My Time With Dusty Rhodes.
Earlier today, I was devastated to hear about the passing of Dusty Rhodes. Words like ‘shock’ and ‘sadness’ come to mind, but don’t truly capture the whirlwind of emotions that take place when you are blindsided by news like this. It was particularly shocking to me because I had seen him almost every day this week at the WWE Performance Center when I went in to rehab my shoulder. He appeared to be in good health and so it was really hard for me to believe that the news was true. But as I read more and more about it, and tears filled my eyes, I didn’t know what to do with myself. So I came home and decided to just write a little bit about Dusty. Many mourners referred to Dusty as a great mentor and a great teacher, which he absolutely was. But I would like to share with you the little things about Dusty that I greatly appreciated in my time with him. He was a great guy.
I need to start by stating that Dusty was a particularly huge influence and a great help to me when I first arrived at WWE. I started with the WWE in February 2013, reporting to FCW in Tampa, FL, the developmental territory at the time and predecessor for the WWE Performance Center in Orlando. Despite coming to WWE with 11 years of experience already under my belt, the idea of “cutting a promo” terrified me when I first got here. Though I had done a lot before getting to WWE, my interviews or “promos” had consisted of only a few words. I had relied on a lot of my non-verbal skills to get to WWE, but the jig was up now that I had signed. It was time to learn, and school was in session every Thursday at the FCW arena: promo class with Dusty Rhodes.
I don’t know if you’ve ever had to do something that you weren’t good at, in front of someone who happened to be one of the best of all time at it, but needless to say it is intimidating. But Dusty washed away a lot of my fears very quickly, as he took a liking to me right away, and was very nurturing. He really encouraged me to speak in a conversational and natural manner. There is no greater confidence booster than getting a sign of approval from one of the greatest talkers in the history of our industry. As my confidence grew, so too did my interview skills. After every interview, we would tell me what he liked, what not to do, and would frequently remark how I “reminded him of a young Robin Williams”. It made me laugh every time, and it still does, because I still don’t see it.
Dusty is also responsible for my name and character upon my arrival to WWE. After dropping my previous persona from the independents upon signing, I had to choose a new name and a new identity; a new character. It was Dream’s belief in me as a more natural, conversational speaker that helped my decision to more or less just be myself. Picking a name proved to be difficult though, as I had submitted three separate lists of names, all of which had been rejected. Finally, I was asked to narrow it down to 3-5 names and I had a private meeting with Dream to make the big decision. Well, that meeting lasted about a minute.
“So, which name do you like?” Dusty said, in his unmistakable and frequently imitated lisp.
“Uh, I don’t know…I kind of like Sami Zayn”, I replied sheepishly. Bear in mind, I had kept this name on each of the lists, and so the name Sami Zayn had been rejected three times at this point.
“Hmm…Sami Zayn……Sami….Zayn….” he said, as he slowly waved his arm laterally, as if visualizing it on a marquee. He paused, and nodded dramatically. “Yeah, that’s the name. You tell them Dream said Sami Zayn is the name.” And so it was, just like that. Even now telling that story, I have a grin on my face from ear to ear.
I grew so much as a performer thanks to Dusty and my two and a half years spent with him learning to communicate. But for as much as he did for me professionally, the lessons I took from him as a person resonated with me even more.
WWE developmental is a place where you need to learn to navigate the waters of a very unique business, and there are times it can feel like a political minefield. Perhaps what I found most refreshing about Dusty Rhodes is that he was a true life cowboy and sincerely did not give a damn. He spoke his mind. He was defiant. He rocked the boat. He was unapologetic where people were often worried about voicing opinions that differed too much from the norm. In short, he was himself. I can’t tell you how much that resonated with me. And while I don’t aspire to be the cowboy that Dusty was (I could never pull it off any way) he solidified my own faith in myself. He taught me about standing by your convictions and having an opinion of your own, whether it was the popular one or not. For a man who was such a great speaker, it was his actions rather than his words that made the biggest impact of all on me.
In my entire time with Dusty, I honestly don’t remember seeing him in a really bad mood. He was always very lighthearted around the Performance Center, and cracked jokes every single time he would see me. I laughed a lot around Dusty Rhodes. He was very funny, sometimes when he wanted to be, and sometimes just because he was.
One of my favorite things that Dusty would do that would make me laugh, was brag. I absolutely loved it when he would brag. He was just completely unapologetic; he knew exactly how good he was, and he would tell you about it. He would just tell these great stories about himself in his prime; about this amazing promo he cut, and how it sold out the building the next time they came to town. It was done in such honesty, that it was almost humble in a very twisted way; the opposite of someone you can tell thinks they are great but are obviously trying to downplay it. It’s hard to explain, but trust me, it was amazing.
Another thing he did that would make me laugh a lot is he would call people by the wrong name. I still don’t know if he did it on purpose or not, but it was just hilarious. For example, Enzo Amore, one of his star students in promo class and arguably the best talker on a week to week basis in promo class for the last three years…and Dream would still call him “Enzio”. This would make me laugh, every single time, without exception. I’m laughing right now just thinking about it.
My favorite of his wrong names though is undoubtedly when Kevin Owens first showed up at the Performance Center. Kevin came into WWE as Kevin Steen. Usually when a new talent arrives to the PC, his/her first week is only observation, and sometimes just a quick getting to know you. However, on one particular night when many important guests were in attendance (“Luminaries”, as Dream would call them), Dusty decided to surprise everyone and put Kevin on the spot by calling up “Kip Stern” to cut a promo. Kevin just stared blankly because his name was Kevin Steen, not Kip Stern. This awkward silence filled the room for a good 10 seconds until William Regal, who was sitting next to Kevin, nudged him with his elbow and said, “You should probably go up there.” Good God, I still laugh about that one all the time. There’s a road here in Orlando called Stern Street and every single time I drive by it, I do my best Dream impression and say, “Let’s see Kip Stern”. Then I laugh.
As I recount these little anecdotes, I can’t help but feel so lucky to have gotten the past two and a half years to work with Dusty. This man had seen it all, done it all, watched generations come and go, and had a wealth of knowledge and understanding of the business that literally no one else on earth possessed. I got to share in that and that’s just amazing to me.
A few days ago in the trainer’s room at the PC, he was sitting around talking to someone and I said, “Hey Dream, you got put over again by Paul Heyman on Steve Austin’s podcast the other night. Heyman was talking about how you helped him learn how to cut money promos.” And he smiled and in true Dusty form he replied, “There is no one in this business that the Dream hasn’t influenced”. The best part is that he was right. Thank you, Dream. They don’t make people like you anymore. I’m so glad I got to know you.
You will never be forgotten.