April 15, 2010
Peers celebrate Roger Kirby's skills
By GREG OLIVER - Producer, SLAM! Wrestling
Often the measure of a great wrestler isn't what the fans see, it's what his peers see. In Roger Kirby, who is being honoured next week by the Cauliflower Alley Club, fellow wrestlers saw one of the greatest performers to ever work in the squared circle.
Bill Howard is willing to go even further. "Roger was the best there ever was. Roger could work. Roger could do everything that they're doing today, and probably even better," Howard said. "He had impeccable timing, his punches, his kicks, everything look good, perfect. He had the body, the looks, the arrogance. He should have made more money than he did, he really should have."
Kirby himself thinks part of the reason that he is still so well remembered is that he left the business when he was still a good draw and a good worker.
That was 1985, when he was 45 years old.
"I'd done everything that I wanted to do," he said. "I didnít want to go back down the ladder."
Though he worked a few shots in 1986 for the WWF, including refereeing in Kansas City, he was done.
Kirby then put in almost 21 years at the Kansas City Star newspaper, where he started driving a truck and later worked as a carpenter. The benefits that came with a stable job came in handy, as he has had both knees replaced -- at the same time -- his shoulders, and both hips. (The hip operations oddly made him taller, since he no longer walked bowlegged.)
All told, it was quite the ride for Willis Kirby of Dunkirk, Indiana, who was born December 14, 1939. Having graduated from high school, he worked in a glass factory, and learned to wrestle on a part-time basis from 1960-64.
He'd already had quite the introduction to the sport.
The Bruiser was more than a teacher and mentor; he was a genuine friend who cared for him, said Kirby. There was a bar/nightclub in Indianapolis called The Harem that Bruiser had a piece of. "I was around there quite a bit, and at his house, because his mom was in the National Democratic Committee, so I was out there for all the political stuff. He'd have parties for the race car drivers and I'd be the busboy on the tables, help tend bar. He used me for everything. Then there was one point in time when I'd gotten hurt. Dick came by my place in Indianapolis once a week -- and come by and make sure I had money. It was a good relationship."
In 1967, while working for Gust Karras in Missouri, he became Roger "Nature Boy" Kirby because of his resemblance to Buddy Rogers. In Oregon he was Rip Kirby. The other nickname he had, "Bottom Rope" Kirby, stemmed from his regular routine where he'd get his foot on the ropes just as the count was hitting three. It would look like he'd been beaten, but the referee would acknowledge the foot on the ropes, and the match would continue. Sometimes, he'd pull off the same move three or four times in a single bout, infuriating the fans.
Over the course of his career, Kirby worked against every world champion from Pat O'Connor on up. He hit tons of territories: Georgia, Florida, West Coast, Oregon, Puerto Rico, Minnesota, Kansas City -- which was his home for the last 10 years of his career, as well as Japan six times, a tour of Africa, time in Mexico, and a stint living and wrestling in the Caribbean.
But the crowning achievement of his career was his run as NWA Junior Heavyweight champion. And it came about by accident.
It was 1971, and Kirby had broken a couple of ribs and went to Louisiana to recover, which is where his wife at the time was from. On a whim, he went to the matches and the promoter Bill Watts -- who had only heard of him, never met him -- offered him the chance to beat Danny Hodge (who was heading for a tour of Japan) and become world junior champ.
Hodge and Kirby have a lot of respect for each other.
To the "Nature Boy," Hodge was "the toughest son of a bitch I ever wrestled."
"Hodge was sort of a cool guy, but he just read too much of his publicity," Kirby continued. "But the scary part of it was that he was everything his publicity said he was. He was unbelievably good as a wrestler. Unbelievable grip. He would grab you by the wrist and you belonged to him."
Hodge said that Kirby was "a super champion," but that his real skill was in making others made. "He even got to me, just the walking, strutting, the showmanship was great," said the pride of Oklahoma. "Here's a young man out there before the public doing his thing. It was just like Danny McShain. Every time he walked or strutted, I wanted to hit him. But the people, the fans, they loved it. I guess if I could have strutted, I would have done it too."
All of Kirby's accomplishments will be celebrated at the annual Cauliflower Alley Club reunion, April 19-21 in Las Vegas, at the Gold Coast Hotel & Casino.
No doubt, there will be a little strutting and bragging during his acceptance speech.
Greg Oliver has been writing about pro wrestling since 1985. His fifth book, SLAM! Wrestling: Shocking Stories from the Squared Circle has just been released. The four previous books are Benoit: Wrestling with the Horror That Destroyed a Family and Crippled a Sport (with Steven Johnson, Heath McCoy and Irv Muchnick); The Pro Wrestling Hall of Fame: The Heels (with Steven Johnson); The Pro Wrestling Hall of Fame: The Tag Teams (also with Johnson) and The Pro Wrestling Hall of Fame: The Canadians. Order them all from the SLAM! Wrestling Store. He can be emailed at firstname.lastname@example.org.