"An irreplaceable reference tool and a great documentation of our storied wrestling history." KayfabeMemories.com
"A fascinating journey. . . . Rating: 9.5 / 10." Online World of Wrestling
From the critically acclaimed authors of The Pro Wrestling Hall of Fame: The Tag Teams comes the most comprehensive look ever at the colourful villains, heels, bad guys and rule breakers who give professional wrestling so much of its character. In The Pro Wrestling Hall of Fame: The Heels, Greg Oliver and Steven Johnson take readers on an informative and… See more details below
From the critically acclaimed authors of The Pro Wrestling Hall of Fame: The Tag Teams comes the most comprehensive look ever at the colourful villains, heels, bad guys and rule breakers who give professional wrestling so much of its character. In The Pro Wrestling Hall of Fame: The Heels, Greg Oliver and Steven Johnson take readers on an informative and entertaining ride through mat mayhem. With their signature mix of original research, interviews, and anecdotes, they describe the rise and development of wrestling’s bad guys, from riots in small-town arenas in the 1920s to the mega-event pay-per-views of today. Intended for everyone from casual fans to wrestling historians, the book explains how a barrel-chested Milwaukee brewer became wrestling’s first Nazi, then served his country with distinction in World War II. You’ll find out how bleached blond bad guys like the legendary Ric Flair trace their lineage to Gorgeous George and about the little-known Ohioan that George himself emulated. And of course, Oliver and Johnson’s list of the most influential heels in history is sure to spark debate. Like its predecessors in this series, The Pro Wrestling Hall of Fame: The Heels features more than a hundred rarely or never-before-seen photos of wrestling’s most despised characters it’s a must read for anyone interested in the unique world of sports entertainment.
"An irreplaceable reference tool and a great documentation of our storied wrestling history." KayfabeMemories.com
"A fascinating journey. . . . Rating: 9.5 / 10." Online World of Wrestling
The Top 20
1. "NATURE BOY" BUDDY ROGERS
You still see him everywhere.
You see him every time Vince McMahon swaggers down the runway to the ring on TV. You see him every time someone clamps on a figure-four leglock. You see him every time someone screams out, "NA-ture Boy!" You see him everywhere because wrestlers, promoters, and fans all agree that he was the most imitated, most talented, most ... everything heel in history.
The ironic thing is that there wasn't much original about Buddy Rogers. His name was lifted from Charles "Buddy" Rogers, an actor and jazz musician who starred in Wings, the first winner of an Academy Award for best picture. "Nature Boy" was a number one hit on the Billboard charts in 1948. The sneer, the strut, the pretty boy looks ... those were parts of wrestling almost from the start. It's just that all-time greats like Don Leo Jonathan agree Rogers packaged them like no wrestler before. "He really wasn't that good of a hand, but he was a hell of a showman. He could draw houses where other guys couldn't. He just had that thing. He had a way of making those people want to kill him, and he could do it just with a look, a posture," Jonathan said.
Billy Darnell, Rogers' friend and greatest rival, tells of an incident in the early 1950s that puts it all in perspective. "In those days, in Hollywood, you could go in small clubs and see the best entertainment in the world, and never spend a dime for a cover charge or anything. At the Brown Derby, Nat King Cole was there and he had his trio. So I walk in, and I'm sitting down, and there's Nat up there playing something. And Buddy Rogers walked in the door. It was an amazing thing. The spotlight went over to Buddy Rogers, and Nat looked over and saw him and nodded, and he transposed the song he was playing right into 'Nature Boy.'"
Rogers was the sport's top gate attraction for the better part of two decades, until he lost the World Wide Wrestling Federation world title to Bruno Sammartino in May 1963, and essentially ended his active career. In his most famous match, he drew a record 38,600 to Chicago's Comiskey Park in June 1961, when he beat Pat O'Connor for the National Wrestling Alliance championship. While he served some duty as a fan favorite, especially early in his career under his real name of Herman "Dutch" Rohde, he was meant to be a heel. "Buddy Rogers loves being hated. He loves being hated almost as much as he loves being Buddy Rogers," observed famed Chicago sportswriter Dave Condon. As Rogers himself once explained, "It's bread and butter, and cake, too, for me. The more the fans hate me, the more money they pay in hopes of seeing me whipped. This I enjoy."
To say the least, Rogers was not everybody's cup of tea. Many of his contemporaries, while acknowledging his skills, viewed him as a schemer and conniver who knew his position in wrestling, and went to great lengths to protect it. "He was strictly a con man from A to Z. Everything he did was bullshit to keep you down and keep himself up, but he was always laughing and joking along like he was normal," said Bob Orton Sr., Rogers' tag team partner in the early 1960s in the Northeast. "What he was doing was thinking, 'How can I screw this guy?' I could read him like a book and remember every word." Opponent Jackie Fargo called him "Bud-ro," and felt the same as Orton, based on encounters and matches with Rogers. "He was the most no-good son of a bitch that ever put on a pair of wrestling boots. He was a fabulous, fabulous, fabulous worker. He was a natural, and you can't take that away from him. But as far as a person — listen, he would try to hurt you or cripple you any way he could." Before one bout in New Jersey, Fargo recalled saying to Rogers, "Let me tell you something, pally — if you screw with me any way, shape, or form, don't try to leave the ring, 'cause you've got a fight on your hands." Lou Thesz carried a long grudge against Rogers for belittling Ed "Strangler" Lewis, Thesz's mentor, during a ride to Louisville, Kentucky. "The knowledge of his contempt for Ed and true wrestlers was more than I could tolerate," Thesz wrote in his autobiography Hooker. Despite years and years of main event matches, Thesz "never let him win, just on principle."
Regardless of what people felt, Rogers was guaranteed money in the bank, with a perfect sense of what to do and not do in the ring. When in 1960 and 1961 a newspaper exposed Tito Carreon, one of Rogers' opponents in the Northeast, as Mexican and not Puerto Rican, Carreon found himself being booed one night in New Jersey. Rogers pounded Carreon into oblivion, and then whispered, "Flag me," a tip-off for his opponent to seize the offensive. Carreon reported his comeback was so intense that excited Puerto Rican fans started throwing chairs in the ring. "We had good matches all the time because [Rogers] knew how to get the crowd going. He had something special about him. There are a lot of jealousies in the business. Everywhere he wrestled he was drawing people. Everywhere. Babyfaces, they loved working with him," Carreon said. Don Arnold battled Rogers for a version of the world title in Ohio in 1952 and 1953, and thought he had a terrific head for business. "He made money for you," Arnold said. "The place was sold out weeks ahead. He was a big attraction and big name. He was the first to do what he did."
The son of German immigrants, Rogers was born in Camden, New Jersey, in 1921, worked the carnival circuit for a couple of years as a teenager, and turned pro thereafter. He said in interviews that he officially turned to the mat to support himself after the death of his father, who was nearly fifty when Buddy was born. For years, he maintained a loose affiliation with the Camden police department. After a brief stint in the Navy in 1939 and 1940, he started to attract attention on the East Coast for his good looks, Adonis-like physique, and cocksure ways. By 1944, The Washington Post labeled him "the District's most popular mat star." The following spring, Rohde headed to Texas under the guise of Buddy Rogers, a name older stepbrother John used during a brief wrestling career. In May 1946, Rogers won the Texas heavyweight title, including an apparent swap with Thesz, though Thesz claimed the title change took place in an office, not the ring. In September 1946, Rogers hooked up with Jack Pfefer, a promoter who was alternately brilliant and reviled, but who helped push Rogers to the hilt for about five years.
Adding "Nature Boy" to his persona, Rogers made a splash in California in 1948, when Pfefer arranged a grand coming-out party designed to make the public forget about Gorgeous George. In a letter to promoter Hugh Nichols, who ran the Hollywood venue, Pfefer sought an accordion player and a couple of Amazonian models to accompany Rogers to the ring and tend to his splendid capes. "After the big circus which the gorgeous guy put on in your clubs, we will have to beat this silly stuff with something more unusual, but at the same time something serious and beautiful," Pfefer wrote. Rogers won that night, and didn't lose a match until he fought Darnell that October. It worked out for Rogers — he wrote Pfefer that he raked in $26,349 in 1948: "So Jack we had a great year together again and I'm sure glad to hear we have a good new year coming up." Pfefer's cut was $7,118.
Rogers, a natural for the early days of TV wrestling, officially changed his name from Rohde around 1950. His appeal only increased as he toured the country and won a variety of regional championships with a cold, calculated hostility toward audiences. As a youngster, former Chicago columnist Bob Greene was taken with Rogers and eventually got to know his anti-hero. "Well, the blond hair, the sneer, the gaze of absolute confidence — Nature Boy Rogers was to wrestling what Elvis Presley was to music: electric, jolting, incandescent," Greene wrote. "He was a unique personality," added Darnell, who wore a collar for a year after Rogers accidentally crushed discs in his neck with a botched piledriver. "He was one of those guys who wanted to appear like a hardball, but if you needed something he was there for you. He was like Sinatra. He wanted to rule the roost, but if you needed something, he was there for you." And Rogers was oddly honest with interviewers about his portrayal of a wrestling villain. "Out of character, Buddy Rogers is a pleasant, soft-spoken, handsome gentleman who readily admits the long blond hair, the exaggerated strut, and the scornful stare are all part of an act," Art Abrams admiringly informed readers in the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette in 1962.
Rogers held the NWA title until January 1963, but his reign was marked by controversy about his unwillingness to wrestle outside a handful of major cities. To be sure, his draws were as big as ever. In 1961, he helped to pull $151,000 in four shows in Pittsburgh against Johnny Valentine and "Crusher" Lisowski; Steel City wrestling had been dead for years. He was closely aligned with promoter Vincent J. McMahon in New York, and McMahon made Rogers his first WWWF champion in 1963 after Rogers lost the NWA belt to Thesz in Toronto. "In my opinion, Buddy Rogers was one of the best ever," said Pete Sanchez, a frequent opponent from 1960 to 1963. "He was a very intelligent worker. He could go in the ring with a broomstick and make the broomstick look good, because if the broomstick looked good, and Buddy beat it, he would look that much better himself."
Rogers was WWWF kingpin until May 1963, when Bruno Sammartino dispatched him in forty-eight seconds. The circumstances of Rogers' title loss have been examined almost as carefully as the Zapruder film. For years, backstage whispers, spread in part by a New York sportswriter, held that Rogers suffered a heart attack, and was dragged out of a hospital to wrestle Sammartino. That wasn't the case, according to several people familiar with the event. Rogers backed out of three matches in a row in mid-April 1963, and a physician checked him out after at least one of them. To some colleagues, he explained that a long-standing heart murmur troubled him, though many of his contemporaries remain convinced that he was fashioning an alibi for his defeat. Terry Milam, a friend in later life, quoted Rogers as reporting shortness of breath and palpitations leading up to the bout with Sammartino, who was on track to become champion. "Later on, he went to another physician in New York and the guy says, 'Well, this is not a big deal. We can fix this.' Buddy said he went and had surgery, and when he came out, he was fine," Milam recounted.
After Rogers dropped the title to Sammartino, he quickly became a secondary figure in the business. In late 1963, he hurt his back in a broken-chair accident, forcing him to forfeit a lucrative tour of Europe. He won $15,000 in a lawsuit against the Florida resort that owned the chair, and wrestled only a few matches, mostly in Montreal and Ohio, during the next few years. He made a comeback in 1979 in Florida and the Carolinas, handling some booking for Sunshine State promoter Eddie Graham, and briefly feuding with "Nature Boy" Ric Flair. Otherwise, Rogers' biggest post-retirement headlines came in July 1989, when he lived with wife Debbie in south Florida and was recovering from surgery. Rogers stepped to the plate at a Fort Lauderdale restaurant to stop a disgruntled twenty-four-year-old man from screaming abuses at female employees, and at him. The Nature Boy cuffed him around, earning plaudits from workers and the local police force. "Here he is, sixty-eight years old and he just had a bypass operation and a hip operation, and he stands up to this guy," Police Chief Joe Fitzgerald said.
"He was very outgoing, very confident, no question about that, just the way he walked and carried himself. He looked great until the day he died. He was in perfect shape," said brother-in-law David Ludwigsen. "The ring didn't come out in him. He was a perfect gentleman, always, a great conversationalist. You wouldn't think he did what he did unless you actually knew it." True to form, Rogers' demise came in June 1992, when he was happily chatting with a woman in a grocery store. He slipped on some cream cheese and landed in the hospital, and then suffered a series of strokes that claimed his life on June 26, 1992.
Through all the glitz and glamour, all the controversy and championships, Darnell still remembers his old friend as more of a soft touch, particularly in retirement, than anyone would ever imagine. "I found out what a softie he was when an old black Labrador dog was sick, laying down on his doorstep," Darnell said. "And he took the dog to a veterinarian, and got him well, and they were inseparable for a long time. And then, when Buddy died, that old dog lay down and wouldn't get up anymore. Debbie had to take the dog and have him put away."
"It was a lot of fun," Rogers told writer Ray Tennenbaum in 1985. "I wouldn't trade my life for any other athlete, for a lot of people I knew from day one. And I knew that I'd be the best at what I did, and even till this day I know that I was the best at what I did. I feel that, and no one can ever erase that thought."
2. GORGEOUS GEORGE
Enrique Torres remembers wrestling a chap by the name of George Wagner in Texas during the 1940s, and thinking he was a pretty tough customer. Not long after, he squared off with Wagner in California. Only this time, Wagner had curled his hair, donned an effeminate getup, and pranced to the ring as Gorgeous George. "I didn't know what to think," Torres recalled with a hearty laugh. "I knew he had done something. He was acting kind of fruity and it worked for him."
It worked so well that Gorgeous George became a household name, lathering wrestling with show-business glitz that's still part of the sport today. Lost in the valets, orchids, and gold-plated bobby pins, though, was a simple fact — Wagner knew his way around the mat. "I'll tell you, Gorgeous George was a good wrestler," Torres said. Phil Melby, who battled him in Arizona, concurred. "He'd make a lot of these big guys squeal. They thought he was just for show. But you didn't want to go to the gym and get on the mat with him."
George was one of the biggest stars of the early days of television, and his act regaled fans from coast to coast on televised shows from California. During his peak, from 1947 until the mid-1950s, this Liberace in tights sent newspapers into full pop-celebrity alert whenever he ducked into town for a well-publicized hair appointment. "Each year, they pick a coiffure queen out there," Sam Menacher, one of George's handlers, said, waving a Hollywood flyer at sportswriter Red Smith during one hair-care interlude. "This year, for the first time, they picked a coiffure king. See? George. 'Our King,' it says here. The hairdo he's got, that's the Gorgeous George swirl."
Ardath Michael, the companion of wrestler Don Arnold, has pleasant memories of George — and the way he smelled — from the time she tended to George's locks in Memphis, Tennessee. "He had a certain style that was his trademark. He didn't want to deviate from that. He was an extremely nice person ... He smelled better than anybody I ever smelled in my life. I don't know what he wore. I asked him one time, and he told me, I'm sure, but I was just a young thing." Certainly, George's hair sometimes deviated from Lana Turner platinum blond — he dyed it brunette, red, and indigo blue for some matches in 1947 and 1948, according to various accounts.
George Raymond Wagner's story was a true American rags-to-riches-to-rags tale. Born in 1915 in Seward, Nebraska, he was raised in Houston, never finished high school, worked at carnivals and small shows as a teenager, and peddled milk door-to-door to eke out a living. Wagner started his pro careerwhen he was about seventeen, and made a mark for himself as a local favorite in Texas in the mid-1930s. "George Wagner, 185-pound native of Houston, is a clean, clever wrestler, who likes the flying tackle and the Irish whip made famous by ex-champion Danno O'Mahoney," the Galveston Daily News observed. As Wagner, he enjoyed moderate success for several years, winning the Pacific Coast Light Heavyweight title in 1938, taking his real-life marriage to Betty Hanson in a Eugene, Oregon ring in 1939 from venue to venue, and copping a regional junior heavyweight crown in 1941.
His transformation into Gorgeous George was gradual, and represented a compilation of ploys from wrestling's early showmen. His dazzling capes brought to mind the garb flashed by Danny McShain. Sterling "Dizzy" Davis, a childhood pal of Wagner's in Houston, developed a prissy character and tossed gardenias to fans; George chose orchids. Another influence was his friend Lord Lansdowne, who refused to enter a ring until his valets sprayed it, and took his sweet time folding his precious ring garments. Even in George's prime, Newspaper Enterprise Association sports editor Harry Grayson tipped a cap to Lansdowne as the man from whom George "got the resplendency idea." But, if those wrestlers were first in flight, George was the booster rocket — soaring to new heights, majestic, magnificent, radiating heat and light for all to see. He claimed close to one hundred robes in all the colors of the rainbow, full of ruffles and flourishes, with touches of mink and ermine thrown in. The late Portland, Oregon, promoter Don Owen said the robes helped pull up the curtain on George's performance around 1944, when he made a huge production number of disrobing. "You can imagine how this went over with an audience full of loggers and lumberjacks," laughed Owen. "Here was this guy taking his time and they grew impatient and wanted the action to start. So he would use that and take even longer until the point where it became a part of his whole act. It really drove fans crazy. They were incensed."
Wagner refined the character through the mid-1940s. By July 1945, he was advertised as "Gorgeous" George Wagner, though he was still a favorite in places like Missouri, and he was touted as "the California city slicker with an English valet" when he fought old buddy Davis in Oklahoma in early 1946. By spring 1947, the old Wagner disappeared and he was billed as "The Toast of the Coast." Late that year, he hit Los Angeles for good, and that's when his career took off, thanks in large part to the small screen. Dave Lewis of The Independent in Long Beach, California, noted George would more than double his annual income to about $100,000 after becoming Hollywood's latest poster boy. "The magic of television has done more for G.G. than anything else. In fact, the combination of Gorgeous George and television is credited with giving wrestling in southern California a much-needed shot in the arm."
Excerpted from The Pro Wrestling Hall of Fame the Heels by Greg Oliver, Steven Johnson, Michael Holmes. Copyright © 2007 Greg Oliver and Steven Johnson. Excerpted by permission of ECW PRESS.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Greg Oliver has been covering professional wrestling for two decades for the SLAM! wrestling website, the Canadian Wrestling Report, and other magazines and newspapers. He is the author of The Pro Wrestling Hall of Fame: The Canadians and coauthor of The Pro Wrestling Hall of Fame: The Tag Teams. He lives in Toronto, Ontario. Steven Johnson is the author of articles on business, politics, and sports in dozens of newspapers and magazines, and the coauthor of The Pro Wrestling Hall of Fame: The Tag Teams. He lives in Charlottesville, Virginia.
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