Friend and noted wrestling pundit Jim Valley, during a recent podcast on Wrestling Observer Live, called Cody Rhodes the best wrestler in the world.

That’s the same Cody Rhodes who toiled in the WWE midcard only five years ago as Stardust with a gimmick that unfortunately reflected his underappreciated status in the company. Or even earlier in his career as a self-obsessed narcissist known as “Dashing” Cody Rhodes. Despite his creativity, ability and passion, his career seemed to stall at every turn.

But that’s not the Cody Rhodes you see today. This Cody Rhodes is the brainchild of a new, dynamic wrestling company that has caught on like wildfire and is reaching a new generation of fans.

This is the Cody Rhodes that Jim Valley boldly declared the best in the world

This is also the Cody Rhodes that recently set social media aflutter with a compelling, passionate promo on All Elite Wrestling’s weekly network show. It was the go-home episode leading up to last weekend’s Full Gear pay-per-view, and Rhodes’ promo just might have been the best of his career.

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Cody Rhodes riveted the audience with an intense, heartfelt promo on the Nov. 6 edition of AEW Dynamite. Photo provided

Many fans and industry talents have even described it as the modern-day version of the “Hard Times” promo made famous by Cody’s late father Dusty Rhodes.

That’s heavy stuff. And it didn’t go unnoticed.

Jim Cornette, who knows a few things about interviews, gave Rhodes major props for his intense mic work.

“The promo Cody Rhodes cut on AEW is the modern version of his dad’s ‘Hard Times’ promo. To quote the Dream, ‘That’s how you do it, kid,’” tweeted Cornette.

“Rhythm, cadence, tone, intent, passion, execution. Great promo, brother,” echoed Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson.

“No writers ... real organic passion from the talent that jumps out of one’s TV. Dream-like!” remarked Jim Ross.

“At wrestling schools going forward, when they’re teaching promo class, this is the one — along with those old Dusty Rhodes and Ric Flair promos and Bill Watts promos and Bruno Sammartino promos — this is your go-to studying material for how to do a babyface promo,” said Wrestling Observer Newsletter editor Dave Meltzer.

The effusive praise extended to the Lowcountry’s own Darius Rucker, a longtime fan of Cody’s late father.

“Old school Cody. I now have to watch this match. You talked me into the arena! Classic. They will be talking about this one for a long time!" Rucker tweeted.

While Cody came up on the short end of last weekend’s title match with AEW champion Chris Jericho, the compelling bout did nothing to diminish Rhodes’ status as one of the most popular performers in the industry.

Rhodes was granted his release from WWE in 2016 after 10 years with the company. It was seen as a gutsy move, but also a risky one at the time, with Cody turning down a lucrative long-term contract. But he wasn’t afraid to walk away from the table and forge his own future.

Since then, he has literally changed the wrestling business.

“To go from undesirable to undeniable took a lot sacrifices, reality checks, and most importantly I had to do the damn work. I don’t want to be anything less than the guy at the top,” says Rhodes.

Best in the world?

Valley also noted that Cody Rhodes didn’t have to be the best technical wrestler or even headline shows in his own promotion to be the best in the business.

He’s got a valid point.

Valley drew comparisons between Rhodes and Jericho, who is 15 years Rhodes’ senior and one of wrestling’s most consistent performers over the past two decades. To many insiders, Jericho has a legitimate claim to being the best all-around performer in sports entertainment.

“Everybody knows Chris Jericho. Chris Jericho is brilliant, and he’s been brilliant for a long time. Comparing Chris Jericho and Cody Rhodes ... they’re both doing a lot of the same process, but it’s different,” Valley explained.

“Cody Rhodes is like Christian Bale. He’s in the character and he disappears, while Chris Jericho is (like) Jack Nicholson ... But he’s got such star power and such charisma that he’s always going to be seen in the role just like Jack Nicholson.”

Like Bale, said Valley, Rhodes “doesn’t tell you he’s real. He shows you he’s real. He’s playing a character. But everything that Cody Rhodes does in the context of wrestling says I’m real.”

“He’s not The American Nightmare,” adds Valley. “He’s not The Painmaker. Cody Rhodes is the idealized version of Cody Rhodes. And that’s what’s brilliant. We all put our best foot forward, but you can kind of tell it’s fake. You can’t tell it’s fake with Cody. Chris Jericho is brilliant. But if you put Chris Jericho on Jimmy Fallon, it’s an act. You can see it’s an act. People will enjoy the act. They’ll see what he’s doing. But it’s still an act.”

“Cody Rhodes,” says Valley, “can go on Jimmy Fallon as this character, and it’s real. And it may be even better than the real guy.”

And, like Rhodes has said on numerous occasions, “Wrestling is best when it’s real.” It’s a message that has resonated with the AEW fan base.

“What’s old isn’t new – what’s new is new. Perception isn’t reality – reality is reality,” says Rhodes.

Valley also rightfully asserts that Rhodes has made a number of AEW segments better. Elevating the talent around him, the 34-year-old veteran has evolved into a force behind the scenes as well as on camera. And he seems to do it effortlessly.

“He doesn’t overact, and he works off the crowd. His mannerisms, his tone, his timing and his demeanor ... He elevates everyone around him,” says Valley.

“The fans see it and they know it’s there. Maybe they don’t even realize it because he’s so subtle in what he does. The best characters are turned up to 11, but Cody Rhodes hasn’t touched the volume knob. He’s touched a completely different frequency, and it’s getting an amazing reaction.”

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Cody Rhodes, executive vice president of All Elite Wrestling, and wife Brandi, chief brand officer. Photo provided

New flag-bearer

When the company first started putting its pieces together earlier this year, it was believed that Jericho, Kenny Omega and The Young Bucks would form the centerpiece of the promotion. While Rhodes was always an above-average worker, as executive vice president his major value would be found in the creative aspects of the new company and in a management role.

But he has added world-class matches to his impressive resume, says Valley.

“Incredible matches. Cody didn’t set out to be better than Kenny Omega or The Young Bucks. He is playing to his strengths.”

Cody Rhodes has added this subtext, and the fans see it and know it’s there, says Valley. He respects the crowd while subtly getting his messages across.

“When people lose the crowd in their matches, he has carried it over to his matches ... He makes it seem real. They don’t scream ‘phony wrestling angle.’ He has transferred this reality to his matches. Fans care.”

Rhodes didn’t set out to be the company’s main star, says Valley, but he has evolved. He is also in tune with the younger demographic that is vital to AEW’s success.

“While not the best or most athletic wrestler in the business, Cody has something that other big stars don’t. He oozes charisma and has great promo skills,” says Valley. “I would argue that somehow he has become the flag-bearer and arguably the biggest star right now in AEW and is a big part of the money they’re drawing. He’s doing great, and he’s done something that people didn’t think was possible anymore.”

In an unscripted environment that has been created in All Elite, talent has enjoyed creative license as the company has planted a firm foothold in the wrestling industry.

“When wrestling promos aren’t heavily scripted with ‘insert catchphrase here’ or ‘sell T-shirt there,’ but are passionate and (from) the heart. That’s when pro wrestling is at its best,” tweeted one All Elite fan.

“People aren’t going down. They’re going up,” Valley says of the fledgling company backed by Jacksonville Jaguars billionaire owners Tony and Shahid Khan.

Making his own way

Being the son of the iconic Dusty Rhodes doesn’t hurt.

Rhodes, a real-life son of a plumber, mixed a blue-collar work ethic with a soul singer’s charisma to become one of the most in-demand stars of the territory days of the 1970s and ‘80s, and later as a powerful behind-the-scenes force.

Cody, a two-time Georgia high school wrestling champion, attended the Howard Fine Acting Studio in Los Angeles for a year.

“I retained a lot of good information from acting school, but the majority of entertainment skills I retained was things I picked up from my dad and my boss (Vince McMahon),” Rhodes said in a 2011 interview.

Rhodes said that his father initially pushed him away from the business, preferring that his youngest son be a writer or an actor.

“He didn’t want me at all to get involved in sports entertainment. It wasn’t like he was a deterrent for it, but he didn’t really want the day to come where I said I wanted to go somewhere to train. He wasn’t ready for that day when it did come.”

But when that day came, Dusty gave him his blessing.

“If you’re going to do it, then be the best.”

His dad, whether he liked it or not, was a major influence in Cody following in his footsteps.

“He was the one who exposed me to the business,” says Rhodes, who joined the WWE developmental ranks in 2006. “Even when I wasn’t watching it, I was backstage and could hear guys jumping around in the ring and the reaction of the crowd. I wanted to get out there and see what they were doing. But from that time on, I never thought I would do anything but get involved with pro wrestling.”

Ross, in an interview with ComicBook.com, noted the similarities between Cody and his dad, who passed away in 2015 at the age of 69.

“He (Dusty) was different in a lot of ways, but the similarities for these two guys are so much alike on the creative side of it,” said Ross. “Cody is a natural-born storyteller, whether it’s him writing stories for the other talents on the show or him writing his own stuff. He’s a natural-born storyteller just like ‘The Dream’ was. Dustin is the great in-ring technician from that family. They’re half-brothers. But Dustin will admit to this, he doesn't have the creativity Cody does. Cody’s a chip off the old block.”

As for McMahon, while there is no love lost on his parting with his former employer, Rhodes will not forget how the company gave his dad a new life in the business as an NXT coach and helped him out with financial issues.

“It’s very simple. I could smash a thousand thrones and I could make a thousand potshots and little fourth-wall breaking comments about my experience because it is vastly different from Dusty’s,” he told Peter Rosenberg on ESPN’s Cheap Heat podcast.

“But as his son, I know that in 2005 when he got his first royalty check for the Dusty Rhodes DVD, which they did a marvelous job on, my mother literally hit her knees in the kitchen and thanked God for them having brought him back to financial security. For them having given him a home in the winter of his life and a functional thing to chew on with NXT and to maybe help and guide a few young stars. So with that in mind and what they did for him at the end, I will never be ungrateful to them.”

For years Cody Rhodes lived and worked in his father’s considerable shadow. Now he’s carving his own path while carrying on The Dream’s legacy.

Reach Mike Mooneyham at bymikemooneyham@gmail.com, or follow him on Twitter at @ByMikeMooneyham and on Facebook at Facebook.com/MikeMooneyham. His newly released book — “Final Bell” — is now available at https://evepostbooks.com and on Amazon.com

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