Having been just one year old at the time, Cody Rhodes doesn’t remember anything from when his famous father, “The American Dream” Dusty Rhodes, last wore the NWA World heavyweight title. Still, the iconic championship belt has an indelible place in his earliest childhood memories.
“He had a real old-school style, mahogany office with all these leather-bound books. And the only thing that would separate it from a master explorer's office was the NWA world championship—the 10 pounds of gold,” Cody said, recalling the house just outside of Dallas, Texas, in which he grew up. “He had a replica in a glass case that a promoter had given him. It was sitting on his desk.”
More than three decades later, the man who dubbed himself “The American Nightmare” was reunited with the belt when he beat National Wrestling Alliance heavyweight champion Nick Aldis in front of 11,000 fans in Chicago in one of the featured bouts at All In—the independent wrestling showcase conceived and bankrolled by Cody and his Bullet Club partners Nick and Matt Jackson.
“I think there’s something about the title. I don’t know what it is. There’s a reason it’s stayed around. There’s a reason it continues to be discussed,” Cody said during a recent telephone interview. “I think it has a big place in where we’re going. And that’s a really cool prospect. The NWA world championship—this title I used to hold as a kid on my dad’s desk—I’m looking at it right now. It’s hanging out of my bag.”
For longtime fans of the sport, Rhodes’ NWA championship victory—in a city where his father made plenty of his own wrestling history—was a fitting tribute to the “Dream,” who died in 2015. But Cody insists that his decision to challenge for the title in one of the most important matches of his career had everything to do with believing in the revamped business plan for the NWA, and nothing to do with honoring his dad—at least not consciously.
"There's this moment when I'm walking to the ring and Excalibur on commentary said something about this being my destiny, whether I knew it or not. And I think, maybe subconsciously, I think that’s where the motivation was, because it just wasn’t on my mind,” Rhodes said.
“As much as I thought, I’m not going to be Dusty’s son today, there’s probably never more of a day that I was Dusty’s son than All In,” he added.
For Cody, winning wrestling’s oldest championship marked the climax of an inspirational adventure that began in 2016 when the former “Stardust” took a big gamble by walking away from a WWE contract and betting on himself. It’s a journey that’s seen Rhodes collect championships from Impact Wrestling, Ring of Honor, and New Japan, where for weeks after All In he beat Juice Robinson to become IWGP U.S. champion.
But capturing the NWA title carries a special significance for Rhodes, who has been surrounded by wrestling legends since he came out of the womb. A pair of those legends helped him train for his NWA title challenge and stood in his corner when he took on Aldis at All In—Ray “Glacier” Lloyd and “Diamond” Dallas Page, who have both credited Dusty for helping them find their way through the sport.
“There’s a reason why I flanked myself with DDP and Glacier: Because those were two guys who were Dusty Guys—two guys that were loyal to my dad until the end,” said Rhodes, who knew that his entourage would invite further comparisons to his father’s NWA career.
“If you know anything about me behind the scenes, I’m pretty adamant that people don’t mention my dad. I’m pretty adamant that people don’t use footage of him or speak of him in interviews. In this case, it was just one of those nights where I couldn’t escape it,” Cody said. “I do get that I’ll probably be talking about my dad forever. Even though I dislike doing it, I do it because he mattered. And that legacy is very important to me.”
And a big part of that legacy was the NWA World heavyweight championship, which Dusty first won from Harley Race in 1979 when he was 33—the same age as Cody right now. That reign lasted just six days. Three years later “The Dream” beat Race again for the title and wore it for three months before losing to Ric Flair. With baby Cody at home, Rhodes beat Flair at 1986’s Great American Bash to begin his third and last NWA championship Reign.
But, as many of wrestling greats who have held the title would attest to, becoming NWA champion is the easy part. Remaining champion requires a level of commitment and dedication that would be a big task of any pro wrestler, especially as NWA President Billy Corgan, who purchased the National Wrestling Alliance name in 2017, seeks to recapture the brand’s former glory.
Cody says he’s up for the task—and may be uniquely suited for it. He made his first successful title defense at an ROH TV taping in Last Vegas on September 29, beating Willie Mack. And was set to face Aldis in a two-out-of-three falls rematch of their All In classic at the NWA 70th Anniversary Show in Nashville, Tennessee, on October 21.
“I always wanted to be a traveling champion. Pictures really get me, and there’s a picture of Jack Brisco getting on a place in that polyester suit and the NWA title in the crux of his arm,” Cody said. “That always appealed to me. Basically this guy is a musician. And he’s the headline act. And he’s going to go all around. And these are the songs you know. And he’s there to be that thing on that night that makes people happy.
“And that’s all wrestling should ever do.”