Originally published at Q&A: Tim Hornbaker chats "Master of the Ring" bio on Buddy Rogers
At the end of 2020, Tim Hornbaker released his latest book detailing the life and career of former NWA and WWWF Champion Buddy Rogers entitled Master of the Ring – The Biography of Nature Boy Buddy Rogers.
Rogers is one of the seminal figures of the era that drew in so many parts of the United States not to mention his work in Montreal, Quebec.
Hornbaker is the author of such vital historical tombs including National Wrestling Alliance: The Untold Story of the Monopoly That Strangled Pro Wrestling and Death of the Territories. In his latest release, it’s a singular subject but one with many branches that stem throughout the industry from Rogers’ debut in 1942 right up until his passing in January 1992 at the age of 71.
He is remembered as the first man to hold both the NWA and WWWF championships, winning the former from Pat O’Connor in front of more than 38,000 people at Comiskey Park in Chicago, the subject of lore through his loss of the title to Lou Thesz in January 1963, and a draw throughout so many major markets.
POST Wrestling had the opportunity to interview Hornbaker about the process of putting Master of the Ring together, how Rogers is remembered, and breaking down the details of Rogers’ title loss to Thesz at Maple Leaf Garden in 1963.
POST Wrestling: First off, what were some of the broad differences tackling a singular subject such as Buddy Rogers compared to some of your other books detailing the history of the NWA, the territorial system, etc.?
Tim Hornbaker: When writing about professional wrestling, regardless of the project, I think there are always going to be challenges, especially as one tries to understand the happenings behind-the-scenes during a time in which the sport’s backstage politics were protected to the extreme. My NWA book, and Death of the Territories, were vast projects centering on dozens of regional promotions and personalities, and it always felt like there was an infinite amount of stories to share. Going into this book on Buddy Rogers, I didn’t know where the research was going to take me, or if I’d even have enough detailed material to complete my work. But once I got going, and started to apply fresh research techniques, it only opened up new avenues for information and made the book that much better. Altogether, though, writing a biography is a completely different beast than studying the history of an organization or era, and I really enjoy working on them.
POST: What stood out with Rogers that made him such a captivating subject and did you find that history had not accurately reflected his legacy?
Hornbaker: Buddy Rogers was a legend in and out of the wrestling ring. His innovative ring style, personality, and incredible charisma put him on another level from his contemporaries, and he made an impact in every territory he appeared. For me, it was fascinating to learn how he became such a pioneering figure, and the roads he took from Camden, New Jersey to the biggest arenas across North America. At one point early in his career, he was compared to both Gorgeous George and Gene Stanlee, who both were massively successful at the time. It was all about their showmanship, though. In the ring, Rogers was a much different kind of performer in the way he could control the emotions of audiences. He knew when to sell for his opponent, when to become the aggressor and cheat, and the right finish to electrify the crowd, building toward a rematch. For the most part, Buddy’s legacy has been appropriately recognized and honored, proven by his induction into pretty much every Hall of Fame. But with this book, I wanted to tell his full story, and I think I was able to accomplish that.
POST: The research you conduct across all your books is outstanding. Do you have it down to a process, and what does phase one consist of from a research perspective on a fresh subject?
Hornbaker: Thank you very much. An important part of research, I believe, is developing a method that works on a personal level. It’s preference in a lot of ways, and I’m sure other authors can attest to that. The first stage of any book project usually entails a massive absorption of overwhelming information, which I work to organize and categorize. It can be anything and everything from vital statistics to match histories. This initial collection of data sets the table for all of my research, and creates a working database to organize the bulk amounts of information that I bring in from that day forward. Being able to keep information organized is one of the most important aspects of this kind of research, and I discovered, through trial and error, a system that works for me.
POST: For a lot of readers that had not lived through Rogers’ era, I would imagine many based their opinions of how he came off in “Hooker” by Lou Thesz, did you feel Thesz’s account was an unfair one?
Hornbaker: I agree. I think much of what Thesz wrote about Rogers, and many other people, shaped a lot of opinions. Rightfully so. Thesz was one of the greatest, and his words are to be respected. At the same time, I think it is the job of historians to offer contrary facts if they arise, and illustrate that the words of wrestling’s legends are to be held to the same standards as everyone else. We have to put these individuals on pedestals for their accomplishments and what they brought to the sport, but they are also people and had personal opinions that might’ve interfered with any impartial judgments. Now, I’m not saying that Thesz said anything wrong. He was entitled to his opinion about Buddy Rogers, and sure enough, Buddy’s arrogance rubbed many folks the wrong way. But when you get right down to things, I think you have to look at the career of Rogers from an unbiased point of view, and not through the lens of Thesz or anyone else.
POST: What did you learn in researching the circumstances behind Thesz’s NWA title win over Rogers in January 1963?
Hornbaker: So much has been written about Thesz’s defeat of Rogers in January 1963 through the years, and I’d say probably 90% of the “facts” are wrong. The stories that Rogers refused to lose the belt to Thesz and that Lou threatened to shoot on him if he didn’t play ball are wildly false. The claim that Thesz told Rogers in the ring, “We can do this the easy way or the hard way,” is pure fiction. Also, it was claimed that there was a briefcase with $25,000 in cash on hand, representing Buddy’s belt deposit, and if Rogers didn’t go through with the title switch, Sam Muchnick was going to donate the money to charity. This couldn’t have been further from the truth. In reality, Muchnick actually gave Capitol Wrestling half of the belt deposit back prior to the title change because Vincent J. McMahon needed money. McMahon was thankful for the assist, and not only was on board with giving the championship back to the NWA, but Rogers was as well. In fact, the traveling had taken a serious toll on Buddy, and he was ready to drop the belt. So, any assertion that McMahon and Rogers were trying to sidestep losing the belt to Thesz are nothing but wrestling legend. On the fateful night in Toronto, Buddy did the job without so much as a peep in protest, and Thesz became the NWA World Heavyweight champion. And by the way, Buddy’s belt deposit was only $10,000!
POST: A big theme of the book is how many places Rogers drew at a top-level from New York, California, Ohio, St. Louis, but also in Montreal, which is not a place I associated Rogers with. Can you speak a bit about Rogers’ impact in Montreal?
Hornbaker: After Rogers broke with his manager and booking agent Jack Pfefer in 1951, he sought a new promotional alliance, and quickly found a friend in Eddie Quinn of Montreal. Quinn was more than happy to book the “Nature Boy” throughout Quebec, and Rogers became a huge star in that area. For the next 12 or so years, Rogers made regular appearances in Montreal, and had classic matches with Yvon Robert, Edouard Carpentier, Bobby Managoff, Antonino Rocca, Killer Kowalski and many others. Huge shows at Delorimier Stadium drew well over 10,000 on occasion, and I’d say Rogers was one of the most impactful wrestlers ever to appear in that city.
POST: I’m sure going into a project like this, you come across countless historical figures that have their own unique stories, is there one that stands out that you got to learn about while developing Master of the Ring?
Hornbaker: Definitely. While going through Buddy’s ring record, and surveying his opponents at different points in his career, I found myself learning about many wrestlers I didn’t know much about, from Jack Vansky and Babe Sharkey to Buddy Rosen and Karl Karlsson. In 1959, Buddy entered into a bloody feud with an ex-weightlifter named Gene Dubuque in Northern California, and they had a wild series of matches. Dubuque, interestingly, was billed as being from Hollywood and was nicknamed the “Strutter,” seemingly taken from Buddy’s playbook. I was surprised how Dubuque worked as a heel against Rogers, in a role that Buddy himself usually performed in, and although Rogers won nearly all of their matches, he really gave a lot of credibility to Dubuque. It was a star-making run, and they did great business together. Dubuque, as many remember, later became “Magnificent Maurice” and formed a successful tag team with Johnny Barend, who was another of Buddy’s longtime allies.
POST: Had Rogers lived another decade and received the treatment of a big WWE DVD project, a wider platform for its Hall of Fame, and being branded as a key part of its history, would the legacy of Buddy Rogers be significantly greater among those in the present era?
Hornbaker: I’d have to think so. Any time the WWE puts a serious effort into recognizing a legend, it is tremendous exposure. With that being said, Rogers is part of an elite group of wrestling figures in history, and even without the added publicity, I don’t think he’ll be easily forgotten. People remember the original “Nature Boy,” and recognize that he played a major role in wrestling history. Master of the Ring finally gives readers the opportunity to learn the truth about his life, his runs with the NWA and WWWF championships, his relationship with Thesz, and his political mastery of the business. There will never be anyone like “Nature Boy” Buddy Rogers again.
POST: Final question, you worked closely with the late Bobby Davis for this book, how integral was he as a link to Rogers?
Hornbaker: Talking to Bobby Davis was as important as anything I’ve done in studying professional wrestling history. His knowledge about the business was boundless, and just his words of advice and friendship were incredible for me as a person. Davis and Rogers were best friends, and Bobby’s relationship with Rogers gave me firsthand insight into Buddy’s career, plus a perspective that I never would’ve had otherwise. Bobby was there when Buddy won the NWA World Title in 1961 and was with him as his health deteriorated in the years that followed. I never had the chance to meet Rogers, but I did have the privilege of knowing Bobby Davis, and it was a true honor.
Master of the Ring – The Biography of Nature Boy Buddy Rogers by Tim Hornbaker is available through Crowbar Press and through Amazon.