BUDDY ROGERS: The Man Who Drove a Wedge in the NWA

‘The 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 staid National Wrestling Alliance not to put the world championship on him. He had the look, he had the attitude, he had the body and he had the ability.

Buddy Rogers posing in his title belt as the NWA world heavyweight champion.
‘Nature Boy’ Buddy Rogers as the NWA world heavyweight champion. Rogers was a seminal influence in the entertainment product of today, as well as being the star that drove a major wedge between the NWA and Vincent J. McMahon, who went on to form the WWWF (current WWE).

How Buddy Rogers got his start in Wrestling

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 as well as 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 $1.2 million live gate for what was billed as “the match of the century.”

Buddy Rogers Bucked the System and Paid 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. In order 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.

Buddy Rogers died on June 26, 1992, 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.

Last Week

Joey Finnegan dropped They Called Him The Crippler: The Life and Death of Chris Benoit on Saturday. It’s an involved look at Benoit as a person, performer, and finally, as a murderer. This past Saturday was the 10th anniversary of Benoit’s murder-suicide, where he killed his wife, Nancy, and young son, Daniel.

And I had a big week as well, getting a pair of interviews that I’m very proud of. Southern wrestling legend, Ron Fuller (the *original* Tennessee Stud) sat down with Nick McDaniel and me for two hours on the Tapped Out Wrestling podcast. You can listen to that one right here. And then I caught up with WWE Hall of Famer ‘Bullet’ Bob Armstrong as well. Bob’s interview is here. These guys were two of the reasons I got into wrestling as a kid, and to be able to interview them both was a dream come true. You’ll see some of their quotes come up in a larger story here later on.

This Week

I’ll be watching GLOW on Netflix, and potentially writing a story on what the real promotion was like as compared to the new series. I’m looking forward to it, although some wrestling pundits don’t think that highly of it. I’ll keep an open mind and watch for myself. Joey Finnegan will be back this week with his Huge Crowd Reactions in Wrestling series, and then on Saturday, I’ll be dropping a piece about how rivalries can define different promotions/eras. That’s it for now. Hit us up on Twitter at @pws_official, or just send me a shout at Maximum Bob.

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Bobby Mathews
Bobby Mathews is a contributor for Pro Wrestling Stories as well as a veteran journalist whose byline has appeared in The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, The Birmingham News, The Denver Post, as well as other newspapers around the country. He's won multiple awards for reporting and opinion writing, and his sports journalism has garnered several Associated Press Managing Editors Awards. He has covered Division I college athletics and professional sports including MLB and NFL games. He has won awards from press associations in several states, including a General Excellence award from the Georgia Press Association while sports editor at The Statesboro Herald. He currently lives in suburban Birmingham, Alabama and can be reached on Twitter @bamawriter.