Cody Rhodes’ American Dream

I traveled to Jacksonville for AEW Dynamite last week for the sake of seeing Yuji Nagata wrestle in America for the first time since I was a child, when Nagata was a wrestler I liked because he did karate kicks in WCW/nWo Revenge and wrestled on B-shows like Saturday Night and {Pro}. I was extremely excited about this match—I kept AEW’s ticket page up on my phone in case they went on sale without a tweet, I considered buying a combo pack for the May 12th Dynamite and May 5’s Blood & Guts, and I called a box office like it was 1998.

I am 33 years old and have been watching American wrestling since I was four. It doesn’t often feel like American wrestling is something that’s really, truly made for me. I’m an outlier, I guess; I’ve moved through a lot of personal and political ideologies as I’ve matured, and most of them have, at one point or another, been subject to a clean loss at the hands of Hulk Hogan. For something to feel like it’s for me, it has to exist outside of one of American wrestling’s big projects, which is the production of American supremacist propaganda. A match for the IWGP United States Championship featuring Jon Moxley and Yuji Nagata, built around how both men read a little sarcasm into their various videos about the mutual respect they have for each other? Forgetting the flag that’s on that championship, that’s about as far removed from a building full of fans chanting “USA! USA! USA!” as it gets.

Then the match ended, and Cody Rhodes came out to address his newest rival, British-Nigerian boxer-turned-wrestler Anthony Ogogo, who recently punched Cody in the gut and left him laying underneath a Union Jack. Wrestling was mine for a moment, then it was just wrestling again.

The American Dream

“I know it’s rather out of style, patriotism,” the man with an American flag tattooed on his neck began, acknowledging that it was cool, even warranted, to make fun of the country’s two party system, the most recent election, and, of course, “our sheer confusion on what to do during our own national anthem.”

I have seen and heard a lot of ignorant bullshit in professional wrestling, but what confusion? Colin Kaepernick knelt during the national anthem for the first time on August 14, 2016, and it has been one of the big issues of the culture war within the United States ever since. There has never been any ambiguity about the gesture or what it means, which is why San Francisco’s police union demanded an apology from Kaepernick, how it became the flashpoint of an early Trump-era Mike Pence publicity stunt, why team owners like the Dallas Cowboys’ Jerry Jones threatened to bench players who didn’t stand for the anthem, and, I’m guessing, why the dude parked in front of me at Daily’s Place had an American flag bumper sticker that said “I DON’T KNEEL” affixed to his Jeep.

This is not a point-by-point rebuttal of a wrestling promo that I did not like, but if you’re going to start your rah-rah babyface promo about how much you love America with a joke about athletes protesting the way American police get away with brutalizing and murdering Black people, you should probably keep it between you and your bathroom mirror. Instead, this was a capital-M moment for Cody Rhodes, one that wound its way from that shaky opening through a kind of “love-it-or-leave-it” examination of Ogogo’s presence in this country, and concluded with him setting aside his “American Nightmare” moniker and taking up the one that belonged to his father, “The American Dream.”

Most wrestling nicknames are frivolous. I’d suggest that most of the ones Cody Rhodes has had, including “The American Nightmare,” fall into that category. But I find myself fascinated by this decision, and not for the reasons presented by Cody when he talked about it being a heavy sword to carry, as his brother’s whole career, in a kayfabe sense, was built around the weight of carrying his father’s name. “The American Dream” meant something when Dusty Rhodes adopted it as his nickname, and it means something now. Those two things are not at all the same.

Pork & Beans

Dusty Rhodes’ American Dream was an aspirational one. He wasn’t shy about wearing fur coats and gold chains, but his affluence, his influence, the weight that people put behind his every word and deed? It was earned. You know the beats: He was the son of a plumber. He didn’t look like a normal wrestler. He didn’t speak like one either. When he wasn’t an outlaw, he was a sweetheart. His rivals—Superstar Billy Graham, Harley Race, Ric Flair—were anything but sweet. Dusty would bleed like a stuck pig and tell the audience that his blood was for them. It didn’t matter if it was the Four Horsemen breaking his leg or Babydoll breaking his heart or the Road Warriors sticking a spike in his eye, nothing could stop him from coming back for revenge—not just his, but yours and mine.

More professional wrestling:

One of Dusty’s most famous Rhodesisms was “I’ve wined and dined with kings and queens, and I’ve slept in alleys eating pork and beans.” This origin story is in reverse, but that’s because he’s speaking from the perspective of someone who hasn’t eaten in alleys for awhile, someone who hasn’t forgotten where he came from. He was “The American Dream” itself, a man who bootstrapped himself up from digging ditches in Texas to becoming the World Heavyweight Champion three times. He turned babyface in 1974 and didn’t turn heel again until he was written off of television as a color commentator on WCW pay per view in 1998.

Rhodes was treated like and portrayed as a folk hero. He bragged a lot more about how good he was at what he did than Johnny Appleseed and John Henry did, but bragging was part of what made him good, and he did so on our behalf. When he spoke about America, he focused on its people and what their hopes and dreams were, not a nation’s success at war or in the stock market. When labor struggled, he felt their struggle. When he was successful, he offered up his success.

The American Dream—the idea that anybody can make it in the United States of America regardless of race, gender, creed, sexuality, economic circumstance, and a trillion other things supposing one works hard enough—has always been a fallacy, and Rhodes’ character was somehow large enough to embody that, as well, particularly in the above 1994 promo where he spoke of his drive for personal success leading him to neglect his son, Dustin.

It is, without question, the best wrestling promo of all time. The distance between it and Hard Times, which is probably the second best wrestling promo of all time, is vast. For our purposes here, in looking at “The American Dream” as a moniker, one has to look at all of that success and weigh it against not being there for your kid, even when that success made you an executive of the company that kid wrestles for. All of that stuff—the championships, the fur coats, the nice meals, the fame and fortune—The American Dream itself, came at the expense of his family, and it is only in his retirement from wrestling full-time that he can offer himself to his son’s cause and, in uniting with him against Arn Anderson and Terry Funk, make good on a better dream. It’s relatable. It’s reachable. It’s real.

Kings & Queens

When I say that Dusty Rhodes’ American Dream is aspirational, that’s because stripped down to its core that dream is to make a living and do right by your family. When he saw his mandate as something beyond justifiably beloved wrestling superstar—like in this brief promo about a bunch of guys who are pretending to be Russians—it didn’t work so well. Wrestling is a lot of things, but “well-prepared to provide commentary on geopolitical issues” is proudly not one of them.

So let’s call Cody Rhodes’ take on “The American Dream” reactionary, because that’s what it was. It was also weirdly powerless, as Cody chose to focus on Ogogo chasing paper in the United States as opposed to the many things plaguing the UK at the moment. That’s because Rhodes is meant to be the babyface in this feud, full stop, and the babyface can’t talk smack about a country that harbors a significant AEW fanbase. A lot of leftist American and international fans have called Ogogo the babyface in this feud, and it’s fine if you want to read it that way, but I can’t—ignoring the intent of that promo does not make the prospect of seeing Cody Rhodes lose a wrestling match more fun for me.

Wrestling spent the better part of a year obsessed with being an escape from the nightmare this country lived (and is living) through, but now one of the our foremost wrestlers is fighting to make it known that America’s differences make it great. I would like to know which differences and how, exactly, they made this country great. Were they resolved? How? To whose satisfaction? Anthony Ogogo is talking about how gas station food causes him to wretch and Cody Rhodes is acting like he spit on the statue of an American who wasn’t a slaveholder. I could use some clarification.

The American Dream here is a compromised one. Actually, calling it compromised feels like undue kindness. I’m particularly stuck on the mention of desegregated schools. Yes, 1961 was the year Atlanta Public Schools and the University of Georgia were forcibly integrated by the National Guard, but in 2019 it was reported that just 1 in 12 students at UGA were Black. The state of Georgia has a pair of merit-based scholarships, HOPE, which covers up to 94% of college tuition costs for students who have a 3.0 GPA, and the Zell Miller Scholarship, which covers 100% for students who have a 3.7 GPA and jump through a certain number of hoops. In 2016, the Georgia Budget and Policy Institute found that just 20% of Black undergraduate students received funding from either program. Segregation didn’t end so much as it was replaced with diversity metrics that can be explained away by the notion of merit, which, of course, has everything to do with effort and nothing at all to do with an intersection of class and race and policy.

This stuff is complicated, and while it’s not beyond the reach of a professional wrestler to understand, I do not think it is within the reach of professional wrestling to synthesize, primarily because the medium was designed as a diversion, a means of parting marks from their money. Jingoism and phony notions of how good America is have been a part of that design for a long time. That arena of wrestling storytelling has has literally never been good, and the times where it crosses over with the actual, bellicose reality of the United States of America are occasions where all I can do is hope that nobody is judging me harshly for watching thinly-veiled propaganda. That hope dies really quickly when you’re one of the only people in the building who isn’t chanting USA after a joke about national anthem protests.

In going there, in making himself “The American Dream” in this fashion, what Cody did was take a moniker that represented the people of a nation and make it a moniker that represents its shaky, doomed ideology. The American Dream in 1985 was about the working class taking something from the wealthy. In 2021 it’s about being proud of the scraps we’ve been given. Unintended or not, that’s the set-up: One man moved towards progress, the other plants his flag and defends that flag and loves that flag and is proud to stand under that flag. It is wild that The American Dream of 2021 is the one that reads like The American Dream of 1985.

The Promiseland

Turning to Ogogo at one point, Cody, as any Rhodes would, referenced a Willie Nelson song, “Living In the Promiseland.” I’m not super familiar with 80s country music, so I looked the song up and watched its music video. It starts with a solid minute or so of newsreel footage of Jewish refugees reaching America after Germany’s defeat in World War II, so its message isn’t exactly opaque.

Based on the first verse (the one that Rhodes paraphrases), you’d think this was a standard song about how great America is, about how it allows the poor and weak upon its shores, takes in their various languages and customs, and encourages them to chase The American Dream. But in the second verse, the lyrics and images turn bitter and sad. It’s about turning away refugees. It’s about failing to do what’s right for the poor. It’s about the hypocrisy of America. Those images, going into the chorus again, are juxtaposed against ones of football and schoolrooms, one of a man in line at a soup kitchen crossfading into another of a well-scrubbed white kid biting into a fresh hot dog bun. The final image that isn’t of Nelson singing that “there’s room for everyone” is of Indigenous people dancing.

It’s neither a great song nor video, but it is a purposeful examination of America’s vision of itself. Its conclusion is that, for whatever its triumphs may be, they came at a cost and fell well short of their intent. Here, The American Dream isn’t an individual’s aspiration to wealth or fame, but the idea that a person shouldn’t need either of those things to be cared for as a person. It isn’t just something we should to aspire to, it’s something we should be ashamed of for constantly neglecting.

The American Dream of 2021 is a guy who listened to half of the song. That’s okay, ultimately, because most nicknames in wrestling are frivolous, regardless of where they come from or the weight of their origins. In time, it’ll just be another thing about Cody Rhodes. Last week, looking around at all of the unmasked faces in the crowd while he said “thank God” about the prospect of a full-capacity show, it was the final note of a song I wasn’t in the mood to hear. So I did what everyone should do when anybody takes to a mic to talk about how great America is: I booed as loud as I could.