On June 11th, 2015, news of the untimely passing of “The American Dream” Dusty Rhodes shook the wrestling world. Throughout his almost forty years in the business, Rhodes became known as a man of the people, the common man for the common folk. He never had the physique of a wrestling god, though his charisma and innate ability on the microphone more than made up for that. Dusty had an impact on others, in the business and not. Just listen to any of the many podcasts out there these days with current and past talent. Whenever Dusty is brought up or mentioned, words of kindness are shared as are Dusty impressions, with his southern drawl and trademark lisp in tow.
Gary Hart, who had been attributed to bringing Dusty into the forefront of the pro wrestling scene almost forty years ago, had this to say on meeting Rhodes for the first time back in 1968:
“I came into the Fort Worth dressing room for a KTVT taping, and we saw this 260-pound blonde headed kid with granny glasses on reading a book of poetry. We went over, said hello to him, and he introduced himself as Virgil Runnels. During the course of our conversation, he mentioned that his ring name was Dusty Rhodes. I’m a big fan of the movie “A Face in the Crowd,” where Andy Griffith starred as Larry “Lonesome” Rhodes, so I suggested, “What about calling yourself ‘Lonesome Rhodes’?”
“Well…I don’t plan on being ‘Lonesome.’” Dusty said, clearly unimpressed. “I think I’ll stick with Dusty.”
When it came time for Dusty’s match, I went out to see him wrestle. [I] liked his look, but that was all [I] knew.
I can’t say I was blown away by his finesse, because he wasn’t very good at the mechanics of wrestling, and only knew how to do a clothesline and a hammerlock. I was most taken with his charisma and energy.”
Despite this, Hart saw something in Rhodes. As the story goes, Dusty was pegged to do the job for Grizzly Smith that night. Hart knew that if this happened, Rhodes would forever be known as a jobber in Fritz Von Erich’s Texas territory, so Hart begged and pleaded with Fritz to change the outcome of the match. Finally, after much pestering, while TV tapings were underway, Fritz allowed Hart to go out there and change the finish of the match as it was taking place. Hart saw the potential in Rhodes right away and from there, Dusty Rhodes was made in the Texas territory.
In this installment of Pro Wrestling Stories, we put together a range of stories that celebrate the life of Virgil Runnels, aka Dusty Rhodes.
Dusty Rhodes on His Time as a Wrestler:
“People talk about our business being entertainment. People talk about our business being a work. But for that moment, that one moment [to win the championship], it almost takes your breath away…
Because there were seven hundred or eight hundred kids around, during my era, that was trying to get in the industry. Wahoo McDaniel would have died to wear that belt for one hour.
Guys like that. Great athletes.
You finally get to your room. You see it. You’ve got to kind of remind yourself where you’re at. It was a big deal.
I loved my era.
I thought it was the best. I thought Crockett was the best. During that period of time, I thought the NWA was the cat’s meow and that’s what was going on.
The times changed. You have to change with them. It’s never going to go back there.
[But] if everything remained the same, it wouldn’t be no fun. “
On becoming “The American Dream”
“It wasn’t about the money, it was about the fans…
Looking like I look – I’m not a bodybuilder by no means — and having a relationship with the fans like I’ve had through the years if I was losing, they were losing. If I was winning, they were winning. If I was crying, they were crying. That’s probably the most important thing as far as entertaining large groups of people is that athlete that you are and maintaining such a special relationship with the fans.
When you came to the building to see me, like me or not, I gave you your money’s worth. That was the most important thing to me. Money came along – hell, I’ve made enough money to buy Miami, and as Jimmy Buffett would say, I’ve pissed it all away.
So what, you know what I mean? I’ll make more tomorrow.
I wake up in the morning looking for that American dream that so many people miss…so many kids don’t really understand what it means to go out and capture that American dream, or ride on the end of a lightning bolt and jump off and grab another one before it crashes into the ground.
I think around 9 or 12 years old, I can’t remember how old I was, I’d been working in the summer for my dad. He was a plumber, I wasn’t a plumber by no means. I was a ditch digger. I’d worked with a man named T.C. Lee down in Austin, and T.C. Lee would be in the ditch all day long and he’d be working there, and I’d be digging the ditch and he’d be standing on the shovel, and he said, ‘Someday, man, you’re gonna get that American dream…’ and it hit me.
In 1974, talking with the late great Gordon Solie down in Florida. And I said one day, ‘I’m the American Dream, Dusty Rhodes,’ not thinking what was going to happen. I’ve become the American Dream for the common man, the common folk.”
Dr. Tom Prichard Shares His Thoughts on Dusty Rhodes:
“The American Dream, Dusty Rhodes is one of the old school icons who is as charismatic as it gets.
They broke the mold when they made The Dream. He was one of those deceptively big men who could move like a cruiserweight. His intensity and passion is something that can’t be taught. We crossed paths over the years but I really got to know Dusty Rhodes in Tampa over the last five years…
The Dream is larger than life and still as confident today as he was during his in-ring career. He set the bar high as promos and interviews go. There were few who could match his style and rhythm. As the booker and boss during the heyday of WCW, Dusty Rhodes was the ‘Bull of the Woods’ behind the scenes as much as he was in the ring!
Dusty Rhodes tells a story with passion and adds enough spice to give it a unique flavor all its own.
The American Dream Dusty Rhodes continues to help young and veteran talent alike to this day. The conversations and time I spent with him were always entertaining and invaluable. I respect and love him.”
Dusty Rhodes on his donkey, Zeb:
“We had a donkey named Zeb. And he was a very entertaining son of a bitch, okay? He could take a handkerchief off his back leg and untie it. He could kneel down and bow. And he was a rodeo donkey.
We had a brand-new apartment house in Edina (Minnesota) and me and Hoyt Richard Murdoch tried to keep it in our new apartment. But it would go down the hall and proceed to just go to the bathroom.
Eventually, the guy came to kick us out. Murdoch had the greatest face of all and he looked at the guy and said, “Well, what for?” What for? The donkey had done crapped all over the hallway! He said, “Gentlemen, you can’t have a donkey in a place like this.” True story. I’ve got pictures too.”
Dusty Rhodes on His Sons Dustin and Cody Joining the World of Wrestling
“Dustin [Goldust] snuck in the back door with Skandor Akbar down in Texas. His stepmom took him out to the training facility while I was on the road seven days a week. Before I knew it, he had already had his first match.
It was in his blood, it was in his DNA. He along with Murdoch and Barry Windham I consider some of the greatest in-ring workers ever in our business. He was a natural. An unbelievable kid.
He’s been fighting his demons all his life. As of late, it’s been a beautiful turnaround. He’s a beautiful kid.
With Cody, he just broke it to me. With all the opportunities he had in school, I just broke down. I said “I don’t want you in this industry. It will hurt you.” It will hurt you bad because it’s like a drug. Once that drug is in you, you can’t get off of it.
The entertainment, the crowd, the noise. Our business is like a drug. But this is what he wanted to do, since he was 18 years old. And he’s like me. Every waking moment he devotes to this industry. His success will come.
Once he got in I said “Okay. Now I’m going to stay out of the way.” I want to be like Peyton Manning’s dad. Out of the way.
I don’t want to be someone saying “Hey, why don’t you use my boy?” You can ask Mr. McMahon or anybody. Never once. Cody calls his own shots. And calling me in. But I’m tired of having my ass kicked.”
Dusty Rhodes on Being Blamed for Losing the Wrestling War to Vince McMahon
“That’s something I’ve stayed out of the mix on. Because it was not important to me who they blamed. What we were doing wrestling-wise speaks for itself, and I’ve left it at that.
I took a little minor league area down there, put genius to it.
And yes, I still think I’m a genius after all this time, crazy egotistical maniac that I am.
They always ask me, “Why did you put yourself on top?” I asked Hunter the same thing. The would-be booker that he is. He doesn’t even have a finish named after him. How can Triple H be a great booker when he doesn’t have a finish named after him. Where were we?”
The American Dream on His Career Highlights
“There are three, and all are equally sweet memories.
In front of Madison Square Garden on horseback, and when I looked down I saw my wife Michele, and my family. My mom was sitting next to my friend George Steinbrenner. The designer Halston was there, so was Andy Warhol, Truman Capote, Cheryl Tiegs and other celebrities. Looking up I saw the announcement of Dusty Rhodes ‘The American Dream’ on the marquee. Seeing the words Madison Square Garden and SOLD OUT, was pretty heavy.
Another one was at the Tokyo Dome in 1991 when I was in the ring with my son Dustin in front of 60,000 people. I was filled with pride and it was a time that I’ll always cherish.
The third might surprise some people but it was when Dallas Page won the WCW Heavyweight Title. The coach in me made it one of my proudest moments. He was a floppy-eared jackass mule in horrible shape and too stubborn to give up when I first met him. He wanted to learn it all. I liked that about him.
I can still remember Dallas Page getting in the ring for the first time in Tampa against Dick Slater. You know, it’s like goin’ deer huntin’. I love it, but it’s especially fun to take someone out the first time, show him how, and then watch him get excited about it.
To see him climb his way to the top and see him with the belt was an accomplishment that everyone said would never happen.”
If you enjoyed this piece, be sure not to miss the following articles on our site:
- Years On, Wrestling Still Feels the Loss of Dusty Rhodes
- Tully Blanchard and the Time He Was Almost Murdered by Dusty Rhodes
- The Great American Bash: Pride, Patriotism & Pain from NWA to WWE
SOURCES: ‘Playboy’ Gary Hart’s autobiography: ‘My Life In Wrestling…With A Little Help From My Friends’, oklafan, drtomprichard.com, Bleacher Report, ringthedamnbell, ddpbang.com
Some quotes used in this article compiled by Matt Pender and shared here with thanks to our friends over at ‘Wrestling’s Glory Days’ Facebook page