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Lou Thesz Interview

Conducted by Jeremy Hartley for TWC Online
Transcribed by Earl Oliver

Jeremy Hartley: It is my pleasure to introduce former NWA Champion, six times, highly acclaimed athlete and wrestling superstar the great Lou Thesz. Lou welcome to the show and thanks again for joining us.

Lou Thesz: Thank you Jeremy, thank you so much for having me on the show. Incidentally my time with the NWA occurred about halfway through my career. The first time I won the Title it was the Undisputed Heavyweight Championship, not the NWA because the NWA didn't exist at that time. Anyway there was a National Wrestling, not an Alliance, but a National Wrestling Association and that was composed of Athletic Commissioners appointed by the respective governing bodies of each State and this was known as the National Wrestling Association and they had a lot of clout - if you were suspended in California then you were also suspended in New York, you understand?

Jeremy: That's right...

Lou Thesz: Anyway they ran a pretty tight ship and they did a very good job, and a little bit later with the advent of TV and so forth, the hype began and the rest of the story you know.

Jeremy: (To the audience) You know, Lou wrote a very good book in cooperation with Pit Ballman called "Hooker" and it is, in my opinion, the best autobiography of any sports figure as well as any celebrity that I've ever read because it goes into a lot of historical background...

Lou Thesz: Well its my life of running up and down the road, formerly an amateur wrestler and then I somebody offered to pay me for doing what I liked doing most, and I went ahead and did it. It's just the story of a young wrestler who survived living in the Depression. The Depression was a very difficult time, this country was in big trouble and a man with a family, if he could get a $10 a week job he was lucky, you know

Jeremy: Right...

Lou Thesz: But nevertheless we went up and down the road, we look back now and in retrospect we say it was tough, but we didn't think so because that's the way it was...

Jeremy: Right, you know I'm going to start out this interview by asking you a question which you went into pretty good depth in your book. I want the fans and the interested onlookers to hear it from the man's own mouth. So, how did Lou Thesz become a wrestling fan What drew you to this sport Nowadays, of course, you have television and you have the celebrity status, everybody says "I want to be on television", but what caused you to become a wrestler..

Lou Thesz: Well, my father wrestled before me in Europe, he was a very well known amateur wrestler and he supported my interest while we lived in St. Louis, why he would take me to the matches, and I watched the wrestlers and that really hyped me up on the sport. And then later we lived very close by to a high school, it was a few blocks away and he worked on the football shoes. Before we had all the plastics and things he would redo the cleats on the football shoes.

Jeremy: That's right, for the record he was a shoemaker...

Lou Thesz: He was a shoemaker and he taught me that trade. Nevertheless, that's the time I got into the thing. I was working out with the coaches at night, I wasn't even attending night school, I was not as old is what I'm saying, but my father became friendly with the coaches and I worked out four days a week at the gym up there and they had some amateur wrestlers up there and the helped me along. Pretty soon I ran into an old gentleman who was a one of the old wrestling fan and was in fact a fine old wrestler and he invited me up to the National Gym and I started working out with the big boys and I found out as I did that he liked what I was doing, I thought I had an aptitude for it, but then I didn't though...you know how that goes...

Jeremy: And I'm going to get into that with your workout with Ed Lewis her in a second, but tell us a little bit about some of these names like George Tragos ...

Lou Thesz: George Tragos He was a great wrestler, three time Olympian, and the greatest in this country from Greece and represented Greece in two Olympics and the United States in one. A super wrestler and learned a little bit later by taking on all comers in carnivals and circuses and so forth, he learned the art in this country and they all exchanged these things and just to perpetuate the sport in this country why they would torture each other. And little by little, in England they had some very good wrestlers at that time and they'd just go up and down the road with the carnivals and circuses and clean everybody's plow because they'd have a good wrestler and a good fighter with each show. And I really wanted to get into that when I was a youngster about 17 - 18 but that when Ed "Strangler" Lewis and Ray Steele and George Tragos they counseled with me and told me not to do it because it would lower my image. Looked like a I had something coming because at that time there was a kind of pecking order with the wrestlers and, I don't want to say this boastfully, but the people who could really wrestle were the ones who emerged. Today that's another story...

Jeremy: Yes...you likened it to a pyramid in your book, you said there was a pyramid of wrestling greatness so to speak...

Lou Thesz: Oh yes, and these people took a lot of pride in what they did and they would give you the knowledge, it was unbelievable because you could not pay them to do it, they either wanted to do it or they did not, and to use that word "professional wrestling' is what they wanted to do...

Jeremy: Exactly, that was their livelihood...

Lou Thesz: It gets to be your livelihood...

Jeremy: Right, you mentioned the art of "Hooking" in your book. Explain to the folks out there exactly what the art of "Hooking" was. As you said, with the carnivals you never quite knew who was going to come out of the crowds and take on their carnival wrestlers, and they developed a certain art, if you could kind of explain that...

Lou Thesz: Well, the carnival people were there to entertain people, not to lose money. They were not to fond of that idea, but nevertheless they would take on all comers and as I said earlier, they would always have one knockout fighter in there and one wrestler who really knew how to take care of himself, they were called "Hookers" - they knew how to hurt people is what I was trying to say. They could go in their and have an exhibition with someone and if he wasn't too tough they could have a real nice match and entertain the people and so forth, but if it was a heads up contest, and it became a matter of who could take care of themselves and who could not, and some of these people were really tough customers, and they'd break your arm or a leg in a heart beat without taking a deep breath because they may have lost $2, you know?

Jeremy: And back in those days, back in the Depression, and even before that time, a buck was a million bucks.

Lou Thesz: Right...

Jeremy: You had said something, and this is interesting to me, that nowadays there are probably about five of you living who still have the art of "Hooking"...

Lou Thesz: Yes, there was a wrestling school in England by the name of Wigham, near Manchester, England and they developed some very fine wrestlers and I think the best of the whole bunch was Billy Robinson who is still in this country now, he lives in Nashville, but the Europeans took a lot of pride in the knowledge of straight wrestling. They were probably better versed in Greco (Greco-Roman Wrestling) then they were in Freestyle, but they were picking up Freestyle and they liked it very much and I learned Greco from my father and a couple of other people. So I was in good hands over there, in a good place to be because being versed in both Greco and Freestyle, that's a head start. And I was a southpaw and being a left hander, wrestling people who are not left-handed sometimes it throws them off pace, you know? Whatever works for a right hander doesn't work for a left hander...

Jeremy: I understand, I am left-handed and I did about six years of amateur wrestling...

Lou Thesz: It can be a very handy gadget, in fact I knew Greco, Freestyle and I was also left handed so sometimes they probably stared at this Hungarian kid and said "What is he doing?"

Jeremy: So you had certain advantages and one was that wrestling was what you excelled in and you followed it religiously if I can use that term...

Lou Thesz: That's exactly right, if any young person, like a young male, decides that he likes a sport and gets into it and all of a sudden to his own surprise discovers that he has an aptitude for it, and then with the coaches that he had, all of a sudden they find their niche in life. That's a very difficult thing to do but a wonderful thing because, if you could earn your livelihood doing the thing you enjoyed doing most then, how sweet it is. It doesn't get any better than that. And I had the good fortune of getting into that situation. And with people like Tragos, Ed "Strangler" Lewis and Ray Steele, some of the biggies, people who really knew what they were doing out there, I just got hooked on the thing to the point that I just devoted my entire life to wrestling. That's all I did. I trained everyday, and a lot of the guys would go to the dances - I never learned to dance because I learned to wrestle. 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. Anyway it all worked out and I enjoyed it so much that I admire the young people that are in the amateurs and doing well. Of course amateur wrestling is a wonderful thing and I am well connected with the new Museum that is being erected in Newton, Iowa. And I am on the Board of Directors there and Dan Gable, the fantastic wrestler is also there. You know, his track record as a coach even surpasses the track record of the wrestlers...

Jeremy: Wow! And that's saying something...

Lou Thesz: They'll never surpass what he's done. I watched him train , he trains them like a madman in that deal - it's the only way to succeed. Dan's a great guy and we're really glad to have him aboard this board of directors because he is going to represent all of the amateur wrestlers who have emerged and are going to be honorees, and I'm going to choose the professionals. The professionals are going to be people who had a very favorable, strong amateur record, and the Hulk Hogans and the Buddy Rogers aren't going to be there. So anyway that's the way it is, and some of the people are unhappy about it, get their noses out of joint and I'm sorry about that because if they call it wrestling, then that's what they should do! You see very little of that. I can watch a match for thirty minutes, forty-five minutes and I don't see one wrestling hold.

Jeremy: You know that's something that I was going to get in to in just a little bit. There's something else I wanted to ask you about, because it's been miss-reported, and that is the first workout between yourself and Ed Lewis and it was indeed a workout at a gym if I'm not mistaken...

Lou Thesz: Yes, it was the National Gym in St. Louis, we used to workout there all the time...

Jeremy: Right , that's the gym you mentioned earlier. And just to dispel any thought that you weren't one of the hardest working guys in the business, recount for us, if you would that episode...

Lou Thesz: Well, I had the good fortune to have won quite a few matches. George Tragos was the wrestling coach at Missouri U and if I start to stray just get me back on track...

Jeremy: (laughs) Okay...

Lou Thesz: ...and when he took me over, the promoter in St. Louis was also a Greek man, they decided that he should retire from coaching and just devote his efforts to me, and of course I had no part of that financially or otherwise, and that's what we did. So Tragos and the promoter and Ray Steele thought that I was really a comer and that I was going to go somewhere. So Ed Lewis came to town, the old "Strangler" and they arranged a private workout in the gym and there were some really stupid reports about me beating Lewis in five minutes and all that stuff, you know some publicity people will take a lot of liberties and that was a complete falsehood, where they dreamed that up I don't know. Anyway, in about 15-20 minutes he had me beaten down to a pulp, you know? And I retired from wrestling, I didn't tell anybody anything and Tragos when I left, said everything was okay. I said, "Okay with you? Fine, not okay with me." So I went back and I told my father "Okay, I'm going to stop wrestling now." And he wanted me to stop and take over his shoe repair shop, so I said, "Okay, I'm ready to take over the shop, whenever you want me to do it, we'll do it." So Ed Lewis got wind of this so he called my father, which would be like the President of the United States calling you to say "Hello" because my father had never talked with him. Anyway he said to my father, "Tell that guy to get back up here." He said, "Tell the boy to come back, he did very very well." He said, "But he forgot that he was wrestling me, and I've traveled the world and learned to take care of myself and that's what we we're trying to teach him to do." So I mulled that over a day or two and when I looked at the shoe repair shop again compared to the fantastic hype you get with the wrestling, I said, "I think I'm going back to the gym."

Jeremy: Right, and that's a practice that nowadays is almost unheard of and that's that the "old guard" if you will, and I say that with the utmost respect, could work to put somebody over. That's something you just don't see these days. There isn't a lot of respect in today's dressing rooms, the face of wrestling has indeed changed, and with that I'd like to bring us up to the present day. As I understand it you wrestled your retirement match in 1979 and then later you wrestled your last match in Japan in, I believe it was 1990?

Lou Thesz: Yes, I was 74 in 1990. I guess you could say it was ego, but it really wasn't that. I wrestled a fellow, he came there from Germany, his name was Chono, he weighed about 250 and he was about 25 years old, a super guy and a very good wrestler. So I was in Tokyo and they said, "We'd like to have you wrestle one more time for free."

Jeremy: Oh yeah (laughs)

Lou Thesz: So I said, "Well sure, I'll do it." And I didn't know who they were going to put me in there with, and of all things they put me in with Chono who was the Title holder at that time! And I said' "Well, this is really great." Anyway, I had had a total hip replacement, you know, and it didn't perform as well as I would like it to sometimes. But anyway, we got out there and I tried to do a double bridge out of a problem, you could actually do a bridge out and pin your opponent, but that wouldn't work because the hip just wouldn't perform. So I picked him up, I was going to be a reverse slam on him, you know, pick him up over my head and toss him onto his head, and again the hip just didn't perform, not a great deal of pain but just sounded like a warning and I just didn't have it, it just wouldn't do it. He weighed 250 and I weighed about 220, so that was getting pretty close to 500 lbs. on a hip that had just been replaced. It was kind of stupid, and I've said this so many times, I was old enough to know better but I did it anyway...and I was wrong...

Jeremy: There were a couple of people I wanted to ask you about to see if you have any memory of wrestling. Did you ever wrestle Bruno Sammartino either when you were the NWA Champion or when he was the Champion of the World Wide Wrestling Federation?

Lou Thesz: When I was NWA Champion I wrestled him in Toronto, Canada...

Jeremy: With Frank Tunney as the promoter..?

Lou Thesz: Tunney was the promoter, that's right...

Jeremy: What type of match, if you can recall...

Lou Thesz: It was a wrestling match, it lasted about 30 minutes and I pinned him.

Jeremy: Oh, you pinned him...that was going to be my next question...

Lou Thesz: I figured that...

Jeremy: Now, you always hear of professional and personal rivalries in the business, most recently with this whole, Stu Hart's kid, Bret Hart incident. How about you and "Nature Boy" Buddy Rogers? You had a pretty intense rivalry. Could you take us through this match which culminated in some of the North Eastern promoters breaking off and forming the World Wide Wrestling Federation. They said Rogers had beat you but in reality all Title matches were supposed to be two out of three falls...

Lou Thesz: Never happened...

Jeremy: Never happened..?

Lou Thesz: Never happened...you can check all of the records...we had a situation out in California where he was DQ'd for throwing me over the top rope and they changed the publicity because they couldn't handle it financial-wise and I wanted my money, you know from the promotion. So they decided they were going to try and bury me so they try to play a little gitchie-goo game but it didn't work. And as far as Rogers is concerned, the last time I won the NWA Title it was him I beat for it in Toronto, Canada. And I was over 50 at the time.

Lou Thesz: Now, you've been able to wrestle in a lot of areas and I always batter this word around, the term territories. That doesn't seem to hold any clout with today's fans - which is sort of a sad thing because the more I learn, I mean honestly I'm only 22 years old and I've been a student of this sport for the last couple of years and the more I read about the territories the more I learn about how a wrestler was able to develop in these territories. A lot of wrestlers talk about in interviews the overexposure, and you being all over the world, did you ever face that?

Lou Thesz: Well, overexposure could be a problem, particularly with TV because its on the tube and they could run it over and over again kind of like a broken record. But so far as traveling internationally, you really kind of evade the problem because you're in so many different places like in India and Australia and they didn't have the TV situation like we do in this country, they do now but 25-30-40 years ago they didn't. But over-visibility is a real problem. Jack Dempsey once said, "...the wrestling game is going to hurt itself because you show it over and over again on TV", and he said, "How much rice can a Chinaman eat?" And it's true, you know. It's a repetition thing. But traveling internationally is a very challenging thing especially with foreign referees, because you get a local boy and the referee's got to live in that town and no matter what happens you're not going to get preferential treatment, he is. That happens frequently. So that's when we had to come in with that rule about no Title change under disqualification. They could disqualify you for using a legitimate hold. But anyway, it was a real adventure running around the world wrestling the local Champion, by the time we would get in with the local guys, the local Champion we knew if he was a wrestler or not because we hustled and worked out with some of the people he trained with, so it was an adventure and it was an exploration. Every one of them was a little different until video came out...

Jeremy: Which leads me to another question. When television came into being you'd already been World Champion for several years. Guys that came down the pike such as Gorgeous George, it seemed to me like he kind of brought wrestling back into the mainstream, so to speak...

Lou Thesz: Oh he absolutely did...

Jeremy: What you did was you kept the history going and kept it alive, would that be a safe assumption?

Lou Thesz: I didn't disagree with what he was doing at all as a matter of fact he was not a bad wrestler, a lot of people didn't know that, he was a pretty good heavyweight wrestler. So far as publicity and stuff, I thought the guy did a fantastic job of hyping himself and if anybody had challenged him at ringside they'd have made a big mistake because he was like a buzzsaw. I saw him deck a lot of people. People think that because they wear a fancy robe and do something like show business, and you know, milking the people as it were that they don't have ability, and some time they surprise you.

Jeremy: You've been able to stay active in the world of wrestling, in and out, a lot of behind the scenes training certain individuals. The question I have, the wrestling world has kind of split into two factions again where you have the World Championship Wrestling and the World Wrestling Federation. I recently watched an event where the World Wrestling Federation "honored you" along with the other St. Louis guys, Sam Muchnik, the Briscos, the Funk Brothers and others. But have you done anything, or tried to negotiate either training, or working with some of the young stars in the big two...or is it just kind of a lost art?

Lou Thesz: Well the reason I don't do it or even attempt to do it is that isn't what they are showing the public. Because if I can't contribute something, and have an effect on what they're doing then there's no point in wasting my time. But what I am doing, I'm on the Board of Directors of the Museum there in Newton, Iowa. I'm going to be spending at least one week a month up there and we're going to have a little theater there, we'll have video there and we'll have some instructive stuff on the videos. I'll be doing some coaching, and other people will as well. That's right on Interstate 80 incidentally, and there's 20,000 automobiles go by there each day. So it's going to come to pass and it's going to be very very successful and we're getting very hyped about it. I'm really pleased to be a part of it, a very small part of it. But just to be there, and there will be a mat there, of course, and there will be some workouts. And right there in Iowa, with Dan gable, he can arrange a tournament in a heartbeat...

Jeremy: Right. Another thing that you are involved in, and I know you're quite proud of is the Cauliflower Alley Club. You're now the President of that organization, and they now have their own website thanks to Scott Teal and his workings...explain a little of what this Cauliflower Alley Club does and your involvement.

Lou Thesz: Well, Mike Mazurki and another couple of fighters got together out on the West Coast about thirty years ago. The movie industry has a lot of stunt people some of whom are former wrestlers and other athletes and it was the movie people, the movie stunt people, boxers, wrestlers and their friends that were interested in sports. And they started that and they generated up to 1000 members when I took it over. Now we have 2000. It's come together pretty well. They're going to do a roast on me this coming March. I told them I'll have to be like the politicians and take the 5th on some stuff. But anyway, its a wonderful benevolent club, its nonprofit and we use the money which we generate for some scholarships. So that's what we do. Go out there and meet, and wine and dine, and tell each other about ourselves in the past...lie about each other...

Jeremy: Sure...so is this open to any serious fan who wants to be part of it?

Lou Thesz: Sure, that's why I said, "wrestlers, boxers and their friends". I have at least a dozen of my friends who are going to be there that have never been at a wrestling or fighting event or in the fight business. But they come out and we have some really good guest speakers on occasion and we have a lot of fun doing it. People in the movie industry, we have a lot of big names, I think Kirk Douglas is going to be at my table this year.

Jeremy: And what impresses me about the whole thing is that, you know, here these guys are and they're showing the same amount of camaraderie that they did back in the days, if you will...

Lou Thesz: Absolutely because it's mutual respect because when you get down to fine sand, which is an old expression they used to use, but it's the way we play the game. We've all had problems with each other, physical and sometimes business problems, but we bury all that and forget it and I had Dick Hutton and Verne Gagne, who were really arch enemies at one time, they were both at my table, we got together and hell, I could have booked them for dinner the next night...

Jeremy: (laughs)

Lou Thesz: ...but we do that, we get together and the camaraderie is just unbelievable. And Elliot Gould is a hell of a wrestling fan, and whenever he comes there we always have a drink and he's not only a "rasslin" fan but he's a wrestling fan, he really knows about wrestling, and his business manager also. So I expect him to be there again. And at one time Elliot and myself were talking and my wife was there and Elliot kept saying what great feats I had done and she said, "Why don't you just cool it because I have to live with this guy!"

Jeremy: (laughs)

Lou Thesz: But anyway that's how we get along. Some of the top names, the top comedians - and I can't even think of some of them now - they all come there to here are these plug uglies, and rather than have fisticuffs and things like that they go through the mental calisthenics and needle each other and have a ball and have dinner and everybody's happy.

Jeremy: That sounds really like a good time and for anyone whose really interested in pursuing and learning more about the Cauliflower Alley Club as well as potentially joining I'm going to have a link to that website off of the show website here, and people will have to do is click on it, and you have the Cauliflower Alley Club history up there as well as the addresses and the telephone numbers to call and get people to really get involved in this...

Lou Thesz: You can meet some great people, there'll be some movie people there and some of the old wrestlers and the fighters. Some of them are really the cream of the crop, really great people. I always look forward to it because we always have fun - it's one of the highlights of the year...

Jeremy: The next one is in March right?

Lou Thesz: March 14th...

Jeremy: March 14th, where's that going to be held?

Lou Thesz: Studio City, at the Sportsman's Lodge. And this is kind of a coincidence, when I used to wrestle out there 35-40 years ago I used to go to the Sportsman's Lodge for dinner - it was the favorite place for the movie stars, but I didn't go there for that, I went there because they had the best food in town. They had, like a moat and it was filled with rainbow trout, so you would catch your own trout, give it to your waiter, he would give it to the chef and fifteen minutes later you'd have it on the table.

Jeremy: Wow!

Lou Thesz: But you can order anything you want for dinner and if you romance the chef he'll get you anything you want.

Jeremy: Now I kind of want to touch upon the people you were inducted with, a couple of guys who I would like to get your opinion on, one being Harley race, the other one being the Funk brothers. Any memories..?

Lou Thesz: Oh well sure, I wrestled them all. I wrestled Funk and also Race in Japan. And Terry, Terry Funk I wrestled him somewhere in Texas.

Jeremy: Would you say that they were the last of a breed...because they seemed to employ more of the wrestling, rather than the "rasslin" as you said...or did they? I'm educating myself here...

Lou Thesz: I'd say about a halfway shot. The ones that you mentioned are not really died-in-the-wool wrestlers, and they may be advertised as such, but if you're talking about hookers, well no...

Jeremy:...because I know about Race there is a common myth, or maybe it is factual, that he started in the carnivals?

Lou Thesz: Oh yeah, sure, up around Minnesota. Sure, if you didn't have any money and nowhere else to go you'd go to work for the carnivals. You could feed the elephants or wrestle...

Jeremy: Well, at least you didn't have to wrestle the elephants...or maybe you did...(laughs)

Lou Thesz: It could be a tough call...

Jeremy: You know it's always interested me, there was a situation that took place back in 1989. As far as I know it the only experience with what used to be called the National Wrestling Alliance, now known as World Championship Wrestling when you were a judge at ringside for a match between Ric Flair, who copies just about every wrestler who ever lived, Buddy Rogers one of them, and Rick Steamboat. They both have been noted as highly conditioned and people who could really go for sixty minutes, have you worked with either one of these two..?

Lou Thesz: No, no, they came along just about ten years after I came off the road, I was still wrestling some matches but I didn't go on the road. Both of them are great athletes, both of them are damn good wrestlers and great all around athletes and I'm very good friends with both of them and I admire both of them a lot. And they and Guerrero and, I'm trying to think of some others...

Jeremy: Well a lot of today's wrestlers are second generation and that's got to help the business to a certain extent.

Lou Thesz: Oh yes, certainly.

Copyright 1998 - Jeremy Hartley and Jump City Productions.
This material may not be reproduced in any form without the expressed permission of the author.