Hard Times: Remembering “The American Dream” Dusty Rhodes

Dusty Rhodes
Image source: nbcnews.com

“There were two bad people… One was John Wayne and he’s dead brother, and the other’s right here. Nature Boy Ric Flair, the World’s Heavyweight title belongs to these people. I’mma reach out right now, I want you at home to know my hand is touchin’ your hand for the gathering of the biggest body of people in this country, in this universe, all over the world now, reachin’ out because the love that was given me and this time I will repay you now. Because I will be the next World’s Heavyweight Champion on this hard time blues.”

Around the time I became a wrestling fan, “The American Dream” Dusty Rhodes was the Heavyweight Champion of the World for the National Wrestling Alliance (which eventually became World Championship Wrestling). However, Dusty was very firmly in the twilight career. He would eventually make his way over to WWE (then the WWF), and that was where I first saw him.

I was around five, and I really didn’t know what to make of the guy. By 1990, Dusty Rhodes was a bizarre anomaly in the business. He was overweight, slow, and looked like he had been pushed out of a moving car. In an era in which guys like Hulk Hogan and The Ultimate Warrior ruled the day, a guy who looked and talked like Dusty Rhodes was a strange concept. In the WWE, which was even more focused on frighteningly well-defined, ripped dudes, he was kind of ridiculous. Throw in the polka-dot tights, and then add a middle-aged black woman named Sapphire, and you would swear someone in the WWE was playing a deranged joke on you. Some people have even said that it was Vince McMahon’s intention to completely dehumanize and humiliate Dusty. Rhodes never indicated whether or not he believed that to be true. He saw the ludicrous gimmick during one of his last active years as a challenge. He would put it over. He would endear himself to fans who were used to seeing guys who lived on a diet of cocaine and steroids.

Guess what? He did.

The magic of Dusty Rhodes as a performer is something I appreciated as I got older. He came from an era in which bodies were not quite as important as what you could do in the ring, or what you could say with a microphone in your hand. Although as he became a bigger and bigger star, the trend moved towards the mentality that the better the body, the stronger the career push. As the 80s came and went, Dusty was arguably one of the biggest stars in the world. By the end of the 1980s, the dirt sheets of people like Dave Meltzer, and even kayfabe (acting as though everything to do with the business is absolutely real) publications like Pro Wrestling Illustrated became unkind. Even in his prime, Rhodes had never possessed the standard body associated with a pro wrestler. As the main portion of his in-ring career wound down, publications and so-called “insiders” became downright unkind. He was huge, and his Texas drawl with a decided lisp seemed extremely out-of-place. Even Rhodes’ creative decisions as a booker for the NWA/WCW were mocked and criticized. People forgot that he was a primary component in the fact that the NWA put up such an inspirational battle against WWE, which by the end of the 1980s had become a global phenomenon. When Dusty finally retired in the early 1990s, a lot of people seemed to be relieved. There was very little fanfare.

None of this is meant to disparage the WWE Hall of Famer. It is simply important to set the stage for the fact that even in the darker days of his career, he was still Dusty Rhodes. Even when he showed up in the WWE as the “The Common Man”, he drew cheers. He won people over. He was aging, fairly broken, and his weight had ballooned to unsightly levels, but he won people over in a company that was not meant for someone like him at that point in time.

[Tweet “Dusty Rhodes is pro wrestling personified.”]

Here’s the thing: He always got over. He made people into believers. He made you absolutely believe that a chubby guy from Austin, Texas could go head-to-head with “Superstar” Billy Graham in Madison Square Garden, in the goddamn 1970s, in front of the notoriously psychotic New York City wrestling crowd. Waggling his finger, shaking his ass, and rocking Graham with his Bionic Elbow Smash elicited cheers that rocked the old Garden to the core. Dusty made that hard knock New York crowd into believers.

He made believers out of people who thought it was ridiculous that someone who looked like he did could beat “Nature Boy” Ric Flair for the NWA World Championship in the mid-80s. He cut electrifying promos, he shook the crowd with his mere presence, and he went thirty minutes or more with the best in the industry at that time. He worked better matches for longer stretches of time than guys who were younger than he was, and who at least appeared to be in better shape than he was. One of the great consistencies in his career was his ego, which was staggering in its belief that there was virtually nothing he couldn’t accomplish. Another consistency was his cardio conditioning. He remained capable of delivering matches that were shockingly fantastic, both in terms of their athleticism, and in terms of their (still) potent entertainment value. Even towards the end of his active career, he could still deliver on the entertainment side of things. Even when he began to work matches in the late 90s and early 2000s, he was still entertaining in the ring.

But right to the end, his promos were pure magic. Watch the iconic “Hard Times” promo from 1985, which is still part of a wrestler’s education on how to tell a story that will win over a crowd. Watch a bunch of Dusty Rhodes promos from any era you please. You will start to grasp the magnitude of how he turned a phrase, how he made you believe that he really was going to put a hurting on Ric Flair, Harley Race, Billy Graham, Steve Corino, or Randy Orton.

Appreciate his ability to talk like no one ever had talked, and like no one will ever talk again. Note that in spite of some controversial creative decisions, it was his mind that created things like the Great American Bash supercard, or envisioned a black man (Ron Simmons) as the World Champion. Take in the matches with Graham, the classics against Flair, or any of his matches with “Dirty” Dick Murdoch as The Texas Outlaws. WWE put out a fantastic compilation of stories, matches, and promos a few years ago. You also have the WWE Network, as well as YouTube.

Educate yourself on Dusty Rhodes, if you are only now discovering who he was. He is pro wrestling personified, to the extent that when everything clicks, you are completely, hopelessly hooked on all the absurdity and mayhem. Dusty Rhodes was everything good about his industry. He truly was the American Dream.

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