Runnels, a gregarious WWE Hall-of-Famer and three-time NWA champion, transcended territories and styles in a career than began in the late 1960s. He wrestled throughout the United States but had his first taste of fame in the Seventies, as part of National Wrestling Alliance promotions in Florida and Georgia, and plied his trade for Vince McMahon Sr. in the World Wide Wrestling Federation, the forerunner to today’s WWE.
He feuded with every superstar of note during the era, working matches with the likes of Terry Funk, Superstar Billy Graham, Harley Race and – most notably – the Four Horsemen stable (especially Ric Flair and Tully Blanchard), a rivalry that led to some of the most memorable promos of all time and saw him cement his blue-collar “American Dream” persona forever.
Working both inside the ring and behind the scenes with legendary promoter Jim Crockett, Runnels also helped transform Georgia Championship Wrestling into World Championship Wrestling, which would challenge the WWE for pro-wrestling supremacy during the 1990s.
He’d then go to work for McMahon Jr., and even though he was saddled with yellow polka-dotted ring attire and a new “Common Man” gimmick, Runnels would become one of WWE’s top stars, feuding with “Macho Man” Randy Savage and even bringing a fan-turned-grappler named Sapphire along as his manager (though, in the grand tradition of the sport, she’d eventually turn on him and side with the villainous “Million Dollar Man,” Ted DiBiase.)
Runnels left WWE in the early Nineties, but his career in the ring would continue for the next two decades, working once again for WCW, Total Nonstop Action and on the indie circuit. He also operated his own promotion, Turnbuckle Championship Wrestling, and, in 2005, he signed a WWE Legends Contract and worked in the creative department – along with engaging in the occasional feud with up-and-coming stars – and got to witness the rise of his two sons, Dustin “Goldust” Runnels and Cody “Stardust” Runnels. He also became an invaluable asset in WWE’s developmental league, NXT, working behind the scenes to book matches and develop young wrestlers – including current champ Kevin Owens, who praised him during a recent interview with Rolling Stone.
Tellingly, Owens, Triple H and several other WWE stars took to Twitter immediately after the news of Runnels death began to spread to pay homage to their mentor.
There are no words that can express the sadness in our hearts. RIP Dusty Rhodes…You will be missed, Dream…We love you pic.twitter.com/45dPxrS3JB
— Kevin Owens (@FightOwensFight) June 11, 2015
— Triple H (@TripleH) June 11, 2015
In a statement, WWE credited Runnels with helping shape “the landscape” of the company, and called him “a hero to fans around the world thanks to his work ethic, his impassioned interviews and his indomitable spirit.”