The Virginian-Pilot – September 22, 1996
By Bill Ruehlmann
Lou Thesz held the world professional heavyweight wrestling championship longer than anyone – 13 years. He also was the youngest, at 21, to earn it. And the oldest, at 46, to win it back.
Thesz’s last pro match was a loss in Tokyo six years ago. His adversary was a 27-year-old Japanese named Masahiro Chono who tipped the scales at 260 pounds. Thesz weighed 215.
He was 74.
Thesz would have won, but a hip replacement operation had slowed him down a touch.
“I was old enough to know not to do it,” says Thesz, now 80, in his rain-barrel baritone, “but I did it anyway.”
The big man sits at the dining room table in his Ocean View, Norfolk, home, smiling out at the white tinge of surf on the waves. How to describe him? His 18-inch neck looks like a sequoia.
The rest of him is in proportion.
He doesn’t credit a prudent diet for that or even regular hours, which he didn’t have over a lifetime of driving 2.5 million miles among engagements and flying another 14 million.
“I’ve had good fortune with genes,” explains the still-fit survivor of 200 broken bones and a large assortment of other injuries.
Some of them are recorded in “Hooker: An Authentic Wrestler’s Adventures Inside the Bizarre World of Pro Wrestling,” a scrappy, no-holds-barred, 262-page autobiography done with sportswriter Kit Bauman.
Thesz is a master of “hooks,” a collection of painful or crippling holds unknown or illegal in conventional competitive wrestling.
He learned them to protect himself. Thesz was successful at that. If an opponent wanted to play dirty, Thesz would accommodate him.
Oki Kintaro tried to head-butt him into insensibility one night in Houston. He telegraphed the move. Thesz atomized him.
“I never stopped exercising,” Thesz says, accounting for a leathery frame that should have seized up years ago but still pushes through the paces at Muscle Beach East gym, near his home.
Once Bronko Nagurski, who should have stayed in football, threw him out of a Houston ring, and the fall to the concrete floor fractured his left kneecap. That put Thesz out of wrestling action for a full year. But it did not prevent him from playing 18 holes of golf daily – no cart, on foot.
Thesz knew and fought them all, all over the world – from Baron Michele Leone in Los Angeles to Dara Singh in India, from Rikidozan in Honolulu to Emil Czaya in Singapore.
For years, his personal trainer was the legendary Ed “Strangler” Lewis.
Is wrestling fixed?
“What you see on TV today,” says Thesz, “is choreographed tumbling. It is not really related to wrestling.”
It’s show business. It always has been a means to sell tickets and make money. Bela Lugosi, a fellow Hungarian, once made a celebrity appearance as Thesz’s cornerman.
Thesz is president of the Cauliflower Alley Club, founded by the late film actor Mike Mazurki, an association of 2,000 boxing and wrestling pros, pals, and stunt people. He also is a “shooter,” Graeco-Roman trained from childhood, who knew how to compete, not merely perform; no mask, no make-up, no mumbo-jumbo. The only gimmick he ever had was his unusual skill.
“I am a wrestler,” says Thesz with simple dignity. “Not a wrassler; not a clown. A wrestler.”
Between anecdotes, Thesz, world-traveled gourmet and grandfather of three, spoons down a steaming bowl of peppery bouillabaisse prepared by his third wife, Charlie, 50.
“Wrestlers always refer to themselves as ‘boys,’” she confides. “And that is exactly what they are – overgrown boys. All male athletes are.”
This warm, direct woman once bawled out blue-jawed Antonino Rocca at breakfast for being disrespectful of his Japanese hosts, and the barefoot heavyweight apologized on the spot.
She’s a shooter, too.
“It was,” Thesz sums up, “a great adventure. I enjoyed the whole trip. My only regret is that I can’t do it all again.”