For many in NC, working-man wrestler Dusty Rhodes struck a chord

Professional wrestler Dusty Rhodes, The American Dream, relaxes backstage before a bout at Raleigh’s Dorton Arena in 1985.
Professional wrestler Dusty Rhodes, The American Dream, relaxes backstage before a bout at Raleigh’s Dorton Arena in 1985. NEWS & OBSERVER FILE PHOTO

In the theatrical world of professional wrestling in the ’70s, ’80s and ’90s, the good guys were the “baby faces” and the bad guys were “the heels.”

Dusty Rhodes was not only a baby face in the ring, but outside it as well. And everyone loves and relates to the baby face.

“He emulated the personality of the working man and the American dream,” said Tony Gilliam of Raleigh, who was a ring announcer and play-by-play TV commentator in the industry in the 1990s. “When people saw Dusty, they saw part of him in them.”

Which is why so many people who grew up in North Carolina took to social media to mourn Rhodes after he died Thursday at age 69. Even for those who didn’t watch wrestling religiously every Saturday afternoon, Rhodes – known as “The American Dream” – was a familiar, larger-than-life presence.

“He wasn’t exactly a model of human perfection,” said Richard Averitte of Raleigh, who grew up near Fayetteville and enjoyed watching wrestling. “He was borderline obese compared to other wrestlers. As a chubby kid myself growing up, I could relate to him. It made him seem real, like a guy I could see in the grocery store.”

That sort of thing happened to Ben Kinney, who was a child in the ’80s living in Charlotte, where Jim Crockett Promotions Inc. housed its studio and drew in big-name wrestlers.

“You could go to Denny’s for breakfast and see the Evil Russian Ivan Koloff, or you might see Ric Flair at the mall, or bag groceries for Wahoo McDaniel,” Kinney said, noting that all of those things happened to him more than once.

“They were part of North Carolina,” Kinney said. “They were an industry in this state. It was our own little version of Hollywood.”

Gilliam said Rhodes – whose real name was Virgil Runnels – was his “boss, wonderful mentor, a great guy and a great dad.” He recalled traveling with Rhodes in the 1990s, often seven days a week and one year spending 335 days on the road.

“It’s a tough life to be on the road like that and not have your family, but to have someone like Dusty come up and put his arm around you makes you feel like family,” Gilliam said. “The fact he loved his family, and he shared that with everyone there from the lowest on the totem pole to the highest.”

Averitte still laughs about a phrase Rhodes would use to describe one of his moves: “the double feets to the belly.”

“Overall, I think that’s what made him embraced by fans,” Averitte said. “He had that lisp, the belly, and he was a little country.”

Rhodes was known for relating to the public as the working man’s guy in his promos for upcoming matches. Kinney recalled loving the battle of the classes between working-class Rhodes and wrestler Flair, who sported Rolex watches while riding in limos.

“It was a soap opera for kids watching,” Kinney said.

‘Hard Times’

Probably Rhodes’ most memorable promo speech was called “Hard Times,” which he delivered with no lack of passion in 1985, highlighting the struggles of laid-off textile and auto workers.

Holding the microphone during that speech was TV announcer Bob Caudle for Mid-Atlantic Championship Wrestling.

Caudle, now retired and living in Raleigh, said he must have introduced Rhodes hundreds of times, while also describing the play-by-play action for TV viewers watching. For a long time, promoters would film fights on Wednesday nights in the studio of WRAL-TV in Raleigh, then show them later.

“You could introduce Dusty and give him the microphone,” Caudle said. “You didn’t have to ask him any questions. He would talk the whole two minutes. He was a great ad-libber.”

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