Not long after my grandma passed away in 2007, I asked my brother, who is 12 years older than me, if he remembered much about watching pro wrestling with her, since she’s the one who introduced me to it at an early age.
“I remember that she used to love Dusty Rhodes,” he said.
My grandma was a common woman, so I can see why she would cheer on The Common Man. Dusty Rhodes, the overweight underdog, the son of a plumber, the white shucker-and-jiver, the blue-eyed soul man, the low-brow amalgamation of John Belushi and Muhammad Ali, the man who could sell out an arena with only his mouth and his American Dream, passed away today at age 69.
Rhodes’ career is well-documented, from a tornadic heel run with Dick Murdoch as the Texas Outlaws, to a patriotic babyface turn in his adoptive home of Tampa, Florida, to headlining stints in the WWWF and Jim Crockett Promotions. He was a wrestler and a booker, a mentor and a polarizing figure. He’d have casual fans on their feet at the sound of his theme music, and he’d have hardcore fans fuming at his behind-the-scenes decisions. But throughout a nearly 47-year career, you knew, when Dusty Rhodes walked into a room, he was meant to be a star.
His legacy, though, comes to life in a number of ways. His influence can clearly be seen in his two sons, Dustin and Cody. Dustin debuted in pro wrestling in 1988 under his father’s watchful eye, often appearing alongside his doting father. When they would hug on camera, they were a powerful hugs, from which mutual love emanated. The Rhodes family charisma was passed onto Dustin, who never buckled under the pressure of a promo, and who took on the controversial Goldust figure in what is perhaps the most underrated gimmick of all time.
Our first real public exposure to Cody was his show-stealing hall of fame induction speech for his father in 2007. Everyone walked away that night knowing that Cody had inherited his father’s confidence and gift of gab. Whereas Dusty could dance his way through a 60-minute broadway and have the crowd on its feet, and whereas Dustin’s natural athletic ability made him a successful second-generation star, Cody might be the perfect stereotype for today’s pro wrestler: great look, great work, great promo. Put him in the right situation, and Cody could carry wrestling into the future.
Rhodes left an indelible mark on so many wrestlers and wrestling fans over the years that weren’t his scarred flesh and blood. His transcendent promos sold out arenas all over the country. You knew ditch-diggin’ Texan would lay it all on the line against the likes of Superstar Billy Graham (the only difference between the kindred Graham and Rhodes was their physique, Graham’s more Hercules and Rhodes’ more Golden Grahams), Ric Flair (the limousine-ridin’ antagonist to Rhodes’ common man), Nikita Koloff (the faux-Russian foil to Rhodes’ American Dream) and Macho King Randy Savage (“Pre-TEN-din’…to be royal-taaaay”).
Hell, a 300-pound Ric Flair even wanted to enter pro wrestling as “Ramblin’” Ricky Rhodes, brother of the son of a plumber. (Verne Gagne said, “No.”)
Rhodes would talk for weeks about America, about hard times, about coming up from nothing, about standing up for what’s right. And he would go into the ring against wrestlers like Pak Song and Tully Blanchard and the Wild Samoans and Ted DiBiase, and he would bob and weave, and jab, and bleed. And bleed and bleed and bleed. And the more he bled, the more fans cheered. And if he wasn’t victorious the first time, he’d go on TV and cry, and yell, and emote passion, and he’d get back into the ring with Arn Anderson and the Road Warriors and the Big Boss Man, drop a couple of bionic elbows, and pull out a shocking win, and then bellow in triumph to the delight of the fans.
It doesn’t hurt when you book the territory and can put yourself over as you wish. Many wrestlers abuse that privilege. To his credit, Rhodes often had the gate receipts to back himself up.
A larger-than-life character (in personality and portulence) like Dusty Rhodes is ripe for jokes and mockery, for people of that frame of mind. It’s no surprise that the brain trust of the then-WWF poked fun at their former adversary Rhodes any chance they got: from naming Ted DiBiase’s black man-servant “Virgil” after Rhodes’ real name, to devolving the evil One Man Gang into “Akeem, the African Dream,” an overweight white guy who dances and talks like he’s black (sounds familiar), to outfitting Rhodes himself in ridiculous polka dots (Rhodes has said publicly that he embraced the outfit) and coupling him with a chubby black lady whom they Vaudevillianly named “Sweet Sapphire” (because “Aunt Jemima” was already taken?).
Years later, he would become a beloved member of the WWE family as an executive – TV writer, trainer, and, most unsurprisingly, an interview coach. If you threw a thousand wrestling names into a hat and had to draw one person to coach you on how to cut an impactful promo, you’d pray that you drew Ric Flair, Jerry Lawler, or Dusty Rhodes. His inspiration is clear when you listen to today’s silver-tongued underdog heavyweight champion, John Cena. But that’s just one of hundreds of wrestlers who have copped their interview style from Rhodes.
Fans have, too; we can’t act like we haven’t lisped things like “pay windah,” “clubberin’” (which is “all fo’ fistses”), “plundah” and “eatin’ poke-and-beans.” What a vocabulary – itself, not an easy word for the vociferous Rhodes to say, if you weeeel.
With a wink and a smile, with blood, sweat and tears, Dusty Rhodes impacted professional wrestling in significant and positive ways. Sixty-nine years was not enough time on this planet. His children will cry, his friends will pay tribute, and we will mourn. We lost a common man, we lost one of our own. This is hard times on fans of pro wrestling, but, in times of great need, we can always hold ourselves up on the American Dream.