Most people want to live the American Dream.
Virgil Runnels was “The American Dream.”
Runnels, known in professional wrestling as “The American Dream” Dusty Rhodes, built a fan base spanning over several decades, most notably in the NWA and WWE organizations, as a hardworking common man that grinded his way to the top. On his way up, Rhodes waged war against a variety of villains at the Spartanburg Memorial Auditorium.
Runnels, 69, died last week as a result of an unspecified illness. His funeral will be held Wednesday in Tampa, Fla.
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Runnels, who was inducted into the WWE Hall of Fame in 2007, was a fan favorite in Spartanburg and surrounding areas. He was most remembered for his bouts with longtime rivals “Nature Boy” Ric Flair, Tully Blanchard, Arn Anderson, Terry Funk and “Superstar” Billy Graham.
His final match against Blanchard came as a part of Carolina Championship Wrestling's Tribute to Starrcade in 2005, presented by promoter Tony Hunter, at the Spartanburg Memorial Auditorium. Runnels won the match.
Blanchard, whose primary focus is now on prison ministry, said the final match was held in a perfect venue.
“I'm glad I was asked to be a part of it,” he said. “I had done some individual wrestling deals, but rarely do you see 2,000 people. The nostalgia was there. (My manager) J.J. Dillon walked me to the ring, and the fans treated it just like they did in the '80s. It was as fun for me as it was for them.”
Blanchard added that his relationship with Runnels was mostly professional, but they admired one another.
“You might wrestle someone a short period of time and then it's done,” he said. “Dusty wrestled me for four years. We had a mutual respect. The chemistry and magic was there, and that's what you want to see.”
Tracey Vandiver, the food and beverage manager at the auditorium, keeps the poster promoting the 2005 event above his desk. He wasn't there for the match, but he was a Runnels fan.
“My grandmother used to come with me, and we would come every Saturday until she couldn't come,” he said. “When I was a kid, I saw Dusty at least five times at the old Greenville Memorial Auditorium.”
Funk's relationship dates farther back than most. He and Runnels played on the same college football team at West Texas State before becoming professional wrestlers and foes in the ring.
Funk said Runnels made his career a great one.
“He made a mark for 40 years,” Funk said. “The mark he left is everywhere, and it will never be duplicated anywhere. He made me better, and I made him better. He put (people) in seats every 18 inches apart, which means he sold out arenas. I knew if I was wrestling Dusty Rhodes, that I was going to be able to feed my kids for three or four weeks.”
Funk went on to say that Rhodes was more than a superstar wrestler.
“I knew I could rely on him no matter what I asked for, and he could rely on me,” Funk said. “And he knew I wouldn't ever ask for much because he was my friend.”
Jim Cornette, the longtime manager of The Midnight Express, recalled when Runnels and Magnum T.A. (Terry Allen) teamed up in masks as the James Boys and abducted him at a television taping in Spartanburg.
“There was a time when Dusty and Magnum kidnapped me and tied me to the bumper of a pickup truck,” Cornette said. “Baby Doll (Nickla Roberts) was driving. Magnum threw me over his shoulder, and Dusty tied a noose around my neck. There was supposed to be a cue where Dusty was to slap the glass to let her know to drive just as The Midnight Express was there to save me. But Dusty slipped and caught himself on the glass, which Baby Doll thought was the cue. I look up and see The Midnight Express 30 feet away. Had I not had my hands around the rope just in case, it could have gone real bad. I would have been drug to Greenville.”
Cornette added that quirky ideas such as the kidnapping stunt, scaffold matches, and the use of fire during matches all came from Runnels.
“He was a quarterback and a coach,” Cornette said. “He was a player-coach. He drew up all the plays and we just ran them.”
Allen's career was cut short by an automobile accident in October 1986 in North Carolina. He said he owed a large part of his success to Runnels.
“You don't ride hundreds of miles, seven days a week, up and down the road with somebody you don't like,” Allen said. “The Mid-Atlantic was the pinnacle of what I did. The accident cut it short, but I was on that lightning bolt ride. There were sellouts everywhere we went. We had a very deep friendship and a mutual respect.”
Roberts was one of the first valets in wrestling. She said Runnels gave her an opportunity when her wrestling career was nearing an end.
“Dusty was looking for a girl to be with Tully,” Roberts said. “They were having the Perfect 10 competition, and I come in as the tall, 6-foot girl with a punk hairstyle, but Dusty saw something in me. He had such a respect for me, and it melted down to everyone else. I wasn't the daughter or sister. I was a star because of Dusty.”
Jimmy “The Boogie Woogie Man” Valiant — who was the special referee for that final match against Blanchard — credited Runnels for the idea of the Boogie Man Jam, which he said sold out arenas from “Richmond to Atlanta.” Valiant added that Runnels was as good behind the scenes as he was in the ring.
“He was a genius in the professional wrestling business in the office from booking to promoting,” Valiant said. “What came out of his mind was Starrcade, and I was fortunate to be in the first six. He also came up with the (Jim) Crocket Cup, Bunkhouse Stampede and Great American Bash. I had the biggest years of my career with the Crockets because of Dusty. He was a sweetheart.”
Ricky Morton, one half of the Rock 'n' Roll Express, said Runnels will always deserve credit for boosting professional wrestling.
“Dusty Rhodes is a great figure in our wrestling business,” he said. “I learned so much from him. I love Dusty Rhodes. He was a big part of my life. His interviews were the greatest ever. He loved our business just like I do. Dusty will go down in history.”