WRESTLING HERITAGE

T: Lou Thesz


Lou Thesz

Lou Thesz was the most eagerly anticipated post war wrestling visitor to British shores when he arrived  in December, 1957. He had already held the NWA World Heavyweight Championship twice and was destined to become one of the greatest heavyweights of all time.

Thesz was born in Michigan in 1916, the son of a Hungarian-German shoemaker and his wife of German descent. Sixteen year old Thesz made his professional wrestling debut in 1932 having been trained by Ed “Strangler” Lewis. He beat Everett Marshall for the American Wrestling Association world title in 1937, and in 1948 won the National Wrestling Association title. Title lineage is complicated and confusing, so we believe it suffice to say that by the time he came to Britain Thesz had unified a number of championship versions and was already considered one of the greatest pro wrestlers of all time.

Little wonder his credentials made him one of the most anticipated visitors to our shores. An American World Heavyweight Champion in our midst was something of a rarity. Nevertheless we do feel duty bound to add that  Thesz already lost the title before leaving American shores!   Lou Thesz had until recently been the last universally recognised heavyweight champion of all time. A loss to Edouardo Carpentier in June, 1957, had removed that collective recognition. Another loss, this time against Dick Hutton,  the month before he arrived in Britain, had even removed  NWA acknowledgement. British wrestling promoters wouldn't allow such a small detail to get in their way. Thesz still arrived in Britain with the reputation of a living legend, and produced a belt to defend.  

Graeme Cameron has told us that in his biography Thesz announced he had informed NWA president Sam Muchnik that he wished to step down and retire from being world champion. He selected his successor, Dick Hutton and duly did his duty. The new champion Hutton was presented with a new belt while Thesz was allowed to keep the old one in recognition of his service and that belt is the one that Thesz brought over the Atlantic. It was a "retired" world title belt (1)

Thesz made his first title defence on British soil on Wednesday 11th December, 1957, working for Dale Martin Promotions, against the Indian champion Dara Singh. It was a tremendous tussle, going the distance, and matching the expectations of the five thousand fans in the Royal Albert Hall, London. Singh had already wrestled with some success in the USA, where he had wins over many stars, including Stanislaus Zbysko.

Stories that British heavyweight Bert Assirati turned up at the arena to challenge Thesz may well be true but we have been unable to find any evidence. Any challenge that may have taken place would have been futile anyway as Assirati worked for rival promoters outside the Joint Promotions organisation.

It was the start of a quick succession of matches in which Thesz defended his   belt. Two nights later he was two hundred miles north in the (at the time) Lancashire port of Liverpool. Working for Bill Best Promotions his opponent was Jack Pye, the blueprint of British wrestling villains. Pye was almost a permanent fixture at the Stadium, but that, of course, was to do him no good. This was the first of Pye’s matches with Thesz, the two meeting again six nights later (17th) in Hull.

British promoters did Thesz no favours when it came to convenience. The next night (Saturday 14th) Dale Martin Promotions had him travel back and beyond London three hundred miles to defeat Bill Verna in Brighton. Remember, all this travel would be by road or rail, and the journey would take the best part of the day.

Sunday was a day of rest for wrestlers too and we can only imagine Lou slept well. The following day, Monday 16th, he was back in the north, two hundred and fifty miles to Leeds, working for Relwyskow and Green Promotions and beating Dai Sullivan.

On Tuesday 17th Lou was in Hull, again working for Relwyskow and Green,  to demolish Jack Pye for a second time.

Onwards to Grimsby on Wednesday 18th, a Morrell-Beresford Promotion, and a win over Ernest Baldwin in Grimsby. Baldwin was one of the most skilful of Thesz’s opponents during his British tour. He had turned professional in 1939 and  three times during his career was recognised as British heavyweight champion.

It was another Morrell-Beresford booking the following night (19th) for the first of two wins over Norman Walsh. The two were to meet again, in Walsh’s home town of Middlesbrough two nights later.

On Friday 20th December Lou was in Rotherham, a Relwyskow-Green Promotion.  His opponent was Sandy Orford, ex rugby player and tough as nails. We are still surprised to find this match listed as a drawn verdict, the first time Lou dropped a point in his British tour.

A second win over Norman Walsh came the next night (Saturday 21st) in Middlesbrough.

Wryton Promotions moved their usual Saturday night wrestling in Hanley to Monday 23rd December to accommodate a Lou Thesz appearance against Mike Marino. This was to be a second time that Thesz was held to a draw.

The following night, Christmas Eve, and it was another drawn result, this time Lou was held by Geoff Portz on a Morrell-Beresford programme in Leicester.

Lou then left Britain to spend the whole of January wrestling in France, returning to Britain in February. Our record for the remainder of the tour is more sporadic.  On Saturday 8th February he defeated Sandy Orford in Newcastle on a Norman Morrell Promotion.

Lou returned to Hull on Tuesday 11th, wrestling Geoff Portz once again, result unknown. Saturday night (15th) he was back in Middlesbrough for another match and a win, over Portz.

It was a return to Dale Martin territory on February 18th, the seaside town of Bournemouth a knock out win over Sandy Orford. The tour should have continued but was  shortened when it was announced that the illness of Lou's wife meant that he had to return home.

We discovered Lou in Britain again in 1968 working for an independent promoter but have found no record of any matches.

We have received information from Tony Scarlo that Lou Thesz and Dara Singh returned to Britain in the 1970s. They wrestled each other on three occasions for promoters Tony Scarlo and Gordon Corbett, with Tony refereeing each contest.

The first  venue  was at the Lyceum Ballroom in the Strand,  and many of  the big named British Wrestlers paid to see both these wrestling greats,  amongst them  Mike Marino,  Judo Al Hayes, Rebel Ray Hunter, Sky Hi Lee, and Wayne Bridges. The second contest was  at Bradford, with a capacity partisan crowd backing Dara. The 3rd matching was at Southall in Middlesex, and all three dates were sellouts.

We would welcome further information about these and any other Lou Thesz British contests. We are also seeking copies of posters or handbills.

NOTES
(1) Thesz renamed the belt the "International Title" and took it to Japan where he defended it for several months in Rikidozan's Japanese Association before donating it to that promotion by dropping it to Rikidozan in August, 1958. The belt remained in that promotion until it's closure in 1973, being defended in Japan, Hawaii and Los Angeles. It was held by such legends as Giant Baba, Gene Kiniski, The Destroyer, Bobo Brazil and Fred Blassie. The final champion, Korean Kintaro Oki took the belt to South Korea where he defended on cards for the next eight years until Giant Baba's All Japan Pro Wrestling reactivated the belt in Japan. In 1981 Dory Funk Jr won a tournament by forfeit over Bruiser Brody to become the new champion. The belt was held by legends Brody, Stan Hansen and Jumbo Tsuruta.. In April, 1988, Tsuruta defeated Pacific Wrestling  Federation and United National Champion Hansen to unify the three belts and the International title lives on today as one of the three belts which make up the All Japan Triple Crown, held by contemporary greats such as Mitsuharu Misawa, Toshiaki Kawada, Kenta Kobashi, Hansen and Vader.
12/12/2019 Page added
17/12/2021 Page revised with Graeme Cameron addition
19/04/2022 Page reviewed