In Defense of…
By JP Prag
DUSTY RHODES: HEAD BOOKER (Part 1 of 2)
Hello true believers, and thanks for coming back to In Defense Of…! Last week for a change of pace we did a one-shot deal, defending THE FINGER POKE OF DOOM! See, and you thought I only did this in three parts. I’m full of surprises!
Speaking of surprises, with 64% of the Finger Poke of Doom has been found:
Whew, that was a close one! Every vote counted up until the last minute! Most people who voted guilty had legitimate reasons and expressed them to me, and I appreciate that. Some people, though—well, you know how message boards are. At least if you are going to accuse me of anything or lambaste my choice of topics, have some evidence to back it up! Believe me, there’s plenty of dirt out there if you want to attack me personally. Sigh. But I did notice that different people seem to be voting for different cases. Well, if that’s true then…
Perhaps this is you first time clicking on In Defense Of…? Maybe you didn’t read about The Finger Poke of Doom, Kevin Nash, the Elimination Chamber, or even Eric Bischoff. It might be that you remember the southern booking of yesteryear, and that is what brought you here today. So, for those new to the concept, this article has a pretty simple premise:
Certain people, events, organizations, and storylines in wrestling history have gotten a bum wrap. Certain writers have presented overtly critical comments and outright lies as fact, and others have followed suit. Well no more! “In Defense of…” has one reason: to bring the truth to the wrestling fan!
And that’s what I intend to do.
Me? I’m the One and Only JP, and by the time you are reading this article, I’m watching the Red Sox sweep the Orioles live at Camden Yards. Why did all the New England teams have to become winners AFTER I moved 500 miles away?
Some dame walked into my office and said…
Since I don’t plug him enough, Steve Cook of Cook’s Corner sent this thought along to me:
I have an idea for your column though...how about Dusty Rhodes as a booker? I'm not the biggest fan of his, which is kinda why I'd like to see you take him on.
See people, this is what I’m talking about. Steve isn’t a big fan of Dusty’s, but he’s willing to have an open mind about him! That’s the enlightened attitude I’m looking to create with this column!
Or he’s daring me with something he thinks I’ll miserably fail at and the 411 staff can laugh at me for the rest of my tenure.
Either way, I’ll take the case!
As I said to Steve:
Dusty Rhodes as a booker is a great idea! I always read comments about what a terrible booker he is and the infamous "Dusty Finish", yet he was head booker for years in many different promotions, including running his own. If he was so terrible, why do promotions keep giving him a shot? This should be an interesting case!
And that’s the question that starts this all: Why was Dusty given the book in the first place?
All hail the American Dream
Who is the “American Dream” Dusty Rhodes? For those born into the Rock and Wrestling era (like myself) or the New Generation or the nWo/Attitude era, all you may know about Dusty Rhodes is that he is a fat man with some funny sayings. You might ask yourself, why oh why would this man ever be allowed to be in the business, nonetheless allowed to run the show?
In 1966, the man born Virgil Runnels Jr. began training for wrestling under Joe Blanchard (who was also father of future horseman great Tully Blanchard). Dusty had overcome childhood ailments that attacked his hip, learned to walk again, and went on to successfully play football for West Texas State. Being a man of determination, he wanted to take a hand at the wrestling business, and so began his two years of training.
Finally in 1968, Dusty made his debut in Pat O’Connor’s Central States territory of the NWA. He found much success there, and went on to defeat Tommy Martin for the NWA Central States Championship in the last month of the year. But real success would find him when he teamed up with “Dirty” Dick Murdock in the last year of the Age of Aquarius and the early Disco days to form the uber hated Texas Outlaws. The Outlaws went on to cheat their way to a vast number of tag team championships, and won notoriety across the entire industry.
After the Texas Outlaws went their separate ways, Dusty moved on to the AWA, and then to Eddie Graham’s NWA Florida. There, despite his cheating and heelish ways, the crowd began to cheer Dusty and force his face turn, a la the Rock in the late 1990’s. It was there that Dusty became the “man of the people” and earned his nickname “The American Dream”. He went to capture a vast number of titles while battling all of the top heels of the time, until finally defeating Harley Race in 1979 for his first of three NWA World Heavyweight Championships. He would quickly lose the title and not win it back until 1981. That reign only lasted a couple of months when he lost the title to Ric Flair, a win he would not get back until 1986 for his last NWA World Heavyweight Championship.
And what does this all prove? Dusty Rhodes had paid his dues and knew the wrestling industry. He did not become a head booker until 1983, seventeen years after he began training. There was a man who had traveled the world and done it all. He knew this industry from the inside out, so why not get a shot at running it?
Those fateful six years
From 1983 until 1989, Dusty Rhodes was head booker for the NWA, managing all of the top angles and storylines of the time. But it was not as if he was just thrust into power in 1983; there was long process to get there.
In 1974, Florida promoter Eddie Graham saw the potential in Dusty to not only be a star, but to be a leading man in the industry. His understanding of the audience and ability to draw and make money led Graham to show Dusty the other side of the business. He taught him what it takes to run a show, how to plot out matches, how to maintain and organize talent, and how to find new prospects for future growth. Dusty was an eager student and used all of these lessons in his personal career and in helping others.
In 1983, the wrestling landscape was changing, as Ted Turner had already launched his SuperStation WTBS with Georgia Championship Wrestling. That year, with the larger audience outside Georgia, GWC television became World Championship Wrestling. The timeslot would go to Vince McMahon’s WWF for less then a year in 1984 (WWF’s World Championship Wrestling?), and quickly returned to the NWA with Jim Crocket Promotions. All this time, though, Dusty Rhodes had been given the book.
And with that book, did Dusty Rhodes put himself at the top of promotion? Contrary, he let Ric Flair run with the ball and the title, only once defeating him in 1986. But that win was a quick one, losing the title back to Flair less then two weeks later. Now wouldn’t a man who was only interested in putting himself over give himself the title for years at a time? Instead, he completely separated himself from the title, making that one moment when he won that much more special.
The booking strategy was counter to what the WWF was presenting at the time. The WWF became all about cartoon characters and the Rock and Wrestling connection. Hulk Hogan was the perpetual champion, the babyface who could not be overcome. The NWA knew they needed to be a different product if they wanted to compete, so they became all about the wrestling. Matches were the focus above characters (though there were still their fair share). More so, having the faces chase the heel made the fans clamor to see the evil Flair defeated. Flair himself was an interesting performer for the fans, and had the skills that the NWA wrestling audience loved to watch. Similar to Kurt Angle of today, Ric Flair was a man the fans loved to hate.
Dusty recognized all of this, and made sure that this was the storyline of the 1980’s for the NWA. Jim Crocket didn’t always agree with the direction of NWA, and his decisions were often reflected on WCW television. But the committee was behind Dusty, and Dusty continued to change the concept of professional wrestling.
Fun with numbers… errr… words
With the changing landscape of professional wrestling shifting, Dusty knew he needed to take the NWA into other media markets. The first playground was with PPV by creating Starrcade and the Great American Bash. And I mean creating them. He came up with the concepts, the name, and the cards. And how successful were these events? Well, 1987 Starrcade got a 3.3 buyrate, in 1998 1.8, and in 1999 a 1.3. And then the Great American Bash scored a 2.2 in 1988 and 1.5 in 1989. Seeing the success of his initial PPVs, Dusty wanted to branch even more and had the one and only Bunkhouse Stampede on January 24, 1988. And how did that no-name, never repeated PPV do? Oh, it scored a 3.5 PPV buyrate. Well, Dusty seemed to have some idea what he was doing, despite most people saying that the PPVs of the NWA were financial disasters. Check back in our Eric Bischoff piece to see why we consider these to be “successful” PPVs.
By the way, a PPV buyrate translates into roughly 400,000 buys, in case you don’t know. Do the math and multiple by about $20 a pop at the time. Now multiply times 3% to the N where N is equal to the number of years since the event and 3% is the average rate of inflation. That is how much money that PPV would have made today on buyrates alone! What? I left my calculator at work.
During this time, Dusty also came up with and booked one of the most beloved gimmick matches in all of wrestling, IWC and mark alike. War Games was a creation of Dusty Rhodes, a match won by the Road Warriors over JJ Dillon. Hardly putting himself above the card again. Dusty even used his greatest creations to put others over huge instead of himself, and keep his opponents strong (notably Ric Flair) in the long chase.
Still, despite everything he had done for the NWA, World Championship Wrestling television, and the business in general, Dusty Rhodes had to go.
Revenge of the Stardust
In 1989, JCP would fall on hard financial times. Despite the success of Dusty’s PPVs and booking strategy, Crockett had made a number of bad financial decisions. He had been out acquiring rival promotions and signing wrestlers to guaranteed contracts in an effort to grow faster then Vince McMahon. This concentration on trying to beat McMahon without the business fundamentals first put JCP into bankruptcy.
Not wanting to see his highest rated television show just disappear, Turner acquired the assets of JCP and officially renamed it World Championship Wrestling, the same name as his television show. Concurrently, Ric Flair and Dusty Rhodes were in a bitter backstage feud on the future of Flair as champion. Dusty saw that it was now time to use Flair to make new stars, while Flair thought that he should continue to ride high and long with the title. Turner would not buy JCP without Flair (being a huge mark for the man), so the NWA sent Dusty packing and Turner put Jim Herd in charge. In turn, Herd made Ric Flair the head booker, and the early 90’s went to Flair country in WCW.
Dusty took this opportunity to go the WWF, where Vince tried to humiliate Dusty for all of his years of booking against the WWF. Despite the polka dots, the plumbers, and everything else, Dusty remembered his lessons from Graham and his natural charisma and ability and was being cheered in the WWF at levels near Hulk Hogan. Once again, Dusty proved he knew the business.
Meanwhile, back in WCW, the wrestlers were revolting against Ric Flair constantly putting himself over, and he resigned from the booking committee and was replaced with Jim Barnett who also brought Jim Crockett back into the committee. This group reversed a lot of the booking decisions Flair had made, and confused the fans to no end. So Barnett’s reign quickly ended and Ole Anderson was given the book. Ole pushed older stars, and was jobbing out the younger crew and driving them away in droves. This quickly led to him being fired at the end of 1990.
In January 1991, WCW decided only one man could book their show, only one man could help the fledgling WCW grow. And that man was the “American Dream” Dusty Rhodes.
Dusty was through with wrestling on a regular basis, so this time around there was less worry over him wanting to put himself over (though he did not do that much, as we have seen). This time around, too, Dusty tried to help the younger wrestlers develop personalities and gimmicks. Sure, some of them were as bad as Oz, but others were as good as “Stunning” Steve Austin. The most important aspect is that he was out there trying to find new talent and give them a shot.
As I said in the Kevin Nash case, it is one thing to be given the opportunity. It is another thing entirely to run with it. Dusty Rhodes had gotten over with a polka dot gimmick. The gimmick does not matter, the performer does. Carlito probably has one of the silliest gimmicks going right now on RAW, but the performer behind it makes it all believable and enjoyable.
Also during this time, the main event was shuffled up as more wrestlers were given an opportunity to show what they were made of. Scott Steiner received a shot against Ric Flair at Clash of the Champions in his first ever main event. Bobby Eaton also got a main event title shot in his first and only time finishing a show. Dusty was never trying to hold these guys back, only give them legs to run on. If they could not run that was hardly his fault. Sometimes people need time to develop (Kevin Nash needed another three years of seasoning before he was ready), and sometimes they are ready to go (Vader became a monster in WCW under Rhodes).
Rhodes also worked to get back the prospects and talents that Ole had chased away, including IWC favorite Cactus Jack. And understanding the direction of the industry towards athletic competition and again going against the cartoons of the WWF, Dusty created the short-lived Light Heavyweight Championship that was won by Brian Pillman. Perhaps he was a bit ahead of his time with this concept, but Dusty knew what the fans wanted to see: action.
In that vein, he went on to Starrcade 1991 with the Lethal Lottery Tag Team Tournament, pairing odd teams together in an action-packed evening.
Still, business was not turning around fast enough for Herd, and Herd also failed in his negotiations with Ric Flair, losing the World Heavyweight Champion to the WWF. So at SuperBrawl 1992, Dusty was given his last night with the book by the desperate Herd. Going out with a bang, Dusty had the 17-minute Pillman-Liger classic for the Light Heavyweight Championship and Sting over Luger for the World Heavyweight Championship in Luger’s last match before going on to the World Bodybuilders Federation. And despite drawing a 0.96 buyrate (well above our success range), Dusty was pushed down to the announce booth and Cowboy Bill Watts took over the committee.
Of course, you know, this would not be the end of Dusty Rhodes: Head Booker.
That may not be the end of Dusty, but it does bring us to then end of the first part of this two part series. There’s a lot of history to digest, but Dusty has been in this business a long time. Next time will get to the rest of Rhode’s time from the early 90’s to today. We’ll also look at some particular wrestling highlights that Dusty is responsible for. And, of course, we are going to defend the Dusty Finish.
By the way, you may have noticed that there is no new banner on the top of this article despite the end of the CONTEST. Well, that’s because I gave into a special request for an extension. So, in the interest of fairness, anyone else who’d like to submit a banner, please find the directions in an earlier article, because I’m not going to repost them here.
But since the vast majority of you are normal readers, I only have this to say:
Tune in next week for In Defense of… Dusty Rhodes: Head Booker (Part 2 of 2)!!
Until then, the defense rests.
Know a particular person, event, organization, storyline, etc… in wrestling history that needs a defense? E-mail the One and Only JP at firstname.lastname@example.org, and I’ll be glad to hear your case.