He’s The American Dream

Sarasota Herald-Tribune – July 15, 1983
By Susan Burns, Herald-Tribune Reporter

Herald-Tribune/Lew Agrelli

Herald-Tribune/Lew Agrelli

But The Success Of Dusty Rhodes Is Certainly No Fantasy

Some men are just born different.  They follow a different path, hear a different drummer, break molds and… headlocks, chicken wing clasps and spinning toe holds.

Certainly no one could ever say that Dusty Rhodes, the American Dream, one f the most popular wrestlers in the business and Tom Stimus’ good friend, was the average Joe on the street.  That would be very difficult to say about a 275 lb. 35-year-old man with rather long, curly, platinum blond hair, who travels 327 days out of the year only to get in a ring and get punched, wrenched and slammed by the bizarre likes of Exotic Adrian Street, a wrestler whose trademark is the bows in his hair and his overtly effeminate ways.  Dusty, although he avoids self-aggrandizement and many ostentatious P.R. devices, would never say he lacks a certain something that sets him apart.

“The basic thing is that there are charismatic people,” Dusty says in a surprisingly soft and humble manner for a two-time world champion wrestler.  “You can not attain it.  You are born with it.  If you walk in anywhere, a restaurant or anywhere, and even if they don’t like wrestling, they will know there is something charismatic about Dusty Rhodes.  People will turn their heads and look.  It’s not only my size.  There’s something there.  There’s something special.”

And ever since Dusty can remember, he knew he was put here, not just to do his best, but to be the best.  Born Virgil Runnels, Jr. of a poor plumber father in Austin, Texas, (the modest upbringing together with trying his hardest and succeeding are the American Dream prerequisites), Dusty says wrestling has been a part of his life ever since his father began taking him to weekend matches when he was a little boy.  He played different sports all through junior and senior high school and went to West Texas State  on a football scholarship and even played a year of pro-ball with the Patriots, but wrestling had its hold on him.  It had a quality other sports lacked.

“I always wanted to do it.  I liked wrestling ‘cause it seemed that people could express themselves whether they were a gimmick, or whether they were entertaining somebody or whether they were great athletes.  They could express themselves one-to-one in competition.  Wrestling was an opportunity to express myself.”

And whatever else Dusty’s self-expression through wrestling may be, it has been a success.  Disregarding his beginnings as a bad guy, Dusty consistently has been voted one of the most popular wrestlers in the business.  He is known in places like Japan, Nigeria and Australia.  Perhaps Dusty’s style is so popular because it is not as affected as many other wrestlers’ personalities.

“I spend a lot of time creating Dusty Rhodes.  I don’t know if that’s the way to put it, but I don’t want to say something stupid or really ridiculous so somebody can say, ‘Well, he’s phony.’  I try to be myself and say the things that I would really say or really feel when they give me two minutes to talk on TV.  I don’t want to go out and say I’m gonna kill the guy, ‘cause that’s a bunch of crap.  You’ve never heard me say that I’m going to tear a man’s head off on television.”

But the gimmicks and the hype are what wrestling fans and haughty, distant observers expect from these ample-bodied, long-haired actor/athletes.  And it’s probably the gimmicks that make it as popular and certainly the butt of as many jokes as it is.

There’s no denying that if Rodney Dangerfield played a sport it definitely would be pro-wrestling.  Dusty knows the sport hasn’t got much respect and he’s out to change this fact.

“I was asked to do the Tonight Show on three different occasions and I refused it.  It would be a big thing, all the exposure, but any time they want me to do it the first thing they tell me is, ‘We’re going to set up a ring, Jerry Lewis is going to be here and you can get in and clown around with him.’  I said, ‘No, I’m not going to do it like that.  If you can’t sit and talk to me with my jeans on for just five minutes, well then, I don’t need that kind of exposure.  I have millions of fans out there who love Dusty Rhodes.’

“So I just turned it down.  We’ve had too much bad exposure for too many years and I’m trying to correct that.  I’m the major spokesman for my industry now and it’s important to me that the right things get square.”

Dusty’s fair and square attitude applies to his fans too.  He treats his followers with respect and gives credit where credit is due.  The fans made Dusty “their Golden Boy” he says, and he owes them something for that.  He gives them “120 percent.”  He seems to know what they want, what wrestling provides for people.

Although he says all types enjoy wrestling, “It’s a blue collar sport… I think we deal with a lot of people who are frustrated during the week and work hard and want to let their emotions out, and you know, go out and scream and holler and everything.”

Dusty also knows how to keep his fans interested.  He stays hidden during the matches.  “I firmly believe you never went to a concert, you never saw Elvis Presley before it was time for him to come on.  There’s something about it.  If they see me before my time I’m ordinary.  I become ordinary.  They can touch Dusty Rhodes but they can’t and I keep them at bay like that.  And when they do get a chance to come up close to him it’s just like, there he is, you know, bigger than life.”

Some people may complain that his star status is unhealthy for children.  After-all, is it ethical for kids to have heroes who usually say they are out to kill?

But, Dusty explains, the conflicts are black and white.  There is a good guy and a bad guy.  Wrestlers are the traditional heroes and villains in an era of anti-heroes and they should take responsibility for their younger fans.

“I think it’s important for the modern-day athlete to put aside the money, the stress, the bickering with promoters and ball club owners.  The kids are really needing somebody.  Somebody that doesn’t take drugs and speaks out for what he really believes.  I’m not saying it’s me, but somebody to look up to…  I think they see us as Superman.  We’re alive and they can go see us.  They don’t have to watch him on TV.”

Dusty spends a lot of time with kids.  He’s been on anti-smoking and anti-drug campaigns in schools and works with Special Olympic children.  “There’s nothing more satisfying than having them say that they love Dusty Rhodes,” he said quietly, “because I love them and I make no bones about it.”

Dusty has a wife and three kids of his own and he says it’s not always easy finding time for them.  Sometimes he wishes he could be Virgil Runnels again.  All his travels ruined his first marriage.

“My first marriage was rocky, because of the road.  I guess it was my fault more than hers.  We got married too young and I wanted to be on the road from the time I was able to go.  I was a loner.”

Dusty made sure his second wife, Michelle, travelled everywhere with him until she tired of it and they decided to have a baby.  “Michelle is an important part of my life.  She’s the most tremendous thing that’s ever happened to me.  There’s so much love between her and me that she’s accepted me the way I am.  And I’m different.  It’s a different life, a different life-style.  I pray we last forever.  I don’t want to be too naïve because, well, you never know what tomorrow will bring, but you do the best you can.

Dusty’s three children are Margaret, 9 months, Dustin, 13, and Kristin, 10.  Now he makes it a point to stay home with his youngest because he missed it before.

Dusty’s hectic schedule also makes training difficult.  His favorite way to train on the road, is shooting hoops at the local “Y,” and doing calisthenics right before the match.  He also has to watch his weight.  He used to weigh in at 306 lbs, a weight he thought he needed for strength, but didn’t feel comfortable with.  Now he’s conditioned himself not to eat a few hours before a match and late at night, but he still wants to get his 6’2” frame down to 255 lbs.

He also wants to get his 6’2” frame out of wrestling in about two years.  Thirty-five years is comparatively young for the profession, he says.  “Harley Race just won the world’s title for the seventh time and he’s in his middle 40s.  But I don’t want to be doing it when I’m 40.  I want to get out of it and be financially able to do what I want to do.”

Saying only that he makes “a lot” of money, Dusty thinks that “after this profession there’s something I’m gonna do that’s gonna be really big, bigger than this.  As Johnny Bench just said, ‘There’s life after baseball,’ and there’s life after wrestling.”

Presently a resident of Tampa, Dusty owns 600 acres in Dade City and raises registered beef cattle.  Ranching and farming is a passion and he plans to build a big ranch.  He also owns a trucking company.  Of course there are the TV commercials, but Dusty has also written two movie scripts, been approached by Burt Reynolds for a film (he thought the role was wrong for him however), sings old rock-and-roll in night clubs and has even finished a 350-page manuscript of poetry he calls “Thoughts.”

“Being on the road so long and being alone most of the time I think you see a lot of things that maybe other people don’t get a chance to – like going to the African countries and seeing the poverty…  I think it is important that it should be written down.  It doesn’t all pertain to wrestling.  It’s just my personal feelings about things that are going on.”

And in wrestling, what IS really going on?  That, perhaps is what everybody wants to ask Dusty.  Is it real?  Is he really wrestling up there?

It’s also perhaps what no one should expect an answer to.  It’s his life.  It’s part of pro-wrestling’s appeal.

Dusty only says that the question used to make him mad.  “It was the hardest thing that I used to do.  I used to fight all the time, sometimes physically but especially mentally, with the fact of that question until I got to the point where I didn’t care any more.”

“But what I will say is that if you like it and enjoy it that’s basically the best thing and if you don’t, then no explanation is necessary because you’re not going to believe anything I say anyway.  So I don’t try to give them an explanation.  Every major professional athlete is an entertainer.”

“What do you want me to say?” he asks rhetorically.

He paused, and answered his own question and all his fans.  “I say thank you.”

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