1 year ago today, Virgil Runnels, Sr., best known to wrestling fans as the legendary Dusty Rhodes, dies due to complications of stomach cancer in Orlando, Florida. He was 69.
Born October 11, 1945 in Austin, Texas, Runnels broke into wrestling through manager Gary Hart. Hart came up with the name based on Andy Griffith's character Lonesome Rhodes in the 1957 film A Face in the Crowd. Rhodes initially was a villain in the American Wrestling Association, often teaming with another Texan in Dick Murdoch as The Texas Outlaws.
His face turn came in 1974 when he wrestled in the Florida territory. He turned on Gary Hart and Pak Song in a match against Eddie and Mike Graham. He began a solo career, billing himself as "The American Dream", a hero of the working class. Fans quickly warmed up to him, with his atypical wrestler physique (as ESPN's Brian Campbell put it, he was "the rare top-end superstar who didn't possess the hulking, bodybuilder physique... his rotund belly and conspicuous red blotch on his right side... a huge key to his success at the box office as the ultimate sympathetic babyface"). In the late 1970's, he wrestled twice in Madison Square Garden against Superstar Billy Graham for the WWWF Championship. The two split their bouts, with Rhodes winning one on countout, and Graham winning the rematch, a Texas deathmatch, a month later.
The legend of Dusty Rhodes grew exponentially in Jim Crockett Promotions, later World Championship Wrestling. He was one of the creators of Starrcade, WCW's signature show, in 1983. The "son of a plumber" teamed with Magnum TA as "America's Team" and later with Nikita Koloff as The Super Powers when a car accident ended Magnum's career. Though he feuded with the likes of Harley Race, Ray Stevens, Koloff, Terry Funk, and Kevin Sullivan, his primary foil was Ric Flair and the Four Horsemen. When Rhodes was taken out by Flair and the Horsemen, he would give one of the most famous and well-known promos in wrestling history: "Hard Times".
First of all, I would like to thank the many, many fans throughout this country that wrote cards and letters to Dusty Rhodes "The American Dream" while I was down. Secondly, I want to thank Jim Crockett Promotions for waiting and taking the time because I know how important it was. Starrcade 1985. It is to the wrestling fans. It is to Jim Crockett Promotions. And Dusty Rhodes "The American Dream" With that wait, got what I wanted.
Ric Flair, the world's heavyweight champion. I don't have to say a lot more about the way I feel about Ric Flair. No respect. No honor! There is no honor among thieves in the first place! He put...hard times on Dusty Rhodes and his family! You don't know what hard times are, daddy! Hard times are when the textile workers around this country are out of work! They got four or five kids and can't pay their wages, can't buy their food!
Hard times are when the auto workers are out of work and they tell them "Go home". And hard times are when a man has worked at a job for thirty years. THIRTY years! They give him watch, kick him in the butt, and say "Hey, a computer took your place, daddy!" That's hard times! That's hard times. And Ric Flair, you put hard times on this country by taking Dusty Rhodes out. That's hard times and we all have had hard times together.
And I admit I don't look like the athlete of the day is supposed to look. My belly is a little big. My hiney is just a little big, but brother, I am bad and they know I'm bad. And there were two bad people. One was John Wayne and he's dead, brother. And the other one is right here. "Nature Boy" Ric Flair. The world's heavyweight title belongs to these people. I'm going to reach out right now. I want you at home to know. My hand is touching your hand for this gathering of the biggest body of people in this country, in this universe, all over the world reaching out because the love that was given me and this time, I will re-pay you now because I will be the next world's heavyweight champion of this hard times' blues. Dusty Rhodes' tour '85.
And Ric Flair. "Nature Boy". Let me leave you with this. One way to hurt Ric Flair is to take what he cherishes more than anything in the world. That's the world's heavyweight title. I'm going to take it. I've been there twice. This time when I take it, daddy, I'm going to take it for you. Let's gather for it. Don't let me down now because I came back...for you. For that man up there who died ten, twelve years ago who never got the opportunity to see a real world's heavyweight champion. I'm proud of you and thank God I have you. I love you. Love you!
The promo resonated so much, many blue-collar workers came to the arenas to thank Dusty for honoring their plight.
At Starrcade '85 two months later, Rhodes did defeat Flair to win the NWA World Heavyweight Championship, but it would be reversed on a technicality, leaving the championship with Flair. This is the first notable example of one of Dusty's most notable tropes as a booker: the appropriately named "Dusty finish", an ending where a wrestler would win a match (usually with a referee knocked out), only to have that decision overturned on a technicality later. Rhodes would win the NWA world title from Flair in July 1986, his third (he had two other brief reigns in 1979 and 1981).
Rhodes was seen as an innovative and creative booker, but it often clashed with what fans now expected of their wrestling programming with the advent of fast-moving media, including cable television. The repeated "Dusty finishes" began to leave fans dissatisfied with their booking. The purchase of Jim Crockett Promotions by Turner Broadcasting System brought many changes; chief among them was no on-screen bloodletting on their shows. The change got Rhodes fired from the now-WCW following Starrcade '88 after he booked himself to bleed at the hands of the Road Warriors.
After a brief stopover in Championship Wrestling from Florida and the AWA, Rhodes made his debut in the WWF in the summer of 1989 as "The Common Man" Dusty Rhodes, managed by Sapphire, intended to represented the "common woman". Dressed in polka dots, some felt the gimmick was a rib on him, as a way to knock him down a peg from his Jim Crockett days. The duo feuded with Randy Savage and Sensational Queen Sherri through Wrestlemania VI, where Rhodes and Sapphire defeated Savage and Sherri in a mixed-tag match. Sapphire would leave Rhodes for Ted DiBiase and his money at Summerslam 1990, leading to a feud with DiBiase and Virgil (some thought Virgil was a rib on Rhodes, seeing how Virgil was Dusty's real name). The feud led to the beginning of Dusty's son, Dustin's career, and the end of Dusty's as a full-time competitor.
Rhodes spent the next decade with WCW, once again as a booker following Ric Flair's departure. He briefly managed Ron Simmons in 1991 and 1992, and was in his corner when Simmons won the WCW World Heavyweight Championship in August 1992. He also commentated for many years, usually with Tony Schiavone for WCW Saturday Night and with Schiavone and Bobby Heenan for PPV events.
Rhodes left commentary in 1998 when he, like so many before him, joined the New World Order. He briefly managed Scott Hall and Kevin Nash before leaving for a brief run in ECW, where he put over Steve Corino. He would return to WCW during its final days and reignited his feud with Ric Flair.
In 2000, Rhodes founded and operated Turnbuckle Championship Wrestling, a small Georgia independent, but travelled throughout the south, including Alabama, Georgia, Florida, and Tennessee. Many wrestlers who weren't picked up by the WWF following WCW's sale landed in TCW, including Disco Inferno, David Flair, The Public Enemy, and Scott Hall. Dusty's son Dustin also contributed to the promotion and briefly held the TCW Heavyweight Championship in 2002. He wrestled primarily on the independent circuit for the first half of the 2000s before joining the WWE in 2005 under a legends deal as a creative consultant.
In 2007, Rhodes would be inducted into the WWE Hall of Fame by his two sons, Dustin and Cody. He's been involved in the occasional storyline—and match, feuding with Randy Orton for most of the year. In 2012, he would induct his biggest rivals, The Four Horsemen, into the WWE Hall of Fame.
In 2013, Rhodes served as the head writer and creative director for the weekly NXT show and was their on-screen authority figure. He would be removed from his NXT Commissioner in September 2013 and feud with Stephanie McMahon and the Authority. With Dusty's and his two sons' jobs at stake, the Rhodes family defeated the Shield at Battleground in 2013. Dusty's final appearances on WWE programming came in the early part of 2015. Dusty tried to reunite his sons Goldust (Dustin) and Stardust (Cody). He also appeared at Fastlane a week later and at the WWE Hall of Fame Red Carpet Show prior to Wrestlemania 31.
On June 10, 2015, paramedics responded to Rhodes' home in Orlando, Florida, where he had fallen. He was rushed to a nearby hospital. Rhodes was pronounced dead the next day. He was 69.
Rhodes was honored with a ten-bell salute at Money in the Bank just days following his death and following the first set of NXT tapings after his passing. NXT also commissioned a tournament in his honor, the Dusty Rhodes Tag Team Classic (a tournament that drew comparisons to the Crockett Cup of the 1980s). At NXT Takeover: Respect on October 7, Finn Balor and Samoa Joe defeated Baron Corbin and Rhyno in the finals.
Dusty in his most famous promo said "there were two bad people. One was John Wayne, and he's dead brother—and the other's right here". In a cruel bit of irony, Rhodes would die of stomach cancer, the very disease that took Wayne, on the 36th anniversary of his death.
Rhodes is survived by his wife Michelle, brother Larry, sister Connie, four children (Dustin, Cody, Teil, and Kristin), and five grandchildren (Dakota, Dalton, Dylan, Kellan, and Maris).