A Champion With Undisputed Greatness
By Bradley Craig
Often regarded as the greatest wrestler who ever lived, Lou Thesz was an enduring champion during a time that the business was changing. Overcoming an initially contentious relationship with the National Wrestling Alliance to become its flagship champion, he would win three world heavyweight titles with the organisation, with an unparalleled reign spanning a period of 2300 days. But those reigns are only a fraction of the championship legacy of Thesz, who unified multiple versions of the world title during his quest to be recognised as the undisputed claimant in the heavyweight division. In this exclusive interview, Scottish pro wrestling historian Bradley Craig talks to Lou’s wife Charlie Thesz to discuss the life and legacy of one of the most influential and durable professional wrestlers in history.
Bradley Craig (BC): Charlie, first off thanks for taking the time to be interviewed ahead of Lou’s membership into the International Professional Wrestling Hall of Fame. Lou has been honoured by multiple institutions in recent years, and this induction further proves that his legacy continues to remain alive and well. How do you think Lou would have reacted to the notion that 21st century audiences would still consider him one of the all-time greats in his profession?
Charlie Thesz (CT): Lou was one who lived in the moment and thought little of his legacy or the changes in wrestling. I think he was just so grateful for his opportunities. He worked hard for his success, but he never forgot about all of the incredible people who encouraged him and shared their knowledge. He was really more about the past and honoring those people than his legacy.
BC: In this first induction ceremony of the IPWHF, Thesz’s mentor Ed ‘Strangler’ Lewis will also be honoured. How important was the influence of Lewis to your late husband’s career?
CT: When I first met Lou, he talked more about Ed Lewis than anyone else. I feel as if I knew him, and he died long before I met Lou. Even more than a mentor, Ed became Lou's dear friend. At a time that Lou was discouraged about his prospective career in professional wrestling, Lou was ready to give it up and go into the shoe repair business with his father. Unbeknownst to Lou, Ed Lewis called Lou's father, Martin, and told him that Lou was a very talented young wrestler, and he should not be discouraged. So, without Ed, Lou could have given up before he ever started. Ed encouraged and guided Lou's career almost until his death. The one issue they never resolved was Lou's dislike and distrust of Toots Mondt and Ed's friendship and one-time partnership with Toots.
BC: Early in the career of Thesz, professional wrestling was purely available as a live event sporting spectacle, and the advent of television irreversibly changed the way that talent could be presented. Despite this, Lou staunchly remained a proponent of a very traditional, pure style of pro wrestling. How did he manage to keep himself relevant to audiences that were being introduced to more colourful, outlandish characters?
CT: His ‘scientific’ wrestling was what kept him on top. It was the fans who wanted style and presentation. He rarely criticized the evolution of professional wrestling, but he never ‘evolved’ with it. The fans respected that. When the crowds started to drop, Lou was asked to come back as champion. His interview style stayed popular too.
BC: As the IPWHF is set to honour industry contributors from all parts of the globe, it could be argued that few wrestlers made a comparable international impact as Lou. His wars with Rikidozan launched the popularity of pro wrestling in Japan, Thesz famously toured the United Kingdom, and he even had legendary in-ring battles with Mexican greats such as El Canek. Why do you think that Lou was able to appeal to such vastly different audiences across the world?
CT: My assessment: people are rarely completely fooled. The fans, in all languages, knew Lou was a wrestler. He stayed in shape and gave every match, whether there were 20 fans or 20,000 fans, the best he had. He loved what he was doing and respected professional wrestling.
BC: Beyond his significant international success, the longevity of Thesz as a top star in his profession was notable. Along with Abdullah the Butcher and Johnny Saint, Lou is among a handful talents to have competed in matches spanning a duration of seven different decades. How was Lou able to stay in ring shape for so long?
CT: I would like to say being married to a woman 30 years’ younger kept him in shape (laughs). However, it was just who he was. He loved food and drink, so it meant the gym was a must. He was amazing with the balance of a good life and a disciplined life. He would always say, “I chose my ancestors wisely.” In his last match with Masahiro Chono, his artificial hip would not hold his weight and Chono's. Lou took it in stride, after being so angry with himself. He then said he was old enough to know better, but he did it anyway.
BC: Some of Lou’s greatest accomplishments include his innovations as a performer. He invented several moves and holds, which are still used to this day. Amongst these, he introduced audiences to the belly-to-back waistlock suplex, the powerbomb, the STF (stepover toehold facelock) and, of course, the Thesz Press. In addition to that, he was a master craftsman who was wise to the political machinations within the industry. However, when most think of Lou Thesz, they remember the highly dedicated athlete who fought to uphold the notion of a world champion. It was a role that he seemed to take very seriously. How did the wrestler compare to the man beyond the ring?
CT: WOW! I may not be the best one to answer, as I am a bit biased. Lou had an eighth-grade formal education, but he was very bright and overwhelmingly curious. He embraced everything from breeding champion Doberman Pinschers to raising chickens to canning olives from his own trees. He was a terrific chef and researched everything he found interesting. As for wrestling, he learned from the best - George Tragos and Ad Santel. Ray Steele taught him about the sport and the business. For these idols to take such an interest in him was mystical to Lou. I don't think he ever saw it as these men identifying a kindred soul. Lou always represented professional wrestling as the gentleman he was. It didn't hurt that he was also a ‘clothes horse’. He never showed up at the matches in jeans or a t-shirt. For major towns, he always wore a suit and tie. It was important for professional wrestling as well as Lou.
BC: Charlie, thank you so much for your time ahead of Lou’s induction as an inaugural member of the IPWHF.
CT: Bradley, I have been blessed to share part of Lou's amazing life. He described himself as ‘elementary’. He defined himself as ‘a wrestler’. I would describe him as an amazing adventure in life. I am thrilled with his induction in the Hall of Fame, but he really would not have been excited. Funny story: When Lou was an answer in a wildly, immediately popular game Trivial Pursuit many years ago, our doctor was so excited and made a copy of the game piece for Lou. The doctor was surprised when Lou was not that excited. Lou said to him, “Do you know the meaning of trivial?”
Thank you for keeping Lulu in this world, even if just in spirit.