Cody Rhodes set to take center stage with three upcoming world title shots

Cody Rhodes has proved himself time and again since leaving WWE two years ago, from his ROH world title run to matches against Okada, Omega and Ibushi. He faces another critical stretch of his career over the course of the next two months. TV Asahi / NJPW

Cody Rhodes has learned over the years that no matter where he goes, he'll always have to prove himself. Part of that comes with being the son of Dusty Rhodes, whose larger-than-life persona carries on well past his death. Or even being the half brother of Goldust, who at 49 years old is still adding to one of the longest-tenured careers in WWE history.

Getting his start in the business at such a young age also hasn't helped matters in that regard for Cody. He debuted on WWE television at just 22 in 2007 and has been on TV for so long that certain fans have a hard time believing there's a side to him they haven't already seen.

It's little wonder then that after almost nine years in the WWE, Cody left in May 2016 on a mission to prove to himself and the world that he could thrive outside the confines of the "machine." That he could hang with the top names on the indies -- he even wrote a list of his independent goals. As he knocked off one goal after another, that list and Cody's dreams expanded faster than he or anyone else could've ever imagined. For some fans, it was maybe too fast -- leading to a familiar chorus of naysayers.

Even as he gets ready for three of the biggest moments of his career in the coming days -- Friday night's Ring of Honor world championship triple threat match at Best in the World, his IWGP heavyweight championship match at the G1 Special in San Francisco on July 7 and everything having to do with his All In independent supershow in September -- those early moments stick in Cody's mind.

He still remembers how vocal those people were when his biggest post-WWE test was announced -- a shot at the IWGP heavyweight title against Japanese icon Kazuchika Okada in the main event of the first New Japan Pro Wrestling G1 Special in Long Beach, California, last year. Cody was already turning heads as the recently crowned Ring of Honor champion, and as one-half of the main event of that show stood on the edge of history as NJPW made its first major foray into North America.

Those same fans cringed at the idea of a WWE-bred product stealing the IWGP heavyweight title from a Japanese icon in Okada who had worked his way all the way up from young-boy status. Cody may have been the one wrestling on his home soil, but the Long Beach crowd shouted profanities at their countryman.

From the moment he stepped out on his own, Cody knew that earning the trust and respect of fans was going to be one of his biggest obstacles in making the transition from WWE. He also quickly learned a burden he would face on a daily basis.

Even though he had left the WWE behind, WWE hadn't quite left him. At least not yet.

"I look at that match very fondly," Cody told ESPN.com. "I think it was real important in terms of a lot of people leave WWE and their gimmick is that they were in WWE. Their gimmick then becomes they're gonna go back to WWE. That was a night where if you hadn't jumped on the bandwagon yet, you'd know this isn't at all what we saw of him his last few years in WWE. This isn't even what we saw of him as he was growing in WWE. This is a whole new man. He's not just the ex-WWE guy."

Cody was right there, move for move, with one of the most technically proficient wrestlers in the world. Working as a heel, he led Okada for the majority of the contest, displaying a level of ring awareness and match psychology that a lot of people didn't know he had in his arsenal.

"Cody's underrated for sure. Any time I've seen him have to step it up he has," said Nick Jackson in a March interview with ESPN. "I think a lot of the second-generation wrestlers, for some reason they get that a lot from critics. They're already waiting to try and critique you in a bad way. I think he's one of the best second-generation wrestlers of all time."

The end of the near 30-minute match in Long Beach foreshadowed Cody's next marquee opponent -- Bullet Club stablemate Kenny Omega.

After Cody had threatened to throw in the towel during the first match between Omega and Okada at NJPW's Wrestle Kingdom 11 in January, Omega came down to ringside to return the favor by throwing in the towel for Cody. Cody wiped his sweat onto the towel and threw it back at Omega's face, but the distraction was enough -- Okada went on to win.

In the year that followed, with the help of the Young Bucks, Being the Elite and NJPW/ROH programming, the Cody-Omega saga has continued to add layers. They faced off in a 37-minute match at Supercard of Honor in front of one of the largest ROH crowds in the promotion's history, and Cody once again hung tight with one of the world's best -- emerging victorious after a snafu involving the Young Bucks.

There have been twists and turns along the way, but the stars have once again aligned between Cody and Omega. In what appears to be the final word in the battle of egos and pride, Cody faces Omega -- fresh off defeating Okada at Dominion in early June -- in Omega's first defense of the IWGP heavyweight title at this year's G1 Special in San Francisco.

While the lines occasionally blur between Cody Rhodes the man and Cody the wrestler who embodies his "American Nightmare" moniker, the story, the stakes and the personalities in play in this match speak for themselves.

"There's no secret that Kenny and I don't get along," Cody said. "We don't get along, we're not best friends, we have nothing in common, but then we have that one thing in common -- that we love pro wrestling. He loves a very different kind of pro wrestling than I love, but it still involves that ring. I think that's what makes it special. You have a real alpha situation going on there. That's something that Matt [Jackson] pulled me aside once and said, 'You can't alpha-male everyone.' We're two damn rams running our heads into each other."

Their battles have clearly done a great deal of good in Cody's career, while allowing him to prove himself in front of a lot of critical eyes. His performance against Omega in New Orleans at Supercard of Honor stands as a key part of Omega's run-up to his IWGP heavyweight title win. After Omega tore it up at Wrestle Kingdom 12 with Chris Jericho, and teamed up with Kota Ibushi against the Young Bucks at Strong Style Evolved in late March, the anticipation for the first match between Cody and Omega was palpable.

The combination of Omega's almost unfathomable run of matches and a year's worth of carefully plotted storytelling made Kenny vs. Cody the most anticipated non-WWE match of WrestleMania weekend. Cody once again proved he could keep up with the best in the world, even if part of him wanted more.

"The event itself, I almost wish, if I could strip away Supercard of Honor and just made it four matches, I think it would've been better for more folks to see what we had there. But [by] the next day, I haven't had that much critical acclaim," Cody said. "Some criticism for sure, but I haven't had that much critical acclaim in many years in my career. You hear about what people thought of the match and they can't wait to see what's next. I trained very hard for that. Wrestling is on that line between sports and entertainment, but the training for it is the same as if you trained for a game that you're gonna go out there and play in any sport. I trained very, very hard for that match and I know he did too."

There have been tag team matches, reunions and falling-outs, but July 7 represents a lot of things for Cody.

"I've been doing this since I was 15 years old. Every time someone told me I couldn't, I did. I'm still the same guy who's responsible for one of the better Intercontinental runs of all time and changing that title. I'm still the guy who shared the ring with Undertaker, Shawn Michaels, Triple H when they were still actually active. And I'm aware, as my wife loves to hear. It's not different than any sport in the world where the best wrestlers are gonna get the best spots. That spot is for me, because I've earned it."

Earlier this month, Omega capped off his legendary string of four bouts against Okada in a two-out-of-three-falls match at Dominion in Osaka, Japan. Any time those two rivals touch, they seem to produce an all-time in-ring exhibition, but their fourth matchup proved there's an even higher level of wrestling that can be reached. Their nearly 65-minute grudge match borrowed bits and piece of storytelling from their three previous contests and culminated in a storybook ending for Omega as the new IWGP heavyweight champion -- ending Okada's record reign at 720 days.

Cody was there at Osaka Jo-Hall for the match many people are saying forever broke the rating scale for how matches will be judged. He even made a cameo at the end, as Omega, Ibushi and the Young Bucks united as the Golden Elite, only for Cody to walk away instead of walking down to the ring to join them.

Rather than having any jealousy, or getting overwhelmed at the prospect of having to live up to that story, Cody was watching and learning intently from his usual spot.

"I always tell my wife this and she hates it -- I'm very aware. As far as, I don't want to get jealous," Cody said. "I don't want to watch two guys go out there, absolutely tear the house down and get jealous. I want to look at it and [ask], 'What are they doing right?' There have been many matches, and Kenny knows this, where I've sat at the curtain, not at the monitor in the locker room, where I've sat at the curtain.

"I watched his G1 final against Naito last year, I've watched every single Okada match. You have to look at him, and he's a competitor. If you really strip the curtain back he's a competitor in the sense where, 'I want to be better at this than you are. I want to be the guy in the spotlight. I want to be the guy waving the banner.' That's the real competition of wrestling. So I like to look at that very aware and say, OK, Kenny is an absolute athletic marvel as far as his cardiovascular goes in that ring, his ability, his unparalleled strength -- I think the strongest guy I've felt besides him is Cesaro. You look at those things and [ask yourself] how can you compete with him."

Before Cody can finish out his own long-term, high-stakes, career-altering story with Omega, there's another major stop along the way. Cody enters a triple threat alongside another Bullet Club teammate -- Marty Scurll -- as the other challenger. They're both vying for Dalton Castle's ROH world championship at Best in the World on Friday in Baltimore, and there are a few very familiar circumstances in play.

Best in the World holds a special place in Cody's heart, as he won his first world title at the event a year ago in Boston -- shortly before challenging for the IWGP heavyweight championship at the first G1 Special.

There have been a few key moments when Cody has proved those doubting him wrong -- but that was one of the shining moments when it felt like everything had fallen right into place.

"The feeling when Cary Silkin handed me the title and I'm on my knees, I remember telling myself, 'Stay here.' I said it out loud. 'Stay here,'" Cody said. "And what I meant was, take it in. You could never do anything else, tomorrow you could wake up and your legs don't work. I got that one. That world title run. Champion or not, that moment now that I'm thinking about it, it was a complete moment of vindication."

Cody admits world titles don't mean quite as much in today's wrestling world as they did in the past, but that doesn't mean that his three upcoming shots at those titles aren't of significance.

After his ROH world championship match at Best in the World in Baltimore, Cody vies for the IWGP heavyweight title at the G1 Special a week later in San Francisco. Then there's the prospect of All In, with his shot at the NWA world's heavyweight championship -- the 10 pounds of gold -- against Nick Aldis.

These three matches are the juncture in Cody's life between the old-school '80s child inside him and the man still fiercely determined to prove everything he's capable of. When Cody thinks world champion, he still thinks of Ric Flair defending his world title throughout the territories. He also can't help but think of his father.

"My dad was a three-time world heavyweight champion, so I want to be a three-time world heavyweight champion," Cody said. "Sometimes I just revert back to Dusty's kid. I'm trying to chase his ghost, and it's a pretty hard ghost to chase."

What's even more important to Cody than world titles is proving he belongs in marquee matches against marquee opponents. Cody won't be competing at the G1 Climax this year due to his busy schedule, but a match against Omega at the G1 Special is clearly worth far more than a consolation prize. He hopes to once again remind everyone that he's much more than an ex-WWE product with a famous last name.

"I think people are gonna be stunned," Cody said. "I think fans of mine who are already on the bandwagon, God bless them, thank you for being there, but I think this is a great jumping-off point if you're looking at what is Cody Rhodes. I think I've proven the naysayers wrong about, 'Oh, he's just ex-WWE,' and the new set of naysayers, 'Oh, he can't compete at this level.' I can compete at any level.

"I've been doing this since I was 15 years old. Every time someone told me I couldn't, I did. I'm still the same guy who's responsible for one of the better Intercontinental runs of all time and changing that title. I'm still the guy who shared the ring with The Undertaker, Shawn Michaels, Triple H when they were still actually active. And I'm aware, as my wife loves to hear. It's not different than any sport in the world where the best wrestlers are gonna get the best spots. That spot is for me, because I've earned it."

ROH Best in the World takes place Friday night at Baltimore's UMBC Event Center and is available for purchase through pay-per-view and Honor Club. NJPW's G1 Special in San Francisco is set for July 7 at San Francisco's Cow Palace. Tickets are still available, with the action airing live on AXS TV and streaming on NJPWWorld for those outside the United States. All In is set for a sold-out Sears Centre in Chicago, with streaming details still to be released.