One of the most difficult aspects of being a professional wrestling fan is watching one wrestler after another pass away far too young. Going back and watching classic events from childhood can be a sad affair when you actively count how many of these seemingly healthy athletes are now deceased. Seeing your favorite entertainers pass away is difficult and it’s something that everyone endures, but pro wrestling fans seem to endure it with a lot more frequency. On June 11, Dusty Rhodes was the latest of the fraternity of pro wrestlers to join his brothers in the afterlife. He was 69 years old.
Virgil Riley Runnels Jr. began his professional wrestling career in 1968 in the American Wrestling Association as part of a tag team with Dick Murdoch called the Texas Outlaws. It was Gary Hart who gave him the moniker of Dusty Rhodes. As was typical in those days he traveled throughout the different NWA member territories performing in small venues around America. He became especially popular in the southern territories, specifically Georgia and Florida.
It was when he began working in the Mid Atlantic territory for Jim Crockett Promotions in the 1980’s that he became especially renowned. His most memorable feuds were tagging up with Magnum T.A. as America’s Team opposing the legendary Four Horsemen, and later as a singles wrestler also feuding with the Four Horsemen. The most entertaining angles in Mid-Atlantic centered around the animosity between Dusty Rhodes and Ric Flair. Portraying the common man, Rhodes was the perfect foil to the pompous and aristocratic Nature Boy.
After wrapping up his career in Mid Atlantic, Dusty went north to the WWF in 1989, donned some yellow polka-dotted trunks, and was given the gimmick of the “common man”. Not everyone could pull a character like this off. Rhodes was not a particularly gifted ring technician and his physique looked about as far from a professional wrestler’s as possible. I mean look at this:
Vince McMahon was known for taking gifted wrestlers from rival promotions and turning them into jokes on his television programs to make his own home grown talent look better by comparison. He clearly signed Dusty Rhodes and saddled him with what was meant to be a go nowhere comedy act as a personal jab. Instead Dusty Rhodes used his charisma to make the gimmick a success and he went on to have some memorable feuds with the Macho King Randy Savage and The Million Dollar Man Ted DiBiase.
Today a wrestler like Dusty Rhodes would never even be given a chance. He is the product of a bygone era when guys were given an opportunity to showcase their strengths and develop unique and interesting characters that mirrored themselves. Traveling the territories and fine tuning his persona, Dusty found a niche appealing to the audience not with his looks or his overpowering ability but by becoming the personification of the everyman. He didn’t win his matches with god given talent or raw strength but through hard work, sheer determination, and perseverance. In spite of overwhelming physical odds, Dusty came out on top because he was a hard worker which appealed to blue collar fans coast to coast. When coupled with amazing charisma it’s easy to see why he was able to succeed without looking like a battle hardened athlete.
Now that WWE has a strangle hold on the wrestling business, performers like Dusty Rhodes have been all but weeded out. If a wrestler doesn’t have the cookie cutter look they more than likely won’t get a job or at best will be given the unenviable task of jobbing out week after week. There are only five ways a wrestler today can be given a legitimate chance in the WWE:
Be tall and ripped
Be good with backstage politics
Vince McMahon is sexually attracted to you
You become Vince McMahon’s boy toy
Don’t believe me? Check out this footage from one of Vince McMahon’s talent evaluations:
As you can see, a wrestler without the bodybuilder physique is not going to have much of a chance in today’s WWE. The passing of Dusty is another lost link to the world of pro wrestling the way it used to be.
There’s an interesting bit of wrestling trivia that Dusty played a part in. When Vince McMahon decided that his new evil millionaire heel needed a man servant to humiliate, he used the opportunity to take a shot at Dusty Rhodes. Dusty was of course a major on screen talent in the rival NWA at the time as well as the head of the booking committee. So what better name to give the man servant than Virgil, Dusty’s birth name. When Virgil signed on with WCW years later, the booking committee decided to reciprocate by renaming his character Vincent as a shot at McMahon. Only in pro wrestling could someone make a career out of being the personification of a jab at the competition. Here’s Virgil today signing autographs for his legions of fans.
Sometimes he apparently decides to forgo getting a booth at a convention and just sets up outside in the parking lot.
Word on the street is that you can sometimes find him in New York’s Grand Central Station standing around asking passers by if they will pay $20 to get a photo taken with him. I’ve heard he can be talked down to $5.
Another interesting tidbit is the Hamilton County Ohio auditor is named Dusty Rhodes. When I was driving through and filled up with gas it was surreal to see the name Dusty Rhodes on the gas pump tag confirming it had been passed by the department of weights and measures.
I’ll wrap this up with a Dusty quote. “The man of the hour, the man with the power. I am the hit-maker, the record-breaker. I got style and grace, a pretty face. I’ll make your back crack, your liver quiver. If you ain’t into this match, you’re at the wrong address. Superstar, when the other wrestlers are smilin’ and jokin, The Dream be, WOO!, cookin’ and smokin’.”