By Mike Mooneyham
May 5, 2002
“And the winner – and still heavyweight champion of the world – is…”
Lou Thesz probably heard those words more times than any other champion in the history of professional wrestling. But early last Sunday, the man many regarded as the greatest wrestler of all time, passed away in Winter Garden, Fla., of complications from open heart surgery.
Thesz, a charming “gentleman’s champion” who set the standard for a future generation of stars, graced us with his presence for 86 years. Martin Aloysius Thesz, however, wasn’t your average octogenarian. He worked out every morning to maintain an incredible physical edge, traveled extensively and mentally was sharp as a tack. But he was unable to recover from a triple bypass and aortic valve replacement surgery he had undergone nearly three weeks earlier.
When Lou died, says wife Charlie, he left with no regrets. He lived every year, every day, to the fullest. What he did leave behind was a legacy the likes of which will never be duplicated.
Pure and simple, Lou Thesz was the best this profession has ever had to offer. From the night he won his first of six world heavyweight titles in 1937 to the moment he took his last breath, he embodied everything good about a business that too often has attracted its share of criticism.
To me, and many others, Lou Thesz was wrestling. He was the real deal. There was no other wrestler I looked up to or respected more. He was a national icon in post-World War II America and a major star during wrestling’s first television boom, only later to become revered by a generation of fans in Japan where he was that country’s first international champion and the first American champ to defend the title on Japanese soil.
The son of a middleweight amateur wrestling champion in Hungary, Lou Thesz was a one-man dynasty whose records will stand the test of time. He held the world title for more than 13 years, more than any other wrestler in history, with his eight-year reign from 1948 to 1956 ranking as the longest title run of all time. The youngest world champion ever, he won his first title at the age of 21 when he defeated Everett Marshall in his hometown of St. Louis. His sixth reign ended in 1966 at the age of 50, making him the oldest to hold the NWA championship belt. He also held the distinction of being the only male wrestler to have competed in seven different decades, having worked his last match in 1990 against Masahiro Chono, one of his students and a future NWA champion.
Some of my earliest memories of wrestling revolve around Lou Thesz, who graced the covers of many grappling magazines during those days and, despite the fact that he was in the autumn of his illustrious career by the 1960s, remained one of the top workers in the business and enjoyed his last international title run late into the 70s.
Watching Lou perform in the ring was like watching poetry in motion. The 6-2, 225-pounder moved with catlike speed and quickness and could wrestle his way out of any situation. He was a legitimate tough guy, known in his day as a “hooker,” a wrestler who could inflict serious punishment on his opponent, snapping bones and dislocating joints at will.
His reputation had left a big impression on this aspiring wrestling scribe, who more than 30 years ago consoled a tearful nephew with the calming reassurance that “Lou Thesz wouldn’t cry!” The youngster, not even 10 at the time, had split his forehead on an errant dive into a swimming pool. But after hearing those four awe-inspiring words, his sobbing turned into a steel-grit determination, even through a trip to the hospital and a painful patch job. He still sports the scar, but no doubt learned something very important that day.
We all learned from the man affectionately referred to as “the master.”
Before wrestling became sports entertainment, he taught us how to respect the business. The industry never had a better ambassador than Lou Thesz. He was the personification of professionalism, class and dignity.
Tim Woods, a former collegiate champ who enjoyed an equally successful pro career as the masked “Mr. Wrestling,” was one of Thesz’s closest friends in the wrestling business.
“As far as I’m concerned, Lou was the greatest professional wrestler of all time,” said Woods, who estimates he wrestled Thesz at least 25 times during his career. “I had always admired him, even before I started wrestling professionally,” added Woods, who began his pro career in 1962 and had his first match against the world champion in 1965 in Amarillo, Texas. “I was scared to death. Lou would test you. He’d decide if he was going to beat you like a dog or give you a little more respect. We weren’t in the match five minutes when I think he realized I had some wrestling experience. We just had a great deal of respect for one another. Since that time we’ve been very, very close friends.” Woods recalled his conversation with Thesz the day before Lou went into surgery.
“He sounded so good. He told me after he got through this thing, that he was going to come back and beat the hell out me, just for fun,” joked Woods. “He probably would have done it.”
Thesz, who remained active in a number of charities, had served as president of the old-timers’ Cauliflower Alley Club and had recently been inducted into the Missouri Sports Hall of Fame.
“We have all lost a dear friend,” said wrestling historian Bill Murdock, executive director of the Eblen Charities, a nonprofit organization based in Asheville that helps families in western North Carolina deal with chronic illness and disabilities. “Lou and his wife, Charlie, were longtime friends and supporters of the Eblen Charities for many years. The joy, excitement, fun and love he brought to the (golf) tournament every year certainly was a highlight of our event.
“He was a true champion in every sense of the word, giving selflessly of his time to travel to Asheville to help raise money to assist families who were, in his words, wrestling against a much tougher, relentless opponent, illness and disabilities. Lou personified the word champion in every sense. The grace and class he showed throughout his world title reigns and his entire life set the standard for all the champions that followed and will continue to follow. From this day forward all will speak of him as a great wrestler, a great champion and a great man. He was much more than a great man he was a good man. He has left a void in the sport of wrestling and in the lives of all who loved him that will never be filled. Lou was a true gentleman who will be forever missed.”
Woods, who last year was inducted into the George Tragos-Lou Thesz Professional Wrestling Hall of Fame in Newton, Iowa, said Thesz visited him at his Charlotte home last year.
“We had a wonderful relationship,” said Woods. “He came up a year ago and spent two weeks with me, which I treasure very much … There has never been, nor do I think there ever will be, a man who symbolizes the entire industry like Lou. He lived it, from the early days all the way through. He was it. He was the encyclopedia – not from hearsay, but because he was there. There will be a void there that nobody will ever be able to fill.” He’s right. The wrestling world will not – cannot – ever be the same without Lou Thesz.
Several years ago Lou wrote an autobiography, “Hooker: An Authentic Wrestler’s Adventures Inside the Bizarre World of Professional Wrestling,” a definitive work on pro wrestling’s history. “It’s been a wild, exciting ride,” he wrote in the opening chapter.
Thanks, Champ, for allowing us to be part of the journey.