Reconstructed Dreams: the late career resurgence of Dustin Rhodes
2013 WWE is not wanting for talent or the opportunities to present it to the world. Seven-plus hours of television a week, including a three-hour Raw where longer matches are almost a necessity, means that good wrestlers have gotten the chance to shine, even sometimes despite themselves. This has been a year of phenomenal tag team matches, both standard and six-man, a year where Daniel Bryan has been pushed on top, a year where Antonio Cesaro has been possibly the world's greatest gatekeeper in NXT and a standout on the main roster and that the Shield, as a unit, has shined each and every week. It's been a year of CM Punk giving career performances in two of the biggest matches of his life and Mark Henry and the Big Show working as big men as well as anyone the company has ever had. It's been a year of John Cena being John Cena, freakishly returning from injury and wrestling the matches that he's been wrestling without half the credit he's deserved for years. It's almost unbelievable then, that in the face of all the other talent on the roster, the standout story of the back half of 2013 has been the unexpected return of a 44 year old veteran who had been cut from the company multiple times before and who, in his last role for WWE wasn't even an on screen performer?
Out of the ring, Dustin Runnels (who for the sake of my own personal nostalgia, we are going to call Dustin Rhodes or Goldust throughout the rest of this article) is an awkward presence at best. His social media footprint is stilted and sometimes a little uncomfortable to examine. His autobiography was highly anticipated but poorly received, considered overly slight and disjointed. Moreover, it's been ten years since he was featured in a meaningful way on WWE television, and even then it was while saddled with an unfortunate Tourette Syndrome gimmick. His last run, in late 2010 and mainly against Ted Dibiase, Jr., while technically sound, hardly lit up the world and his character, by it's very nature, is not a natural fit for the PG era. Nevertheless, his return in 2013 has resonated with the crowd, produced top-end matches, and elevated not just himself but his brother Cody as well into prominent positions on the WWE roster.
Dustin's success can be attributed to two major factors. First, he has developed, over the last two decades plus, an emotional connection with many generations of fans. This is arguably his fifth or even sixth major focused run in a prominent United States pro wrestling organization, and there were a number of less major runs scattered throughout that time period. Of the active roster, there is no one with the same amount of US Wrestling Experience and you would have to stretch hard (in the direction of William Regal or the Undertaker on the extended roster) to find anyone with more experience in general. Second, due to that experience and his natural athleticism and work ethic, he is able to work a wrestling match as well as anyone in the company. He's able to connect with live crowds young and old on a visceral level utilizing body language, a combination of iconic moves (some not used regularly in the WWE for years) and newer flashier ones, and a number of old tricks that have been developed through decades of professional wrestlers honing their craft.
Dustin Rhodes stands out as unique not due to his longevity but due to his multiple runs between companies and in and out of the WWF/WWE. It allowed him to create an emotional connection, and often very different emotional connections, with different generations of fans and also to intersect with wrestling history and a variety talent over the years. One can find detailed biographies (and of course his own autobiography) detailing his career, so I'll just move in and out highlighting this emotional connection and historical importance and provide a few matches for context
He is, of course, a second generation wrestler, and more than that, he is the son of one of the biggest stars of the late territory era, Dusty Rhodes. Dustin, following in his father's footsteps, got his start in 1988 during an ill-fated attempt to revive the Graham territory in Florida, teaming with Kendall Windham. They even had a cup of coffee in the NWA at this point:
He then moved on to USWA Texas which was Jarrett attempt to maximize the once wrestling-fan-fertile territory that had been World Class. A decent amount of footage has emerged as of late and while this isn't a great match, it's a good look at where he was heading as a young wrestler:
Unsurprisingly, he was helped along the way by his father, who had been the biggest star of the 70s and 80s in Florida and would, for instance, later reward Matt Borne for helping Dustin in Texas with a role as Big Josh in WCW. That was after he returned to power. In 1988, he had been fired from his executive and booking role in what would become WCW after the sale from Crockett to Turner.