When you think of any iconic pro wrestler, you think of a crowning moment in the ring — at the end of a brutal match, holding the title belt triumphantly, covered in sweat and blood, basking in the crowd’s adoration. That, as Dusty Rhodes — who died Thursday at the age of 69 — might say, is hard times. And this is the point — for all of his sweating and bloodletting and triumphing over opponents, with Dusty Rhodes, you think about a promo. You think about a man with a bleached perm and tinted glasses in a gray three-piece suit and a pink shirt that he can’t quite button around his chubby neck. Most wrestlers, even the very best talkers, are celebrated for conveying how they felt in the ring, with their backs against the wall. Only an unlikely legend like Dusty Rhodes could explain to his audience that no troubles in the ring could approach the trouble of the human condition:
[“The Nature Boy” Ric Flair] put hard times on Dusty Rhodes and his family. You don’t know what hard times are, Daddy. Hard times are when the textile workers around this country are out of work, they got four or five kids and can’t pay their wages, can’t buy their food. Hard times are when the autoworkers are out of work and they tell ’em “Go home.” Hard times are when a man has worked at a job 30 years, they give him a watch, kick him in the butt, and say, “Hey, a computer took your place, Daddy.” That’s hard times. And Ric Flair, you put hard times on this country by taking Dusty Rhodes out.
Rhodes was just back from an onscreen injury suffered at the hands of Flair and the Four Horsemen, and he knew that everybody watching was cheering for him to get his revenge. But he also knew that human tragedy is graded on a curve. He was known as “Stardust” and “The White Soul King” as means of self-aggrandizement. He was dubbed “the Son of a Plumber” because it was true. He was called the “American Dream” because, well, that’s true too. In pro wrestling, humanity is pantomimed in broad strokes along with physical toil, and success is largely symbolic. But Dusty Rhodes was a star because he was fully human, even within the ridiculous excesses of his craft. He acknowledges as much in the “Hard Times” promo:
I admit, I don’t look like the athlete of the day’s supposed to look. My belly’s just a little big, my heinie’s just a little big, but, brother, I am bad and they know I’m bad. … “Nature Boy” Ric Flair, the world’s heavyweight title belongs to these people. I’m gonna reach out right now.
He’s reaching his arm out, toward the camera, and you better believe that everybody watching at home is reaching out too.
I want you at home to know my hand is touching your hand, for this gathering of the biggest body of people in this country, in this universe, all over the world now. Reach it out, because the love that was given me in this time I will repay you. … I came back for you, for that man up there that died 10-12 years ago and never got the opportunity to see a real world’s champion.
Despite the messianic undertones of that nearly perfect monologue, Dusty wasn’t talking about God at the end. He was referring to Jim Crockett Sr., the man who founded the wrestling company Dusty worked for at the time. Crockett was a man from humble beginnings who dropped out of college to be a promoter and, according to the Charlotte Observer, “came to Charlotte in 1934 with about $5,000 in cash … [and] built himself into ‘the premier promoter in the Southeast.’” Crockett promoted more than just wrestling. He brought big bands, Broadway shows, and the Harlem Globetrotters to Charlotte.
Crockett understood the common man better than anybody in the business. See his explanation in the Observer story for why he wouldn’t drive a Cadillac: “I don’t want my customers to see me driving to the show looking like a fat cat. Not when they’re having problems digging up $1.50 for a balcony seat.”
Now, I hope Dusty would forgive me digressing into another man’s life in the middle of his obituary. I think he’d understand, however, because Crockett’s credo fit Dusty Rhodes to a tee. Before he became the show, Dusty was the man who could scarcely afford the buck-fifty, but he never, ever failed to give the crowd what it wanted. He was a regular guy — a chubby kid from Texas who grew up poor and idolized Sailor Art Thomas and Thunderbolt Patterson and Sweet Daddy Siki and turned his fantasy into success. Fans saw that, and so they forgave him — and celebrated him — when Dusty started driving Cadillacs and wearing fur coats. And the fans followed him faithfully during his years-long quest for the championship.
The quest defined Dusty. As a wrestler and a booker — the backstage figure who creates story lines — Dusty’s long and varied résumé is pretty much incomparable. But by dint of nomenclature, perhaps his most lasting stamp on the industry is the Dusty Finish, an often misunderstood tactic for ending matches. The Platonic ideal of the Dusty Finish occurred at Starrcade 1985, which I wrote about a couple of years back:
At Starrcade 1985, the NWA’s premier event, Dusty Rhodes notched a long-awaited title win against Ric Flair. They had fought at Starrcade the year before, only to have the match stopped by special referee Joe Frazier because of a nasty cut Dusty had suffered. But 1985 would be different — sort of. Rhodes fought valiantly, even though after the referee was accidentally knocked out, Flair’s buddies Ole and Arn Anderson came in to help subdue Rhodes. Miraculously, Dusty sprung a surprise pin on Flair and won, with a replacement ref performing the three count. The crowd went wild. Rhodes celebrated in the ring and in the back with the locker room good guys. But it was not to be. When the original ref came to his senses, he insisted that he had seen the Andersons interfere, and so, since his decision took primacy, the pinfall win was changed retroactively to a disqualification win, which meant that Flair retained his belt on a technicality.
Rhodes didn’t invent the switch finish — it had been around since the earliest days of staged matches. And sure, the ending can be used to excess. (Rhodes and Flair performed a Dusty Finish as early as a Mid-Atlantic championship match at an untelevised show in Richmond, Virginia, in 1976.) But in the hands of Rhodes, it was a thing of beauty. If Dusty the booker relied too much on screwy finishes, it was because he underestimated how uncommon Dusty the wrestler was. It worked because we wanted so badly for Dusty to win, and because on some level we believed it wasn’t possible. It worked because Dusty’s appeal was about the quest rather than the destination. It worked because the fans related so closely to Dusty: The trajectory of his career was an endless flat, always a notch beneath the ultimate goal. It reminded many fans of their own lives.
Rhodes won his first world title from Harley Race on August 21, 1979. It was the “largest crowd ever jammed [into the] Fort Homer W. Hesterly Armory in Tampa,” announcer Gordon Solie claimed. Race, an eight-time champ and fellow all-time great, understood what made his opponent special. “Dusty … had probably as big a heart as far as being able to do what he loved to do as well as about anybody around,” he said. “I’ve had several-hour Broadways1 with Dusty Rhodes, and nobody looking at him would think he could ever go an hour.” Which is exactly the point. Dusty transcended the sport in a way his forebears never had. After he won in 1979, fans stormed the ring to join the celebration. “Dusty Rhodes,” the triumphant champion said of himself, “the plumber’s son who has dreamed a dream and lived a dream, has made that dream come true. You cannot pay tribute to your people no better.”
From the Grantland pro-wrestling dictionary: “Broadway (n.) — A mostly archaic term for a match that results in a draw due to the full time limit.”
There have been many wrestlers who spoke of themselves in the third person. For most, it signifies egotism and vanity. For Dusty, somehow, it was a mark of humility, like he couldn’t quite believe he was the person who had made it this far. He held the title for five days.
Dusty reclaimed the belt from Race on June 21, 1981, and held it for three months before transitioning the belt to Ric Flair, Race’s real replacement atop the hierarchy. Dusty feuded with Flair and his Four Horsemen on and off for another decade, but only once claimed the title from him, for a single week in the summer of 1986. But titles always took a backseat to the real things Dusty was fighting for: revenge for the time they broke his arm, revenge for the time they broke his leg, revenge for when they stole his woman. He attacked them with a baseball bat when they sucker punched his injured best friend, and he got suspended for 120 days.
Thankfully, a portly, masked buddy of Rhodes called the Midnight Rider was there to take up the battle for him. Of course, the Midnight Rider was Dusty in disguise (as was Uvalde Slim when Dusty used the same gimmick in Florida years before), but none of the governors of the NWA cared to notice. In story line terms, it was because they loved Dusty just as much as fans did. In a larger sense, though, the Rider’s mask was like Dusty’s use of third person. That feeling of being removed from reality is what made his interminable quest possible. He once spoke of a story he’d tell his daughter about a “cold-blooded sausage maker” who would chase young pigs to butcher them, only for Dusty to come in and save them. In the last retelling, though, when Dusty faced off against Horseman Tully Blanchard, Dusty himself became the cold-blooded sausage maker. He had to become the character in the bedtime story to get revenge and he had to put on the mask to stay alive, just like he had to bleach his hair and put on briefs to achieve his dream. His career — his life — was a parable.
In 1988, Dusty got fired from WCW (the national promotion that the Crockett territory had evolved into) when, as booker, he approved a bloody melee against the wishes of executives at Turner, WCW’s parent company. Dusty then turned up in the WWF in black tights with yellow polka dots, dancing alongside his valet, Sapphire — a woman who deliberately evoked the “Common Man” gimmick that WWF had assigned Dusty. The polka dots are too often discussed — they were silly, but Dusty overcame them — but here is where the WWF really misunderstood Rhodes: The company too often oversimplifies characters and dumbs them down for a nonexistent lowest common denominator. Sure, they called him the “American Dream” in the chorus of his theme song, but they misunderstood what that meant. To fans, Dusty was a common man and a god at the same time. Both were simultaneously true. The WWF portrayed him as merely common, when in fact he transcended that characterization every time he stepped into the ring.
The closest they came to understanding this was in a series of vignettes that teased his debut with scenes of Dusty working blue-collar jobs: a trash collector, a butcher, a gas station attendant, and (naturally) a plumber. Each bit ended with the disembodied voice of a female client saying “Hey, aren’t you … ?”
He was. That dichotomy defined Dusty’s career. One of his most famous lines went: “I’ve wined and dined with kings and queens, and I’ve slept in the alley eating pork and beans.”
Success wasn’t a straight line for Dusty. He got the girl then lost her. He reached the pinnacle of the NWA and then got reintroduced to the bottom in the WWF. He won the title and lost it and won it again and lost it and won it again and lost it. But the story of Dusty Rhodes — the point of the Dusty Finish — wasn’t failure. It was aspiration. It was the quest for — yeah, I’ll say it — the American Dream. Dusty was a symbol, and through him, we all tasted the dream.
Because we’ve all been in that figurative alley eating pork and beans. Only Dusty made it to dinner with royalty. Or, as he put it when he and his old partner Dick Slater reunited in 1985 to take on the dastardly Koloff family:
“We’re tired of monkeyin’ around. We’re not eating bananas now, we’re on steak and potatoes.”
Dusty’s two sons followed him into wrestling, and both made it big as Dustin “Goldust” Rhodes and Cody Rhodes. In a recent interview, they said that when they were growing up, Dusty didn’t even acknowledge that wrestling was fake around the house. Cody was 12 when the Four Horsemen broke his father’s leg, and Dusty wore the cast and crutches around at home to keep up the act. He cared so much about the show that he was playing to an audience of two the same way he’d play to a sold-out Omni in Atlanta. “He doesn’t want the magic to end,” Cody said. “He loves it so much.”
It’s true. Few people could tell a story in the ring like Dusty. I could count on half a hand the people who could cut a promo like him. But nobody loved wrestling more than Dusty. Nobody loved the fans more, and nobody loved the job more. It was a job for which he gave up his body. But it was more than that, because Dusty made it more than that.
When he was inducted into the WWE Hall of Fame in 2007, Dusty said: “One thing is for sure, though. When you go back and you look at our industry, you look at passion. You look at the road; you look at hard times on the road. You look at driving down the road, night after night, tryin’ to make a town, getting $25 — that’s hard times. It’s our duty to make it good times for the fans that pay their money to see us perform each and every night.”
Now that’s a hell of a promo.