As a performer and storyteller, Virgil Runnels became a working class hero because he was a man of the people.
My best friend Jesse and his family were huge pro wrestling fans. I was pretty young at the time – no more than 10, probably – and I remember the Saturday, sitting in the living room at Jesse’s watching Mid-Atlantic Championship Wrestling, when they announced that The American Dream, Dusty Rhodes, was coming. I had no idea who he was, but Jesse’s mama nearly had a conniption. I deduced, from all the whooping and hollering, that this was a big deal. And it was not good news for The Nature Boy, Ric Flair.
We were working people, all of us, up and down Reid Rd., out Eastview Dr. and down to the end of the dirt lane where I lived with my grandparents. We were not especially enlightened on most matters, and it wasn’t hard to get a good argument boiling over a topic like whether or not wrestling was fake. Later on I’d work all this out, but getting a glimpse behind the curtain never dulled my love for what is now known as “sports entertainment.”
The why, I suppose, is straightforward enough. I have never stopped being working people, and when you strip it to its essence pro wrestling is perhaps the ultimate working class popular art form. I have compared it to the Medieval mystery cycles, today known as “passion plays,” because structurally each is a tale of good vs. evil, aimed at an unsophisticated, lower class audience. I once pondered doing my doctoral dissertation on this very subject, in fact.
Even as I study the industry and analyze the storytelling (which has gotten progressively worse as Vince McMahon has gotten progressively richer) from the perspective of the PhD cultural studies analyst, there’s still the little boy in me who roots for the good guys and hates the bad guys – although my criteria for good and bad are decidedly more complex than they once were.
I’m still the kid who marked out for Johnny Weaver and Mil Mascaras and Ric Flair (when he was performing as a babyface) and the Mighty Igor (who kissed me on the cheek during his entrance at a house show when I was 9 or so, shortly before he got blindsided and left a bloody pulp by Dick “The Bulldog” Brower) and Paul Jones and Wahoo McDaniel and Rufus R. “Freight Train” Jones and Ricky Steamboat and who knows how many more.
And of course, The American Dream, real name Virgil Runnels, who died today at 69.
Perhaps no performer in the history of the industry ever connected with working people like Dusty, and it wasn’t a pose. He was one of us. He was one of the greatest storytellers pro wrestling ever produced – which was good, since he wasn’t especially talented as a ring athlete – and the stories were our stories. Hard work, fighting the rich and powerful, defending the downtrodden, betrayal by those in power, dark times, all infused with determination and a gritty hope for redemption. He got knocked down but he never stayed down. Like us.
Thanks, Dusty, for telling our stories. We’ll miss you.
This is one of the promos he’s most famous for: “Hard Times.”