An occasional feature in which we honor the sport's fallen and examine their legacies. Today: "Ravishing" Rick Rude, who died in 1999 of heart failure possibly caused by a drug overdose.
The Super Posedown at Royal Rumble 1989 wasn't much of a bodybuilding expo, but it was probably close to the average person's idea of one: On one side stood "Ravishing" Rick Rude, flexing and diabolically gyrating his hips; across the ring loomed the Ultimate Warrior, the WWF's musclebound comer, grunting and shaking and nominally "posing" for the audience.
Warrior certainly had the crowd on his side, but then, so did anyone standing opposite Rude, arguably the most loathed bad guy of his era. It's not hard to hate a guy with his own face airbrushed on the crotch of his pants, after all. But Rude's act — the classic Lothario with the volume turned up to 11 – wasn't as simple as it seemed.
Rude was born Richard Erwin Rood in Minnesota at a time when the state was a fertile ground for wrestling talent. He went to high school with Tom Zenk and Nikita Koloff and trained with Eddie Sharkey, who also trained the Road Warriors, Curt Hennig, and Barry Darsow.
Rude worked early on in Canada, Georgia, and Memphis, mostly as an insignificant babyface, but his turn as an evildoer in Jim Crockett Promotions in 1983 determined his life's purpose. He made a return to the Memphis territory in '84, and it was there that Jerry Jarrett gave him the nickname "Ravishing" and helped define the role Rude would inhabit for much of the rest of his life.
Rude came along at a cultural moment when image — read: physical perfection — was at a premium. But he wasn't all mustache and muscle: Contra most of the statuesque brutes of his day, Rude was actually a considerable in-ring technician. His sojourn through the South saw him birth a new archetype for the pretty-boy bad guy. Early playboys of that sort were bleached, tanned jerks who projected their churlishness broadly, in the manner of the oversized masks of ancient Greek theater, so that they would be at least as detestable from the back row as from the front. Even into the first couple of decades of televised wrestling, wrestlers played exclusively to the live crowd; they were as likely to turn their backs to the TV cameras as address them directly.
Rick Rude descended from a long line of these oiled-up alpha males, defined not so much by the jealousy they inspired in others as for the esteem they assumed for themselves. From the legendary Gorgeous George to "Nature Boy" Buddy Rogers, they played on a trope that falls somewhere between the philandering star quarterback and the macho beachcomber who kicks sand in your face and steals your girl. (Our culture has an odd relationship with our athletic idols and a particular obsession with what their love lives say about them. The quarterback in love with the head cheerleader is a hero to the whole town, but throw in a couple more cheerleaders and suddenly he's an unconscionable hedonist, the male id run amok. Brett Favre and Tiger Woods would have done well to take heed.) Rude refined this role into a lewd, chiseled Casanova — his disgustingly obvious sexiness as much a part of his anti-appeal as his disdain for the plebeians in the crowd. To drive the point home, throughout his career Rude was constantly presented in stark physical juxtaposition, both to his fan-favorite, common-man opponents — guys like Jerry Lawler, Tommy Rich, Dusty Rhodes, Jake "the Snake" Roberts — and to a series of slovenly or slight (or plainly unimpressive) managers — Jimmy Hart, Percy Pringle, Paul Heyman, Bobby Heenan. "Here's you," the contrast seemed to be reminding audiences, "and here's him."
His time in Texas's World Class Championship Wrestling — where he was managed by the tubby Pringle and where he feuded with regular guys like "Gentleman" Chris Adams and the Von Erichs — focused his act and honed his '80s-pornstar-chic image. He was the bridge between the old pompous pretty boys and the new, chemically enhanced poseurs — between the cockiness of the old and the physique of the new. He briefly teamed there with his future rival Jim Hellwig, aka the Ultimate Warrior (then the Dingo Warrior).
His star power was conspicuous in the charisma-deprived ranks of WCCW, and it wasn't long before he moved back to Crockett — then known as the NWA — in search of greater things. He formed a team with stocky tough guy Manny Fernandez under the guidance of Paul Jones. They called themselves the "Awesome Twosome," which, it should be said, was about a hundred times more fitting a moniker than that of the team with which they'd soon feud, the megapopular Rock 'n' Roll Express. In the midst of this rivalry, Rude got the call-up from the WWF.
Rude's foray into the big time was nothing short of revelatory. Previous WWF heels were bad guys by virtue of being vaguely discourteous, antagonistic toward fan favorites, and abusive toward the referees; Rude feuded with the fans themselves and unsubtly questioned the manhood of his opponents. Rather than just emasculate us, Rude found a more insidious, intelligent means of questioning our manhood. He engaged us directly, narrating his own ring entrance as he walked from the back in a sequined robe, microphone in hand, and he insisted that all the fat, out-of-shape couch slobs in the audience sit down and shut up while he showed them what a real sexy man was supposed to look like. It was about as concisely obnoxious as heel shtick would ever get. He institutionalized the in-ring sketch by having Heenan bring a "lucky lady" from the local crowd into the ring to get a kiss from the heelish heartthrob. The audience booed, the woman in the ring swooned, and then Rude ditched her and posed, laughing, hips gyrating.
It was a distillation of the amoral narcissist; Rude wasn't so much a heel who happened to be attractive as a concentrate of machismo and self-absorption, a Lothario for his own sake. He could have any woman he wanted, but his objective was never love, or even lust; it was heterosexual avidity purely for show. And he seemed not so much to objectify women as to cooly demean them. The object of his affection was solely himself. It was hardcore pornography minus the sex. (Years later, the WWF would introduce a character named Val Venis who basically aped Rude's whole act, only without the subtlety: He was actually supposed to be a porn star.)
It's probably not too much to say that at times he seemed to prefer grappling with other underdressed men to any sort of meaningful female embrace. He handled the women offered to him with disregard; only his rivals were able to affect Rude on a primal, emotional level. (Conspicuously, the kiss he would lay on female fans and the reverse neckbreaker with which he dispatched his opponents were both called "the Rude Awakening.") This, more than anything, hits at the core of our hatred of Rude. Consider his hip thrusts, his mustache, his washboard stomach, and his over-application of baby oil — not to mention the fact that he seemed to be both dramatically oversensitive to crotch shots (his wincing, wobbling reaction to inverted pile drivers was classic) and oddly prone to de-pantsings in the ring. Rude embodied all the jokes about pro wrestling. With Rude in the ring, perhaps for the first time, the sport's homoeroticism was undeniable. Little wonder the crowds booed him.
After one match, Rude approached a conspicuously seated woman in the crowd who seemed unimpressed with his routine. Rude was pure preening bully, demanding her attention — and affection — and, when rejected, Rude asked whom, if not him, she was there to see. She answered that she was there to see her husband, Jake "the Snake" Roberts. An argument ensued. Rude grabbed Cheryl Roberts by the wrist, and Jake stormed down the isle to intervene. An epic rivalry was born as the two men fought violently: Jake because his wife had been dishonored and Rude because he had been rejected.
Rude had long worn his pant-length spandex in varieties of airbrushed splendor, with catchphrases and/or tough-guy imagery (incongruously) depicted in various shades of neon. When his feud with Roberts reached fever pitch, Rude began airbrushing his tights — his crotch, conspicuously — with Cheryl's face. After one match, when Rude dropped trou to reveal the special-edition Cheryl tights, Roberts ran into the ring and yanked them off him. The audience erupted at the sight of Rude disrobed down to his briefs; the home audience saw only a black blotch, creating the firm impression that Rude had been left naked.
Not long after, Rude began decorating his tights with his own face, a level of narcissism previously unmatched even in wrestling's ego parade. To be self-absorbed and overconfident was perhaps an act of sensible egomania; to paint ones own treasured visage with crotch as canvas was an unprecedented affront to our wrestling sensibilities. Previously, ring gear had largely been an afterthought, a series of unspectacular mini-billboards reminding us of catchphrases, nicknames ("Mr. #1derful"), and the names of special moves ("Thump"). If anything, such sewn-on words distracted us from the fact that we were looking at a man's pelvic region. Rude's attention-grabbing ensembles inverted such convention. They underscored the fundamentally homoerotic nature of the enterprise: his comeliness was indistinguishable from his physique and also from his, er, manhood. The masturbatory allusion was not ambiguous. When Rude rotated his hips in the ring, hands behind his head, he wasn't showing off for the crowd or playing mind games with his opponent: He was sucking his own dick.
After his feud with Roberts wound down, Rude returned to self-adulation and put out an open challenge for a flexing competition, naively assuming that no one could match his physique. He was shocked when his invitation was accepted by the Ultimate Warrior. The posedown at the Rumble ended with Rude attacking Warrior with his warmup bar, and a new feud was started.
The Warrior was wildly popular with the crowds and was quickly climbing the ranks of the WWF despite the fact that he was very limited in the ring, and Rude — a much better grappler than most other muscleheads of his era —was tasked with carrying him through a series of matches. They feuded through much of 1989, with Rude taking the Intercontinental title from the Warrior at Wrestlemania and dropping it back to him in August. They feuded again in 1990 after the Warrior had become heavyweight champ — they notably fought in a steel cage match at Summer Slam — but Rude was never presented as a credible threat to the ascendant Warrior. By that fall, a dispute with the front office had sent Rude packing for WCW.
Rude's WCW run is interesting simply because of how well he fit in. The WCW product was still basically an outgrowth of its predecessor, the NWA — a gritty, old-school Southern counterpart to the WWF's cartoon lunacy. It's a tribute to Rude's diversity that he could tweak his character — turning down the gigolo, turning up the tough guy — so as to work himself seamlessly into the WCW counterculture. On some level, this was because, despite the excessiveness of his WWF persona, the core conceit of the Rick Rude character was so basic, and so universally deplorable. Rude soon won the U.S. championship — the counterpart to the Intercontinental belt that Rude had long held in the WWF — and a couple years after his debut he defeated Ric Flair for the heavyweight strap. It was significant again in juxtaposition to his WWF run — despite his high profile there, he never threatened Hulk Hogan's title reign, and his heavyweight feud with the Warrior seemed strangely insignificant. (Rumors abound that Hogan refused to work with him, though it should be said that in certain quarters such Hogan rumors abound like stories of UFO sightings.) After Rude beat Flair, he feuded with fan favorite Sting. In 1994, during a match with Sting in Japan, Rude was dropped awkwardly — some would say recklessly — onto the edge of a steel platform outside the ring and injured his neck, functionally ending his wrestling career.
Rude's later act — the Lothario in winter — would be sad if it weren't so forgettable. The remainder of his career was a strange sequence of brand-hopping. He was in immaculate shape, but because of lingering neck issues he couldn't compete. He turned up in ECW in 1996 and teased an in-ring return, but he never wrestled. He went back to the WWF the next year as a bodyguard for Shawn Michaels and Triple H's new DX faction, and the crowd popped memorably when he first appeared. With his history, he was a perfect fit for the promotion's new generation of sex-obsessed disorderlies, but rather than play off his persona, he was mostly content to stand by as hired muscle, significant only as an echo of his old self: the physical specimen now reduced to mannequin. (And if he lacked the oiled homophilia of his earlier incarnation, his slim-cut, double-breasted suits and perpetual nine o'clock shadow subtly affected a certain International Male vibe.)
The one memorable part of this era was his November 1997 defection to WCW. The two promotions were deeply involved in a battle over Monday night viewership at the time, and WCW saw in Rude a chance to score a puckish point. WWF's Monday night shows were pre-taped every other week, and Rude — paid by appearance — didn't have a long-term contract. So on Nov. 17, mere moments after Rude appeared with DX on the WWF's taped show, he turned up live on WCW's Monday Nitro with his beard trimmed down to a mustache — the classic Rude look — to underscore the difference in timestamp.
But just as with DX, Rude was just a prop. WCW had no real plans for him (just like they had no real plans for most of their roster). He managed his old friend Curt Hennig, and the two were soon embroiled in the inanities of the nWo infighting. He last appeared on WCW television in 1998, and he died a year later while purportedly training for a WWF in-ring return (the cause was heart failure possibly brought on by an overdose of mixed medications).
In his heyday, Rude was a foil of the highest order and a legitimate spectacle; it was nearly impossible to turn away when he was on the screen. But more important than the way we watched him was his effect on the way we watched wrestling. In a metaphorical sense, Rude pulled wrestling's pants down and revealed it for what it was. It was a necessary development in the sport's evolution. The audience was increasingly in on the joke — that wrestling was scripted — but still willfully oblivious to the other joke. It was this revelation that made Rude so entirely detestable to the wrestling audience: He made the homoeroticism undeniable. That he wasn't played for a buffoon like Adrian Adonis with his feather boas or Goldust with his platinum wigs only made matters worse for fans: He was a capable grappler and credible tough guy. He was unignorable, and so he was insufferable.
Farewell, "Ravishing" Rick. Every time you exposed yourself, you exposed us just a little more.