There’s no doubt Buddy Rogers left an indelible mark on the world of professional wrestling. His career spanned just a year shy of four decades. He’s best known and cherished for being the inaugural WWE Champion. By his peers, he was considered a natural performer, and good worker, though, never the best, nor well-liked.
The son of German immigrants, Herman Rhode Jr. was born in 1921. His wrestling career begin on the carnival circuit, like many before and during his time. Around the same time, he joined law enforcement, becoming a police officer. It wasn’t too long before he drew the attention of a local wrestling promoter, and his career really took off. His first major win, occurred against legend Ed “Strangler” Lewis, in his hometown of Camden, New Jersey. Though, Lewis would have been towards the end of his career at that point, beating him can still be considered a measurable feat.
After gaining a bit of fame, Rhode headed to Houston, Texas. This is where he first began competing under the name “Buddy Rogers,” after a famous singer and actor of the day.
Here Rogers would capture the Texas Heavyweight Championship, for his first opportunity with holding the gold. It would most definitely not be his last, as he would go on to hold the Texas Heavyweight title on three more occasions. Once, winning the belt from Lou Thesz, which would spark an extensive feud, in and away from the ring, between the two, that would span not just their careers, but followed them to their death beds.
Now with more notoriety to his name, Rogers went to work for Al Haft Promotions, located in Ohio. He would complete his transformation from Herman Rhode Jr. to Buddy Rogers, when he bleached his hair blonde, at some point began wearing a robe, and was given the epithet of “Natural Guy.” Luckily, promoter Jack Pheffer would change the nickname to the more preferable, “Nature Boy.”
Rogers’ new eye-catching appearance was a perfect fit for television. Add his pretentious personality and good looks, and he easily drew the chagrin of audiences. Though not common at the time, the act had been pulled off to a greater degree, by Gorgeous George.
During this period, several significant things were occurring; one being the formation of the National Wrestling Alliance in 1948. This is important to know when it pertains to Buddy Rogers, due to who he was working for at the time, that being Jack Pheffer.
Promoter Sam Muchnick had control of St. Louis, which was a crucial wrestling territory. However, due to a rivalry with another St. Louis promoter, he was often forced to utilize past-their-prime performers. When the NWA was created, talent from the participating promotions competed in one another’s territories. Now, Muchnick had access to book the cool, young, heel, “Nature Boy” Buddy Rogers. By this time, Muchnick’s cross-town, rival promotion, was mostly run by Lou Thesz, but with Rogers as it’s top draw, Muchnick’s promotion became more powerful. The two promotions were merged, with Muchnick taking control of the company, by slight percentage margin.
In 1961, Rogers was voted into a NWA World Championship match, against Pat O’Connor. This would set the stage for a series of events, that would shape the wrestling business into what we know today.
Buddy Rogers was not a very well-liked man aTootmong his fellow wrestlers, and some promoters. He had a custom of taking advantage of his opponents in the ring; a big no-no in wrestling. He was also very active politically…behind the scenes that is, and had a knack for manipulating colleagues. Bobby Heenan called Rogers a “backstabber” in his book. A personal favorite saying of his, “Use your friends, and be good to your enemies; so they’ll become your friends, and you can use them too.”
The match took place at Chicago’s Comiskey Park, in front of over 38,000 paying fans, and was a 2 out of 3 falls contest. Rogers came out the victor, capturing his first and only NWA Heavyweight title. This outcome marked the transition from the legitimately good wrestler, to the showman wrestler.
That transition is a big enough impact on it’s own, but how Rogers actually received the championship bout is a story all of it’s own.
Rogers wasn’t just a top draw in the Midwest, he was also quite successful in the Northeast, United States. The promotion who controlled the Northeast territory- Capitol Wrestling Corporation, with promoters Toots Mondt and Vincent James McMahon. The latter was a huge fan of the “Nature Boy,” because he was..well, successful, and often competed for their promotion.
At this time, Mondt and McMahon were still a part of the National Wrestling Alliance. Sam Muchnick had retired, not just from promoting shows in St. Louis, but also as President of the NWA, and been replaced by Frank Tunney. St. Louis had been succeeded by Chicago as the wrestling capital of the World, which in turn gave regional promoter Fred Kohler more clout in the NWA. Kohl just happened to be an essential business partner with Capital Wrestling.
So, to please McMahon, Kohler arranged for Rogers, who favored competing in the Northeast, to win the NWA Championship. Needless to say, this angered several people, who didn’t consider Rogers to be championship material, due to his lack of wrestling ability. It certainly didn’t help matters when Rogers began competing almost solely in the Northeast territory. The NWA Heavyweight Champion was expected to tour around the various NWA territories, not stick to one. In an effort to make him realize this, a few promoters, along with shooters Karl Gotch and Bill Miller, had an informal meeting with him, where they broke his hand. Rogers was also “inexplicably” injured, and sidelined, during a match against Killer Kowalski. Once he recovered, NWA brass decided to take the title off of him.
Due to his reputation of taking advantage of opponents, though, they would need to insure Rogers didn’t walk out with the belt. Which they did, by putting in three safety nets. First, the match would be against legitimate touch man, hooker, Lou Thesz. The second, was making the match only one fall; unheard of for championship bouts at the time. The final safe guard, was threatening to give Rogers’ $25,000 championship deposit away to charity. Thesz was given no trouble.
However, Thesz wasn’t as good a draw in the Northeast as Rogers had been, which naturally didn’t please Mondt and McMahon, who refused to recognize the title change, and protested that the bout had been only one fall. This in part led to them withdrawing their membership from the NWA, and renaming Capitol Wrestling to World Wide Wrestling Federation. In what some call a bigger screwjob than Motreal, Rogers jumped from the NWA to the WWWF. He was then rewarded the new WWWF Championship.
The story told to fans to explain his champion status, was that Rogers had won a title tournament in Rio de Janeiro. There was never a tournament though, in fact, there was never even a singe match to crown the first ever WWWF champion. Unfortunately for everyone involved, Rogers would suffer a heart attack not long after. He would drop the title to Bruno Sammartino less than a month later, in just a 48 second long match. Later that year, a rematch was made, but before it could happen, it was announced that Rogers was retiring.
He would return to wrestling in 1978, this time as a manager in Jim Crockett Promotions (and later WWF). He competed in a handful of matches, his most notable occurrence being, putting over his successor, “Nature Boy” Ric Flair.
Buddy Rogers passed away in June of 1992, following a series of strokes.
Now, just to clarify a couple of things…
I did not write this article out of disrespect. If you’ve read any of my previous work, you know I have a deep admiration for wrestling’s history, and those who have shaped the sport we all love. However, that being said, I do believe that “Nature Boy” Buddy Rogers is overrated. People know that Diesel was a terrible champion. They know Hulk Hogan is more famous for his entertainment than wrestling ability. And a quick Google search will lead you to information on why John Cena is “killing the wrestling industry.” What fans know about Buddy Rogers, though, is merely that “he was called ‘Nature Boy’ too, just like Ric Flair,’ and that he was the first ever WWE Champion. For that, he seems to get a pass, regardless of his actual ability, or other accomplishments.
“To a nicer guy, it couldn’t have happened”