When Kevin Sullivan Separated Dusty Rhodes From Virgil Runnels

The influence of Satan and his minions on popular culture was an accepted fact in the 1980s. Geraldo, Sally Jessy Raphael, Phil Donohue, and a who’s who of lesser-known daytime talk show hosts invited representatives of the Church of Satan or any other “left-hand path” religion to exhibit their immaculately groomed eyebrows on television. “Experts” were invited onto the actual news to present their case that corporate conglomerate Proctor and Gamble glorified the Lord of Darkness through the use of occult symbolism in their trademark logo. Phil Phillips’ Turmoil in the Toybox laid bare the dark, demonic roots of seemingly innocuous properties like The Smurfs, Rainbow Brite, and The Thundercats. Judas Priest served their infernal master by hiding backwards messages in their songs that drove their fans to self-harm. Don’t even get me started on what was said to have happened to kids on Halloween. This all sounds ridiculous, and it should because it absolutely is. Anyone paying attention knew that none of these things could be real because in the 1980s the legions of evil were focusing the full force of their infernal might on Florida, carrying out their evil tasks on earth through their vessel Kevin Sullivan.

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The most brilliant thing Kevin Sullivan ever did was to never explicitly mention Satan. Sure, he made inferences, but actual references to Lucifer, hell, Satan, et al. were passed by in favor of more esoteric talk of ingesting Cosmic Cookies, visiting the 13th Step of The 13th Pyramid, and praising a shadowy figure known as Abudadein. This wasn’t Pampers hiding necromantic sigils on their diaper packaging, this was true darkness. This was real. Proof of this reality was the army Sullivan assembled. “Maniac” Mark Lewin disappeared from this mortal realm and rose from the sea reborn as The Purple Haze. Olympian wrestler “The All American” Bob Roop vanished in a mist and was reborn as Mayha Singh, shaving half of his face and head and becoming a crazed tool in Sullivan’s vendetta against his former tag-team partner Mike Graham. Kendall Windham’s childhood playmate Cindy Lou fell under Sullivan’s thrall and became The Lock, eventually teaming with Luna Vachon to form the tag team The Daughters of Darkness, two more arrows in Sullivan’s accursed quiver. Even the dastardly Jake “The Snake” Roberts honed his evil skills under Kevin Sullivan’s tutelage, showing up in Florida in 1983 to assist Sullivan in his efforts to destroy “The American Dream” Dusty Rhodes.

If you’re going to take out Dusty Rhodes then you know you’re in for a fight. Rhodes’ battle with the forces of darkness predates the Dusty Rhodes classics we all know. This was a year before “Hard Times.” This was before “I’m breathing!” This is before The Treasure Chest of Beef. Dusty was crisscrossing the country on his TCB Tour but the business of which he was taking care was decidedly terrestrial and corporeal. Dusty Rhodes was The American Dream; the son of a plumber from Austin, Texas; a man who took it upon himself to heal what he saw as deep divisions within the country he loved. But while he was sending love and light out into the world. He never thought to shine that same light within. Maybe Dusty did give in to the rare moment of introspection and self-reflection, but he didn’t dig deep enough. There were fissures in the bedrock of Rhodes’ positivity. That’s not meant as an accusation. It’s a demonstrable truth. If there is darkness in a person’s heart, Kevin Sullivan will find it. Roots don’t have to be taught how to find water. Even if it’s hidden beneath asphalt, pipes, or rocks, they will find it, no matter how deeply they have to delve. Kevin Sullivan was the root that sought out the darkness hidden deep inside souls. In July of 1984 he found the darkness inside the American Dream.

“The American Dream”

Championship Wrestling From Florida’s July 28, 1984 broadcast generated quite a bit of excitement in the viewing audience. Florida wrestling fans were going to be able to see The American Dream Dusty Rhodes in action, which was always a cause for celebration. Coming out of Gordon Solie’s weekly Missing Children public service announcement, Solie tells the viewer “this should be quite a match. Dusty Rhodes is getting set to move out against Denny Brown.” Brown—possibly unknown to many wrestling fans of today—was anything but an “enhancement talent” in 1984. In fact, at the time of this match, he was only a few months away from winning the NWA World Junior Heavyweight Championship Championship at Starrcade. In that match, his opponent would be a man called Mike Davis. But that, as you now know, is in the future and Brown’s opponent here certainly isn’t Mike Davis. Mike’s opponent here, as Gordon Solie has told us, is “The American Dream” Dusty Rhodes.

Dusty’s music hits. One thing I like about regional wrestling television programming from the 1980s is the total and complete disregard they showed for music copyright regulations. We’ve all seen The Road Warriors enter to Black Sabbath’s “Iron Man.” Any wrestler with a coat and tie as part of their ring wear would obviously blast ZZ Top’s “Sharp Dressed Man” on their way to the ring. I have fond memories of an episode of NWA television where Dusty Rhodes entered to a Dio song. But tonight, Dusty’s going for something really different. Dusty, it seems, is coming to the ring to the sounds of the theme from The Twilight Zone. As that theme’s screeching violins pieces the air in the studio, Dusty emerges from the dressing room wearing a white hooded ring robe trimmed with stars. He’s accompanied by two shadowy figures, one of whom immediately begins yelling “I told you I have him.” That voice belongs to Kevin Sullivan, and the man climbing into the ring is definitely not Dusty Rhodes. “That’s not Dusty Rhodes,” Gordon Solie tells us. “That’s Mike Davis!” Solie’s broadcast partner Buddy Colt chimes in to remind us that Davis has been “missing for about a month now.” One has to wonder who made the decision to play up this aspect of Mike Davis’ character almost immediately after a public service announcement requesting help in finding real, actual missing children.

Davis faces off against Denny Brown in the ring, but this isn’t “The All American” Mike Davis we all know and love as one half of tag team sensations the Rock ‘n’ Roll RPMs. This Mike Davis is strutting around the ring, wiggling his ass, and wrestling Denny Brown in Rhodes’ style. “It’s quite obvious he’s trying to emulate Dusty,” says Buddy Colt. Solie agrees, saying “he’s Dusty reincarnated, there’s no question about that.” There’s not much time for more talk. As Sullivan screams “the Dream is here!” at ringside. “Dusty Rhodes” defeats Denny Brown with an elbow drop. “I am completely blown away with this,” says Solie. “In the years that I’ve been doing Championship Wrestling, I have never seen anything quite as strange as that.” Hang in there, Gordon. It’s about to get stranger.

A Dark Dream

A bewildered Gordon Solie introduces the next match, a contest between Florida Heavyweight Champion “Superstar” Billy Graham against Shotgun Willie. After what we’ve just witnessed, though, it’s hard to focus on this one. “At least now we know what the surprise is that Kevin Sullivan’s been talking about,” says Gordon as Graham uses his kung fu expertise to quickly dispatch Shotgun Willie. This is fine. It gives more time for Barbara Clary’s interview with Kevin Sullivan and, uh, “The American Dream.” After a commercial for ColorTyme Rent-To-Own appliances, Barbara Clary’s face fills the screen. The camera pulls back to reveal that she’s joined at the broadcast desk by The Lock, Kevin Sullivan and, as she says “a different” Dusty Rhodes.

Sullivan is quick to correct her. “It’s not a different Dusty Rhodes,” he claims. “A year ago I predicted… as Abudadein took me to the seventh step on the seventh veil, he told me ‘darkness lives in Rhodes’ heart. You and Rhodes are cosmic warriors. Together, I will draw the life force from Dusty Rhodes and put it beside you.” This is possibly the greatest explanation for a wrestler’s change of character in the history of this great sport. But Sullivan isn’t done. Sullivan tells us, gesturing to Mike Davis, that “the Dream has arrived. The Dream has spent time in Singapore on Boogie Street with Abudadein himself. He’s laid on the bed of nails. Fasted for thirty days. Found his mind and soul in the desert.”

He turns the microphone over to The Dream who comes through with a frankly a pretty good Dusty Rhodes impression. You and your friends always lapse into a Dusty impression when you’re goofin’ around, right? If you don’t, you should. It’s fun. Now, imagine being able to do that on national television. It’s a dream (if you’ll pardon the pun) come true. The Dream says that he’s here to get rid of the big imposter Virgil Runnels because there is only one Dusty Rhodes. It’s easy to lose sight of this in the wrestling world of 2021, but this is actually revolutionary. Most kids watching this would probably hear that and just think Virgil is maybe some guy they know at the tire store or whatever, but what Davis is claiming is that through Abudadein’s dark thaumaturgy, Kevin Sullivan has managed to find a kernel of darkness within Dusty Rhodes’ soul and has, with the help and guidance of Abudadein, used that darkness to power a ritual which stripped the very essence of “The American Dream Dusty Rhodes” from the body of Virgil Runnels, the real-life name of the actual man who portrays him, and transmuted “The All American” Mike Davis into the actual Dusty Rhodes. The implications of this are, frankly, mind-boggling and it still stands to this day as one of the greatest stories wrestling has ever told. Not even pre-shutdown CHIKARA, with its multiple interlocking science fiction storylines, managed to outdo what Kevin Sullivan and Mike Davis did on a summer Saturday afternoon in Tampa.

There’s no more mention of Dusty Rhodes on the remainder of this broadcast. The final match of the show is a tag team contest featuring Mike Graham and Scott McGhee against Hector and Chavo Guerrero, and that’s a lot of talent in one ring, so of course you want to focus on that, but after what was just unleashed upon the world, it’s hard. Championship Wrestling From Florida just provided its viewers with irrefutable proof of the powers of evil sorcery. We now know that it’s possible by harnessing the powers of darkness, to strip a man’s essence from his body. In fact, it seems as if the power of this knowledge was too great, because it’s hard to find any mention of it after the fact. “The American Dream” in the body of Mike Davis is not seen again on Championship Wrestling from Florida. When we next see Kevin Sullivan behind Buddy and Gordon’s desk, he’s accompanied by “Superstar” Billy Graham, the latest recruit into his Army of Darkness. The American Dream Dusty Rhodes no longer accompanies him. Maybe the dreadful ensorcellment that held the essence of Rhodes to the body of Davis was too tenuous to last in the long term but maybe, just maybe, Sullivan had stumbled on a truth too horrific to be known. Abudadein had given Sullivan the power over the human soul. Maybe what was left of Sullivan’s humanity realized this knowledge was too terrible to be carried inside a man and forced him, along with the rest of Florida, to forget.

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Robert Newsome

Robert Newsome is the editor and publisher of The Atomic Elbow, America's seventh best wrestling fanzine. His writing has also appeared at Bandcamp and The Comics Journal. He can often be found talkin' trash down at the comic book store.

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