Buddy Rogers: The Original Nature Boy
by Tim Hornbaker
In the annals of professional wrestling, few names captured the pure emotion and excitement of the sport like the original ‘Nature Boy’ Buddy Rogers. The blond-haired, bronzed villain epitomized greatness in all forms, and he carried himself to the heights of the business through stirring in-ring performances that are still fondly remembered today. Buddy’s Hall of Fame career began in Camden, New Jersey, where he was a product of the Great Depression, and learned the value of a buck. During the early 1940s, after a brief stint in the Navy and as an essential worker at a shipbuilding firm during World War II, Rogers turned professional wrestler, and it was clear from the very beginning that he was not the average performer.
Exceedingly nimble on his feet and possessing a natural gift for showmanship, Rogers was right at home in the wrestling ring. He delivered an unequaled physical effort matched by a charismatic routine that set audience aflame from coast-to-coast. As television accelerated wrestling’s growth during the late 1940s, Rogers became one of the most heralded characters of the Golden Age, and his matches against Lou Thesz, the reigning National Wrestling Alliance champion, set a standard for nonstop exhilaration. Although Rogers did not beat Thesz for the NWA belt, he did rack up an impressive list of championship victories, to include World Title claims in Boston, Ohio, and Montreal.
Impressively, Rogers bolstered the careers of dozens of up-and-comers by giving them starmaking turns during TV matches, displaying his unselfishness. Despite being commonly known for his arrogance, Buddy was quite the opposite when it came to helping the careers of many future legends, Killer Kowalski and Bruno
Sammartino, among them. But if the notion struck him, Rogers was not against stealing back heat from a ring adversary to enhance his own positioning. The duality of Rogers as a talented, but complicated superstar, as well as a ‘tweener’ in terms of fan support, was an amazing feat of its own.
In June 1961, Rogers finally won the NWA World Title with a victory over Pat O’Connor before over 30,000 fans in Chicago. For 18 months, he ruled the grandest circuit in wrestling, and demonstrated his value as a box office star night after night, earning a fortune for promoters. Health problems slowed Rogers down, and by January 1963, he needed off the road. At that time, Vince McMahon ‘Senior’ opted to withdraw from the NWA and form the World Wide Wrestling Federation. Rogers was named the initial champion, but once again, he was hampered by illness. On May 17, 1963, Buddy put Bruno Sammartino over at Madison Square Garden, and retired soon thereafter.
Rogers was a one-of-a-kind performer, and his abilities transcended the sport in innumerable ways. As a first-class promo man and unabashed braggart, he influenced the verbose style of Muhammad Ali and the comedic methods of Andy Kaufman. His pioneering techniques inspired countless wrestlers through the years, everyone from Ray Stevens to Ric Flair, and his legacy is stronger today than it ever was.
The ‘Nature Boy’ Buddy Rogers strutted to a different beat, and he will forever be celebrated for his incredible achievements and contributions to the sport we all love.
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