Wrestling: Why Dustin Rhodes Is An Icon

Think about this: if you are a fan my age, 35, that started watching when most kids start watching wrestling, 8 or 9 years old, one wrestler has spanned your and my fandom. 

I don’t want to start a technical debate: other wrestlers have wrestled those near 30 years, but none of those, not Scott Steiner (ten years in Independent wrestling), not Jerry Lawler (gimmick returns, not full time), did it consistently for one of the top two brands on cable.  Dustin Rhodes has been with either WCW, WWF/E, or Impact (TNA) when each promotion held such distinction for the majority of that time.  Unlike Steiner, Rhodes never really spent more than a year in Independent stints between the big companies. 

Alright, I know, now I’m creating the rules for greatness around the man I want to push.  But hey, that’s wrestling.

And yes, I agree before you object: being in a big promotion does not equal to being the best wrestler.  Let Dave Meltzer tell you about Kenny Omega…

So why do I feel so attached to Dustin Rhodes?  Why, in the face of AEW’s epic announcement this past weekend that Cody Rhodes’ opponent at Double or Nothing will be his big half-brother, do I feel an obligation here at TWM to shout out the under-appreciated greatness of Dustin Rhodes?

Because this:  more than his endurance throughout my fandom, as the single touchstone I can see now to take me to my first days watching wrestling about 1990, his character and in-ring performance has evolved with, even push directly, my evolution as a fan.

When I was a fresh faced, baby fan of wrestling, there was the fresh babyface Dustin Rhodes as “The Natural” on WCW Saturday Nights, the first weekly show I loved.  He wore cowboy boots and was from Texas, just like me.  I gathered his dad was the big fat blonde guy on the broadcast team that sounded like my stepdad with that Texas slur.  Dustin was a little chubby too, also like me.  Gawd, me and Dustin had a lot in common. 

WCW liked him too.  Where his first short run in the WWF (1990-91) was marked only by tagging with his father, and kept strictly below the mid card, Dustin was booked to the moon in WCW, winning Tag Team Gold with former NWA World Champions Ricky Steamboat and Barry Windham.  He won his first US Title defeating Steamboat.  He won his second in a two out of three match booking against Rick Rude.  They were booking Dustin over some real legends.  I just knew this dude was gonna be world champion in no time, and outlast his daddy with the title.

But then something changed.  I got older certainly, and for some reason, the uber babyfaces didn’t quite have the same appeal for me anymore.  I wanted a little edge in the wrestlers I liked, the ones I wanted to see on top.  Dustin must have felt a similar itch.  After losing his US Title to future all-time greatest WWF champion, Steve Austin at Starrcade ’93, Rhodes began a long feud with Col. Rob Parker’s Studd Stable, namely Bunkhouse Buck, then the Blacktop Bully (formerly Demolition Smash, formerly Repo Man, real name Barry Darsow).  These bouts were often booked as “Bunkhouse Brawls” with weapons and wrestlers wearing jeans.  This rivalry culminated with the infamous King of the Road match in WCW’s first Uncesored pay-per-view in 1995.

The match is infamous for many WCW shenanigans.  The gimmick:  Rhodes and Bully would battle in a semi-trailer, while a truck hauls them down the highway, the winner determined by the first to ring a bell at the front of the trailer.  The trailer itself was a wire mesh cage on a platform with lots of hay.  It was not a live match, but instead a taped match the announcers called as if happening live outside the pay per view.  Nothing is hooked up to mics so you cannot hear the action nor is there an audience feed to fill that silence. Yes, many awkward silences ensue. The roads of rural Georgia had been blocked for this, but hilariously a church bus emerged and slowed the big rig and wrestlers down quite a bit.  Overall, the match is a big nothing because the wrestlers have such problems staying stable while moving on all that hay.  At several points either man can reach out or up and ring the bell, but because clearly it wasn’t booked that way, they choose to abandon the opportunity to attack the other opponent like someone realizing they climbed the ladder too fast in a ladder match.

Apparently, Rhodes and BTB had worked out a match sequence where each bladed.  There is blood in the match, though not a gratuitous amount by any stretch.  WCW decided to edit the match (depsite saying it was live, and that Uncensored was billed as Unsanctioned so this is a big kayfabe breaker) and big jump cuts ruin the end of the match.  Eric Bischoff fired Rhodes and Darsow the next day for violating the strict “no-blood” policy WCW mandated at the time (though ridiculous giving the history of WCW and its prevalent blading in the 80s and early 90s).

Strange that Hulk Hogan had bladed two weeks before at a live event against Vader and faced 0 repercussions from best buddy Eric Bischoff.  Strange that Bischoff had also been given a “cut half a mil in budget or else” ultimatum from Turner Executives around this time and the firing of Rhodes and Darsow along with Paul Roma and manager Harley Race equalled exactly that.  It all stinks of Bischoff trimming budget to keep Hogan and Hogan’s buddies paid.

More importantly the feud and the blading began to suggest the dark turn Rhodes was waiting to take with his wrestling persona…

I had two garage sale TVs in my room growing up, one stacked on top of the other, with a cable splitter, so I could watch both Monday Nitro and Monday Night Raw without flipping back and forth.  I literally didn’t want to miss a minute.  Of course, the really cool offshoot of this: I could literally watch wrestlers move from one TV to the other.  The top TV was for WCW, the bottom for WWF.  I expected Luger on the bottom TV in ’95 and suddenly he was the top, back in WCW.  I watched as Scott Hall and Kevin Nash and 123Kid jumped from the bottom TV to the top in 1996.  I watched Rick Rude do the same on one night in November ’97, with mustache on the bottom TV, sans mustache on the top TV. 

But Dustin’s dismissal from WCW in ’95 was a few months before Nitro ever kicked off, pre-Monday Night Wars.  As a youngster I assumed one day he would be back on the Nitro TV at some point.  I was not primed for him to show up on the bottom TV for WWF, and I damn sure wasn’t ready for the way he showed up.

Goldust appeared on the WWF TV in August 1995, a month before the first Nitro.  I was not a fan.  I didn’t like it.

Let’s be clear: Goldust is the most ahead-of-his-time, radical wrestling character ever conceived.  I was twelve in ‘95 and still very insecure with the idea of homosexuality owing to an upbringing in a fairly conservative Christian place.  Goldust therefore made me uncomfortable.  I didn’t like the veiled innuendo.  I didn’t like the lurid touching in the ring.  It all made me…nervous. 

Gay and sexually ambiguous characters are not original to Goldust.  Adrian Adonis portrayed a crossdresser in the 80s.  But Goldust’s portrayal was serious, not comic fodder (though yes it’s been taken there many times).  That was something very different.  For this seriously ambiguous and menacing portrayal alone, Dustin Rhodes could be called one of the most impactful wrestlers culturally in the last quarter century.

But my gawd the move set was still there too.  Still patented Dustin Rhodes (and far more entertaining than anything Dusty could ever pull off wrestling wise).  The skin tight full body spandex accentuated his uniquely long physique, the gloves heightened the intensity of his chops and slaps.  WWE put the Intercontinental Belt on him in early ’96 when he beat Razor Ramon at the Royal Rumble, and he beat big timers to keep it, including the Ultimate Warrior (In Your House 7, April 1996).  I thought then that Rhodes might be WWE champion soon.

WWE was not ready to put the belt on Goldust though, and looking back, I can see that wouldn’t really have been popular, especially on the southern swing of the tour in America in 1996.  Instead, the character crumbled a bit in the years after his Intercontinental run, with the only real payoffs to his storylines being shock and scandal (see the Artist formerly known as Goldust managed by Luna Vachon).  The most innovative turn came with Dustin breaking kayfabe and playing a born again Christian that spoke out against the lascivious nature of the Goldust character (this flexibility has been transgressed a few times in storyline since and then implemented with the Cody Rhodes Stardust character).  By the time Dustin was decrying Goldust, I had finally accepted him, cheered for him.  Maybe this was even because Dustin decried it—I was an angsty teen by then and squarely left of the Christian right.

Unfortunately Rhodes’ personal life, conflicts, and abuses have derailed him at opportune moments.  His marriage to Teri Runnels (aka Marlena) estranged him from his father (who stayed with WCW until its 2001 demise), and his divorce from Teri and subsequent substance abuse estranged him from the WWF.  In 1999, when really Goldust should have risen to prominence alongside The Rock and HHH, Dustin headed back to WCW.

WCW created a character, Seven, based on the film noir Dark City, who had a painted white face and stared at children through their bedroom windows.  WCW executives did not like the child abductor angle and the character was abandoned with Rhodes doing a worked shoot on Nitro about how he despised such made up characters and just wanted to wrestle as himself.  Here he took the persona of the “American Nightmare,” a nod to his father of course, and he stayed with WCW until it went under, wrestling on the last WCW pay-per-view ever, Greed in March 2001. Ironically, this WCW run ended the way his first WWF run did: tag teaming with his father on a pay-per-view.

When the WWF bought WCW in 2001, they couldn’t wait to run vignettes hinting at the return of Goldust, and brought him back officially at the start of 2002 in the Royal Rumble.  This second Goldust run was marked by his rivalries within the Hardcore division, and his 9 Hardcore titles (remember, that title was often won and lost multiple times on a single day). 

In 2002 a new side of Goldust was revealed: he’s funny and makes great tag teams.  His first teaming was with Booker T.  They created some fantastic vignettes and after feuding with the nWo (yes, really in WWF 2002), won the Tag Team Titles.  An interesting angle was set up for Goldust and Booker T to feud after their split, though Rhodes’s WWE contract was not renewed.

He showed up in the early TNA incarnation and challenged Jeff Jarrett for the NWA world title as “Lone Star” Dustin Rhodes.  TNA booked Rhodes very well, having him beat established workers like Raven, as well as up and comers like Bobby Roode and Kid Kash.  They booked him so well, when his TNA contract was up in 2005 Rhodes jumped back to WWE.

This run was rather sporadic.  Real life Dustin Runnels no-showed some events and was released in 2006.  For 2007 and 2008 it was back to TNA.

This run was marked by the appearance of Black Reign, pitched as Dustin Rhodes split personality that had scarred Rhodes since an early age.  He was booked primarily against the roster freaks like Abyss and Raven and Rhino in matches called “Monster’s Ball” and and “Shop of Horrors” and “Match of 10,000 Tacks.”  The once remarkable and singular freak Goldust was now just another “bizarre” gimmick for this TNA run.

In 2009 Goldust was back again in the WWE.  If you haven’t noticed by now, this character had now survived over a decade amid very shifting sands in the industry.  He swapped back and forth for WWE brands, between ECW, RAW and NXT (as a pro).  This run was highlighted by the Runnels’ family reunion.  Vince McMahon had for years made a mockery of Dusty Rhodes, real life Virgil Runnels (it’s why Ted DiBiase Sr.’s valet was named “Virgil,” it’s why Dusty had to wear polkadots in his late 80s WWF run).  But as with many things in the wake of the rise of the monolith of WWE and its control over most defunct promotions and libraries, the WWE’s outlook and promotion of the history of the sport has changed.  This 2009-2010 run was really highlighted by the reunion of Dusty and Dustin in storyline, and the introduction of the 3rd Runnels, Cody Rhodes.

Through his long injury in 2011 and 2012 Dustin Rhodes still got TV time as a WWE producer, especially when it came to vignettes ands stories including Dusty and Cody.  

Fully recovered and returning to the WWE ring in 2013 at the Royal Rumble, Goldust continued to be put into storylines with Cody, forming a tag team and defeating then champs Seth Rollins and Roman Reigns, until, naturally, they feuded and split in storyline.  Cody introduced Stardust and the two teamed once again, winning the Tag Team Championship by defeating the Usos.  When Stardust and Goldust eventually split, Goldust got the upper hand in their feud, winning against Stardust at Fastlane in February 2015 and continuing the feud in various storylines through the end of the year.

2016 was marked by the run of the Golden Truth, a tag team of Goldust and R. Truth teased for months to open the year, carrying all the way to May 2017 when Goldust would turn definitively heel for the first time in a while by attacking R. Truth.

After the subsequent rivalry with Truth, Goldust was briefly mingled into the Bray Wyatt and Finn Balor rivalry, with Wyatt wiping Goldust’s facepaint away.  He reemerged that year to wrestle as “The Natural” Dustin Rhodes once again at Starrcade 2017, 22 years after Goldust was introduced.

By July 2018 Rhodes’ knees needed surgery and that is where he has been, recovering, waiting to challenge his brother now at AEW’s Double or Nothing.

WHEW!  Can you even take all that in?  This guy was beating Steamboat and Rude to win titles back in the day, and here he is beating Dash Wilder in 2017.  Put it another way:  Bray Wyatt is the nephew of the guy Dustin won his second tag team title with in WCW in 1991, Barry Windham.  He debuted as Goldust 3 months after 9 year-old Cody was at Slamboree 1995 standing by Dusty as the American Dream was inducted into the WCW Hall of Fame.

Dustin Rhodes/Goldust’s staying power in a business that offers little in the way of stability over time is truly remarkable, especially when you consider he’s never been the typical wrestling body, and no promotion ever put the big belt on him.

I know part of it this is his family name.  The Rhodes must be the second most famous wrestling family from Texas (let’s call the Von Erichs number 1 and not debate), and father like oldest son wrestled for decades.  But let’s be clear, Dustin Rhodes did something wholly on his own with the Goldust gimmick, and made it so valuable his younger brother was storylined into the Stardust gimmick.  Dustin, not Dusty, shaped the ultimate WWE fate of the Rhodes.

Dustin Rhodes’ match with Cody Rhodes was introduced in a scintillating AEW vignette on April 21st that blended the kayfabe Rhodes and IRL Runnels worlds.  I can’t wait for this epic matchup, this culmination of a wrestling family saga that spans promotions and generations (a saga I will look to explore in more detail here at TWM in the month before the matchup).

Whatever happens in May with Cody, I know this now: Dustin Rhodes has mattered as much to this fan as anyone in wrestling in the time I’ve watched…and he’s the only one that has been there the whole time.

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