Wednesday, February 14, 2007

An Open Post about Lou Thesz

I don't have an endpoint here but just wanted to pose a question to everyone in the class regarding Lou Thesz. We all read (or at least we're supposed to have) Dave Meltzer's detailed biography of Lou's career, and we also read a portion of Lou's biography. What is your take on this, the most revered of characters in wrestling history? We've seen him in video, back then and more recently, and we know that he is very critical of other performers. Hulk Hogan is a 1 or a 0 as a wrestler, even if he's a good entertainer, and Lou's grandmother could do a better legdrop. But think about some of his other quotes about his contemporaries:

Buddy Rogers "He couldn't wrestle but that's beside the point...In my opinion, he was the best PERFORMER (emphasis mine) this business has ever had. It doesnt' mean I liked him, though...He was very self-centered..." and we get those stories about how Buddy only cared about himself but then Lou describes how, after Buddy criticized Strangler Lewis, he would never let Buddy beat him, since Thesz could whip Buddy in real life. Does this make Thesz a tough guy standing up for what's right, against a punk who is talented but has no respect for the history of the business? Or is he an unprofessional bully? Or is it either/or?

Gorgeous George We know that he respected George Wagner because he believed Wagner could really wrestle but bemoaned the fact that George didnt' show the fans his wrestling ability very often. He said he always gave George a good show, but "a lot of the gimmick performers who came along in his wake didn't know a wrestling hold from a handshake, and I always refused to dignify their in-the-ring stuff when I was booked with them...My 'gimmick' was wrestling, and I wasn't about to abandon it for the sake of making these characters look good." Again, Lou seems proud of this, but some question whether he should have been or not.

Antonino Rocca Lou makes it clear that its Rocca's fault that wrestling became a complete sideshow, and others like him, who took wrestling away from wrestling. I think his comments about Rocca are most revealing: about the shifts television brought along and what it meant for wrestling (Lou's comments about how TV changed the game are great because he was an established star both before and after, so he knows well about this divide), but also about the questions posed in earlier blog posts about the relationship between promoters and stars. What do you make of the description here of Rocca's relationship with Vince Sr., Toots Mondt (his name always pops back up, doesn't it?), and other promoters? My favorite quote..."While Rocca lacked grey matter, he was compensated in his jock strap--Mother Nature's sense of balance, I guess, or maybe humor."

Would love to get some reactions across the class about Lou's place in wrestling history as the standard of what makes a REAL wrestler, etc., especially among older wrestlers, historians...and....well....Lou himself, of course.


Peter "The Malcontent" Rauch said...

It seems like Lou's general angle is that he could have been an even bigger champion than he was were wrestling explicitly a sport. Sure, he has mixed feelings about the "performers" who can't wrestle, with varying degrees of venom, but more importantly, he's so proud of refusing to let anyone who wasn't a sufficiently "real" wrestler win. Which, I suppose, satisfies both an outlaw, individualist persona and an athlete's competitiveness, but it kind of breaks down if compared to other performance spectacles...if the actor playing Javert decides Valjean isn't powerful enough to overtake him and escape capture, he's not going to be admired for attempting to act outside the plot in the interest of greater "verity." There's a fine line between iconoclast and jackass.

Which, come to think of it, sums up most of the wrestlers we've studied so far.

Sam Ford said...

Peter, very good point. What's interesting is the cases in which the balance is an act and when it's the person's "real" self. When you are talking about the less gimmicked performers, though, like Thesz, how do you distinguish between the "real" Thesz and his public persona, especially since he prided himself on being more "real" than others.

Joshua Shea said...

I think with Thesz, you're basically looking at a man with no gimmick who will berate the competition before you get a chance to ask. I'm guessing there's some real insecurity there, but this is nothing that's just from the past. Look at someone like Bret Hart, who wouldn't follow the script because he didn't want to lose in Canada. There was no gulf between Bret Hart the performer or Bret Hart the person. Imagine if I, as a construction worker, refuse to build roads in a certain town.

When I booked an indy, about 25% of the workers came through the door in character, and I don't think it was method acting. Bob Smith the person walks in and already is Bob Smith the wrestler. He comes in and sees the lineup and sees he's losing on the booking sheet. When you explain to someone who sees themself as having no gimmick, they take the idea of losing personally. If they lose, it's not The Flash or The Cannibal losing, it's Bob Smith. And like Thesz and Bret Hart, without asking, they'll tell you why they are better than the other guy. I saw people go over my head to the promoter and owner and tell them that they were angry they were losing. He'd just say "It's Fake!" Bob Smith would come back to the locker room broken. Half the time, the Bob Smiths pack up and leave. A quarter of the time, they work a few shows, but can't adapt to the people around them and leave. And a few do very well...once they agree to be The Flash.

Carolina said...

To comment on Peter's comment (weird, I know), I don't think you can compare Bret to Lou Thesz. Granted, both were tremendous wrestlers and are two of the absolute best in-ring performers ever, but Lou Thesz has a level of arrogance that Bret can't even touch. Bret didn't refuse to lose against Hulk Hogan at Wrestlemania did he? No, Bret was a lot smarter and even though he would probably give Hogan a 0 or a 1 also, and even considers himself the best (which can be argued as well), he never to my knowledge would do the kinds of things that Lou Thesz did. What happened at Survivor Series 1997 is split on opinion, and while I personally don't think that being in Canada had anything to do with it, that was the only time that's publicized where Bret didn't want to let someone "win"... this is a story for another day though.

I don't think Lou Thesz would have a place in wrestling in this age with his attitude. If he had to face someone the likes of John Cena, there'd be no way that he would let him look good, and he'd probably be out of a job - unless he went to TNA of course. He talks about Buddy Rogers being self-centered, but if someone didn't live up to his own expectations as a wrestler, he'd refuse to let them win. How self-centered is that? It even said in the article that Lou Thesz wasn't the most influential wrestler of all time, but maybe he could have been had he not let his emotions and opinions come before good business. Maybe if he had allowed Buddy Rogers to truly beat him and to really look good, he could've played a key role in making Buddy Rogers even more huge than he already was - kinda like how Bret did with Steve Austin.

Carolina said...

Ha, sorry, I said Peter and I meant Joshua!

Mike W. said...

From Joshua's vantage point, I can't say that I'd want to deal with someone behind the scenes who doesn't want to lose a match.

As a fan, however, I want wrestlers who make us all like the "It's still real to me!" guy. Some people want to know what Umaga is like offstage. I don't. It kills the belief in who he is and the character he portrays to see him out of face paint and ordering late night Waffle House.

In that respect, Thesz, through their own psychological investment in wrestling, help "keep it real." People like he and Bret Hart, who are putting their "real selves" on the stage, make it more believable, because there is no "offstage persona" to find. Moreover, their belittling of others can be a double-edged sword. On one hand, it shows legit jealousy and animosity, two key ingredients for a good feud. On the other, it exposes pro wrestling a bit too much (when the attacks become trite).

Thesz also suffers from coming up during that transitional phase, when wrestling was legit; seeing it become "sports entertainment" calls into question the legitimacy of his legacy. Instead of his hard work and training paying off in his accomplishments, they are disregarded as accolades befitting someone "handed" a title by a promoter.

While I don't wish anyone the psychological baggage that burdened Thesz, or Bret Hart for that matter, they do help bring into question what is real and what is not. That, I'm afraid, is a mostly missing art these days.

Sam Ford said...

Some great points from Joshua, Carolina, and Mike. I think the Bret Hart comparison works in some respects and not in others. Thesz's attitude is peculiar to his time, as he first won the title pre-television and was the established person to run with the ball by the powers that be, including "Strangler" Lewis. As an in-ring wrestler, he had a sterling reputation as a tough guy, and he was considered to be the guy to keep the belt on. Of course, he let the press go to his head, but some would argue he really was as good as he thought he was.

And modern historians would concur that he may be the best of all-time in the ring, or one of the best. At least his legend has been built that way. But this reputation of also being arrogant and negative is certainly a part of Lou's history.

It reminds me of Bret not so much now but in the time in which he and Ric Flair got into their public argument. Ric made a couple of comments about Bret in his book, about how he used the same few moves in the same order to end every match and how he was never a big draw. He responded with a really nasty and long public message about Flair, which is where people probably make the Bret connection more than anyone else.

Bret has established that he's a legend, especially to himself, and we'll get into this much more when we talk about Wrestling with Shadows and the Montreal double-cross.

But I think this conversation makes an interesting early link and would love if anyone wants to make these connections back to Lou again when we enter that discussion.

Ismael said...

In the first documentary we watched in class, wrestling from the early 20 century until the present, I thought Lou Thesz came off as a bitter old man. He had nothing nice to say about any other wrestler. Now after reading about Lou Thesz, I have a different view on him.

Lou wrestled in a different time. Wrestling was now being televised and seen more as a form of entertainment. It seems that Lou accepted this change and even acknowledged wrestlers like Buddy Rodgers for being great performers. Lou believed, however, that the title should only be in the hands of those who truly deserved it. When he says that his "gimmick" was wrestling, he means exactly that. He was considered the last great hooker and he held the championship title for 8 consecutive years.

Lou only accepted the entertainment value of wrestling to a degree. Lou demanded that the there be no women wrestlers, midget wrestlers, or wrestling bears on the same show as the champiion. He considered these to be freak acts. This shows that he wanted wrestling to keep a certain reputation and respect while he was around.

Today, he would probably be considered old fashioned and unreasonable. I do consider Lou Thesz to be a great wrestler, but I would also consider Hulk Hogan to be of the same caliber. Because of great "performers", as Lou Thesz put it, wrestling has been able to evolve for the better and succeed in providing entertainment for fans all around the world.