The Big Pay Windah In The Sky

We all have things that define us.  Things about our personality that anyone who knows you will immediately associate with you.  Maybe you’re obsessed with Disney movies.  Maybe you’re a car guy.  Maybe you collect Hummel figurines.  You might be in to video games, or comic books, or Civil War battle sites.  Whatever it is that you’re in to, that’s your “thing”, and it’s as much a part of you as your favorite color.  Since the age of four, my “thing” has been pro wrestling.  Granted, I don’t watch as many hours a week as some people.  I’m not a historian, and I can’t recite factoids like who RAW drafted first during the inaugural talent draft back when the brand split was a thing.  I’m generally the last to the party when it comes to hitching my wagon to the newest internet darling indie star.  But none of that takes away from the passion I have for the business.  I love the athleticism, I love the storytelling, and I love the bridges it builds between people.  Some of my closest and dearest friends have been made thanks to this wonderfully stupid form of entertainment, and when wrestling does something right, it’s literally the greatest thing on the planet.

And I owe every bit of enjoyment I’ve ever gotten from pro wrestling to Dusty Rhodes.

See, when I was  younger, all the way back in the 1980s, I lived in South Carolina.  I was born there, and I lived there until I was almost 7 years old.  In the early 80s, in South Carolina, you didn’t have much of a choice:  You were a wrestling fan.  In fact, I’m pretty sure they kicked you out of the state if you didn’t have at least a passing knowledge of the NWA.  Sure, Hulk Hogan was on the precipice of being the biggest name in the history of the industry, and the WWF was fine, and you probably watched that, too, but once you got past the Mason Dixon Line, you were in NWA country.  You knew the Four Horsemen.  You knew the Rock N’ Roll Express.  And you knew Dusty Rhodes.

Growing up, my father was in the reserves, so every once in a while, he’d get called to North Carolina for drill, and my mom and I would go with him.  One weekend in 1985, we were in Charlotte for his training, and it just so happened that the NWA was in town at the Charlotte Colosseum.  Without discussing it with my mother, he acquired floor seats for the show, intending to take me to my very first live wrestling match.  Mom was not pleased, because she thought that pro wrestling was fine on TV, but I was four years old at the time, and she was SURE the live experience would prove to be a little overwhelming to me.  They argued about this for a while, and eventually, despite her better judgement, mom relented, and we were off to the show.

Little did I know that my life was about to change forever.

Ric Flair vs. Dusty Rhodes. You don’t need to be deeply invested in pro wrestling to have heard the names of Flair and Rhodes before, but you might not recognize the weight they carry.  For years, there was no bigger rivalry, no deeper blood feud, than Ric Flair vs. Dusty Rhodes.  It’s hard to put in to words how much that feud meant at that time, especially in that location, but Flair vs. Rhodes in Charlotte in 1985 is pretty much akin to Jesus Christ coming down from Heaven and having a showdown with Satan in Vatican City.  The feud was THAT important.  Flair was the flashy, arrogant, rich, pompous douchebag who would step on your neck if it got him where he wanted to go.  He had everything in life, but he wanted more, especially if it meant he got to take it from someone else.  Dusty Rhodes was exactly the opposite of that.  He wasn’t flashy, but he didn’t need to be.  He was one of us, and he fought for what was right.  In an era when big, muscular titans were beginning to capture the fanbase’s attention, Dusty Rhodes was something different.  He was a normal looking guy who knew how to connect with an audience in a way that few could back then, and even fewer have since.  It was magical.  It still is.

So when we got to the arena and picked up our programs, sure enough, right there on the card was a main event of Ric Flair vs. Dusty Rhodes.  You could FEEL the tension in the building, and even though I was so young at the time, and had no idea what was happening, I knew it was important.  This was not just a wrestling match.  This was life or death.  I don’t know how, but my tiny little four year old brain took note of that, and filed it away.  When the match began, I watched intently.  The people around us were screaming and yelling, and I was just trying to keep up with the action.  At one point in the match, Dusty delivered a Bionic Elbow to Flair’s head, and Flair dropped to the mat. When he got up, he was staggering around and bleeding like a stuck pig (because he’s Ric Flair, so of course he was)  Now, at this point, I was too young to understand that what I was seeing was all a show.  All I knew was that the people around me were taking this all INCREDIBLY seriously, and that as far as I could tell, one guy was smashing another man’s face open, and he was in the process of DYING FOR REAL IN REAL LIFE.

I screamed my head off in terror.

It got so bad that I had to be taken to the arena bathroom to calm down, and even then, I was still scared and crying. I just was not ready for what I was seeing.  Bodyslams and piledrivers were one thing, but this?  This was something else.  My mother had been right (as mother’s often are).  There was no going back for me that night, because I was too afraid of what I might see next.  Even now, at 33 years old, I wish I could go back and impart on my younger self how amazing and important this match was, and how I’d regret leaving early for the rest of my life.  Defeated, we had to leave before the show was over, with a promise that we’d try again when I was older.  And we did, and it was fine.  I remember seeing the Rock N’ Roll Express battle The Midnight Express at the next event we attended (albeit from seats MUCH farther away, in case someone started bleeding again), and getting every piece of RNR merchandise I could get my hands on.

But still, there’s nothing like that first night.  Because even though I was petrified by what I was seeing, deep down, it still excited me.  I never forgot that feeling that I tucked away that night.  I never lost the notion that wrestling was important and real (even if the outcomes were predetermined).  I would always and forever remember that, even though a vast majority of the things we see on TV are just there to entertain us, sometimes, the show transcends that.  Sometimes, on a night like that night, when everything falls in to place, and the stars align just right, and everyone plays their part perfectly, professional wrestling is the most wonderful, beautiful, thing in the world, and you don’t just watch it, you FEEL it.

Dusty Rhodes taught me that.  He will always and forever be involved in my first memory of this stupid, wonderful thing that I love, and I’ll never forget that.  I will always credit him as being the first wrestler to make me love the sport, but also the one that made me realize just how amazing it could be.  He taught me that you don’t have to be the richest, or the most athletic, or the best looking guy to succeed.  You just needed to be real.  So real that you make a four year old understand how important what you’re doing is, and so real that it terrifies them to tears.

I’m gonna miss you, Big Dust.

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