Virgil Runnels Jr. is dead, but his American Dream will live forever.
More than just a catchy nickname, “The American Dream” moniker fit this son of a plumber, creating an iconic figure in pro wrestling lore as well as life, inspiring others of all races, creeds, colors and sizes.
Dusty Rhodes reached the top of the pro wrestling mountain, one of the best all-time. He’s easily pegged for the Mt. Rushmore of pro wrestling’s most charismatic and most inspirational.
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Dusty Rhodes truly lived the American Dream, and he passed it forward to many others -- fans, wrestlers, people.
Think about it. Dusty Rhodes was no Arnold Schwarzenneger, not the muscular physical specimen, the bodybuilder type. He resembled Larry the Cable Guy, a good ole truck driver, because that’s him, Virgil Runnels Jr. -- blue jeans, boots, baseball style trucker hat, a little chew/dip, a beer, Waffle House. The common man driving a Ford pick-up truck.
Being himself is how Dusty Rhodes related to the people, the working class. Race did not matter. Harley did but I mean race in terms of people. He helped bridge some gaps in positive race relations in Florida in the 1970s.
Born in Austin, this Texas cowboy, Southerner, redneck welcomed all races, creeds and colors, and they all joined forces as one to cheer their hero. The depth of The American Dream goes beyond pro wrestling.
Where star athlete Jackie Robinson broke the color barrier in Major League Baseball in 1947, humbly battling fans of a differing color for their acceptance and appreciation of his talents and others like him, the star athlete Dusty Rhodes was not the minority. He was accepted by society, but he continued Jackie’s premise another way as he rallied wrestling fans of different colors in the South to accept, appreciate each other, banding together for one cause and making them all believe their dreams still can come true.
After CWF shows, he drove through a small Florida town, pulled over at a stop and enjoyed some barbecue and beer with the locals, any and all.
His lap of luxury.
Also, Dusty Rhodes worked with all races, creeds and colors in and out of the ring.
When Dusty took a top position on the WCW booking committee in 1991, he (and friend Cowboy Bill Watts) led the charge for Florida State University football great Ron Simmons to become a world champion. On their watch, Simmons made history as the first African American to win the title by beating Big Van Vader (with Harley Race) on Aug. 2, 1992. Trained by Hiro Matsuda in Tampa, the popular Simmons got his start with Championship Wrestling from Florida.
Dusty Rhodes a visionary in many ways.
Before Vince McMahon Jr. took his company national in the 1980s, Virgil Runnels Jr. proved it can be done. Runnels brought his brand -- The American Dream Dusty Rhodes -- to new heights by going national in the late 1970s.
During the territory days of pro wrestling, a wrestler usually worked one territory at a time. Eight shows in seven days every week. Dusty logged a lot of miles in his pick-up driving up and down I-95 and Highway-27 for CWF. Through exposure via television and the Apter Mags (top national pro wrestling magazines led by legendary wrestling journalist/photographer Bill Apter), Dusty’s popularity grew to epic proportions.
Logging the airline miles, Rhodes decided to split his time during the month not just between various territories in the South but rather the three major companies -- AWA (Midwest). NWA (South) and WWWF (Northeast). Astonishing, Dusty Rhodes listed as a top contender for each major world title -- AWA, NWA, WWWF -- simultaneously.
Fans disliked the Texas Outlaw Dirty Dusty Rhodes, but they adored The American Dream Dusty Rhodes.
The American Dream idea birthed from WWE Hall of Famer Eddie Graham, the legendary promoter of Championship Wrestling from Florida. The concept made wrestling history in more ways than one. Dusty Rhodes began his wrestling career in 1968 as Dirty Dusty Rhodes, teaming with Captain Redneck Dick Murdoch to form the heel (bad guy) tag team The Texas Outlaws in the AWA.
They eventually split, and Rhodes landed in Florida, continuing as a heel with foreign heel Pak Song Nam and evil, sly manager Gary Hart. Graham transformed heel Dirty Dusty Rhodes into fan favorite The American Dream Dusty Rhodes by turning him in 1974 against Song Nam and Hart. Legendary commentator Gordon Solie called it all.
Graham’s idea, Solie’s commentary and Dusty’s execution equaled gold, wrestling gold.
Instead of Dirty Dusty Rhodes seeing the light and changing his rough-house, cheating, short cut ways, The American Dream Dusty Rhodes remained true to his roots, fighting the same, only now fighting for the people, the common man.
Rhodes, one of the first heels to turn babyface (good guy) but remain true to his heel style fighting roots. He still punched, kicked, pulled tights, gouged eyes, choked, placed his foot on the ropes, used a foreign object when the heel did. Only difference, he now received the adulation of the crowd. The fan favorite, he played up to the crowd, for the crowd.
Dusty Rhodes a fan favorite. It didn’t matter he wore the black hat. He fought fire with fire, battling the bad guys. This new type of hero served as the people’s choice.
On Aug. 21, 1979 at the Madison Square Garden of the South, the Fort Homer Hesterly Armory in Tampa, before the venue’s largest crowd, Dusty Rhodes defeated Harley Race for the NWA title. He proved the son of a plumber, the common man, can fulfill his dream. He made a promise to the people, and he delivered The American Dream. The scene after the match, the bloody, exhausted but ecstatic new world champ waved fans into the ring to celebrate with him, sharing in the moment, their moment and inspiring so many young people of all races that the American Dream is alive and well. Reach for the stars. Go for it. Dusty Rhodes winning the world title meant so much more to young people, to the fabric of a nation.
Heel or babyface, Dusty talked the talk and walked the walk. He became one of the best promo cutters, mic workers ever. His enthusiasm, humor, passion and all-around colorful gift for gab captured the attention of the people. They believed.
Two of the goals of a pro wrestler is to put butts in seats and smiles on faces, and he mastered both.
His “Hard Times” promo is one of the best ever in the profession.
What Muhammed Ali and Howard Cosell meant to boxing in the 1970s, Dusty Rhodes and Gordon Solie were to pro wrestling.
The top two tandems of athlete and commentator, they fed off each other. Engaging, entertaining, insightful. The true professional broadcaster in Cosell and Solie and the colorful mouthpiece in Ali and Rhodes. Ali and Cosell, Rhodes and Solie, their interview segments the best.
Not only the pro wrestling world, but the world in general lost one of the most charismatic people on Thursday, June 11. Rhodes, a WWE Hall of Famer and three-time NWA champ, is one of the most captivating figures in pro wrestling/sports entertainment history.
He meant so much to the pro wrestling community and community in general, especially in Florida, growing to new heights Championship Wrestling from Florida in the 1970s and early 80s with the voice Solie and mastermind promoter Graham.
Graham’s idea in 1974 to turn Dirty Dusty Rhodes -- a heel, the bad guy -- into The American Dream, a fan favorite, common man fighting for the people, was well worth it. Big Dust took the ball and scored big time with that persona, making it legendary around the world.
Solie referred to Rhodes as being “quick as a cat,” and he was. That’s somewhat remarkable for someone with his girth (275-300 pounds). South Florida wrestling legend Rusty Brooks, who knows a little about a full belly, said promoters would not place a wrestler in the main event, if he can only work a 4-5 minute match. Size didn’t matter then. Your work rate did, and Dusty Rhodes rated high.
An athlete, this former shortstop and football player for West Texas State University, wrestled 20, 30, 45, 60-minute matches. Looks can be deceiving, and more important than looking strong with imposing muscle mass is the ability to pace yourself in the ring. A chubby Dusty Rhodes knew how to do that better than many. No steroid acquisitions his way, and he main evented repeatedly.
As a society, we love the portly, funny guy. Celebs John Belushi, Jack Black, John Candy, Chris Farley, Kevin James. Dusty Rhodes fit the bill, but he could also fight, adding another dimension to his likeable star power.
On June 21, 1981 at the Omni in Atlanta, Rhodes again beat Harley Race for the NWA title, but this time Big Dust displayed his athleticism to end the match. Instead of delivering the Bionic elbow to win the battle, the hefty Rhodes executed a flying bodypress off the top rope to pin Race and capture his second NWA title. Amazing. Mil Mascaras eat your heart out. Just like he did the first time, Rhodes summonsed the fans into the ring to celebrate together again.
Red means green as Rhodes learned from his mentors. Promoters paid more if you bled, and Dusty spilled much blood around the world. His head scarred like a cheese grater. He even allowed the Wildman from Sudan Abdullah the Butcher to carve his shoulder with an illegal fork. Rhodes understood ring psychology. As the fan favorite, you want the opponent to beat you down, drawing sympathy from the crowd. Then make the dramatic comeback, allowing fans to rejoice, erupt with joy. Imagine doing that while those bleached blonde locks and scarred forehead converted into a crimson mask.
Dusty wore some fancy robes to the ring, but he stood most comfortably in blue jeans and baseball style hat. Fans loved him either way. Speaking of fashion, another factor that sets Dusty apart was his ability to make chicken salad from chicken $#%^, prime rib from a rib. If you think becoming The American Dream revolutionized pro wrestling, how about Dusty’s second huge turn.
Vince McMahon Jr. brought Dusty into the WWF in 1989 and spoofed him by presenting him polka dots to wear. Polka dots? Who wears polka dots? More so, what hefty person sports polka dots? Dusty just smiled, grabbed the ring gear, and baby, he made polka dots fashionable, turning it into a fashion statement. Dusty’s star power, his charisma, his entertaining style, all bigger than any polka dot. He aligned with Sweet Sapphire, dancing, shimmying their way to WWF stardom. Who doesn’t enjoy watching a chubby person dance? Before Chris Farley cut the rug, we watched Dusty boogey with Sweet Sapphire. He continued putting smiles on many faces, entertaining millions worldwide with polka dots in the WWF.
When Dusty beat Ric Flair for the NWA title in a steel cage at the Great American Bash on July 26, 1986 at the Greensboro Coliseum in Greensboro, N.C., it marked his third run with the world title. Each time, his reign short. Like Andre the Giant and Million Dollar Man Ted DiBiase, Dusty did not need the world title to validate his career, his superstardom. Winning the belt meant much to him, of course, and a lot to his fans, but Dusty Rhodes was a champion, the people’s champion, with or without the belt.
Thank you Dusty
Circa 1974, I was nine, and we moved from Connecticut to South Florida. Basements did not exist but a Florida room did. The television rested in that Florida room situated in the back of the one-story home.
One Saturday, after watching my fill of Saturday morning cartoons (remember those) on one of three TV networks (ABC-10, CBS-4, NBC-7), I channel surfed. No cable, so the choices very limited, and no remote control. You manually changed the channels by turning the dial nob clockwise or counter-clockwise on the television set.
Some local VHF channels existed like WCIX Ch.6.
Saturdays at noon on WCIX hosted Championship Wrestling from Florida. I heard this announcer calling and explaining the action. He carried a distinct voice. This wasn’t pugilism, which ABC Wide World of Sports covered. A fight, yes, but different, intriguing. I began watching during the developing stages of The American Dream Dusty Rhodes.
Listening to Solie and Rhodes, hearing the reaction from the crowds, wow. And then seeing it live at the Fort Lauderdale National Guard Armory, Miami Beach Convention Center and West Palm Beach Auditorium, watching these larger than life personalities from the television screen in person. Andre the Giant walking to the ring, and as his looming presence neared, my head kept stepping up higher and higher.
I recall sitting in the drizzle of the open-aired Orange Bowl Stadium on Jan. 25. 1978 for the original Superbowl of Wrestling, featuring NWA champ Harley Race against WWWF champ Superstar Billy Graham. Dusty beat wrestling’s first World’s Strongest Man Ken Patera, but it’s a blur to me and not because of the rain.
What I remember most, witnessing Dusty in action live, occurred on the Fourth of July at the Miami Beach Convention Center. (I-95 south to I-195 east to Alton Road south) Dusty won the Florida heavyweight title from King Curtis. A no DQ match, Stardust turned the tables on the rule breaking, one-eyed, loud, slow speaking, vicious Curtis. When Curtis pulled a foreign object from his tights, Big Dust grabbed the object and hit Curtis with it, leading to the pin, and we made celebratory noise louder than the fireworks outside.
Great times to become a pro wrestling fan, and I loved the Midnight Rider.
Interviewing the great Dusty Rhodes in March 2014 before an XSE Superstars of Wrestling show at the Miami-Dade County Fair & Exposition was an honor.
It’s because of Gordon Solie and Dusty Rhodes I do what I do.
Talented wrestling writer and fan John Patton tagged a story I recently wrote about reaction to Dusty’s death. Patton wrote on the tag, “Thanks to the Miami Herald’s Midnight Writer Jim Varsallone...for asking me to be a part of this.”
From the Midnight Writer to the Midnight Rider, RIP Dusty and thank you.
So long from the Sunshine State.
- Honoring The American Dream
WWE honored The American Dream Dusty Rhodes to open the WWE Money In The Bank pay-per-view on Sunday, June 14.
The company’s roster and hierarchy stood in silence at the top of the rampway for a traditional 10-bell salute, followed by Dusty’s theme music from his WWF days with many clapping to the beat. Later in the show, WWE debuted an awesome tribute video to him.
Following WWE Monday Night Raw on June 15, WWE Network will broadcast an original special “Celebrating The Dream,” a tribute to the life and times of the iconic and legendary sports entertainment figure Dusty Rhodes.
- Funeral for The American Dream
Dusty Rhodes, 69, died on Thursday, June 11 in Orlando with his family by his side. He will be buried on Wednesday, June 17 in Tampa.
The family requests donations in Dusty’s memory to Connor's Cure
and Joe Torre Safe At Home Foundation
- Pro Wrestling On the Web
YouTube jim varsallone (jimmyv3 channel)
Rhodes to Glory
The American Dream Dusty Rhodes celebrated an illustrious career, wearing many hats, including agent, booker, commentator, creative, mentor, promoter, wrestler.
Rhodes worked with the best inside and outside the squared circle, whether in the AWA, ECW, NWA, TNA, WCW, WWE, WWF, WWWF and beyond.
A good athlete and tremendous on the mic cutting a promo, Rhodes not only won numerous titles, but he created some of the most discussed angles, gimmicks, personas, promos and words in wrestling history, like the Bionic Elbow, Hard Times, Great American Bash, Uvalde Slim, Bull of the Woods, War Games, Dusty Finish, Funky Like a Monkey, Shockmaster, Midnight Rider and those Dustyisms.
Creating his children, including wrestling sons, Cody and Dustin, is his most cherished feat. WWE Battleground 2013, the Rhodes family against The Shield, not too shabby either.
- Autobiography: Dusty: Reflections of an American Dream (2005)
- The American Dream: The Dusty Rhodes Story (2006) WWE Home Video
Some of his biggest rivals.
Pak Song Nam
The Masked Assassin
Abdullah the Butcher
Superstar Billy Graham