Rumblin’ with the Rise of Rasslin’

Audiences adore Dwayne Johnson. The action star rules the global Cineplex, but many of his newer fans are unfamiliar with his earlier wrestling career as “The Rock,” when followers of “Stone Cold” Steve Austin jeered him as his greatest World Wrestling Entertainment rival. Johnson broke out from his first roles as Flex Kavana and Rocky Maivia, leader of the “The Nation of Domination,” and other pro wrestlers have replicated a degree of his crossover popularity. Hulk Hogan appeared in films and reality television, John Cena has developed as an on-screen and voice talent, and a 30 for 30 documentary about “The Nature Boy” Ric Flair recently aired on ESPN, a network that brands itself as “the worldwide leader in sports.” However, for Southern wrestling fans, no hero transcended sports and life like the late Dusty Rhodes, known by his legion of fervent fans as “The American Dream.”

For forty years, Dusty Rhodes and his signature “Bionic Elbow” were the Saturday afternoon champions of hard-working devotees from Texas to the Mason-Dixon line. The 2007 WWE Hall of Fame inductee never reached The Rock’s success, yet Rhodes was one of the first regional personas to climb out from the territorial ranks and headline in Madison Square Garden. Before the inception of WWE, Inc., a corporate conglomerate cranking out entertainment products, professional wrestling was localized; it operated as independently sanctioned circuits. From the late 1960’s to the late 1980’s, cable TV mogul Ted Turner broadcasted Georgia Championship Wrestling and Championship Wrestling from Florida, headquartered in Tampa. The South was divided into a half-dozen similar regions, and Dusty Rhodes performed in them all. When Vince McMahon, the genius madman behind WWE, plundered the struggling Southern franchises in the late 1980’s, it was natural for The American Dream to join him. Rhodes, who described himself as “265 lbs. of blue-eyed soul,” became an elite pay-per-view star; throughout his legendary career, however, he never forgot he was a “Plumber’s Son.”

Like Muhammad Ali, Rhodes possessed a charisma that was made for the camera, and many of his interviews were more like soliloquies. His October 1985 “Hard Times” interview on the weekly Mid-Atlantic Wrestling show serves as a discourse for the common man. After verbally taking down The Nature Boy, Rhodes, in dark shades, the purplish-blue scars on his forehead clear to see, riffs into a diatribe about the difficulties American families were facing: “When the textile workers around this country are out of work, they got four or five kids and can’t pay their wages, can’t buy their food.” “When the auto workers are out of work and they tell ‘em to go home.” “When a man has worked at his job for thirty years, thirty years, and they give him a watch, kick him in the butt and say hey a computer took your place, daddy.” What makes the interview extraordinary is not merely the background cheers of the screaming fans or Rhode’s self-deprecating humor—“my belly’s just a lil’ big, my heinie’s a lil’ big”—but his empathetic understanding of the reality that plagued the country. This was the height of the Reagan Revolution, but Rhodes knew that many folks were excluded from the famed Republican tax reforms that fueled the transformation of hippies into yuppies, and launched the “Me” generation of Wall Street profiteers.

As a contrived blend of showmanship and athletics professional, wrestling runs on feuds. Chatter about the latest unexpected twist in the hottest rivalry fills locker rooms and lunchrooms. Aging Southern wrestling fans can still recount the night Mr. Wrestling II unmasked Mr. Wrestling I at the Omni in Atlanta. Staged battles, also called “kayfabes,” are the vaudeville of sports. Rhodes recognized the country’s undercurrents and challenged a bigger villain than The Nature Boy. He intuitively perceived the concealed suffering his fans were enduring at a time when sanguine greed was the nation’s mantra. His battle to regain his title belt was against more than Ric Flair. The American Dream wanted to pile-drive the Establishment. The correlation between Ronald Reagan’s “morning in America” and Donald Trump’s #MAGA movement are dubious for myriad reasons. But there still needs to be that authentic voice questioning the group in control, especially when today’s leaders appeal to what the common man wants to hear, while their actions primarily benefit the corporate oligarchy.

Unfortunately, professional wrestling doesn’t have a track record of embracing noble causes. If the villains aren’t portrayed as braggarts or psychos, then they’re often foreigners: Abdullah the Butcher, The Iron Sheik, or Ivan Koloff. “Rowdy” Roddy Piper, the most reviled wrestling scoundrel of all time, spoke with a Canadian accent and wore a Scottish kilt. Pro wrestling draws upon the classic Us versus Them mentality. Dusty Rhodes personified the concept of the American Dream in and out of the ring. His keen insight enabled him to discern the initial stages of the decline of the working middle-class and the crumbling of their factories, jobs, and hopes. To Dusty, “Us” were the cheering fans who filled the stands and sent him cards and letters, and “Them” were the callous business leaders and politicians who slashed-and-burned their aspirations. Them was responsible for destroying the belief that you could have a better life than your parents, that you could build a better life for your children. That’s the American Dream. The agonizing irony is that within a few years after his “Hard Times” speech, Rhodes was forced to join forces with the pro wrestling equivalent of Them: McMahon’s WWE, wrestling under the moniker of the “Common Man.”

Dusty Rhodes: Photo by Tony A.

Dusty Rhodes: Photo by Tony A.

The universe runs in cycles, even the professional wrestling universe. There’s a birth. There’s a life. There’s destruction. Hindus know as it as Brahma, Vishnu and Shankar. Buddhists call it Dharma. It’s an awareness that’s instilled in our collective consciousness. Yet, we’re all not awake to concept, and we don’t all enjoy where we are in the sequence. The cosmological cycle has been cynically summarized as: Life is a bitch, and then you die. But for every end there’s a beginning. In armories and community centers dotted throughout small towns, there’s a circuit of semi-pro wrestling, young athletes struggling to make it to bigger venues. It’s possible that some dimly lit dank gymnasium is producing another Plumber’s Son—or daughter. Perhaps the prospect of fulfilling our desires is all that’s required to survive hard times. We’re all the Common Man. We all have Bionic Elbows, and we should all be unafraid to elbow-smash braggart blowhards who’d deceive us for their own gains.