Professional Wrestling is the American Dream
The mother of one of my childhood friends would cry whenever Dusty Rhodes would cut a promo. She wouldn’t sob or carry on. Dusty would speak and I’d glance over to find that her eyes were wet as she half–paid attention to the grainy screen of a mid–80s television set.
I grew up in Lexington, North Carolina, one of those mill towns John Edwards made so central to his biography during the 2004 and 2008 presidential races. It was small, somewhere between a town and a city, but booming. Everyone worked in a factory, either furniture or textiles, less often the local fiberglass plant, and it was good money in a place where the cost of living was low. I had friends who had pools in their backyards due to a line worker’s salary. Nice, fast cars. Big barbecues every weekend, with cock rock blaring and pigs cooking.
Lexington happens to be about 45 minutes north of Charlotte, which was home, in those days, to Jim Crockett Promotions, base of operations for the crown jewels in the slowly eroding NWA. Ric Flair, Magnum TA, the Andersons, the Rock 'n' Roll Express, and a host of other barrel chested pro wrestlers of the Southern branch of the art form. This was during the Rock 'n' Wrestling Era up north, where the heroes were steroid abusing freaks aiming to tap the deep well of wanting American superheroes to restore some semblance of pride after the still fresh wounds of the Carter years. Hogan et al were aiming to do the job for us working folks. We could never be Hulk Hogan, only admire him from afar.
And then there was Dusty.
Dusty wasn’t what all us Southern working class kids and adults wanted to be. He was what we already were. Dusty was fat and slovenly, his dress alternating between work clothes and garish, sloppy attempts at what you might think a rich man dressed like had you never actually seen one. His forehead bore the marks of his career, a mass of deeply grooved scar tissue after years of chair shots and blading. He wasn’t great in the ring, but was a master of psychology and storytelling. The stories he told were working class stories. He took his lisping Texas drawl and married it to an African–American preacher’s cadence. Not for nothing was one of his earliest nicknames the White Soul King. Rather than outright co–option, it seemed to be a sincere effort on Rhodes’ part to speak to a pan–racial working class, setting him up as a hero for blacks, whites, and Latinos to cheer on against whatever villainous rich guy he was put up against.
Fighting those rich guys is what he did best. In the 1970s, it was his famous series with “Superstar” Billy Graham. Graham was the forerunner to Hogan, a muscled, tanned, blonde braggart. Hogan grievously ripped Graham off, turning the latter’s arrogant muscle worship into a face gimmick (though, if you pay attention, Hogan didn’t spend much time working face). Rhodes went north and the two wrestled the hell out of each other in Madison Square Garden before the WWWF became the WWF. The subtext was clear: plain old Dusty Rhodes, the White Soul King and working class schlub, against the steroid abusing, vain freak, Billy Graham. Rhodes won on technicalities, never grabbing the title from Graham, but it didn’t matter: old footage reveals the crowd going nuts for Rhodes like they did for few others.
And why not? The reason why Rhodes mattered is essentially the reason why wrestling matters. Wrestling tells working class stories to working class people, even today in the slick, overproduced WWE. Dusty Rhodes is the greatest storyteller in that vein who has ever wrestled. He’s not my favorite of all time; his nemesis, Ric Flair, is and has always been my favorite wrestler. But if we stop measuring greatness by titles, instead going by pure quality of the storytelling, physical or verbal, Rhodes is arguably the greatest of all time.
Look up what’s popularly become known as the "Hard Times" promo. Rhodes (and the NWA, by extension, where he was the top face at the time) rattles off a list of the reasons why the common person has it tough as a way of dumping on Flair’s heelish reasons why his life is rough. Rhodes talks about declining wages, the first stages of what would become a new American tradition of outsourcing, and fears of being replaced by automation.
It was hot fire, left as hell, and delivered in a way that made Southern mill workers cheer. He was the American Dream, with all of the hope and melancholy that entails. When he asked the fans to touch the screen, touching their hands to his hand, it was a two way street. Because you felt at the time that you really could touch Dusty if he happened to be next to you. He was the approachable hero, the image of us. He was your dad or your brother or your co–worker.
Not that all was well with his career. He carried his weight poorly as he aged, carried his responsibilities poorer still. He was booker off and on, leading to the famed Dusty Finish, a situation in which the babyface triumphs only to be screwed by a technicality or rules shenanigans. He leaned on it heavily as a way both to keep him in the public eye and easily get out of tough booking decisions. For every innovation he made as booker, like War Games, there were six or seven disasters.He eventually booked his way right out of Jim Crockett Promotions.
Vincent K McMahon was only too happy to pick him up. But there was none of his father’s fascination with Rhodes as a working class hero. The younger McMahon was set on mocking him as a buffoon, sticking him in polka dots and giving him skits centered on unclogging toilets. Even up north, in the changing working class landscape of the early 1990s, Rhodes made it work as best he could. His feud with Macho Man, whose own star was just beginning to fade, was better in retrospect than it seemed at the time. The cheers were still there, the promos goofier but still tight. The age and the weight caught up with him and, shortly after introducing his son, Dustin, to audiences, he retired from in–ring competition.
His retirement came just as the working class of America shifted drastically. The 1990s brought about mass de–industrialization. That it coincided with Dusty’s retirement and the disappearance of the American Dream character (he still uses the name, but no fire accompanies it) is one of pro wrestling’s little ironies. Dusty Rhodes could only exist in the South of the 1970s and '80s, where a boom time was the product of working class pride and awareness. Neither Dusty nor the South of those years could survive the 1990s. Hard times became desperate times and there’s no going back.
The story of Dusty Rhodes is what we want from pro wrestling and it’s what the form has always delivered. No matter how corporate the modern product may be, no matter how beholden to television deals or the stock market the feds may get, it is the tale of the American working class. Its fans are working class, its heroes are working class, and it is the only form of working class entertainment which is still visible in American life.
In Dusty Rhodes, you can see the foreshadowing for those working class heroes who came after. Steve Austin, with his swearing, boss–hating, beer–swilling badassery a few years later. CM Punk, the dumpy kid who came up through the industry the hard way, in backyards and hardcore feds, through sheer work ethic. Even John Cena, seemingly more Hogan than Rhodes, is reliant on the cross–racial appeals which Dusty pioneered.
And this is why pro wrestling, particularly in the United States, matters. It’s history in microcosm. The arc of a wrestler’s career maps closely to his or her times. In Dusty Rhodes’ career, the history of the American working class’ aspirations and fears during the 1970s and '80s is written as surely as in any book.