411’s Wrestling Hall of Fame Class of 2010: Nature Boy Buddy Rogers
The man I am inducting into the 411 Wrestling Hall of Fame today was known for dyed blond hair, strutting around the ring, wearing fancy robes, talking the talk while often cheating to walk the walk, and was known worldwide as the Nature Boy. No, I’m not talking about the man billed from Charlotte, North Carolina, this man was the first World Wide Wrestling Federation Champion and paved the way for men like Ric Flair to walk in his footsteps.
Herman Rohde was born on February 20, 1921 in Camden, New Jersey. He was a tough guy during his youth, and tough guys seemed to end up in one of two places back in those days…in jail or with a badge on. He became a police officer and served until he found out about something called wrestling. He decided to enter this sport under his given name, and did fairly well on the local level, even scoring a win over the legendary Ed “Strangler” Lewis. He soon moved on to the Houston territory, where he became Buddy Rogers and held the Texas heavyweight title on six separate occasions. He then went to Columbus, where promoter Jack Pfeffer, who came up with the unique idea to dye his hair blond and dress him in extravagant robes, applied the finishing touches.
OK, so that idea wasn’t exactly unique. Pfeffer had a bit of a grudge against “Gorgeous” George Wagner, so he had a bunch of guys do the Gorgeous gimmick with the blond hair and the robes and whatnot. Most of these imitators didn’t get over, but Rogers ended up being very successful because he actually had championship-level talent and could hang with the very best in the business like Lou Thesz. Rogers’ feud with Thesz spanned two decades in the ring and out of the ring, as they exchanged multiple titles on multiple occasions. One of these title changes would lead to something big, but we’ll get to that later…Rogers became a booker of some note in the Midwest area and was known for getting his friends work wherever he went. Some other blond wrestlers would co-opt this practice later on. He also developed a finishing hold that he called the Figure-Four Grapevine, and is credited with inventing the Atomic Drop. He did a strut that many compared to a peacock, and some say that Vince McMahon’s infamous power-walk is inspired by. You know you’re a big deal when billionaires are imitating you years later. Pfeffer also gave Rogers the nickname “Nature Boy”, which he lifted from the title of a popular jazz song of the day.
Rogers’ in-ring career highlight had to be his NWA title victory over Pat O’Connor on June 30, 1961. It drew over 30,000 fans to Chicago’s Comiskey Park, which set a wrestling attendance record that would hold up until July 1986 & WWF’s The Big Event in Toronto. Most of the credit for the large attendance figure was given to Rogers, who won the 2 out of 3 fall match over O’Connor and became the most despised world champion up to that point in time. While business was good, Rogers got some criticism during his reign as NWA Champion…back in those days the champion was expected to travel from territory to territory and defend the title against top challengers all across the world. Most of the promoters felt that Rogers favored the Northeastern promotions over them, and the fact that Rogers rarely left the Northeast didn’t help that perception. It was decided that Rogers would drop the title to Lou Thesz in Toronto on January 24, 1963. The aforementioned Northeastern promoters were not happy about this because Thesz, as great a wrestler and as great a draw he was in other places, never drew in their territory. They decided to pull out of the NWA and do their own thing, recognizing Buddy Rogers as the first World Wide Wrestling Federation Champion. The kayfabe explanation behind this was that Thesz defeated Rogers in a one-fall match, whereas most NWA title matches were held under 2 out of 3 falls rules. The WWWF still lives on to this day as something called World Wrestling Entertainment.
Oddly enough, Rogers’ reign as WWWF champion would not last very long. On May 17, 1963, Rogers lost the championship to Bruno Sammartino at Madison Square Garden in a match that only lasted forty-eight seconds. Rogers long claimed afterwards that the shortness of the match was due to a mild heart attack that he suffered just days before the match, and the promoters literally got him out of his hospital bed to work the match. Sammartino has claimed in interviews that Rogers’ story was a work, as there was nothing wrong with him and he just didn’t want to work a long match. While Rogers’ health condition at the time can’t be confirmed one way or another, he did drastically cut back his schedule after the match, only working for the Sheik’s promotion in Detroit/Toronto before pretty much disappearing from wrestling…
Until 1978, anyway. Rogers re-emerged in the Florida territory as a babyface and soon moved up to the Mid-Atlantic territory, where there was a young man who had begun using the “Nature Boy” moniker and many of Rogers’ holds and mannerisms. He even dyed his hair blond and wore extravagant robes. After putting over the up and coming Ric Flair in a battle of the Nature Boys, Rogers became a heel manager and managed the territory’s top heels. He went back to the World
Wide Wrestling Federation in 1980 to host an interview segment called Rogers’ Corner, which was one of wrestling’s first “talk shows” hosted by a wrestler, if not the first. (It’s the oldest I could find record of, but I could be wrong on that) This led to his last run, as he became “Superfly” Jimmy Snuka’s manager after he revealed to Snuka that manager Lou Albano had been stealing money from him. This led to a series of matches pitting Rogers & Snuka against Albano & Don Muraco, but Rogers broke his hip during the series and had to retire afterwards.
Rogers was planning to make a comeback in the early 90s and even had a match booked with another Nature Boy, Buddy Landell, but the match never took place because the place it was supposed to take place, the Tri-State Wrestling Association, went out of business. He still wanted to come back, but he suffered three strokes during 1992, two of which took place in the same day. He passed away on June 26, 1992 at the age of 71.
Why “Nature Boy” Buddy Rogers was selected…
Without Buddy Rogers, there would have been no other Nature Boys. Without Buddy Rogers, a group of Northeastern promoters might not have been as inclined to break away from the National Wrestling Alliance and form what would become the largest wrestling company in the history of the world. Buddy Rogers was a true innovator in the world of professional wrestling, a man who paved the road for other legends to follow. To have a wrestling Hall of Fame without him would be like having a baseball Hall of Fame without Pete Rose. Wait a minute…in any event Buddy Rogers is more than deserving of a spot in any wrestling Hall of Fame, and to a nicer guy it couldn’t happen.