I’m going to say one name. If you get the same feeling that I get whenever I hear that name then you already know why wrestling is so wicked.
The Goldust character in 1996 WWF is the true nexus of all pro-wrestling reality. Everything in history led up to the character Dustin Runnels played that year and nothing that came after him would ever be the same.
The fuel of today’s corporate WWE economy is the spirit of the fans from that rough patch of WWF history. This was the point where the groundwork for the quote unquote Attitude Era began. At the time, if you were still a WWF fan then you weren’t seeing any of this “groundbreaking” violence and cutting edge storytelling that was on it’s way, instead you got a lot of old-school gimmicks, jobber squashes, and a general keeping of the status quo that had that sinking feeling of being in a ring with sagging ropes. While all those damn powerful yet moronic casual fans flocked to, and buzzed about, what was happening in WCW, the real fans, those who are still around today from that era, were carefully watching what was happening in the WWF thanks to one bizarre character tweak and a disturbing fight in an alleyway.
Goldust went from being an evil living embodiment of the Oscar award statue to a nefarious gay villain all because he seemingly had a crush on super macho Razor Ramon. When Goldust got beat up backstage by Razor on this January episode of RAW, in what was basically a glorified gay-bashing (because yeah, there was nothing gay about being a Cuban guy from Miami who walked around showing off his carpet of chest hair in a sequinned vest) it didn’t send a shockwave through the wrestling world like the nWo would in the months to come but that mix of reality, discomfort, violence and storytelling is what truly set the framework for the next 20 years of sports entertainment.
Those who cheered Razor’s smashing of a “fag’s” head into the fuse box were the ones who most likely jumped-ship to WCW to follow the cool dude antics of Razor and Diesel, the kind of guys who said stuff like “That’s gotta hurt” and “I’m feeling kind of funky”. Good riddance. Whether they realised it or not, the WWF was trimming the fat in the same way a sports franchise attempts a hard-reboot through the draft and developmental system, not by purchasing big name free agents to attract fair weather fans. Those super-fans who stuck with the WWF back then became the template for the audience that the WWE would cultivate, those who appreciated a clever balance between the staged, the athletic and the artistic.
These were the kids who grew up liking Piper more than Hogan, the Hart Foundation over the British Bulldogs, we were happy the Honky Tonk Man won the IC title from Ricky Steamboat because he didn’t deserve to take it off Randy Savage in the first place. We knew why Papa Shango and Skinner were cool, and why the Bushwackers weren’t, we wanted to see Men on a Mission rap, Yokozuna banzai drop, and still thought Andre got the 3-count in the opening minutes of the Wrestltmania III main event.
Hall and Nash going to WCW is a move that is now romanticised in the HHH-approved historical narrative of the time, but to the real WWF fans back then it was a sell-out move and going to wrestle in that shitty WCW was super-lame. Nothing that happened in WCW for the next 2 years was as influential as they would like you to believe either: terrible storytelling, long horrible speeches every night, bad matches, and utter confusion at times. The popular spin on this era was grown out of the sale of DVD collections in the mid-2000s featuring matches that didn’t require the costly blur-out of the WWF logo they no longer had the right to use (it’s a sad and odd strain of pride that stopped Vince McMahon from paying off the World Wildlife Fund for the rights to his own company name and yet forced him to keep his home video division afloat by selling DVDs that basically had to ignore the most creative and profitable period in his company’s history).
Oh no, there was nothing wicked about the way WCW was on top during the mid-90s. The cool shit was going on in the WWF because of one button-pushing character played with full aplomb by the man underneath a heaping of gold make-up.
Appreciating Goldust wasn’t only about understanding what he went through with his ‘shocking’ homophobe baiting bizarre-ness but it was also about recognising a shift in the fandom axis. With the message boards getting more involved and the fan base getting older and more educated, Goldust was the first character that you could appreciate for his performance. This was a deeper and more subliminal level to some than simply learning to cheer for the ‘heels’, as was becoming popular at that time. Goldust was a performance piece being crafted by someone who didn’t want you to think he was doing something other than being a great wrestling bad guy. No one other than Barthes 50 years earlier had been comparing pro-wrestling to art before Goldust came along. In contrast to Brian Pillman, who made you literally confront being a “smart mark”, Goldust was literally the reason why you could proudly be a smart mark without you even knowing it. When the New Day can come out today and make you love/hate them for being so into their own selfish stupidity, you’ve got Goldust to thank.
Why was Goldust different? Because the man behind the mask wasn’t some trumped up backyard wrestler, this was pure wrestling royalty – the son of Dusty Rhodes. Everything that the NWA had worked towards for 80 years was birthed, distilled, fermented and Frankenstein-ed into the “Natural” Dustin Rhodes character. ECW was only able to do what it did because Terry Funk was there at the forefront, while WCW had that link to the NWA and the alliteration in their nWo faction led by the biggest star of the 80s. Whereas the Hogan and Funk had already had massive careers, what the WWF got in Dustin Rhodes was a tight canvas, but a blank one.
Those of us who were Goldust fans back in 1996, we didn’t cheer or boo, we were those quintessential ‘smart marks’, watching with are arms folded, nodding or shaking our heads. We looked around at our local indy shows or WWF house shows and didn’t see anyone in the audience like the cool Shawn Michaels or bad ass Bret Hart, it was freaks, misfits, weirdos and dummies, and that’s everything Goldust represented. Just like how he was (kayfabe) secretly using all of this to manipulate his opponents we too were smarter than we looked, we knew Goldust was the key, he was the link not only between the drying out baby-boomer domination and new millennium hyper-geekdom, but that his singular performance was so bold, so unique, so funny, so violent, so cringe-worthy and triumphant, that if the WWF that we loved, the place that cultivated our wrestling fandom, if it was to survive against the triple threat of apathy, ECW or WCW, than the Goldust would be our saviour.
And he was.
Goldust proves that you don’t have to be the biggest thing ever to be the best. The WWE is not the biggest thing ever (no matter what they say). Despite being the “longest running serialised television show in history” they have never been the highest rated show on television, not by a long shot, and they are not even producing the best wrestling program on the air right now and haven’t been for a while. But it’s still the WWE and it was always be wicked to us. Because that’s what Goldust shows us.
Let me tell you a short anecdote. I happened to be in Las Vegas for the Consumer Electronics Show in 2014 on the day that the WWE was set to to announce the launch of the WWE Network streaming service. I was just a fan, so I couldn’t get into the Wynn Casino for the upscale event, but I went over there to look at it anyways. The people standing at the door, the people going in, none of them were wrestling fans, they were powerful, clean, successful 1%-ers, carpet-baggers who make money off of pro-wrestling not the ones paying for it. But the real fans were there. They stood on the outside of the entrance, about 50 of them, just hoping to get a glimpse of the elite festivities. Ironically, there were most likely the only 50 people in the entire downtown Las Vegas area that night who would be paying that $9.99 for the WWE Network when it came out, and yet they had to stretch-neck into the multi-million dollar, velvet-roped off entranceway, while those champagne clinging, suit-wearing fancy motherfuckers celebrated for them.
These fans were younger than me but they were the same kinds of faces I saw at the house shows in 1996, the people who knew even before the WWF producers did, that Goldust was going to be amazing. These are the outcasts that keep wrestling afloat even when IPOs and blue chip advertisers debate analytics, the real fans who dictate for them in the end where all this is going, and much like Dustin “Goldust” Runnels, we’re not invited to the party. We’re not praised. We may be gluttons for punishment but we take it because we love it.
So fuck you world. Wrestling is so wicked. Goldust is the greatest. And we will never forget that name.