World's Heavyweight Championship of the National Wrestling Alliance (Fred Kohler, promoter)
Let us journey back in time to the halcyon days of yore. A time when all television was live, when gasoline was cheap and inexhaustible, when the non-white races existed solely as hearsay, when homosexuality absolutely did not exist, when the utter annihilation of humanity was never more than seconds away and when those UFO sightings definitely had nothing to do with secret Nazi technology smuggled west after the war. So chain your obedient wife into the kitchen, grab a carton of healthy, non-addictive cigarettes, don a fedora, down a couple martinis so you can drive safely and head on down to the arena - for it is 1952 and the World's Heavyweight Championship is on the line!
With our host and play-by-play man, the intermittently corn-pone Russ Davis, we're here at the International Amphitheater in everyone's favorite bastion of political corruption, brats, suicide-inducing talk radio and criminally underachieving sports teams: Chicago, Illinois! Our 10,000+ strong crowd of wrestling fans appear to have an average age of 65.
Thesz gets a rather mixed reaction from the crowd while young Gagne - as a quasi-hometown babyface - gets a huge ovation. The match will be best two of three falls with an overall time limit of one hour. The clock will not stop during the two minute rest period between falls, so at most four minutes will get shaved off of the overall time.
They open with a tense feeling out process of mostly collar-elbow tie-ups leading to rope breaks, not unlike the opening of many big All Japan matches in the 90s, but lacking any kind of striking. Thesz is the first to get an advantage with a head scissors applied out of a chickenwing armlock takeover, but Gagne impressively flips out of the hold with a kip-up and soon finds a hammerlock. Lou is unsuccessful with a flying mare counter, but after a time reaches the ropes. Not an extremely fast pace, but they make up for it with realistic grittiness and intensity. Their body language alone tells you this is a major championship match.
Moving ahead in the action (it seems roughly 12 minutes are missing from the first fall), Verne grabs a schoolboy, but can't get the shoulders down. He holds on in what Mr. Davis calls a "thigh lock" until Thesz reaches the ropes. For the remainder of the fall, the story is all Verne Gagne controlling with a very grinding, vicious headlock and Brother Lou's attempts to turn the tables. During one of the headlocks, the commentator (correctly) suggests it's to soften Thesz up for the sleeper hold. He then explains what a sleeper hold is - because it's 1952. At one point, Thesz manages to throw Gagne off into the ropes, but Verne absolutely flattens him with a running shoulder tackle, leading to a standing ten count. In another escape attempt, Verne takes him over with the headlock, Lou uses a headscissors, Verne gets out and they both return to their feet - a sequence which has never once faded from professional wrestling. As the minutes wear on, Thesz increasingly utilises chippy heel cheap shots in largely vain attempts to get out of the persistent headlocks. Finally, though, after a number of stymied attempts, and despite looking almost completely out, Thesz is able to get Verne up and drop him on the back of his head to win the first fall at 32:10. Both the commentator and the ring announcer call the backdrop suplex finisher a Reverse Death Trap. Lou's up one fall to nil, and boy oh boy do the Chicago fans not like him.
To the unbridled fury of the crowd, the second fall opens with Thesz intelligently attacking the back of Verne's head. Indeed, "fury" becomes the name of the game as things become an almost prehistoric form of U-style with several nearfalls coming from strikes and down counts. Lou's blows to the Death Trap-damaged head lead to a count of 7, but Verne immediately returns fire with a stiff forearm directly to the ear he had been grinding on with headlocks in the first fall. Fully on the offensive, Gagne counters another chickenwing takeover attempt with a hard bodyslam for a 2.5 and a standing count of 8. Thesz is clearly hurting and Verne knows it. A hip toss leads right to the sleeper, but they're too close to the ropes. Lou stalls to try and get his wits back. A very heely back elbow to the head during a rope break leads to Verne tumbling out of the ring. He makes it back at 17. Throughout the fall, Verne continually goes for his dreaded Sleep Hold, but Lou uses both smart ring awareness and cheap shots to keep himself in the match. In the corner, Thesz lands several brutal knees to the head but Verne won't stay down. Gagne escapes from a big Thesz Press only to get caught in a body leg scissors. He eventually breaks the hold with a punishing forearm shot. Lou gets up at 8, but falls back over and looks out. Even so, he's able to recover enough to land a drop toehold into a leg submission. Verne escapes and soon hits a series of hip tosses and a Manami-style rolling cradle! The crowd's in ecstasy, but Thesz grabs the ropes and holds on for dear life. As they're getting up, Lou throws a punch to the face. Seeming desperate and exhausted, he really ups the cheap shots and flails even more brutal knee strikes, but Verne sends him into the ropes for a powerslam, locks in the sleeper in the middle of the ring and Thesz is out! At 17:00, this match is levelled but there's less than seven minutes left in the time limit. After a deliberate, tactical first fall, they really went for broke. Everything that makes a pro-wrestling match great was put on display here: brutally stiff strikes, well-timed drama and intense realism. The up and coming star and increasingly desperate champion going toe to toe for a coveted championship. But we're not done just yet!
Knowing now that time is on his side, Thesz complains to the referee about the rest period and tries to get Gagne to return to his corner. Once the fall is officially underway, he continues to try to stall but Verne can smell the title and goes right after him, looking for another sleeper. Despite more knee strikes out of a front neck lock from Thesz, this was almost all Verne. In a beautiful final sequence, Thesz lifts him up for a second Death Trap, but Gagne uses the leverage to flip Thesz all the way over directly into the sleeper! He's got in cinched, they're nowhere near the ropes, Thesz is completely unconscious... but the time limit has expired! If only they'd been in Hawaii, where matches had a sixty-ONE minute time limit! The crowd is not happy. Not even Russ Davis is thrilled that Thesz remains champion. The champ himself, once revived, grudgingly shows respect and sportsmanship to Gagne, but we all wanted more. Even so, regardless of the result, this was a grim, brutally real epic encounter which (despite the dearth of full match footage from the era) is likely the best match of the 1950's. ****3/4
The most fascinating aspect of watching a sixty year old match is not what has changed, but what has remained the same. In fact, it wouldn't be unreasonable to say that the style exhibited here has simply been both polished and refined and degenerated and bastardised over time. Lou Thesz himself had a huge influence on Japanese wrestling, and it really shows here. The acceleration of spots, the intensity and stiffness of strikes and throws, the epic overall feel - all of these aspects, though in black and white in front of one hard camera, can be seen clearly as the seed from which all styles of puroresu would grow.
Speaking on this match in particular, though, the overall script is one that would be done to death in North America well into the 1980's: the touring national champion would roll into a particular territory, work a program against that territory's star, then in their big epic main event match they would trade falls and in the end the local boy would kind of, sort of be put over but still screwed out of the title, often from all kinds of overbooked idiocy. Here, thankfully, it was a 100% clean finish: Verne simply ran out of time. It wasn't the perfect finish to an exceptional match, but given the structure and politics of the National Wrestling Alliance, this sort of thing almost had to happen. It was actually Thesz's stalwart refusal to drop the title that ultimately lead to the formations of both the World Wide Wrestling Federation and Gagne's own American Wrestling Association. Verne would never hold the NWA title, but in his own company he'd reign ten separate times for a total of thirteen years!
The final word: don't call yourself a wrestling fan until you've watched this.