Welcome to the latest edition of Off the Top Rope. Every Thursday, we offer you compelling analysis and an interview or feature focused on some of the most important newsmakers in the sport of professional wrestling.
The drive between the airport and the house was about 45 minutes—hardly sufficient time to impart a lifetime of knowledge but enough to get a good start.
His dad sighed as he began, explaining the terminology of the business, so easily accessible today with a simple internet search, then a closely held industry secret. Aged just 18, his head was filled to bursting with heels, faces and what it meant to be one of the boys.
"For the first time I was let in on all the secret stuff, the kayfabe stuff, I'd been longing for for so, so long. He gave me a crash course," Dustin Rhodes told Bleacher Report. "...He didn't want me to get into the wrestling industry. But that's all I wanted. I grew up desiring nothing but the wrestling business.
"I loved everything about it: the showmanship, the sport, the athleticism. What dad did, he was my hero. Growing up, he was the greatest to me. Above anybody. I wanted to be just like Dusty Rhodes the American Dream."
By the time they pulled into the driveway, Dustin (aka WWE's Goldust) had been initiated into one of America's last secret societies: the insular and discrete business of professional wrestling.
His already-legendary father, Dusty, had explained the basics. The rest he would learn through long hours in the gym, in the ring and on the road with the veterans who had seen almost everything and weren't afraid to make up the rest.
"There was a show the next day in Amarillo, Texas, about a six-hour drive from Dallas," Rhodes says. "He said, 'Go buy yourself a referee shirt, some pants and get yourself there.' I drove there while he flew on a private jet with all his people. I get there and I'm reffing two tag matches.
"Reffing tag team wrestling is complicated. There is a lot going on, especially today if you look at The Young Bucks and the Lucha Brothers. Man, just how fast they are. It's all a referee can do to stay out of the freaking way. The Midnight Express and Rock and Roll Express were like that, the two greatest teams I'd ever seen growing up watching wrestling. Now I'm reffing them. What an honor that is."
Dustin, green and barely smart to the business, had bought a pair of nice black slacks, as tight and professional as they were unforgiving, completely unsuited to the constant up-and-down of a referee's work.
"Tommy Young, the lead official, is sitting on the front row, and we've got a curtain sellout in the back and everyone is out there watching. Ricky (Morton) and Robert (Gibson) are in there laughing with me and telling jokes. Giving me hell. But I do the match and do everything I'm supposed to. I go down for the one, two, three and I stand up and I'm raising Ricky and Robert's hand.
"At first the whole building is cheering, but then they start laughing. I'm worrying that I've screwed something up, so I look down at Tommy Young and he's laughing his ass off too. He's pointing at my crotch. So, I look down, and from the top of the pants down, everything is split. From the top down, basically the waistband is the only thing that didn't tear. And I had nothing on underneath. My junk was hanging out there for the world to see. I look back at the curtain and they are all on the ground laughing.
"It was the most embarrassing thing that ever happened to me. I ran to the back. But nobody told me not to buy cotton pants. I needed some stretchable pants. So, that was me breaking into the industry."
More than 30 years later, he's still part of the show, bringing tears to many jaded eyes earlier this year with an emotional match opposite his brother, Cody.
As "The Natural" Dustin Rhodes and later as the controversial Goldust, he's seen it all. From the old boxing ring Skandor Akbar set up on cinder blocks to train him for the ring, to the nights he sold 5x7-inch pictures just hoping to earn beer and gas money to get to the next town, he's paid more than his share of dues. He's seen the good times too, the television main events in front of millions and the grandeur of WrestleMania.
His wisdom is hard-earned, and now signed to a long-term deal with All Elite Wrestling to both wrestle and coach, he's ready to pass it on to the next generation. As an agent helping conceptualize the matches, he'll try to help wrestling's future make the best use of the tricks and tactics of the past.
"They've got the moves," he says. "I want to help them put those moves together so they mean something. It's not like the old days. These kids are exciting. But without the old school, there is no new school. There are things you can learn from the old ways, and I can teach them some things that do work. Then they can add their own spice to it.
"I want them to do their thing. They're free, they're young and it's exciting. I want them to be excited to be doing their own thing. The best way I can help these kids is with storytelling and placement and a few little ways to do things differently than they are doing them.
"We will have time to tell stories and not be stuck trying to do a four-minute television match. That's exciting to me, and I think I can help them learn how to be a babyface, how to be a heel, how to sell, how to tell a story. Put a big move over here instead of where they want to put it—and trust me on these things and trust that it will work."
He will also help a crop of wrestlers, mostly unfamiliar with working on television, perfect their character and delivery for a worldwide audience filled with very particular and demanding fans.
"I've been hired as a promo coach, and I want to help teach them how to talk," Rhodes says. "You don't have to take this gigantic paragraph of text and memorize that s--t word for word, because it's going to come off bland and not true to your character.
"We'll work out who the character is and figure out which way they think they should go, which way the company wants them to go, and find a happy medium. I can teach them to cut promos where they don't need to be on a script constantly. We can hit some bullet points and make it their own. The key is stepping out of your comfort zone and taking a chance. Take a chance on making something cool.
"Some of these wrestlers have never really done promos, and a lot of them have never done TV. They are nervous about it, and those are the ones I'm going to push the most. Let's see it. Let's hear it. With some oomph and conviction. Give me what my dad used to give us: charisma. I want to see your character. That's what I'll do my best to teach."
Rhodes lived through two different wrestling wars, watching his father do battle with Vince McMahon with Jim Crockett Promotions in the 1980s and as a talent during the fierce Monday Night Wars of the 1990s. This, he believes, is the first real challenge to McMahon in decades, but he cautions his peers not to be too wrapped up with what's going on with WWE in "New York."
"This is the first time wrestling has been on Turner since 2001," he says. "Wrestling is back on TNT, man, and we're hell-bent to succeed. I know there is NXT on Wednesdays, but I don't look at this as competition.
"We've got to focus on us and putting on the best product we can for the fans. The fanbase is there and will continue to grow as long as we work as a team. But we need to focus on AEW being a success and not worry about what everybody else is doing."
Match of the Week
Baron Corbin vs. Chad Gable (King of the Ring final, WWE Raw, September 16): Everyone hates Baron Corbin. And that's OK, because hating Baron Corbin is what you're supposed to do.
While he may never win the admiration of the prototypical hardcore fan, it would be hard to question his competency after a masterful journey through this year's King of the Ring. The road to his coronation was a winding one, but it culminated with the best match of the week against former Olympian Chad Gable.
On the surface, no matter Gable's pedigree, the bout appeared to be a complete mismatch. At one point, Corbin dropped to his knees and he and Gable looked each other dead in the eye. But, despite the huge size disparity, The Lone Wolf managed the tricky task of looking both menacing and vulnerable.
The result was a surprisingly excellent bout, one that managed to overshadow the pay-per-view showcases from the previous night's Clash of Champions.
Corbin has turned into an excellent wrestler, sure to be a staple of the midcard for years to come, keeping otherwise listless babyfaces engaged and interesting. He's a modern-day Miz of sorts—something I intend as a huge compliment. As the saying goes, he knows his role. In a world where everyone else is trying to be the cool heel, that's enough for him to stand out.
Runner-up: Lio Rush vs. Oney Lorcan (WWE NXT, September 18)
Hard Times Promo of the Week
After weeks of investigation, the truth was finally revealed—Roman Reigns' mystery attacker turned out to be former Wyatt Family member and Daniel Bryan-lackey Erick Rowan.
But why? What would drive a man to such desperate lengths?
In a chilling sit-down interview with Michael Cole on Smackdown Live, Rowan explained why he has decided to emerge from the background to become the protagonist of his own journey:
"I suggest you lower your tone, Mike. You see, I no longer allow anybody to speak to me like that. Now, I did what I did to Roman to change the perceived dominance he thinks he has. Show him it's merely an illusion.
"For far too long, I've been overlooked. I've been underappreciated. But, most of all, I've been disrespected. You see, people like you, people like Roman Reigns, Daniel Bryan, the entire WWE Universe, they think I'm just a grunt in the background. They think I'm just a goon meant to do somebody else's bidding. But I'm not a puppet, Mike. Do I look like a puppet to you?"
It turns out, like so many of us, Rowan just wants to be seen, to be recognized as the author of his own destiny.
The Illegal Double Team Hot Take
WWE NXT debuted on the USA Network Wednesday and it was a decidedly mixed bag. I'm struggling to appropriately grade this show, because it's hard to compete with the debut that existed only in my own imagination.
The NXT Takeover shows have consistently been the most impressive events in all of WWE. The action is solid, the characters are fun, and the shows just seem to make sense. They are appointment television for me, so expectations were high for the new weekly show.
Unfortunately, on Night 1 at least, it didn't meet my lofty expectations. While Lio Rush vs. Oney Lorcan and the women's four-way that opened the show were both delights, there wasn't a single great match over the course of two hours. Of course, how could there be with seven matches competing for time with a slew of commercials and a frustrated fanbase that seemed to have widespread problems logging onto the WWE Network after the USA portion of the show ended.
The one bout given the time and attention to reach for the stars failed to deliver the goods. There were moments when it looked like Velveteen Dream and Roderick Strong were going to turn things around, but they were twice interrupted by a commercial break before they could build any momentum.
In the end, the North American title change didn't feel like a very big deal. That's too bad.
—WWE didn't do enough to introduce these athletes to an audience that was likely unfamiliar with their backgrounds and personalities. The Undisputed Era, in particular, needed a better initial push as a special act. They are great, but the concept requires a bit of exposition for clarity's sake.
—The announcing needs some work. All three announcers have their strong points: Nigel McGuinness, in particular, is excellent on the NXT UK shows. But this isn't a coherent team. It's like they were three individuals, each calling a match in a vacuum, never actually listening to or engaging with the others in the broadcast booth. Instead, they all seemed to be waiting for a chance to talk or scream their next point.
Not everything that happens in a wrestling ring requires an exhausting level of performative yelling. If you're hollering at the top of your lungs about routine spots, how do you communicate with the audience when something truly special happens?
—Candice LeRae vs. Bianca Belair vs. Mia Yim vs. Io Shirai was a great opener. The women's division is a place NXT can consistently outperform the established WWE if it chooses to emphasize it.
—Rush is an extraordinary athlete. He's a welcome addition to this team, and I hope he can co-exist with his fellow wrestlers back stage well enough to have the kind of run his talent deserves.
—There is a lot of enthusiasm in the crowd. Fans are practically willing this show to be great. If they meet the audience halfway, this thing is going to be big.
Jonathan and Kristina Snowden host Illegal Double Team, a weekly podcast about wrestling and life. Available wherever podcasts are found.
Three-Count: Looking Ahead
AEW Television Debut (October 2, TNT)
- Cody Rhodes vs. Sammy Guevara: Cody is one of the biggest stars in wrestling. If he doesn't beat Guevara, an athletic high-spot artist with a relatively low national profile, I'll be shocked.
- Young Bucks and Kenny Omega vs. Chris Jericho and two mystery partners: The Elite had an excellent six-man tag match at Fyter Fest against the Lucha Brothers and Laredo Kid. While the match itself will no doubt be fantastic, the air of mystery here recalls the spirit of the Monday Night Wars. Who will be in Jericho's corner? We'll have to wait and see.
- Nyla Rose vs. Riho (AEW Women's Championship): The AEW executive team has high hopes for the women's division. While there has been some solid action so far, nothing has truly stood out—in part because the AEW cards have been filled with incredible matches and spectacles. Perhaps this will be the bout that makes the world take note?
Jonathan Snowden covers combat sports for Bleacher Report.