The Eternal Heartbreak of Hard Times

There’s probably nothing new that can be said about “Hard Times,” the 1985 Dusty Rhodes promo that defines its feud, its performer, and its time. It’s huge, y’all, so big that it has a name, which isn’t true of many promos. You say “Hard Times” to a wrestling fan and it evokes something: the image of Rhodes in his suitcoat and jeans, studio lighting reflecting off of his shades; his accent; the way he breathed; the way interviewer Bob Caudle puts the microphone to Rhodes’ face and looks as if he’s witnessing a miracle, the weight Rhodes puts on the words “Ric Flair”—it’s a lot to take in, but the promo is turning 35 this year, it has been taken in endlessly, imitated endlessly, dissected endlessly. It is a poem. It is a sermon. It is a lightning bolt. It is a fire.

I think about Dusty Rhodes’ ability on the microphone a lot. As I write this, it’s July 25, the anniversary of a 1994 promo where Dusty pleads with his son Dustin to be allowed to team with him at the upcoming Clash of the Champions. For my money, it is the greatest promo of all time, at once a very real story about a father neglecting his son due to the perceived obligations of fame, and a classic wrestling story about an old gunslinger feeling up to the challenge of his old rivals one last time. Watching it today, I cried. I cry every single time I see the thing. I cry when I think bout it. Again: poem, sermon, lightning bolt, fire.

“Best” and “most famous” are often not the same thing for artists, and “Hard Times” is the promo with the name, not the one that makes me cry. But the thing about Dusty Rhodes, the thing about “Hard Times” and the fables he spun about bulls of the wood and cold-blooded sausage makers and midnight riders and sons of plumbers, is that “Hard Times” is every bit as good as its reputation. It manages to capture a feeling grounded in reality—the soul-crushing grind of working class life in 1985—and apply it to the fantasy that one wealthy man could represent that class in battle against another wealthy man. It feels real, and in wrestling, if something feels real it is.

More professional wrestling:

I’m thinking about “Hard Times” for a couple of reasons. The first of which is Eddie Kingston, who is the closest thing professional wrestling has to a Dusty Rhodes. More often than not it’s Dusty’s son, Cody, to whom such accolades are applied—since the birth of AEW, Cody has had more good nights on the microphone than anybody in the game—but the thing about Cody is that if he and his father were active at the same time, if they didn’t share blood, the two would find themselves in conflict. You can call Cody an underdog, and many do. But he’s not an underdog the same way Dusty was—he’s not the son of a plumber, he’s got a great body, and he grew up in his field, with one of the best minds of his generation as his dad. Cody Rhodes’ promos are not pitched at “the people.” Cody Rhodes does not need “the people.” They’re not grounded in the same material reality, so the grit and reality of the father is replaced by the son’s athleticism and need to prove himself.

Eddie Kingston is real. When I worked play-by-play for AIW, I’d hang out in the back and watch people cut promos. Some wrestlers would go over what they wanted to say, rearrange the objects in a room, do multiple takes, whatever—they had a switch that they needed to flip. I don’t recall seeing too many second takes from Eddie Kingston. He was just on, you know? Poem, sermon, etc. He has promos that are every bit as powerful as Dusty Rhodes at his best, promos that are grounded in real tragedy, real loss, real fear and anxiety and anger and passion.

It’s hard for me, a poet whose early education in public speech was the professional wrestling promo, to not identify with these men, both their artistry and the characters they portray. I’m meant to buy into their personae and I do, hard, because I recognize them from my upbringing, I recognize them from my life experience, and I recognize them in the here and now—people who are avengers, people who seek redemption, people who have the weight of the world on their shoulders and inch forward regardless.

But I’ve strayed from “Hard Times.”

The Relevance of “Hard Times”

The other reason I’ve been thinking about Hard Times is because it’s never been more relevant than it is today. Plenty of culture made 20, 30, 70 years ago is as true now as it was then, but this is a wrestling promo, something firmly stamped into its time and place due to the fact that it’s a promotional tool, an advertisement meant to sell tickets and pay-per-views. And “Hard Times” is that. Aired on October 29, 1985, it was a warning shot to NWA World Heavyweight Champion Ric Flair that their match was more significant than a clash between champion and challenger, a clash with more on the line than pride, money, and championship belts. It’s a match about the soul of the sport they represent. It’s a match about the soul of the country they live in. It’s a match about us, basically—our struggle, our pain, and the way we sometimes put that on the back of an athlete or a team as a prayer, almost, a way of showing ourselves that hope is no futile endeavor.

First, the obvious: Ric Flair and the Four Horsemen did not put hard times on Dusty Rhodes’ family when they broke his ankle the September before. That’s obvious, but one of the things that gets lost about this promo, about Dusty Rhodes, is that wrestling made him as wealthy as his opponent, which was not something he was shy about in other promos. But when he showed up to work dripping in gold chains and Rolexes, floor length fox fur coat hanging from his shoulder and a Cadillac in the parking lot, he wasn’t rubbing it in the face of those watching from home. The figure he cut was an aspirational one, “The American Dream” not just a nice nickname, but as something that’d become true. As the man says elsewhere, he spent nights eating pork and beans, and he wined and dined with kings and queens.

The National Wrestling Alliance of this time has a reputation for being more realistic than the World Wrestling Federation, and one of the ways that that’s most apparent is in its portrayal of money. Beyond managers selling contracts, “Million Dollar Man” Ted DiBiase, and the odd appearance of a wrestler on Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous, the WWF flat did not talk about money. It still largely does not, except in odd instances like the former Heath Slater’s iconic “I Need This Job, I Got Kids” shirt. WWE’s storytelling has always revolved around the working class in some way—the ethnic heroes of the pre-Hogan 70s and 80s, DiBiase, the roster of working class gimmicks, Austin vs. McMahon, and McMahon’s ascendance to his role as the biggest heel in company history—but one of the ways in which the company distanced itself from reality was to avoid speaking about wrestling in terms of its financial impact on wrestlers, what winning and losing meant to their bank account.

Until Hulk Hogan joined WCW in 1994 (bringing with him the advent of the guaranteed money contract), NWA/WCW storytelling revolved around money. That’s what brought the Four Horsemen together. That’s what made Ric Flair the greatest athlete in the sport. That’s what propelled Dusty Rhodes from the dirty heel/workaday hero character he played in other territories to the legend he was in 1985. The concept of the winner’s purse was vital to wrestling, and in breaking his ankle, the Four Horsemen took that away from Rhodes, albeit for a brief time. In reality, it’s no big deal. In the fictional world of the NWA, it’s everything, not just because Rhodes wasn’t bringing in money, but because the fans who paid money to see him win were deprived of that pleasure.

So when Dusty Rhodes says “hard times” for the first time, he speaks with the conviction of someone who has been there. He’s not a textile worker, he’s not an auto worker, and he damn well knows it. His children are fed, his employer will welcome him back, and there’s not a computer in the world that can take his place, but his conviction is not misplaced. These are his people, he is their avatar, and while a month of lost wages for him is nothing, the people he represented were losing a lot more. 1985, five years into the Reagan administration, was the beginning of corporate America’s shift to offshoring—moving manufacturing processes to countries with less expensive labor. The textile industry, especially important to the southern United States where the National Wrestling Alliance thrived, was hard hit. The automobile industry, which once had one of the strongest unions in the country, had been struck hard by the oil crisis of the 1970s, the workers of that industry bleeding wages and jobs at a rate that was only exacerbated by the passage of the North American Free Trade Agreement in 1993.

Economically, labor was doing terribly under Reagan—his wars against unionization were one thing, but labor’s share of income dipped as productivity began to rise, a situation that’s been exacerbated by a stagnant minimum wage, several economic crashes, vulture capitalists, crony capitalism, rising costs of living, the elimination of the social safety net, the election of Donald J. Trump, and the catastrophic response to the global pandemic, one of the threads of which is the Republican horror at the idea of people being paid more to stay on unemployment than they are to face down a virus. The textile worker who lost their wages and can’t feed their four or five kids has been succeeded, over the past 35 years, by the teacher who drives for Uber and Lyft to afford school supplies for their classroom, by the GoFundMe to afford life-saving medical procedures or avoid eviction and homelessness.

That’s the tragedy of “Hard Times,” that it’s been made eternal by the continued suffering of labor, the trauma and anxiety of waking up each day not knowing if a job will be there for you. Rhodes talks about this for just under a minute of this three-and-a-half minute promo, but damn what a moment. “You don’t know what hard times are,” he tells a man who survived a plane crash and broken back, a man who came into the industry idolizing Dusty Rhodes and ended up his polar opposite. It’s such a wild, outlandish statement to make if you know any piece of Ric Flair’s personal life, but by 1985 all of that was solidly in the background. He was a limousine riding, jet flying, kiss stealing, wheeling, dealing son of a gun, everything an out of work textile laborer wasn’t, the kind of guy who’d see that story in the papers and turn to one about the difficulty of making a vacation home on a lake somewhere into one’s personal residence. A man who values things more than he values people.

When Dusty Rhodes says that the way to hurt Ric Flair is to take his title belt away, he means it. That’s the thing that Flair values most, the thing he’ll break legs over, the thing he’ll form a cartel to protect. That’s how it works in real life, and that’s what we’re up against now. What Dusty Rhodes promises in “Hard Times” is what we’re demanding right now: a redistribution of wealth, an appropriation of something horded by the haves and given back to the have-nots. We know it’s not real, that when we reach out our hand to a man like Dusty Rhodes, the narrative satisfaction of his win results in no material change, but the magic of “Hard Times” is that it speaks these desires so clearly, in such an unlikely place, that it feels more real than legislation, more promising than an politician’s speech. You can call Dusty Rhodes any number of things. A poet, if you will. A preacher, if you will. A lightning bolt, if you will. A fire, if you will. Here, delivering “Hard Times,” the man is a prophet. Some day what he says will come true. It’s too real, too felt to go unfulfilled. Pity the Ric Flairs of this world, the unbelievers. The storm is already here, and it’s too righteous to let up soon.