RIP Dusty Rhodes 1945-2015 (FSM 94; June 2013)
Before the phrase “living the dream” became a marketing slogan, a power-of-positive-thinking motto, and a phrase bandied about by up and coming young wrestlers barely making enough money to pay the bills, it would have best been applied to young Virgil Riley Runnels Jr. - better known as “The American Dream” Dusty Rhodes. As this issue talks to his son, Cody, it seems only correct that we examine his controversial father as well.
Unfortunately, some younger fans have the image of Dusty Rhodes as the “fat guy in polka dots” from his WWF stint, beginning in 1989. Some just a little older, or who have dug a little deeper, think Dusty was the guy who was in the main events in the NWA because he was the matchmaker. To think of Dusty Rhodes in either way is to do a disservice to one of the biggest stars pro wrestling has ever created.
For those who think Dusty wasn’t an athlete, you couldn’t be more wrong. He was a hell of a football and baseball player at West Texas State University in the mid-’60s, and even did a short stint as a pro football player for an upstart organization trying to compete with the NFL. Going to West Texas State, the alma mater of pro wrestling greats like Terry and Dory Funk Jr, Stan Hansen, Dick Murdoch and many more, he was in the right place to break into the sport under Dory Funk Sr. in Amarillo. Lots of folks were in the right place, though; in those days, only those with the desire, the toughness and the mind for wrestling could take advantage of that opportunity.
Even as a man in his early 20s, Dusty wasn’t going to have a bodybuilder’s physique, because if the college football practices, running the bases like a madman on the baseball field, and working his ass off in the wrestling ring in the West Texas heat didn’t do it, nothing would. Still, those who recall his matches in the early days remember a burly 250-pound kid who moved like lightning, and was a ball of energy in the ring, regardless of the tautness of his physique.
After a few years of knocking around the territories, Dusty became a star in wrestling in the early-1970s, teaming with Murdoch as The Texas Outlaws, and more than living up to the name. Working in Verne Gagne’s AWA, they were a main event heel team, working against greats like Dick The Bruiser and The Crusher, tearing the houses down with their wild antics.
But it would be in Florida in 1974 that “The American Dream” would be born, and Dusty Rhodes would become one of the biggest box office attractions in the game.
LIVING THE DREAM
Managed by Gary Hart, Dusty was different than the rest of his clients, who were usually menacing masked men or vicious foreigners who spoke little English, with Gary doing their promos while their actions also spoke for them in the ring. Dusty had a gift of gab, and a striking personal charisma that made the fans start to take to him, regardless of who he associated with, and what his heel tactics would usually dictate.
This phenomenon didn’t escape the attention of promoter Eddie Graham, who was respected as one of the most powerful men in the NWA, and as a booking genius. Graham’s previous personal project had been the development of Jack Brisco, an All-American athlete and former NCAA wrestling champion; with Dusty Rhodes, Graham would break that mold and create a new kind of hero for the turbulent 1970s.
On the infamous night when Hart and his “Korean Assassin”, Pak Song, turned on the brash young Texan, it kicked off a box office run in Florida that has never been equalled, and made Dusty one of the top attractions in the sport. It couldn’t have been done with anyone else, regardless of Graham’s booking genius, because what made Dusty a star was himself, telling his story in his words, and in his voice. Dusty’s promo was written for him by his life - all he had to do was verbalize it with that distinct lisp and incredible delivery.
He told the fans that he was the son of a plumber from Austin, Texas, born dirt poor, and that he had worked hard all his life. He had remembered the words of an old black man that he had dug ditches with, named TC Lee, who had told him: “This is America. There’s a dream out there - get out of this ditch and live it!” He then told Gary Hart that his “Korean Assassin” was about to meet “The American Dream”.
In one promo, Dusty had made his career, and become a working class hero. As he later said, fans of any color and any situation loved him because “if this fat black man in a white man’s body, with a stupid-looking frizzy white afro could live the dream, well, so could they.”
In a short time, he was the most popular wrestler in Florida history, but he didn’t stop there; as WTBS in Atlanta became the U.S’ first “superstation”, seen all across the country in cable’s infancy, he dominated the Saturday night wrestling programme, which was their highest-rated show. Promoters from all over the country wanted his services, and he was seen as a guy who could “talk people into the building” because of his showmanship and charisma.
Vince McMahon Sr. got dates on Dusty from Eddie Graham, bringing him to Madison Square Garden to work a legendary series of matches against “Superstar” Billy Graham. The promos were incredible, and while the matches weren’t scientific wrestling classics, they electrified the sell-out crowds, and Graham was happy to get Dusty out of Florida for a little while. Why, you might ask? As it was told to me, Graham often said, “I’d have to get Dusty out of Florida for a little while every so often, just so I could get someone else over as a star. When he was here, he just overshadowed everyone else.”
Travelling all over the country as a main event star, working for multiple promoters, would be enough for some, but not “The Dream”. By the end of the decade, he was booking Florida as well, showing that he was serious about being a student of the business, and a protégé of Graham. By the time he had his first run as NWA World champion - breaking down another barrier, as he did not look like the traditional NWA title-holder - he was one of the top five money-drawing talents in the industry. He would go to New Orleans regularly for Superdome events promoted by Bill Watts, another booking protégé of Graham. And, most importantly, he would frequently be brought to the Carolinas for major Jim Crockett Promotions shows.
It was there, seeing the rabid fan-base, incredible television coverage, and major arenas in the territory, that he pitched Crockett the idea for a mega-show, held in Greensboro and shown to other cities, even other territories, via closed circuit television. It could be called Starrcade. Thus, on Thanksgiving Night 1983, a full year-and-a half before the first WrestleMania, the NWA’s biggest event of the year was born.
Dusty soon was given the job of booker for Crockett, as the wrestling landscape was about to change dramatically.
It’s at this point that many of today’s fans can start watching Dusty’s career on videotape. But when watching, you have to remember that by this time, he was almost 40 years old. For 15 years, he had been wrestling every night all over the world, and serving as matchmaker for several years simultaneously. He started to pick up weight, and even though he was still a hell of an athlete, he was slowing down physically. Verbally, he may have been doing his best ever work, and the charisma was still there, so the fans bought the tickets. From 1984 to 1988, he was the booker and the most popular star of the only legitimate challenger to Vince McMahon’s expanding WWF. This is where he became a polarizing figure.
The booker will always be loved by those who are successful under him, and reviled by those who aren’t, whether it has anything to do with the way he books them or not. Some thought he should step aside - give them the spot, or the belt, because he was too old, or too fat. To be honest, a steady diet of Dusty on top for Crockett for years did get old with the fans, and some started turning on him. Maybe he should have followed Eddie Graham’s example and sent himself away, so someone else could escape his shadow, but the fact remains that Dusty was not a guy who was in the main events because he was the matchmaker; he got to be the matchmaker because he was one of the biggest stars in the sport, and stayed in the role because he was one of the most successful bookers. Anyone questioning his place in main events should remember that he was a general on one side of the biggest promotional war in wrestling, and also, along with Ric Flair, one of the top two box office attractions in the NWA. With the schedule he kept during those years, it’s incredible that he was able to do either job well, much less both of them.
After Turner Broadcasting purchased Crockett Promotions, Dusty went to the WWF, and put on the polka dots. Watching today, and taken out of context, it’s obvious that Vince was screwing with him, but it’s not well remembered that even under those conditions, he was still over, even at almost 50 and with his weight out of control. The less said about most of his matches there, the better, and watching them in the years since led to a vast audience thinking that that was Dusty Rhodes. As I said earlier, that’s a disservice to the man.
It’s hard to explain the impact Dusty had to today’s fan - or even today’s wrestler. Can you imagine one of today’s writers in WWE sitting a young wrestler down and saying, “Here’s your character. You’re the son of a plumber from Texas. You used to dig ditches with a black man named TC Lee, and....” I’d love to see the faces on the people in the room if that idea was pitched.
Conversely, in today’s cookie-cutter wrestler training mentality, I’d love to see a 20-year-old Dusty Rhodes show up at WWE developmental. His massive ego, individualism, and insistence on doing things his way - all the things that were once necessary for a wrestler to become a star - would doom him politically. Some brilliant producer would report back that, “The kid has a lisp, so he can never do TV promos unless we make him a comedy character.” His physique would probably prevent him from getting a try-out; they’d say, “Kid, you must be dreaming to think you can be a wrestler.”
“The American Dream”, indeed.