AUSTIN, Texas (Reuters) - Charismatic bleach-blond Texan Dusty Rhodes, who billed himself as "The American Dream" and won millions of fans during a long career in professional wrestling, has died at age 69, World Wrestling Entertainment said on Thursday.
With a pudgy physique and a homely face, the former college football player did not have the appearance of the typical muscular pro wrestling hero. But Rhodes managed to become one of the biggest stars in the choreographed mayhem of pro wrestling, emotionally connecting with fans while winning a raft of championship belts.
Rhodes, whose real name was Virgil Riley Runnels Jr., began his career in the late 1960s as part of a tag team "The Texas Outlaws," and remained involved in the sport until his death.
He made a name for himself in battling opponents including "Nature Boy" Ric Flair and "The Four Horsemen," "Superstar" Billy Graham and Harley Race. He won multiple world titles in the National Wrestling Alliance, pinning opponents using moves including the "bionic elbow."
He enthralled fans with compelling interviews, and even mimicked some words and gestures of boxer Muhammad Ali. He presented himself as "the common man" and "the son of a plumber."
He was inducted into the WWE Hall of Fame in 2007.
"Runnels became a hero to fans around the world thanks to his work ethic, his impassioned interviews and his indomitable spirit," WWE said in a statement, noting that two of his sons currently work as wrestlers for the company.
"Moreover, Runnels was a dedicated father to WWE Superstars Goldust (Dustin Runnels) and Stardust (Cody Runnels), a caring husband and a creative visionary who helped shape the landscape of WWE long after his in-ring career had ended."
Runnels, born in Austin, Texas, worked in several professional wrestling organizations and appeared on numerous pay-per-view wrestling cards.
"Saddened to hear the passing of Dusty Rhodes. Legend, teacher, mentor, friend ... Love you Dream," professional wrestler and WWE executive Paul Levesque, also known as Triple H, said in a tweet.
"My mentor," tweeted Flair. "Much love to your family and more respect than can ever be measured. Love you Dream."
There was no word on the cause of death.
Reporting by Steve Ginsburg; Editing by Will Dunham