Wednesday, May 1, 2002 | 9:42 a.m.
Lou Thesz, who promoted pro wrestling locally 20 years ago and in the 1950s drew a then-record 4,000 fans to watch him wrestle the legendary Gorgeous George in Las Vegas, has died. He was 86.
Thesz, a pioneer wrestler who held the National Wrestling Alliance version of the world title six times, including one reign that lasted nearly eight years, died Sunday of heart failure in Orlando, Fla.
During a career that spanned 55 years, including matches on his 65th birthday in Mexico and 73rd birthday in Japan, Thesz was a popular performer, especially in the early days of television when pro wrestling was one of the medium's more popular shows. The era often is called Wrestling's Golden Age.
In the early 1980s when Thesz and late wrestler Eddie Faye were promoting shows at the Showboat hotel, now Castaways, Thesz was an advocate for changes, such as offering health insurance and other benefits for wrestlers.
"I want to elevate wrestling," Thesz said in a June 1981 interview, noting that the lack of benefits, which are available today on the major pro circuit, had to be resolved to maintain a pool of talented athletes and resurrect the sport's popularity.
"There hasn't been a real Golden Age since the Gorgeous George era of the late 1950s ... we are due again," Thesz said. Today wrestling enjoys broad fan support with regular shows on TV and even a weekly reality-based cable show that follows young prospects through training to become pro wrestlers.
Las Vegas wrestling promoter Buffalo Jim Barrier, a longtime friend, said Thesz was so adept as a wrestler that he could keep in line mavericks who refused to follow scripts.
"When wrestling organizations had trouble with wrestlers, he was hired as what we call a 'pretzel-bender' -- a policeman who kept the guys under control," Barrier said. "He kept order even when he was in his 40s and had to deal with guys who were 22 and in their prime. He could still bend them like a pretzel."
Throughout his career, Thesz, who stood 6 feet 2 inches, maintained a performing weight of 218 to 225 pounds.
Thesz, the son of a German-Hungarian immigrant shoemaker, started wrestling at age 8 and turned professional in the 1930s at 17.
On Dec. 29, 1937, at 21, he won the NWA world title from Everett Marshall and held it for eight months. He regained the title and lost it in 1938 and again in 1947.
For his fourth and longest reign, Thesz beat Bill Longson for the world title on July 20, 1948, and held it until March 15, 1956, losing it to Whipper Watson. Thesz's fifth world title reign was in 1956 and 1957. He began his final reign in 1963, at age 47, and lost the title in 1966, just before he turned 50.
Thesz's big matches often set attendance records. He drew 103,000 for a match against Baron Michel Leone in Hollywood. His Jan. 24, 1963, title match against then-champ "Nature Boy" Buddy Rogers at Chicago's Wrigley Field drew 75,000.
Of his longevity in the sport and his longtime good health, Thesz once said, "I don't know, maybe I just chose my ancestors carefully."
He is survived by his wife, Charlie Thesz, three sons and five grandchildren.