As I mentioned yesterday, Dusty Rhodes had passed away Thursday at the age of 69 in Orlando.
To understand why my first childhood sports hero was a professional wrestler who appealed to the blue collar fan, you have to understand that in the Tampa Bay area I grew up in, wrestling was not sports entertainment but was presented completely as a sport. Prior to 1975, there were no Tampa Bay Rowdies, no Tampa Bay Buccaneers, and the Lightning and Rays were still way ahead in the future.
Every Saturday night at 7pm, if you had a TV on, you were probably watching the televised matches on WTOG Channel 44 that were basically what would be called today an infomercial for the wrestling cards all over the Florida circuit, which was a link in the larger chain known as the National Wrestling Alliance that consisted of many such circuits across the country and worldwide. Gordon Solie, a well known local radio announcer of the era who also did lap by lap reportage over at Tampa’s old Golden Gate auto racing speedway, recapped the feuds, called the televised matches, and ran down the cards that were upcoming in the respective Florida markets the show aired to.
In the early to mid 1970’s, along came this bleached-blond Texan named Dusty Rhodes (real name: Virgil Runnels, Jr.), who may not have been the most technical wrestler who ever existed, but had the gift of gab and charisma that stood out amongst the “bad guys” of the era. Dusty was getting so much cheering from the crowd as a bad guy that the inevitable decision was made to turn him into a “good guy” in the spring of 1974. Five years later, he became the first what I would call “thespian wrestler” to win the NWA title, (five years before Hulk Hogan did likewise in the WWF in 1984), usually a throne that went to guys who could either wrestle and/or fight because the champion traveled from circuit, and one of those circuits just might attempt to go off script against the reigning champ and try and take the vaunted title for their own region.
It was also more of natural thing to give the title to wrestlers who could be both good guys and bad guys at the time depending on the region, because the reigning champion would easily be a platonic villain, and the hometown challenger a platonic hero for attempting to take a world championship. With Dusty as the world champ (winning the NWA belt three times: 1979, 1981, and 1986), the “mold” of the champ having to be a villain was more or less broken.
Rhodes continued his career on and off stage up until this very year, with sons Dustin and Cody taking up his profession. If Hulk Hogan is the Babe Ruth of pro wrestling, Dusty Rhodes would be akin to Joe DiMaggio.
Rest in peace, big man.