Dusty Rhodes—the rowdy, rotund pro-wrestler who took to the ring for more than four decades under various monikers; most famously “The American Dream”—died on June 11 from kidney failure. Distinguished in the wrestling world for his straight-talking demeanor and large, non-chiseled frame, this sample essay will discuss how the Austin-born Rhodes rose to stardom during the 1970s as a populist everyman that connected with working class audiences of the sport.
Early life, entrance into wrestling
Born Virgil Riley Runnels Jr. on Oct. 12, 1945, the young Rhodes’ initial sport was football, which he played at West Texas State and for the Continental Football League. Soon enough, he found wrestling to be his true calling, and under the mentorship of heavyweight Gary Hart, he rechristened himself after the character Dusty Rhodes from the 1957 Andy Griffith vehicle A Face In the Crowd.
The decision would pay off big in the long run, with Rhodes going on to win three NWA World Heavyweight Championships, multiple tag-team titles, and—along with only five other men from his field—inductions into the four wrestling Hall of Fames: World Wrestling Entertainment (WWE), World Championship Wrestling (WCW), Professional Wrestling, and the Wrestling Observer Newsletter. As WWE Hall of Fame broadcaster Jim Ross said upon news of Rhodes’ passing,
“[h]e was a charismatic performer who could talk fans into the seats. He sold tickets and was an innovator,” (Fritz).
Rhodes initially broke into wrestling in Texas, where his first match, opposite Reggie Parks, ended in a draw after 20 minutes; the young upstart made $15. As Rhodes recounted in a 1989 interview with the St. Petersburg Times,
“I was glad to get outta there,” but that “from then on, I knew, I knew, that’s what I wanted to do,” (Almasy).
In 1968, he formed his first tag team, the Texas Outlaws, with fellow tough guy Dick Murdoch. Rhodes eventually relocated to Florida, where he would slowly rise to the top of his field as the next decade advanced.
Breakthrough, rise to fame
In 1974, Rhodes got his break in the wrestling world with a surprise turn against cohort Pak Song, with whom he was paired opposite Eddie and Mike Graham at a Florida match. Soon enough, Rhodes became a name wrestler across the South through a series of matchups within the National Wrestling Alliance, during which he took on names like Stardust, The Midnight Rider, and White Soul King.
By 1977, Rhodes was wrestling at Madison Square Garden in championships for the World Wide Wrestling Federation (WWWF), a forerunner to the WWE. Beating then-current champ “Superstar” Billy Graham, Rhodes lost in their second face-off, a Texas Death Match. Nonetheless, Rhodes rode out his WWWF stint with a string of wins that culminated with an MSG victory against “Handsome” Jimmy Valiant. Rhodes’ winning streak bucked the trend of outgoing wrestlers, who tended to lose at the end of their time in the Federation.
As the 1980s dawned, Rhodes was wrestling for Jim Crockett Promotions (JCP) on the East Coast, where he teamed with the formidable likes of Manny Fernandez and Magnum T.A. (Terry Wayne Allen). With the latter, Rhodes formed America’s Team, which faced off with The Russian Team during the mid ’80s. Rhodes and Magnum were one of wrestling’s most formidable tag teams until a 1986 auto accident forced Allen into an early retirement. Subsequently, Rhodes formed The Super Powers with “The Russian Nightmare” Nikita Koloff and faced off with The Road Warriors in the World Six-Man Tag Team Championships.
Feuds, WWF, WCW, nWo
Famous feuds ensued with the likes of Terry Funk, Blackjack Mulligan, “Crippler” Ray Stevens, and Warrior Ric Flair, the last of whom Rhodes beat in the NWQ World Heavyweight Championship. In October 1985, while fighting Flair, Rhodes sounded off in a “Hard Times” segment where he related his fighting spirit to the struggles of unemployed factory workers across the U.S.
The message endured him to working class wrestling fans, who filled arenas to thank their hero for what has widely been praised as an expression of courageous empathy. Following Rhodes’ death, ESPN singled out the clip as Rhodes greatest interview, stating that in
“just over three minutes, Rhodes fully encapsulated every ounce of his charm by endearing himself to blue-collar mid-America,” (Campbell).
During the second half of the ’80s, Rhodes booked for JCP, where he pioneered a slew of popular gimmicks for World Championship Wrestling (WCW) pay-per-view, including BattleBowl, Lethal Lottery, and War Games. While producing programs for JCP, Rhodes used his real name to avoid conflict with his public image. He was fired, however, after a gory on-camera incident at Starrcade ’88 between himself and Road Warrior Animal.
Afterwards, Rhodes stepped back into the ring for the American Wrestling Association and Florida Championship Wrestling, in which he nabbed a PWF Heavyweight Championship.
In 1989, Rhodes entered the World Wrestling Federation (WWF), where—donning yellow polka-dot garb—he squared off with “Macho King” Randy Savage in an ongoing storyline. Rhodes and valet Sapphire secured the loyalty of Savage’s ex-partner Miss Elizabeth, who helped them prevail in WWF’s WrestleMania IV.
After Sapphire quit following SummerSlam 1990, Rhodes welcomed his son, Dustin, into the ring for the 1991 Royal Rumble. The two soon left the WWF, a move that brought the elder’s full-time competitive career to a sudden end.
Rhodes then joined the booking committee of WCW, where he managed Ron Simmons to a victory over Big Van Vader at the 1992 World Heavyweight Championship. Rhodes was still with WCW during its 1996 rivalry with New World Order (nWo), when he broke ranks for the other side, live on air, to the shock of spectators.
Entering the ring with Larry Zbyszko opposite Louie Spicolli and Scott Hall, Rhodes seemed to be charging Hall, but struck his partner instead. Revealing a nWo shirt while uttering a kiss-off to WCW, Rhodes joined Hall and Spicolli in a takedown of Zbyszko. Afterwards, Rhodes managed Hall for nWo and squared off with “King of Old School” Steve Corino in Extreme Championship Wrestling.
The new millennium saw Rhodes back in the ring for Total Nonstop Action Wrestling (TNA), where he was ultimately asked to join the creative team once his booking contract expired. Between 2000 and 2003, he also ran Turnbuckle Championship Wrestling (TCW) promotions along with fellow heavyweights Glacier, Barry Windham, and select trainees.
Indy career, CCW, WWE, and the Hall of Fame
On April 23, 2003, Rhodes debuted on the independent circuit as part of wrestler Homicide’s team in Ring of Honor. Later that year, Rhodes beat Jerry Lawler and Slash, respectively, during International Wrestling Cartel and NWA Bluegrass events. In a team-up with Bubba the Love Sponge, he also triumphed in a Full Impact Pro match with Kevin Sullivan and Ralph Mosca.
The following year, Rhodes notched up victories over heavyweights Gangrel, Kamala, Corino, and—with help from Ian Rotten—the team of Chris Candido and Steve Stone. However, 2004 was also marked by defeats for Rhodes, first as part of a tag team that went down at one of Japan’s HUSTLE events, and then in a team-up with his son in a match opposite Satoshi Kojima and Shinjiro Otani.
Pushing 60 and now aligned with Carolina Championship Wrestling (CCW), Rhodes teamed with The Rock ‘n’ Roll Express in a face-off with Midnight Express wrestlers Dennis Condrey, Bobby Eaton, and Stan Lane. Resuming a feud with Tully Blanchard, Rhodes handily defeated his old rival on two occasions. Throughout 2005, Rhodes enjoyed a nearly unbeatable streak against everyone from Terry Funk and Rob Conway to Kid Kash and Abdullah the Butcher.
In August of that year, Rhodes teamed yet again with son Dustin, this time opposite Phi Delta Slam. Around this same time, Rhodes partook in a team of eight—along with The Blue Meanie, D’Lo Brown, and Tom Prichard— for the first WrestleReunion.
Signing on as a creative consultant with WWE, Rhodes wrapped his indy career with take-downs of Jerry Lawler and Steve Corino, respectively, at mid-2006 Southern Championship and Texas Bullrope events. That summer, Rhodes—along with Arn Anderson, Ron Simmons, and Sgt. Slaughter—participated in Team WWE Legends, which faced off with The Spirit Squad during Survivor Series. The year was also marked by the release of his biographical DVD: The American Dream – The Dusty Rhodes Story.
On March 31, 2007, Dustin and Cody Rhodes inducted their father into the WWE Hall of Fame. The elder Rhodes would in turn perform the honor at subsequent ceremonies for fellow legends Terry and Dory Funk—aka. The Funk Brothers—and the late Eddie Graham, who was finally inducted to the Hall in 2008, 23 years after his death.
Retirement from Wrestling, Later Career
Rhodes was taken down by Randy Orton in what proved to be the 62-year-old’s last ever wrestling match during WWE’s 2007 Great American Bash. The next evening, Cody Rhodes was also defeated by Orton, who dealt another blow to Dusty as the elder tended to his son at ringside. Later that year, Dusty Rhodes watched Cody—teamed with Hardcore Holly—prevail in the World Tag Team Championship against Lance Cade and Trevor Murdoch.
One of Rhodes’ last public dramas involved a tiff with WWE CBO Stephanie McMahon, who lured him into a deal on the grounds that his two sons would be rehired by WWE, when in fact she would only rehire one. Rejecting the offer, the elder Rhodes was knocked out over the air on McMahon’s behest. The sons were ultimately rehired by the company when they prevailed in a win-or-lose bet to take down Seth Rollins, Roman Reigns, and Dean Ambrose—collectively known as The Shield—in a Battleground face-off, where Dusty ended up performing his famous Bionic Elbow on Ambrose.
Death and Tributes
Having been earlier diagnosed with stomach cancer, Rhodes collapsed from dehydration at his Orlando home on June 10, 2015. Rushed to a local hospital, the 69-year-old died hours later from kidney failure. He is survived by his second wife, Michelle, along with his four children and three grandchildren.
News of Rhodes’ death sent an outpouring of tributes across social media from within and beyond the wrestling community. Actor Dwayne Johnson—aka. The Rock—took to his Instagram page to relate memories of his own childhood encounter with The American Dream:
“I first met Dusty Rhodes at 5yrs old when me and my family were spending time with him and his family on their ranch.” Johnson went on to call Rhodes “a great inspiration and mentor to me [who inspired] wrestling fans around the world by becoming one of the greatest of all time,” (“Dusty Rhodes RIP”).
Wrestler/actress Summer Rae, who trained with Rhodes, remarked that there were “times he believed in me more then I believed in myself,” (Middleton).
One of the most affectionate comments came from long-time rival Ric Flair, who gave the following lament:
“Today I lost one of my greatest opponents and greatest friends. He was the definition of heart and soul and I’m honored to have shared the ring with him countless times,” (“Ric Flair leads”).
Jim Ross expressed hopes that Rhodes’ dedication to his sport would resonate with future generations, telling reporters that
“hopefully today’s performers will understand how committed he was to his craft, how much he was in love with [the] wrestling business and how much [it was] a natural extension of himself,” (Hightower).
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Campbell, Brian. “Dusty Rhodes was unlike any other pro wrestling superstar.” ESPN. ESPN Inc. 11 June 2015. Web. 14 June 2015.
“Dusty Rhodes RIP.” MTV.co.uk. Viacom International Media Networks. 12 June 2015. Web. 14 June 2015.
Middleton, Marc. “Steve Austin, The Rock, William Regal, John Cena, Bray Wyatt And Others Remember Dusty Rhodes.” Wrestling Inc. Webcapacity Incorporated. 12 June 2015. Web. 14 June 2015.
“Ric Flair leads tributes to Dusty Rhodes.” The Washington Post. Nash Holdings LLC. 12 June 2015. Web. 14 June 2015.
Hightower, Kyle. “Former professional wrestler Virgil Runnels, better known as Dusty Rhodes, dead at 69.” Star Tribune. Star Tribune Media Company, LLC. 11 June 2015. Web. 14 June 2015.