I’d like to take a few moments to talk about the loss of one my icons and my favorite wrestler of all time, Dusty Rhodes. It’s easy enough to get the story of his life on the internet – his real name, where he grew up, etc. This isn’t about that. This is about the world he created for me to experience, the world in which Dusty Rhodes was a real person with real struggles who overcame them and became the World Champion.
So as you already know, I’m a huge wrestling fan and have been since the days when I was growing up in St. Petersburg, FL. My Dad and I would watch wrestling together every Saturday night at 7PM on Channel 44, Championship Wrestling From Florida with your host, Gordon Solie. To this day, Gordon is still the best wrestling announcer I’ve ever heard. You don’t always know what you have until it’s gone. This wasn’t the case with Dusty. We always knew he was special. He didn’t look like the other wrestlers. He had a big belly. Yup, he was a fatty. But make no mistake, he was a tremendous athlete. No one could go the distance in the ring as many nights a week as he did without being in great shape.
But it wasn’t his look or his athletics that made him so special. It was his mouth. He was amazing on the microphone. He had a thick Southern drawl and a pronounced lisp. There was no mistaking his voice. When he spoke, he commanded attention. When he said he would do something, you believed him and couldn’t wait to see him do it. It wasn’t always this way. I still remember the days when he was a heel wrestler. He was part of the Gary Hart stable and was Tag Team Champions with Pak Song, a Korean wrestler known as the Korean Nightmare. As usually happens when tag teams run their course, one of the partners turns on the other and becomes a babyface. It was inevitable for this team as Dusty’s popularity was growing. He became bigger than the team. When he turned face, his popularity exploded. Because of his humble background and his never-say-die attitude his new moniker seemed like a natural – The American Dream, Dusty Rhodes. (It was a counter-point to his former tag team partner, The Korean Nightmare.)
This was a very personal experience for me. In those days in the Tampa Bay area (we’re talking the 1970’s) wrestling was held every Tuesday night at the Ft. Homer Hesterly Armory. Several times a year, wrestling would come to St. Petersburg’s Bayfront Center on a Saturday night. I wasn’t allowed to go to wrestling on a Tuesday because it was a school night, but Saturdays were a different story. I don’t think we ever missed a Saturday wrestling match. The problem with this is that you don’t know what happened on Tuesday until the show airs on Saturday (remember when there wasn’t any internet?) so we show up to the fights unaware that there was a rift between Dusty and Pak Song on Tuesday.
When the intermission came, we were all anxious for the main event, Dusty and Pak vs. Don Muraco and Andre the Giant for the Tag Team Titles. During the intermission, my friend and I went to the concession stand to get some snacks when we hear a commotion. Coming through the hall is Dusty Rhodes big as life. Cowboy boots and hat, blue jeans with a Texas size belt buckle, no shirt, and his trademark Tuxedo jacket with tails. I ran over to him just to touch him and say “Hey Dusty!” Remember, he’s a heel at this time and we’re all just giddy to see him! He walks on, I collect my snacks and head back into the arena, just to find Dusty already in the ring with Pak Song and he is kicking the crap out of Pak Song! We are all just ecstatic! The ring has a crowd around it now that isn’t letting anyone in or out. In the middle of the crowd, towering over it is the unmistakable fuzzy head of Andre the Giant, with Don Muraco at his side trying to get to the ring for their match, which clearly isn’t happening.
This was the night Dusty Rhodes forever became “The American Dream.” He never worked heel again. It is without a doubt my favorite wrestling moment. While I know that these moments are written in advance and choreographed by the performers, just as in any play or movie you go and see, they are no less real for me because these story lines go on and become part of the character’s history.
The local newspaper, the St. Petersburg Times, remembered Dusty as the most prominent local sports hero in the days before there were any Buccaneers, Rays, Lightning, or Magic. He was so popular that he was often seen on local commercials, using his incredible mic skills to pitch for the latest mom & pop shop. My most vivid memory of this was his advertisements for Tom Stimus used cars and trucks. Tom Stimus was no wilting lily on the microphone. He was quite popular and well known for slapping the cars and trucks to make his point. But even he had to take a back seat to the incredible Dusty Rhodes. When I was in college, I used to regale my roommates with my impression of Dusty and it always included lines from the Tom Stimus commercials.
As important as Dusty was in the ring and as a major character, his work behind the camera was just as important. As the small territories started to get bought up, Dusty worked as a booker here in the South. He eventually booked for the Crockett promotions in the late 80’s. Dusty worked as a wrestler or a booker for every major American promotion over the last 40 years! During that time, he had a tremendous impact not only on the audience but on the talent. It’s difficult to find a wrestler who doesn’t have at least one Dusty story.
It’s rare that you get to tell your icons how much they meant to you over the years. I got that chance in 2006. I moved to Connecticut the year before, and my wife was working in Stamford (coincidentally, the corporate home of WWE). After work one day, I met the wife to go out for some drinks after work. As we pulled into the parking garage, there was a large bleach blonde gentleman with curly hair, cowboy boots and a giant belt buckle! My wife says, “That’s Dusty Rhodes.” I said, “I’ll drop you off, you go stalk Dusty while I park the car.” When I returned she said he had gone in to Bobby V’s. I walked in and there he was! I walked up to him and said, “Dusty, I’ve been a fan since I was a little kid. I just want to say thank you for all the great memories.” I shook his hand and he said, “Much love brother, much love.” Much love indeed!