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Encore:  Interview with Lou Thesz,
Part One
April 30, 2002

by Denny Burkholder
Exclusive to OnlineOnslaught.com


Lou Thesz loved pro wrestling so much that he did it for almost 60
years of his life.

When his body finally tapped out, wrestling remained his passion.
He took every opportunity to meet with his old friends at events like
the Cauliflower Alley Club conventions and the Pro Wrestling
Institute and Museum ceremonies in Newton, Iowa. If a promoter
asked him to be a guest of honor at one of his shows, be it
Southwest Championship Wrestling, or Florida Championship
Wrestling, or New Japan, or WCW, or the WWF, he was there.

Much the same, Thesz was an incredibly well traveled and
dependable champion. He worked for just about every noteworthy
promoter in the world at some point in his career. Lou Thesz was
an honest champion, a back-breakingly hard worker with
legendary stamina, and a loyal friend to those lucky enough to win
his camaraderie. All Lou Thesz ever asked in return was respect
for him, respect for those he held dear, and his fair share of what
he helped build. Give him that, and the opportunity to practice his
craft in front of fans that understood what the art of pro wrestling
was all about, and Lou Thesz was a happy man.

On Sunday, April 28, 2002, Lou Thesz passed away at the age of
86. His life - like many of his world title matches -was a textbook
example of how one man should live. Lou Thesz started humbly,
found something he loved, and traveled the world to show
everyone who cared about pro wrestling why he was considered
by many to be the best wrestler ever. Period.

When he could no longer wrestle, Lou Thesz quenched his thirst
for the sport by seizing every chance to reminisce about his
decades at the top of the business, his experiences along the
way, and his favorite stories from the road. Having begun his
career in 1935, wrestling his final match 55 years later in 1990 at
the age of 74, and winning countless titles along the journey, Lou
had lots to talk about. Listening to him discuss Ed "Strangler"
Lewis, Rikidozan, Buddy Rogers, Bruno Sammartino, and even
newer guys like Kurt Angle and Steve Austin was as informative as
it was endearing: you were getting history straight from the source,
and at the same time, you couldn't help but feel charmed by Lou's
love for what he helped create.

With the passing of Lou Thesz, pro wrestling has lost not only a
champion, but an embassador, a forefather, and a friend.

As a final tribute to Lou Thesz, here is an encore presentation of a
3-part interview I conducted with him in May 2001 for WrestleLine,
in which he tells many of his favorite stories from the 1930s to the
present day. It's the story of one of the greatest pro wrestlers who
ever lived, as told by him.

God speed, champ.

Denny Burkholder: You were the youngest undisputed
heavyweight champion ever at the age of 21, correct?

Lou Thesz: Well you know, I had some wonderful, wonderful
coaching with Ed "Strangler" Lewis and Ray Steele, George
Tragos. These are the people that were very kind and very
generous and gave me the knowledge. It was a labor of love for
them, and also for me. When (then undisputed world champion)
Everett Marshall was on the road, what they actually did was they
were booking him night after night. We were getting ready for him
two or three weeks prior to that. But I was doing concentrated
training. We went after it, and everything worked out very well. I had
really good gray matter behind me with Ed "Strangler" Lewis and
Ray Steele. These are guys who really knew what they were doing.

DB: Now I've read interviews you've done in the past, and you said
that Everett Marshall turned to the referee at one point and said he
couldn't believe what kind of stamina you had.

LT: Well that was it, we were training for long-distance, you know.
You wrestle for one hour, two hours, three hours without a stop.
That's the way they conditioned me. I'm not really responsible for a
lot of things, because I had the will to do it and the love to do it. But
they're the people that led me to the water and I just happened to
be there to drink it.

DB: Now you mentioned George Tragos helped train you, and Ed
"Strangler" Lewis was your mentor.

LT: Yeah, he is. And another man who was really instrumental
was Ray Steele, out of Lincoln, Nebraska. These are names that a
lot of people have forgotten because it was a long time ago. But he
was a great wrestler, a great hooker. He went to Japan and beat
everybody with the judo and martial arts. He was just a super guy.
And hooking, he knew how to hurt people (laughs). Anyway these
were the people that befriended me, and they were very kind to
me. They helped me a great deal. I really enjoyed the trip, the
whole thing. And physical discomfort? Yes (laughs). I tell a lot of
the young wrestlers out there, look, if physical discomfort's gonna
bother you, don't wrestle. Do something else.

DB: Well I would imagine with someone like Ed "Strangler" Lewis
training you for the ring, you probably got stretched out a few times.

LT: Oh sure, absolutely. The guy was a super wrestler and a great
strategist. A very bright man. He was a bridge player, you know,
and a fellow by the name of Goren - he was really the guru of all
the contract bridge players - he rated Ed "Strangler" Lewis as one
of the ten best in the world.

DB: Wow.

LT: I told Ed, I said, 'That's wonderful, what a great
accomplishment.' He always called me Hunky, for Hungarian. He
said 'Naw, Hunky, I'm not that great. It cost me a million dollars to
learn.' (laughs) But he was a wonderful man. Very easy to be
around. He could read people very well. He played poker, played
bridge. He had a lot of bottom - a lot of intestinal fortitude. He was
a brand new guy every day. One day we were up in Iowa
somewhere, and we were doing a one-night stand - you get to bed
at two o'clock, and get an eight o'clock flight, you know what I'm
saying? Very little sleep. And he told me, he said 'What a
wonderful day, Hunky.' I said 'Ed, it's raining!' (laughs) But his
sight was very bad, he couldn't see very well. He didn't know. He
was a fun guy to be around. It was a privilege, and I was just very
lucky to have a man of that character be with me.

DB: Now a lot of wrestlers tell stories about when they first started
out, you know, there's a lot of trainers that will try to discourage the
person or try to turn them away. Basically test what kind of guts you
have before they really start giving you the knowledge you need.

LT: Well they did that with some people. with all people, actually,
because many people think that they want to be a wrestler, but
they really don't know what they're saying. Getting back to physical
discomfort. If that discourages you. and Tragos was a wonderful
man, and also a good strategist. But one time we went down to a
place, and they had a heavyweight down there that was very good.
At that time they were trying me out to see what I could do, and
how well I could operate under stress. This young man had a
pretty good track record. And I went in, and I was so uptight. I lived
in terror of ever disappointing George and the people that had
been helping me. And so I went out there, and I was so uptight,
and the adrenaline was slowing. I hooked this guy and I beat him
in 32 seconds. So the match was over, and we were driving back
to St. Louis, and I asked George 'How was the match?' He said
'Eh, it was all right.' And I said 'What do you mean all right? I beat
him in 32 seconds!' He said 'If the guy had wrestled, you don't
beat him at all.' (laughs) You couldn't get a swelled head around
George. You know, sometimes victories upset young people and
they begin to believe their own publicity. But you couldn't do that
around George. In that way he was quite humorous. He never did
smile or laugh; nothing was funny. They used to call him Ice
Water. Not to his face, but behind his back. (laughs) He was some
kind of a man. Unbelievable guy.

DB: Now you mentioned the hooking style a couple of times. The
title of your book is Hooker. Today, that's a term that isn't used so
much. You hear "shooter" a lot.

LT: Yeah, It's actually the same thing, except to be a hooker, it's
kind of a post-graduate course, you know? They have performers,
wrestlers, hookers, and shooters. It's just a matter of shoptalk. In
the dressing rooms, the pecking order was really an automatic
thing. The non-wrestlers would sit on one side of the room, and
the really sophisticated wrestlers would sit on the other side. No
one told them to do that. It was just a normal thing. They were
attracted to each other, you know?

DB: The hooking style is more submission-based, is that correct?
Newer fans may not know exactly what the difference is.

LT: Oh yeah. You're right on target. It's how to hurt people. How to
make them concede. Mentally and physically, you know. That's the
name of the game.

DB: Now today, if you tried hooking in the WWF, you'd probably be
fired, would you not?

LT: (laughs) Well, they've got a young man up there that can do it.
Maybe not specifically hooking, but...

DB: I've heard you're pretty high on Kurt Angle.

LT: Boy, you picked my brain! We're very close. Wherever he
wrestled around North Carolina, and all up and down the coast, I
would visit the matches. He's a super kid. Well, I shouldn't say
he's a kid - he's a hell of a man. He's got himself a 20, 21-inch
neck. And when I was 21, I had a 21-inch neck also. But of course,
with your neck and your abdomen and so forth, you can control
your opponent very easily. With your head, you can control him. A
lot of people really don't understand what I'm saying, but you can
control a man with just your head, move him where you want him
and so forth, you know? Another thing that helped me a lot, I was
ambidextrous, you know. And that helped a hell of a lot, because if
you switch horses in the middle of the stream, it really
discourages and upsets a lot of people. If you're a southpaw and
you can go back and forth, it puts you in a pretty good position.

DB: I want to talk about Rikidozan. Your first match against

LT: I was wrestling for his group, but I first wrestled him in Hawaii.
I didn't even know he existed, as a matter of fact. I wasn't
interested in Japanese wrestling. I was too busy with my own
country. But he was a really tough guy on his feet, because sumo
wrestlers don't have any mat experience at all, because they don't
have any mat wrestling. Of course, with freestyle or Greco, the way
I was schooled, the ultimate thing is to get them on the mat and
pin them. But he was very, very headstrong, and you couldn't
discourage him. I banged him around a little bit, and cut him up a
little bit. There was a little bit of blood there, but it wasn't mine, it
was his.

When I finally got him on the deck, then he belonged to me. But
prior to that, he was very tough on his feet. I gave him a lot of credit.

I told him later, I really admire you for being headstrong, and for
not being discouraged. And he said, 'Well, that's the way we
worked in school.' He didn't get discouraged about anything, but I
took him off his feet, and that was the end of the ball game. But
after that, rather than be unhappy with me or something, he gave
me some trophies, and its really strange. He was just a good
friend. He learned his wrestling, freestyle wrestling, in Germany.
He came through the United States, stopped in Hawaii, and that's
when I wrestled him. After that, we wrestled several times in Japan
and had sellout crowds in the ballpark. Forty, fifty thousand people.
But I complimented him about the sumo experience that he had.
He put me in with, I trained with the sumo wrestlers, and I really
enjoyed that. They were a great bunch of guys. Riki was a super
guy, and I'm just so sorry that he left us, because he should not
have. He was a very innovative, bright guy. And Ed Lewis was, too.
Some of these people will surprise you about the gray matter, you
know. You think they're just big pug uglies, but that isn't true. And
Rikidozan was a bright guy. But he had a little ego problem, and
that's why he died.

He bought a nightclub called the Chè Paris, of all things, in Japan.
The Japanese mafia is really strong over there, and Riki was a
part of that, too. They really liked him. But this guy that was in there
one night, he was drinking and drinking. So Riki got unhappy with
him and physically threw him out of the place, out in the street, you
know. And about a month or two later, the guy was stewing over
this, and he couldn't handle it - he was drinking, of course.
Anyway, he came in and Rikidozan was talking with a bunch of
people, and he owned the place. And he walked behind him and
(stabbed him). If Riki had gone to the hospital immediately, he
would have been all right, because we had antibiotics at that time.
But he didn't - he wanted to be Mr. Tough Guy. So he stayed up
there, and a thing called septicemia set in - the blood gets
completely destroyed, it's blood poisoning. Acute blood poisoning,
and even antibiotics wont touch it. And of course, he died the next
day. And that was terrible. If he had gone to the hospital, he'd have
been all right.


Part One  --/--  Part Two  --/--  Part Three


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