Dustin Rhodes is the wrestler of the decade.
There is no critical gesture emptier than declaring something or someone the best of the decade. Look at who I’ve gone with thus far—Katsuyori Shibata, Daniel Bryan and Toru Yano. They’re great at what they do, but in declaring them the best wrestlers of the decade I am telling you more about me than I am about them. I’m telling you not who had the most impact on the sport—if I were in the business of making qualitative statements, I’d be writing another article about how good Kazuchika Okada and Hiroshi Tanahashi are, I’d be writing about the executive vice presidents of AEW, and I’d be admitting to how little lucha libre and indie wrestling I watched in the back half of the year.
Luckily, I am not in the business of making qualitative statements, and I don’t need to tell you that wrestlers whose goodness is unquestioned are, in fact, good. So here, at the end of the decade, I want to point you in the direction of some guys who’ve quietly had an excellent decade, a list as arbitrary as the numbers we’ve decided to mark the passage of time with. In keeping with that, I cannot tell you how much it meant to me as a long-time wrestling fan, and as a lifetime admirer of the Rhodes family, to witness the rebirth of Dustin Rhodes.
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Yeah, his match against his brother Cody, the one where Triple H’s throne got smashed up real good and both of them bled like the patriarch of their family, was incredible, and yeah, seeing him team up with Sonny Kiss was wild. But the Dustin Rhodes I want you to examine is the one who came back to WWE as a nostalgia entry in the Royal Rumble and managed to stick around and completely reinvent his career.
In 2013, Cody Rhodes was fired by The Authority, which triggered an angle suggesting that, at last, WWE knew what made the Rhodes family what they are. A week later, Dustin returned to WWE in his Goldust gimmick, wrestled Randy Orton with his brother’s contract on the line, and lost. A week after that, Dusty Rhodes went to Raw to intercede on his son’s behalf and was offered and impossible choice: Either Cody got his job back, or Goldust did.
If you read my Wednesday Night War column, you know how much I love Dusty Rhodes. I’m watching the promo Big Dust did with Stephanie McMahon right now, and it’s different from perhaps anything he’s ever done. He’s not a young, cocksure man. He’s not an old gunslinger back for one last fight. He’s a father, exhausted and upset on behalf of his children, an old man who doesn’t want to take any more shit from the family that decided to dress him up in polkadots and film vignettes where he delivered pizza and fixed toilets. It’s an impossible choice, and luckily he doesn’t have to make it—it’s a set-up for another angle, one where either the Big Show, under threat of losing his job, knocks Dusty out, or the Shield mauls him.
It’s a spectacularly blocked and framed segment, one that scans a lot better now than it did in 2013 because it’s possible to take it out of context and examine it on its own—it’s so unlike what WWE usually does that it’s difficult to tell whether the crowd is silent because they’re in shock, or because they don’t get it. But I do, and that’s the emotional backdrop against which Dustin and Cody Rhodes came together, two generations of Rhodes men, to seek redemption on their part and vengeance on behalf of their father.
That tag team, y’all. Middle aged men disappear from television and return to choruses of “you’ve still got it” because they’re middle aged and not blown up in five minutes all the time. Dustin Rhodes, though? His return was on another level. If you’re new(ish) to Dustin Rhodes, let me tell you: He is one of the best wrestlers of his generation, part of a young crop of guys who would have made World Championship Wrestling a viable wrestling promotion for a decade were it not for that company bullishly signing Hulk Hogan and all of his friends, and in 2013 he was arguably better than he was during his best year in WCW, nearly 20 years prior to that.
Goldust was always a storyline-first character, but this being a storyline about family, he got to paint with an entirely different palate than the one the Goldust character typically allowed. He spoke with his own voice rather than the slow, sexually tortured one he affected in 1996, or the stutter he adopted in the early 2000s. His facepaint was as serious as the business he was looking to settle. And his wrestling, man, his wrestling. It’s no surprise when he does a blind crossbody from the top rope, but in 2013 it was. Dustin Rhodes was a new man. You can call it motivation or purpose or whatever, but that doesn’t quite cover it for me. If there’s a German word for watching one of your favorite artists make good on their potential, I’d like to hear it. I’d apply it to what Dustin Rhodes did in 2013. I’d hang on to that word for myself.
On a recent episode of Dynamite, Tony Schiavone gushed about how little the passage of time had ravaged Dustin Rhodes’ ability, and I agree. Wrestling is a young person’s sport, but give me a crafty, motivated veteran, and I’m in love. The six month stretch between Dustin’s return and Cody adopting the Stardust gimmick was a constant shot of adrenaline. Outside of Batista and the Wyatts, I don’t think anybody on the WWE roster did more to legitimize The Shield than the Rhodes Brothers. Beyond the New Day and the Usos, I can’t think of many tag teams who burned brighter, and certainly not within the same brief window they were given.
But WWE never figured out what made the Rhodes family special. Instead of taking Dustin out of the facepaint and having him wrestle as The Natural, they put Cody in facepaint and gave us Stardust. They made a member of the Rhodes family, an unparalleled group of raconteurs, cut incomprehensible promos about cosmic keys and alternate dimensions.
A lot of people hung on, clinging to the hope that the payoff to the Goldust/Stardust angle would be worth the pain of watching Dusty and Dustin grapple with Cody’s transformation into Incel Goldust. If you think of AEW as the payoff, then yeah, it was worth the pain. But WWE never got it, and they never tried.
So here we are in 2020, Dusty in the next life and his kids reinventing themselves again on a Turner Network. It’s the one time where it feels right to speculate that a dead wrestler is proud of the kids who succeeded them, the one time a legacy in American wrestling has truly felt like a legacy. It’s enough to make me cry, and it has, several times. I imagine it will continue to do so. For that reason, Dustin Rhodes has been the wrestler of the decade. I hope he’s the wrestler of the next decade, too.