Friday, June 19, 2015

Dusty Rhodes and the Wrestling Community

Dusty Rhodes belonged to all of us
Photo Credit:
All right, the details are a little cloudy this many years removed — and this late at night on an unusually crazy Thursday — so I will get to the one crystallizing memory. At some point in late May 2011, I was mowing my lawn and listening to Episode 44 of the Old School Wrestling Podcast. Though Black Cat and Dre had been releasing episodes for about 18 months at that point, and I’d been hooked on all manner of podcasts for about four years, this was my first listening experience to a show for which, as a child of the 1980s, I was the target audience.

Episode 44 was the one the guys recorded right after the untimely death of the “Macho Man” Randy Savage, my absolute favorite performer of all time. I can vividly recall which part of the lawn I was cutting while Dre described being in attendance for the 1997 Great American Bash at the Mark of the Quad Cities, the same arena that hosted my sister’s college graduation.

It just so happened Episode 45 was about King of the Ring 1996, one of two WWF pay-per-view events I’ve attended in person. Before long I was an OSWP apostle. I’ve since listened to nearly every minute of more than 152 episodes. I conducted email interviews with the guys for an early Atomic Elbow issue and met them (and some fellow fans) in person at The Squared Circle in Chicago this time last year.

Through many forms of communication — Facebook, tweets, direct messages, chats, emails, the U.S. Postal Service and more — Black Cat and Dre have become part of my life. Just like the people with whom I regularly interact on wrestling Twitter, the writers we follow or the other podcasts to which I am devoted, these people whom I encounter technically as very tiny digital avatars are the virtual version of the college buds who welcomed me, in the fall of 1997, into their informal group of wrestling fans.

We didn’t have cable in the dorms, so every Monday night (and eventually Thursday) we all met in a big room in the lower level of the library to fire up a TV, flipping between RAW and Nitro. Eventually the events moved to apartments and dorm rooms, but before then I made it known I had a huge collection of Coliseum Video tapes I could bring back with me after Thanksgiving so we could all relive our childhood together.

After college I got a job where I often worked on Monday nights and a wife and then kids and before long the guy whose social calendar revolved around wrestling lost track of who was WWF Champion. It felt incredibly weird. But then Randy Savage died, and it all changed again. Just like back in 1987, when I was at an older friend’s house across the street and saw a video package of Savage crushing Ricky “The Dragon” Steamboat’s larynx, Savage drew me back into wrestling. I found these online friends, these tweeters and podcasters.

I probably could have condensed a good deal of those 500 words, but I felt them essential to bring you up to speed, which is a week ago this morning, when I opened iTunes and saw Episode 152 of the Old School Wrestling Podcast in my queue. This was not the normal release date for a new episode, but I knew it would be there. Dusty Rhodes died the night before, and just as Dre and Black Cat did when Savage died, and when Warrior died, they did what good friends do: they talked about their hero. Luckily for us, they turned on the microphones.

As hard as it has been to read certain recollections and watch WWE’s excellent tribute videos — that Dusty/Dustin/Cody Rhodes Shield-style fist bump at Battleground 2013 gets me every time — the toughest part of mourning Dusty Rhodes came shortly after I hit the play button on OSWP152.

“This is not a regularly scheduled night for us to record,” said Black Cat, doing a helluva job holding it together. “We just want to talk about Dusty Rhodes. We want to just remember him and just review some of his matches.”

Black Cat went on to explain what I already knew: Dusty was his No. 1. Everything Savage was to me, Rhodes was to Black Cat. Dre is right there, too, noting how easy a decision it was to agree on listing Rhodes as No. 1 in the OSWP 500.

“There is nobody who has supplied this podcast with more material than Dusty Rhodes,” Dre noted. “The guy has ran the gamut of old school wrestling. I mean, everything, from the stuff in Florida to the NWA to the Crockett years to the short run he had in the WWF, all the way through WCW, calling all those matches, play-by-play with Tony Schiavone, God, I loved his voice and his accent, just hearing him say, ‘If you will,’ I just loved hearing him say that…”

I don’t really talk about wrestling with anyone I see on a regular basis. My wife doesn’t care (to put it nicely), my kids don’t watch. My dad’s favorite tag team is still The Bushwhackers. My Coliseum tapes are stored under the basement stairs. I watch NXT and WWE events after everyone goes to bed.

But there’s all of you people — real people I know and consider friends — who understand what it means to lose someone like Big Dust. God bless you if you’ve got a human person to connect with when it counts, but for those like me who need this online group to keep us interested as fans, to make us remember when we could high-five folks after an amazing WrestleMania moment, to let us grieve when we lose someone we love, thank you for being part of my wrestling world.

We’ll do this again, far too often. We’re going to lose Hulk, going to lose Flair. The entire Internet will make waves when Vince McMahon gets the 10-bell salute. Saying goodbye to Rhodes has been more difficult than I’d have imagined, but I could only do so because of people I barely know. Wrestling’s funny like that, but it takes a larger-than-life hero like Dusty Rhodes to remind us all how we’re connected through the people who put their lives on the line to tell stories and make us feel things we don’t always understand.

Well there’s another 500 words and it’s even later than it was when I started. But thanks for reading, thanks for connecting and thanks for reminding me why I’ll always love wrestling. We’re in it together.