The American Dream Dusty Rhodes

(Rhodes vs. Flair--Starcade '85)
I've been asked many times, over the years, who the Mount Rushmore of Professional Wrestling would be. The regulars are always discussed: Bruno Sammartino, Hulk Hogan, Ric Flair, "Stone Cold" Steve Austin, The Rock and The Undertaker are often mentioned first, and for good reason. All of those wrestlers were iconic for one reason or another, and left a mark on their respective eras that has lasted a lifetime.

But when you stop and ponder the term "Icon" in the business of Pro Wrestling, it's impossible not make it through the conversation without talking about "The American Dream" Dusty Rhodes, who died last week at the age of 69. While there are many wrestlers that "seem" more important, there has never been a person in the business that has been more influential over the past 40+ years than Dusty Rhodes.

My introduction to wrestling in the early 80's was virtually all WWF (now WWE). I didn't have cable, so the only wrestling I could see was either WWF programming on Saturday and Sunday mornings, or the strange lands of AWA and NWA in several wrestling publications, such as Pro Wrestling Illustrated and Inside Wrestling. It was here I learned about Verne Gagne, Nick Bockwinkel, Harley Race, the Von Erichs, Flair, and of course, Dusty Rhodes.

At a garage sale, I found an old wrestling magazine with Rhodes performing a back drop on Race on the front cover, next to a picture of Hogan. I was dumbstruck. How did this, well, fat guy get on the cover of this magazine? No, the early 80's weren't exactly loaded with sculpted bodies, but Rhodes seemed "extra soft," and out of shape. Hogan, who on that same cover declared "I will control wrestling in the 80's" was the new breed.

Here's the thing: there has never been a wrestler less two dimensional than the Dream. Rhodes' legend went so beyond the promos that people have been talking about for years. You see, he was the complete package. Everything that he did, from the moment he walked through the curtain, to the second the match was over screamed "superstar." Everything that he said in or out of the ring was personified by a look, a wiggle or a drawing out of the words. Every move in the ring was matched with a "groove" that had never been seen before or since.

You see, Rhodes brought Jive and Soul to the ring, and he transcended the game of wrestling in the same way that Elvis Presley transcended Rock and Roll. He was color blind to the fans, and his moves in the ring were the exact opposite. He was as vibrant as they come, and he could mold what he did in the ring to any competitor. My introduction to Rhodes was via a two-dimensional media, when everything about Rhodes was three-dimensional.

To be honest, there were plenty of  "out-of-shape" wrestlers, but it was okay, because the majority had a gimmick that made it okay. Dick Murdoch, Dusty's old tag-team partner, had a similar build, if a bit more slight in the frame. Yet Murdoch, also from Texas, wore the typical gimmick throughout his career as a cowboy. If you look at Rhodes as that two-dimensional wrestler that I saw, you'd think the same thing: "give him the cowboy gimmick."

But that was never his thing, even though it was. There was nobody more "Cowboy" than Dusty Rhodes, he just wasn't typecast as such. His personality was just too big.

Instead, Rhodes wore flamboyant robes and 70's style hats. He was built in the 70's, and dressed himself in leather jackets of the time, with furry hats that contrasted well with his bleach blonde hair. Somehow, it all just worked, because when he spoke and moved, it was, to steal a phrase from the late great Curt Hennig, perfect."

I missed Dusty's breakout as a singles wrestler. Once Rhodes broke free from his tag team partnership with Murdoch, his career took off as a singles wrestler in Florida. He spent much of the mid-to-late 70's traversing the country in the different territories, wrestling the top hands in each. Twice, Rhodes main evented Madison Square Garden against WWWF (now WWE) champion Billy Graham, beating the champ via a count out in the first match, before losing to Graham in the second.

What made those matches so damn special was that Graham and Rhodes were the best mic workers in the business. Both were flamboyant. Both were vibrant. Both were trendsetters. Putting them in the Garden was special. This is what Graham had to say about those matches in Dusty's 2012 autobiography: "Dusty: Reflections of Wrestling's American Dream:"
"The deal with Dusty in the Garden was no one every heard anyone cut a promo like that or heard anyone as equally entertaining as I was. He literally took New York by storm. This guy came in and when he was making his comeback, he would make this stroll while I was down and selling and people would jump. Putting Bruno (Sammartino) aside, no one got a reaction in the Garden like Dusty got. He was the ultimate in entertainment. Not one technical move between us except the basics. It wasn't necessary. It was all me getting heat on Dusty and him making a comeback...a simple formula. The New York market never saw anything like us together. It was pure magic."
These matches in New York led to a new nickname for dream: "Stardust." Cody has since taken over that nickname as his wrestling persona, although their styles in the ring are most definitely different.

I wasn't introduced to the REAL American Dream until the mid-80's, once my folks finally bucked up and bought cable. At this point, "The American Dream" had already won two NWA titles against Harley Race, but was now up against his greatest foe: Ric Flair and the Four Horseman. It was legendary. You've all seen the Hard Times Promo that Dusty has been famous for (and the WWE can goto hell for showing that idiot Maria Menounos re-cutting that promo...nobody wants to see that):

It's a great promo, but I didn't see it until year's later on YouTube.

But that's the thing. Every promo that Dusty was part of was amazing, and when you add the Nature Boy and the Horseman, well, it just doesn't get any better. Here's a quick two-minute promo with the Horseman, that's interrupted by Dusty, Baby Doll, the Rock N' Roll Express, Magnum TA and Jimmy Valiant. It's just brilliant from top to bottom:

The feud with Flair and his band of merry horseman would continue for his duration in WCW, and the contrast between the two wrestling superstars was evident in the way they dressed and acted, but their promo skills were identically brilliant.

Flair needed "$100,000 a month to keep him looking this good," while Rhodes just needed "$100 a week." Flair "walked that aisle" with the hierarchy, while Dusty was "the common man," a plumber's son. This feud has many parts over the years that took up time in between the big matches between Rhodes and Flair.

Flair had Ole and Arn, Tully and Lex, Barry and J.J., while Dusty had the Road Warriors and Magnum, Nikita and Sting, and the Rock & Roll Express, to name a few. But at the center was always Dusty and the Nature Boy.

Behind the scenes and at the time, Ric Flair looked at Dusty as a mentor. Of course, nobody outside the business really new this because Professional Wrestling still had a "real-ness" to it, but these two went way back.

After Dusty passed, Flair posted a touching tribute to his mentor on his Facebook page:
"All I wanted to be in 1972 was Rambling Ricky Rhodes. The Dream told me "you can make it on your own." He mentored me and taught me how to be a star. Dusty used to say "If you are going to pass by...why not in a Cadillac??" He's the man who invented A Flair for the Gold and was a genius way ahead of his time."
On Ric Flair's podcast, "Wooooo! Nation," Flair talked about being mesmerized by Rhodes. At the time, Rhodes was still with Dick Murdoch in the AWA, and Flair noted right away that when he talked, he was just "different." Flair would travel to all the shows at the time to hang out with Dusty, and he wasn't even booked. The two actually resembled each other at the time. Flair was a lot bigger than when he became the superstar we know today, and who knows what would have happened had the Nature Boy stayed Rambling Ricky.

Kind of funny when you think about it.

Boy did those two draw money, and for a young wrestling fan who didn't like Hulk Hogan, I naturally gravitated to these two wrestlers, and became an NWA and WCW fan forever after.

One of my favorite Rhodes gimmicks was his Midnight Rider persona. Magnum TA's career ended in a car accident in 1986 as his career was taking off, and before he knew if he'd ever wrestle again, he came out and did a promo with Tully Blanchard and J.J. Dillon that broke out into a melee'. Dusty came out with a bat and laid out everyone with TA's bat. Dillon got Rhodes suspended for 120 days.

TA showed up at a campfire, ready to manage a "new" wrestler, the "mysterious" Midnight Rider. I mean, he doesn't sound a lick like Dusty, does he Diablo?


Rhodes had actually used this gimmick in Florida years earlier when he lost a loser leaves town match against Kevin Sullivan. The Midnight Rider showed up soon thereafter, and even beat the Nature Boy Ric Flair for the World Title, before giving it back when he had to unmask.

It'a an angle that I wanted WWE to book with Cody Rhodes a couple of years back when he was "fired" from the company in a McMahon vs. Rhodes angle. Cody was actually leaving to get married, but without Dusty booking, the angle lost fire. Sure, the Rhodes brothers were launched a bit over the coming two years, but Cody seemed to be on the precipice of something special.

He has a lot of his Dad in him.

Rhodes had several stints as the booker for NWA during his tenure there, and created the now infamous "Dusty Finish." Rhodes had beat Ric Flair at Starcade 1985 for the NWA Heavyweight championship. Referee Tommy Young had gotten knocked out, and the Horseman interfered for Flair, only to have Dream hit a surprise pin on the champ. A back-up ref came out and made the count, giving Rhodes the championship. We got the celebration. We got the interview in the locker room. But, when Young came to, he had seen the Horseman's interference, and called the match a disqualification.

Rhodes won, but Flair got to keep the belt.

The Dusty Finish.

The fans got to see their hero win the belt, but in the end, nothing changed. The Rhodes/Flair feud would continue to draw for years to come, and the Dusty Finish would be used over-and-over throughout the years. If you ask Dusty, he'll tell you he didn't have a thing to do with it, other than continue a tradition that had been used many times in the past. He was right, of course, but Starcade was the biggest wrestling event at the time, and to use it in the Main Event was unprecedented at that level. But Dusty's booking in the 80's was a big reason why the NWA really took off. He laid the framework for the great run of WCW in the 90's.

Rhodes did spend some time in the WWE, but I'm not going to say anything about that other than to say that WCW fired Dusty because he booked blood in a match after they said not to. He didn't really have anywhere else to go, so he went to Vince Jr., who gave him the worst gimmick in the history of wrestling not called "The Shockmaster." His Polka Dots sucked, and so did Sapphire, but Dusty still did a great job with this. His time there was forgetful, but Dusty was still Dusty. His promos there were every bit as good as they were everywhere else.

Rhodes would go on to feud with the Million Dollar Man Ted DiBiase (with his sidekick Virgil, who was named as a rib to Rhodes, whose real name is Virgil Runnels), the Big Boss Man, Rick Rude and the Macho Man.

Rhodes would return to WCW, and would wrestle and book there, at ECW, TNA, and ROH over the years, before returning to the WWE in 2005 on a legends deal, where he would work on and off with creative until he died.

Perhaps his greatest moment came in 2007, in which his sons, Cody and Dustin, would induct him into the WWE Hall of Fame. I'm not sure there's been a better induction promo before or since. Cody and Dustin, visibly proud of their father, and often grasping hands in their intro, showcased the apples don't fall far from the tree.

But Dusty stole the show, talking about the good times that he wanted to provide the fans, and having Flair induct he and Harley Race into the Four Horseman.

Dusty's shadow over the business of professional wrestling is large, and his legacy is secure.

His two sons will continue to wrestle in his visage. Dustin looks so much like his dad, and sounds like him as well, but took on a gimmick so far from The American Dream, and got it over...just like his Dad would have.

Cody has struggled over the years to find his place, but a lot of that isn't his fault. He has the talent and the look, he just needs the chance. Hopefully, the rib is over for the Rhodes' clan, because it's time to get Cody the push he deserves.

But his legacy goes far beyond his children and family. You see, there isn't a wrestler in the business that hasn't been touched by Dusty Rhodes the wrestler, or the booker.

But his biggest impact and legacy will no doubt be NXT, where he's helped created, with HHH, the best wrestling brand in the business. Not only did he help book, create characters, and lend a helping hand with development, but his main job was to work on the promos with these kids. Not only did Vince honor Dusty at last week's Money in the Bank Pay Per View, but HHH did the same.

A visibly shaken HHH could barely speak.
"We lost a family member. Dusty Rhodes called everyone of these people on this stage his NXT kids. They were his family, his lifeblood. He gave everything he had. It was his passion to continue this business for all of you, and if he called these guys his kid, then all of you would be his NXT family."

What stood out to me was Kevin Owens, who could barely keep it together on the stage, and Ashley Flair/Charlotte, who Rhodes had mentored during his time there. Talk about Full Circle.

In the end, I don't know how I couldn't put Rhodes on the Mount Rushmore. He just that good. So Dusty, don't worry about sleeping in alleys or eatin' Pork n' Beans, because from now on, you'll be dining with Kings and Queens.

Thank you for making professional wrestling what it is today.
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