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History 09 - The Era of Lou Thesz

Because professional wrestling was 95 percent pre-arranged from the 1930s on, it's difficult to evaluate how good the champions of the past 75 years really were. But there are glimpses to be gained here and there. The best way is to talk to the old pros themselves, and try to get them to loosen up and tell what they know. That isn't an easy chore as most of them prefer to keep their "secrets" for their small circle of associates. But they do loosen up, on rare occasions.

One such moment came on August 2, 2002, at the tail end of Inductions Weekend for the George Tragos/LouThesz Professional Wrestling Hall of Fame festivities. The pro museum is in a separate wing of the International Wrestling Institute and Museum in Newton, Iowa. That night, the museum was holding a special tribute for Lou Thesz, who had passed away a few months earlier at age 86.

In the crowd were such figures as Dick Hutton, Dan Hodge, Tim Woods and Glen Brand, 1948 Olympic champion.

"I wasn't a bad country wrestler," said Hutton, standing before the gathering in his cowboy attire and trying to hold his emotions in check. “I won three national collegiate titles at Oklahoma State and should have won four (he lost a controversial decision to Verne Gagne in the finals one year). I was on the 1948 Olympic team. I was NWA world heavyweight champion.

"And I'm here to tell you that Lou Thesz was the best wrestler I ever met on a mat, period! I think if he would have been able to go to college he would have won three NCAA titles like I did't heck, maybe four. He was lightning quick and had great leverage and strength. He knew every single hold there was. And he was dangerous. He could take you out at any moment if you didn't know what you were doing."

Lou Thesz

Woods, also a highly-successful amateur (two-time All-American at Michigan State and two-time AAU national champion) before becoming a pro star as Mr. Wrestling, echoed those sentiments. He said Thesz was the best man he ever wrestled in a ring or in a practice session.

Three years earlier, a roast was held for Thesz by the Cauliflower Alley Club in Las Vegas. Among the many roasters was Judo Gene LeBell, a legendary martial arts figure and wrestler. LeBell is revered in some circles for his toughness and hooking skills. He has been a stunt coordinator on 1,000 films, working with such stars as Bruce Lee and Seven Segal.

Taking the podium, he walked behind Thesz, who was sitting in a chair, then shouted, "This is the only time I've ever been able to get behind Lou Thesz!"

In a private conversation after the roast, LeBell said Thesz was the king of the pros in his era, the absolute best.

Thesz was raised in St. Louis and wrestled in local amateur tournaments as a youth. His dad owned a shoe repair shop and they would wrestle on the hardwood floor of the living room, night after night. At age 17, Thesz was such an impressive physical specimen that the local promoter invited him to wrestle on the Friday night professional shows. Thesz didn't want to surrender his amateur status, but it was The Depression era and money was very tight, and so he accepted. He began wrestling for money to help his family.

He won the NWA world heavyweight title in St. Louis on December 22, 1937, at the age of 21. beating Everett Marshall. The triumph kicked off the most legendary pro wrestling career since Frank Gotch.

Thesz wrestled all over the world for the next three decades, defending his title against everyone. He had trained under a legendary hooker named George Tragos and refined those skills with another submission expert, Ad Santel. He also was taken under the wing of Ed Lewis and they traveled together for years when Thesz was world champion. Few men ever had the training background of Thesz, in all types of wrestling. And no one took the game any more seriously than Lou Thesz.

A guy who was tough both in and out of the ring was Freddie Blassie, a top pro star for three decades. Though he had a gimmick and talked like a wild man in interviews, Blassie was a brawler who would back down from no one. Both as a sailor in the United States Navy during World War II and as a young wrestler starting out after the war, he had his share of fights. Like Thesz, he grew up in St. Louis and met George Tragos at any early age.

"He was my idol", wrote Blassie of Tragos. "I never saw the tough Greek lose, and there was good reason for that. He was one of the most vicious hookers of all time. A hook was an excruciating, potentially crippling hold that could be applied when a match turned into a shoot. There were very few real hookers in the business, capable of positioning an opponent's body to break bones or cut off his breathing, and guys like Tragos were treated like grand masters in the dressing room."

"It was Tragos who trained Lou Thesz, the son of a Hungarian shoemaker from another St.. Louis neighborhood, into possibly the most respected hooker of the Twentieth Century, a six-time world heavyweight champion, and the Babe Ruth of the squared circle," added Blassie. (quoted from his book, Classy Freddie Blassie, copyright in 2003 by World Wrestling Entertainment, Inc.)

At six foot two and two hundred and thirty pounds, Thesz was an imposing specimen. He was also a fitness fanatic. He worked out constantly on the mat, with weights and running, whether at home or on the road. He despised pros who couldn't go the distance and would work them over if he was scheduled for a 60-mintue match and the other guy started dogging it.

"If you weren't in top shape, a match with Thesz would turn into a nightmare," laughed Woods, when recalling the times he saw top pros trying to keep pace with Thesz. "He ran them out of gas and really worked them over."

"He walked the walk and talked the talk said one top promoter. "He was the best, and everyone knew it. No one messed with Lou Thesz, in or out of the ring."

Thesz drew huge crowds all over the nation, with 40,000 seeing his title match with Baron Michele Leone in Los Angeles in the 1950s. He and Verne Gagne sold out Madison Square Garden once, and Thesz and Gorgeous George sold 43,000 tickets to Wrigley Field, home of the Cubs. But he actually enjoyed the gym workouts more than the hyped matches. He loved to get to a wrestling gym early in the day and put in three or four hours working hard on the mat, learning new techniques, and refining his submission holds.

After 6,000 matches, he finally retired. The last ten years of life were difficult for Thesz as he had to watch professional wrestling continue its long, downward slide into a form of show business that he no longer understood or was willing to accept. In his autobiography, Hooker, he expressed his disaffection with the sport's downward evolution and the lack of wrestling ability in most of the game's superstars.

In a handwritten note to a friend in 1993, he provided an insight into how the game had changed since he started out in the 30s:

"A great pro wrestler was never determined by the best two out of three falls. 'Greatness' was determined by the fans, how many would pay to see him again! The difference when I came into the business was that we still had respect for each other based on two out of three falls. Today, no one, promoters, fans or 'wrestler'" cares or even knows." 

For many decades, Lou Thesz was a lonely beacon in the world of professional wrestling. Though he had to show his stuff in arenas that were mostly filled with workers and clowns, he remained above it all. He worked his craft with skill and dignity and thereby brought a degree of respectability to the entire profession.

It was the image of Lou Thesz, which he brought with him from the days of Ed "Strangler" Lewis and Joe Stecher, that helped others cut from the same mold wrestlers like Verne Gagne, Tim Woods and Dan Hodge fit into the strange world they encountered after their amateur days were over.

For a wide range of gift shops items  — including books, posters, videos and trading cards for wrestling  — be sure and check the web site of the International Wrestling Institute and Museum (641-791-1517) in Newton, Iowa. The web site is: www.wrestlingmuseum.org

 

Story By Mike Chapman, Newton Iowa

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