Remembering ‘The American Dream’

“The American Dream” Dusty Rhodes, right, and Derik Vanderford, left, backstage at Spartanburg Memorial Auditorium in 2005.

Elvis Presley died before I was born, but I had always heard about the sadness shared by all of his fans during that time. I had seen footage of people flocking to Graceland and crying because the world lost someone with whom they felt connected, whether they had met him or not. But I never fully understood that feeling until last Thursday.

Most people who know me know I have a passion for the physical art form known as pro wrestling. Even though I had a chance to spend time with, learn from, and even work for “The American Dream” Dusty Rhodes (Virgil Runnels), I never had any idea the heartbreak that would take over my throat and my gut when I read the news that he had died.

My first thought was that it was an internet hoax, but I went straight to the WWE website, which confirmed the unexpected news. So many people — inside and outside the wrestling business — were distraught to learn that someone who seemed like he would live forever had left this world at the age of 69.

From the outside

I talked to my dad, who called to see if I had heard the news just after I read it. Growing up, pro wrestling was something Dad and I enjoyed together, and we are both huge fans of Dusty Rhodes. I thought about how entertaining it was to watch the native Texan who was billed as “the son of a plumber” (which he was) who “lived on the end of a lightning bolt riding a silver-studded saddle.”

I believe Dusty Rhodes was, bar none, the absolute best talker to ever pick up a microphone in pro wrestling. In fact, he was the man that people like Ric Flair and Hulk Hogan have stated they wanted to emulate when they broke into professional wrestling. With his signature lisp and unique accent he called Texas jive, Dusty “talked people into buildings” everywhere. I have always paid attention to the rhythm, gestures, pauses and all-around puppet-mastery The American Dream employed during his interviews. While lots of wrestlers screamed through entire interviews or just firmly told opponents how they would kick their butts, Dusty brought viewers up and down, using every feeling he could muster to get crowds behind him. The way he shifted gears while speaking was reminiscent of a southern preacher.

For example, Dusty delivered what was arguably his most famous promo in October 1985 after returning from an injury he suffered at the hands of NWA World Champion Ric Flair. Rhodes discussed the “hard times” Flair put him through since he was unable to work. He compared himself to textile workers who were being laid off, even though they had mouths to feed at home. In 1985, Dusty Rhodes mentioned people in the automotive industry who were losing their jobs and others whose jobs were being replaced by computers. “That’s hard times!” The American Dream cried out as he pointed his finger at the camera and talked to Ric Flair. “I admit I don’t look like the athlete of the day is supposed to look. My belly’s just a little big. My hiney’s just a little big, but brother, I’m bad and they know I’m bad!” Dusty then told Flair (by way of the TV camera as announcer Bob Caudle held the microphone) that the heavyweight title belonged to the people, and he extended his hand toward the camera as he talked to wrestling fans.

“I want you at home to know my hand is touching your hand!” the Dream said, and he referred to the cards and letters he had received since the beginning of his hiatus from television.

“The love that was given me at this time, I will repay you now, because I will be the next World’s Heavyweight Champion of this ‘Hard Time Blues’ Dusty Rhodes Tour ’85.” When he walked away from that interview, Dusty yelled to the live audience, “I love you!”

From the inside

My favorite wrestling columnist — Mike Mooneyham — wrote in Sunday’s edition of The Post and Courier: “No amount of words could ever adequately describe what Dusty Rhodes meant to the wrestling business. Wrestler, performer, entertainer, booker, promoter, power broker, innovator, teacher, trainer, friend. He was all of them, and he left lasting impressions and memories that will become part of wrestling lore for decades to come.”

I talked with various people from within the pro wrestling world about Dusty. My friend David Flair (son of Ric Flair) was crushed. Local independent wrestler Deon Johnson — who patterned his own style after Rhodes — was devastated. George South, who had worked under Dusty for years, said, “We didn’t just lose The American Dream. We lost part of America!”

One wrestler with whom I spoke — my mentor and big brother “Raging Bull” Manny Fernandez — was also greatly affected by Dusty’s untimely passing. Manny was hit hard by the news of losing another fellow West Texas State University alumnus. At one time, Dusty and Manny were the NWA World Tag Team Champions. Dusty was also in charge when Manny received his first big break in wrestling while working in the Florida territory. Manny described Dusty Rhodes as a father figure who had compassion for his fellow wrestlers. He remembered how Dusty cared for him when he was injured and helped him get medical attention. Manny also said Dusty had one of the greatest minds in the wrestling business, an innovator who conceived the idea of super-shows like Starrcade and The Great American Bash before the first Wrestlemania took place. Manny embraced the thought of Dusty riding throughout the great beyond with his former tag partner (also a WTSU alum and Manny’s first mentor) Dick Murdoch.

I thought about the short time I was able to spend with Dusty Rhodes behind the curtain. Manny first introduced me to Dusty Rhodes 15 years ago. I was in awe. He was as great at talking to people one-on-one as he was at talking to millions through television.

I remember a particular event at which I managed David Flair against Dusty in the main event for Dusty’s own Turnbuckle Championship Wrestling promotion. Dusty invited me to sit with him in the dressing room, and we talked business. He knew I was interested in the promotional and creative aspects of wrestling, and he talked to me in depth. I was the greenest kid in the dressing room, and he did not have to spend that much time with me, or any time at all. Most people wouldn’t and don’t, but he did. During the match in Harriman, Tenn., I did what managers do. I choked Dusty and got in some cheap shots when the referee wasn’t looking. After the match, Dusty pulled me into the ring. He slung me into the ropes and gave me a big back elbow to the head. He then picked me up, proceeded to hit me with his famous “flip, flop and fly,” and finished me off with that world-famous bionic elbow before David Flair slid me out of the ring. Although I had quite a headache, I was smiling on the inside, knowing The American Dream had just given me a memory of a lifetime.

A transcendent impact

Dusty Rhodes made a name for himself that transcended pro wrestling. Not only casual fans, but those who had never even watched pro wrestling had heard of Dusty. He often said, “I’ve wined and dined with kings and queens, and I’ve slept in alleys and dined on pork and beans.” It was true. Wrestlers are often described as larger-than-life characters, but Dusty was more. He truly symbolized “the American Dream.” Even Andy Warhol wrote about Dusty Rhodes. On Thursday, television, radio, print and social media were flooded with messages about Dusty.

It never hit me until last Thursday how many people I knew loved to watch Dusty Rhodes. My cousin Paul Wilkes talked to me about the night we went out in Hickory, N.C. and received VIP treatment thanks to the Dream. I thought about being at my cousin Cannon Cohen’s house years ago and listening to our friend Billy Ponder imitate Dusty’s famous interviews about rival Terry Funk. I thought about Scott Smith and Jonathan Adams at Upstate Medical Supply, with whom I used to watch Dusty Rhodes interviews at their place of business when it first opened. I thought about the Fast Fare fountain drink cup that featured drawings of Dusty and how my friend Jamie Brown still has one today. My friend Dave Gillespie posted a photo of himself with Dusty, which was taken during an event I worked in Dave’s hometown of Nashville.

For hardcore fans, casual fans, or people who are actually part of the business, it will take some time to get over the loss of someone who symbolized a sport, a form of entertainment, an era, some of our childhoods and a dream.