Sarasota Herald-Tribune – August 12, 1981
John Brockmann, Sports Editor
There is a true sports superstar coming to town this week. He’ll pack the house, just as he always does. He’ll more than likely leave a winner, which he almost always does.
Sometime after 10 p.m. Friday night in Robarts Sports Arena, the chanting will begin. “Dusty… Dusty… Dusty” It’ll become louder and louder until becoming a near roar before the man appears.
He’ll have the crowd in the palms of his hands before he ever leaves the lockerroom. It will be nearly the expectancy of Pittsburgh Steelers fans awaiting their team to come out of the dressing room on Super Bowl Day. The scene will resemble a heavyweight fight crowd awaiting Muhammad Ali.
All this for Dusty Rhodes, the self-described American Dream. Dusty Rhodes, the National Wrestling Alliance’s heavyweight champion of the world.
The sign outside Robarts Arena simply reads “Wrestling, Aug. 14. Dusty, Dusty, Dusty” Nothing else was necessary. The lines at the ticket windows formed quickly.
If you are a professional wrestling fan, Dusty Rhodes is a legend.
A great wrestler? Yes. A great athlete? Yes. A man who fulfilled a dream? Yes. A showman? Most definitely.
“I need to be colorful, to be expressive,” says this fearless 6-1 ½ giant from Texas who weighs 263 pounds, but once tipped the scales at 320. “I have this charismatic appeal about me.”
Because he’s colorful, because he is expressive, because he has charisma, and because he can survive blood baths with opponents five, six and sometimes seven nights a week, Dusty Rhodes has reached the pinnacle of his sport.
He was a star before he ever became the world heavyweight champion. So what’s the difference? “About $350,000 a year,” he tells you matter-of-factly.
But even today, with an estimated income in excess of $500,000-a-year, he still remembers his first professional match.
For one, he still remembers his first professional match, against Reggie Parks in Austin, Tex back in 1970. “I had to drive 300 miles roundtrip,” he recalls. “The temperature was 110 degrees. We wrestled to a 20-minute draw. I got 27 bucks for it all.”
Today, it is filet mignon, jetliners for the long trips. Lear jets for the shorter ones. Today it is guest spots on the Johnny Carson Show.
The old days? He calls them “the beer and bologna blowouts.”
Rhodes remembers during his first year as a pro he once wrestled eight straight nights “and made about $160.”
But even back then, he knew it would all be worthwhile someday “I knew, from the very first night, that I would make it,” he adds confidently.
It didn’t come quickly, though. Nor did it come without a price.
A small price to pay, he remembers, was when his Mustang was repossessed during that first year in the ring. A bigger price came later when his wrestling career and the pursuit of his American Dream “cost me my first wife.”
A big price, too, was paid by his body. He estimates that, through the years, he has had nearly 360 stitches to close wounds in his forehead alone, a forehead today which is pinkish in color, a distinct contrast to the rest of his head. Wounds need time to heal. In Rhodes’ business, time means money. Stitch him up and put him back on the road. The gashes in the forehead can be sewn back together again. And they have. Time and again.
Rhodes’ head has taken so much punishment through the years, it doesn’t take much of a blow now to start the bleeding anew. In boxing, a bleeder is in trouble. They stop the fight. In pro wrestling, a bleeder means more ticket sales. The show goes on. The crowd goes into a near-frenzy.
Rhodes remembers his early interest in wrestling. As a boy growing up not far from Austin, his father would drive him to the state capitol for the weekly wrestling matches. He still remembers “stopping at Arkie’s Café for chicken fried steak before the matches. I loved those wrestling matches.
“I had a dream back then, that someday I would become a real someday. I dreamed that I would be the best.”
It’s the American Dream of every boy growing up. Dusty Rhodes made it in professional wrestling. It was his American Dream. He kept it as a personal slogan.
He insists that he gives his fans “120 per cent” every time out.
“You hear about all the drugs in the world today?” he adds. “Well, the high I get by being in the ring before a capacity crowd is better than any drug could ever possibly give me. There is no high like when the people are into Dusty Rhodes.
“I owe those fans. Without them, I wouldn’t be driving the cars I drive. I wouldn’t have a damn thing without them.”
As for himself, “I have never taken drugs. I have never even smoked cigarettes. Oh, I dip snuff… me and Willie Nelson (a close friend).”
It was his father, whom he calls “the driving force in my life,” who nicknamed him Dusty. Yes, it was after the former New York Giants baseball player of the 1950’s.
There was an extreme closeness between he and his father. Ironically, the day his father died was the same day a son was born to Dusty.
“It was 11 years ago, April 11. I went to the funeral home to see my father in the morning. That night, I was at the hospital to see my son (Dustin) born. It was as they say, ‘Life gives, life takes away.’ I’ll always remember that day. In the morning, the most important thing in my life was taken away from me. Before the day was over, a new most important thing in my life was just arriving.”
The more successful he became in the ring, though, the more time he had to spend away from his family. A new city every night, a new state every week. His first marriage crumbled.
Now, though, he has remarried and he doesn’t intend for the same trouble to occur twice. His new wife travels with him whenever possible. “It’s as if we’re still just dating.” Only instead of asking her to go to the Bayshore Cinema, Dusty flies her to Madison Square Garden.
Last year, he estimates he boarded airplanes “327 times.” His present schedule calls for him to wrestle “at least” five nights a week.
“I’ll probably stay at it another three years, maybe more,” he predicts. “I owe it to a lot of people.”
This is Rhodes’ second reign as a world champion. The first time was last year, when he won the title from Harley Race in St. Petersburg’s Bayfront Center. He held the crown only eight days before losing it to Dory Funk, Jr. in Orlando. On that night, Funk’s brother, Terry, jumped into the ring in a pre-flight scuffle with Rhodes and the latter suffered a broken arm. The match with Dory Funk went on, despite the broken arm, and Rhodes lost.
About five or six weeks ago, Rhodes got the title back, this time from Race again, only in Atlanta.
Rhodes has a ton of respect for Race. “That man held the title for five years, often times putting it on the line seven nights a week. I don’t know how he did it. I got to give the man credit.”
As for Funk, and his brother, “There’s lots of bad blood between us.”
For the record, Dusty’s world title goes on the line Friday night against Dory Funk, Jr.
“Not everybody loves Dusty Rhodes,” says the American Dream, “but no one can say I don’t give them their money’s worth.”
With that, he looks in the direction of the ring “That’s where The American Dream became a reality. In the ring. In a sport that is one-on-one in the greatest form.”
Rhodes points to the ring. “Down there,” he says, “I made it all come true.”
But it wasn’t easy.
Blood, sweat and tears? That’s been his life.