The news of Dusty Rhodes passing away earlier today at age 69 has shocked the wrestling world. His real name was Virgil Runnels and he’s survived by his wife as well as four children, grandchildren, friends, family, many people in WWE who he worked with on a daily basis and millions of fans all around the world.
What stands out the most to me as I sit here looking at messages from wrestling people that cared about him so much is that he’s smiling in so many of the photos. It’s that infectious smile that he had that will allow us to remember him fondly as he rests in peace.
The photo above also shows what Dusty went through to entertain us. Look at those scars on his forehead, his chest and his arms. He went above and beyond to entertain the fans and it was all done because he loved to entertain the fans of pro wrestling.
Dusty called himself the “American Dream” not because it sounded like a cool nickname – he did it because he was fortunate enough to live out his dreams. He was living his dream as a pro wrestler that would influence millions because he was just a common man working hard with his hands. Yes, those lyrics are from his theme song, but they were also true.
The whole “common man” thing wasn’t just a wrestling gimmick either. It’s who he was. Dusty never had the physique of a Hulk Hogan or Superstar Billy Graham and he knew that, so he became a lovable figure that looked like an average guy. He famously would work in the line about how he was a son of a plumber as another way to relate to the fans. He was just a regular guy with a belly that was damn good in the ring and even better on the microphone.
He became a main event level wrestler in the 1970s and through the 1980s in the NWA for Jim Crockett Promotions in the Florida area as well as the southern US. His rivalry with Ric Flair throughout the 1980s was one of the best ever. When he finally went to WWE in the early 1990s he was never booked like the superstar he should have been (the polka dots thing was pretty bad) in part because he used to compete with WWE, so he found his way back to the NWA, which became WCW. He worked there in the ring a bit, but then settled in as an announcer and again worked in creative for various parts of his career as well.
Dusty spent the majority of his career as a babyface. That’s because it was so easy to relate to him and few wrestlers in the history of the business could cut a promo like him. Today’s business is filled with promos that are too scripted and don’t come off as natural. Dusty made you feel what he felt and that’s why the fans loved the guy so much.
The “Hard Times” promo was a response from Dusty about getting his revenge against the evil World Heavyweight Champion, Ric Flair. It was a legendary promo because Rhodes talked about the working men with regular jobs that were fighting through hard times in their everyday life. Then he spoke about how he had a bit of a belly, but he was a bad man meaning he was tough, which was a smart way of saying anybody could overcome anything in their lives. Then to wrap up the promo, he got all serious saying that Flair cared about the World Heavyweight Title so much, so he’s going to take it from him. That promo was 30 years ago and is still talked about today. Now that’s some damn good staying power.
In addition to his in-ring career, he was also very successful as a booker of the NWA and Crockett Promotions. To this day, people still credit him for coming up with a number of cool things in the business such as the infamous Dusty Finish, which WWE just did at Elimination Chamber when Dean Ambrose thought he won the WWE Title until a referee reversed a decision so that Seth Rollins kept the gold. It’s an old booking trick that still works. Dusty was probably smiling when he saw it too.
Dusty was also the brains behind a great match concept that is truly one of the best ideas for a grudge match: Wargames. He also came up with a lot of great show names that the NWA/WCW used like their Great American Bash events in the summer and then Starrcade shows that ended the year with a bang.
Following the death of WCW in 2001, he bounced around a bit and then found his way back to WWE in 2005 as a creative consultant. By that time he was 60 years old, so it seemed like the perfect role for him.
WWE inducted him in their Hall of Fame in 2007. He was inducted by his sons Dustin (Goldust) and Cody, who currently wrestles as Stardust.
While Dusty worked for WWE, he appeared on television periodically. Most recently he was part of Dustin’s story with Cody earlier this year where they tried to get Cody to stop being the Stardust character. They really didn’t finish the angle the right way, but that’s okay. It wouldn’t be a surprise if Cody went back to using the Rhodes name soon so that he could properly carry on his father’s legacy although that’s something that we can think about for another time.
Dusty was a huge influence on today’s current generation of superstars, particularly those who came up through WWE’s developmental system when it was Florida Championship Wrestling and when it changed to NXT a few years ago. Dusty was a promo coach for everybody there while also helping them with character developmental and most of all offering guidance for so many young performers.
It’s pretty amazing to read about how much influence he had on current stars like Seth Rollins, who was the first NXT Champion and a guy Dusty helped so much. Then there’s Bray Wyatt, who changed his career around after dumping the Husky Harris to become Wyatt and he was helped by Dusty likely more than anybody. It was Dusty that helped him come up with the gimmick.
I’m not going to say that he was my favorite wrestler growing up because we didn’t really get NWA wrestling that much where I live in Canada in the 1980s. I certainly knew who he was because I can remember my older cousins watching NWA wrestling tapes when I was a kid or showing me wresting magazines that had pictures of him. I grew up a WWE guy with Randy Savage as my favorite, but if I lived in the southern US he probably would have been my favorite because he was for so many.
As I got older, I watched more of Dusty’s work from when he was in his prime and really grew to appreciate him for all he did in the business. Then you find out things like how Dusty was the one that signed William Regal’s work visa 22 years ago to allow him to work in America or that Tommy Dreamer chose that last name because he was influenced by Rhodes as the American Dream. There are many other wrestlers on social media today sharing similar stories about how much “Dream” helped them.
There are three NXT live events taking place this weekend and it’s been mentioned by many NXT stars that these shows will be dedicated to Dusty. Many of them have mentioned that he referred to them as his “NXT kids” because he was a mentor to them. It must be so hard for them to continue knowing he’s gone, but they also know that Dusty is proud of them and that the business always rolls on.
Dusty’s legacy in wrestling will live on with his sons Dustin and Cody as well as everybody that he helped coach that works for WWE and elsewhere. As proud as he likely was of his in-ring career, he gave back so much after he was done in the ring that it’s possible he may have enjoyed teaching the stars of tomorrow as much as he enjoyed his own run at the time. Considering all that he did in his 40+ years in wrestling, it’s easy to understand why he smiled so much.
Dusty loved the wrestling business and the people in it and it’s why we loved him back. That’s why even though he may be gone, he will never be forgotten.
Rest in peace, Dream. Thanks for everything. May your memory be eternal.
Thanks to WWE.com for some of the photos that are part of a gallery of photos in tribute to Dusty.