Dead Wrestler: Farewell to the American Dream

Yesterday, among the announcements of so many deaths, only one hit the Rude Pundit where it hurt: right in the childhood. 'Cause, see, when he was a kid in the 1970s, living in a trailer park in Florida and an apartment complex in Louisiana, the Rude Dad, who was a trucker back then, the Rude Brother, and the young Rude Pundit loved professional wrestling. The Rude Bro, especially, was totally into it, buying wrestling magazines and constantly watching it on TV on every weekend. They could argue about the relative merits of Harley Race or "Cowboy" Bill Watts, whose side they were on in a match between "Superstar" Billy Graham (sadly, not the preacher) and Ted DiBiase, whether the Sheik's Camel Clutch was a more painful move than Pak Song's Claw. But one thing they could agree on: No one was greater than Dusty Rhodes, the American Dream, as he called himself.

The Rude Pundit is not going to review the larger-than-life career of Dusty Rhodes, whose real name was Virgil Runnels, Jr. and who was beloved by everyone in his sport. You can find that elsewhere. This fan had given up on professional wrestling long before Rhodes made his justifiably famous "Hard Times" promo speech in 1985, where he explicitly linked himself with his working class fans and gave sympathy to people who lost jobs or couldn't pay the bills.

No, for the Rude Pundit, one of the formative moments in his very young life was watching Dusty Rhodes face down his enemies who had once been his friends. You're gonna have to forgive the fog of decades here (and corrections will be made if necessary), but here we go: When Rhodes first started wrestling he was booked as someone who veered between bad guy and good guy. He was in a tag team partnership with Pak Song, a Korean wrestler who was, obviously, a bad guy (it was the 70s - Korea was as good a stand-in for Vietnam as any). They were managed by the evil Gary Hart. Yeah, it was a complicated, scripted soap opera, but, goddamn, it was compelling.

In 1974, Rhodes and Pak Song were fighting against another tag team partnership when, in the middle of the match, Pak Song and Gary Hart turned against Rhodes and began to beat him (there was some reason, but the Rude Pundit can't remember). This was in Florida, and the Rude Pundit remembers watching on TV as Rhodes rose up to fight back against the other men, who ran away. It was a brilliant move, one that Rhodes had a hand in scripting, and it turned Rhodes into a permanent good guy, someone with a grudge and a cause - to destroy Gary Hart and Hart's wrestlers.

Rhodes became a superstar after that, associating himself directly with his audience by using the nickname "The American Dream." It was an enthralling transformation for a kid to see, a tale of redemption and triumph in a squalid setting. Rhodes understood, as much as any wrestler, as much as any performer, as much as any popular artist, that part of the thrill for the fans is being a part of the rise of their hero. He offered hope in a time of real despair, with the obscene Vietnam War coming to its sad ending, with Nixon's crimes being revealed. The world was in chaos, yes, but in the middle of Florida in the 1970s, Dusty Rhodes showed us that we could come back, that our working class backgrounds made us noble, and that even a fat slob with a lisp and shaggy blonde hair could be a champion. Besides, he had a patented move called the "Bionic Elbow," which involved him leaping into the air and landing on his opponent with his elbow, and he eventually headlined matches at a sold-out Madison Square Garden. C'mon.

If you think this is too over the top, you don't understand the passion that professional wrestling provokes in its fans. When the Rude Pundit got to go to live matches and see Dusty Rhodes (and Andre the Giant, once), it was the same thrill he had seeing Ian McKellen perform on stage. In fact, he believes that the extravagant theatricality of wrestling was what got him interested in plays that are directed at audiences of workers. The Rude Pundit can't comment on today's wrestling because, other than when someone like a Hulk Hogan surfaces in pop culture, he doesn't know much about it. But he loves talking to WWE fans because it provokes him to remember how much it meant to him.

When we'd play fight, the Rude siblings would pretend to be various wrestlers. We would argue over who got to be Dusty Rhodes, who got to act, for a little while, like the American Dream. If we embody him, if we could do him justice, perhaps we too would deserve all his rewards which we, like him, would pass on to others.

Final Note: Rude reader Dan B. knew Dusty Rhodes and had this to say about him: "He was larger than life but totally down to earth. A creative genius and a force of nature. But also, he was able to focus on the person he was with, co-worker or fan, and relate on a deeply personal level that always left an indelible impact for life in that individual. He was one of the biggest box office draws in the history of The Business, but his blue collar sensibilities never left him. 'I have wined and dined with Kings and Queens, but have slumbered in alleys eating pork and beans.' He was truly a plumber's son from Austin who never lost his love of The Common Man. This was what make him one of the most beloved babyfaces of all time. If he was your friend, you had a defender equaled by none. I loved him like a big brother and looked forward to the next time I would see him and be welcomed like the prodigal son. This is a huge loss for me and everyone who ever knew or met him.

"The most important fact about Dusty is that his affection for the proletariat was totally authentic, not a 'work.' Patrons could sense that."