This review was commissioned by Ryan Bingham over on my Ko-fi account. As of this writing commissions are still open, they’re going for $10 a pop.
The Chicago Film Archives might be one of the most precious resources for professional wrestling fandom in the world today. Lovingly preserved and uploaded for free to their YouTube channel are a whole host of classic matches from the 1950s that give us a wonderful look at the pro wrestling of this particular territory. The crown jewels of this collection are definitely the NWA World Title matches featuring Lou Thesz at the height of his powers.
In most of Thesz’s title matches from this time period, he’s presented as the consummate sportsman. A classy, dignified athlete at the top of his game, often fending off his championship from more heelish challengers.
That’s not the Thesz that we get in this match. That’s primarily due to who he’s facing here. Verne Gagne isn’t some hated heel in this territory, but an exciting and beloved up and comer. He has an explosiveness to him that defines much of his work in the 50s that makes him so damn easy to root for. Thesz never truly becomes a full on heel in this match, at least not by any modern standards, but he does adjust his performance accordingly to play an obstacle to young Gagne instead.
The story they’re telling suits this dynamic perfectly. Gagne’s bursting with energy from the word go, and it manifests in his offense. He’s the first to try to take Thesz down onto the mat, and he’s the quicker and lighter of the two. Much of the first fall centers itself around Gagne working a near ten minute sequence built around a headlock and it fucking rules. Anybody who decries the headlock as a boring resthold have clearly never seen a 25-year-old Verne Gagne work magic with it for a full ten minutes.
The headlock sequence might read as repetitive to some, but for me it works immensely well. Gagne grabs that thing tight and every time Thesz thinks he’s able to escape and get back on his feet, Gagne snaps him back down with a big takeover. It’s a set up and cut off that they run maybe five or eight times in a row, and I just never get tired of it. When Verne has it on, he is cranking and cranking on it to dizzying effect. Love Thesz’s little sells too where he looks like he had to slap some sense back into himself just to endure the torture. Every takeover feels snappy and intense and Thesz’s frustration on the mat grows but never quite explodes.
That’s the thing about Thesz throughout this match is that he’s not trying to match Gagne’s energy, he’s simply trying to stifle it. All his best offense is played out in tight quarters, like he’s chipping away at the younger man to find weakness. When he spends those ten minutes in the headlock, a big part of his strategy is just swiping at Gagne with little shots to the head, chest, or neck. He’s like a gadfly, focused more on irritating Gagne to create openings.
The one time that Thesz is able to explode big though, it pays off huge for him. He’s finally able to solve the problem of the headlock with a backdrop suplex that would make the likes of Tsuruta or Kawada proud. It’s such a huge move that it’s completely believable that Gagne’s wiped completely out to lose the first fall.
The second fall builds wonderfully on the finish of the last. Thesz, smelling blood in the water, tries to crowd in on Gagne. He continues taking his cheap shots on the challenger, hitting him while in the ropes, constantly striking his own palm to drive an elbow into Gagne’s ear. And this in turn forces Gagne to try to burst through Thesz’s oppressive onslaught. It’s such a bullying performance from Thesz, never quite dastardly, but always petty and mean in ways strong enough to infuriate the Chicago crowd.
The third fall is the least of these, as is actually pretty standard for these lengthy epics from the time. Part of the problem is that it seems to be clipped in this particularly portion of the match. We’re losing about five minutes of this hour-long draw and the most egregious editing comes in the third fall. It’s not all bad though, I especially love Gagne constantly diving for his Sleeper only for Thesz to be positioned just by the ropes often enough to escape.
It’s a great match, the kind that acts as a real time capsule for a modern fan. It’s a window into the work of two men whose names really only ever get whispered as legend for most people. Footage like this gives us the chance to see that the reality was much closer to the myth than expected.