[originally published on July 7 at Wrestling Observer online]
Buddy Rogers: Most Influential Wrestler of the 20th Century
By Irvin Muchnick
Bruno Sammartino’s recent interview with Meltzer and Alvarez on Wrestling Observer radio dripped with juicy new historical information. For this listener, the most important insight flowed from the elaborate back story of how Bruno came to be blackballed by major offices in the U.S., before getting his big break with Frank Tunney in Toronto and proceeding to make the most of it.
I never knew this in such detail, but it turns out that Sammartino left the Northeast the first time on bitter terms after refusing to go along with programs designed for the exclusive enhancement of the newly invading Buddy Rogers.
And that clinches it for me: Rogers was, hands down, the most internally influential pro wrestler of the last century. Probably all time. He was at the epicenter of just about every scenario, trend, and tipping point of the industry as it took the shape it has today.
Let me qualify this assertion. By most influential, I don’t mean the most symbolic in the public eye. Nor do I mean the best or the most impressive — though Rogers, to be sure, boasted excellent credentials in all these areas.
Gorgeous George was more symbolic – he tailored an innovative and prototypical gimmick to the new medium of television in the late 1940s.
Lou Thesz, I’m told, was the best wrestler. As a native St. Louisan, I want to believe this as axiomatic fact. But I will only accept that I have been told it, because of the only-their-hairdressers-know reality of an activity that is a work-vs.-shoot mind game more than it is a sport. An honest view of the existing YouTube clips of Thesz suggests a patterned repertoire of a handful of moves and finishes — the same career strategy which the old “hooker,” a canny curator of his own legend, relentlessly criticized in others.
As for Bruno, I have come to appreciate everything he meant to the business. Perhaps more importantly, I appreciate that how he conducted himself throughout his life mattered to him on a deeply personal level, business be damned.
The only wrestler rivaling Rogers for sheer influence, however, was Hulk Hogan. In my mind, Buddy gets the nod over Hulk, who definitely maxed out on his talent, had charisma to burn, and could draw with the best of them for big shows. But Hogan was a pure vessel of his times, plopped down in the middle of an epochal dynamic wrought by cable TV and generational turnover.
Rogers did something more formidable: he embodied generational turnover, through force of will, non-stop backstage politics, and a gift for drawing sellouts almost anywhere at almost any time.
I once asked my late uncle, Sam Muchnick, who he felt, across six decades of putting together wrestling shows, were the most reliable names to install on the marquee. “There were three,” Sam said without hesitation. “Jim Londos, Andre the Giant, and Buddy Rogers.”
Londos worked in an era, the 1920s and 30s, that simply doesn’t translate today. Andre, while undeniably huge at the box office, was a novelty act. Of the troika, only Rogers’ fortunes resonated in the context of every key territorial fight in modern wrestling. And that’s what I mean by internally influential.
Sam Muchnick understood all this as well as anyone. When he began running opposition to Tom Packs in St. Louis right after World War II, Sam struggled; if not for the help of Jack Pfeffer, the early Muchnick promotion would have had a hard time scraping together talent. Attendance was not good. It was the Buddy Rogers-Don Eagle sellout in 1949 that set the stage for St. Louis as an international wrestling capital for a quarter of a century. Without Rogers, there’s no Muchnick legend, and without Muchnick, the National Wrestling Alliance, if it had existed at all, would not have been nearly as cohesive or rational.
Rogers himself didn’t get tapped for the NWA championship until 1961, replacing the smooth but universally unmarketable Pat O’Connor. And it was during that period that the original Nature Boy’s role as the industry’s ubiquitous hub-and-spoke of controversy and change got cemented. What completes that picture is the news from the Sammartino interview of last week that it was Buddy and his entourage who effectively drove Bruno from New York to Northern California to Omaha and then, broke and broken, briefly back to a construction gang in Pittsburgh.
There’s an irony in the championship reign of Rogers, a common one in wrestling, boxing, and MMA: he actually got the honors past his peak as a performer, and he flamed out a lot quicker than he should have. Still, I can remember him packing Kiel Auditorium with Johnny Valentine, John Paul Henning, and others. There was still magic. Simply put, Rogers wrote the book on classic heeldom, which he executed not with his mouth, not with his eyes, but with moves and mannerisms. These included, but were not limited to, his strut. Trust me when I say that if others had shared Rogers’ intuitive genius for controlling a crowd, they would have similarly flaunted it.
The rest of my argument is familiar history. When Vincent J. McMahon’s New York group wouldn’t release Rogers for enough dates for his NWA champion commitments, and when he kept missing bookings due to outside-the-ring injuries (including the broken hand when Karl Gotch and Bill Miller jumped him in the dressing room in Columbus), Muchnick summoned Thesz back for an emergency sixth title run. The World Wide Wrestling Federation was born, with Rogers winning “a tournament in Rio de Janeiro.” And Sammartino returned from Canadian exile to become an American ethnic icon and a wrestling living legend.
Inside the ring, Rogers doesn’t come off too well in these stories. Thesz warned him, before the Toronto NWA title change, that they could do it “the easy way or the hard way.” In the Meltzer-Alvarez interview, Sammartino recalled that, before the famous 48-second Madison Square Garden match, Rogers was set up for a double-cross that Bruno had too much integrity to follow through on; instead, at the referee’s too-quick bell for a backbreaker submission, Bruno brusquely whispered to Buddy, “Sell it!”
But there’s a world of difference between being the best wrestler ever and the most influential. Who else in the history of this crazy industry could ever have found himself in the position of doing two tectonic-shifting jobs, within months of each other, that together and forevermore relined the wrestling map?
Only Buddy Rogers.
Irvin Muchnick (http://muchnick.net; http://twitter.com/irvmuch) is author of the forthcoming CHRIS & NANCY: The True Story of the Benoit Murder-Suicide and Pro Wrestling’s Cocktail of Death.