Friday, July 21, 2006

Buddy Rogers

When measuring the worthiness of wrestlers for the Inside the Squared Circle Hall of Fame, there are a number of criteria that are weighed. In-ring performance. Drawing power. Aura and influence. The true greats of wrestling will have extraordinary accomplishments in a few of these categories. Rarely does a wrestler stand out in almost every conceivable way. Nature Boy Ric Flair is one of those few. His predecessor and role model, Nature Boy Buddy Rogers, is another on that very short list. Buddy Rogers was a one of wrestling’s biggest stars for most of his career. He drew big money and was involved in some of wrestling’s most famous feuds. He was regarded by even his enemies as the best performer of his time. And his persona, style and in-ring performance had a tremendous influence on the business. Today ITSC inducts an unquestioned legend of professional wrestling, Nature Boy Buddy Rogers, into its Hall of Fame.

Herman Rhode was born in New Jersey in 1921. After wrestling under his real name and the name Dutch Rogers, he died his hair platinum blonde and took the ring name Nature Boy Buddy Rogers. This persona is well known to current wrestling fans, as Ric Flair patterned himself almost identically after Rogers, including his hair, robes, tan, strut, arrogance, begging off, in-ring style, figure four and name. Rogers became a star very quickly and would later legally change his name to Nature Boy Buddy Rogers. He first came to fame in the mid 1940s in the Houston territory. In the late 40s, he became a national figure on the Dumont Network out of Chicago. This was the beginning of the television era, and he would become one of its biggest stars from 1948 to 1963. Also in the late 1940s, he helped great wrestling promoter Sam Mushnick rise to prominence. Mushnick, later the kingpin of the NWA, used Rogers as one of his top stars. Buddy Rogers’ match with Don Eagle drew Mushnick’s first sellout at the Kiel Auditorium in St. Louis. It would be far from the last.

In the 50s, Rogers was a big star everywhere he went. He was particularly prominent in the Northeast, where NWA promoters Vince McMahon, Sr. and Toots Mondt favored him as their top drawing card. There were rumors that McMahon and Mondt were interested in leaving the NWA. Not wanting to lose the lucrative New York market, NWA promoters decided to put the world title on Rogers to pacify McMahon and Mondt. They built up Rogers for a title shot, and on June 30, 1961 he won the NWA Title from Pat O’Connor in one of the most famous matches in wrestling history. They drew 38,622 fans paying $148,000 to Comiskey Park in Chicago. That set the new all time attendance record for professional wrestling, and it would stand for another 25 years. Over the next few years, Rogers was very successful as NWA champion. He was the most hated world champion in NWA history, and was one of the most important figures in moving wrestling towards a good guy versus bad guy format.

Putting the NWA World Championship on Rogers had not done enough to pacify Mondt and McMahon, and in 1963, they were planning to break away from the NWA. NWA promoters were worried there would be problems with Rogers losing the title. At that point, protecting the credibility of the championship was of paramount importance, and it was feared Rogers would take the NWA Title to McMahon’s new promotion. Luckily, Mushnick and the NWA had a trump card. At that point, wrestlers had to put up a $25,000 bond when winning the NWA Title. It guaranteed they would lose it when the time was right. Rogers did not want to lose that money, and he lost the belt to Lou Thesz in Toronto on January 24, 1963. However, the match was only a one fall match when most title matches of the time were two of three, and Mondt and McMahon used that fact to claim Rogers was the real champ. They then made him the first champion of the WWWF, which became WWF and now is WWE. Rogers was the first wrestler to hold both the NWA Title and the WWWF/WWF Title, and the only one for many decades until Ric Flair matched the accomplishment.

Rogers’ reign as WWWF World Champion would not last long, as he suffered a heart attack less than six months in. That forced McMahon, Sr. to turn to a new star. On May 17, 1963 Buddy Rogers lost the title in 47 seconds to Bruno Sammartino, who would become another of wrestling’s biggest stars.

After the match with Sammartino, Rogers entered into retirement. However, he never lost contact with wrestling and would surface here and there. He wrestled from time to time. He also managed in Mid-Atlantic in the late 70s and early 80s and even did an interview segment for Vince McMahon, Jr. in the WWF. One particularly notable point for Rogers was a feud with a young Ric Flair in 1979. Rogers and Flair battled to see who was the real Nature Boy. When Flair beat Rogers with the Figure Four in July of 1979, it established him as a wrestler to be taken very seriously. Rogers kept himself in great condition and health up to his death. At one point, he received national press for knocking out a 29 year old jerk while he was pushing 70. Rogers had been planning a comeback and had agreed to wrestle another Nature Boy, Buddy Landel for the Tri-State Wrestling Alliance before the promotion folded just months prior to his death in 1992.

Nature Boy Buddy Rogers is one of wrestling’s true immortal figures. His charisma, wrestling ability and ability to draw hatred from the fans would have made him a star in any era. He packed in the crowds, and provided them great entertainment. Inside the Squared Circle is proud to induct Nature Boy Buddy Rogers into its Hall of Fame.


Blogger Rich O said...

Well said Todd. When I was younger I used to go around to nostalgia stores to find old wrestling mags about this "other" Nature Boy. My first exposure was the interview segment on WWF TV as all we really got in the Northeast was WWF. I'll never forget the segemnets with Jimmy Snuka/Ray Stevens, etc...But my fascination was with the man doing the segement. He had so much natural charisma it was scary. I finally was able to catch some old matches from Chicago and it was amazing to see Ric Flair 20 years before there was a Ric Flair.

A Hall of Famer for sure...quite possibly THE Hall of Famer

4:28 PM  

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