Tributes are pouring in for the late Virgil Runnels Jr. the influential pro wrestling impresario who passed away on Thursday at the age of 69. This is not a tribute to Mr. Runnels. This is a tribute to his alter ego, the man who “dined with Kings and Queens and slept in alleys eating Pork ’n’ Beans” otherwise known as “The American Dream” Dusty Rhodes.
Pro wrestling is a morality play, a violent opera that splices together broad characterization and physical action to create a unique form of mass entertainment. At its nadir, which is often, it is racist, sexist, homophobic trash, not to mention unbearably boring. At its best, you would find the prime of Dusty Rhodes: the antithesis of “this business” at its worst.
He was shaped like a Russian Matryoshka Doll, had a pronounced lisp, and dressed like someone who found the only clothes that could fit his fluid full-figured physique at Goodwill and made the best of it. The character and the man behind him grew up dirt-poor in Texas and, like all the best wrestling characters, his on-screen persona was an amplification of his true self. That meant in a 1980s cultural landscape dominated by entertainment like Dallas and Dynasty and the male body-images of Schwarzenegger and Stallone, he was an actual and undeniable working class shape and voice.
Dusty Rhodes was the most public expression about surviving in the Reagan 1980s: a Jonathan Kozol book in tights armed only with a sharp tongue and a bionic elbow. Remembering this Dusty Rhodes matters because the historical amnesia about the Reagan years has been so total. An extremely well-funded right-wing campaign has whitewashed the truth of the era: that Ronald Reagan left a body count of victims due to an indifference as callous as it was calculated. The Reagan backlash spared no one, least of all industrial workers: the people who worked with their hands and sent children to college on a single union wage, without student loans. It sounds like another world, and it was: a world that Reagan’s agenda—with no small help from congressional Democrats—destroyed. Dusty Rhodes was the voice of the person getting crushed under the weight of Reagan and keeping his head held high, dignity not only intact but non-negotiable. No, he wasn’t a labor leader or trying to do any kind of protest. He was a voice: a fake character with an authentic presence, fighting in the ring for the people being left behind. This was seen most famously in what is known as his “Hard Times” promo.
Dusty Rhodes’s nemesis was the “limousine riding, jet flying” Ric Flair. Speaking to Flair through a camera lens, Rhodes said,
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 4 or 5 kids and can’t pay their wages, can’t buy their food. Hard times are when the autoworkers are out of work and they tell ‘em to go home. And hard times are when a man has worked at a job for thirty years—THIRTY YEARS—and they give him a 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 takin’ Dusty Rhodes out, that’s hard times. And we all had hard times together, and I admit, I don’t look like the athlete of the day supposed to look. My belly’s just a lil’ big, my heinie’s a lil’ big, but brother, I am bad. And they know I’m bad.