The Virginian-Pilot – December 16, 1990
By Robin Brinkley
Lou Thesz, bless his heart, wants us to believe that he can defeat a man one-third his age when he takes on rising Oriental star Chono on Dec. 26 in Japan in the greatest professional wrestling comeback of all time.
Thesz, 74, might indeed pin the 25-year-old Chono. But if he does, it will be because of the fine print in his contract and not because Thesz has defied the ravages of time.
Don’t get me wrong. Thesz, who lives in Ocean View, is in marvelous shape. His pectorals would put a young longshoreman’s to shame.
Thesz, the son of a Hungarian immigrant, has forgotten more about wrestling than Hulk Hogan ever knew.
But this isn’t about wrestling, or even sports for that matter.
74 vs. 25?
Can Joe DiMaggio hit Doc Gooden? Can Sam Snead outdrive Curtis Strange? Can Don Budge match groundstrokes with Ivan Lendl?
DiMaggio, Snead and Budge are all in their 70s and not about to come out of retirement to face the top stars of today.
Heck, DiMaggio couldn’t hit Mr. Coffee with a four-foot spoon.
So why is Thesz taking the plunge?
Because, my friends, professional wrestling is fake. There, I’ve said the “F” word.
Choke on that, you Hulkamaniacs!
Thesz doesn’t totally disagree. He is disdainful of the World Wrestling Federation and calls the stuff you see on TV “choreographed garbage.”
(Frankly, I find the banter between Gorilla Monsoon and Bobby “The Brain” Heenan stimulating.)
But when it comes to compromising the integrity of a match, Thesz draws the line at himself.
“I could have made a lot of money if I was willing to do that, but I didn’t want to lose my credibility,” he said.
Earth to Lou: You’re a terrific actor with a great body, and a student of the sport. But don’t get carried away.
To be completely fair, there is compelling evidence to support Thesz’s claim that at least some of the action is real. He has the worst set of cauliflower ears I’ve ever seen; I’ll swear they are as big as cabbages.
Thesz, 6-feet-2 and 212 pounds, turned pro when he was 17. He spent his early years barnstorming through the Midwest, taking on town bullies and muscle-bound farm boys at county fairs.
When pro wrestling moved into indoor arenas in big cities, Thesz moved with it. He held the world title six times and hobnobbed with Hollywood stars such as Kirk Douglas and Burt Lancaster.
His big break occurred in 1957 when he beat the Japanese champion in Hawaii. That unlocked the vast Japanese market to Thesz, and he has capitalized by making 29 trips there.
Thesz is better known and more revered in Japan than in the United States.
“I can’t walk two steps down the street there without someone recognizing me and asking for my autograph,” Thesz said.
Thesz points out that his biography, “The Greatest Wrestling of All Time,” was published in 1984 in Tokyo. What he doesn’t say is that only 500 copies were printed.
Of course, that could just mean that Thesz’s fans aren’t big readers.
A Japanese promoter believes in his name enough to charge $65 for ringside seats to the Chono match, which was a tag-team event when originally announced.
(I’d rather watch Lou Piniella hurl bases for that price, but you’ve probably figured that out by now.)
Thesz purports to like wrestling in Japan because it is truer to its freestyle roots than in the United States.
“No show biz, no hype, no music,” he said.
“In the United States, everybody thinks wrestling is just show business,” said Koji Miyamoto, a Tokyo shipping executive and the author of “The Greatest Wrestler of All Time.”
“In Japan, wrestling is taken more seriously. It’s only 50 percent show business.”
To be sure, Japanese newspapers treat professional wrestling with the same respect that is given to other sports.
“In Japan, sumo wrestling is No. 1, baseball is No. 2 and professional wrestling is No. 3,” Miyamoto said.
It also is just as surely fake.
“Yes,” admitted Miyamoto, “although maybe Lou won’t want you to write that.”
Now that we’ve come this far, we might as well go all the way.
Tell us, Koji, who is going to win!
“Well, Chono is only 25. Lou could win, but I think maybe it will be a draw.”
Sounds good to me.