“The American Dream” is dead.
Virgil Runnels, better known to the wrestling world as the legendary Dusty Rhodes died Thursday morning. He was 69 years old. The cause of death is unknown at this time.
Runnels, who famously referred to himself as “the son of a plumber who grew up to be so sweet” was one of the best talkers in the business. At eight years old, the Texas native was diagnosed with osteomyelitis, a bone disease that he would live with for the rest of his life. While Runnels was thought to be unable to walk, he proved everyone wrong and then some. Regardless, Runnels would work with his father every day while the two would bond over local wrestling matches and baseball games. While wrestling was his first love, Runnels’ sport of choice was football as he would play for high school and college at West Texas University with fellow future wrestling stars Ted DiBiase,Terry Funk and Dick Murdoch, whom he would later tag with. Runnels almost became an NFL player, but instead chose “the business” after realizing where his heart truly was.
Starting his career in 1968 as a rule-breaking heel (a professional wrestling term for “bad guy”) in the territorial days of the NWA and AWA promotions; Rhodes would team up with college buddy Murdoch to form “The Texas Outlaws.” Together, the two would go on to hold the NWA Tag Team Championships multiple times in different territories before Rhodes would turn babyface (good guy) and gain the adoration of the pro-wrestling world for the rest of his days, feuding with the likes of Abdulla the Butcher, Harley Race and “Superstar” Billy Graham.
The original “every man” of sports entertainment would go on a rocket ride to superstardom when he moved on to Jim Crockett Promotions (where he would book outlandish run-in endings to matches, which became known in the industry as the “Dusty Finish”) and WCW, feuding with (arguably the best heel to ever step foot in the ring) “Nature Boy” Ric Flair and his legendary stable “The Four Horseman,”leading to the creation of the infamous “War Games” match. The two would put on classic bouts regarded by many as some of the best matches of all time over pride and coveted WCW championships. Rhodes’ knowledge of wrestling psychology and charisma captivated the United States with his over-the-top promos, earning him the nickname “The American Dream.” It was during this time that Rhodes would become immortal with his legendary “Hard Times” promo (below in all its glory).
Rhodes was eventually fired from WCW due to booking a then hyper-violent storyline with the Road Warriors and bloodletting, (known as “blading” in the wrestling world) which was against WCW’s rules under ownership of Turner Broadcasting Systems (TBS). While Rhodes was out of work, it was only a matter of time before Vince McMahon’s WWE (then known as WWF) would come calling.
After a series of ridiculously funny vignettes where he would perform everyday manual labor jobs, “The American Dream” made his WWE debut in what would become his trademark polka-dot attire with a “common man” gimmick (which was essentially the kind of guy he was at heart). While many felt the new clothes and gimmick was a step backward for Runnels, the man would take it in stride and remained hugely over with the fans. He would eventually gain a valet in the form of “Sapphire” (real name Juanita Wright), the common woman to Rhodes’ common man. The two would feud with DiBiase’s evil “Million Dollar Man” character, Randy Savage (under the “Macho King” gimmick) and “Sensational” Queen Sherri. Rhodes would also partner with real-life son Dustin Runnels for a short while as he continued to feud with DiBiase and Virgil until the two would leave WWE in 1991 (shortly after Dustin’s debut), returning to WCW where he would eventually become one of the head bookers for the company.
The pair would work together until 1996 when the two had a falling out that caused Dustin to leave WCW, returning to WWE under the name “Golddust” (an androginous character that he would portray to this day). It would be five years before the two would speak again.
During the late 90’s and early 2000’s WCW was in a constant state of chaos both on camera and backstage due to the N.W.O. (New World Order) angle becoming too ridiculous due to backstage politicking and overwhelming confusion. Eventually WCW would lose the “Monday Night War” with WWE and would be bought out by McMahon. Rhodes would not sign with WWE until 2005 after a brief stint in TNA and working the independent circut.
In September 2015 Rhodes would sign a legends contract with WWE and be brought onto the creative team, where he would help come up with storylines and mentor many a talent on the WWE roster. WWE would go on to release “The American Dream” DVD set, containing a full-length documentary, a collection of classic matches and a plethora of Rhode’s immaculate promos. On March 31, 2007, Rhodes would be inducted into the WWE Hall of Fame by his two sons Dustin and Cody (who now wrestles for WWE under the name “Stardust”). Rhodes would do the favors (lose to make a young talent look good) for then up-and-coming star Randy Orton in a “Texas Bullrope” match during Orton’s “Legend Killer” gimmick. The match was Rhode’s last televised match to date.
Rhodes would live out his days backstage with WWE as a mentor, creative force, and occasional plot device. He is survived by his wife and four children (including Dustin and Cody).
While the legendary son of a plumber has gone on to wine and dine with kings and queens in the afterlife, the wrestling world mourns the loss of one of its greatest talents. Despite Rhode’s non-athletic build, his abilities were unsurpassed and got him over with the world for ages. There are many different chants wrestling fans have used over the years, but only one can summarize the loss of “The American Dream.”
“We will miss you.”