by Stephen Keene
It’s perhaps too easy to distil a 40-odd year career to one moment. Maybe it is too easy to distil professional wrestling down to one moment. But when that moment is Dusty Rhodes’ “Hard Times” promo, I think it makes sense. There’s whole world there, and a whole life.
Professional wrestling is perhaps the true working class artform. It is escapism, drama, action, glamour, all those things that you need after a hard day. But it is also a morality play. It is where we see the trials and challenges of our own lives played out in the ring, at the TV studio, in the arenas. We see good fighting evil, and good doesn’t always prevail. We see the hard-working and the honest thwarted by the entitled, the lucky, and the cheats. Just like we see in our own lives. Professional wrestling is catharsis. You can see your own struggles there. You might not always succeed. Your heroes might not always succeed. But perhaps one day they will. And that gives you hope.
Dusty Rhodes was hope. Hope for the downtrodden and the sidelined. Hope for the working man and the man who can’t work anymore. He was there for all of us who go through hard times.
This moment, the “Hard Times” promo, was in 1985.
America was in the midst of the Reagan Era. The western world was in thrall to the free market. The trickle-down effect was yet to trickle down from the rich to the poor, and it wasn’t clear that it ever would. Industry was changing. Or closing.
And in 1985 we were in the midst of the go-getting, look out for yourself decade. This was the culture now. Get bigger, stronger, and richer. The self is good. Selfish is better.
Even in professional wrestling. The Vince McMahon revolution saw a parade of muscle-bound, shouting, singular personalities Ayn Rand would have been proud of. McMahon’s hero Hulk Hogan might have asked kids to say their prayers and eat their vitamins, but watch his matches and you’ll see he pulled as many dirty tricks as the bad guys. This was the 1980s. You win how you can.
Then here we have Dusty Rhodes. The American Dream. And here he is redefining that dream. The old dream, that you can make whatever you want of yourself, has gone. That’s not the truth for the ordinary working man or woman. That was just a myth. You find that out when you lose your job and can’t get another one.
The American Dream cannot be built on rampant individualism. Ric Flair’s world of limousine riding and jet flying is for the few, not the many. Dusty tells us, shows us that the American Dream has to be built on community, on compassion, on love.
That was a pretty astonishing thing to be saying in 1985. It is pretty astonishing thing to be saying now.
Dusty Rhodes didn’t look like your standard hero. And that is completely the point. He was an everyman, and the wonderful thing about an everyman is that we can all relate to him.
But when I say everyman, I don’t mean any man. He was not just an archetype. Dusty Rhodes was a character. A completely unique character. A huge guy with blonde curly hair, lisping and jiving sounds like a character, a caricature even. Yet with Dusty Rhodes it feels completely real, completely natural. We were seeing him. He was a character. But an honest one.
Wrestling is all about larger than life characters, the real world turned up, intensified. But it resonates most when it genuinely still feels real, even when we know that it is not. The best characters are those who feel true, where the persona is an extension of the person.
That is a hard thing to pull off, to be yourself yet not yourself. Dusty managed that better than most, maybe better than anyone. There were many Dustys. There was Dusty the wrestler, in the ring. Dusty the talker, out of it. Dusty the booker, the man arranging the whole circus. Dusty the husband, the father, the friend. He had his faults, he didn’t always get things right. And that is perhaps what made him so compelling, so easy to relate to. He wasn’t perfect. And we loved him because neither are we.
I think great art makes you feel less alone in the world. And I think professional wrestling can do that as well as any novel, any piece of music, any film. Dusty Rhodes did it better than anyone. When he talks of “Hard Times” he literally reaches out to the fans, gestures for them to reach back to him, reach out to each other. Let’s gather for it. He leads a near communion. We might feel like nothing is going our way, that the fates are against us, or maybe just economics are against us. But the American Dream, the dream for any of us wherever we are, need not be just about looking out for ourselves. It can be about looking out for others. And knowing there is someone out there looking out for you. Someone who will fight for you. You, we, will always have Dusty Rhodes.