Welcome! You’ve just stepped into The Line of Fire! Last month, I laid the groundwork for what to expect with the column, and now it’s time to take a look back at some of the pioneers of professional wrestling.
I’m gonna start our journey into the past with possibly the greatest heavyweight champion of all time. From a pure wrestling standpoint, he is definitely in the top 5 wrestlers in the history of the profession, arguably the best. He innovated the integration of entertainment into the primarily ground based sport of the 20’s and 30’s. He implemented some of the first suplexes as well as a move made famous by Steve Austin. I’m talking about Lou Thesz.
Thesz won his first world title in 1937 at the age of 21 from Everett Marshall. In all he would hold what would eventually be called the NWA World’s Heavyweight Championship a total of 6 times for a total of 13 years, longer than anyone else in history. You may ask yourself why this is significant when someone like Ric Flair is a 16 time World’s Heavyweight Champion (go ahead, ask…….I’ll wait). In my mind, this is far more significant a tenure considering the type of athlete that Thesz had to face on a regular basis. When Flair was winning championships early on, the TOUGHEST (Flair’s words) man he had to face was “Handsome” Harley Race. As the entertainment aspect began to be emphasized, the old guard wrestlers like Race were fewer and further between, giving way to talented performers like Magnum TA, Dusty Rhodes and Sting. Thesz had to face men of Race’s sort of toughness regularly, from Marshall to Orville Brown and “Wild” Bill Longson.
Thesz was tough as nails which is a trait that can’t be taught, and that helped him greatly in his training. Ed “Strangler” Lewis and Ad Santel were both incredibly gifted “shooters” who honed the raw talent in Thesz, but also prepared him for opponents who would try and “stretch” him (stretching is when a wrestler will try to push the boundaries of performance and take it into a legitimate match with the intent of going against a predetermined outcome or injuring an opponent).
He also learned the business aspect of professional wrestling and while his main concern was to perform athletic exhibitions for crowds, he was aware of the need for wrestling to be entertaining to the crowd. He began to integrate some of the basic throws associated with amateur wrestling (belly to back or “German” suplex for one) as well as create some new moves as well. The “Lou Thesz” press for instance was originally a flying body scissors (jump at a standing opponent and wrap your legs around their torso) with the outcome being either a submission or pinning predicament. Steve Austin used the modern version where he performed a partial body scissors, ended up in the full mount position and proceeded to rain punches down on the prone opponent.
Incredibly gifted as an athlete, Thesz was a great bridge from between the ground based origins of turn of the century pro wrestling and the great champions like Hackenschmidt, Lewis and Londos to the more entertainment based wrestlers of the 50’s like Johnny Valentine and the original “Nature Boy”, Buddy Rogers.
Moving now to the polar opposite of Thesz, we’re going to take a look at the man who revolutionized the entertainment aspect of professional wrestling. It would be safe to say that based on this man’s influence, the fledgling technology of television was able to catch on with the masses because people just wanted to see him get his ass kicked. We look now at Gorgeous George.
George Wagner was born in 1915 and was at best a journeyman wrestler from the very early stages of his career. Not blessed as well physically as some of his contemporaries, George knew that he would need to find a gimmick to be relevant in the industry.
My God, did he ever find the gimmick!
The showmanship developed rather quickly. George found that the entertainment aspect of wrestling could be as big a draw as the in-ring action. He was married during a ceremony in the ring at a live event and the gate was good enough that he and his new wife took the show on the road, drawing decent crowds and sparking the notion to up level of drama during the performances. This coincided with an article published about a wrestler named Lord Patrick Lansdowne who started coming to the ring in flashy robes and using the services of valets. All that was missing now, was the name. George Wagner wasn’t that exciting. Mix that with solid, but not spectacular skills in the ring and you get a thoroughly boring character. Thank God for the two women in Portland. The story reportedly goes that as George walked to the ring, two older ladies commented loud enough “Oh isn’t he gorgeous”. That was all he needed.
Going against the grain of practically everything masculine at the time, George debuted his new persona shortly thereafter. He decided that to get over, he’d need to antagonize the crowd enough to want to see him get beat. He had NO problems with that at all. From his walk to the ring, accompanied by a valet (who would spray the ring, opponent and sometimes even the official with perfume or disinfectant) to the strains of Pomp and Circumstance; right through the introductions and through the match, the air of egotism and elitism oozed out of every pore. George bleached his hair blond and had gold plated “Georgie” pins made that he would throw to the crowd. Through his preening and prancing, he could incite the crowd like no other.
This came at a time when the television was a new form of media and stars who were accessible were few and far between. As George’s notoriety grew, people couldn’t wait to see him get beat. In some cases, people would line up outside of store windows to watch the matches. He was that popular. He was one of the first superstars of television and his larger than life persona was what helped him become so. He may not have been the best technician, but as Jim Ross said “….he had one important characteristic. He could put an ass every eighteen inches.” He paved the way for not only every bleached blond pretty boy to come along since, but also many of the basic elements of wrestling today, including entrance music, fan interaction and over the top heel antics. He may not look like much compared to today’s performance standards, but just take a look at the following clip and see how riled up the crowd is. He had “IT”.
Now to a man who generated as much fear as anyone in the annals of professional wrestling. A man who was the first “monster” heel. Killer Kowalski
At birth Walter (b. Edward Walter Spulnik) Kowalski, the future “Killer” Kowalski was blessed with two things. One was a great physique that was able to capture the minds and later, the hearts of fans round the world. The other was a tough as nails mentality that helped him craft one of the greatest characters to grace the squared circle.
Relatively early in his career, in 1952, the greatest break he ever got happened during a match with another tough hombre called Yukon Eric. Eric’s ears were badly cauliflowered due to years of punishment and as such, were not nearly as pliable or resilient as a “normal” ear. Hanging upside down in the corner, the then Tarzan Kowalski dropped a knee that actually clipped Eric’s ear and tore it from his head. Instantly a legend was born. The following day, when Killer visited Yukon in the hospital, they both laughed about the incident and the way the bandages looked around the wounded wrestlers head. Instead of reporting that both men shared a laugh, it was reported at the time that the maniac who would rip a mans ear off, showed up at the hospital and mocked his foe. Yet again, more fuel for the fire.
Killer was a great heel. He knew how to milk a crowd and how to generate heat. Through his actions, he was able to incite an audience and maintain a villainous persona for the vast majority of his career. He formed the mold for the great monsters who followed. From Abdullah the Butcher and Bruiser Brody to The Big Show and Kane, all have pulled from what Killer Kowalski perfected.
One of the best examples of capitalizing on a situation, Killer took a series of accidents throughout his career and made a career and built a legend as one of the true ground-breakers of pro wrestling. And oh, by the way, he also trained quite a few current and former WWE superstars, including Triple H.
So now, having covered a lot of territory in a very short span I’m going to end this month’s edition of The Line of Fire. These are just a few of the early pioneers who formed the basis of pro wrestling today. In future columns I’m going to touch on some of the original bad-asses, some of the greatest tag teams, Japanese influences and oh, so much more. Until next time, I am The Luce Cannon, signing off.