Remembering Dusty Rhodes, 1945-2015

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Dusty Rhodes is gone. It’s…it’s weird, right? There’s no other word for it. It’s not an easy thing to believe, and an even harder thing to say. He’s Dusty Rhodes. He was a common man, a bad man, an American Dream, a proud father, a living legend and everything in between. We here at With Spandex were deeply saddened by his loss, and in the next few pages — and with the help of a few guests — we’ve tried our very best to explain why.

I don’t know if there’s anyone who doesn’t immediately think of the “Hard Times” promo when they hear the words “Dusty Rhodes.” It’s his masterpiece, a piece of pro wrestling that holds up after 30 years, 3 minutes that should be taught to anyone interested in any form of public speaking, let alone just the art of cutting a promo in wrestling. On the surface, it’s the silliest thing in the world, this idea that Ric Flair himself is personally responsible for all of America’s economic woes through the act of simply holding the NWA World’s Heavyweight Championship, but there’s an emotion to it, a sincerity that comes through at the end. When Dusty says he loves you, when he says he thanks God for you, there’s nothing in the world that can convince me that he didn’t mean every word of it.

But like I said, that’s only the first thing that comes to mind. There’s the moment that he promised to defeat Jerry Lawler with the power of 17 dancing go-go bears, the blood gushing from his face when he was stabbed in the eye by the Road Warriors, the tale of the cold-blooded sausage-maker, his exasperated, wide-eyed “It shoulda worked!” when he talked about the Shockmaster, the emotional moment where he reconciled with his sons as they won the Tag Team Championships and made us all believe in family. Those are the moments he spent his life bringing us, and they’re what I’ll remember for the rest of mine.

Goodnight, Dusty. I’m proud of you, and I thank God we had you. — Chris Sims, cowriter of X-Men ’92

My first introduction to Dusty Rhodes was the yellow polka-dotted Dusty in exile from his home in the south. The common man. It was an odd first look, but it certainly had its memorable moments that opened a door to a lot more, from the classics to the silly (he’s got a bicycle!)

Hearing he had passed was a shock. In a day full of losses, Dusty Rhodes was definitely one that crushed a piece of my past. He’s still there on video, but now he’s part of that long list of people gone too soon. — Andrew Roberts, Uproxx contributor

“Sorry, sir.” Those are the only two words I ever said to Dusty Rhodes.

It was the night of April 4, 2014, at the Prytania Theatre in New Orleans. I was there for the premiere of Meet Me There, written by our very own Brandon Stroud. Heading inside, I decided to go use the bathroom before the movie started. As I was exiting, I turned a blind corner and very nearly ran face-first into The American Dream himself. I apologized, made my way back out into the lobby, and promptly started hyperventilating because oh my God, did that really just happen?

Here’s the thing: If you’re going to go around calling yourself “The American Dream,” then dammit, you had better live up to it like Dusty did. He was the working-class hero a generation desperately needed. He was one of us. Pro wrestling is a bit of a blue-collar thing by nature, so we’re all the sons and daughters of plumbers.

I never got to meet Eddie Guerrero, and I doubt I’ll ever meet Daniel Bryan or Stone Cold Steve Austin. But I had the chance to say a couple of words to Dusty Rhodes, and now I wish I could just tell him a couple more — “Thank you.” — Austin Heiberg, With Spandex

Admittedly as a kid I was more into Randy Savage and the WWF than Dusty Rhodes and the NWA, but I was always keenly aware of his exploits. Dusty was one of those guys you didn’t have to directly follow to follow, because he wasn’t just in wrestling, he was an integral part of the fabric. He was wrestling, and the entertainment form is permanently diminished now that he’s no longer a part of it.

In more recent years, I’ve caught up with most of Dusty’s highlights, and more than anything else they make me wish I was a NWA kid. That I was there, truly and wholly invested in his struggle, because even 20-years later and slightly out of context, his promos and battles still resonate more than almost anything I’ve watched. There’s few things more satisfying that introducing non-wrestling fans to Dusty Rhodes, preferably through one of his promos. First it’s “Who is this weird-looking guy, and why does he sound like that?” then a minute later, they’re rolling and chuckling right along with him, and by the end of the promo they’re already in love.

We’ll all carry on, but wrestling doesn’t quite feel like wrestling without The American Dream in it. Happy trails, Dusty Rhodes. — Nathan Birch, With Spandex

The news that Dusty Rhodes passed away is hard to come to terms with. He’s The American Dream, that should bestow legendary immortal status on a person, right?

I was too young to see Rhodes doing his truly incredible work in the NWA, so my first memories of Dusty involve polka dots, but damn it, he spun his own kind of gold out of that. Then he was on commentary in WCW, and he still makes me think of wild brawling as “clubberin.’ ” Finally, when YouTube became a thing, I could do what I wanted to do as a teenager and find out about Dusty’s heyday. I could finally discover the true common man who bled his heart out in the NWA.

The way that man spoke is nothing short of mastery. He’s a red belt in talking. Everyone loves “Hard Times,” but there wasn’t much he said that wasn’t gold. You can’t watch him beg to be Dustin’s tag partner without wanting to give Dusty that hug. Everything he did had so much emotion in it, it’s amazing he didn’t burn up in 1983 due to an overabundance of passion.

I’m thankful that Dusty stuck around and had such a direct hand in the new generations at NXT. Even though nobody will ever compare to the American Dream, I look forward to the slivers he put into everyone at Full Sail shining through for years to come. He was bad, and we all knew he was bad, daddy. — Jessica Hudnall, With Spandex

We all heard the final bell, but we still keep hoping it isn’t over. He’ll be back. The referee (if there is one) must have been knocked out. So, we’re all waiting for the decision to be reversed. But it won’t be. He’s not coming back under a mask. Don’t look for The Midnight Rider. He’s left town. Dusty Rhodes is gone. They’re all going to go someday, and we know this just like we know all belts won will eventually be lost. We try not to think about it. Then the referee’s hand hits the canvas for the third time and we look on, shocked and silent. Dusty was one of us. His belly might have been a little big, he may not have looked like the athlete of the day, but he was fighting for us, Not for Jim Crockett, Ted Turner, or Vince McMahon. That’s what he told us, and that’s what we believed because we believed everything Dusty said. Even when he didn’t make any sense, we believed him. Dusty Rhodes was more than a man, but he was also a man. That man is gone. The American Dream is not gone. The American Dream is still here. I hope you’re ready, Mr. Death, because you’ve got a hold of Virgil now. And that’s risky business. — Robert Newsome, editor and publisher of The Atomic Elbow

This is one of the first commissions I ever did and still, in my opinion, one of the best I’ve ever done.

Dusty Rhodes taught me in lieu of being handsome, strong or fast, be clever, go to work, and don’t ever quit.

He taught me there was pride in being a blue-collar worker’s son in a nowhere town.

He taught me that in this life there will always be blood, but that doesn’t mean the fight is over, or that you’re beat.

He taught me you don’t have to be glamorous to be great.

And he taught me that a regular, average man can do anything.

These are the real Hard Times. Goodnight, Dusty. — Kyle Starks, artist and author

Just days before the Super Bowl of NWA wrestling, Starrcade, the Andersons beat down Dusty in a parking lot and broke his arm to the delight of a cackling JJ Dillion.

I only wish I could go back to that moment, falling off the edge of my aunt’s bed, staring, mouth agape, at the video footage of two of the Four Horsemen, Arn and Ole Anderson, as they ambushed an unsuspecting Dusty Rhodes as he exited his convertible in the parking lot of Crockett Promotions. I’d love to have seen my face. I’d love to see the moment that wrestling really became a part of my life.

Before the broadcast of that bouncy camera footage, professional wrestlers rarely told their stories outside the ring. If an attack occurred, it was a “Pearl Harbor” job at the end of a match, or a sneak attack back in the dressing room. That segment — the stalking, the planning, the fact that real life was going on in the same frame as fictional wrestling — gave fans an early look into the eventual dawn of reality TV. Dusty Rhodes and the Horsemen brought their world of predetermined matches and pulled punches into the actual real world.

In that moment Dusty, Arn, Ole and JJ turned into real men — not in the traditional sense of being “no longer a boy” — but in the idea that this sh*t just might be authentic after all.

At least that’s what a 9-year-old me thought, watching the dramatic footage as the cars passed shopping centers I’d sworn I’d been to and the severe beating taking place in a parking lot that looked no different than the one my mom parked in to go to work.

On that day, I became a fan of the American Dream. He was never my favorite wrestler. He was never the guy I wanted to meet or my tag-team partner in the matches in my mind. I was a fan because his promos, his matches, his look, his passion, the way he sold that beating and the damage to his arm, and everything he put into his performance made me feel like even though this world of wrestling might not always feel real to me, it was always real to him. — Chris Illuminati, senior editor at BroBible.

Dusty Rhodes wasn’t ‘just a common man,’ he was a common thread. I spend a lot of time thinking about what connects people to pro wrestling. What someone loves about a wrestler could be the very thing someone else hates. We can escape into a fictional world by watching these superhero versions of everything we want to be, or everything we can’t be, or we can love someone for everything we see in ourselves. We boo the bad guys and cheer for the underdogs, and we try to reach out and tear off a little piece of joy from the ridiculousness of it all to keep for ourselves. Everybody, no matter what kind of fan they are, has a little piece of joy from Dusty Rhodes.

When someone is a legend — well and truly a legend — they permeate every part of wrestling. It’s not just in innovated moves, or five-star matches, it’s the little things. It’s never having actually seen the ending of the WWE Dusty Rhodes DVD because I find his voice so soothing and so comforting that I would invariable fall asleep no matter how bad I felt. It’s sitting in the parking lot at a rest stop, the rain pounding down on the roof of the car, being promised that we’d restart his theme song because I refused to get out until it was over. It’s a friend texting you from a trip to North Carolina saying that he’s been speaking in a “Duthty Accthent” ever since he got to Greensboro. It’s dressing up like him for Halloween. It’s watching so many of your friends buckle under the weight of the news, each suddenly experiencing a profound loss for a million different reasons in the same way. Being a legend isn’t anything as grandiose as the word would suggest, because in the end you just become…common.

Dusty Rhodes illustrated the importance of representation in pro wrestling before most people even started considering it important. He didn’t have limousines, or fancy watches, or nice suits (mostly just kind of the idea of a nice suit). He wasn’t the fantasy, or something to aspire to — he was real. In a profession where workers bury their true selves under layers of character, or take one thing and amplify it to ridiculous heights, Dusty was the truth amidst the lies. Sure, he fashioned his accent after Thunderbolt Patterson and was still, at the end of the day, a professional wrestling character, but he didn’t look like one. He didn’t act like one. He could connect with the audience because he was the audience. He could speak to the poor because he had lived those hard times, and he was never ashamed of it. And that’s the thing! He was never embarrassed! People who know what it’s like to experience that kind of poverty know how hard it is to live through, and how much harder it is to be proud of that part of your life. He didn’t hide it, he didn’t want to escape it, he shouted it to the heavens — and when he did, he made it possible for every single person watching him and hearing him to be okay with that part of themselves. He wasn’t overly muscled, or even in the greatest of shape, but boy could he go. He spoke to the disenfranchised, and connected so well with poor audiences — and more importantly poor black audiences — that Vince Jr. punished him for it. But he donned those polka dots and he danced with Sapphire and not once did it dim his light.

It’s super hard to write this. We’re often so divided: We’re fans, we’re writers, we’re workers or promoters. We’re on one side of the railing or the other or in that awkward, lonely space in between. We’re whatever you want to classify yourself as that sets you apart from someone else. But I look around and every single one of us is hurting over this in some way. And it’s every level of sadness. It’s everything from a sad tweet about how you had his poster on your wall when you were a kid, to knowing someone who trained under him, or knowing his family, and knowing just how much this is killing them to deal with. It’s that rare thing that reminds you just how close-knit the wrestling business really is. And it sucks. It sucks because he was loved, and it sucks because he spent his whole career falling down, and in the end it was a stupid fall that took him away from the people who loved him the most. It sucks because he made himself one of us, and losing “one of us” reminds us of every other loss we’ve had to experience. It forces us to empathize with the members of his family who followed in his footsteps, the family we didn’t get to know, and the family he created for himself by putting kindness and joy into an industry that is always lacking in both. We empathize with the people who connected to him in a way we didn’t, and we hurt for all of the ways we connected to him ourselves. It sucks because no amount of words feel like enough. He was ‘just a common man,’ and that made him special in a way that no one else can ever be. — Danielle Matheson, With Spandex

He was my dad’s favorite wrestler.

When I describe my first moments in wrestling — I’ve been going to shows since I was in the womb, but these are the ones where I’m a cognizant person with memories or whatever — I sound like Bob Costas on Ken Burns’ Baseball. You know; the green of the grass, the crack of the bat, the smell of roasted peanuts wafting through the air. My version is a white square off in the distance, lit bright white and surrounded by darkness. The sticky, wet floors of the Greensboro Coliseum. A cigar smell I’m probably imagining. The Italian Stallion was in the ring, I think, but Dusty Rhodes was the reason we were there. He was the reason the show existed, and he was the reason my dad wasn’t paying attention and my mom had to guide me by the wrist through a dark, loud arena. When I remember it in my head, the view never changes.

My brain has collected my Coliseum memories and these moments with my dad as one jumbled thing … and impressionist painting of childhood and presence. I can remember the time Dusty got revenge on Jim Cornette and the Midnight Express by piledriving Big Bubba on the floor, and how for 20 years, my father recounted it as if I’d forgotten. “Remember that time he got Big Bubba on the floor, remember that? And then WHOOM, he piledrove him!” I can remember sitting in the front row over the gate where the wrestlers entered and exited, and my entire family — mom, dad and some 5-year old version of me — leaning over the rail, moments from plummeting to our doom, holding up our signs and yelling DUSTY, DUSTY as he walked underneath. When he walked to the back, he looked up, saw us and pointed. It was like he was shooting electricity through our hearts from his fingertip. He was the reason for all this. From the moment my pregnant mother went to an NWA show with my dorky, Skate Town USA DJ dad, Dusty Rhodes was the reason for my life in wrestling.

Years passed. Life happened. I grew up from an idealistic, sheltered little boy into a fat, spiteful little pre-teen. My dad grew up from a skating-rink disc jockey to a morning-radio guy, so by the time Fall Brawl ’94 came to our town, he had enough pull to request an interview with his favorite wrestler. Dusty was in the main event, a War Games match, teaming with his son Dustin and the Nasty Boys against Colonel Robert Parker’s Stud Stable. About a month earlier, Dusty had cut what I believe to be the greatest promo in wrestling history, about fathers and sons.

“… when you walk behind and you’re not a leader, then the view never changes, baby, the view never changes, baby, the view never changes.”

Dusty sat with us behind a table for about 45 minutes and lovingly answered my dad’s questions about his life, his career, and the ridiculous things he’d say. “Funky like a monkey” was his favorite. Lots of “if you wheel.” I sat in a folding chair diagonal from the conversation and listened without trying to seem too invested, because when you’re a kid, sometimes your interpretation of dignity overpowers your better sense of judgment. Sometimes it happens to adults, too. Dusty shook my hand with his giant, strong, weathered mitts and asked me about my life in wrestling. What I liked, who I cheered for and why. By the time we were done I’d stopped sitting too far away with my arms crossed and was leaning into the conversation, laughing and smiling from ear to ear. My dad was doing the same. Dusty signed an autograph for me and wished me well, and I left with my dad’s arm around my shoulder. We’d just talked to Dusty Rhodes, and he was so nice.

The view never changes.

Years passed. Life happened. I grew up from a fat, spiteful little pre-teen into a broken, idealistic adult. My dad went from a morning-radio guy in a big market to a morning-radio guy somewhere he could have job security, in a town where nothing happens. We were, and are, thousands of miles apart. I was fortunate enough to write a horror movie starring Dusty’s son, Dustin, and he became my friend. Through him, we were able to shoot some scenes on his family’s ranch outside of Austin, Texas, and we waded knee-deep in a cow-piss pond full of spiders and disease to pretend we were baptizing someone in a creek. At one point during a break in shooting, Dustin casually walked up to me and threw a perfect Goldust punch to my chin. The first thing I did when we were done for the day was call my dad. “That’s cool!” he said, whether he meant it or not.

My dad hasn’t always paid attention. When we were walking through the Coliseum, he’d run off to find our seats or buy popcorn and my mom would lead me around, to keep me from falling down the steps or being abducted by The Missing Link or whatever. When we sat in interviews, he wouldn’t think to work me into the conversation, because why would he? It’s his job. When I get to make a movie with someone we’ve watched on TV and pay-per-view since I was 10 years old, he says it’s “cool,” but he isn’t here to be a part of it. When it’s time for the film’s world premiere in New Orleans on WrestleMania weekend, he can’t make it. He can’t get the time off work. It’s expensive. I understand, because I’m old now, too, and I’ve had a lifetime to understand.

At about 11:30 p.m on the Friday night before WrestleMania, the cast and crew of the film stood outside the Prytania Theatre waiting for the doors to open. As we nervously chatted, a limousine pulled up to the curb, and out stepped “The American Dream,” Dusty Rhodes. He was there to support his son. Dusty and Dustin haven’t always had a great relationship, but years had passed and fathers and sons, and he was here. Cody couldn’t make it because he and Goldust had an autograph signing at Axxess in the morning. My best friend couldn’t make it, half our purchased seats were empty because the screening was late and other, cooler things had popped up around town, and my parents weren’t there because they couldn’t get the time. But Dusty Rhodes — 68-year old Dusty Rhodes, the man who pointed at my family once and shook my hand when he didn’t have to — was there. He showed up, was nice to everyone, took pictures with anyone who asked and sat through the entirety of our midnight showing. When it was over, he said nice things about it. I told him about Fall Brawl ’94 and how much he’d meant to my dad, and he smiled and remembered the town.

The view never changes.

Between my birth in the Greensboro Coliseum and the interview in ’94, Dusty Rhodes became the NWA World Heavyweight Champion. He battled “The Nature Boy” Ric Flair at multiple Starrcades, got stabbed in the eyeball by a Road Warrior spike, did the bump in polka dots for Vince McMahon and returned home. The NWA became WCW. Between the interview in ’94 and the movie in 2014, Dusty Rhodes became a comedic, lovable voice on commentary. “He got a bicycle!” “HE HIT ‘IM WITH THE TERLET SEAT!” The mothership. The pay windah. He joined the nWo, had a donkey with DUSTY’S ASS written on the butt, went to ECW and showed up in TNA. WCW became WWE. Dusty joined the creative team and worked hard to make sure the new generation of stars could understand and hope to touch the brilliance of his work, both in the ring as a convention-defying superstar and a brilliant talker. Brilliant doesn’t mean “good” there. It means brilliant. Sometimes he’d show up to interact with his sons Goldust and Stardust, Dustin and Cody, and pop in whenever Raw went “old school” or legends needed to be around. We got used to seeing him like an old friend, because he’d always been there. He’d never left. The view never changes, baby.

On Thursday, my dad’s favorite wrestler died.

He fell down and hurt himself, and couldn’t recover. A man who made a living falling down died falling down. It makes me want to scream. There’s nothing eloquent to write. Nothing about the art of pro wrestling or the grand theater of a masculine soap opera or a hacky remembrance of the times he walked in and out of our lives can make it better. Nothing brings him back. Nothing we say or write or do or scream will put him at ringside again to shake his hips, swing his arm around and hit Dean Ambrose with a Bionic Elbow. Nothing. It never changes. The f*cking view never changes.

The better of us will tell you that you shouldn’t grieve for his death; you should celebrate it, because few people get to go out having done what Dusty Rhodes did, leaving the impression Dusty Rhodes did, or making the amount of people happy that Dusty Rhodes made happy. I sat at my computer screen all night staring at an empty white box, trying to figure out if I should write up some clinical recap of his career, or be funny and make jokes about Dusty Finishes. I called my dad and cried, and he told me in a quiet, somber voice that he’d gotten used to it. All the people he’d loved as a kid were dying, and he could get upset about it or he could remember the life and the memories left. I hung up the phone wondering why my dad wasn’t crying.

Here’s the thing: Celebrating the life of Dusty Rhodes means celebrating the life of professional wrestling. From a cowboy to a dynamic fat guy in a sparkly jacket to the Midnight Rider to the son of a plumber to a common man to a Nasty Dream to WCW Saturday Night to ECW to TNA to WWE to NXT and on and on forever, Dusty’s life is wrestling’s. Wrestling’s life is ours. He was responsible for what made me fall in love when I was too young to understand, and he’s responsible for the stuff I’ll fall in love with 10 years from now, when today’s NXT new kids are main eventing WrestleMania. He touched it all. For better or worse, “Dusty Rhodes” is written in marker on the bottom of the foot of every man and woman who steps between the ropes and falls for a living. Their names are written on ours. Our names will be written on the next generation of wrestling fans. The American Dream doesn’t start and stop with the life of Virgil Runnels. The dream goes on. The dream never ends.

The view never changes, baby.

On a Friday afternoon, my dad is a thousand miles away, sitting quietly in our living room in Bristol, thinking about Dusty Rhodes. I’m sitting in front of a computer in Austin writing about him, and about the wrestling life that bonds us together no matter how far apart we grow. I’m the first person he thinks to call when he hears. I think about him before the sentence “Dusty Rhodes died” gets from my ear to my brain.

I love you. Thank you for pointing at me. Thank you for shaking my hand and pulling me out of my shell. Thank you for coming out late at night when you didn’t have to, because you loved your son. Thank you for the laughter and the bicycle and the toilet seat, and for Dustin and Cody, and for your family and friends. Thank you for making sure the next generation knows what love and passion for wrestling mean, and that they know how to say it. Thank you for all of this. Thank you for every second of it. Thank you for being the Dream, and for teaching me how to do it.

I need to call my dad again.

— Brandon Stroud, With Spandex