Tommy Rogers, who passed away last week at the age of 54, was one of the profession's finest practitioners of tag-team wrestling.
It was an art Rogers perfected with longtime partner Bobby Fulton, and it was more than just a little apropos that they were known collectively as The Fantastics.
When it came to babyface tag teams during the 1980s and '90s, they absolutely were. The name suited the pair to a tee.
With their youthful good looks, charismatic promos and tremendous in-ring ability, the two heartthrobs blazed a trail from Jim Crockett Promotions in the Carolinas and Jerry Jarrett's Memphis territory to Bill Watts' Mid-South Wrestling and Universal Wrestling Federation, from Fritz Von Erich's Dallas-based World Class Championship Wrestling to Tokyo, Japan, and Sydney, Australia.
Paired against such formidable heel combos as The Midnight Express, The Rock 'N Roll RPMs, Arn Anderson and Tully Blanchard, and The Sheepherders, The Fantastics drew sellout crowds and rave reviews in every territory they worked, leaving a lasting impression on fans who would fondly remember them decades later.
“The perfect babyface team” was how Jim Cornette, who managed against them on many occasions, aptly described his famous rivals. His Midnight Express' bouts with The Fantastics were tag-team clinics and considered match of the year candidates.
Rogers had been living in Hawaii for the past several years, and one of his last wrestling-related appearances was on a Steve Austin podcast last year where he talked about his career and the toll it had taken on his body.
Rogers' physical condition reportedly had worsened in recent months and left him unable to work. “He was barely able to walk,” said an acquaintance.
A roommate found him unresponsive sitting in a chair in front of his computer at about 3 a.m. Monday. The friend called 911, but Rogers was unable to be revived by paramedics.
Fulton says he was “shocked and devastated” by the news.
“I can't tell you how bad I feel. I was talking to Stan Hansen yesterday, and told him it was like the news when someone called him and told him that (longtime partner) Bruiser Brody was gone. You're just in shock.”
Fulton says he couldn't have asked for a better partner than Rogers.
“Being a partner with Tommy Rogers was a godsend and a blessing beyond my dreams in a profession I always dreamed of,” says Fulton. “When you're a tag-team partner, it's almost like a marriage. I still can't believe he's gone. But you realize it's like the Scriptures say ... life is but a vapor. You're only here for a little while.”
Rogers and Fulton were the proverbial “well-oiled machine” inside a wrestling ring, knowing each other's next move and executing high-flying aerial maneuvers with deft precision.
What made the team so effective, says Fulton, was the fact that neither sought individual glory. The two were driven by mutual desire and passion.
“We never looked at each other as two singles guys. We always considered the team as the entity. It was never about Tommy Rogers. It was never about Bobby Fulton. That's why I think we did so many tag-team high spots. It was all about the team.”
During much of the '90s, the two enjoyed success in Japan, where they engaged in fast-paced, physical programs with the likes of The British Bulldogs, The Can-Am Connection (Doug Furnas and Dan Kroffat), Joe and Dean Malenko, and Kenta Kobashi and Johnny Ace.
Like similar teams from that era such as The Rock 'N Roll Express and The Midnight Rockers, The Fantastics were modeled after The Fabulous Ones (Steve Keirn and Stan Lane), a duo that set Tennessee on fire in the early '80s and were a takeoff on The Fabulous Fargos team from a previous generation.
And like The Fabs, The Fantastics wore tuxedos with top hats and tails into the ring, belying the fact that they were much more than just fancy ring entrances after the bell rang.
“Tommy was a straight-up wrestler and was against the tuxes at first,” recalls Fulton. “He didn't want to shake or dance. But he told me over the years that it was for the team.”
A little-known fact, notes Fulton, is that he previously had teamed with Terry Taylor in some small Georgia towns as The Fantastic Ones. Taylor sold Rogers his tuxes when the newly christened Fantastics were given their new name and start by owner Cowboy Bill Watts and booker Bill Dundee in Mid-South Wrestling.
“Tommy was in Atlanta and I was wrestling in San Antonio. They were looking for a team to put in place for The Rock 'N Roll Express for 90 days while they were gone. We had both worked hard and got over as singles. But those 90 days were magical.”
Rogers, one of the most underrated workers of the era, sold as well as any babyface in the business, but could also brawl when necessary, as evidenced in The Fantastics' bloody and violent series of barbed-wire matches with The Sheepherders (later known as The Bushwhackers) during the mid-'80s.
“It's a very sad time as another one of our wrestling family has left us,” Luke Williams posted on his Facebook page. “Butch (Miller) and myself as The Sheepherders had some of our greatest matches in our 34-year career as a tag team with Tommy and his partner Bobby Fulton.
“Not the biggest man in the squared circle, but had the biggest heart as anybody in the business. We were neighbors in the 1990s and he would often come over to my home on Indian Shores Beach, Fla., to swim and barbecue. Tommy you will be remembered forever. RIP.”
“Words can't even describe it,” adds Fulton. “Tommy blessed me with an opportunity to be a part of one of the great tag teams of professional wrestling. He was one of the best athletes in the profession ... Not only was he a partner, he was like a brother. We traveled many miles to many different places.”
Rogers, whose real name was Thomas Couch, was a natural athlete and one of the best technical wrestlers of his era.
Years of throwing his picture-perfect dropkick and taking thousands of bumps, however, would eventually exact a heavy physical toll.
Rogers suffered a broken neck during a 1992 tour of All Japan Pro Wrestling. The injury occurred before a match as Rogers was trying out a move off the top rope.
“When you're in Japan, you've got to kick it up a notch,” says Fulton (James Hines). “We were there for the first week of a four-week tour. Tommy got up on the top rope to see if he could do a gainer. He ended up mat-burning his face and breaking his neck.”
Fulton recalls Rogers getting right back up and climbing to the top again to try to get it right.
“The office and I ran out there telling him not to do that again. He ended up wrestling about three-and-a-half weeks.”
Still, says Fulton, Rogers never complained.
“That was the nature of the business back then. You wrestled hurt, or you weren't going to get paid. That's just the way it was.”
Thinking he had merely jammed his neck, Rogers opted not to go to a Japanese hospital and instead covered up the injury by supporting his head with a towel.
The pain increased and Fulton talked him into returning to the United States while he finished the tour. The next thing Rogers knew, he was in a body cast.
“When he got back home, he found out he had broken his neck,” says Fulton.
“I had fractured one of my (vertebrae) and was lucky didn't hit my cord, or I wouldn't have been able to wrestle again or even walk,” Rogers said last year on the Austin podcast.
Rogers returned to Japan six months later, but admits he was never the same. Surgery would follow, but it wouldn't be his last.
Rogers began his career in Florida where he was teammates on his high school wrestling team with brothers Bruce and Brett Woyan (later known as “Mad Dog” Buzz Sawyer and Brett Sawyer).
Bruce Woyan, a highly regarded but highly volatile amateur known for hammering nails with his forehead in locker rooms, broke into the business first after being recommended by his coach to Florida promoter Eddie Graham. Rogers followed not long after.
Woyan, who lived his “Mad Dog” gimmick to the hilt, also introduced Rogers to steroids.
While Rogers had a great look, physique and working ability, he was considered too short to be a top singles drawing card.
“I was too small to be a wrestler,” admitted Rogers. “It was a generation where guys were sculpted like bodybuilders, but they were wrestlers.”
To make it in the wrestling business in the '80s, the undersized Rogers was told, you had to be bigger and stronger. While he couldn't do anything about his height, he could do something about his bulk and strength. And that meant muscle-enhancing substances.
But there was a price to pay.
“I don't recommend them to anyone,” said Rogers. “God has given you a body. When you put steroids in that body, your body's not prepared to amp you up and make you able to bench-press 400 and 500 pounds. All that goes into your joints. Two hips, two necks, shoulder, a couple backs, two ankles. It was all that pounding and all those steroids that ate my joints up.”
Rogers, though, also spent considerable time in the gym and working tirelessly to master his craft. While he used steroids sparingly to add bulk, it was his performance in the ring that mattered most.
“You've got to be smart in this business. You've got to have a thinking mind when you're in that ring,” said Rogers.
“Tommy was such a great worker and performer in the ring. He took great bumps, and everything he did was professional. He looked great all the time and he never blew up. His physique was unreal,” Boris Zhukov (Jim Harrell) said Saturday.
“He and Bobby were such a great team everywhere they went. The people loved them.”
More than anything, said Rogers, The Fantastics always wanted to always leave the crowd begging for more.
“You've got to leave that crowd physically and mentally exhausted. You need to be bigger, faster, better. Those fans probably had a long work week, they've had bosses yelling at them, they've had family problems. They come to laugh, cry, get mad, be happy. When they leave the arena, you want to leave them totally exhausted. For 20 or 30 minutes, all they want to do is reminisce about all those matches. They can't wait until next week. I'm so thankful to all those fans who came out and were in those seats.”
“Tommy was an exceptional athlete,” says Fulton. “Although we were both small in stature, together I think we complemented each other enough to where we stood tall as The Fantastics. Otherwise we may have been left behind.”
Just how over were The Fantastics?
Kevin Von Erich, who lives in Hawaii and was friends with Rogers, confessed that The Fantastics got over even more than the wildly popular Von Erichs during their stint with World Class.
“Kevin apologized, but said it was just business,” says Fulton. “He just wanted to let us know how much we got over there.”
“It was so easy to get heat on them,” added Zhukov. “The girls would go nuts over that team. They'd want to kill their opponents.”
“They were one hellacious tag team,” said Austin.
Few worked harder night in and night out than The Fantastics. Their payoff was hearing the roar of the crowd.
“That high was unbelievable. I wish everyone could feel that feeling ... that high,” Rogers would recall.
“With our team there was a passion,” says Fulton. “It was all about the team. I think that's what shines through when people watch our matches.”
The two reunited for a 17th tour of Japan in 2004. After undergoing hip replacement surgery in 2007, Rogers retired from the ring.
He spoke candidly about his injuries and lifestyle in the interview with Austin.
“I can't sleep because of all the injuries. I live out of a little yellow bottle. And I don't recommend it.”When asked about his level of pain, on a 1-10 scale, Rogers said he was an “11.”
Rogers, who had been working at a Home Depot warehouse on the island of Oahu, described his daily ordeal.
“It starts out in my neck, goes to my shoulder, then my lower back, and there's so many chips in my ankle,” he told Austin. “Walking all day on a warehouse floor ... I make so many noises you would think it was a wildlife area. All I can do is laugh about it. It's excruciating.”
Rogers said at the time that he still worked out.
“It's a geriatric workout,” he laughed. “I get on that rubber ball and stretch. I get the blood flowing to all those parts that are like a broke-down car that been fixed and fixed and is just barely able to run. I'm just fortunate that I'm able to get to that gym.”
With his body breaking down, Rogers still rationalized that it's what gave him a good living for many years.
“Your body is your tool. It's your money-maker ... The show must go on.”
“We put our bodies through a lot of abuse. We did it nine times a week in nine different cities. It was grueling and it was rough, but we loved every minute of it. If you would have asked Tommy if he would have done it all over again, he would have said absolutely yes. It was because we had that common thread. We loved the professional wrestling business ... and all the good and bad that came with it.”
Rogers had been unable to work this past year, says Fulton. “He was in pain and agony. He had been working at Home Depot, and you know how it can be working all those hours on hard floors. He was barely able to walk. Eventually he was in so much pain he couldn't work. When you can't work, you're in a lot of trouble. You know how the story ends for guys. They're beat up and battered.”
That pain ended early Monday.
“Tommy was just sitting at the computer. He passed at the hospital,” says Fulton. “It might have been a heart attack, but nobody knows. It might be several weeks before the autopsy results are in. It hadn't been easy for Tommy. He had new shoulders, new hips, new knees. He needed some new ankles because he was struggling just to walk.”
Yet, adds Fulton, Rogers had been named Employee of the Year at the Home Depot where he worked.
“He always gave it his best whatever he did,” says Fulton.
Fulton reminisces about how he and Rogers were fans before they became wrestling stars, yet they never really stopped being fans.
“As a young boy growing up in Chillicothe, Ohio, my dream and aspiration was to be a professional wrestler. I got into the profession, but when I started teaming with Tommy Rogers, it took me farther than I thought I could ever go beyond my dreams to places I had only dreamed about. It took me to Tokyo, Japan, it took me to Haifa, Israel, it took me to Sydney, Australia, being part of a great tag team. It was fate for The Fantastics, because I was blessed beyond my wildest dreams. Traveling down the road we were like family.”
Like Fulton, Rogers was a devout wrestling fan growing up in Florida, where his dad would take him to the weekly shows at the Fort Homer Hesterly Armory in Tampa, the Lakeland Civic Center and the Eddie Graham Sports Arena in Orlando.
“We often said that we were fans of the wrestling business,” says Fulton. “Tommy told me he would never forget Bobby Shane jumping over the top rope one night and looking at him when he was a little kid. He was scared to death.”
Fulton says he often thinks about the endless days and nights on the road, the storytelling that went on inside and outside the ring, and the camaraderie that existed in the business back then.
More than anything, says Fulton, he will remember his partner's passion.
“He had passion about everything in all areas of life. Tommy was a salty guy. He never backed down from anybody or any challenge. He faced everything head-on.”
That infectious smile is what Zhukov will remember most.
“He just had that smile. He was so great to be around in the dressing room. You'd walk in the room and he'd lighten up the whole mood. Tommy seemed to always be in such good spirits. His attitude was always in the right place, and he'd always make you feel good.”
A fund has been set up to help Tommy Rogers' family bring his body home from Hawaii to his final resting place in Florida. Visit www.gofundme.com/TommyRogers for more details.