|Birth name||Aloysius Martin Thesz|
|Born||April 24, 1916|
|Died||April 28, 2002 (aged 86)|
|Cause of death||Complications from triple bypass|
|Professional wrestling career|
|Ring name(s)||Lou Thesz|
|Billed height||6 ft 2 in (1.88 m)|
|Billed weight||225 lb (102 kg)|
|Billed from||St. Louis, Missouri|
|Trained by||Ad Santel|
|Retired||December 26, 1990|
Aloysius Martin "Lou" Thesz (April 24, 1916 – April 28, 2002) was an American professional wrestler. An officially six-time world champion, he held the NWA World Heavyweight Championship three times for a combined total of 10 years, three months and nine days (3,749 days) – longer than anyone else in history. Considered to be one of the last true shooters in professional wrestling, Thesz is widely regarded as one of the greatest wrestlers of all time. In Japan, Thesz was known as a 'God of Wrestling' and was called Tetsujin, which means 'Ironman', in respect for his speed, conditioning and expertise in catch wrestling.
In addition to being a member of its inaugural class, he helped establish the George Tragos/Lou Thesz Professional Wrestling Hall of Fame and is a charter member of several other halls of fame, including: WCW, Wrestling Observer Newsletter, Professional Wrestling and WWE's Legacy Wing.
Early life and wrestling background
Born in Banat, Michigan in 1916, Thesz's family moved to St. Louis when he was a young boy. His working-class immigrant parents Martin, a shoemaker of Hungarian and German descent, and Katherine Schultz, also of German descent, hailed from the Austro-Hungarian Empire. Thesz and his sisters grew up speaking German at home and he did not start learning English until he entered kindergarten at age five. In addition to public school, he also had to attend German school every Saturday until he was eight. His father was a national Greco-Roman wrestling champion in his native Hungary. At eight years old, Lou began training in Greco-Roman wrestling under his father, which provided the fundamentals for his later success. That same year he saw his first professional wrestling match. As a youngster, Thesz grew up admiring Ed "Strangler" Lewis, Joe Stecher, Stanislaus Zbyszko and John Pesek. While in high school, he was a successful folkstyle wrestling competitor on his school team.
Thesz dropped out of high school by age 14 and began training in freestyle wrestling at Cleveland High School due to his father knowing the wrestling coaches. Thesz became one of the most dominant wrestlers of his weight class (160lbs) in the city-wide intramurals where he won local amateur championships, which caught the eye of Tom Packs, a professional wrestling promoter in St. Louis. Packs sent Lou to George Tragos for further coaching. George Tragos was a three-time Olympic wrestler who competed for Greece and later became a wrestling coach for the University of Missouri. Tragos also wrestled in carnivals and was known as being a 'ripper'. Rippers were feared wrestlers, known for their dangerous catch wrestling and submission skills (known as 'hooking' during Thesz's time) who looked to intentionally hurt opponents. Tragos, however, took a liking to Thesz and respected his willingness to work hard and follow instruction. He trained under the watchful eye of Tragos in freestyle and catch wrestling for over three years at the Business Men's Gym in St. Louis. Tragos specifically taught Thesz how to wrestle from the bottom. Thesz remembered Tragos saying, "any fool can start on top. If you start at the bottom, you learn to wrestle." Due to Tragos knowing most of the coaches from his days as a wrestling coach at the University of Missouri, Thesz worked out with many top college and university-level amateur wrestlers in the region, as well as journeymen pro wrestlers with amateur backgrounds.
Ray Steele also served as a coach and mentor to Thesz. Steele was considered to be one of the most legitimately dangerous wrestlers of his time, known for his vast knowledge of submission holds and incredible speed, and once served as a "policeman" to Jim Londos. Steele also competed in an early modern mixed-style contest, beating heavyweight boxer Kingfish Levinsky in 35 seconds. Steele notably mentored Thesz on the business side of professional wrestling. After one particularly demanding training session at the Business Men's Gym, he told Thesz that "you may have the aptitude to become a great wrestler, but if you don't learn to make money at it... it's just a hobby."
Thesz later met legendary former champion Ed "Strangler" Lewis in St. Louis and was encouraged to challenge Lewis to a friendly contest. Convinced that he was too fast for Lewis, Thesz shot for a single leg takedown. Thesz later wrote in his autobiography that he "faked for his [Lewis'] head and then dropped to the mat, reaching to snatch his leg... but it wasn't there." The 46 year old heavyset and nearly blind Lewis reportedly humiliated and brutalised Thesz, with Thesz recalling, "it was the longest 15 minutes of my life." Lewis, however, was impressed by Thesz and Lewis would later serve as his trainer, mentor and manager. As his trainer, Lewis taught Thesz extremely painful and potentially crippling submission holds that would help him when facing opponents that refused to lose. Thesz beat Lewis in a performance match in 1945, but Thesz admitted he could never get the better of Lewis in gymnasium contests when training together.
Ad Santel would then provide Thesz with a very tough and thorough education in catch wrestling, furthering Tragos' teaching. German-born Santel was known for his feud with the Kodokan judo school and, like Steele, participated in several early modern mixed martial arts contests. Santel and Steele were also regular training partners during Steele's early career. Thesz studied under Santel for up to five days every week during a 5-month summer wrestling tour in California and remembered it being the "most intensive training period of my life". Thesz recalled Santel nearly breaking his arm during a wrestling workout but "[Ad] would only take me up to the point of seriously hurting me, just to show me what was happening and how it felt, and then he would release me." Santel would constantly repeat each step of a submission to Thesz, "then he would have me try the hook [submission], over and over until I got it right." The training he received under Santel would help establish Thesz as one of the most dangerous grapplers in the world.
Thesz's training at the Business Men's Gym consisted of competitive freestyle and catch wrestling, training for up to 4–6 hours a day. He later recalled his days of competitive wrestling under Tragos and Steele as being some of happiest of his life. He would later say that "after training for four hours a day, I'd be so enervated that what I needed was food and rest, try to regenerate. Tragos and the top wrestlers, you know, they were not easy task masters, they pushed you to the wall to test to see if you had the intestinal fortitude to be good." Many years later during a wrestling tour of England, he also briefly trained at the notorious Snake Pit catch wrestling gym in Wigan. Thesz was drafted into the army in 1944, despite a legitimate injury to his knee and multiple medical deferments. Owing to his wrestling background, he taught hand-to-hand combat defense for medics before being discharged in 1946.
Professional wrestling career
Thesz made his professional wrestling debut in 1932, at the age of 16, whilst continuing to train in competitive catch wrestling under Tragos and Steele. Under Warren Bockwinkel, Thesz learned the performance aspects of the sport and competed in the 'semi-pro' circuit for the first couple of years of his career. By 1937, Thesz had become one of the biggest stars in the St. Louis territory, and on December 29 he defeated Everett Marshall for the American Wrestling Association World Heavyweight Championship, the first of many world heavyweight titles, which also made Thesz became the youngest world heavyweight champion in history, at the age of 21. There is speculation that this match may have been a shoot match. Thesz dropped the title to Steve "Crusher" Casey in Boston six weeks later. He won the National Wrestling Association World Heavyweight Championship in 1939, once again defeating Marshall, and again in 1948, defeating Bill Longson.
In 1948, the National Wrestling Alliance (NWA) was formed, the purpose being to create one world champion for all the various wrestling territories throughout North America. Orville Brown, the reigning Midwest World Heavyweight Championship holder, was named the first champion. Thesz, at the time, was head of a promotional combine that included fellow wrestling champions Longson, Bobby Managoff, Canadian promoter Frank Tunney and Eddie Quinn, who promoted in the St. Louis territory where NWA promoter Sam Muchnick was running opposition. Quinn and Muchnick ended their promotional war, and Thesz' promotion was absorbed into the NWA. Part of the deal was a title unification match between Brown and Thesz, who held the National Wrestling Association's World Heavyweight Championship. Unfortunately, just weeks before the scheduled bout, Brown was involved in an automobile accident that ended his career, and he was forced to vacate the championship and the NWA awarded the title to the No. 1 contender, Thesz. Thesz was chosen for his skill as a "hooker" to prevent double crosses by would-be shooters who would deviate from the planned finish for personal glory.
Between 1949 and 1956, Thesz set out to unify all the existing world titles into the National Wrestling Alliance World Heavyweight Championship. In 1952, he defeated Baron Michele Leone in Los Angeles for the California World Heavyweight title and became the closest any wrestler had been to being undisputed world heavyweight wrestling champion since Danno O'Mahony in 1936. Thesz finally dropped the title to Whipper Billy Watson in 1956, and took several months off to recuperate from an ankle injury. He regained the title from Watson seven months later.
1957 was an important year for Thesz; on June 14, the first taint to Thesz' claim of undisputed champion occurred in a match with gymnast-turned-wrestling star, Edouard Carpentier. The match was tied at two falls apiece when Thesz claimed a legitimate back injury and forfeit the last fall, thus Carpentier was declared the winner; however, the NWA chose not to recognize the title change, deciding a championship could not change hands due to injury. Despite the NWA's decision, there were some promotions who continued to recognize Carpentier's claim to the NWA World Heavyweight Championship. That same year, Thesz became the first wrestler to defend the NWA World Heavyweight Championship in Japan, wrestling Rikidōzan in a series of 60-minute draws. Their bouts popularized professional wrestling in Japan, gaining the sport mainstream acceptance. Realizing he could make more money in the land of the rising sun, Thesz petitioned to the NWA promoters to regularly defend the championship belt in Japan, but his request was turned down, and Thesz asked to drop the title to his own hand picked champion, Dick Hutton, rather than Thesz's real-life rival and the more popular choice, Buddy Rogers. Thesz would embark on a tour of Europe and Japan, billing himself as the NWA International Heavyweight Champion; this title is still recognized as a part of All Japan Pro Wrestling's Triple Crown Heavyweight Championship.
In 1963, Thesz came out of semi-retirement to win his sixth world heavyweight championship from Buddy Rogers at the age of 46. In 1964, he infamously faced Kintaro Ohki, a student of Rikidōzan, in what turned into a legitimate shoot contest. Originally scheduled for three falls, Ohki shot on Thesz in the first round. Ohki's move to shoot on Thesz ended things fast, as Thesz wounded him to the point that Ohki was stretchered off. He would hold the NWA title until 1966 when, at the age of 49 when he lost it to Gene Kiniski.
Thesz wrestled on a part-time basis over the next 13 years, winning his last major title in 1978, in Mexico, becoming the inaugural Universal Wrestling Alliance Heavyweight Champion at the age of 62, before dropping the championship to El Canek a year later. Thesz officially retired in 1979, after a match with Luke Graham. He remained retired for 11 years, before wrestling his last match on December 26, 1990 in Hamamatsu, Japan at the age of 74, against his protégé, Masahiro Chono. This makes him one of the only male professional wrestlers, along with Abdullah The Butcher, to wrestle in seven different decades.
After retiring, Thesz remained involved in the wrestling industry. He later became a special guest referee, promoter and trainer. He was highly critical of modern-day professional wrestling and described it as 'choreographed tumbling', showcasing little to no actual wrestling skills. He commented on the rise of mixed martial arts and favourably compared it to his early days as a competitive catch wrestler. Kit Bauman, co-writer of Thesz's autobiography Hooker, received a magazine mailed by Thesz that included a story on the sport of pankration, an ancient Greek combat sport that blended wrestling and boxing (and considered an early precursor to MMA), with a brief note that Thesz wrote saying, "this sounds like something I would have enjoyed." As an announcer, Thesz was the color commentator for International World Class Championship Wrestling's weekly television show.
He became the commissioner and trainer for the shoot-style promotion Union of Wrestling Force International, and lent the promotion one of his old NWA championship belts, which they recognized as their own world title. With the promotion he spent one week every month in Japan teaching the wrestlers techniques in catch wrestling. He coached several successful professional wrestlers and mixed martial artists including Kiyoshi Tamura, Masahiro Chono and Mark Fleming. However, by 1993 his enthusiasm for the UWFi waned as the company started moving away from its shootfighting style and favoring performers over wrestlers, and he soon severed relations with the company, taking his old championship belt back with him.
In 1992, Thesz became the president of the Cauliflower Alley Club (CAC), an organization recognizing and supporting retired wrestlers, boxers and actors who enjoyed an association with wrestling. He served as CAC's president until 2000. In 1999, he helped establish the George Tragos/Lou Thesz Professional Wrestling Hall of Fame, a hall of fame and museum located within the National Wrestling Hall of Fame and Museum's Dan Gable Museum. Thesz considered Gable, who won the 1972 Olympic gold medal in freestyle wrestling, to be one of his heroes. The hall of fame honors professional wrestlers with a strong amateur wrestling background. Thesz became the first inductee alongside George Tragos, Ed "Strangler" Lewis and Frank Gotch. He served on the Board of Directors and also did part-time coaching on the wrestling mats at the museum.
Thesz was married three times. His first marriage to Evelyn Katherine Ernst on March 22, 1937. Thesz was convalescing from a severe knee injury suffered in 1939 and from 1941 to 1944 worked as a dog breeder and trainer for Dogs for Defense and later as a supervisor for the Todd Houston Shipyard. He divorced his first wife in 1944 and at the shipyard, Thesz met his second wife, Fredda Huddleston Winter, with whom he fathered three children: Jeff Thesz, Robert Thesz and Patrick Thesz. Thesz's second marriage came to an end in 1975. He married Charlie Catherine Thesz and remained with her for the rest of his life. Thesz lived in Norfolk, Virginia for much of his later life and started wrestling school name is Virginia Wrestling Academy in Norfolk, Virginia in 1988. One of Thesz's proteges Mark Fleming became head coach of the academy. He wrote an autobiography, Hooker: An Authentic Wrestler's Adventures Inside the Bizarre World of Professional Wrestling.
Thesz remained in remarkable physical condition in his older years, however after undergoing triple bypass surgery for an aortic valve replacement on April 9, 2002, he died due to complications weeks later on April 28, four days after his 86th birthday, in Orlando, Florida.
Thesz is strongly considered by many to be the greatest professional wrestler of the 20th century. Among his many accomplishments in the sport, he is credited with inventing a number of professional wrestling moves and holds such as the belly-to-back waistlock suplex (later known as the German suplex due to its association with Karl Gotch), the Lou Thesz press, stepover toehold facelock (STF), and the original powerbomb.
Thesz was the first wrestler to ever hold the NWA International Heavyweight Championship, which became a part of what is now the Triple Crown Heavyweight Championship under All Japan Pro Wrestling. Thesz was also the first UWA World Heavyweight Champion for the now defunct Universal Wrestling Association in Mexico, where he won the title after defeating Mil Máscaras on July 26, 1976. Thesz was the first ever TWWA World Heavyweight Champion for the now defunct International Wrestling Enterprise as well. Thesz and "The Outlaw" (Dory Funk Sr.) were the first ever NWA Pacific Coast (Vancouver) Tag Team Champions.
In 1999, his name was given to the George Tragos/Lou Thesz Professional Wrestling Hall of Fame for professional wrestling stars with a successful amateur background at the International Wrestling Institute and Museum in Waterloo, Iowa, where he was an inaugural inductee. In October 1997, Thesz was honored by a ceremony at World Wrestling Federation's (WWF) Badd Blood as being both the youngest and oldest world heavyweight champion at ages 21 and 50, respectively (technically, Verne Gagne holds the record for oldest champ, when he held the AWA World Heavyweight Championship in 1980 at age 54, which was tied by WWF owner Vince McMahon in 1999; Thesz has since been supplanted as the oldest NWA World Heavyweight Champion by former champion Tim Storm (who was born on May 1, 1965), who won the title at age 51 by defeating Jax Dane on October 21, 2016). In 1999, a large group of professional wrestling experts, analysts and historians named Thesz the most influential NWA World Heavyweight Champion of all time. In 2002, Thesz was named the second greatest professional wrestler of all time behind Ric Flair in the magazine article "100 Wrestlers of All Time" by John Molinaro, edited by Dave Meltzer and Jeff Marek.
Former amateur wrestler and NWA World Heavyweight Champion Jack Brisco named Thesz his all-time favorite professional wrestler by saying that "Lou Thesz was my idol. He was a great wrestler, a great example, a class man". WWE wrestler Cesaro named Thesz his "dream" tag team partner and said, "He [Thesz] personifies wrestling. He represents everything that I think it should be. He's a class act, and he was a workhorse for the company, while at the same time being a student of the game. He was completely legit. I would have loved a chance to go one-on-one with him or to work alongside him". Japanese wrestler Rikidōzan, who had several matches with Thesz in Japan, considered Thesz to be the greatest wrestler of all time and lamented that "after the match with the world's greatest wrestler, fights with other run-of-the-mill wrestlers became unappetizing for me".
Three-time NCAA heavyweight champion and NWA World Heavyweight Champion Dick Hutton said that Thesz was the best man he ever met, in any type of wrestling (both competitive and performance). Catch wrestling historian, wrestler and writer Jake Shannon stated that "had a promotion like the Ultimate Fighting Championship been around in their day... men like Karl Gotch, Billy Robinson, Thesz, George Gordienko, Dick Hutton, and Danny Hodge, would not only have participated in it, but most likely dominated it." Martial artist and professional wrestler Gene LeBell has said that he considers Thesz to be one of his 'teachers', saying "Lou Thesz, Karl Gotch and Vic Christy all taught me a lot about grappling... From Thesz I learned how to hurt people. He had a little bit of a sadistic side". LeBell also considers Thesz, Ed "Strangler" Lewis and Karl Gotch as the toughest men he has ever known. Wrestling promoter Sam Muchnick considered Ed "Strangler" Lewis as the greatest legitimate wrestler he had ever seen, with Thesz, Ray Steele, Joe Stecher, Jim Londos and John Pesek "only a few steps behind Lewis." Fellow catch wrestler Billy Robinson considered Thesz to be the greatest professional wrestler of all time, saying "everybody respected professional wrestling because of Lou Thesz. He may not have been the best competitive catch wrestler but he was very good in his time."
Thesz is an inaugural member of several professional wrestling halls of fame, including the Professional Wrestling Hall of Fame and Museum, Wrestling Observer Newsletter Hall of Fame, NWA Hall of Fame, WCW Hall of Fame, and the George Tragos/Lou Thesz Pro Wrestling Hall of Fame which is subsequently named after both one of his trainers along with Thesz himself. On April 2, 2016, Thesz was posthumously inducted into the WWE Hall of Fame as an inaugural member of the "Legacy" wing.
Championships and accomplishments
- American Wrestling Association (Boston)
- American Wrestling Alliance (Indiana/Ohio/Colorado)
- Cauliflower Alley Club
- Iron Mike Mazurki Award (1998)
- International Wrestling Enterprise
- George Tragos/Lou Thesz Professional Wrestling Hall of Fame
- Class of 1999
- Japan Wrestling Association
- Joint Promotions
- Midwest Wrestling Association (Ohio)
- MWA World Heavyweight Championship (1 time)
- Missouri Sports Hall of Fame
- Class of 2002
- Montreal Athletic Commission
- MAC World Heavyweight Championship (4 times)
- National Wrestling Alliance
- NWA All-Star Wrestling
- NWA Mid-America
- National Wrestling Association
- Pro Wrestling Illustrated
- Professional Wrestling Hall of Fame
- Pioneer Era (class of 2002)
- Southwest Sports, Inc.
- Stampede Wrestling
- St. Louis Wrestling Club
- St. Louis Wrestling Hall of Fame
- Class of 2007
- Universal Wrestling Association
- World Championship Wrestling
- Worldwide Wrestling Associates
- World Wrestling Federation/WWE
- Wrestling Observer Newsletter
- Other titles
1 Records are unclear as to where Thesz first won the NWA World Heavyweight Championship and which promotion he was wrestling in when he won it.
2 The World Heavyweight Championship of the National Wrestling Association existed from 1929 through 1949, when it was unified with the used by the National Wrestling Alliance.
3 Thesz's reigns with the title occurred prior to the NWA assuming control of it. In fact, he won the title before the NWA was created.
4 Thesz's also has two reigns with the title before the formation of the NWA and the title being renamed the NWA World Heavyweight Championship.
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