Rip Rogers might be a genius. Just ask him. He‚Äôll tell you how, in college, he wrote just one article for the Indiana Central student newspaper, only to win the conference sportswriter of the year award. How he coached high school football in Union City, Indiana, for only one year ‚Äď and led the Braves to a 9-1 record. If you value your dignity, don‚Äôt even think about matching wits with him on 1920s baseball trivia.
But the most genius-like quality about Rogers has nothing to do with accomplishment. For 26 years, he made a career in professional wrestling by making others look good. He could sell getting punched, kicked and thrown out of the ring better than anyone in his field. Professional wrestling is the art of athletic performance ‚Äď and during his career, Rogers was DeNiro. He might just be the best loser in pro wrestling history.
To the bulk of WWE stars, that might seem like a dubious distinction. But Rogers is from the old school. After so many years of wrestling in dingy and dangerous venues, and traveling the globe to chase the ever-elusive gig, he knows what it takes to stay in such a fleeting profession. It‚Äôs simple, really.
‚ÄúOverqualified and over [expletive] prepared,‚ÄĚ says Rogers. ‚ÄúTo stay ahead, you‚Äôve gotta be able to do this-this-this and this. Because in this business, they‚Äôll fire you for no [expletive] reason.‚ÄĚ
Today, you won‚Äôt find the former ‚ÄúConvertible Blond‚ÄĚ on the receiving end of any bodyslams. Instead, Rogers, now 55, lurks among the cluster of mobile homes and pick-up trucks in suburban Louisville. If you get lost in the tangle of empty warehouses where he‚Äôs rumored to be found on Saturday afternoons, follow your ears: You‚Äôre sure to hear his R-rated rants echoing off the rows of aluminum and concrete.
The area may not be glamorous, but it‚Äôs home to one of the most respected breeding grounds of wrestling talent in the nation ‚Äď Ohio Valley Wrestling. The mountaintop of pro wrestling is Sunday in Atlanta at Wrestlemania 27. But the ascent starts at OVW. There is no better place to learn how to lose in America.
Since 2000, Rogers has guided raw, inexperienced wrestlers to WWE and TNA stardom. His three-hour classes attract aspiring wrestlers from literally all corners of the globe ‚Äď Japan, England, Hawaii, Minnesota ‚Äď to settle down in the less-than-striking flatlands of Kentucky. Although OVW ended its affiliation with WWE in 2008, it still remains the foremost in wrestling education, largely for one reason.
‚ÄúBar none ‚Ä¶ not because he‚Äôs my business partner, or because he‚Äôs my friend of 35 years ‚Ä¶ Rip‚Äôs the best in the business,‚ÄĚ says OVW‚Äôs owner, Danny Davis. ‚ÄúWhen it comes to educating and giving the talent a foundation, there‚Äôs none better.‚ÄĚ
Rogers will tell you that he‚Äôs the ‚ÄúJohn Wooden of wrestling‚ÄĚ because of the knowledge he gained during his long, workman‚Äôs career. Growing up in Seymour, Indiana, Rogers ‚Äď then Mark Sciarra -- knew that he always wanted to wrestle. He even pledged such aspirations in the Seymour High newspaper.
Rogers played football and baseball at Indiana Central University and, after graduating in 1976, went to Union City to coach high school football. In order for him to coach the high school team, however, Rogers had to take a gig teaching seventh and eighth graders at the Union City middle school. But the adolescents wore on him. He left after a year.
In 1978, Rogers became the manager of Hofmeister's Gym in Indianapolis. While there, he met "Handsome" Jimmy Valiant, who persuaded Rogers to see if his ripped torso and mammoth legs could stand the rigors of professional wrestling.
Rogers quickly became known around the squared circle for his insane training regimen ‚Äď which, he says, included squatting continuously for over an hour ‚Äď and an ability to put on a good show. That often meant losing to weaker opponents. But no matter: ‚ÄúHustler‚ÄĚ Rip Rogers was born.
Despite his big talk now, Rogers thrived by staying humble. He knew, for instance, when to ‚Äúshut the [expletive] up and listen‚ÄĚ when veterans like Bob Orton Jr. or Ronnie Garvin were telling stories. He knew that he would have to lose all the time. But most important, to stay in wrestling, he knew he‚Äôd have to be willing to portray any character asked of him by his bookers. From ‚ÄúHercules Simard‚ÄĚ to ‚ÄúThe Disco Kid‚ÄĚ to ‚ÄúFatso,‚ÄĚ Rogers played 'em all.
While some of his peers, like Randy Savage, had the benefit of pedigree, Rogers succeeded in professional wrestling despite his background. That‚Äôs why he doesn‚Äôt discriminate today; heck, he sees new faces walk through the door at OVW every week. His approach to new students is simple: If you show up to his class, he will quite literally throw you in the ring. But you better come ready.
‚ÄúSome guys will come in, get blown up, get embarrassed, and get out in the same day. You‚Äôre expected to work. I‚Äôll just throw ya in there.‚ÄĚ
Around 20 wrestlers of all shapes and sizes amble around the ring before a typical class. The mood is light, because Rogers is off on one of his many tangents ‚Äď this time, about George Mikan‚Äôs resounding impact on the NBA. Then, without warning, Rogers rears his head back, and like a drill sergeant, barks something that would make Rex Ryan blush ‚Äď ‚ÄúAll right, you [expletive]s! Quit standing around!‚ÄĚ
Practice has begun. At once, the laughter vanishes into the dingy air; grunts and groans circulate as the wrestlers jog around the facility. Losing takes work. Within an hour, the wrestlers have criss-crossed, jumped full over one another, thrown each other over the ropes, flipped each over their shoulders, and mocked takedowns, execution style, in the corner of the ring. Sweat drips everywhere.
‚ÄúIf you can‚Äôt keep up, that ain‚Äôt my problem,‚ÄĚ says Rogers. ‚ÄúYou say ‚ÄėI wanna play in the NBA‚Äô; well here‚Äôs your tryout, kid.‚ÄĚ
Dedication. Repetition. It sounds like something that‚Äôs printed in bold letters on a high school football muscle shirt. But to Rogers, that‚Äôs how great losers are made.
Rogers can spot a faker with ease. His students know this all too well. To the na√Įve eye, OVW wrestler ‚ÄúDre Blitz‚ÄĚ took a wallop to the face from his counterpart. But there‚Äôs no fooling Rogers.
‚ÄúWhoa! You think that was [expletive] real? They‚Äôre gonna know in a second that was fake. Get your [expletive] head out of your [expletive].‚ÄĚ
Rogers‚Äô demands may seem brutal, but their effectiveness is undeniable. Wander back into the depths of the OVW facility, and you‚Äôll find a room with walls plastered with endless rows of famous alumni captured in signed photos. You can‚Äôt grasp the true magnitude of Rogers‚Äô handprint on modern professional wrestling without the likes John Cena, Randy Orton and Brock Lesnar grinning back at you.
Nick ‚ÄúEugene‚ÄĚ Dinsmore is yet another notable OVW graduate, after wrestling for WWE in stints throughout the past decade. He says he owes much of his success to Rogers.
‚ÄúI wrestled Rip when I first started,‚ÄĚ says Dinsmore. ‚ÄúHe was a 40-something veteran in the ring with the students of OVW. Rip worked with us like he was a coach, much like he does now.‚ÄĚ
Dinsmore may even be following in Rogers‚Äô footsteps: He now teaches a beginners‚Äô class, a precursor to Rogers‚Äô advanced course at OVW.
Those are just the stars. In his ten years, Rogers has seen oodles of unique wrestlers walk through the door. Rogers doesn‚Äôt mind the oddballs, though. After all, he‚Äôs eccentric himself, in his own frightening, profane way. His stance with every new wrestler is always the same. ‚ÄúI don‚Äôt judge a book by its cover,‚ÄĚ says Rogers. ‚ÄúNever will.‚ÄĚ
Utaifeua Tilo ‚Äď known in the ring as ‚ÄúTilo Samoa,‚ÄĚ after his Samoan heritage ‚Äď will attest to Rogers‚Äô impartial judgment. Tilo, a native of Honolulu, is a legally blind albino. But in the two years he‚Äôs been with OVW, that has never stopped him from succeeding in the ring. Under Rogers‚Äôs tutelage, he‚Äôs even been able to cultivate his blindness into a marketable niche.
‚ÄúYou‚Äôve never seen an albino wrestler,‚ÄĚ says Tilo.
Tilo recognizes that Rogers‚Äô class draws a peculiar consortium of wrestlers. But that‚Äôs why he shows up at OVW four times a week.
‚ÄúI don‚Äôt think there‚Äôs any other place like this, man,‚ÄĚ says Tilo. ‚ÄúYou walk around and see all these characters‚Ä¶it‚Äôs unreal, you know?‚ÄĚ
Unreal is the word. There are wrestlers who could easily be ancient Greek sculptures, and there are wrestlers with guts that would make Homer Simpson shake his head. Some talk strictly in wrestling clich√©s (‚Äúit‚Äôs on!‚ÄĚ and ‚Äúbring the pain!‚ÄĚ), while nearby, some chortle at a peer‚Äôs shiny purple tights.
The eccentricity doesn‚Äôt end with physical appearance, though. One wrestler ‚Äď Ryan Nemeth, brother of WWE star Dolph Ziggler ‚Äď has even written his own novel, ‚ÄúI Can Make Out with Any Girl Here.‚ÄĚ
‚ÄúWho can be anything?‚ÄĚ Rogers dares. ‚ÄúWho can be a wild man? ‚ÄėI can.‚Äô Can you act like a girl? ‚ÄėYes, I can.‚Äô‚ÄĚ
Rogers has been retired from wrestling for ten years now. The long blond hair juxtaposed with the scruffy dark beard is a thing of the past. Instead of costumed underwear, Rogers now squeezes his waist into an innocuous fanny-pack.
He‚Äôs in pain. The various injuries that he ignored during his wrestling days ‚Äď broken limbs, ribs, etc. ‚Äď are just now taking their toll, as are the effects of the car crash he suffered in 2003. He walks with a distinctive limp and avoids sitting down, mainly because he can‚Äôt easily get back up.
But Rogers wears his wounds proudly. He‚Äôll lift up his shirt and show you the scar from the time he says was knifed in a match in Puerto Rico, or the startling gap in his right quadriceps muscle that tore at the beginning of a smackdown in Germany. Any sensible man would‚Äôve given up the fight, but did Rogers?
‚ÄúNope,‚ÄĚ he says, deep in wistful nostalgia. ‚ÄúI went 30 minutes with the guy.‚ÄĚ
Rogers‚Äôs stubbornness is why he can‚Äôt give up wrestling. For 36 years, it‚Äôs all he‚Äôs ever known. Though he is in no condition to fight, he can now pass on everything he‚Äôs learned in the art of skillfully losing. Ask anyone at OVW: Rip Rogers the best loser out there. There‚Äôs a reason the students call OVW ‚Äúthe Harvard of wrestling.‚ÄĚ
‚ÄúThat‚Äôs a scary thought,‚ÄĚ says Brandon Lefteroff, Live Events and Promotions Director for OVW. ‚ÄúBecause if this place is Harvard, what does that make Rip?‚ÄĚ
-- Sam Bovard can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.