WWE Legend Dusty Rhodes Passes Away
Yesterday, we were forlorn when we read this announcement on the WWE website:
“WWE is deeply saddened that Virgil Runnels, aka “The American Dream” Dusty Rhodes — WWE Hall of Famer, three-time NWA Champion and one of the most captivating and charismatic figures in sports entertainment history — passed away today at the age of 69.”
In celebration of the life of this WWE legend, we present an excerpt from Pro Wrestling FAQ, in which author Brian Solomon writes of Runnels’ amazing career.
The American Dream
Ever since the advent of TV, pro wrestlers have required a lot more than pure athleticism to be successful and “get over” with fans. They needed to be uniquely charismatic, and, if possible, have a special way with words that could win the attention of fans, as well as convince them to turn over their hard-earned money, of course. In the annals of wrestling history, Dusty Rhodes is a watershed figure— a talent who was able to establish himself as a national attraction based on pure charisma and determination. It was of little consequence that he couldn’t really wrestle technically, or that he appeared overweight and out of shape. For the first time, the character was everything.
He was born Virgil Riley Runnels, Jr., in Austin, Texas, on October 12, 1945—the “son of a plumber” as he would famously and passionately intone during countless TV promos. Growing up against a working-class background that would be represented by the persona he would cultivate for years, the young Runnels became a football standout during his college days at West Texas State, an institution known for the many future pro wrestling legends it boasted on its team.
Changing his name to the catchy “Dusty Rhodes,” he enjoyed his first taste of wrestling success as a heel, one-half of a tag team known as The Texas Outlaws, rampaging through the AWA with fellow Lone Star native Dick Murdoch. But Dusty was a born babyface, and when fans in Florida embraced him after he turned on his former partner, the villainous “Korean Nightmare” Pak Song, he never looked back. He took to calling himself “The American Dream” (a response to Song’s moniker), and became the biggest superstar ever produced by Eddie Graham’s Sunshine State promotion.
Rhodes was one of a kind, a dynamic performer who spoke to his audiences like a zealous gospel preacher, relating to fans as one common man to another. His interviews were even more entertaining than his matches. Just as Elvis did for rock ’n’ roll, Rhodes co-opted mannerisms and vocalizations identified with African-American culture, and it made him one of the most beloved fan favorites of his generation. His drawing power extended way beyond Florida, and his 1970s exploits in the WWWF, the Sheik’s Detroit territory, Georgia Championship Wrestling, and other locales, are the stuff of legend.
Up to that point, the National Wrestling Alliance had been careful to place its World Heavyweight title on “credible” athletic competitors only, preferably those with solid amateur credentials. But the overwhelming popularity and ticket-selling charisma of Rhodes led the NWA brain trust to dramatically break from tradition. Between 1979 and 1986, Rhodes would win three NWA World Heavyweight Championships, defeating Harley Race for the first two, and Ric Flair for the last. The shift to the concept of wrestler-as-entertainer was complete.
More than just a talented performer, Rhodes also demonstrated a great creative mind for behind-the-scenes booking. He first spent time as one of the main bookers for Jim Crockett Promotions in the mid-1980s, crafting the storylines during the company’s hottest period, and also infamously coming up with what would become known as the “Dusty finish”—a choreographed match conclusion in which a referee is knocked out and later controversially overturns the original, more popular decision. Innovative ideas like this have made Rhodes a creative groundbreaker, and he has since enjoyed booking stints in more recent years, first for TNA Wrestling, and currently for WWE, for whom he has been a member of the creative team since 2005.
Dusty wound down his in-ring career during the 1990s, enjoying final runs in both the WWF, where his “common man” gimmick was accentuated with ill-conceived polka-dot attire, and in WCW, the company for whom he had first made his creative bones during its previous incarnation as Jim Crockett Promotions. In recent years, he has enjoyed watching the careers of his wrestling sons, Dustin “Goldust” Runnels and Cody “Stardust” Rhodes in WWE. Most recently, he has been given creative control over WWE’s NXT farm system, using his enormous talents to help groom the next generation of pro wrestling superstars.