Monday, June 15, 2015

Dusty Rhodes: Son of the South

Not who we wanted to be, but who we were
Dusty Rhodes was a true son of the South. Not exactly the geographical south (Texas’s southerness is up for debate…), but the South, the weird, complicated, humid, kudzu-choked place filled with rich traditions and jarring contradictions. Lester Maddox, Jimmy Swaggart and Jesse Helms are from the South. So are Howard Finster, Sister Rosetta Tharpe and Andre 3000. The South is located at some weird mid-point between all those poles. And that’s where Rhodes was from. He was a world-class athlete who looked like he was more intimately acquainted with an all-you-can-eat buffet than the inside of any gym. He was a wrestling champion whose biggest move was somehow making his opponent throw themselves forehead first into his raised elbow. He was a white Southerner, who, early in his career, called himself the Soul King. And got away with it.

Being a symbol of Southerness, particularly working-class Southerness, race regularly intersected with Big Dust’s career. By now, everybody knows about how Vince McMahon named Ted DiBiase’s black servant Virgil as a shot at him. And how when Rhodes finally came to work for McMahon, he was paired with a middle-aged African-American woman named after a stubborn, emasculating racist stereotype. But there was more to it than that. As Dave Zirin, author of A People’s History of Sports in the United States said on Twitter recently, Rhodes was a point of “unity in [the] post-Jim Crow south [of the] 70s-80s.”

With all due respect to Ron Simmons, Dusty Rhodes was the first black champion in the same way that Bill Clinton was the first black president. Toni Morrison gave Clinton that moniker because of his roots in the working-class, single-parented fringes of Southern culture. And, ultimately, because his behavior was being policed by white, conservative, disapproving Southern men. He also had blue collar, multiethnic roots. And where Clinton had Newt Gingrich, Rhodes had Ric Flair – both scheming, privileged white men who were hell-bent on bringing our heroes down.

He called himself The American Dream – but not in a way that was aspirational. You aspired to be Hulk Hogan by taking your vitamins and saying your prayers. You aspired to live in the biggest house on the biggest side of town like Ric Flair. Nobody wanted to be like Dusty Rhodes. We already were like Dusty Rhodes – a working class ham-and-egger just trying to get by and feed our families.

He always fought The Man. And a lot of times The Man won. Sometimes it was the Horsemen jumping him in a parking lot, tying him to a truck and breaking his arm. Sometimes it was being forced by a jealous, petty boss to wear polka dots and dance. But Big Dust always persevered somehow. Maybe he didn’t win the title, but in the end there was closure and satisfaction. Just like you – the working-class wrestling fan – may not be able to bring down your corrupt boss, you could still experience some sense of satisfaction. Rhodes revealed the heroism in raising a family, living paycheck to paycheck and overcoming hard times.

As an addendum, I asked a friend of mine – a life-long resident of Cobb County, GA, the son of a preacher and a true Southern gentleman – what his experience was with Dusty Rhodes. Here’s what he said…
“A barrel-chested, platinum-headed, braggart and erstwhile redneck Galahad.
Bigger than life like an over puffed Macy's Day Balloon bellowing out this raspy jibe:
‘You be there! Friday Night! Atlanta City Auditorium!’
Goodnight sweet prince.”