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Perhaps the most charismatic wrestler of all-time, Dusty Rhodes is the finest example of a wrestler not necessarily having to be a great technical worker or have a great body to become a tremendous star. Rhodes was never going to blow away anyone with his in-ring work or his doughy physique, but none of that mattered because his charisma was so overpowering that there was never a doubt that once he hit his prime he was going to be a huge draw for wrestling companies all over the United States.
Rhodes isn't the best talent of the last 50 years, but he just may be the most unique. I like to think that the list contains a lot of diverse talent, but nobody is like Dusty Rhodes. The rest of Top 20 is filled with guys who were mostly great workers in the ring and mostly in great physical shape; those two characteristics typically allowing them to be tremendous draws and become great all-time wrestlers. Rhodes is really the only wrestler in the Top 20 who does not fit at least one of those two characteristics. That is not meant to be an insult to Rhodes, quite contrary it is meant as a compliment to how unique of a talent Rhodes really was.
Rhodes's career began the same as so many other wrestlers from Texas during the 1960s-70s, playing football at West Texas State University. Rhodes, a native of Austin grew up a professional wrestling fan and turned to pro-wrestling after playing minor league football. Legendary Texas wrestling manager Gary Hart helped Rhodes break into the business in the late 1960s. Born Virgil Runnels, he changed his name to Dusty Rhodes after "Lonesome Rhodes" a character from the Andy Griffith film A Face in the Crowd.
Although Rhodes would eventually go on to become one of the greatest babyfaces in wrestling history, he began his career as a villain. Rhodes had plenty of charisma from the day he was born, but the time that Rhodes broke into the business, being a babyface was very different. The top babyfaces were genuinely technical mat stars who wrestled a no-nonsense, hard-hitting style. We were only a few years removed from Lou Thesz being the NWA World Heavyweight Champion and this was the heyday of Dory Funk Jr., Bruno Sammartino and Verne Gagne. Someone that was as colorful as Rhodes was almost always a heel that used his charisma to antagonize the audience as opposed to emphasize with them.
Early in his career he formed a rule-breaking tag team with Dick Murdoch and the duo became known as The Texas Outlaws. By the end of first year in professional wrestling Rhodes had some serious gold around his waist, capturing the NWA North American Tag Team Championships in November of 1968. In September of 1970 Rhodes' career would change forever when he began to work in the Florida territory for Eddie Graham. For the rest of the decade, Rhodes would become synonymous with the territory and his star power would help turn the territory into one of the most prosperous in the world.
The Texas Outlaws would continue to run roughshod over the South, capturing the NWA Florida Tag Team titles and feuding with the likes of the Funk brothers. In 1972 Rhodes and Murdoch made it to the American Wrestling Association and became a force in that promotion as well. Rhodes also began to find some success as a singles wrestler, eventually challenging Gagne for the AWA World Heavyweight Championship and coming up short against the perennial champion.
In 1974 Rhodes stopped teaming with Murdoch and began teaming with Pak Song and was still under the tutelage of Gary Hart. Florida promoter Eddie Graham noticed that Rhodes had a unique charisma about him and figured that despite his poor physique and mediocre in-ring skills he could still become a popular hero to the masses. Rhodes eventually turned on Song and Hart during a match in Florida and instantly became a babyface. Rhodes began going by the moniker "The American Dream" and cut intense, fiery promos in the ring that both played into the audience's sympathies and put himself over as an unstoppable force.
Rhodes is essentially on this list because of his ability to talk on the microphone. Every conversation that involves the greatest talkers in wrestling history has to begin with Rhodes. A lot of his color and his attitude was heavily influenced by African American sportsmen, like Muhammad Ali and fellow wrestlers like Thunderbolt Patterson and Rufus R. Jones. Rhodes pitter-patter ability to capture an audience with his words made him a unique talent for his time period and one of the premier attractions in all of wrestling.
As mentioned above, Rhodes came along during a time period where babyfaces were usually legit tough guys who expressed humility in their interviews. Gagne, Funk, Jack Brisco and others were all top drawing champions, but in a way they were all very similar in their personality. The real charismatic guys who could cut great promos were heels, beginning with Buddy Rogers and Gorgeous George and leading to Freddie Blassie and Nick Bockwinkel. Look no further than Superstar Billy Graham, a contemporary of Rhodes and someone who also exuded charisma and cut colorful promos. Graham caught fire as a heel and became a top draw for Vince McMahon Sr.
Before Rhodes babyfaces didn't really talk with a ton of charisma. After him there was Hulk Hogan, Steve Austin, The Rock and other stars who became the biggest draws in professional wrestling's modern era. The idea that a babyface could be as colorful as the top heels and still get tremendous crowd support completely revolutionized the business, and it is the influence that Rhodes had in the generations of babyfaces to come that remains his greatest claim to fame.
By the mid-1970s, the legend of a plump 300-pounder with an easy smile and bags around his eyes that was selling out the South spread to territories around the country. Eventually the news spread to New York City, where Rhodes was booked in a pair of matches against Graham for the World Wide Wrestling Federation Championship. The matches ended up being the high point of Graham's career, selling out Madison Square Garden twice. Their first encounter was in September of 1977 and Rhodes picked up the victory via count-out, giving him a win over the champion but not the title. The return match one month later saw Rhodes lose to Graham in a Texas Death Match. During the match the two men battled to the point of exhaustion and ending when a collision in the middle of the ring led to Graham collapsing on top of Rhodes for the pinfall.
In 1979, Rhodes would officially reach the top of the mountain, defeating Harley Race for the NWA World Heavyweight Championship. Rhodes' victory ended a 29-month reign for Race and cemented Rhodes status as a top name in wrestling. Unfortunately for Rhodes, he would become the shortest reigning NWA Champion in history up until that point, dropping the title back to Race just five days later. Despite Rhodes' ability to consistently draw, his shtick hadn't totally convinced the National Wrestling Alliance; as they were adamant that the title needed to be on a very good in-ring technician, not just someone who could draw well. The philosophy behind that thinking would lead to three short world title reigns for Rhodes throughout his career.
Rhodes would win his second world championship in 1981, once again defeating Race for the belt at a house show in Atlanta. Rhodes would hold it for 88 days, the longest single reign of his career, before dropping the championship to his greatest enemy, Ric Flair.
Flair's victory in September of 1981 was the first of his 16 world championship runs, and it also launched a feud between himself and Rhodes that would define the NWA throughout the rest of the decade. By the early 1980s, Rhodes had established himself as probably the premier babyface in the United States, while Flair was a tweener who was on the cusp of becoming the best heel in the country. The Rhodes/Flair feud would elevate Flair beyond anybody else in the industry when it came to being a heel, and the pair would do incredible business with each other for the rest of Rhodes' career.
Like with all great rivalries, Flair and Rhodes were alike in some ways, both were colorful promo men with tons of charisma, but strikingly different in other ways. Flair, particularly later in the decade when he founded The Four Horsemen, epitomized the cocky heel champion who lived the lifestyle of the rich and famous. While Rhodes was "The American Dream" and endeared himself to the often working class audience, Flair laughed at their inadequacy and in addition used all the classic dirty tactics to build heat on himself, leading to a Rhodes comeback.
Behind the scenes Rhodes had become the booker for Jim Crockett Promotions, which controlled the lucrative Mid-Atlantic territory. As the WWF began to move national, the NWA looked to compete with the rapidly expanding northeastern promotion. The NWA decided to put most of their eggs in the Mid-Atlantic basket and they looked towards Rhodes and Flair to carry the NWA into a new era. Rhodes would turn out to have some real ability as a booker, developing several key concepts for the NWA, including Starrcade and the War Games match.
Rhodes continued to chase Flair for the NWA World Heavyweight Championship. A memorable moment came in 1983 when Rhodes challenged Flair title. According to storyline, Rhodes had been suspended from wrestling in Florida, so he wrestled under a mask and went by the name Midnight Rider. Rhodes defeated Flair for the title, but during the post-match celebration, NWA president Bob Geigel came to the ring and forced Rhodes to unmask, citing a rule that the NWA World Heavyweight Champion could not wear a mask. When it was revealed that the Midnight Rider was in fact Dusty Rhodes, he was stripped of the championship and it was awarded back to Flair. The false finish, where the babyface champion would seemingly capture a title, only for the result to be overturned on a technicality, would become so synonymous with Dusty Rhodes and his booking methods that it became known as a "Dusty finish" and would prove to be a problem for the NWA and later World Championship Wrestling.
In 1985 Flair formed a heel stable, The Four Horsemen and the gang tortured Rhodes. Rhodes would eventually find assistance in some tag teams, first with Nikita Koloff and then Magnum T.A. Eventually a match for Starrcade 1985 was set-up between Flair and Rhodes for the world title. In October of 1985, Rhodes cut a promo lambasting Flair and his group for putting "Hard Times" on Rhodes. Many fans and critics believe that it's the greatest babyface promo of all-time.
"He put hard times on Dusty Rhodes and his family. You don't know what hard times are daddy. Hard times are when the textile workers around this country are out of work, they got 4 or 5 kids and can't pay their wages, can't buy their food. Hard times are when the auto workers are out of work and they tell 'em to go home. And hard times are when a man has worked at a 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", that's hard times! That's hard times! And Ric Flair you put hard times on this country by takin' Dusty Rhodes out, that's hard times. And we all had hard times together, and I admit, I don't look like the athlete of the day supposed to look. My belly's just a lil' big, my heiny's a lil' big, but brother, I am bad. And they know I'm bad."
Rhodes would win the championship at Starrcade, but in classic Rhodes fashion the result was changed to a victory via disqualification because The Four Horsemen had interfered in the match and the title was handed back to Flair. Rhodes would capture the championship legitimately in the summer of 1986, defeating Flair at The Great American Bash. He would drop the championship back to Flair two weeks later.
By 1988, Jim Crockett Promotions had been purchased by Ted Turner and Rhodes repetitive booking methods had grown stale and he began to clash with Turner executives. The company had banned bleeding in the ring, which infuriated Rhodes because he was a legendary bleeder and he used it probably to greater success than anybody else is wrestling history with the possible exception of Flair and Danny McShain, who popularized the practice. Ignoring the rule, Rhodes booked an angle that saw The Road Warriors drill a spike from their shoulder pads into his face, causing Rhodes to bleed profusely. The incident enraged the Turner brass, who then relieved Rhodes of his booking duties and then fired him.
After leaving WCW went back to the shriveling up Florida territory and also ran some shows in the AWA. Eventually in 1989 Rhodes went to the WWF. Vince McMahon had reportedly a gripe against Rhodes, mainly because he was the main rival to his wrestling empire earlier in the decade and even named Ted DiBiase's manservant Virgil (Rhodes' real-life first name) as a knock on Rhodes. Despite now finding a home in the biggest promotion in the world, Rhodes was never utilized properly in the company and some would say that he was only hired by McMahon to be embarrassed. He did work feuds with Randy Savage and DiBiase, but left the company in early 1991, ending his career as a full-time wrestler.
Following his departure from the WWF, Rhodes went back to WCW and became a member of their booking committee and remained an important on-screen figure as a color commentator and a manager, while also wrestling the occasional match.
After WCW he became a booker for Total Nonstop Action Wrestling but left the company in 2005. He then went to WWE, signing a legends deal and appearing occasionally on WWE television. He ended up finding a niche as a trainer in WWE's developmental organization, NXT, before passing away suddenly in 2015.
Rhodes ingenuity as a talent allowed him to climb to the top of industry that had previously said no to men who looked like him and talked like him. Rhodes used his passion and earth-shattering charisma to get over with Southern audiences better than probably any other wrestler of his time-period and established him as one of the most popular and influential baby faces of his era.
Next week, #18 will be revealed, a technical wrestling standout who would enjoy one of the longest world title reigns in wrestling history.
The Top 50 so far (click link for description of the qualifications of the list):
49. Superstar Billy Graham
47. El hijo del Santo
45. Bruiser Brody
43. Kurt Angle
42. Hiroshi Tanahashi
41. The Sheik
39. Perro Aguayo
38. Ricky Steamboat
37. Toshiaki Kawada
36. Jushin Thunder Liger
35. El Canek
33. Jack Brisco
32. Shinya Hashimoto
31. Roddy Piper
30. Genichiro Tenryu
28. Abdullah the Butcher
27. Keiji Mutoh
26. Bob Backlund
25. Mil Mascaras
24. Nick Bockwinkel
22. Shawn Michaels
20. Riki Choshu
19. Dusty Rhodes