This one hurts.
A pro wrestler’s sudden death is by now no more surprising than the passing of another world’s oldest human. But today’s news that Dusty Rhodes was gone shook me.
Try as my parents surely did, traditional theater never did anything for me. But damn if I wasn’t awed every time I watched the guy born Virgil Runnels Jr. in character as the wrestler Dusty Rhodes. Here was this—let’s be honest—hideous-looking man with hair and a body type of a sort only found in pro wrestling delivering scripted boasts about his physical and intellectual prowess in an exaggerated Southern drawl and cartoonish lisp, even taunting all ring rivals with claims that he was “familiar” with their lady friends.
My brother and some buddies and I, none of whom ever were ring obsessives, have been trading impersonations of Rhodes’ promos for the last few decades: “I’m jutht a plumberth thon!” and “Whithkey bent and glory bound!” and, my fave, “I’m bethide mythelf, and that’th five-hundred and sixthty poundth, if you know what I’m thayin’.” Standard wrestling fare, for sure, and nothing as poetic as Ric Flair’s “If you wanna be the man you gotta beat the man!” But to me, everything coming out of the mouth of the American Dream oozed thespian brilliance. I can only hope my folks got as much entertainment out of Laurence Olivier as Richard III.
Rhodes’s ring persona hit home with me for geographic and cultural reasons, too. He was a star all over the world, but especially for National Wrestling Alliance promoters in the Carolinas and Florida, and that meant a few things to me.
I grew up in the 1970s in Northern Virginia, about seven miles from the Washington, D.C. border, and was always proud that the city was the birthplace of the NWA rival now known as the WWE, which grew out of weekly broadcasts filmed at a downtown gym called Turner’s Arena, off 13th and W Sts NW. Vince McMahon dominated the D.C. market when I was a kid, and NWA wrestlers had no presence in town before cable television, so I only saw stars like Rhodes and Flair on the covers of wrestling magazines, always bloodied like nothing I’d ever seen on McMahon’s Saturday morning wrestling shows.
Coming from the Virginia side of the Potomac River, though, meant I also grew up a fan of the New South, of bands like Lynyrd Skynyrd and the Allman Brothers and politicians like Jimmy Carter and basically of anything that might make the South cool again for the first time in at least a century. So I found something romantic about these bloodied bottle-blond cover boys, and when the wrestling civil war for ring domination commenced on cable when I was a little older, I rooted hard for the NWA (and, eventually, its cable-friendly successor, WCW). Rhodes made that decision easy.
Beginning in the mid-1980s, despite the efforts of Rhodes and Flair and endless broadcasts on Ted Turner’s TBS, McMahon’s organization took the upper hand in the wrestling war. With its USA Network telecasts and Wrestlemania on its way to becoming the Super Bowl of the sport, what is now WWE became a national concern; the NWA troupes, by contrast, were never quite able to overcome their reputation for Southernness. This meant, among other things, that my exposure to Rhodes came almost totally via the TV. That was okay, since his actual wrestling abilities, capped by his finishing move, the “Bionic Elbow,” weren’t nearly as otherworldly as his work with the microphone. But I was excited when I heard Rhodes was coming to town for a July 3, 1986 show at RFK Stadium called the Great American Bash.
The card featured Flair vs. Rhodes for the NWA title. The match, and the whole card, was a bust. The crowd was announced as 6,000, but the giant venue didn’t even seem to have even that many people inside. But, as I reminded myself again and again today since hearing of his death, I saw Dusty Rhodes battle for the belt! I dug out my ticket stub from the Bash, and was at my laptop guffawing at the above period-piece promo Rhodes cut for that show—”And Ronald Reagan, you and Nansthy better get your seatsth!”—when my phone rang.
My brother was on the other line. “Jutht a plumberth thon,” he said. “I’m bethide mythelf, and that’th five-hundred and sixthty poundth, if you know what I’m thayin’,” I countered. We laughed. Thanks for that, Dusty.
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