Where Wrestling's Regional History Lives!
Lou Thesz, Sam Muchnick,
and the NWA
- John Edwards
Over the recent Christmas holidays,
I finally received, and got around to reading Lou Thesz’s outstanding
biography, “Hooker”. The book was a great, great look at Lou’s
personal history and the evolution of the sport and industry of
professional wrestling from the 1920’s to the 1980’s.
From growing up as a huge wrestling
fan in the St. Louis area, I was well aware of the past legends of the
squared circle that had appeared and made their mark in St. Louis:
Johnny Valentine, Whipper Billy Watson, Pat O’Connor, Gene Kiniski,
the Funks, and the Briscos, to name a few. I always thought it was a
nice touch that when Mickey Garigiola announced Pat O’Connor or Gene
Kiniski, he would preface the introduction with “former worlds’
champion”. It really sold the NWA title and made it the focus of every
wrestler’s effort. Not like today where the WWWFE belt changes hands
weekly. A title change was a MAJOR event.
Speaking of titles, nobody got more
reverence or respect from the microphone of Larry Matysik that St.
Louis’ own six-time world titleholder (including three NWA World Title
reigns), Louis Martin Thesz. In my opinion, the most credible
titleholder ever to grace the ring, Thesz was quite an accomplished
amateur wrestler, who turned professional in his teens. At the age of 21
Thesz held a version of the world’s heavyweight title. Lou was a true
“Hooker”, one who could use his vast knowledge of pure mat wrestling
as well as submission holds, and even crippling holds (if need be) to
keep order in the ring, deliver a credible match, and protect the title
if the need ever arose. (Read the book, there were a few times where Lou
had to shoot or hook to protect the belt. Fascinating stuff!)
Thesz’s professional exploits are
well known to the interested fan: selected by the NWA board member
promoters to hold the group’s world title in 1949 (when Orville Brown
was seriously injured in an auto accident), spent several years unifying
other regional and “world” titles, and was a major star of the first
order in the 1940s, 1950s, and well into the 1960s. A star not only of
the mat, but of radio, television, and print. Thesz’s ability, class,
and style made him an effective and, more importantly, credible, world
champion. (Sam Muchnick, longtime president of the NWA, demanded
credibility from his champion and Lou delivered.) Lou hobnobbed with
politicians, sports writers, boxers, baseball players, and movie stars.
Lou also had business dealings with the bookers and promoters of every
NWA member territory he toured as champion. That is the real subject of
this months’ article: Lou Thesz’s relationship with Sam Muchnick and
the other NWA member promoters.
From 1949 to 1963 the NWA World’s
Title was, in effect, THE world’s title. (Less, of course the 1960
split of the AWA. This was an important split, but not as messy or
far-reaching as the 1963 split with McMahon and the northeast promoters
of New York, Boston, Washington, DC, and Baltimore and other major
market cities.) The NWA had consolidated the other regional and
“world” titles into one belt recognized across the country and other
member promoter countries. What did this mean for Lou Thesz?
Well, between 1949 and 1957, when he
dropped the belt to Dick Hutton in Toronto, (Actually his second title
loss. In 1956 Lou dropped the belt to Whipper Billy Watson for some
needed injury recuperation time) Lou traveled constantly, some by air,
but much of it by car across almost every wrestling territory in the
country. Sam Muchnick (as NWA president) booked Lou’s dates, and in
return received a booking fee. Lou generally received 10% of the pre-tax
gate plus expenses for his appearances. (Expenses included first-class
airfare when flying was required.) Both Lou and Sam Muchnick became
wealthy men from this arrangement. In fact, Lou owned a piece of St.
Louis until the late 1960s. So, for the most part, Lou and Sam had a
pretty close business relationship, almost a partnership in some ways.
The relationship was strong initially, but, as the years wore on, Lou became less and less enchanted with the relationship. In reading “Hooker” this was interesting to me, because I had the (mistaken) impression that in the glory days of the NWA, everything was just fine between the champion and the member promoters. Well, not everything.More...