Dusty Rhodes, 1945 – 2015

Dusty is a true legend in the world of professional wrestling. This “son of a plumber” is a multi-time champion, a mentor to greats like Ric Flair and a true American Dream. He is so influential that his infamous Bionic Elbow is still being used today by current generation superstars. Truly one of the great talkers in the industry, Rhodes proved that you don’t need to be Hulk Hogan to be a legend. Want proof? Check out his legendary promo, “Hard Times.”

– Kenneth Lucas

I heard about Dusty Rhodes’ passing from a buddy.  He texted me to say “Dusty Rhodes died.  He was 69.  That’s like 100 in pro wrestling years!” That it is, friends. The squared circle is a cruel mistress, as it seems that not too many grapplers die at an age-appropriate time, or of “natural” causes.  So if I may shoot straight, in pro wrestling parlance, how did someone who looks like Rhodes make it this far? Two words: business savvy.

I’ve been a wrestling fan for 30 years, but growing up in the ’80s in New Jersey, I only knew of one wrestling company, the then-WWF. When Rhodes (real name: Virgil Runnels) debuted there in the late ’80s, to me he was just some bleached-blonde schlub in polka dots. Fast forward to the mid-’90s, and thanks to a burgeoning internet, I became a “smart mark” like so many.  That, combined with cable TV access and a renewed public interest in wrestling, I found out there was more to wrestling than what came out of “New York.” Apparently the above-mentioned bleached-blonde schlub was a jive-talkin’ color commentator on WCW programs, enjoying the twilight of his career. But back in the day, he held a few world titles and even ran the show (wrote the stories) for a while. Why was this guy put in charge? Business savvy.

The “smarter” a wrestling fan I became, and the more I studied the history of the business, the less I liked Rhodes. Why? Business savvy. Here’s a guy with an in-ring move set that rivals Hulk Hogan’s for minimalism, but like the Hulkster, he was a charmer, tapped into the veins of everyday wrestling fans. He charmed everyone on screen and off. The “smart” fan in me was appalled when I found out how often Rhodes would put himself over at the expense of true talent like Ric Flair! But what I didn’t know at the time was that while Rhodes may not have been a technically talented “wrestler,” he was a “pro wrestler” all around. He did what he needed to do to sell tickets and bring home big paydays. He innately knew (what commentator Jim Ross would later codify in his famous quote) that the main job of the booker is to “put an ass every 18 inches.” Business savvy.

I appreciate this shrewdness in some ways. Rhodes was willing to go to work for the WWF in the late ’80s playing a character that clearly mocked him (and where another character was created to mock him, African American wrestler Mike Jones playing “Virgil,” a toadie to a rich white guy.  Oh, the casual racism of pro wrestling!) Rhodes was able to keep himself on TV into the late ’90s (and therefore keep getting paid) long after his heyday.  He showed up in ECW, the wrestling federation that catered to the “smart” fan, to accolades from the hardest wrestling fans to please. He appeared in hip indie feds like Ring of Honor. He got two of his kids (Dustin and Cody Rhodes) jobs – and they are still on TV.

So I don’t have to be a fan of Dusty Rhodes, but I can still be sad at Virgil Runnels’ passing. He was a human being. He had friends and family. He’s another face from my youth that’s now gone. He left an indelible mark on the business (and not just the “Dusty finish”) that wouldn’t be the same without him.

– Sal Lucci

You can debate whether or not Dusty Rhodes was a great wrestler or a great booker, and you could make solid arguments either way. He had some classic matches with the likes of Ric Flair, Harley Race, Tully Blanchard and Barry Windham, and while he handled the book during some of the NWA’s best moments and has been a guiding hand for WWE NXT, he was also in charge for some of WCW’s worst. But there is no denying that the American Dream gave some of the greatest promos in the business. His way with words was more than enough to justify him bellyin’ up to tha pay windah, daddy!:

– Don Becker

The American Dream. A big man who wasn’t afraid to rock some polka dots. He was a superstar, a class act and a hall of famer. I bumped into him at a con a few years back, he wasn’t surrounded by fans or charging to meet them. He was there to plug a shitty game that featured him. I had a nice long conversation with him about the industry and his lifetime’s worth of contributions. Before I shook his hand and left, he asked me, “anything I could do for ya?” He did this for me and blew my (at the time) bandmates’ minds.

– Erik Weinbrecht

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