Not only the pro wrestling world, but the world in general lost one of the most charismatic people on Thursday, June 11 as Virgil Runnels, better known as The American Dream Dusty Rhodes, died at age 69.
Rhodes, a WWE Hall of Famer and three-time NWA champ, is one of the most captivating figures in pro wrestling/sports entertainment history.
Rhodes meant so much to the pro wrestling community, especially in Florida, growing to new heights Championship Wrestling from Florida in the 1970s and early 80s with the voice of CWF Gordon Solie and mastermind promoter Eddie Graham.
Graham’s idea in 1973 to turn Dirty Dusty Rhodes -- a heel, the bad guy -- into The American Dream, a fan favorite common man fighting for the people. Big Dust took the ball and scored big time with that persona, making it legendary around the world.
Here is some local reaction to the sad news.
South Florida’s John Double J Jackie Johnson, 36, a longtime pro wrestling fan and friend to the wrestling stars, said: “I have a [Facebook] thread where me, [Wrestling announcer] Blake Chadwick, [Indie wrestler] Tommy Vandal and [former Florida indie wrestling staffer] Ben Temples were talking about it.
“When I moved to Florida from Illinois in [the 1980s], I was channel surfing one Saturday morning, and I see these guys -- Kevin Sullivan, Purple Haze, Bob Roop -- beating the heck out of Norman Smiley, Hector Guerrero, Cocoa Samoa, Jesse Barr. An awful beating on Saturday morning TV. Am I supposed to be watching this? It was Championship Wrestling from Florida, and then the hero appeared. It was Dusty Rhodes.”
Order restored and all was good, for the moment anyway, until the next vicious angle.
That started something still strong today for Johnson. He not only watched on television but also attended so many shows in Florida, featuring Dusty Rhodes. The business changed, but he loves it, and he has made many friends in the business because of it.
“Dusty Rhodes made everyone believe that he was fighting for you. I first fell in love with Dusty in pro wrestling. He was the fist guy, the first hero to me. Wow, he’s amazing fighting all the bad guys. He made you believe he is fighting for the fans, the common people. He was not rich; he was out of shape, but he was a bad ass. If he can do that, you can do anything. I told my friends [his death June 11] hurt me more than when Randy Savage passed away. Because of may age, I missed the glory days of CWF, but Florida wrestling to me was the best wrestling I ever saw. Going to the Miami Beach Convention Center and seeing Mike Graham, Steve Keirn, Pez Whatley, Jimmy Valiant, Wahoo McDaniel, it was the best to me. I sneaked into the locker room one time, and there was Wahoo. I said, ‘Can I see your boots?’ He head scissored me and said, ‘Can you see them now, kid?’
“Another time [radio talk show personality] Steve Kane had a show on [AM radio station 610] WIOD. Every time WWF was in town at the Miami Arena, Steve Kane would have a wrestler on his show to promote the WWF show. We lived in Miami Shores, and just down the street from my parents’ newsstand was WIOD. My mom [Rita] took me there when a wrestler was on his show, and that day Million Dollar Man Ted DiBiase was there. I met him, and he was as nice as could be. My mom took me again, and I got my favorite photo ever of me and Macho Man Randy Savage and Elizabeth. After Dusty left WWF, he started his own promotion in Florida in the late 1980s/early 1990s, and they had a show in Miami at the James L. Knight Center. Larry Zbyszko defending his AWA title, Wendi Richter defending the women’s title, Tugboat, Dick Slater, and headlined by Dusty Rhodes vs. Terry Funk. So Dusty was on Steve Kane’s show, and I was downstairs, and Steve Kane asked is that kid down there? Bring him up here to the studio. I had a Dusty shirt on [not the polka dots]. I sat on Dusty’s lap, and he asked me on-air if he was going to beat Terry Funk. I said, ‘Of course.’ That was the best.”
“My dad [Roger] took me to the War Memorial Auditorium in Fort Lauderdale. We were in the front row, and I was interviewed by one of the newspapers, and Dusty bled, and the reporters asked me, ‘Why didn’t you move? You could have got blood on you.’ We were that close to the ring. I answered, ‘It would be amazing if Dusty bled on me. I’d save that shirt for the rest of my life.’”
South Florida wrestling legend Rusty Brooks, 57, said: “Wrestling lost an icon in our business. I worked a couple of shows he was on and got to chat with him a little bit at the FOW show in Davie.”
That FOW show in Davie in 2002 drew more than 3,000 people, outstanding for an indie show. The co-main event featured a CWF fatal four-way legends battle with Abdullah the Butcher, Kevin Sullivan, Terry Funk and Dusty Rhodes.
“I grew up watching Dusty in Florida. You couldn’t be a wrestling fan in Florida without having a Dusty memory. He was a tremendous performer, and he was ahead of his time with his charisma. He knew how to entertain a crowd. He put on a show for the crowd. He knew how to make money, a remarkable thing.”
Dusty Rhodes did not look like Hulk Hogan or Bruno Sammartino. Big Dust had some girth to him. The 6-foot-1 son of a plumber weighed 273-300 pounds.
“Considering Dusty was heavy, he put on 45-60 minute matches. He was quite an athlete. He played baseball, a shortstop and played some football [West Texas State]. He was an incredible athlete for his size.
“Dusty put in the time. He could work 20-30-minute matches all the time. He was a main eventer. Back then, promoters were not not going to put a man in the main event, if he can only work a 3-4-minute match. Harley Race was another who didn’t have a body like Superstar Billy Graham or Ric Flair but could work 45-60 minute matches. Dusty Rhodes, One Man Gang, Abdullah the Butcher were bigger guys who learned how to pace themselves. It was more about being able to pace yourself in match, no matter what size.”
Rusty also did a good job for a heavier wrestler (300-plus pounds), pacing himself.
“Dusty was so over with the crowd. He only had a few moves, but he would light up everything. On YouTube, there are some matches with Dusty vs. Superstar Billy Graham, incredible matches. It was a different business then. For a time after, it was cookie cutter type with strong, muscle, physical types. All those coming up looked the same. Now you have Bray Wyatt and Kevin Owens and Samoa Joe, guys who have a different body shape, a different look.”
Until his death, Dusty worked for WWE, helping the company’s up-n-comers at the state-of-the-art WWE Performance Center in Orlando. His legacy continues through them.
“Dusty worked with a lot of the young guys. He worked a lot with Bray [Wyatt in FCW/NXT]. He saw something in him. Bray could work.”
The Fan/The Writer
South Florida’s Jeffrey Wayne Bowdren, 53, a wrestling writer and longtime fan, wrote on Facebook: “So I have just heard the news about the passing of wrestling legend Dusty Rhodes. Part of growing older is watching the heroes of our youth fade away and then leave us.
“Fans of today simply could not fathom and appreciate the way that Dusty could control a crowd of thousands of people with a look or a gesture. I'll paraphrase something that Ric Flair once said. In his time, Dusty Rhodes was a DUDE.
“And I hope you really understand what that means.
“My memory of him will always be the intro that the announcer at the West Palm Beach Auditorium would give him: ‘He is....the man of the hour, the tower of power, too sweet...to be sour. The Dream....the Dealer....the American Dream.....DUSTY RHODES!!!’
“And the crowd would explode.
“R.I.P Dream....and thanks man.”
WWE Hall of Famer Dory Funk Jr., an Ocala, Fla. resident, said via email: “No one person every worked harder than Dusty; no one could excite the fans like Dusty. He was the Dream all the way.
“It was a privilege to have Dusty Rhodes induct me and Terry Funk into the WWE Hall of Fame in 2009, a truly wonderful and special night for us. Godspeed my friend and colleague, The American Dream Dusty Rhodes.”
South Florida’s Rodolfo Roman of The Roman Show interviewed Dusty Rhodes on March 14, 2014 before an XSE Superstars of Wrestling show at the Miami-Dade County Fair & Exposition. He sent the interview below.