The professional wrestling fraternity lost a charter member this month when Dusty Rhodes passed away. His leaving was as unexpected as his long career as a professional wrestler.
Professional wrestling storylines work best when they are a tantalizing mix of truth and lies. Dusty is a case in point. Fan adoration for his character stemmed from his convincing portrayal of himself as an ordinary working man so grateful for a job as a professional wrestler that he said he was “living the American Dream.” The “American Dream” (or just “Dream”) moniker stuck with Rhodes throughout his four decade career.
Big Dust affinity with the blue collar workers aligned him with the majority of wrestling fans. He got great mileage from claiming to be the “son of a plumber.”
Unlike Dusty’s ring name, this was actually true. Dusty’s given name was Virgil Riley Runnels. He was born in Texas in 1945, played college football at WestTexasState, then semi-pro ball until he got his break in the wrestling business.
Rhodes started out as a heel, but quickly turned to a baby face, and remained a face thereafter. During his career the trend was for wrestlers to be mega muscular, to train fanatically to get cut and buff. Then there was this lisping guy with peroxide curls, a goofy sagging belly, and a brutish red splotch on his side. Man boobs flopping with every stride, Dusty was truly a sight to behold.
He was a baby face who suffered and suffered at the hands of the dastardly heels, his contorted face portraying all the agony of hellfire and damnation in order to gain heat (boos) for the heels. Then with perfect timing Big Dust started the babyface comeback. With the crowd thoroughly behind him, Dusty taught the bad guys a lesson. His signature move was his “Bionic Elbow:” an elbow blow to the head (accompanied by a loud foot stomp for sound effect) that, while appearing insubstantial, nevertheless made heels drop as if struck by lightning - to the delighted approval of the crowd.
Dusty’s strength was not in the ring, however. He was at his best doing “promos:” setting up matches, entertaining the crowd, bantering with the venerable Gordon Solie, the beloved ring announcer for Deep South wrestling.
Dusty wrestled in the era where Muhammad Ali was being publicly outrageous about his opponents (a tactic he learned from a wrestler, by the way). Dusty copied Ali’s delivery and sometimes even his accent.
Rhodes’ hottest feuds were with champion Ric “The Nature Boy” Flair. The two filled arenas wherever they went. Rhodes usually lost but sometimes he won the championship from Flair, to the elation of his followers.
Not everyone loved Big Dust (or as Ric Flair, who had trouble with ‘s’ would say, “Big Dutht.”) I went to one of Dusty’s shows. He was the headline match and the booker, which means he decided who won and lost each match on the card, and how each match would run. The main event was a steel cage match between Dusty and his dire enemy, “Big Bubba.”
The lead up to the main event was an energetic match between Ric Flair and Barry Windham. Both men moved fast and worked hard. Both of them juiced (made themselves bleed by nicking their foreheads with small bits of razors or pins concealed in their tights.)
After the match (Flair kept his belt, natch) began the assembly of the large steel cage that surrounded the ring. The build up got the fans going. Cheers and boos followed each wrestler to the ring. Anticipation was high. The timing was right for a great match.
The bell rang. Dusty and Bubba locked up. Suddenly the lights in the arena shut off. When light came back Dusty was on top of Big Bubba and got the pin. The match lasted (maybe) one minute.
The guy sitting next to me muttered, “Small crowd, small finish.” Then he threw his beer at Dusty, who was making his way to the dressing room amid much verbal abuse by angry fans. Big Dust responded by shaking his big fanny at the fans and thrusting the middle finger of both hands upward and outward with more energy than he used during his match.
So Dusty was not always universally loved. He played his own tune and got away with it most of his forty odd year career. At age sixty nine he was still involved with wrestling when, on June 11, 2015, he fell while at home in Florida. He was rushed to the hospital but died shortly after arriving.
The cause of death is not clear at this time. Rhodes apparently had stomach cancer and perhaps kidney problems as well. His family is requesting privacy, and rightly so. But Dusty was so well known that his death became very public, as did his funeral. He was a larger than life character playing out his life on the grand stage of the “squared circle”, the professional wrestling ring. Whoever Virgil Runnels really was as a man, a husband, and a father, will probably never overshadow his ring persona of Dusty “The American Dream” Rhodes. He will likely always be remembered as a consummate entertainer who made people happy.
Virgil Riley Runnels, Requiescat in pacem