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Patrick Eire Retro Matchguide: The 1950s

Updated: Nov 1, 2022

Welcome everyone to my first retro matchguide. For this one we’re going back almost as far as possible, all the way to the 1950s. Obviously the world was a very different place back then and unfortunately there isn’t a huge amount of footage available of wrestling from that era. However thanks to the Chicago Film Archives on YouTube we are able to enjoy a lot of wrestling from Chicago in that era featuring some of the greats such as Lou Thesz, Verne Gagne, Buddy Rogers, Gorgeous George and more. Also on top of that there is plenty of footage available on YouTube from Rikidozan’s Japan Wrestling Association and even footage of some of the great European wrestlers from that time. Over the last while I have taken the time to watch many of these matches and in this article I am going to give a detailed recommendation on what I believe to be the top three matches from the era. At the end I am also going to give some more of my thoughts on wrestling from the 1950s and the wrestlers themselves. But before I do that I would like to supply a list of honourable mentions incase anyone wants to take a deeper dive into the 1950s wrestling world. Don’t forget all of these matches can be found pretty easily on YouTube but if you’re having trouble finding them don’t hesitate to message me on Twitter @PatrickEireWres

Honourable Mentions:

  1. Billy Goelz vs Verne Gagne 21/06/1950 NWA Chicago

  2. Gorgeous George vs Jesse James 09/04/1951 NWA Chicago

  3. Hans Schmidt vs Verne Gagne 10/10/1952 NWA Chicago

  4. Don Leo Jonathan vs Verne Gagne 15/04/1955 NWA Chicago

  5. Lou Thesz vs Rikidozan 07/10/1957 JWA

3. Buddy Rogers vs Lou Thesz, NWA Chicago, 21/06/1950

The year is 1950 and a 34 year old Lou Thesz is seven months into his reign as NWA World Heavyweight Champion. Thesz is a well established star in the US by this point having held many titles throughout the country. Renowned for his catch wrestling skills and athleticism he is considered as one of if not the greatest wrestlers in the world. He is an honourable competitor and has the admiration of any crowd he wrestles in front of. His opponent was a 29 year old “Nature Boy” Buddy Rogers. By this point Rogers had already emerged as one of Thesz’s greatest rivals with the pair already having many title bouts around the country. It is clear why so many promoters booked them against each other. Not only were they both very technically gifted but they were polar opposites as characters. Thesz was a no nonsense fighter whereas Rogers was a flamboyant heel. This makes Rogers the perfect villain to challenge Thesz for his championship.

The title match is best two out of three falls and during his entrance commentator Russ Davis refers to Rogers as a “very vain elegant egotistical kind of a kid”. This sentence perfectly sums up the character of Rogers. He comes out wearing a very fashionable coat and singlet which is in great contrast to the plain robe and black trunks of Lou Thesz. Davis makes sure that the audience knows that Rogers is also a very dangerous competitor and has developed a piledriver technique that is very formidable. This move would play a key role in the match ahead.

The match starts with Rogers running out of the blocks and nailing Thesz with a dropkick followed by a body slam but Thesz is able to counter later with a body slam of his own. The pace slows right down as Rogers cranks in a headlock on Thesz. Thesz is able to win the crowd over with his technical escapes but Rogers controls much of the early portion of the match. Thesz is able to gain the advantage with his athleticism and hits a particularly impressive dropkick on his opponent. Rogers plays the role of the villain by refusing to carry out a clean break and by striking Thesz in the face with a closed fist while the referee’s view is obstructed. During the match Thesz hits a very impressive airplane spin, even if you don’t watch the match seek out this move because it really is a thing of beauty. The match ends fairly abruptly with a rather creative finish but it is still a great title match between two of the all time greats.

My star rating: 4

Cagematch: 8.19

2. Lou Thesz vs Verne Gagne, NWA Chicago, 25/01/1952

We return to NWA Chicago and the legendary NWA World Heavyweight Championship reign of Lou Thesz. Yes, this is the same title reign that was discussed in the previous match even though it is a year and a half later. Through having a title reign of this length Thesz has established himself as the clear top guy in the area. His opponent is a young man from Minnesota by the name of Verne Gagne. Beginning his career in 1949 Gagne had quickly developed a strong following for his great technical skill. Gagne was a very talented young babyface and despite holding championships in Texas and winning the NWA World Junior Heavyweight title he had not won a World Heavyweight title in his career by this point. Although Gagne had challenged Thesz multiple times for his title at this point he had always come up short.

In this bout we saw a different side of Thesz. In this match he acted as a heel at times against the young underdog. This is a very long title bout but both men are well up to the challenge. They are both very gifted on the mat and deliver a great technical title match. Gagne utilises a sleeper hold as a finisher and there are great moments in the match as he attempts to cinch it in only for Thesz to counter. The crowd are clearly behind the younger wrestler and are very invested as he tries to apply his finishing hold. The match runs for an hour but it does not feel dragged out. Both men are masters of the craft and do a great job at keeping you invested throughout.

My star rating: 4

Cagematch: 8.22

1. Dr Adolf Kaiser vs Michel Chaisne, 28/02/1957

This is in my opinion the greatest match I could find from the 1950s. The match took place in Paris, France between Dr Adolf Kaiser and Michel Chaisne. Unfortunately I was not able to find out much information about Chaisne or about why this match took place but luckily I was able to learn more about Kaiser.

Hans Waldherr was born in Budapest Hungary but grew up in Austria where he began his wrestling career in the 1940s, wrestling under his real name. However he relocated to France in the mid to late 1950s and began wrestling under the name Dr. Adolf Kaiser and was billed from Germany. He became a hugely successful heel in France as the crowds loved seeing their valiant French heroes take it to the German villain. Obviously given the historic events in the previous decade you might expect the Kaiser character to be something very sinister but in reality it was actually quite light-hearted. The evil German wore leopard print trunks of all things to the ring. While the intention is clearly there to draw on war time feelings the execution of the character shows that it wasn’t to be taken too seriously.

Of all the matches I watched from the 1950s I feel like this one resembles a modern wrestling match the most. Both competitors are very highly skilled on the mat wrestling the European catch style. The grappling is executed at a faster pace and feels a lot more innovative and fluid compared to what I saw in the US and Japan. The match also features a lot of striking, much more than what you’d see in the US at that point. There are great knee lifts and Chaisne even utilises a sole kick on a couple of occasions. The heel and face dynamic is obviously very clear and it enhances the match. The crowd is deeply invested and I feel participate more than an American or Japanese crowd. At one point Chaisne breaks free of Kaiser’s grip and responds with a flurry of european uppercuts much to the delight of the Parisian crowd. We even see the use of blood as Kaiser uses the ring post to his advantage. All in all this was very good pro wrestling. Definitely worth a watch in my opinion. I was completely unfamiliar with both names before undertaking this exploration of the world of wrestling in the 1950s and I never heard anything about European wrestling from this period so I was pleasantly surprised to find that in my opinion the best match of the 1950s took place in Paris, France. Most wrestling fans with any level of interest in wrestling history have heard of Lou Thesz or Gorgeous George but I doubt very many people know of Dr Adolf Kaiser or Michel Chaisne. They were two highly skilled wrestlers, ahead of their time who deserve far more recognition in my opinion. Hopefully this article will contribute even slightly to them getting some of the recognition that they deserve.

My star rating: 4

Cagematch average: 8.33

General thoughts:

Watching wrestling from the 1950s reinforced a theory of mine. The theory is that a great wrestling match is possible by only using basic moves. Some of the matches I watched were great and held up very well considering they happened around 70 years ago, yet in this era pretty much only basic moves were utilised. The flashiest moves I encountered were an airplane spin and an early version of the piledriver. It makes me wonder are modern wrestlers better off learning how to structure a great match by only using basic moves and then later supplementing their matches with advanced or flashier manoeuvres. Not unlike how young lions are trained in NJPW currently.

Do I think the matches from the 1950s are as good as the ones we see today? No. I generally did have a very fun time watching them though. The general match structure is very simple but also very effective. The matches were far less action packed then what we are used to today but that meant that the action that took place mattered far more.

One thing I really liked about the era was the characters, particularly the villains. I'd really encourage everyone to watch the Gorgeous George match mentioned above even though I didn't give a detailed recommendation. At least watch the entrance because it is really amazing. Both Gorgeous George and Buddy Rogers played the flamboyant heel character incredibly well and they were a joy to watch. Elements of their work can be seen in modern heels such as MJF but really there isn't anything too like them today. On the flip side I thought Verne Gagne was excellent at playing the babyface. It was so easy to root for him against his opponents.

Another man that took me by surprise was Don Leo Jonathan. I was not expecting to find someone from the 1950s that I would describe as an agile big man but here we are. He stood at 6 feet 5 inches tall and weighed over 300 pounds. Despite this he moved very well for his size. He wasn't the most technically gifted wrestler around but his size and athleticism made him fun to watch. His match with Verne Gagne is also mentioned above.

That just about sums up my thoughts on my experience watching wrestling from the 1950s. If you do watch any of these matches I'd love to hear your thoughts on them and also your general thoughts on wrestling from the time. I am also glad to announce that this is not going to be my last retro matchguide, up next is the 1960s. As more wrestling is available from this era I may split it into two parts but nonetheless if you've enjoyed this article please keep an eye out for my 1960s version which will be releasing in the hopefully not too distant future.

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