The Life and Times of a Hooker
By The Phantom of the Ring
This article was originally published in
Wrestling Perspective, Volume XIII, Issue #100
Hooker: An Authentic Wrestler’s Adventures Inside the Bizarre World of Professional Wrestling
Lou Thesz with Kit Bauman
The Wrestling Channel Press
Order It At Amazon.Com
The following scenario could only take place in the world of professional wrestling: A six-time world champion, universally regarded by fans and experts alike as the greatest wrestler in the history of the sport, pens his autobiography. Because of his reputation in Japan, his book proves so popular that it goes into a second printing. However, in his home country he has to sell the book in a sort of samizdat edition, passed among fans and sold from his home. Such is the respect professional wrestling has garnered in this country.
I even took the manuscript to a friend of mine who works at one of the bigger publishing houses in New York. I asked him to read it and get back to me on whether or not he would recommend it. A week later I get a call. “Hey, this is a pretty gook book, but it needs editing,” I’m told. “Yeah,” I reply, “this we know. But how about publishing it?” “Well...” comes the reply, and I know I’m in trouble. “So what’s wrong?” I ask, knowing the answer. The Answer: “I brought it upstairs, but they felt no one would be interested in the life of a wrestler who worked in the 1940s and '50s. Just wouldn’t sell with today’s crowd. But they want to know can you get us Steve Austin?”
What most people do not realize is that Hooker is not merely the story of Lou Thesz, but it is also the story of professional wrestling in this country. It is very likely to be the best memoir we have of that early period unless someone comes across the autobiography of Frank Gotch, Strangler Lewis, or Bill Muldoon. As the chances of that happening are less than zero, we are left with the memories of Thesz as our guide to the past.
Of course, we could also refer to Marcus Griffin’s expose, The Fall Guys, but we must keep in mind that Griffin’s book ends in the late Thirties, whereas Thesz covers the important bridge in the Forties between when wrestling grew from darkened clubhouses to darkened living rooms across America. (Smart fans seem to have a problem with Griffin, but they don’t know what it is. In a future column I’ll explain it all for them, so get ready to take notes.)
Lou always told me his career was “not bad for a poor Hunkie from St. Louis,” and he was right. But Thesz always benefited from the fact he knew exactly what he wanted to do from an early age and pursued it. (Let’s face it, following his father into the shoemaking business is not exactly a dream to be pursued.) Isaiah Berlin once differentiated between people who he characterized as hedgehogs and foxes. A hedgehog had one big idea and acts on it, while a fox has many ideas and acts on them. Thesz would be a hedgehog in that he has one big idea, the idea of being a wrestler and pursued it into being the best wrestler he could be. A Dick Hutton, on the other hand, would be a fox, capable of many career decisions, going into wrestling for the money offered. (Perhaps that is the secret that makes one into a superstar and the other into merely a star.)
Thesz also told me on more than one occasion that he felt he had been lucky in his career, to which I replied that he was more smart than lucky in that he made the most of the opportunities that presented themselves. A case in point was being spotted and trained by George Tragos, one of the premier trainers of wrestlers over the years. Lou would also note that George was the wrestling coach at the University of Missouri, but Mike Chapman could find no record of that and attributed it to wrestling legend. As we shall see later there is much wrestling legend incorporated into Thesz’s story, but that is totally to be expected, given the fact that wrestling is almost an entirely oral sport, more suited to the porch of a house than its library.
An example: take the record of Babe Ruth in 1927. One could listen to the testimony of an eyewitness or two who saw the Babe play, but one could also back that up by going to a baseball encyclopedia and checking Ruth’s record in each park, his record against different pitchers, etc. It’s all there in black and white to be interpreted. Now take wrestling. One could speak to an eyewitness or two about Strangler Lewis, but where would one get the Strangler’s record for that year. Even those who have faithfully compiled record books of wrestlers note that they missed many results. Also, what of the Strangler’s opponents? A world beater in one area of the country may be just a journeyman in another. What is his true worth given a vast discrepancy in ability because of the promotion for which one worked?
Thesz also made the acquaintance of Ray Steele and Strangler Lewis; two guys who knew not only how to wrestle but also how to have a good time. They took the seriousness out of the young man and eased him into the carny life. He also met his bete noire around this period, Toots Mondt, who was booking the Los Angeles promotion of Lou Daro. Toots was known in his heyday as one of the finest chiselers and con men of wrestling. Thesz found out first hand how well earned this reputation was. As a prelim worker for Mondt, Thesz didn’t expect to make that much, but he did expect to make a living wage. Mondt paid so little that Thesz was forced to take a second job wrangling mustangs to make ends meet. For this treatment he never forgot Mondt and it colored his perception of things from then on, sometimes to his benefit, sometimes not. A call by Joe Malcewicz to work in the San Francisco territory got Lou out of a bad situation and introduced him to a man he credits with teaching him the fine art of hooking: Ad Santell.
One thing about Lou Thesz, when he likes you, he really, really likes you. On the flip side of the coin, when he dislikes you, watch out. The passage in Hooker concerning Santell is paean to the character and life of Santell. Lou even relates the story of how Santell injured Hackenschmidt’s knee before his rematch with Frank Gotch at the bequest of Gotch’s people for $5,000. It’s a great story, and that’s all I think it really is, a story. Gotch didn’t need anyone to injure Hackenschmidt. In fact, he needed a healthy Hackenschmidt because of the bad taste that lingered in people’s mouths after their first bout. An injured Hackenschmidt would only reflect badly on Gotch and Gotch knew that.
The match proved to be a fiasco that killed future big bouts for both grapplers. Over the years, quite a few wrestlers have been mentioned as the one who did the dirty deed. Even the injury itself is open to debate. Paul Boesch, in his memoirs, mentions that Hackenschmidt claimed an injured knee before the first match and an injured ankle for the rematch. Actually, I’m going to take credit for injuring Hackenschmidt. I did it at the behest of Bill Kunkel, who gave me his personal note as payment. If he didn’t pay me in 90 days, he told me I could keep the note. Hey, it sounds just as good as all the stories I’ve read over the years and it’s just as plausible.
Hooker is especially valuable when it comes to discussing the formation of the NWA, its heyday under Thesz in the Fifties and the fractures that took place in the late Fifties and Sixties. Lou doesn’t understand, or pretends not to, why the AWA and WWF split. While it could have been a reaction to Thesz’s total control of the NWA title, more likely the catalyst was the 1956 anti-trust suit by the Justice Department during the course of which even the promoters got the idea that they couldn’t operate as they did in the past. At any rate the beneficiary of all this litigation was the fan. Thesz mentions that Verne Gagne claimed he was never given a shot at the belt - mainly because he never asked (p. 175), but would Thesz have trusted Gagne to relinquish the title once he won it? I doubt it.
That brings us to the silliest feud since Jack Benny and Fred Allen: The Thesz-Sammartino feud. According to Thesz, talks between he and Sam Muchnick on one side and Vince McMahon Sr. and Toots Mondt on the other concerning the reunification of the WWWF and NWA had begun. The centerpiece of these talks was the ascension of WWWF champ Bruno Sammartino to the NWA throne, a bout that would have drawn big, with every rematch assured of being a sellout as well. But Thesz balked on the issue on money. If he was to drop the title, he wanted to be well paid for it ($125,000) -- in advance. Who could blame him there, considering he was once again dealing with Mondt? He also wanted the title back within a year — another sticking point, but not as bad as the first. It didn’t matter because the deal fell through and Thesz took the blame. Although Thesz didn’t have much respect for Bruno’s skills as a pure wrestler, he did admire him as a performer and greatly admired Bruno’s integrity (p. 180).
It became ironic when Thesz was forced to drop the belt to Gene Kiniski, a good brawler who lacked the athletic ability of Bruno, though Thesz tries to build him up in what I think is an effort to justify losing the belt. The Thesz-Sammartino feud began after the publication of Hooker, when some unscrupulous newsletter editors got to Bruno, read him parts of what Lou said, and printed the reaction. Bruno is a proud man and justifiably so. But he never read the book, as he admitted to me, and I always wonder how he would feel if he did.
It is interesting to note that Thesz saves his harshest criticism for those connected with Mondt: Primo Carnera, Buddy Rogers, Antonino Rocca and Sammartino. Toots was the flip side of Ad Santell.
On the other hand, I cornered Lou on this issue at Mike Chapman’s wrestling museum and asked Lou if he would have felt differently about Bruno if Bruno didn’t have Toots behind him. He shook his head and said “no.”
I also asked Lou why he wrote such an honest look at wrestling. “I’m not exposing the sport,” he said, “the promoters have already done that. I’m just trying to set the record straight.”
The record is a lot straighter now than it was when he began the book. That may be his final legacy.
Footnotes/Endnotes for this article should read as follows:
The Phantom of the Ring, "The Life and Times of A Hooker,"Wrestling Perspective, Volume XIII, Number 100, (2002): 8 - 10.
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