411’s Wrestling Hall of Fame Class of 2006: Lou Thesz
On April 26th, 1916 Alouysius Martin Thesz (better known to wrestling fans a Liu Thesz) was born. Trained by George Tragos and Ad Santel in his hometown of St. Louis, Thesz started wrestling professionally in 1932 and under the management of Ed “Strangler” Lewis quickly gained his reputation as a “legit” fighter who could hook you in his many submission moves if you pissed him off. His debut match took place when he was just 16-years old.
It was only a matter of a few years before Thesz found success. He took to wrestling extremely quickly, so quick in fact that he was (and still is) the youngest man to win a world title at the age of 21. This would be the beginning of a monsterously successful carreer in which Thesz won 6 NWA Titles and rarely lost a match (and almost certainly never lost a shoot.) At one point he won an incredible 936 consectutive matches in his heyday and if you counted everyday that he held the title it would equal 4938 straight days. His work ethic and charisma and insistance on realism was almost unparrelled. All the usual stories about a “champion refusing to job the title” have been connected to Thesz but it has more to do with him not putting over someone he didn’t consider worthy of being the NWA champion (see Buddy Rodgers).
His steadfast refusal to lose to just anyone lead directly to the formation of the AWA and the WWWF when several promoters wanted their own men as champion (or in this case Verne Gagne wanted himself to be champion). The difference between the three titles was this, the AWA stuck to their terrioty of the Mid-West, the WWWF to the North but the NWA still had control of the rest of the country and most of the territories.
When I think of Lou Thesz I have a recollection of an interview I read with an old-timer whose identity escapes me at this time and he said whoever was made NWA Champion during the period between 1930-1970 had to be a legitimate all-round tough guy because he would often be going alone into another persons territory and have to be able to carry himself if his opponent decided he wanted to turn the match into a shoot and win the title and the glory that came with it.
He won virtually every title he set his sights on and when he wanted to unify all the of the “world” titles in North America into one he did that as well and because the first true undisputed world champion. He won ober two dozen championships in various forms and promotions wining his last title in 1981. These titles included NWA International Heavyweight title, two NWA Southern titles in 1973 and 1978, the U.S. Junior Heavyweight Title in 1973, the UWA (Mexico) World Heavyweight title in 1977 and the U.S. Heavyweight Title (MS.) in 1978. The other milestone that Thesz holds, and one that will never be broken is that of TV rating. He and Rikidozan (a great foe of his) faced off and on Japanese TV scored a gigantic rating, somewhere close to 74 rating (In relation to US Neilson Ratings.) Thesz is also credited as being the oldest world champion at the age of 50 (beaten only recently by Vince McMahon when he won the WWF title at age 54) and wrestled his last match in 1990 against his protégé Masahiro Chono in Japan.
Maybe it’s harder for today’s fans to realise just what was wrestling back in those days. The NWA was a conglomerate of territories unified under one banner. So while there was one overall champion each territory had its own regional title-holder and that person was usually in the pocket of the booker/owner/promoter and therefore was the golden-haired boy. For Thesz, going into those territories was a risky deal because he was vulnerable both in the ring and in the locker room because who knew what they would try to pull to make one of their own champion.
Lou Thesz was a legitimate fighter and much like Stu Hart who is often referred to as “The Shooter”, Thesz is known as “The Hooker” in honour of his almost unrivalled knowledge of submission and stretching holds that acquitted him well during his time in the ring. He was The Bruno Sammartino of the NWA, the man you trusted to carry your title and keep the integrity of it intact
He either invented or populrised many moves still used today in the squared circle with the most notable being the Lou Thesz Press (and here you thought JR was just calling it a funny name), the Belly-to-Back Suplex, Stepover Toehold Facelock, the double wrist lock and an early porotype of the powerbomb. His inventivness in a time when most others were content bearhugging or punching their way around the ring was innovative to say the least and he was always looking for that new move that looked real but was never seen before.
Like a lot of old timers Thesz was dissaproving of what wrestling became in the 80’s when the emphasis was taken off the sport and put onto the spectle but he did acknowledge that Kurt Angle and Chris Benoit were two wrestlers that best fitted the ideal of what a wrestler should be. He often lamented the fact that locker rooms changed for the worse and the amount of drinking and drug taking is as responsible for the decline of his beloved sport as anything else.
Thesz was always the comsumate athlete and worked out constantly even in his last days. In early Arpil of 2002 Thesz went into the hospital for triple bypass surgery and an aortic valve replacement. The surgery was to rejuvenate Thesz, but ultimately it was just too much for the “hooker.” On April 28th, 2002 Alouysius Martin Thesz passed away and the wrestling world was never the same.
Why Lou Thesz was selected…
Besides those harsh feelings on current day wrestling, Thesz was a life-long fan of the sport and was a loyal servant for almost all of his life. He spent nearly seven decades doing his best to promote wrestling throughout the world and was a true ambassador to the sport. He was the first true world champion, the first true tough guy and the first true superstar the sport had ever seen. To have a hall of fame for wrestling and not include Mr. Thesz would be criminal.