. All you guys can watch it and figure out what you could've done better. I've got this one."

Few know the long-term future of New Japan Pro Wrestling's foray into the United States, but there's a huge symbolic significance in the spot Rhodes finds himself in.

And if he wins, he might just take over the wrestling world.

"I feel like, just as much as holding the Ring of Honor world title, the responsibility of being the main event for their first foray into the United States, just that one match carries so much weight and responsibility," said Rhodes. "But I'd be pissed if it was anybody but me."