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Thursday, June 11, 2015

RIP Dusty Rhodes, 1945-2015

When I first discovered Dusty Rhodes in 1989, it was under the same circumstances that any other WWE-fed youngster, completely ignorant of 'other wrestling' did. The "American Dream" I was presented with as a five-year-old kid was a corpulent giant that spoke a mile a minute, gyrated his hefty hips to stir up the crowd, and couldn't help but smile as he clobbered some beleaguered fool with his padded elbow. In other words, not too far off from any other fan's first experiences witnessing "The Dream".

Rhodes was a colorful character in the then-WWF landscape, but he would have been a colorful character anywhere. When McMahon acquired Rhodes that spring, he stripped him bare of his World Championship heritage, costumed him in oversized yellow polka dots, repurposing him in his common-man ilk with vignettes where Dusty worked blue collar jobs. The man once known as the NWA's biggest babyface of the 1980s was now proudly unclogging toilets and riding a trash truck.

That didn't matter. Though I was too young to read between the lines, older fans were into Dusty for the same reason he was over in Crockett and elsewhere: he was fuckin' Dusty Rhodes. No application of polka dots, whether intended to humiliate or not, was going to scale back his outworldly charisma. Rhodes, in accordance with his obvious girth, was unconfinable to restriction. Loud and proud was his label, much like the Americana he held so dear. For him, the deadly sins like gluttony and pride were to be heralded, not scorned.

Rhodes proved a long time ago that your headliner can be built like any 9-to-5 sweathog that gorges on deli meat and turkey gravy as a midnight snack. Rhodes was the antithesis of the Instagram generation compelled by insecurity to post selfies in order to show off their fitness progress while you and I drink copiously from our Big Gulps. And you know what? His influence is still felt. Kevin Owens is now WWE's most intriguing villain, and Owens' body type is more Rhodes than Rude. Bray Wyatt, whose gimmick was cultivated out of Dusty's mind some time back in NXT, remains relevant even as creative allows him to tread water without a lifeline. Nobody cares that Owens or Wyatt look more apt to be on a bowling team than in a Chippendales troupe, they care that who they are is defined by them, not appearance.

With Dusty, for as memorable as he was in body, his charisma drowned the flab out, wave after crashing wave. That's his hook, and it's one like no other. We all imitated Dusty with the flicking lisp and pork-fried affectation, but none of us could cut a Dusty promo. We could recite one he's done, but we couldn't touch the soul like he could.

He hit all ends of the spectrum. He gave us War Games, but also the 'Dusty Finish'. He spoke gravely about understanding what 'Hard Times' were, and he also let his silly subconscious run wild calling WCW broadcasts. He was the blue collar hero that fought the machine, but he too was the machine, booking for Crockett and sometimes allowing his ego to cloud his judgment. That's a criticism of any booker, far from exclusive to Dusty, but it's true.

It's also a testament to his workmanship. Dusty Rhodes was able, with his fingers tugging the strings, to convince every viewing eye that he was a puppet rather than the puppeteer. There is no disrespect meant here at all. Most bookers that book themselves as main eventers end up maligned when it becomes too obvious how in love they are with their own talents. Dusty avoided that conflict by being so damn good as a performer. Being a worker is more than having the capacity to go to a sixty minute draw without boring the crowd. Dusty worked everyone and nobody minded one bit. Nobody watching ever felt conned by Dusty Rhodes. He bared his soul for us to indulge in. His words were more transfixing than any springboard shooting star press could ever be. Go to any indy show and watch some nameless geek fling himself over the ropes at the expense of his own safety. More people remember the move than the jumper himself. Dusty speaks, and you remember Dusty.

Rhodes admired John Wayne to the degree that much of his booking used True Grit as a template, with the babyface hero (often himself) pursuing villains with an unflinching swagger and a sense of justice dying to be quenched. It's unfortunately appropriate that Rhodes pass away today on June 11, 2015, as Wayne died on June 11, 1979. Both men are hardly recognizable by their real names, Rhodes as Virgil Runnels and Wayne as Marion Morrison, living mythically on the line where fiction separates reality, folklore in the flesh.

Wayne was a worker too; he didn't like riding horses, and since he was typecast as a heroic cowboy quite often, that serves as one of Hollywood's great ironies. Rhodes as the lunch-bucket, time-card-punching hero of the masses doubling as the suit that organized all of Crockett's chess pieces is an irony of similar weight. Nobody cares that Wayne wasn't the horseman he played, and nobody cared that Rhodes lived his wrestling life with a curious duplicity. The play is always the thing.

Dusty Rhodes' legacy as written by observers will tell you that he was a brilliant mind, but not a great worker. I disagree completely. He worked to render polka dots moot, he worked to talk people into the buildings to see him go to war, and he worked to be an American icon, just like the ones he grew up admiring. By that definition of the word, Dusty Rhodes is the most underrated worker in the history of professional wrestling.

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