Long before his current iteration of “The Natural” in AEW, Dustin Runnels was fighting alongside greats such as Ricky Steamboat, “Stunning” Steve Austin, Barry Windham, and Arn Anderson. He had a chip on his shoulder and a lot to prove. Being the son of Dusty Rhodes, naysayers would often test him to see how tough he really was. In the words of Dustin, “There were many fights along the way!”
Each of the stories featured in this article comes from his highly recommended autobiography, Cross Rhodes: Goldust, Out of the Darkness. Absolute sincerity is shown throughout the book which gives a dynamic you would never have known between him and his father, brother Cody and ex-wife Terri (WWE’s Marlena). He also goes into detail on his alcohol and drug abuse and how he overcame them. Again, a highly suggested read!
“The Natural” Dustin Runnels Describes the Guys Who Taught Him the Art of Wrestling
“There were a lot of guys who helped me along the way. Mike Graham and Steve Keirn taught me how to work and hone my trade during those years in Florida. Then I was fortunate to get hooked up with guys like Barry Windham, Arn Anderson, Bobby Eaton, and Larry Zbyszko. Those guys taught me the nitty-gritty of professional wrestling. A lot of my work is like Barry’s. He is so smooth and so good. Thanks to what I learned from Barry, I work smooth as well. Arn, Bobby, and Larry were guys who did things the right way. They paid attention to detail and they were passionate about the business. Those guys all made me a bigger star than I was at the time simply because they were so good and they cared about what they were doing. They knew how to work the crowd and at the same time, they were taking a kid like me to the next level. Ricky Steamboat taught me how to get beat up. It might not sound that difficult, but there is a fine art to showing people you are in pain and being able to completely sell that emotion. He taught me when to move when to stay down on the mat, when to show my face, and how to do it in the most convincing manner.
When I wrestled with Arn or Ricky Steamboat, sometimes we would go for an hour. We did that several times. One night at the Omni in Atlanta, we went for nearly an hour and we never lost the fans. Arn, Ricky, and Bobby were just that good. They knew how to operate in the ring, how to tell a story and keep it compelling for sixty minutes. They were remarkable. They didn’t run around the ring trying to take time off the clock. Those guys worked.
That night Ricky and I were fighting Bobby Eaton and Arn Anderson, who were the Tag-Team Champions at the time. It was a live event and the Omni was sold out. Since there wasn’t any television, we were supposed to go an hour and end the match in a draw. As I said, those guys were so good that I wasn’t worried about anything. With about ten minutes left in the match, I was blown sky-high. By that, I mean that I was sucking wind in a way that felt like I was having a heart attack. I couldn’t catch my breath. I was huffing and puffing, gasping for air.
Both Arn and Bobby were looking at me like, “What is wrong with this kid? Is he dying or something?” Meanwhile, I was freaking out. Literally, I couldn’t breathe. I couldn’t get any air. It probably looked like I was dying because that’s pretty much how I felt. We had spent so much time building up to the final tag that I was spent. At about the eight-minute mark, Arn said, “You guys are going to win the title tonight.” We switched the planned finish over the last few minutes because I had freaked out. That was the first time I had ever gone beyond twenty-five or thirty minutes in a match, and I was blown out by all the work. The guys were looking at one another, tagging in and out saying, “What’s wrong with this guy? What’s going on?” They would look at me and say, “Just breathe. Take a breath.” Then I’d scream back, “I can’t. I can’t breathe. Oh, my God.” It felt like I was being suffocated. Finally, somebody said, “Just do something.” That’s when I rolled over and tagged with Ricky. At that point, I knew what they were thinking. “Now what are we going to do? We have built up a hell of a match and Dustin just screwed up the whole thing.” They had to improvise and let us win at that point because we had every person in the Omni on their feet. They were ready for us to win the title and we couldn’t let them down. When the match ended and we all got back behind the curtain, the guys said, “What happened to you, man?” They weren’t upset or anything like that. We had a really good match, which was all they cared about. Ending it the way we did was probably the best outcome possible for the fans.
I don’t know how they did it, though. I don’t know if I could have done it without them. I’ve always believed you are only as good as the other person in the ring with you. And they made me better, no question about it. I’m not saying it’s a lost art, but those guys were different.”
WATCH Ricky Steamboat & Dustin Rhodes vs Arn Anderson & Larry Zbyszko (Tag Team Championship match, WCW Clash of the Champions November 19, 1991)
[Not the match described previously in our story as that was during a non-televised event, but a great example of guys who knew the art of professional wrestling.]
Dustin Runnels on Steve Austin
“Steve Austin was in the same mold. When my dad was back in control at WCW, he brought me in. That’s when I got my first big push. Steve was there at the time and we had some tremendous matches working together in the early 1990s. He was Stunning Steve Austin and I was the Natural and man, we tore down some houses. We had wars. We were young, highly motivated, and totally committed to what we were doing. We’d go out and do twenty to twenty-five minutes a night. Either he was the United States Champion or I was, and we weren’t afraid to try something new because we absolutely loved what we were doing. All we cared about was walking away knowing we had a great match. We knew the fans were pleased with us, but we were also pleased because of the effort and skill we put into those matches.
I met Steve at the USWA. We were two guys from Texas just going for it all the time. It was old-school wrestling. We had the same attitude because we had been taught the right way. We were tearing it up night after night and having a hell of a time along the way.
One night we were in Phoenix for a match. Lex Luger and Sting were really hot at the time, and they were there, too. I was the United States Champion working with Steve. Grizzly Smith, Jake “the Snake” Roberts’s dad, was the road agent. I love Grizzly. What a good man. Austin and I were talking about the match and what we were going to do that night. Now, this was a bought-and-paid-for show at the local fair. So the audience was made up of wrestling fans, but there were also people coming to the show because they just happened to be at the fair that day. None of that mattered to Austin and me. We didn’t care whether there were ten people in the stands or ten thousand. We were all about tearing down the house every time we stepped into the ring.
Steve and I knew how to work. We could grab hold of the audience from the opening minute and have them the entire way. Steve was a natural. We exchanged ideas, but most of the time he called the match. Sometimes I’d call something out in the middle of a match, and Steve would go with it. We worked really smooth. It was like ballet in the ring when we were together. He is a good guy, just a good old boy.”
WATCH Dustin Runnels aka ‘The Natural’ Dustin Rhodes vs ‘Stunning’ Steve Austin (US Heavyweight Title match, WCW Halloween Havoc. October 27, 1991)
Dustin Runnels on Guys Who Wanted to Test How Tough You Really Were
“There were a few fights along the way, and I wasn’t shy about throwing down. If somebody started in about how wrestling was fake or said something about my dad, then I would go. I remember walking across the street from a wedding reception to a local bar. I saw this kid in the parking lot but I didn’t pay much attention until I got closer. He said, “Hey, Dustin Rhodes. Your dad’s a fat piece of crap.” I didn’t say a word and I barely changed my pace. I walked right up to him and just dropped him with one punch. His girlfriend started swinging at me. She was screaming and making a scene while the guy was flat on his ass. I kept right on walking toward the entrance to the bar. Fred Ottman, a huge guy who went by Tugboat and by Typhoon (of the Natural Disasters) in WWE for a long time, was the bouncer at the bar that day. He also was marrying one of my aunts, so I was good to go there.
Just as I was getting to the door, another guy came rushing out. He was every inch as big as Fred, but this guy was a jacked weightlifter. He was at least six-three and probably close to three hundred pounds, just a massive human being. He looked like a killer. He had gold chains all around his neck and he was angry. I had suspenders on and a white shirt that now had a splatter of blood on it from the first guy I decked. The guy said, “Did you just hit my brother?” I thought, “This guy is big.” He kept talking, getting louder and louder, the veins on his neck getting bigger and bigger. Then he turned his head and I just popped him. I dropped him with one punch, but I knew he wouldn’t stay down, so I jumped down and just kept drilling him. By the time Fred arrived, I had one of the guy’s gold chains broken off in my hand. I hurt my hand hitting him. He had a head like cement. Fred grabbed me and took me into the bar so I could calm down. Turns out Fred worked out with the guy at a local weightlifters gym. He said, “Dustin, if he ever sees you, he’s going to kill you.” I got really lucky because there were a lot of times I could have been stabbed or killed. That was no doubt one of them.
You knew there were guys out there who wanted to see how tough you really were. It happened to me. But I got some very good fatherly advice early on. My dad said, “Always be the bigger man and walk away because people are going to talk shit about me and you. Just walk away from it.” I didn’t walk away very often when I was young, but I eventually figured out better ways to deal with those situations.”
Dustin Runnels aka Goldust Shares his Mentality on Telling a Story in the Ring
“I try to focus on that one person in the front row who I know doesn’t want to be there. I find him, too, because there is always somebody who comes to the match because his son or daughter is a big fan. That dad isn’t interested. He hates wrestling, and you can see it on his face. “This stuff sucks. It’s fake. I can’t wait to get out of here.” I can see the kids are jumping up and down as the dad sits there hating every one of those first few minutes. Then, after a move or two, I start to see a little bit of a sparkle, a barely visible twinkle in his eyes. Still, he’s not there yet. He isn’t even close to getting out of his seat, much less getting emotionally involved in the match.
When I see that first glimmer in his eyes I know he’s starting to pay attention to what’s happening in the ring. I do a couple more moves. Maybe I get slammed in a way that looks like the other guy has killed me. I look over again, this time I can see the look in his eyes change. He’s focused on the ring now. He’s wondering, “Can this crazy guy with the face paint even stand up after that? That looked real.”
The dad looks over at his son or daughter, who is either near tears or in tears because I’m getting the crap kicked out of me ten feet away. They look to their father, “Is he okay, Daddy?” Now I’m conscious of directing every action, every fall toward this guy. I’ll go right over to the ropes near his seat and make sure he sees the emotion on my face. The guy is cradling his kid, who is still in tears. And I know what he’s thinking: “This guy is really hurt. He needs some help out there.” I know that’s going through his mind because now he’s looking around. Is somebody going to go into the ring and help that guy? Is there a doctor approaching?
Then his eyes change again. Now they start to light up. I begin to make a comeback. The kid stops crying. The dad can’t believe I might be able to get to my feet. I move my shoulders a little bit, shake the cobwebs out of my head, and slowly come up to one knee. The dad isn’t out of his seat yet, but he’s fixated on what’s happening in the ring. His kid is starting to see some hope. Then I start whipping the other guy’s butt. I’m on fire. The next thing I know, the dad and the kid are out of their seats. Both of them are screaming now. Everybody in the arena is on his or her feet screaming.
My goal was to get that one guy onto his feet. I needed him to believe that what he was seeing was real. When he got off his chair, that’s when I knew I did my job that night. I lived for those moments.”
If you enjoyed this piece, be sure not to miss these recommended articles on our site:
- Dustin Rhodes – Proving to the World (and Himself) That He’s Still Got It
- Dusty Rhodes – Stories to Celebrate the Life of the Icon
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