By Lou Thesz with Kit Bauman
Reviewed by Joe Babinsack
For almost two decades now, Hooker has been acclaimed as a must-read, a definitive look at professional wrestling, and an absolute classic. The book has been the talk of internet newsgroups, chats and then that new-fangled contraption called web sites since it was first released on a shoestring budget, and through various revisions, incarnations and reprintings.
When I learned that Scott Teal was re-releasing the book, publishing through his Crowbar Press, I knew I had to finally get the book.
The first clash I had was with my rule about reviewing bought books, but that was the only way to get it, and the nature of the book meant that I simply had to read and review it. While rules are meant to be excepted, I’m reminded once more why I try to hold fast to my rules. I’ve now got a classic book by an all-time great, but no inherent deal to hype it, and one thing about me is set in stone: I’m opinionated without reservation.
Of course, any wrestling fan, critic, journalist, talent or personality is much the same.
Hooker is a historical book. That’s undeniable. Lou Thesz is one of the all-time greats. That’s also undeniable. Hooker is a book that should be the legacy of Lou Thesz, and I approached it with a sense of reverence and a level of expectations due a classic.
Unfortunately, I found it lacking.
Sure, Hooker is now the template for a supposedly good wrestling book: start with retelling the history of the game, talk up your reputation, talk down your rivals, tell enough to be interesting, don’t get too personal, and in the end, let the reader fill in the details.
Hooker did establish a breakthrough in professional wrestling lore, as Lou Thesz opens up about wrestling being a work. He also dishes the dirty details of that concept called blading. Beyond that?
The Ed Lewis history of the sport is pretty awesome, and the stories surrounding the sport and various personalities are vastly entertaining.
But foremost, Hooker is a perspective on professional wrestling by a man who unfortunately comes across as boastful, spiteful, hypocritical and shallow. I don’t mean that as a personal affront, but I mean it from a serious fan and reviewer who was looking at the book to tell me more about Lou Thesz and his career and his story.
Thesz has an awesome loyalty to Ed “Strangler” Lewis and an unabashed dedication and passion for professional wrestling, aside from the perspective of one of the game’s top names, there’s little detail in the workings of professional wrestling itself. The last section of the book, the “Thesz Says…” title taken from his chat room opines, says so much about the book itself. It’s more about what Lou Thesz says, than about Lou Thesz and his life.
His personal life is his own story, and like many other wrestling personalities, if he wishes to avoid it, so be it. But a 30 year marriage to a one time model wife, who had her own business ventures, and the rocky life they shared, and obviously a difficult divorce – that’s an unfair tease to mention it here and there, but never explain it.
But again, that’s the theme of the book as I read it.
Thesz was the second longest reigning Champion in the entirety of the sport, he had percentages in various promotions, he booked, he made decisions and he carried the mantle of Champion further than most of his contemporaries. In other words, Thesz had an uncanny understanding of the business: about working, about shooting, about matchmaking and setting up business, about maximizing profits and he had an awesome connection to the past and the future of wrestling.
Without doubt, Lou Thesz the bridge between the carny, AT Shows and the early 20th Century figures who wrestled real, wrestled long and established the foundation of the stage shows we have today.
But after Thesz states that wrestling is a work, he spends the rest of the book in a tireless effort to make the reader know that he was the real deal; that if necessary, he could shoot; that he was a true ‘hooker’ while his contemporaries were all to be sneered at, because they were not authentic.
Thus we have a long list of talents that were considered great in various ways, but Thesz knocks them down. They just never lived up to his perception.
Buddy Rogers was one of the top draws, one of the best workers in the business, and a man with exceptional talents and an equally nasty reputation. Thesz dismisses him because of his wrestling skill, and also because, on car drive in Texas, Buddy had the nerve to badmouth Ed Lewis.
Thesz would never put Rogers over from that point.
I mean, at some point if you disagree, you explain yourself, move on and do business for business’ sake, but not with Thesz. Rogers wasn’t the only guy who suffered because Lou Thesz declared that the person’s talent wasn’t worthy of him putting him over. And what’s strange is that the guys that Thesz did put over, like Dick Hutton, didn’t quite seem to pan out despite their experience, talent of shooting credentials.
The assault on Antonio “Argentina” Rocca was vicious. Rocca was a revolutionary high-flyer, a gymnast, a spectacle and a draw in New York, where not so ironically, Thesz never made his mark.
Was Rocca a rube? Was he someone who was duped by various promoters, including Toots Mondt? Was he someone who’s pure wrestling skills were minimal? That’s rather certain. But it’s painful to read Thesz’s admonitions against Rocca, and later Primo Carnera. Thesz was no stranger to the wrestling business, and he knew – and speaks boisterously of authentic wresting talents from John Pesek to Karl Gotch who never ‘got’ the business aspect. Hearing him dismiss one end, then the other end of the spectrum, railing against the gimmicks and the shooters, doesn’t make for as much logic as much as it paints Thesz as curmudgeonly.
Stranger still is his attempts to diminish his rivals. He labels both Verne Gagne and Bruno Sammartino as “company men”. I’m not quite sure what his interpretation of that term is, but looking back at the careers of these three mean, we have Gagne, who has his own reputation but as the owner of his own company, he was putting his talent and profits on the line by being his own Champion. Gagne had his faults, but he was not wrestling for the benefit of an established company – he was the company and established it. Sammartino headlined in the WWWF and across the world, headlined a circuit of clubs that demanded his talent be on display monthly in those clubs, and made his own decisions as to when that belt was removed from his waist.
Thesz, however, enjoyed the near monopoly of the NWA in the 1950’s, and a domination into the 1960’s, and while his reputation preceded him, so did Ed Lewis to oil the promotional end, and relied on a combination of several dozen promotions, all demanding dates from the World Champion, to make sure he appeared in the big shows.
That, to me, is a company man.
While I’m not fond of the modern styles or sensibilities, trashing a wrestler simply because they don’t have that amateur or shooting background is a sentiment that went out of fashion while Thesz was in the prime of his career, and yet writing in the 1990’s, he’s at people because of that reason.
Thesz definitely had his loyalties and his passions and his hatreds.
Eddie Quinn was a favorite promoter. George Tragos and Ed Lewis were untouchable in his presence. His wife, Charlie, whom he married later in life, was definitely the “love of his life”. He has great praise for Gorgeous George Wagner and for the old school wrestlers from which he established his craft.
What I admire about Thesz is his passion and his unabashed defense of professional wrestling, and that loyalty. There’s no hesitation – even if he’s bashing many names – about the sport, and even with the warts and modern indignities and perversions, he’s not scurrying away from his profession like so many other names of note. He traveled the world, and while some of his figures seem to be padded with a zero, his reputation carried him to Japan, Europe, India and elsewhere.
Even his adversaries are of interest. Toots Mondt was a man he never seemed to forgive for shortchanging him early in his career. Buddy Rogers is someone he never backed down from, even when guys like Sam Muchnick begged. Thesz definitely was a man promoters disliked, because he knew the business, knew his value and seemed to seldom give in to the nonsense.
What saddens me is that Hooker, as Lou Thesz’s legacy, seems to be lacking in details.
Even with new Chapter Endnotes, providing some background for various stories and clarifications as needed, there’s a distinct lack of explaining professional wrestling and his talent for the game. I know Thesz was incredulous about people wanting to hear his story, but this book was worked upon over the span of a decade, constantly updated and revised, and still there’s little about the internal working of a match.
To say wrestling is a work, you open that door to explain your craft, and then avoiding the details seems a missed opportunity. Thesz defends in the book by saying it’s hard to remember any one match, but this isn’t the same as asking a talent who his favorite opponent was. While Thesz talks business decisions on the finishes, and often talks of good matches and bad, what is the difference? What exactly is a good match, and what would he do to create one?
There are some tantalizing mentions, but not enough concrete details.
What really annoyed me was Thesz basing his book on his reputation as a hooker. There’s no doubt he had a reputation, no doubt he was trained by Tragos & Lewis and knew the submissions game, but once again, you can read about the “Sunday hold” of an opponent, but there’s little in terms of stories of Thesz beating a shooter and how, the focus is more on his interactions with all-time greats and how he parlayed his reputation to avoid many situations.
Reputation is king, and Thesz vs Buddy Rogers and the “hard way” quote is classic, but Rogers apparently was suffering from a heart condition, so Lou threatening a performer with harm seems so outrageous when you think about it that way.
Was Lou Thesz a great, pure wrestler? Conventional wisdom says so, but it’s not like Thesz was an Olympic athlete, or wrestled collegiately.
Building a reputation is one of the lost arts of professional wrestling, and establishing a reputation is the hallmark of a great worker. Lou Thesz was able to fashion a reputation, thrived in a cut-throat business on his reputation, and looking back, his story is historical, interesting for its perspective and well worth reading.
But I’ll leave it to the historians (of which Scott Teal has some interesting commentary upon) to explain to me the details of that greatness. Not that I deny it, but I wish that Hooker would have better cemented the legacy of Lou Thesz, rather than pontificate on the same.
Yeah, I should talk.