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'Passion lives here' | For wrestling legend Dustin Rhodes, a pro career wasn't enough

Dustin Rhodes has opened Rhodes Wrestling Academy, a dream he's had for 20 years.

AUSTIN, Texas — Canvases are used by artists to tell stories. While most use paint and brushes, these artists use their bodies.

Central Texas wrestling legend Dustin Rhodes is teaching the next generation of professional wrestlers the art of storytelling on canvas. 

"This has been a dream probably since early 2000, that at some point I wanted to open my own wrestling academy," Rhodes said.

Rhodes has been an active in-ring competitor for 32 years across many different wrestling promotions, including World Wrestling Entrainment (WWE) and All Elite Wrestling (AEW).

Rhodes said he has found a passion for teaching over the last few years. 

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"I'm very passionate about teaching the things that [I was taught] when I was coming into the business," Rhodes said. "And now I get to start with my own students and build them homegrown [at] Rhodes Wrestling Academy. It's incredible."

Rhodes' goal is to teach his students the fundamentals of wrestling and storytelling that will create a lasting connection with the audience.

"It's all the ins and outs and the reasons why we do things in the ring, the storytelling. I am a storyteller," Rhodes said. "I want to teach these kids the art of storytelling because it's a lost art. You see wrestling matches today that just go 100,000 miles an hour with no rhyme, no reason. There is a place for it, but there's also a place for storytelling and the old-school style matches where people can see it, where they can get behind it, where they can feel it. Feel emotions running with your body language and your facial expressions and what you're wanting from this crowd."

In addition to in-ring training, Rhodes Wrestling Academy offers classes on brand trademarking, contract negotiating and promos. 

"The life skills part is everything that I needed to learn that wasn't available to me early on in the business ... I learned those things later on in my career," Rhodes said. "You don't want anybody to use your name or anything that you put out there in the world. Somebody takes that thing and uses it and trademarks it themselves and then you're like, 'Well, that was mine.' No, it's not because you didn't trademark it. Protecting your brands, that's basically what we're [teaching] these kids to do."

In 1985, Rhodes' father, "The American Dream" Dusty Rhodes, delivered what is considered by wrestlers and fans alike to be the greatest promo of all time, "Hard Times." Rhodes uses the promo as an example in his classes and explains why it continues to connect with people 36 years later.

"Without a doubt, to me, the greatest promo ever," Rhodes said. "I showed that to [my students] on their first promo day and they've all seen it, but it's so surreal. To watch what he's saying and listening to every single word that he's saying to the people. He's not talking at them, he's talking to them, he's touching them. It's like he's reaching in the screen and touching somebody's life. Making them feel some kind of emotion, which is very hard to do."

"Let's face it: right now, this is probably the worst year in our history we've ever seen. We're in the middle of a pandemic. Hopefully, we're on the tail end of it. But a lot of people are losing their jobs. A lot of people are having a real difficult time in the hospitals with COVID," Rhodes continued. "All these things, it feels like there's no way out. Wrestling is a way out, for a couple hours a week, to where you can watch and you can just kind of lose yourself into what we do. And that's what Dad tried to do, especially with 'Hard Times.'"

Rhodes explained why his father, a former Heavy Weight Champion, had such a strong connection with the audience.

"Pops was one of a kind. He didn't have the muscle body, he barely went to the gym, if ever. But he had more charisma in his little finger than I or [my brother] Cody Rhodes will ever amount to having. He could talk his [butt] off and he can make people come to the building and he could relate. He wasn't some rich snooty person. He was blue-collar, talking to the people, not at them. And these people respected that." Rhodes said. 

In 2007, Dustin Rhodes and his brother, Cody, inducted their father into the WWE Hall of Fame. Dusty Rhodes died in June 2015. 

Rhodes reflected on the feud of the 1980s between his father and Ric Flair. He said back then it was harder for fans to look behind the curtain. 

"They lived their gimmicks. They lived it. I mean, they took it home with them as a big secret all the time," Rhodes said. "And it was so impressive. Today, with social media, with the internet, with all those things, [the fans] can see through us and see what goes on in the back. I don't like that all the time. Sometimes it's OK, but I think there should still be some kind of secret."

Dustin Rhodes debuted in 1988 in Florida Championship Wrestling as "The Natural" Dustin Rhodes, training under Mike Graham, Steve Keirn and Bob Cook. 

"I made $20 a night for two years, had the best time in my life. I shut up, I listened, I learned, I respected the business and I worked hard. My work ethic is pretty top-notch. And I learned a lot in those two years. It's still probably, to this day, two of the finest years I've had in the wrestling business," Rhodes said.

Early on, Rhodes wanted to imitate his father and said how difficult it was to live up to his last name. 

"Those are big shoes to fill and early on I wanted to be just like my dad," Rhodes said. "For a long time, I really tried to fill his shoes. [But] when I went to WWE the first time and became Goldust is when I realized, 'You know what, I want to try something on my own. I want to step outside the box, try to fill my own shoes.'"

In 1995, Rhodes debuted the character "The Bizarre One" Goldust in the WWE, a movie star character described as "androgynous" by Vince McMahon.

Goldust would go on to have lengthy feuds with The Undertaker and Rowdy Roddy Piper. In 1996, Rhodes won the Intercontinental Championship by defeating Razor Ramon.

After a brief time in other promotions, he returned to the WWE in 2002 as Goldust and formed a tag team with Booker T. The odd pairing won the WWE Tag Team Championship later that same year.

In 2013, Rhodes once again captured the WWE Tag Team Championship, this time alongside his brother, Cody Rhodes. 

Rhodes said goodbye to the character of Goldust in 2019 and began competing for AEW, a wrestling company started up by his brother.

"It was a happy moment at that point because I had enough and I think Goldust had done everything possible. There was nothing really left for that character to do and it was time for me to move on and get back to my roots, kind of full circle [with Cody.] I still have paint [on my face]. I took a little bit of both characters, and that's why I do the half paint now at the tail end of my career," Rhodes said.

The Rhodes brothers competed against each other at the AEW Double or Nothing pay per view event in 2019 in what Dustin Rhodes considers the best match of his career.

"I love to tell stories. [At] Double or Nothing with my brother, [we] told the most beautiful story I could possibly ever tell in the pro wrestling industry. And that's what I want to teach [my students]," Rhodes said.

Rhodes has also been a part of big moments in wrestling history. In 1992, he witnessed Ron Simmons become the first recognized Black heavyweight champion.  

"It was incredible, your first Black champion, that's a very special moment. The people responded big. It was really cool. And we all filed out there, man, and put him on our shoulders and was like, 'He's the new king.' It was really, really neat and special," Rhodes said.

Rhodes also helps train the AEW women roster.

"I've really taken them under my wing and I'm molding them right now for AEW television. They're growing. They're listening. We run through all kinds of training sessions. It's really cool," Rhodes said.

Rhodes said he can already see character development within his own students. He reminds them having influences is good, but developing your own individual character is what's most important.

"There's only one Rey Mysterio, one Edge, one Dusty, one Undertaker," he said. "All these guys, there's only one of them. You cannot be like them. You have to find your own character. And watching these students, I have a good idea now of stuff that is starting to stick out and stand out character-wise with them because I'm really working on trying to bring out what kind of characters they want to present and bring to the table."

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To apply to Rhodes Wrestling Academy, students must send in a video of themselves explaining why they want to be a wrestler.

"I look at these applications myself and I have hundreds right now. The picks for my first camp, there's only one first. So, I went through each of them. 'Do I want this person? Do I want this person?'" Rhodes said. "I want to see them talk. Their demeanor, their mannerisms, their attitude, all these things because you can't really judge somebody by just what they're saying ... That's the type of stuff that I'm looking for. If I can relate to this kid that is cutting a promo to me, telling me he wants to come to my school and it touches me, I'm picking up the phone to call him. I want you [to be] a part of my academy."

Rhodes described the reactions of his students when they found out they had been accepted into the school.

"I called each of them and said, 'I want to welcome you to the academy.' And they're crazy. They'd start crying. They're happy. Everything is just like, 'Oh my God, I can't believe you called me.' What am I supposed to do? Write you an email?" Rhodes said.

Rhodes talked about the work ethic he is teaching his students and how to gain the most out of the time you are in front of the crowd.  

"It's very important that kids not get complacent and lazy," he said. "When that red light comes on and you walk out of that tunnel, you're on TV, the world is seeing you. So, work your [butt] off. The whole time, 110%, all the way until you get out of the camera's view," Rhodes said. "Just stop, take a second, look at the crowd. Give me some kind of facial expressions, more fire, more energy. Be intense every time you go out."

Rhodes has had a history of substance abuse and this May, he will celebrate 13 years sober. He said the lessons he's learned on his journey of sobriety are also important for his students. 

"The one thing that I could probably tell these kids that got me through 13 years is you come in this day like it's the first day on the job, one day at a time. We work as hard as we can today, then tomorrow we work as hard as we can tomorrow and I get them to try to focus on the now instead of the past and the future. 'Let's mold this right here. Think about what you're doing right now, right here,'" Rhodes said.

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Due to COVID-19, Rhodes requires all students to wear masks and test negative before practice every week. But the pandemic has not stopped the hard work his students have already put in. 

"Everything is a giant mountain to them right now," Rhodes said. "When they pull it off in the ring, I've done my job well and it makes me feel that sense of pride inside, you know, like, 'Heck yeah. You just did it, man.' [When] you can see their faces light up it's like, man, and they're feeling good about it when they leave practice. And when they come back the next day, they're like, 'I'm ready to go. Let's go.'"

Rhodes said he has already seen some standouts in his first class and he is confident they will all do great things. 

"I can't wait to show the world, I can't wait to show the world these kids and what they can do," Rhodes said. "The business is hard. It's ruthless. That ring right there is unforgiving. And if they respect it and if they step outside of the box, if they listen to me, they're going to do great things. I promise you that."

Rhodes will hold a showcase of his students on March 20 on YouTube. Check back for details.

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