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Remembering Dusty Rhodes, Tampa Bay wrestling legend and original sports hero

Big, blond, boisterous and the ultimate ambassador of wrestling, Dusty Rhodes signs autographs in his heyday in this file photo.
Big, blond, boisterous and the ultimate ambassador of wrestling, Dusty Rhodes signs autographs in his heyday in this file photo.
Published Jun. 12, 2015

Before Tampa Bay ever had a Buccaneer, Lightning, Rowdie or Ray to cheer, Dusty Rhodes was the community's biggest sports hero.

Perhaps not in size (6-foot-1, 275 pounds) but certainly in personality, a bellowing Texan with a faint lisp and "bionic elbow" proclaimed himself the American Dream and fans believed it.

The pro wrestling legend died Thursday at age 69, reportedly of kidney failure.

Tuesday nights at Tampa's Fort Homer Hesterly Armory had a revival vibe in the late '60s and early '70s when Mr. Rhodes headlined the wrestling card. Saturday afternoons on UHF television he'd rile up business for the next matches, in an era when Tampa was the center of pro wrestling's universe.

Mr. Rhodes, born Virgil Riley Runnels, was one of the sport's finest showmen, with a braggadocio to rival Muhammad Ali's, delivered in a booming drawl, often with his face a crimson mask (of sometimes real blood), framed by tousled bleached blond hair. As a member of at least seven wrestling associations during his career, Mr. Rhodes won dozens of heavyweight, tag team and brass knuckles championships. His sleeper hold was practically unbreakable, and his signature finishing move, a "bionic elbow" dropped on a prone opponent, is a classic of the sport.

Thursday night in North Tampa, a few of Mr. Rhodes' friends and foes from those Tampa heydays coincidentally gathered at a Championship Wrestling From Florida Fan Fest. Nearly 500 fans attended the fundraiser for a proposed pro wrestling Wall of Fame at the former armory, the future south campus of the Tampa Jewish Community Center and Federation.

Former wrestler Steve Keirn spoke last week by telephone with Mr. Rhodes, who asked how he was doing in retirement. Keirn, 63, showed a reporter a photograph he texted to Mr. Rhodes, of the pair after a match circa 1978.

"Riding him, I just sent him that picture," Keirn said, smiling. "When he got it, he said: 'Man, we were good looking back then.' "

Keirn also likened Mr. Rhodes' larger-than-life persona to Ali, who was a fan of the wrestler's boisterous routine.

"I remember when I was a kid," Keirn said, "only 19 years old at the Miami Convention Center and Muhammad Ali came into the dressing room to talk to Dusty about doing interviews because he loved Dusty's promos, his rhyming things. There was magic with those two guys."

Two of Mr. Rhodes' most intense opponents were at Fan Fest, the brother team of Dory Funk Jr. and Terry Funk, whose Armory matches with the Dream were legendary, with thousands of fans as raucous accomplices.

"Pretty much when the Funks and Dusty Rhodes got together it was going to be a fight," Dory Funk Jr., 74, said. "I have nothing but respect for Dusty, the way he gave the people what they wanted; wrestling is a giving business. … I'm going to miss him, I know all the wrestling fans are going to miss him, and I know very much his family will miss him."

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Mr. Rhodes first attained fame as a star of Championship Wrestling From Florida, a television program broadcast from Tampa's now-defunct Sportatorium on Albany Street, and matches staged at the former Armory on Howard Avenue. His rivals (although pro wrestling loyalties shift) in the "squared circle," as announcer Gordon Solie called the ring, included such legends as "Dirty" Dick Murdoch, Harley Race and the Great Malenko.

Mr. Rhodes' death was announced on Twitter by fellow wrestling great Triple H:

"Saddened to hear the passing of Dusty Rhodes. Legend, teacher, mentor, friend … Love you Dream" — ending with #BookinAintEasyKid, likely a piece of advice offered by Mr. Rhodes to a young wrestler on the rise.

In the 1980s, Rhodes moved to what is now called World Wrestling Entertainment and succeeded, entering the WWE Hall of Fame in 2007.

"WWE is deeply saddened that Virgil Runnels, aka 'The American Dream' Dusty Rhodes — WWE Hall of Famer, three-time NWA Champion and one of the most captivating and charismatic figures in sports entertainment history — passed away today," the wrestling corporation declared in a statement.

Mr. Rhodes' legacy is continued by his sons Dustin and Cody, who wrestle in the WWE under the names Goldust and Stardust.

Keirn said that after a 44-year career, he knows pro wrestling — and Mr. Rhodes was the best at it.

"Dusty set the buildings on fire," Keirn said. "The crowd anticipation, waiting for him to come out for the main event, made it hard on a lot of talent. Inevitably, everyone was there to see Dusty. We were all just dressing on the card. He was the guy, the icon of our industry."

The American Dream.

Staff writer Zack Peterson contributed to this report. Contact Steve Persall at spersall@tampabay.com or (727) 893-8365. Follow @StevePersall.

* EDITOR'S NOTE: Two photo captions with this story have been corrected to reflect that the event Thursday night was at the Maureen & Douglas Cohn Jewish Community Campus in North Tampa. An incorrect location was used in earlier captions.

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