We all have guilty pleasures — those things we love that others either don’t understand or think are too kitschy, low-brow or just plain dumb to embrace. For some, it’s romance novels or collections of “Star Wars” toys. Others will repeatedly watch the cinematic trash heap “Showgirls” at every opportunity. It doesn’t matter what others think — we find joy where others see junk.
For me, it has always been professional wrestling. I have loved it since my cousin Wayne put me in a headlock while we were watching Dick the Bruiser take on Handsome Jimmy Valiant on a black-and-white TV. What I learned this week is my guilty pleasure is embraced by many others and I had no idea we shared this bond.
On Thursday morning came news that legendary pro wrestler Dusty Rhodes, “The American Dream,” had died at age 69. The news left me saddened for his family and fans and nostalgic for the days when he was a top star in the industry. During an era when more and more emphasis was placed on appearance, Rhodes (real name Virgil Runnels) commanded a top spot despite his pot belly, crazy curly bleached hair and ever-present lisp. As tanned, musclebound Hulk Hogan was taking pro wrestling into the mainstream, Rhodes remained relevant because he was a master showman who made you believe it all was real.
Rhodes’ death was surprising, as there was no indication he had been in poor health, but also surprising was the reaction. People who I never guessed would know who he was — let alone have any affection for him — were lamenting his passing and sharing memories on social media. On the same day, actor Christopher Lee and musician Ornette Coleman also died, but the response to Rhodes’ passing was more widespread and passionate.
Rhodes made his way through Sedalia back in the days when wrestling cards were run at Convention Hall. Steven Reed recalls seeing Rhodes perform both here and in St. Joseph against the likes of Danny Little Bear and Bob Geigel.
“He put on a heck of a performance,” Reed said. “Dusty was always one my favorites.”
Another legendary wrestler who performed in Sedalia was shocked to hear the news.
“I wrestled the guy a million times, and knew Dusty very well,” Missouri native Harley Race shared via email. “He was one of the best out there — even by today’s standards. When my son (Leland) told me about it, I didn’t know what to think. The only thing I could think was that the world lost a hell of a wrestler, and an even better person.”
Chris Gough, who runs the MetroPro Wrestling promotion out of Kansas City, worked with Rhodes when both were employed by World Wrestling Entertainment.
“My first reaction was how big of a loss this is for wrestling and for pop culture,” he said. “Dusty transcended wrestling and brought a lot of non-wrestling fans to the shows.”
Gough believes Rhodes leveraged his look to appeal as an everyman hero.
“Dusty brought so many new traditions to pro wrestling,” Gough said. “He was a babyface who didn’t have a good body. In fact, Dusty had one of the worst bodies of all time, but, with that said, he was one of the greatest talkers of all time. He was his generation’s ‘common man’ who every average Joe could relate to — his body, his blue collar appeal, his wit.”
Sedalian Brian Pettis said no remembrance of Rhodes would be complete without one of his trademark statements: “I have wined and dined with kings and queens, and slept in alleys and ate pork-n-beans.”
“(Rhodes) was the epitome of ‘the common man’ on a stage that was usually reserved for larger-than-life strongmen or other larger-than-life personas. When he talked about being the son of a plumber and ‘hard times,’ it gave people everywhere hope that even the most unimpressive starts could end up with the most incredible futures,” Pettis said.
I have referred to pro wrestling as “a soap opera with sweat.” It’s all about morality plays, stories of good vs. evil. And as an eternal good guy, Rhodes “was one of the greatest storytellers – in and out of the ring – that wrestling has seen or ever will see,” Gough said.
Race sees Rhodes’ connection with fans as the enduring legacy of “The American Dream.”
“What he did, the charisma that he had, and importantly how he connected with the fans, is something that you cannot replicate,” Race wrote. “His ability to perform on any given night was second to none. … I love him, and I am going to miss him.”