"Nature Boy" Buddy Rogers was a pioneer when wrestling was exploding onto the national scene, a heel so good that he made it impossible for the NWA not to put the world championship on him. He had the look, attitude, body, and ability, but when he passed away in 1992, he left behind a complicated legacy.
How Buddy Rogers Got His Start in Wrestling
Buddy Rogers, born Herman Gustav Rhode Jr., was generally a restless young man. He’d conquered the Camden, New Jersey, sporting world, winning the local YMCA’s amateur wrestling title. He excelled in several sports, including boxing, football, track, and swimming.
At 17, he joined a traveling circus as a wrestler, wrestling on the mat for real against all comers and appearing in worked bouts with other, older pros on the circuit. After the circus, Buddy Rogers worked as a stevedore and as a police officer. But the ring lured him back.
A trip to Houston became a star turn for the newly named ‘Nature Boy,’ and Rogers found success in Texas, defeating Lou Thesz for the Texas heavyweight title and eventually holding that championship four times.
From there, he went to Ohio, where he became the long-running United States heavyweight champion. He was such a draw (and enough of a legitimate tough guy) that the NWA put him over Pat O’Connor for the world title in a match on June 1, 1961. It was a move that eventually damaged the NWA in more ways than one.
It’s easy to look back and see that the decision to put Buddy Rogers on top was one of the first death knells of the NWA, but at the time, it looked like a great decision. Rogers and O’Connor drew $148,000 in ticket sales. Adjusted for inflation, that amounts to a $1.3 million live gate for what was billed as "the match of the century."
Bucking the System and Paying For It
Except that Rogers was enough of a maverick that he wouldn’t always do what the NWA wanted him to do. He preferred to wrestle in the northeast, much to the dismay of the midwestern and southern promoters. But for Rogers, it was an easy decision: the money was better.
Why work for smaller promoters (and smaller payoffs) when the money was there for the taking in the northeast?
This attitude got him in trouble with other tough guys.
Noted shooters and promoters Bill Miller and Karl Gotch once confronted Rogers and purposely broke his hand over the way he did business. Killer Kowalski broke Rogers’ leg in a shoot in Quebec. The NWA Board of Directors, tired of his attitude, ordered him to drop the title upon his recovery.
But they weren’t at all sure that Rogers would do it. To ensure a clean title change, they booked a one-fall match (most world title matches were best two out of three falls in those days) and threatened Buddy Rogers with the loss of the $25,000 deposit he’d had to put up to hold the world title. And last but not least, they had one final safeguard: Lou Thesz was his opponent for the match.
Thesz was known as a legitimate ‘hooker,’ a wrestler who could cripple his opponents if he so chose. He also had a reputation for not putting up with nonsense from his opponent in the ring.
"You had to watch him in the ring," Thesz once told an interviewer about Rogers. "If he got a hammerlock on you, he’d try to go home (legitimately win) with it, no matter what the finish was."
But Rogers dropped the title to Thesz, and everything was OK. Except that Toots Mondt and Vincent J. McMahon, who controlled the New York territory, didn’t want Thesz on top. Thesz may have been the real deal, but the flashy Rogers was a much bigger draw in the northeast.
Mondt and McMahon broke away from the NWA, putting the "World Wide Wrestling Federation" title on Rogers.
Everything that came after — the demise of the NWA, the rise and fall of WCW, and the WWE being the top wrestling company in the world — came from Rogers losing the world title on January 24, 1963.
The Death of Buddy Rogers
On June 26, 1992, Buddy Rogers died at 71 years old, after a series of strokes. He leaves a complicated legacy, but a lasting one.
He was the first man to hold both the NWA world title and the WWWF/WWF/WWE world championship, and he invented the figure-four grapevine, the hold we know today as the figure-four leglock.
Without the ‘Nature Boy’ and his influence, wrestlers like Ric Flair, Superstar Graham, Hulk Hogan, Austin Idol, Buddy Landel, and a host of others might have made very different impacts on the sport.
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