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Rhodes was cool when wrestling was hot

Published:   |   Updated: March 20, 2013 at 07:46 PM

It is a Tuesday night in August 1976. It is Tampa, a little west of downtown. In a few weeks, a bit farther west, the Buccaneers will be playing their first ever regular season game. But tonight, in this building on Howard Avenue, other large and powerful men will be crashing into one another.

This is Fort Homer Hesterly Armory, which has hosted presidents and kings. Well, the king of rock 'n' roll, anyway. Elvis played here in the 1950s. But on Tuesday nights, in the mid-'70s, it is professional wrestling that holds sway.

Advertisements in The Tampa Tribune every Sunday announce the matchups. Chain Match!! Taped Fists Match!! Texas Death Match!!

The wrestling game will go global in later years, with huge stars and massive pay-per-view audiences. But this earlier version has its own charm, and its own stars. Abdullah the Butcher, Bob Roop, Harley Race, Jack and Jerry Brisco, they all tighten the ring ropes or fly from the turnbuckle at the Armory.

But the Zeus in the pantheon is Dusty. Dusty Rhodes. He is a man of outsized personality and body. His delivery in pre-match interviews with Gordon Solie is rather the antithesis of what will become standard later. He isn't bombastic. He doesn't shout. Dusty is cool, baby.

Dusty is wrestling tonight. It is a grudge match with Ray Stevens. What's the grudge? Does it really matter? This is theater after all. Big, sweaty theater. All we can be sure of is that Dusty is in the right. Because Dusty Rhodes is a good guy.

That good guy/bad guy line can be tenuous, and it will become much more so in later incarnations of pro wrestling, perhaps reflecting a more nuanced view of human nature. But Dusty, in this time and place, is always good.

The good versus evil dynamic is important. Theater is about lessons, and the lessons taught in professional wrestling of this period are highly resonant. Sometimes the good guys win. Sometimes the bad guys win. And very often, the bad guys cheat. No more basic life instruction exists.

There are other matches on the card. There's a tag team match for the Florida title with Steve Keirn and Bob Backlund taking on The Assassin and The Missouri Mauler. There's another tag teamer featuring Bob Orton Sr. and Roop against the Brisco brothers. There's a special challenge match between Ray Candy and Greg Valentine.

But it's Dusty we want to see, right? Big, bleached-blond Dusty. Stevens doesn't stand a chance. Unless he does something underhanded. We'll have to keep an eye on him. Let's go on inside. I'll hold the door for you.

We'd better hurry. I think I already hear the bell.

Buddy Jaudon is senior researcher at The Tampa Tribune.