Friday, June 19, 2015

The American Dream Will Never Die

The body may be gone, but the spirit will always live on
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I was not a fan of Dusty Rhodes growing up. It wasn't that I didn't like him; I was always raised in a World Wrestling Federation household. I knew little about other promotions outside the rankings pages in the Apter mags I'd find in the barbershop. Ric Flair was little more than a legend until he ventured over with the pixelated Big Gold Belt in '91. But Dusty Rhodes? His popularity befuddled me. It wasn't because he had a rotund belly and a lisp, but because as a dumb kid who watched Vince Jr.'s Cartoon Wrestling, I was conditioned to believe the best wrestlers were chiseled Adonises who blew out their throats when they talked into the camera. This fuddy-dud fat guy who wore yellow polka-dots was an anomaly.

But again, I was a dumb kid a the time. Well, I was a dumb and ignorant kid at the time, dumb because I didn't think that homogeneity was a bad thing, and ignorant because I was never exposed to Rhodes in even his glorious decline in the '80s, when he was removed from his prime by about a decade and was still churning out moments and matches like he was the same age as the young guns running around Jim Crockett Promotions. But it was what was so different about him that made him so special. He wasn't Hulk Hogan with the bulging 24-inch pythons or Randy Savage with the eternally coked-up delivery. Even in the broadcast booth, he wasn't pre-Nitro era Tony Schiavone or classic era Jim Ross.

But what he was made him special. When a man takes on a nickname, he has to have some shred of authenticity to make it work. When Neville is called "The Man Gravity Forgot," it rings true because the man can do things while flying through the air that would need a lot less of the force that keeps things bound to the Earth's surface. But the difference between authenticity and embodiment is the difference between everyone else and Rhodes. When he was called the American Dream, he wasn't just going with something that came natural to him amped up to 11. No, he was the living, breathing, avatar of the term The American Dream.

Born to a plumber in a dirt poor background in Central Texas, Rhodes scratched and clawed his way into the professional wrestling industry. In a business where image is everything, a fat man with a goiter in a prominent spot on his abdomen and the fashion sense of a blind child living in a time loop of the early '90s. And yet, he not only owned the industry, but he did so as the most beloved and iconic babyface wrestler of all-time. It would have been easy for him to muss up his hair, act the part of the braindead ogre, and wrestle for the World Wide Wrestling Federation as one of Vince McMahon, Sr.'s cadre of freakshow maniacs for Bruno Sammartino or Pedro Morales or [insert highly ethnic babyface here] to slam around. It would have been painfully simple for him to be the successor to Gorilla Monsoon.

But instead, he pulled himself by his bootstraps. He became wrestling's only folk hero, or at least the only one until a scrawny Washingtonian with a beard, a mat game, and a YES! chant entered his name into the ledger. He did so through innate charm that enchanted those Southern crowds and through a violent style of brawling that gave the common man a sense of vicarious catharsis. He is the flesh and bone equivalent of that misguided Republican ideal of the immigrant or poor man who starts with nothing but then enters the American workforce and through sheer will, determination, talent, and hard work, accrues a fortune. I won't get into class politics here for the sake of keeping this tribute a tribute and not a diatribe, but that ideal called the American Dream was the exact description of his career.

And yet Rhodes wasn't selfish enough to hoard his Dream all to himself. As his son Cody wrote in his eulogy, Rhodes loved the idea of healing the broken and the flawed wrestlers who came across his path. His mere presence as an icon in the wrestling world opened doors for so many others who came after him, a beacon in the dark for those too short, too fat, too old, to uncharismatic to be considered worthy by the stiflingly choosy Vince McMahon. Even if the head of the biggest wrestling conglomerate in the world refuses to feel Rhodes' influence, many more of his successors bathed in the example.

Without Rhodes, Kevin Steen and Samoa Joe would never have been signed to WWE contracts. Without Rhodes, Daniel Bryan may never have gotten his chance to headline the most memorable and spectacularly ended WrestleMania in history. Without Rhodes, the vision of a wrestler outside the normal set of body types or promo styles may never have gotten a chance in a high-profile company.

And even as his body has finally been laid to rest in the shallow earth, his spirit will never, ever die. He is functionally immortal, not only because people can see him and hear him on hours of footage, but because his spirit has fundamentally changed the way people look at wrestling, and because he spent the last years of his life as a teacher, a mentor, a father figure to dozens if not hundreds of wrestlers looking to get a shot at being a WWE superstar.

I started the piece talking about how I wasn't a fan of Rhodes when I was young, but through the years of seeing his promos on YouTube, watching events he headlined on WWE Network, poring through his history, and seeing the effects that he had on other people, I grew to appreciate him, and I grew to love him. While I do not mourn for lost time, I mourn for the man himself, and I'm glad I got to be a fan of his, even if it was too late. But I am not the only one. I have stopped using the Royal We in my writing, because I cannot possibly attempt to speak for anyone other than myself in terms of opinion. But in this case, I feel the sentiment is pretty universal.

We love you, Dusty Rhodes. We are all going to miss you. Rest in peace, daddy.