When Dustin Runnels made his pro wrestling debut in 1988, there was little doubt that the second-generation performer was going to make an impact on the wrestling business.
The eldest son of one of the sport's most charismatic figures, “The American Dream” Dusty Rhodes (Virgil Riley Runnels Jr.), the youngster then known as Dustin Rhodes had all the tools to go with the pedigree.
A strapping, athletic specimen who broke into the business after graduating from Charlotte's East Mecklenburg High School, the 6-5, 220-pound rookie got his feet wet in his dad's old stomping ground of Florida, teaming with other second-generation wrestlers such as Mike Graham and Kendall Windham.
A short two years later, Runnels would find himself joining his father in the World Wrestling Federation. By that time, however, Dusty Rhodes was nearing the end of his run as an in-ring performer. Now parading as the yellow polka-dotted “Common Man,” the 45-year-old Rhodes was a far cry from his days as a three-time NWA world champion
whose electric personality endeared his working-class hero character to a generation of wrestling fans.
Runnels, though, was eager and was immediately thrown into a hot angle on a Saturday Night Main event show.
“It seems like it was yesterday,” says Runnels. “That was quite a moment. I remember very, very clearly when Ted DiBiase opened me up hardway with that chair. I was like, 'Oh my God, what just happened to me?' This was the big time. Here we go.”
Several months after making his WWF debut, young Dustin Rhodes would be gone.
On Jan. 19, 1991, at the Royal Rumble, Runnels and his father lost to Ted DiBiase and Virgil in a tag-team bout. “Dad was leaving, and I wanted to follow him out right then. I asked for my release and (WWE owner) Vince McMahon said yes,” Dustin recalls.
As young Rhodes walked away, however, McMahon took Dusty aside. It was a conversation Dustin would learn of only later.
“Listen. You take him now, but I'm going to bring him back and make him a star,” McMahon prophetically told Dusty.
Several years passed, but McMahon was true to his word. Goldust, one of the most radical, revolutionary characters in the history of the industry, would make his in-ring debut in October 1995.
Never in Runnels' wildest dreams would he have ever envisioned the way McMahon would make him a star.
“Back then, I was just on a wrestling learning tree, following Dad around and trying to fit into his shoes. It was part of growing up, and later I learned that I needed to stretch my wings and kind of fill my own shoes because his were impossible to fill.”
Dustin still remembers the day he got the call from McMahon. Bruce Prichard, McMahon's right-hand man at the time, also was on the line.
“Are you sitting down?” McMahon asked Runnels.
“Well, I can be,” he politely replied.
McMahon went on to explain the gimmick that had been drawn up for Runnels. He told the youngster that the character, which would be called “Goldust,” would be androgynous.
“I had no idea what androgynous meant at the time,” says Rhodes. “I just listened to him and agreed to whatever he said.”
Runnels, figuring he had nothing to lose, was ready for a career change.
“Sure, let's give it a whirl,” said Runnels, who was looking to do something “outside the realm of the Rhodes family.”
“I wanted to do something on my own and see if this was possible.”
Travel plans were made, but first, Runnels wanted to check the dictionary.
“I wanted to find out what in the hell androgynous was,” he laughs. “Oh, man, look at what I just got myself into,” he said to no one in particular when discovering that the word was defined as “having both male and female characteristics or qualities; having traditional male and female roles obscured or reversed.”
Being a good old boy from Texas, Runnels took a couple of deep breaths and pondered the situation he had gotten himself into.
“I took a positive out of it, and said, 'Man I'm going to make this happen.'”
Runnels had spent the past several years working as “The Natural” Dustin Rhodes for Ted Turner's WCW. Returning to the then-WWE had some risks attached to it — not the least of which was completely revamping his character. He was, after all, the son of the legendary Dusty Rhodes. He had a reputation to uphold.
But that, ironically enough, was also a motivating factor, he says, in making such a switch. Runnels and his dad had not spoken in several years, and he reasoned that perhaps a major change was in order. That's not to say he wasn't apprehensive about the big move.
He was even scared at first of doing the gimmick, realizing that it would shock many people.
“Vince said he was behind it. But there were a lot of things going on up there with The Kliq and things like that ... I was worried. I was very scared. I had never been a bad guy. I've always been a babyface. They give me this character, and now I had to learn how to be a bad guy and do this androgynous stuff, which was way ahead of its time.”
Runnels introduced his new gimmick to a mixed reaction. He would be later accompanied by his then-wife Terri Runnels who, as the lovely seductress Marlena, played the role of a glamorous, cigar-smoking femme fatale that she had concocted to complement her husband's eccentric, gender-bending character.
With a flowing golden robe and gold face paint, Goldust wore a platinum blonde wig over his short platinum blond hair, with his appearance modeled after an Academy Award. The controversial performer appeared to be effeminate and loved to get into the minds of his foes with sexually suggestive interviews and antics in the ring.
In the beginning, says Runnels, nothing seemed to be working.
“I was learning as I went. It took five months, then six. Vince had told me to call him if I had any problems on the road. And I did ... more than a few times.”
Although Runnels removed the wig before his matches and exhibited his wrestling skills once the bell rang, the sexually ambiguous character was far from over with the audience in the beginning.
Terry Taylor (aka The Red Rooster), another wrestler whose career went spiraling downward with a questionable gimmick, jokingly called Goldust “a cross between Dick The Bruiser and Marilyn Monroe.”
Scott Hall, then known as Razor Ramon, refused to wrestle “The Bizarre One” because he feared it would hurt his image.
“I tried something one night about eight months into it while trying to figure out this character, and it worked. And it worked big,” says Runnels. “And I thought to myself, 'Wow. That was easy. Why didn't I get that sooner?' And I took that and ran with it.”
“It was cutting edge,” he says. “We pushed the envelope to where it was stepping and going over at times. And here we are. I've been through a lot of transition and changes with the character over the years.”
Eighteen years later, after numerous changes, some better than others, the Goldust character, which predated WWE's scandalous Attitude Era, is still alive in WWE.
“I'm just happy to be back and with my brother,” says Runnels.
Bumps in the road
Things haven't always been easy for Dustin Runnels.
A well-documented split with his father produced family friction and discourse. Runnels admitted in a 1997 interview that he had never been able to emerge from the shadow of his father no matter how hard he tried.
His drug abuse spiraled out of control during his two stints with TNA. The money he made he spent on coke, pills and booze. When he'd run out of drugs before he could find another doctor to write a prescription, he'd turn to drug dealers on the street.
“It was day in and day out, probably two years solid, and I can go through the list of things. A half gallon of vodka a day, probably 60 or 70 pills a day, plus other stuff like cocaine. It wasn't good, but I didn't care. I didn't see the other way. I only thought about where I could get my next fix.
“I didn't see what it had done to me or what it was doing to my family and everybody around me. And what it was doing to my career and especially my health.”
Rhodes hit rock bottom at the end of a three-day bender. He called his dad early one morning pleading for help.
“I was trying and trying and re-medicating myself. It just didn't happen. Enough was enough, and about 3 or 4 in the morning I crawled out in the rain and my wife was with me. I was like, 'I give up,' and I got on the phone and told Dad I wanted to go to the WWE rehab center.”
Connections were made, and Runnels was in rehab the next day.
“I haven't turned back. I've been clean and sober for five-and-a-half years,” Runnels now proudly claims.
Back on track
Runnels, as Goldust, returned to WWE at the Royal Rumble on Jan. 27. He appeared as the eighth participant in the Rumble match, and was eliminated by brother Cody Rhodes (Runnels). He later confirmed that his return was a one-night-only deal.
Two months ago, however, Goldust returned to avenge a storyline firing of his brother. What has resulted since then has been a highlight reel for both Dustin and Cody. Even dad Dusty has been involved in a Rhodes vs. McMahon family angle.
And on Oct. 11, in what has been hailed as one of the greatest WWE tag-team matches in years, Goldust and Cody won the WWE tag-team title from Shield members Seth Rollins and Roman Reigns.
“It was one of those matches that was built the right way from the ground up,” says Runnels. “It started out very slowly, old-school style, and ended with some boom, boom, boom. It was hot. It was very, very exciting.”
A week earlier at WWE's Battleground PPV, the Rhodes brothers had once again beaten The Shield, thus earning Cody's job back and reinstating Goldust to the WWE roster as well.
But the non-storyline material has been even better this time around.
Dustin Runnels is a new man. He's undergoing a career renaissance.
What makes it all the more enjoyable is the fact that he's getting to do it with his younger brother, and on a main stage.
“It was cool the way things worked out,” reflects Runnels. “I never could have imagined or dreamed where my career would be taking me the way it has with the Goldust character. It's awesome.
“I think I've stumbled upon the fountain of youth or something. I'm 44 years old and I'm down to high school weight (225). But I've worked hard for it the past few years. Plus being with Cody gives me more motivation. I've really enjoyed this storyline we've been doing.”
More important, says Runnels, is that he feels good in the ring.
“Now I realize that I can get out there and be clear when I'm working and really give a (darn) and get through a match without taking all that (stuff). That's really what it's about. And I'm enjoying it. I know what's going on now. It's cool.”
And he's not looking back either.
“The past is history. I can't change any of that. And tomorrow is a mystery. I just take it a day at a time, and that's how I get through each day. Whatever they give me today, me and Cody are going to shine. That's my attitude on everything now.
“Since I got out of rehab I found another addiction of just taking care of my body. But it's a good addiction. If I had only known all this stuff back then. But you can't turn back the clock. I work out constantly and I keep focused and try to make the right decisions every day. Stuff has panned out for the better. Opportunities are knocking left and right. It's just a really cool deal.”
Dustin and his brother have been setting the WWE tag-team scene on fire since they joined forces last month.
The two will bring their red-hot act to the Bon Secours Wellnes Arena (formerly Bi-Lo Center) in Greenville on Monday Night for Raw, and the following night for Smackdown at Time Warner Cable Arena in Charlotte.
“It's a great lineup. We're definitely looking forward to being in that neck of the woods,” says Runnels, who adds that he is thrilled watching his brother make such big strides in the ring.
“I've been watching him constantly for the past two or three years. In the beginning it was me sort of pushing for a match with Cody at Wrestlemania. Vince just kept saying no. It got to the point of me just turning on Raw to watch it. I suffered a shoulder injury in 2010. So I did the producing thing. Getting the chance to watch Cody grow has been very special since he is wise beyond his years.”
Runnels is part of a vanishing breed of veterans on the roster who have been around long enough to impart their vast knowledge of the business to the younger hands.
“Some of the young guys out there — not all of them, but some of them — just get really nervous, and they need to know everything and have everything written down for them. They're what I call spot monkeys. They just go a hundred miles and hour, no rhyme, no reason. That's not what we do. We tell a story. It's hard to teach them how to tell that story and teach them the psychology. You have to feel it.”
Cody, now with nearly seven years pro experience under his belt, is “feeling it.”
“The other night at the pay-per-view I gave Cody a tag and I just watched him. I thought to myself: 'This kid's got it.' I felt good for him. He was just cleaning house, on fire, and the crowd was hot. It was very special. He's really doing well, and I am very proud of him. He is the future. “
Dustin, who is 16 years Cody's senior, isn't afraid to give his little brother advice when it's warranted.
“If he wants to do something that I don't think is right, I tell him. I give him a different way to look at it and a different way to get into it. He trusts that. Sometimes he's a little impatient and hotheaded, but at the end of the day we get on the same page. Whatever he can learn from me, that's great. We've gotten so much closer since this has happened than we were in the past. It's just awesome all the way around.”
No one is prouder, though, than dad and WWE Hall of Famer Dusty Rhodes. To Dustin and his brother, Dusty was, and still is, their hero.
“He's always texting us after we've had good matches. And we haven't had a bad one yet since we've been put together. So it's been like bam, bam, bam, one after the other. Dad's just going crazy over the phone. 'Great job, I love you boys,' all that kind of stuff.”
No longer is Dustin Runnels in his father's shadow, but he's proud to be his son.
“Back then it was just stupidity. It was drugs, it was alcohol. I will never let that happen again. And for any child out there, brother or sister, get over it. Your parents are going to be your parents forever, and you only have one mom and one dad. Just make your amends and move on and be happy that they're alive. Just love them. Don't worry about the disagreements. It's great to have my dad back.”
Reach Mike Mooneyham at 843-937-5517 or firstname.lastname@example.org, or follow him on Twitter at @ByMike Mooneyham and on Facebook at Facebook.com/MikeMooneyham.