Buddy Rogers Coolest Person of the 20th Century

An article by Bob Green of the Chicago Tribune

Sturgis, SD — When Northwest Airlines drops you off in the Black Hills of South Dakota, and then doesn’t come back to pick you up, you are presented with the challenge of how to kill time.

One way is to talk to people here about the big pay-per-view World Championship Wrestling show that was telecast from Sturgis over the summer. The show featured the usual current-day assortment of wrestling stars — Hollywood Hulk Hogan, Sting, Disco Inferno, Diamond Dallas Page — as well as “Tonight” show host Jay Leno wrestling in a tag team, and a current superstar of pro wrestling, a man who goes by the single name “Goldberg” (don’t ask)

The nationally telecast show, as you can imagine caused quite a stir around here. And perusing the current array of famous wrestlers, I am more convinced than ever about the identity of the coolest person of the 20th century.

That would be Buddy “Nature Boy” Rogers.

Buddy “Nature Boy” Rogers was my first hero. He was a wrestling star in the early days of coast-to-coast television; because TV was new and wrestling was a cheap way to fill airtime, professional wrestling became among the first people to find out about the amazing impacr of television fame. One year they’d been wrestling almost anonymously and dingy local arenas– the next year their faces were known in tens of thousands of cities and towns they’d never visited. And Buddy Rogers’ face. . .

Well, the blonde hair, the sneer, the gaze of absolute confidence — Nature Boy Rogers was to wrestling what Elvis Presley was to music: electric jolting, incandescent. Sometimes he was the good guy, sometimes he was the bad guy — it didn’t seem to matter much, he filled arenas either way. The Buddy Rogers strut was a work of art — he would saunter across the ring with a kind of cocky stutter-step that in itself was worth the price of a ticket.

Which for me, when I was 10 years old, was 50 cents. Because of an accident in geography, Nature Boy came to my hometown all the time. The big paydays for wrestlers were in New York and Chicago. But they’d stop in central Ohio on their way between the big cities, to make a little extra money appearing on “Lex’s Live Wrestling” a TV show hosted by local Chevrolet dealer Lex Mayer.

Most of the wrestlers wee saw in central Ohio where not marquee names — we’d get guys like Frankie Talaber and Leon Graham and Fritz von Goering and Oyama Kato. And then Nature Boy himself would show up in town, and Old Memorial Hall in downtown Columbus — site of “Lex’s Live Wrestling,” home of the 50-cent-ticket — would feel like Madison Square Garden.

Make that Carnegie Hall — the thrill of a Nature Boy performance was so sublime that it belonged there, not in some mere sports arena. Unfortunately, this was a minority opinion — wrestling had no cachet back then, it was considered a gutter entertainment — and Nature Boy was virtually unknown to the more educated echelons of society.

But has there ever been a studlier human being? I got to know Nature Boy in his later years (he died at the age of 71 in 1992) and even then that sneer, that strut, that voice . . . he sounded like Robert Mitchum, but Buddy’s voice had even more authority, if you can imagine that. near the end of Nature Boy’s life we went to dinner in a south Florida restaurant near his home, and on that night I found out that even a man using a cane can strut like an ego crazed pony through a crowded room, turning heads with every step.

That Classic Sports cable TV network occasionally fills the early-morning hours on weekends with old wrestling matches, and Nature Boy’s power is undiminished over the years. The video advances utilized to gives sports events high impact today had yet to be developed then — there was no color, no crystal-clear closeups, no slow-motion replays. The wrestlers were mostly seen from middle distance in black, white and gray. Yet Nature Boy still in that grainy old footage, burns through the screen like a hypnotic flame.

The coolest person of the century?

Nature Boy’s only real competition would seem to be Elvis himself — and an impartial judge long ao awarded the title to Buddy. That judge was Debbie Rogers, Nature Boy’s wife. as a young woman, she dated both Elvis Presley and Buddy Rogers (what a woman — it staggers the imagination). She chose Nature Boy. She thought he was cooler.

Meanwhile, the Black Hills are lovely this time of year, but the professional wrestlers are all gone from Sturgis now, having been wise enough to arrive and depart before the airline strike. I look at the hills and try to imagine what Nature Boy would have made of Dennis Rodman.