Dusty Rhodes is dead. His career neatly mapped the rise and fall of the Southern working class, with his rise to fame occurring as Northern industry moved south and his twilight coinciding with NAFTA and the subsequent transformation of once-burgeoning Southern industrial towns into post-industrial ghostscapes. Rhodes' career sprawled across eras like a very loud novel, mapping a socioeconomic story of a specific era in the United States.
If there's one thing Rhodes will be remembered for, it's what's commonly known as the Hard Times promo. The monologue is a thing of pro wrestling lore, imitated and recreated for three decades now. Dusty's lisping cadence has become a thing of parody, but the promo remains great, and contains within it the secret to Rhodes' odd greatness.
It is a frankly and stridently left wing speech, of an older style we seldom see much anymore, from politicians or anyone else. Rhodes laments factory automation and the jobs it cost. He blasts outsourcing and the disrespect bosses show their workers. As the promo evolves, Rhodes sets himself up as the lumpy embodiment of the working class and his opponent, the rich playboy Ric Flair, as the embodiment of capitalist excess.
It is wrestling theater and passionate left-wing populism, breathlessly and simultaneously. It's both a little confusing and totally masterful, and intimate in a way that wrestling, for all its posturing and noise, can be when it works. That promo, and this sport, is not just the telling of myths, but the telling of specifically working class myths. The Hard Times promo puts this in stunningly sharp relief: it reaches into a region's working class psyche and throws the bad guys into relief against the Everyman good guys. It says, as Rhodes did, that we could "touch hands," even if we're a thousand miles apart. Nobody did it like Rhodes, and his performance is what puts it over. But there is something startling about it, too, because of how thrillingly strange his rhetoric sounds in the present.
Most wrestlers would kill to cut a promo like that. Some have nearly died trying. But Dusty's career was so much more than this one deathless promo, and reducing it to Hard Times does a disservice to the man and his work. From wrestling "Superstar" Billy Graham—a sort of proto-Hulk Hogan—in Madison Square Garden to serving as a vital part of NXT, WWE's hot-as-hell developmental territory, Rhodes' career was vibrant, varied, and long.
It's hard to describe the connection, the pure transference, between Dusty and the people who cared about him. Dusty was about who we were down here in the South during those transitional days between Old and New. Not who we wanted to be, but who we already were. We were doughy, even fat. We drove shitty cars. We talked funny. And Ric Flair was in a three-piece suit with a gold Rolex. Which was hilarious and mostly great, because Ric Flair could talk, but also, fuck—Ric Flair was, despite all the hope that we might leave the factories and get rich, the enemy. We knew and we know. Watching Dusty kick his ass nightly was pure, crazy catharsis.
Dusty Rhodes is dead. It's not just nostalgia to say that I will miss him. He was the greatest of the working class wrestlers. He mattered.