Wrestling Legend Dustin Rhodes Keeps Steppin'
The Austin native continues a family legacy with a new TV show and a revived career
In professional wrestling, they call it the crimson mask. Dustin Rhodes, a giant of a man with soulful eyes and cropped bleach-blond hair, looks across the ring at his brother Cody through a sheen of blood that runs from a gash across his forehead. It gushes so fast that it obscures the elaborate war paint that covers the left side of Dustin's face, and leaves streaks on Cody's torso every time they lock up. They may be siblings, but there's no mercy here.
The audience is thrilled by this family feud. They know how important this match is – for the brothers, and for professional wrestling. It's the semi-main event for Double or Nothing, the pay-per-view show by Cody's new promotion, All Elite Wrestling. If it's a success, the company is headed to arena shows and a TV deal, and this battle is the most memorable and emotional of the night.
Yet this fight was never supposed to happen. At 50, Rhodes is beyond a mere veteran, well past the point when he should be hanging up his boots. He had nothing left to prove, having wrestled before millions in person and on TV, taking championship after championship in World Wrestling Entertainment, the world's biggest wrestling company. Yet here he is, facing his brother Cody – his junior by 16 years, all fast-twitch muscle speed compared to Dustin's more considered motions – before a sold-out crowd at the Las Vegas MGM Grand Garden Arena.
That was May of last year, but if you'd asked him six months earlier, Dustin would have called the match impossible. In fact, he was ready to call it quits. In September 2018, we were sat together in the deserted Brackenridge Hospital on the set of Austin-made horror anthology Scare Package. Rhodes plays the villain of this chapter, the Devil's Lake Impaler: Dressed in a blue letterman jacket, he shows off the killer's mask, admiring the FX team's work and talking about how much fun he's having on set. Then he tells me a secret. He's quitting wrestling. Once the shoot is finished, he's flying to Stamford, Conn., headquarters of the WWE, and telling them: After 30 years as a wrestler, 18 of them for the WWE, he's retiring from the ring, heading back to his Williamson County home and concentrating on his new career as an actor. He was just done with wrestling. "I lost my passion," he explained. "It was a couple of years of me sitting on the sidelines, when we're so creative as artists. You want to perform, and you're not allowed to."
But now he's revived, a mainstay of All Elite Wrestling as it becomes the first real challenger to the WWE in decades. How he got there is a story of legacies, monopolies, and rebels – and of a wrestling family linked forever to Austin.
The Son of the Son of a Plumber
There are wrestling legends, and then there's the man they called Dusty Rhodes. Dustin and Cody's dad, Austin native Virgil Riley Runnels Jr., was everything a wrestler wasn't supposed to be, but he was the definitive hall-of-famer. He wasn't chiseled ("My hiney is just a little big," he famously said), but he moved like a barroom brawler. He wasn't college-educated, but he had a rare mind as a wrestling booker – knowing who to put with who, how to build up a feud, when to pay it off, how to make everyone a star. And he was a blue-collar star for a blue-collar sport, always talking about how (true story) he grew up the son of a plumber. He may not have had a silver spoon in his mouth but he definitely had a silver tongue, and when he talked, the crowd listened, like his famous "Hard Times" promo from 1985: When Rhodes accused cocky suave heel Ric Flair of taking food off his plate and money out of his pocket, everyone in a dead-end job knew he was speaking for them.
As his son, Dustin was a legacy. Yet as a child, he seemed set for anything but wrestling. Born Dustin Patrick Runnels in Austin on April 11, 1969, at the old Seton Hospital, his parents divorced when he was 6. He stayed with his mother, Sandra, in East Austin, attending a private school before spending his freshman and sophomore years at then-Lanier High School, only seeing his father for vacations. "He lived in Florida," Dustin said, "and I would see him at Christmas."
It's easy to imagine the young Dustin, watching his dad, the hero, on TV in World Class Championship Wrestling and Georgia Championship Wrestling, but it was a different deal the first time he saw him wrestle in person in Austin. It was at the old Coliseum off Riverside – as always, Dusty was in the main event, closing the show – and Dustin waited in the hall while his dad showered off. The young boy wanted to touch a turnbuckle, as he'd heard they were made from poured lead. "I walked up to the ring and my dad came out of the dressing room and was so mad at me. He said, 'Don't you ever, ever get into that ring.'"
At the time, he didn't know why his dad was so hot about it. Now, he realizes his father was protecting him. "Back in those days, [wrestlers] were away from their families, it pulled on the wife-husband relationship and the children. I didn't understand that back then, but I can see that now."
Finally, Rhodes moved in with his father, who had relocated to Charlotte, N. C. (even big-name wrestlers went where the work was); Dusty's second wife, Michelle; and Dustin's new half-brother, Cody. The teen spent his junior and senior years at East Mecklenburg High School and found his niche as an all-round athlete. "I wanted to play football," he said, "but I wanted to follow in my father's footsteps more than anything." Much as Dusty wanted a different path for his boy, sons will somehow always follow their fathers. Rhodes said, "My senior year, he knew my grades weren't where they needed to be, and he broke me in, and the rest is history."
All That Glimmers ...
Yet even having the great Dusty Rhodes as his father only meant a foot in the door. The history of wrestling is littered with legacy talents that couldn't make it, so Rhodes spent two years learning the ropes in Tampa at Championship Wrestling From Florida. "We worked every night, and I earned $20 a night. To this day, 31 years later, man, that was the funnest two years I had in my career."
Those two years were the bedrock for an unmatched career. In the late Eighties and early Nineties, he skipped between promotions, gaining a national reputation taking on veterans like Arn Anderson, Rick Rude, and Ricky "The Dragon" Steamboat. He was rising up the card at the same time as another Texas native, Steve Williams. Back in the early 1990s, they were both signed to Ted Turner's World Championship Wrestling (yes, that Ted Turner), trying to become the next big thing. Rhodes was billed as "the Natural," the young star in cowboy boots with talent and charisma (the gimmick, he recalled, was Dusty's idea: "He saw that I caught it so quick. You could tell me one time and I would do it"). Meanwhile, Williams was billed as "Stunning" Steve Austin. "We were kind of the same at that point," Rhodes said. "We were both hungry and eager to try new things, and he goes on to be a megastar, and I go on my separate way."
Everything changed in 1995 when Rhodes joined WCW's big rival, the World Wrestling Federation. The WWF threw out the Natural gimmick and repackaged him as Goldust, a sexually ambiguous heel in a bodysuit and black-and-gold face paint. He was everything that the Natural – and Dustin Rhodes – wasn't, and seemed doomed to fail. Even Rhodes thought so. "I didn't want to step outside the box too much, and that kept it from being successful for the first six months. Once I stepped outside of the box and did something that was very uncomfortable for me to do, it worked. Well, shit, why didn't I do that from the beginning?"
With Goldust becoming one of the most recognizable and popular heels of the last few decades (after all, everyone loves a bad guy) and feuds with top-tier talent including the renamed future superstar "Stone Cold" Steve Austin, Rhodes moved out of his father's great, benevolent shadow. "I did something on my own that I was very proud of, and took it to some incredible heights." Moreover, he took something that had been churned out by WWF's creative department and applied his own skills. The simple black-and-gold makeup was his idea (an homage to other face-painting wrestlers like the Ultimate Warrior and the Great Muta), and over time, it evolved into more complicated patterns. "From day one, I've never let anyone paint my face. I've always done it myself. I'm an artist, so it's easier for me to experiment and do things from my own design."
While the character made Rhodes a star, Goldust was emblematic of American wrestling. It's an art form of pure physical storytelling, and it has national varieties: Britain's joint-mangling chain wrestling, Mexico's high-flying lucha libre, Japan's hard-hitting strong style. But in America, wrestling is dominated by Vincent Kennedy McMahon Jr., owner and CEO of the WWE (formerly known as, yup, the WWF). Put simply, for the last 20 years if you didn't work for McMahon, you didn't really work for anyone. And if you did, you were at the whim of a mercurial creative system in which every decision, no matter how tiny, ran through one man – McMahon.
So that's where Dustin Rhodes found himself in the mid-2010s. Back in the WWE, back in the Goldust suit, stuck in the midcard: famous, but creatively frustrated. There was some hope when the WWE signed Cody – a champion high school wrestler who had entered the family trade – and placed the brothers in a tag team. The booking seemed simple: Their team would fall apart, one would turn on the other leading to a brother-versus-brother match at WrestleMania, the WWE's biggest annual show, and it would be a capper to Dustin's career.
It never happened. Fans were baffled, but wrote it off as one more bad decision from the WWE. That's when Cody took a step that reshaped modern wrestling: He quit the WWE.
Saying McMahon has a monopoly on American wrestling is only mostly true. There's a vibrant national network of small local promotions known as "indies," each running a show or two a month, and Cody headed there. It seemed like career suicide, like quitting a major music corporation to release singles through a bunch of indie labels, but every show he appeared at sold out. Every wrestler he faced became a celebrity. And suddenly Cody wasn't just a star in his own right – he looked like he was having fun. He joined forces with other indie superstars like brothers Nick and Matt Jackson, aka tag team the Young Bucks, and Kenny Omega (widely seen as the greatest all-around wrestler in the world). They'd all already proved McMahon wrong by succeeding without him – most especially for their work in Japan – so why not prove him wrong again? Why not start a company of their own? So, with the financial backing of Jacksonville Jaguars co-owner Tony Kahn, All Elite Wrestling was founded, and in September 2018 they put on a pay-per-view show called All In, selling out Chicago's Sears Centre Arena. Yet in a moment of typical McMahon pettiness, Dustin Rhodes was barred from attending his own brother's show.
So that made it all the sweeter that following May when Dustin's WWE contract finally expired and he and Cody were in the ring, bleeding and sweating and crying and launching a new era in wrestling, one that takes on the WWE's stranglehold on televised wrestling.
Nothing Thicker Than Blood
Keep steppin'. If there was a Rhodes family crest, that would be the motto, a saying the late Dusty passed on to Dustin and Cody. 2019 was their year of giant leaps. Cut to October 2: AEW launches the first new prime-time wrestling show on cable in 15 years, AEW Dynamite on TNT, with a supplemental free show, AEW Dark, on YouTube. It's a promise fulfilled that would make their father proud. Dustin explained, "We're Rhodes. We always follow through."
Other companies have tried, with varying success and inevitable failure, to take on the WWE, but AEW has felt different – cooler, with a diverse, young talent roster. The WWE has long felt cookie-cutter, turning exciting indie wrestlers into WWE-style performers, while AEW celebrates unconventional talents like Orange Cassidy, who wrestles with his hands in his pockets, and Darby Allin, a former pro-skateboarder adorned in black-metal-style coffin paint. Whereas the WWE has often felt sexist and exploitative, AEW hired Nyla Rose (the first openly transgender woman in a major American promotion) and gender-neutral wrestler Sonny Kiss, and just treated them as wrestlers.
The WWE knew something had changed. It had traditionally ignored rival promotions, yet when AEW announced Dynamite would be on Wednesday nights, suddenly the WWE announced its farm league, NXT, was going from one prerecorded hour on the WWE Network to a two-hour live show on the USA Network in Dynamite's slot. McMahon had seen that AEW was an alternative to his product, and that's not to be tolerated.
Yet Rhodes is not interested in the ratings fight between Dynamite and NXT, no matter what tricks his former boss pulls. "I don't look at it as competition. I look at it as us putting on the best television show that we possibly can." After all, he already had his victory, facing Cody in that show-stealer at the MGM Grand after being sidelined by the WWE. He called it "one of the best matches of the decade, with my brother, when we were told that we weren't good enough to do it on the big show up there."
His victory is simple. "I found my passion again," Rhodes said. His AEW matches have been some of his career best, and there's pride in his voice when he talks about what Cody and his crew achieved in setting up a national touring and televised brand in under two years. Yet Rhodes is also deeply involved in production – flying in for TV tapings on Tuesday, broadcasting Wednesday, "and I'm back home Thursday unless I'm heading out to a Comic-Con or flying out to L.A. to read for a part or doing a movie." Like his father, he's deeply engaged with the new generation of wrestlers, who he calls "my kids." He clucks and worries that they're going too fast, making 20 crazy dives when one move will tell the same story. "Less is more, man," he said. And then there's that famous Rhodes silver tongue. "That's a big thing for me, teaching them how to talk and working on their promos, bringing out their characters."
And then there's his own new character, which melds all his experiences, every stage of Dustin Rhodes, into one. Half his face is exposed, the Natural reborn. The other half is painted red and black. That's the Unnatural – the heel that will lurk beneath the surface (and, he warns, worry about the day he's all Unnatural). Plus, the bodysuit is back. "Let's face it," he laughs, "I'm 50 and nobody needs to see my body."
Six months after that bloody Las Vegas brawl, Rhodes smiles at that gory moment in the ring with Cody. The wound was deliberate. In professional wrestling, the wrestler who does the bleeding does the cutting, and that night Dustin cut too deep. "It'd been a while since I'd done it," he recalled in his soft Hill Country drawl, "so it was a little more than I would have liked."
It wasn't the amount of blood that worried him: He still had another 10 minutes to go in a match that meant everything to the two brothers. "Cody even asked, 'Do you want to stop now?' and I went, 'Hell no, let's keep going.'"
The wrestler who was done a year ago is reborn. He's back on national TV weekly, working out every day, teaching, still learning, keeping on with his acting (with Scare Package, crime thriller Copper Bill, and his first lead role, as an aging wrestler in Thunderclap!, all coming in 2020). And he's still got his eye on something he's never achieved: a world championship belt. "It's not over yet," he said. "I have a lot to do."
All Elite Wrestling presents Dynamite at the H-E-B Center at Cedar Park, 2100 Avenue of the Stars, Wed., Feb. 12. Tickets and info at HEBCenter.com.