The hell-for-leather ride of Cowboy Roy Rogers

By Pete Ehrmann on December 16, 2015
The hell-for-leather ride of Cowboy Roy Rogers
Zyglewicz "was simply too much for the dead game oil field worker from West Texas.”

“I enjoyed it and wouldn’t take anything for it. I had a lot of fun and it was something I was good at. And I liked that high you get when you’re fighting…”

There was more blood than glory, but Roy Rogers recalls his career in boxing as a mostly happy trail.

This isn’t about the Hollywood-minted “King of the Cowboys” who rode his golden palomino into living rooms in the 1950s and ‘60s, who tamed the modern but weirdly still Wild West on his TV show with his blazing six-shooter, yodeled around the campfire and hoped the Good Lord would take a likin’ to us. That guy’s real name was Leonard Slye, and he came from Ohio.

Boxing’s Roy Rogers was born on the Great Plains of Texas, and that’s his genuine-by-God handle, too. His dad, a rancher in Hereford, in the Panhandle, named Roy after a buddy who died in World War II. When he turned pro in 1963 they called him Cowboy Roy Rogers, but he says it wasn’t his idea.

As you can imagine, Roy took some ribbing about his name over the years, but the very genial and folksy 72-year-old ex-heavyweight says the only time it really ever got to him was when some teenaged girls found him in the phone book and entertained themselves by calling up several times around three o’clock one morning to ask where “Trigger” was.

The middle one of three sons, Roy grew up big and tough. Once he got kicked in the head by a bull and the side of his face swelled up so bad he went to a doctor for the first time in his life. The doc asked if the bull’s kick had knocked him out, and when Roy told him no the sawbones said, “Then go back home.”

After playing some high school football and basketball young Roy decided to give boxing a try. On his very first day in the ring at the Midland Boys Club, he says, “I whipped everybody there, including the two coaches.” Three days later he won his first amateur bout, and then went two years without losing one.

“It was something I was good at,” says Roy. It also helped that he was 6’2” and weighed 270 pounds (as a pro he went around 200, “according to how hard I was training”), and didn’t hold anything back when the bell rang.

“I just went in there and climbed in their lap and swapped punches with ‘em,” drawls Roy. “I wasn’t much of a boxer.”

In a 1962 article about him in the Odessa American, Rogers “said his favorite punch was an overhand right, but that he was satisfied with any punch that landed where it was aimed.”

In two years Roy won numerous amateur titles and lost only a handful of about 35 fights. He knocked out Chuck Oliver in three rounds in his pro debut on April 16, 1963, and then had himself another two-year winning streak except for a four-round draw with Murphy Gordwin in his third bout. (BoxRec says Roy Crear beat Rogers in Dallas on July 20, 1964, but both The Ring and the Abilene Reporter reported it as a six-round decision for Roy, who knocked Crear down in the third round.)

His first 10-rounder was a month later in Dallas against 6’5” Otis Lee, a Cleveland Williams sparring partner with a 10-2-1 record. Rogers won a unanimous decision, and a month later he flattened Murphy Gordwin in a rematch.

George (Scrapiron) Johnson won his Trial Horse Hall of Fame spurs on the West Coast in the late ‘60s, but he started out on the tough Oklahoma-Texas circuit and lost a 10-round bout to Rogers in Dallas on November 9, ’64.

Scrapiron “had courage and skill and was about the toughest fellow Rogers has met,” reported the Associated Press. “But Roy was grinning in the last rounds and seemed to be enjoying himself hammering Johnson around.”

Then the floodgates opened. Rogers had plenty of nosebleeds before, but no problems with cuts until he faced veteran Tod Herring for the Lone Star State heavyweight title in Houston on December 1, 1964. A Herring right hand sliced open the skin above Roy’s left eye and the fight was stopped in the fourth round.

“He was more than I could handle,” says Roy. “He cut me up pretty
good and broke my nose.”

Rogers’ next time out, three months later against borderline contender Elmer Rush in San Francisco, the fight was called after the first round because the skin over Roy’s left eye had burst again. “I think I would have got to him in another four, five rounds,” says Roy.

His third successive TKO loss was to Scrapiron Johnson in a rematch in mid-’65. Rogers was handily ahead after six rounds, but in the seventh a gusher — this time over his right eye — brought the fight to an end.

“He was a tub with arms, like a sack of bolts. He was rough — and not the cleanest fighter that ever lived, either,” says Roy dryly.

Of his last seven fights Rogers won three, though he figures that since Iowa is next to Nebraska his 10-round draw with Omaha’s Bill Nielsen in Waterloo qualifies as a hometown decision for the latter.

On the undercard of the Muhammad Ali-Ernie Terrell championship fight at the Houston Astrodome on February 6, 1967, future Joe Frazier title challenger Dave Zyglewicz “punched holes in game Cowboy Roy Rogers” for six rounds, reported Harlan Haas in The Ring. “Ziggy was simply too much for the dead game oil field worker from West Texas, and landed blows that would have felled an ox.” But Roy was still there at the final bell. “I had a little concussion after that for a week,” he recalls, and double vision. “But (Zyglewicz) was real clean. He didn’t hit low or all that stuff.” Which distinguished him from Rogers’ last opponent, undefeated Tony (Kid) Longoria. After being warned twice for low blows, reported the Amarillo Globe Times, Longoria decked Roy with “a left hand shot high on the right thigh near the groin.” That the fight was somehow declared No-Contest instead of a win by disqualification for Roy was a kick in the head almost on a par with the one from that bull.

He was cleanly knocked out in the ring only twice, Rogers says, “and neither one of those boys was a big hitter. I just walked into one.” The first time was in the amateurs, and in Roy’s penultimate pro bout Roy (Cookie) Wallace felled him in the sixth round.

After Longoria he packed it in. He was getting tired of springing a leak in just about every fight, and had just gotten married. Rogers made about $5,000 in his 20 fights (12-6-1, 1 ND), and could do better than that as a welder in the Texas oil fields, where he worked until about 10 years ago. It was hell on the joints, and Roy just had his second knee replacement. He says he’s pretty “stove up,” but that strong drawl over the phone conveys a different impression.

He and wife Linda (admit it: you were hoping for “Dale”) are coming up on their 50th wedding anniversary. They were introduced to one another by Roy’s friend and sparring partner Jimmy Elder, a Texas heavyweight wunderkind in the late ‘60s who Roy says would’ve been a shoe-in for the title had a brain tumor not killed him at 24. The Rogers have three successful adult children.

“I enjoyed it,” Roy says of his career in the ring, and “wouldn’t take anything for it. I had a lot of fun and it was something I was good at. And I liked that high you get when you’re fighting.”

He never did meet his famous celluloid namesake, but as a kid he went to the local movie house on weekends to watch him in the Western serials.

“He wasn’t my favorite,” says Cowboy Roy Rogers of the Hollywood version. “I liked Tom Mix and a few others better.”

In the 1952 episode of his TV show available via the link below, the “King of the Cowboys” knocks out boxer “Willie (Killer) Conley.” The credits list “Chas. Buchinski” as the actor who played Conley. Later he changed his name to Charles Bronson.

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  1. Bonnie R Rogers 09:34pm, 09/24/2017

    Thank you for writing this story about my daddy.  Your interest has been a bit of a hilight for him and my mother in their later years.  I love hearing his boxing stories…there are many.  Thank you for writing one. —Bonnie

  2. Mike Casey 10:10am, 12/18/2015

    That’s interesting about Ellis, Eric. Jimmy got a broken nose against Patterson in Sweden in ‘68 and didn’t fight again until his match with Frazier in 1970. I remember Nat Fleischer very sarcastically referring to Jimmy’s nose as the longest mending job in ring history!

  3. Eric 07:03am, 12/18/2015

    Mike…Poor Ziggy was felled in the opening seconds by the first meaningful punch thrown by Frazier and then turtled up into a shell for the duration of the “fight.” Frazier pounded the 190lb Ziggy’s arms and body long enough to open him up for a left hook to the head that put poor Ziggy out of his misery a minute or so into the fight. I think Ellis was offered a fight with Ziggy before Frazier, but Jimmy didn’t want to fight in Ziggy’s adopted home state of Texas. The Ziggy fight was one of the few times that Frazier actually enjoyed a height advantage over his opponent.

  4. Pete 07:28pm, 12/17/2015

    Thanks to all—especially Roy.

  5. Mike Casey 12:12pm, 12/17/2015

    I remember Ziggy going against Frazier, Eric. It was all over before poor Dave knew it.

  6. Eric 08:51am, 12/17/2015

    Someone needs to write a book on Scrap Iron Johnson. Mr. Johnson, all 5’9” of him, fought such names as Ron Lyle, Jerry Quarry (3 times), Joe Bugner, Joe Frazier, George Foreman, and Eddie Machen, quite a list of opponents for a journeyman. Johnson also fought a list of second tier heavies like Boone Kirkman, Thad Spencer, Jurgen Blin, Leroy Jones, Chuck Leslie, and even managed a draw with former title challenger, the 6’4” Manuel Ramos before being kayoed by Duane Bobick in his last fight. Read a story on Ziggy years ago where as a kid he was the toughest guy around according to the narrator. The guy telling the story couldn’t believe how the local man-beast Ziggy was handled so easy by Joe Frazier in Ziggy’s shot at the title. Here was Ziggy, the kid that was so dominant in local scraps being brushed aside by Joe easily in the first round.

  7. c.h. 05:06am, 12/17/2015

    I have been reading Pete Ehrmann stories for many years about my favorite fighters: the forgotten contenders, the rough and ready journeymen and club fighters and the colorful tough guys that we only knew from a line in a record book. This was another great tale about what makes boxing our favorite sport..

  8. Clarence George 04:07am, 12/17/2015

    Blame Pete, Mike.  He’s the one who brought it up.  Don’t think I’m not appalled by his salaciousness, as I’m sure we all are.

  9. Mike Casey 03:55am, 12/17/2015

    Clarence, you really must stop thinking about teenage girls!

  10. Bob 03:36am, 12/17/2015

    Great article, Pete. Dave Zyglewicz once told me that Cowboy was :“built for punishment.”  Coming from the thick-trunked jZiggy that was the ultimate compliment. He said it about himself and even his infant grandson, who was thick and wide. He would look at the child glowingly and say, “Look at the hands and the neck. Built for punishment.”  There was nothing more important to Ziggy than being tough and fair in the ring. He was also fond of Bob Felstein, Scrap Iron Johnson (one of my favorite nicknames) and other tough but unheralded heavyweights. I recall him thinking the world of Cowboy on both personal and professional levels. Ziggy was a great raconteur, and brought guys like Cowboy to life, decades before the Internet.  He lived in the Houston gym where he trained and answered the phone call that came after Cleveland Williams had been shot by a police officer. Williams, who was nicknamed Big CAt, trained at the same gym and would scare off sparring partners by saying “Meow” before a training session. Ziggy, who was originally from upstate New York, utilized the gym’s soda machine as his refrigerator. He lived a truly spartan life as a fighter in the real; sense of the word. Thanks for another great piece of fistiana.

  11. Clarence George 03:15am, 12/17/2015

    Most enjoyable, Pete.  I never heard of Cowboy Roy Rogers (or most of his opponents) and would have been disappointed if I had.

    Was Rogers single at the time those teenage girls (we’ll say they were 18) called, asking about his trigger?  I’m surprised you didn’t explore this aspect of the story more fully.  An uncharacteristic lapse of judgment on your part.  Otherwise, excellent piece.

  12. Mike Casey 02:55am, 12/17/2015

    Another gem of an article from Pete!

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