By JOE REEDY

AP Sports Writer

World Wrestling Entertainment’s prodigal son could become its undisputed champion on April 2.

Cody Rhodes will face Roman Reigns in the main event of this year’s WrestleMania looking to write the final chapter of a story that began seven years ago when he left the company. When Rhodes departed in 2016, he was mired in playing different characters with no hopes of being a top-card wrestler.

He spent the time on the independent circle, including Ring of Honor, before becoming one of the significant figures in the formation of All Elite Wrestling, which has become the biggest competitor to WWE since WCW in the late ’90s.

Rhodes came back to a hero’s welcome at last year’s WrestleMania. A torn pectoral muscle last June put a slight roadblock to the comeback, but Rhodes returned in late January and won the Royal Rumble. That set up his match with Reigns, who will put his 946-day championship reign on the line April 2 at SoFi Stadium in Los Angeles.

“It’s satisfying and vindicating. But it’s hard for me to look at it and say, ‘Hey, I told you so. I knew I had it,’ unless I beat Roman Reigns,” said Rhodes about his comeback.

During his interview with The Associated Press, Rhodes also discussed his father, previewed his match against Reigns and reflected on the past seven years.

AP: The main event between you and Roman looks like two wrestlers peaking at the right time.

RHODES: I’m from Georgia, so there’s an element I see a little differently in the sense that Roman’s not a Bulldog; he’s a Yellow Jacket. Roman went to Georgia Tech, the MIT of the South. I’m sure MIT people are freaking out that I’m saying that, but it’s not an easy school to get into. That forms his wrestling IQ. His conditioning is that of a high-level athlete. That’s why he was able to stand in there with Brock Lesnar (last year) and look the part. You mentioned he’s peaking at this point. That’s a scary thought if you think about the success he’s already had. What might be in my favor is simply the fact that I don’t think Roman knows enough about what I’ve done and who I am. My thing is taking something that wrestling purists, analysts, observers, and journalists say cannot be done or will ever be done again and subverting those expectations.

AP: This main event, more than others at WrestleMania, has the feelings of a family story due to your dad (who passed away in 2015). It’s Dusty Rhodes’ son against one of “Dusty’s Kids” that he trained at NXT.

RHODES: When he passed away, “Dusty’s Kids” was something that I heard a lot because his influence and legacy were being spread out. That was a statistic being touted. Bayley, Sasha (Banks), Becky (Lynch), Seth (Rollins), Roman, Sami (Zayn), Kevin (Owens), the core ones, were all doing better than I was. It wasn’t something I could complain about or throw a tantrum over because they were honoring him. It almost felt like they were honoring him more than I was. And there’s jealousy and envy that comes with it. I would have loved to have done a promo class or been around a ring with my father. I got a far different education from him than they did. But that’s why in these interviews, even on nights I don’t want to say his name or talk about him, you hear it nonetheless because his fingerprints are all over WrestleMania. Every one of those people I just named, for the most part, is doing something spectacular. You want to add yourself to that list, and you almost can’t function if you don’t. I feel like that’s slightly weaponized in a sense by Roman toward me. I wasn’t adjusted and ready for it. I’m ready for it now.

AP: You already had a lot of support from fans when you returned last year, but it seemed like you picked up more after going through with your match with Seth Rollins after suffering a torn pec while preparing for the match because people could see what you were going through physically.

RHODES: It was just a matter of I had to do it. The doctor said I couldn’t hurt it anymore, and I had the surgery lined up. I don’t want to be dramatic and say I could not live with myself, but that’s not the type of wrestler or athlete I was brought up to be. Every person who texted me and gave me these wonderful superlatives about it, I said you would have done the same thing. That crowd needed that match, and I was going to have that match.

AP: It might be hard looking at it right now, but how is life for Cody Rhodes after the past 3-4 years?

RHODES: Life is splendid. When I left my former gig to come back to WWE, it was a far bigger gamble than “All In” (the first AEW show in 2019) ever was. That’s why I get these “All In” vibes when I think about WrestleMania because I certainly could have been the laughingstock of the industry. And going into the biggest event ever involved in the wrestling ring from any measurable standpoint is one part of life being great, blessed and lucky. The other part is I have my family in terms of Brandy (his wife) and Liberty (his daughter), for them to come to this and experience this knowing that it wasn’t a life wasted. Every sacrifice I’ve made, early morning gym trip, times I wasn’t able to be home or won’t be able to be home, it’s not a life wasted in what we do and that makes this run just all the sweetest.

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