Orlando Sentinel – May 12, 2000
By Ric Russo
Back in the early days of professional wrestling, competitors needed a strong amateur background to survive. If you didn’t know how to execute the most basic moves, you were in trouble.
“It wasn’t hard to figure out which guys had [amateur wrestling) knowledge and which guys were faking it,” says Lou Thesz, a six-time World Heavyweight Champion. “If you didn’t know what you were doing, you were found out and you didn’t last long.”
Thesz got an early introduction to basic wrestling styles through his father, a former Greco-Roman grappler in his native Hungary.
When Thesz was 8, his father took him to his first pro wrestling match in their hometown of St. Louis. The year was 1924, and St. Louis was the epicenter of wrestling culture in the United States.
That exposure turned out to be a salvation for Thesz, who was a relatively shy kid and had a hard time fitting in at school. Wrestling provided him with an outlet to work off those frustrations.
“I loved it almost from the first time I wrestled because it seemed like something I could be very good at,” Thesz said in an interview from his home in Winter Garden.
“Through wrestling, my father introduced me to various forms of exercise for both the mind and the body. I did them religiously every night to strengthen myself.”
It was during those early training sessions that Thesz realized he had a feel for the sport. In addition to enjoying the challenge of one-on-one competition, he found that he had quick reflexes and a wealth of stamina.
At 14, Thesz dropped out of school. He worked full time in his father’s shoe-repair shop for a couple of years, while continuing his education and training for a future in pro wrestling.
“I was seriously hooked [on wrestling) by that time and realized it was just a matter of time before I was discovered,” he said. “I kept showing an interest and I kept meeting people in wrestling that helped me get started.”
Thesz made his wrestling debut at 19 in East St. Louis, Ill. He lost the match that night, but that didn’t matter – Thesz was a star in the making. At 6 feet 2 inches and a solid 175 pounds, he had the natural ability that local promoters had been looking for.
Two years later, Thesz got his first title shot at Kiel Auditorium in St. Louis. The place was packed, and Thesz didn’t disappoint the home faithful, who watched him defeat Everett Marshall for the first of his six stints as world champion. In his corner that night was his mentor, George Tragos, a former Olympic wrestling medal winner.
At the time, wrestling was not doing well at the box office. Once news of this promising 21-year-old sensation hit the wrestling world, however, promoters from all over the country were clamoring for Thesz to appear in their towns.
For most of the next four decades the name Thesz was the standard for excellence in pro wrestling.
Thesz, 84, has lived with his wife, Charlie, in Winter Garden since February.
He devotes most of his time to the business, most recently serving as the commissioner of the Union of Wrestling Forces International.
“It seems like the older I get, the busier I get,” said Thesz, who had a world title reign of 13 years, the longest in pro wrestling history.
“I just got back from Korea, too; I was the commissioner, but I had to give that up, too. I want to take it easy for a while.”
During his golden years, Thesz has been inducted into several wrestling halls of fame, including the NWA and WCW.
In November, Thesz had his name placed among the elite in the St. Louis sports scene. He was recognized by the city at a Thanksgiving banquet along with other historic St. Louis sports figures like Stan Musial, Bob Gibson and Lou Brock.
It was a touching moment for a man who has received myriad honors and awards through the years.
“It was a great event. I will always have a special place in my heart for the people and city of St. Louis,” Thesz said. “Some of my greatest matches took place there and everyone was always very supportive. I know sometimes professional wrestlers aren’t exactly viewed as athletes, but it was never that way in St. Louis.”
Thesz always viewed himself as an athlete. He kept himself in tip-top shape, and even though pro wrestling was viewed as a form of entertainment, Thesz prided himself on presenting his matches as athletic competition.
“It goes back to not knowing what you’re doing. The fans can see what’s going on and they know when moves aren’t executed properly,” Thesz said. “I wanted to make sure fans got their money’s worth.”
As for what goes on in today’s wrestling business, Thesz is not a huge fan.
“It’s choreographed tumbling,” he said. “But I guess that’s what the fans want to see, because it’s bigger than it’s ever been.”
But it’s not the same as executing a hammerlock or a leg- lock on an opponent to gain an upper hand during a bout that might last 60 minutes. Thesz calls that perhaps the biggest difference between wrestling in his heyday and what goes on today.
“We had stamina and we could go at it for longer stretches,” he said. “These guys today are back in the shower fifteen minutes after the opening bell.”