Cody Rhodes charting new path on his own terms

Cody Rhodes, flanked here by long-time wrestling announcer and fellow WWE alumnus Joey Styles, has had little time to rest since he started his run on the independent circuit in August. He wouldn't have it any other way. Tim Fiorvanti/ESPN

In the world of professional wrestling, WWE is the be-all, end-all for almost everyone who has ever aspired to lace up a pair of boots.

Each day spent on the road, each bump absorbed and each long car ride are part of a sacrifice and commitment that most wrestlers hope will one day help them get their chance with the WWE. There are rare exceptions -- those for whom wrestling in the WWE isn't the end goal or, in even rarer cases, those who reach the promised land of the WWE and choose to walk away.

Stepping away from the WWE isn't the fate Cody Rhodes, who was born Cody Runnels, would have foreseen when he began his WWE journey more than a decade ago. When he started in WWE's developmental territory, Ohio Valley Wrestling, in 2006 at the age of 21, Rhodes hoped to follow in the legendary footsteps of his father, the late Dusty Rhodes, and reach the pinnacle of the wrestling business. With WCW and the NWA -- places where Dusty made his legend -- long gone, there was nowhere on par with the WWE for the younger Rhodes to accomplish his goal.

Ten years later, without the company's top title to show for his efforts and no sign of things changing, Rhodes, 31, made a decision that's still sending ripples through the world of professional wrestling: He left the WWE earlier this year on his own terms.

Even though he felt it was his only decision when the moment came, it was not a choice he made lightly. From the beginning, Rhodes wanted only to make his father proud; if he could reach the top in WWE, he felt he could have righted the one true wrong in his father's Hall of Fame career.

"My goal when I got there was to be the one thing that my Dad was never, and that was WWE champion or, as we call it now, the WWE world heavyweight champion," Rhodes told ESPN.com. "It's the Oscar in professional wrestling, and on a couple of occasions, I got very close to that particular spot."

But each and every time Rhodes reached another precipice, every time he neared a chance at that WWE world championship, it didn't happen. Not during his time with Randy Orton and Ted DiBiase in The Legacy, when he was among the final three in the 2010 Royal Rumble, or his 236-day Intercontinental championship run (from 2011 to 2012). Not even in four opportunities in Money in the Bank ladder matches.

"In the past few years, I was getting farther away from it," Rhodes said.

Things took a defining turn in June 2014, when Rhodes adopted the "Stardust" character that he continued as until his departure from the company. Rhodes made the most of painting himself up and wearing a similar bodysuit to Goldust (worn by his half-brother Dustin), but after teaming and then feuding with Goldust, followed by failed challenges for the Intercontinental championship, the gimmick never went anywhere until Rhodes feuded with Stephen Amell, the star of the CW show "Arrow."

That rivalry was also short-circuited, but for much different reasons. Rhodes' world seemingly collapsed around him with the death of his father in June 2015 at 69.

He soon returned to the WWE, but after a few mostly listless months, with significant efforts to try to reinvent himself largely falling on deaf ears and his 10th anniversary with WWE approaching, Rhodes requested his release from the company in late May. For the first time in his adult life, he was no longer beholden to WWE.

While the departure struck some fans as a surprise, it was seemingly a long time coming for Rhodes. What he had set out to do next, in channeling his father's independent spirit and attempting to pave a new path for others to follow, would be far more surprising.

The first sign that Rhodes' post-WWE career was going to be something different came just one week after the initial statement he released on Twitter. He returned to social media with a simple, black-and-white image featuring a list of 14 items with empty boxes next to them that he had planned to accomplish, with the "After 8/19" a reference to the date his non-compete clause with WWE ran out.

With months to go before his post-WWE journey, Rhodes had already declared some lofty targets, but the more telling conclusion from his list was that he hoped to do what few, if any, had done in a long time: wrestle for almost every major company in every corner of the world and face their top stars while doing it. It was a conscious effort to prove that he had his affairs in order and he wasn't going to settle for what independent promoters were going to offer him.

"A lot of times when people are released or, unfortunately, get fired, they almost scramble for what it is they are going to do next," Rhodes said a few days after his August return to the ring. "I think when you are no longer working under a big, corporate umbrella, you have to be your own brand, your own enterprise. That was my thought process before I left."

Rhodes was buoyed by the fact that he didn't have to worry so much about the financial aspect of wrestling, as 10 years in the WWE had provided a healthy nest egg to lean back on. He sought out some of the most exciting talents on the independent circuit, eventually coming to agreements with both Ring of Honor and TNA to perform on high-profile shows without agreeing to a longer-term contract.

"A lot of times when people are released, or unfortunately get fired, they almost scramble for what it is they are going to do next. I think when you are no longer working under a big corporate umbrella, you have to be your own brand, your own enterprise. That was my thought process before I left." Cody Rhodes on leaving WWE

With names such as Adam Cole, Kurt Angle, "The Miracle" Mike Bennett, Chris Hero and Katsuyori Shibata on his list, Rhodes looked to run the gamut, as far as types of opponents and settings for matches.

"Two really good examples of kind of opposite ends of the spectrum, like the uber-indie superstar in Chris Hero versus a future WWE Hall of Famer in Kurt Angle," Rhodes said. "I think that appeases both types of fans. There are fans who just like their indie stars, and then there are your more casual fans that are more familiar with somebody like Kurt Angle, and their interest might be piqued."

With three months to prepare for his reinvention, Rhodes enjoyed his first real time off since he joined the WWE in the Virgin Islands, piggybacking an extra week of vacation time after serving as the best man in his best friend's wedding. Once that was over, there were immediate expectations stemming from the release of his list. He prepared by working out at the gym in the morning, training in a ring he has set up at his house by day and running with his dog by night.

Once he reached those first few weeks of action in August, Rhodes dove in head-first. He returned to the ring for his first match as Cody Rhodes in more than two years at an Evolve show in Joppa, Maryland, facing off with Zack Sabre Jr., who was, somewhat ironically, in the midst of his first run on WWE TV as part of the Cruiserweight Classic. Rhodes got to check a name off his list the following afternoon at another Evolve show in Brooklyn against Hero. That show took place less than 30 minutes from where WWE was holding the second of three sold-out shows at the Barclays Center that night on SummerSlam weekend, but it was somehow a world away.

The checklist covered more than specific wrestlers, as Rhodes scratched another goal off his list by participating in Pro Wrestling Guerilla's annual "Battle of Los Angeles" tournament in early September. There's a certain mystique that surrounds the current era of PWG, from the world-renowned independent stars who perform there to the intimate setting of the American Legion Post in Reseda, California, that has fans right up on the ring (tickets sold out within a minute of being put on sale).

"I had a habit of watching classic wrestling pretty much on repeat in the locker rooms," Rhodes said. "With the influx of talent at WWE, with guys like Kevin Owens, he was one of the first people to open my eyes up to the world that is PWG and BOLA. My longstanding friendship with Daniel Bryan had already opened up my eyes to the Ring of Honor brand [as well as Evolve]."

There was also some nostalgia attached to this particular event and venue. It was another way to subtly reconnect with his father.

"It's that legion hall," Rhodes said. "It reminds me of being 15 years old. I was a referee in TCW in Carrollton, Georgia, doing Turnbuckle Championship Wrestling, and it was 1,000 degrees in there, and it was completely sold out every Friday that we ran it. That was my dad's independent promotion."

There's a certain adrenaline that comes with taking such a leap of faith as Rhodes did when he left the WWE and took the independent wrestling world by storm, but you might forgive him for getting a little overwhelmed by three straight months of that kind of whirlwind.

"Today's a pretty good indicator," he said on a mid-October day that saw him enjoying a rare day off from the road. "I'm home, but it feels like, gosh, I've barely been home, and I'm starting to kind of run myself a little bit on fumes."

After so many years of a 300-plus-day schedule with the WWE, Rhodes is somewhat used to burning the candle on both ends. But the new world he has inserted himself into is largely one of self-service and far different than WWE, which has streamlined the processes of travel, media and just about anything else superstars have to deal with. Add that Rhodes has his father's desire to give everything he has to the fans, and it's no wonder he's relishing a rare respite.

"I need a true day or two to kind of wind back and reset," he said. "The best indicator is that, when I started this whole journey, I was like 214 pounds. After wrestling almost every single night, I weighed in this morning at 200.1 pounds. I don't think I've been that light since 2011, at my leanest."

Still, there's little sign of Rhodes slowing down anytime soon, despite a rigorous schedule that includes moving out of his home and into a new place.

"I think that it would kind of be a disservice if I didn't [go all-out] because of how I did it, leaving WWE," Rhodes said. "It was all kind of public, saying, 'Hey, I want to wrestle. I want to wrestle as myself.' For me, there's no other way. I can't save anything, man. Otherwise, I'm just doing the fans and myself a disservice."

A life on the road is in his blood and his history. Despite feeling tired and worn down, Rhodes feels as though he'll be fine again in short order.

"I've learned you don't always need to be home to be home," Rhodes said. "When I say I need a day or something like that, it essentially amounts to me needing eight hours of sleep and more than an hour at a quality gym and a full day of high-protein meals. That, to me, would feel like a month off."

One of the biggest factors in Rhodes' maintaining himself in the face of such a grueling and demanding schedule is the fact that his wife, Brandi, is in the thick of things with him. Under the name Eden Stiles, Brandi was a ring announcer for the WWE but left the company in unison with Rhodes in late May. She isn't intent to sit on the sideline as a valet or personal ring announcer, though. She recently stepped between the ropes and trained to become a wrestler herself, debuting with TNA.

Despite some of the chaos that has bogged the company down behind the scenes, the husband and wife duo (with Cody still unable to use his full name on television because it's trademarked by the WWE) appeared on several weeks of TNA programming as the pair squared off with another married couple in Mike Bennett and Maria Kanellis-Bennett (a WWE alum in her own right).

"This was a considerably big thing for me," Rhodes said. "It's been a long time since I was out there as just me. I was really proud of the matches I was able to have during my time with TNA."

With TNA behind him (for now), Rhodes continued to traverse the globe in an almost perpetual loop. One of the most interesting developments, especially more recently, is how often his path has crossed with younger guys heading in the opposite direction toward a run in the WWE.

"It's funny. I've had a couple of run-ins with Cedric Alexander on shows, and TJ Perkins is another example," Rhodes said. "And I had the farewell matches for both Johnny Gargano or Tommaso Ciampa -- one at XWA, one at Evolve -- and I get kind of a kick out of that. I think I'm probably the worst person to tell you about how much fun you're going to have at WWE.

"Most of the things I share with them are from my personal mistakes or from a few personal successes I had. How to deal with the political element, the financial element of it and also the grueling schedule element of it and how it can affect your family. I get a kick out of it, but then I find myself happy to answer questions like that."

It all circles back to why Rhodes is doing this in the first place. While he's happily enjoying this run on the independents, with this first stretch culminating in early December with his ROH debut at the Hammerstein Ballroom in New York, he wants to do whatever he can to improve the wrestling business for fans and wrestlers alike.

By sharing his knowledge, Rhodes has also found another way to channel the gifts of his late father, who helped usher in a groundbreaking new era of performers during his time working in NXT at the WWE's Performance Center in Orlando.

"I really like when guys ask questions because it gives me a chance to be honest with them," Rhodes said. "And honest with myself."