By Neal Hebert
Apologies for missing a few weeks of Wrestling Wednesdays - with the summer term starting, my constitution being roughly as hale as that of a hemophiliac Dauphin, and assorted stressors in the real world, I've had a rough few weeks. And things got worse with the death of "The American Dream" Dusty Rhodes.
For fans of professional wrestling, there were few stars bigger than Rhodes. He began his career as a cowboy-themed bad guy teaming with the legedary rough-house ass kicker Dick Murdoch, and his run in Florida is unforgettable: first as a heel, then as the biggest hero the area ever saw after the rule-breaking Rhodes turned on the evil Pak Song. Only a handful of performers in wrestling history ever matched Rhodes's greatness on a microphone, and even 30 years later people can quote Rhodes's best interviews word for word.
Jon Cogburn, on the day of Rhodes's death this past week, posted one of Rhodes's most famous interviews (now known as the "Hard Times" promo). And that is a grand monologue, and masterful improvisation that I use in my Theatre courses. But it's just one example of Rhodes's unparalleled charisma in professional wrestling - in an age where wrestlers are increasingly called upon to deliver 20 minute carefully crafted scripted monologues every week on national television, it's telling that Rhodes three minute improvisations are what I and numerous other fans of professional wrestling think of when asked to play a memorable interview.
But Rhodes's talents were not limited to the microphone - the son of a plumber, though far from looking like the sculpted specimens many associate with professional wrestling, was a hell of a worker within the squared circle. His greatest in-ring rivals were a who's who of regional professional wrestling: Ric Flair, Tully Blanchard, "Superstar" Billy Graham, Harley Race, Nikita Koloff. But perhaps the in-ring storyline to give you a feel for who Rhodes was as a performer happened in Georgia Championship Wrestling (booked by Ole Anderson) in 1980.
Rhodes, a blue collar babyface whose stutter did nothing to diminish his jive-talking charisma, shocked Georgia fans when he demanded a tag team match against his rivals The Assassins - and asked his rival in the territory, Ole Anderson, to be his partner and guard his back in the steel cage where Gene Anderson and Nikita Koloff were the special referees. The match, of course, was a set-up; as fans looked on in horror (and eventually pelted the ring with garbage), all five men inside the cage with Rhodes turned on him once the cage door was locked, attempting to cripple the American Dream and end his career once and for all. Then, after the shocking betrayal, the evil heel explains his plan to destroy the American Dream.
Eventually, Rhodes would come back and overcome all adversity - he was the people's champion before the people knew they needed a champion, the larger than life everyman who talked cool and never stopped fighting. But that was why he was "The American Dream" - he was the wrestler who lifted himself up by his own bootstraps, the son of a plumber who made his own way and created his own opportunities. He was the face of aspiration and success, even if that face was a bit pudgy. He hungered for success and acceptance, and he had the belly to prove it.
Rhodes wasn't my first favorite professional wrestler - I came to the fandom late, and have seen more matches featuring his two sons Dustin "Goldust" Rhodes and Cody Rhodes. But Rhodes looms large in the history of American professional wrestling. He's an icon, the biggest star in the room, the man responsible for teaching a generation of wrestlers what it meant to speak on the microphone in the WWE's Performance Center. He was the booker of Jim Crockett Promotions that took the Carolina promotion national, who burned through years of storyline ideas in his short time with the pencil, the creative mind behind the used-and-abused Dusty finish.
There's a reason the BBC reported on his death, and millions mourned around the world. He's as close as professional wrestling has come to having its own Willy Loman, but - because professional wrestling is melodrama at its finest - he escaped the evils of his own downfall and turned adversity into opportunity.
Rest in Peace, Dream.