It wouldn’t be much of a stretch to say that I might have wandered away from pro wrestling as a teenager if Dusty Rhodes wasn’t part of the business.
Living in New York in the late ’70s and early ’80s, wrestling was the WWWF, later the WWF. It was Vince McMahon’s buffoonish play-by-play and Bruno Sammartino’s garbled commentary. It was the WWWF World Champion, Bob Backlund, a man with all the charisma of a wet noodle. It was Saturday afternoon wrestling from faceless arenas with bored crowds. Nothing happened. I was losing interest.
Then, one of the two Spanish-language stations in town started carrying other areas’ wrestling shows at 11:30pm a few nights a week. I watched several, but stayed with the Florida show. That show centered around a tubby guy with messy bleached-blonde hair, always outnumbered by the bad guys and always coming out ahead. That, of course, was “The American Dream”, Dusty Rhodes.
The TV was made better for its host, Gordon Solie, a man whose voice sang of cigarettes and whiskey. His foil was the clueless ex-wrestler Buddy Colt, who anyone could slip any ruse by — this becomes important later. They had a ringside reporter, the cute if utterly befuddled Barbara Clary, who may have been related to someone at the TV station in Tampa or something.
Anyway, New York got Florida wrestling just as someone started targeting the extended Rhodes family — Dusty, best friend Black Jack Mulligan (former NY Jet Bob Windham), Mulligan’s sons Barry and Kendall, Barry’s buddy Mike Rotundo (Rotundo later married into the Windhams), and a few second-tier regulars. The seriously rotten Jake “The Snake” Roberts was bragging about getting some extra pay from someone called the Bonebreaker after breaking Barry Windham’s arm (I think). Curiously, one of the good guys seemed not to be in the Bonebreaker’s sights — a short, stocky Boston-based wrestler named Kevin Sullivan.
Before long, though various machinations, we found out that Sullivan was the Bonebreaker. And then things got nuts.
Sullivan began painting his face and body with odd symbols. He invoked demons. He “brainwashed” Roberts. He turned Florida veteran Bob Roop into Abuddadein, with half of Roop’s head shaved and half of his face painted. He made Aussie long-timer Mark Lewin into the mute Purple Haze, who destroyed anyone who looked at Sullivan the wrong way. And he found a young lady named Nancy Daus. He put her in skimpy clothes, a leash and collar, and called her his Fallen Angel. In real life, he’d later marry her, then lose her to Chris Benoit.
And all of Sullivan’s gang had one simple goal: destroy Dusty Rhodes.
And it was compelling television. If Rhodes would get the edge one week by taking out one of Sullivan’s hired goons, the next week, Sullivan’s gang would leave Mulligan or Barry laying in the ring after a 5-on-1 thrashing. There would be grainy film footage from various Florida arenas of the latest Sullivan atrocities — the most memorable was the Christmas night show where Roberts dressed up as Santa and crowned Rhodes with his sack of gifts.
And then at last, Sullivan somehow succeeded, cheating his way to a win in a loser-leaves-town match where Rhodes was barred from Florida for 90 days.
The next week, Gordon Solie – with a bit of a wink in his eye – introduced us to a new masked wrestler arriving in the Florida area. He was called the Midnight Rider, used the Allman Brothers track as his theme, and was shaped EXACTLY like Dusty (but in a sweatshirt and jeans to hide Rhodes’ identifying red abdominal splotch). Colt, of course, was convinced this wasn’t Dusty. Solie knew, but wasn’t saying anything. And the putative sanctioning body, the National Wrestling Alliance, said it wasn’t THEIR business who was under the mask — but if Sullivan could prove that it was Rhodes, Rhodes and the Rider would be suspended from all of the NWA for a year.
And the chase for the mask was on. Rider taunted Sullivan, who responded by pulling in manager J.J. Dillon and, finally, the NWA World Champion Ric Flair. Flair was offended anyway, as he’d had a long feud with Rhodes and thought he’d finally be able to do his mandatory Florida title defenses without seeing Rhodes, but now the Rider picked up Rhodes’ dates! Sullivan offered $50,000 if Dillon and Flair could figure out how to get the mask of Rhodes.
It all culminated in an NWA World title match. Flair vs. Rider. The NWA’s figurehead President, Bob Geigel, even turned up in Tampa for the match (a sign that something was going to happen). February 1982. After a long battle, the Rider was victorious. Flair and Dillon had been defeated. The Midnight Rider was World Champion!
Enter Geigel. Geigel said that, yes, the NWA doesn’t care who’s under a mask. Except that for legal reasons, they do kind of have to know who their World champion really is. So it was simple. Take off the mask and keep the title… well, as long as the Rider wasn’t Dusty Rhodes.
This was the moment Rhodes (who was writing all of this) had built to, and it played out for weeks on Florida TV. Crushed, the Rider wordlessly handed the belt to Geigel and left the arena.
Before much longer, Rhodes’ 90-day suspension ended and he returned, sending the Rider “back to Texas”. He’d get a measure of revenge, beating Sullivan in a loser-leaves-town match. Sullivan would come back as the masked Lucifer (and was unmasked).
All of this — and there was more, like jobber Mike Davis being “hypnotized” by Sullivan into believing HE was Dusty Rhodes, giving us the insane Rhodes vs. Davis-as-Rhodes feud — was driven by one thing.
Dusty Rhodes had Championship Wrestling from Florida viewers in the palm of his hand. Wherever he took the story, they came along. The fans in the arenas loved this son of a Texas plumber who appropriated the ghetto as his own. In anyone else’s hands, it could have been too heavy-handed a morality play or too light of a short-term story. Dusty knew his audience, his abilities, his fellow performers… and he knew how to just edge up to the line.
For me in New York, it was wrestling as theater — something I’d never seen before. I was hooked.
From there, I moved to the NWA Georgia shows on TBS (where Solie got to play off a young and borderline-insane Roddy Piper), then the Crockett Mid-Atlantic shows when Pro Wrestling USA brought them to New York (also on Spanish TV, and notable for Tully Blanchard yelling “SPEAK ENGLISH” at Hugo Savinovich in every local interview), and continued to follow the NWA (and WCW) until I wound up in Richmond. That’s where I found independent wrestling, made some friends there, and eventually settled in to almost a decade as a ring announcer and authority figure from the late ’90s to the late aughts.
But if Dusty Rhodes’ war with Kevin Sullivan hadn’t found its way to Spanish-language TV in New York in the early ’80s… I’d have probably given up on wrestling about the time Hulk Hogan supplanted Bob Backlund as the WWF champ. So thanks, Dusty… for the entertainment, for steering me back toward the business, and for the memories. There have been many imitators, but nobody is ever quite going to duplicate your way with the crowd…