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EXCLUSIVE: Cody Rhodes on what his legendary dad would've thought of his WrestleMania win

WrestleMania 40 ended with one of the most dramatic finishes in the history of the WWE event, as Cody Rhodes finally won the Undisputed WWE Universal Championship.

Rhodes pinned Roman Reigns after a chaotic main event April 7 at Lincoln Financial Field in Philadelphia, putting an end to Reigns’ 1,316-day run as champ. In doing so, he “finished the story” and became the first member of his wrestling family, which includes his late father, Dusty Rhodes, to win a top WWE championship.

The previous night, Rhodes and Seth Rollins lost a tag-team match to Reigns and Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson, which turned the championship bout into a “Bloodline rules,” anything-goes match. And while Reigns’ “Bloodline” faction did its best to turn the championship match in Reigns’ favor, John Cena and The Undertaker made surprise appearances to come to Rhodes’ aid.

As Rhodes finally conquered Reigns and earned the 1-2-3 count, the tens of thousands of fans in attendance erupted in cheers, and ring announcer Samantha Irvin’s voice cracked with emotion as she declared Rhodes the winner of the match.

Rhodes was then joined for a teary and memorable post-match celebration with his wife, Brandi Rhodes; his mother; and several of his fellow WWE good guys, including Cena.

Less than 12 hours after his victory, Rhodes sat down with TODAY.com at 30 Rock to discuss the championship match; what his father would have thought of his storyline; and what’s next for him.

This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.

Does this feel real to you? Has it sunk in yet?

I think it sunk in a lot longer than after the moment. You know, the moment happened, and then it feels like a couple hours go by and you’re still not caught up. You’re still, like, on your bicycle, almost. Even, like, your head feels cloudy. And then around 4 this morning, because I laid down for a second, is the first time I really actually felt it had sunk in. And that was a really great feeling because “sunk in” for me means, OK, cool, what can we do next?

This must have been one of the more genuine moments I’ve seen in WWE history — the outpouring of love and support you received from your colleagues after the 1-2-3, between Samantha Irvin announcing you as the winner and her voice cracking, your fellow babyfaces (good guys) coming to the ring and celebrating you. Brandi was in the ring. Your mom was in the ring. What did it mean to you to have all that support?

I feel like the suspension of disbelief with sports entertainment and pro wrestling, sometimes it’s one way on the scale, and when it’s best it’s because it’s real, so why not involve the real components? My mom, which would have never been brought into this and The Rock had made her such a fixture of it all, which was great. I had always thought that Brandi would be part of that entrance (before the match), which was the thing I wanted the most. I was so excited. But everything else was just like icing on top of an incredibly delicious cake just because I didn’t expect it, didn’t anticipate it, didn’t coordinate it. It was done outside of me. So everything you saw was as sincere as sincere gets in terms of a celebration.

And it takes a lot to get the guys. Nobody (says), "You want me to stay late?" You know, especially after the kind of week that WrestleMania week is, and to see Randy (Orton), to see (CM) Punk, Kevin (Owens) and Sami (Zayn), LA Knight, of course John Cena, that whole bit. That hasn’t set in, that hasn’t hit me yet. Because I haven’t called everybody. I called as many people as I could thanking them for their involvement. A lot of calls still being made, though, because that’s some heavy hitters. That’s a GOATs row that was in there.

You mentioned at the press conference last night that your mom doesn’t aspire to be on TV, she shies away from the spotlight. But you had a very sweet moment after you won where you presented her with the championship in the middle of the ring. What did that moment mean for her, and what did that moment mean for you?

You know, I said my mom, she doesn’t aspire to be on TV, and perhaps my mom never wanted to be part of the story that was taking place. However, it seemed like she fully got it when I handed it to her. It seemed like she fully understood what that meant, because I really don’t think she’s seen my interviews where I said I want to hand it to her because I can’t hand it to my dad. So I’m just glad she took it. My mom’s the type to be like, "No." But I feel in that moment it was — she fully understood the weight of the moment, what it was, and just held it really proudly.

I consider (my entrance) song "wrestling has more than one royal family," the whole beat there at the beginning, I truly kind of considered that. And for all second and third generations, when your family’s been dictated by pro wrestling, up and down the roads, father, mother, whatever it is, you’re kind of all in that family, and she’s just as much a wrestler as anybody who’s in the ring.

Cody Rhodes and his mother celebrate at WrestleMania 40. (WWE)
Cody Rhodes and his mother celebrate at WrestleMania 40. (WWE)

One of the great things about this whole story arc was that it reminded fans of how great of a wrestler your dad was. Not only in the ring, but he had a great mind for the business. What do you think he would have thought of this whole story arc and how it played out last night?

I think he’d probably first assess the fact that Roman, one of his guys in NXT, had grown into this unbelievable character, persona, competitor, “the Tribal Chief,” standing next to Paul Heyman, who he gave his first break in the business; the night before in the tag match, with The Rock, when he was partnering with his dad; and then Seth Rollins, who was one of my dad’s top three favorites in NXT and Florida Championship Wrestling. I think he’d have to assess all that first.

And then he always had a really unshakable confidence in me that I didn’t even have in myself. I think if he saw those graphics, just the graphics from Night One and Night Two, he would have been incredibly proud. But again, and I don’t say this with any arrogance, he probably would have said, “I told you so. I knew he could.” He was always more confident in me than I was in me. So I feel like it would have been a really special thing had he been there of course to see it, just because he could really kind of revel in that, that his name moves on. And not just because of him.

We’ve spoken before about how if it had been your preference, you would have had a straight-up 1-on-1 match with Roman with no outside interference. And last night was the complete opposite of that — a lot of involvement from a lot of people. But it also felt like a real passing-of-the-torch moment, when you had John Cena come to your defense and you had The Undertaker come to your defense. What did you think in that moment when all of these stars from the past came back to help you out?

John Cena coming down was literally like a bolt of lightning in the building. The energy that he brings is just a Cena-level energy, so to feel it and hear it, and I’m just laying on the mat, it was far more real than somebody (saying), "Hey, we talked about John coming." It was just, to steal a Gorilla Monsoon (phrase), it was pandemonium.

And then The Undertaker of it all — the gong, blackout, there he is — that to me was one of the things I looked at and thought, that’s WrestleMania. It’s 40 years of WrestleMania. We saw John Cena facing off against The Rock. We saw the original judge, the locker room leader, the general of WWE through good times and bad, The Undertaker, there to do one last piece of like — like a sheriff. One last piece of business in town to get rid of The Rock. That’s incredible because I don’t have a link to The Undertaker. I mean, if I did, it’s a very small link, but the link is WrestleMania, and the link is I would say victims of “The Bloodline” who had all crossed paths with Roman Reigns and everyone showed up there last night. And thank God.

There was a lot of fan speculation on social media throughout the weekend that “Stone Cold” Steve Austin would come out. Do you have any insight on that?

You know, it was never — again, I would totally understand if no one would believe this, but there were certain elements of the match that I asked to not know. The reason being it’s so real at this point that I don’t want it to be performative at all. So if there are performative pieces I’ll see them as they happen. Just like the end, there’s no coordination of that. It just happened, it was all real. Hopefully it came across in that way because it was.

But, no. I had seen fans speculating on all the in-game potential, people who could show up: “Stone Cold,” my brother. All kinds of stuff like that. And that would have been amazing. I’m very happy though with how it turned out for us, the general sentiment in the building and the chance after Undertaker disappeared again. That was really special.

Have you had a chance to talk to Roman or The Rock after the match?

Neither. I didn’t talk to either. And I think they probably appreciate it because sometimes your opponent’s there in Gorilla (the backstage position near the stage) waiting on you. … I think (Reigns) was happy to pass through and just, head high, go to his bus and relax, because as much as he had a part-time schedule, he was never not the champion. He always carried himself as the champion. Always, every time he was there, the aura they talk about with Roman, the presence he developed. And I think —  he wasn’t tired. He was far from it. He was in the best shape I’ve ever seen him. But I think he kind of swan song for now. And that’s why I haven’t (spoken with him). I’m sure we will. I haven’t spoken to Rock at all, but hopefully we do at some point soon.

A few days ago you said that you wanted to win this championship for the fans because they rallied behind you after WWE teased the Rock-Roman Reigns potential main event and they willed you back into the main event. So what message would you send to fans now?

Obviously, thank you. I tell people all the time, you know, sometimes you have a stock-ready answer when somebody says something nice. I’ll always say I’m the luckiest man alive. I believe it. I look at my daughter, I look at my wife and I always, I believe when I’m saying that. But in the case of that situation where fans willed me back into not one, but two main events, one being able to test myself against one of the biggest movie stars in Hollywood, the other one getting a shot at redemption and finishing a story that started in the ‘70s, prior to my birth. All of that fan-driven amount of gratitude? The only way I can display it back is to just give them an incredible title run, is do something special with what I have now for however long that is.

Cody Rhodes and Triple H at WrestleMania 40. (WWE)
Cody Rhodes and Triple H at WrestleMania 40. (WWE)

You finished the story. So now what’s next?

I had said on “SmackDown,” I said when one good story ends, an even better one begins. And I think that’s where I’m at with it, is we did finish the story. The story of a Rhodes wanting to capture this championship that (Dusty) never did, we got that. Now the fun really needs to begin. The legacy of my dad and the specter, the kind of a ghost always chasing the accolades and the impact that Dusty Rhodes had, that’ll always be there. But now I got this one up on him and I need to — for all the new fans we have, you know, you look out in the crowd and you see all the cosplay, kids who look at me in a really special way. And for them I want to give them just an unbelievable run.

So brand-new story, hopefully brand-new opponents, hopefully on both shows (“Raw” and “SmackDown”). I’m good to be tested. You know, we didn’t get that with Roman, and I don’t want to take away the specialness of the title by any means, but I do want to be far more active. Plus, I do the live events, which is not a throwaway thing. I do the live events, which is the heartbeat of WWE, these smaller, non-TV production shows. And to be able to bring that on them when it’s been absent this whole time, that’s special.

This article was originally published on TODAY.com