The NWA Championship could be argued was the most sought after title during the 1950s. It was toured around the country and the title holder would be challenged by whoever the local promoter could put forward. This was the case in early 1952 as Lou Thesz defended the title against Verne Gagne at the Marigold Arena in Chicago. Footage comes from the Chicago Film Archives.
It becomes quickly apparent that this match is going to be paced very methodically (i.e. slow). If you're a big fan of rope breaks you are in for a treat as it feels that half the ring time is spent with our competitors backing each other into the ropes or corners and then the ref tells them to bring it back to the center. Gagne is our babyface and being from Minnesota he's pretty close to a home town hero to this Chicago crowd. At one point Gagne has his head locked in a leg vice via Thesz and he resembles Winnie the Pooh with his head stuck in the honey pot. Another neat submission spot comes when Gagne locks in a toe hold, while at the same time Thesz puts on a hammerlock.
I love the announcers in these old matches. Russ Davis is calling the action tonight and he describes both men as being the "peak of condition". I'm sure that was true for 1952, but to modern eyes both men have fantastic dad bods. A startling moment comes later when Davis claims that, "Gagne has the strength to kill a man". While death seems to be tossed around a lot in pro-wrestling today (Death Triangle, Death Match, Dead Man, etc) I was shocked to hear it tossed about so casually in 1952.
Thesz is a fantastic heel. His go-to move to draw the ire of the crowd was to get Gagne in the ropes and just as the hold is broken up he would lay in a quick strike (often times out of view of our ref). He does this throughout the match and both Gagne and the crowd grow in their frustration.
Wrestling terminology is constantly changing and evolving, one of the fascinating things in watching these old matches are how move names have evolved. A back elbow is a "reverse broad arm", a back suplex is a "reverse back drop", and a hip toss is "side mare".
During the opening round Gagne has locked on a headlock during several moments. His finisher is a rear choke and he's been setting it up via a standard headlock. In attempts to counter this headlock, Thesz has gone for a "reverse back drop" on numerous occasions. Over 30 minutes into the match, Thesz finally connects with the "reverse back drop" and scores a pinfall for the first fall.
Wrestling was very regional during this time, with each region having it's own set of rules. Our announcer mentions that while the time limit for all three falls is 60 minutes, this includes the 2 minute rest periods in-between rounds as that's the rule in the stat of Illinois. I'd be interested to learn what other regional rules there were at this time.
Lou Thesz was known to me prior to this match thanks to the "Lou Thesz Press" made famous (in my eyes) by Steve Austin. I'm fascinated by performers that either invent a move or perfect a move so much that said move is named after them (see also the Flair Flop, the Michinoku Driver, etc). During round 2 Thesz hits a "flying body press" and it's unmistakable that it's the same move that Stone Cold would use to set up a flury of punches. Stone Cold did the move better in my opinion.
Towards the end of the round both men are tied up in the ropes (naturally) and Gagne has had enough of being struck in the ribs. He drags Thesz out the middle of the ring and locks on his rear choke finisher. The ref raises Thesz's arm and after only one arm drop, he calls for the bell. Gagne takes round 2 via submission.
Thesz is groggy after the choke hold and it's clear from the announcer that his eye is on the clock. The third round is favored for Gagne and he even manages to get his finishing submission locked in again, but the 60 minute time limit ends the match in a draw.
Something gets lost in round three as it's clear that either some of the film was lost or there was some editing going on. I have official ring times of 32:10 for round 1, 17:00 for round 2, and 4:00 for the rest periods. Round 3 I clocked at 4:30 so it brings the total to 57:40. Round 3 feels choppy so who knows what exactly has been lost.
Strikes=1 point, Strikedowns=2pts, Grapples=4pts, Submissions=1pt/5sec, Finishers=10pts
Thesz would go on to hold the NWA Championship for another three years. His inaugural run would last 1,941 days (over 5 years) and he would regain the belt for another four reigns. His total time with the belt would be 3,749 days (both the length of his first run and total days as champion are records for the NWA). Thesz died at the age of 86 due to complications from a triple bypass. He truly was one of the greats.
Gagne never won the NWA championship but his contribution to pro-wrestling should not be understated. His run as the promoter for AWA in Minneapolis helped launch the careers of several starts of the 1970s and 1980s. Gagne is one of only six men to be inducted into the WWF, WCW, and Pro-Wrestling Hall of Fames (something that eluded Thesz). Sadly, Gagne spent the last years of his life suffering from Alzheimer's, memory loss, and (allegedly) post CTE brain damage. He died at age 89.