Even as the wrestling world is in the midst of an indie renaissance, WWE is and will likely always be the pinnacle of the business. No promotion is going to slow down the WWE machine, and as long as they sit atop the pecking order, hopeful wrestlers will aspire to reach that pinnacle. But if you take a step back and you're able to look past the glowing aura of the big stage for just a moment, it becomes more conceivable why WWE isn't for everyone, especially those who have been through the intense grind that comes with such an opportunity.
The standards that WWE superstars are expected to follow on a daily basis can often become overbearing. Being at the top of the wrestling industry isn't always enough to justify those sacrifices, especially when something as simple as being yourself, an ingredient in any strong WWE performer, is an everyday battle.
That struggle was apparent when Cody Rhodes, the son of Dusty Rhodes and a mainstay in WWE's system since 2006, was tasked with having to perform as Stardust, a character that he put his heart into that simply wasn't going anywhere. His wife Brandi, who was working as a ring announcer at the time, also felt out of place as the all smiles, personality-devoid Eden Stiles. Cody was granted his WWE release in May 2016, and Brandi would do the same a few days later.
But it wasn't as simple as Brandi leaving because her husband was stepping away. Brandi, like Cody, wanted to be herself again.
"I honestly was supposed to always be a wrestler. I was never hired into any business as an announcer," Brandi said in a recent interview with ESPN. "That was just something I ended up falling into. There was never any decision of, 'Oh, she should not wrestle.' It's because I never got there. It was just, 'She's so good on the microphone, we can't possibly do anything else with her.' I wanted to be able to do what I always intended to do, so what better way than to start fresh and say, 'OK, I've done the broadcasting end of it, let's move forward and do what I came to do in the first place.'"
Cody and Brandi made a loud statement to the wrestling world by leaving WWE on their own terms. They were confident that the opportunities that would emerge after leaving WWE would make their leap of faith more than worth it. The decision to go down that path wasn't easy, even with the benefit of embarking on the journey together.
"I think in our house we're really tough on each other," Cody said to ESPN. "One of the things I told her when I said I'm planning on leaving, when she told me she would leave as well and what she'd plan on doing, I said, 'One of the things that bothers me the most is when people say "stay tuned for the next chapter" or "you've only seen the beginning of." When people are fired or ask for their release and they tell you they're gonna do something, it irritates me to death when they don't something.' I know that sounds kinda harsh, but I explained that to her. I said you can't tell folks you're going somewhere unless you work for it."
The first big stage Cody and Brandi had to showcase their next chapter was at PWG's Battle of Los Angeles in 2016.
PWG crowds are known to be the most relentless, passionate and unforgiving fans in all of wrestling. PWG's tradition of having the audience gather on the outskirts of the ring apron can be an intimidating sight for wrestlers new to the promotion's die-hard culture. As a former WWE product, there was no guarantee an indie-heavy crowd, many of whom don't even watch WWE on a regular basis, would embrace someone who had never wrestled on the independents before.
Angelo Trinidad, PWG's ring announcer, couldn't even introduce Cody's opponent Sami Callihan before the crowd was already chanting, "CODY! CODY! CODY!" After announcing Callihan, Trinidad gave the mic to Cody's "personal ring announcer." Unlike in WWE, Brandi was more than happy to do the ring announcing this time.
"That moment was insane to me because that was the first moment I was free to be me on the microphone," Brandi said. "When you're an on-air broadcaster you have a personality to maintain. It's your job. My job in roles before, even back to when I was in TV news, was to deliver the information. Was not to spice it up. Was not to make it about me. Was to deliver the information so that people knew what was going on. This is the first time I didn't have to do that."
Brandi used the stage to reveal a side of her personality that no one could've ever seen as Eden Stiles.
"I free-balled it. I just went off the top of my head," Brandi reflected. "Every time they started to get excited I hit 'em with something more."
The first superlative Brandi proclaimed while introducing Cody was Grandson of a Plumber. The crowd went ballistic.
"I had about three seconds to think as they would cheer," Brandi said. "When they went crazy with that, I said, 'All right, I got about five more I could probably do if I think real quick,' and I kept hitting them with different things."
Brandi followed that up with "formerly known as Dashing, Undashing and Mustachioed," which drew laughs from the crowd. That set up her most memorable line of the night.
"The Star That Left Them in the Dust -- when I said that, I thought to myself, 'Oh man, that might get a boo now, that might have been too much,' and they literally lost their minds," Brandi said. "That was such a freeing moment to step out of a role that I'd pretty much been in since I graduated college, just a talking head really, and have a moment with a group of fans. That kind of secured for me that I really want to keep doing things in this business for sure, because things like that are so defining, and it's so real for me that I can never pass that up."
Despite being married since 2013, Brandi and Cody were told to act as if they had no pre-existing relationship whenever their paths seldom crossed on WWE television. Brandi, and even more so the fans, have enjoyed not having to hide their marriage anymore.
"It's been really fun. We're able to be ourselves," Brandi said. "I think it's more exciting for the fans, because for so long they've known us to be together and a married couple, and for so long they wanted that acknowledged and it wasn't able to be acknowledged. It's kind of frustrating when you're watching something and you know what's real and then people are telling you no. Fans are very into the idea of good old-fashioned marriage. They don't like pretending when you're married that you're not."
Brandi and Cody's relationship away from cameras has been the key to their post-WWE success. Cody has helped Brandi with her in-ring training while on the road and whenever they're home in Atlanta, Georgia. After a handful of matches with IMPACT wrestling in late 2016 and early 2017, Brandi has made real strides in conjunction with Ring of Honor's more recently focused Women of Honor brand. Cody thinks Brandi's background as a figure skater has helped with her footwork. The two also regularly lean on each other for advice on business, even for projects that have nothing to do with wrestling.
Whenever Cody has a tough decision to make, he has learned to listen to what The Brain thinks is best.
"Brandi and I kind of have this Pinky and the Brain relationship between each other," Cody said. "We sit down almost every morning and we go over a list of things: 'How can we capitalize on this? What can we do to be better here? What's missing there?' We have a very like-minded [view] when it comes to our careers, and our careers are different. I'm a professional wrestler who, in the entertainment world, I have some projects here and there, but in my heart I'm a pro wrestler. Brandi is a master of a lot of things. I guess I'm Pinky. Every day she tells me how we're going to take over the world. It's so much fun to have somebody like that."
While Cody views their rapport as akin to Pinky and the Brain, Brandi has a different mindset.
"Cody has helped me as much as I've allowed him to," Brandi said. "I am a different type of female. I am not your typical wife of a successful man. I'm not one to sit back and watch and support and that to solely be my role. I want to compete. If you're doing well, I better be doing well too. And I want to be doing well on my own. I don't want to be doing well because you're doing well. It's Jay-Z and Beyonce."
Brandi's goal-driven, independent-minded mentality has earned her the biggest opportunity of her career as a star in E!'s WAGS Atlanta. Brandi was far along on a different project when WAGS Atlanta reached out to her manager to see if she was interested. Brandi agreed to a Skype interview but thought nothing would come of it for another six to eight months. Instead, she received a contract offer five days after the interview and started filming two weeks after that.
The fact that Brandi never had the chance to regularly appear on Total Divas, WWE's reality show on E! that has run since 2013, and now finds herself starring on WAGS Atlanta on the same network exemplifies why she left WWE in the first place.
"If you know that the vision of yourself doesn't align with someone else's vision of you and it's drastically different, then that's when it's time to move on," Brandi said. "It's just a testament for what I knew for myself to be true. I knew that I had other opportunities that'd be available to me. Did I know how hard it'd be to secure them? No, of course not. You never know how hard you're gonna have to work. You just work. It was just meant to be."
The debut of WAGS Atlanta on Jan. 3 came just five hours before Wrestle Kingdom 12 kicks off, which had Brandi in Tokyo to accompany Cody to the ring. She was front and center as Cody competed in one of the biggest matches of his career against Kota Ibushi. The fact that arguably the biggest moments in both of their careers coincided with each other was not lost on them.
"Being a couple that's in entertainment, it's hard to both be up," Cody said. "If you're an actor and you're in a blockbuster movie, the moment the movie is done filming you're out of work again. It's all in what you find next, but this is definitely a moment I [reminded] her that we need to be cheering. We need be happy because this is really great -- debuting on WAGS Atlanta on E! Television and me being able to walk out in front of 40-something-thousand people to wrestle one of the absolute best.
"For me, I have the success with Ring of Honor and I was able to win my first world championship, but she ended up scoring a job on E! Entertainment television. I'm so proud because she said 'stay tuned' and actually had a next chapter."