So you clicked, that’s a good start.
I get it. Seeking out a 70-year-old match is far from a top priority for most pro wrestling fans. Given the enormous backlog of the most popular eras of televised wrestling — roughly the 70s onwards — and the relentless cavalcade of content in the present day, there’s seemingly very little reason to go back and dig further. Something like this often gets left to the historians and completionists. It often takes years and years — or in my case upwards of a decade — of fandom to develop the itch to unearth something like this.
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Regardless of what stage of fandom you’re in, curiosity for this type of wrestling bodes well. As a fan of any medium, one of the healthiest qualities one can foster is curiosity. It drives a person to dig deeper, learn more, and seek a greater understanding of the medium they love. It’s a sustaining force in how it pushes a person towards discovery, and ironically teaches one that no matter how much one finds, there’s always something left to be found.
For me, personally, it was a small thing that drove me to discover this match. I just happened to see someone discussing Jim Londos, a wrestler from the 1930s, one day and in seeking out that footage, I ended up carving out time for black and white classics from the 1950s as well. Luckily for all of us, the Chicago Film Archives has preserved some fantastic footage and put it up on YouTube for all to enjoy.
The Chicago Film Archives collection of wrestling is a treasure trove of classics featuring the likes of Lou Thesz, Buddy Rogers, and Gorgeous George. I was working my way through Thesz’s matches when I spotted this one in the recommended tab on YouTube.
What I found was a match between Verne Gagne and Hans Schmidt. Uploaded to YouTube on September 12, 2014, intrepid viewers before me have determined based on old results and records that this match likely took place on October 10, 1952.
First and foremost, this is a great match. And it’s important that I emphasize that this isn’t a great match “for its time.” There’s no need for qualifiers or disclaimers on this thing because the best and finest wrestling can transcend eras. Drop this match into 2022, and it’s an easy candidate for match of the year. Don’t let the black and white intimidate you, accept the thing on its own merits and you’ll be rewarded.
Commentary outlines the dynamic of this match rather efficiently. Verne Gagne is the clean-cut athlete who’s posed a significant challenge to NWA World Champion Lou Thesz while Hans Schmidt is a foreign luminary looking to cement his place by knocking off the top contender. It’s a simple, familiar dynamic that plays out without ever having to dip into cliché.
The match is wrestled under two out of three falls rules, but I appreciate that they don’t use that as an excuse to kill time. There’s very little feeling out going on in the opening moments. It’s straight to Gagne tossing Schmidt about the ring, forcing Schmidt to escalate the aggression with some meaty clubbing forearms to chest. As with any great babyface though, Gagne has no problem returning fire and throwing hands himself to regain the advantage.
Even when we start getting into what some might derisively call “rest holds,” these two are savvy and talented enough to understand how such a simple hold can be milked for all it’s worth. Gagne doesn’t just lean back on the headlock and wait for the time to tick by. He wrenches on that thing hard, twisting Schmidt’s head about so rapidly that even commentator Russ Davis claims to be getting dizzy.
Schmidt, as any good heel should, cheats to gain his advantage. It’s a subtle thing, he pulls on Gagne’s hair to gain some leverage. In general, I have to praise Schmidt’s heel work in this match. He toes that fine line where he cheats so the crowd can see, but does in such a matter of fact manner that it’s easy to see how a referee might miss it. The hair pulls are sudden and gone in the blink of an eye, for example. His back is to the hard cam and the referee’s out of position when he’s peppering Gagne with closed first punches to the gut. Even when he has positional control, working a hammerlock on the mat, he still pulls at the hair to help manipulate Gagne.
All the while, the reactions he gets are massive. Each little shortcut he takes is met with rapturous disdain from this crowd. And it’s not just a wall of heated boos either, it’s an indignant wave of protest. These fans aren’t calling out as one, each individual raises their voice to bring the referee’s attention to the injustice or to chastise Schmidt for his tactics.
Verne tries to rally with a big comeback but Schmidt’s cheating ways allow him the victory in the first fall. First, Schmidt cuts off Verne’s comeback with an illegal toe kick to the ribs before following up by ramming Verne’s shoulder into the turnbuckle. The latter is especially gruesome given how little padding is placed on the turnbuckles in this ring, ensuring that every collision with them feels appropriate devastating. Schmidt puts the final touches on the first fall with a backbreaker to get the win.
The second fall revolves around Gagne’s revenge and exposing Schmidt’s weaknesses. Schmidt tries to get the jump at the bell but Verne meets him head on. Verne thrashes Schmidt in the early moments, sending the German (actually he’s Canadian) ragdolling in and out of the ring. Schmidt’s heel tactics don’t quite find purchase and Verne controls the majority of the fall with a toe hold on the mat. It’s here too that Schmidt’s failings become apparent. He’s not nearly skilled enough to escape Gagne’s grip on the mat and is forced to go to the ropes to break up the holds. It’s a small anachronism from that time—rope breaks being reserved for heels—but one that adds so much texture to the characters onscreen.
Even when Schmidt attempts to implement another attack with the turnbuckles, Verne fires up with some vicious strikes. Verne gets the win with a Sleeper with Schmidt selling the hold to perfection, expressing the full gamut of the panic of having the hold slapped on all the way to the eventual loss of bodily control.
The final fall sees Schmidt at his most violent. Again, he goes to hair pulling and his clubbing blows to gain a cheap advantage. He again drives Verne into the turnbuckles, this time back-first, and then tosses Verne out of the ring. There’s a fantastic little sequence here where Verne struggles to get back into the ring with Schmidt knocking him back down every time. It happens twice, setting up a beautiful payoff where Verne launches himself into the ring with a headbutt right to Schmidt’s gut. It’s sequencing and set ups like that that really elevate this match.
This is the least scientific of the falls, most of it plays out as a very heated brawl. And these guys are connecting. One might think that the age of the footage means unclear audio, but that couldn’t father from the truth. The sound is surprisingly crisp and when their strikes land, you can hear it clear as day. The result is a final fall that’s scrappy and violent that feels like a natural escalation of all that had come before.
In his desperation to win though, Schmidt turns to one of the most gruesome spots I’ve ever seen. He entangles Verne’s neck in the top and bottom ropes, and strangles his opponent. This isn’t something we’re used to seeing anymore given how tautly the ropes are set up to facilitate modern wrestling, but here they’re just loose enough to allow for this horrific moment of violence. It’s a moment sweetly punctuated by Verne immediately getting his revenge, tying up Schmidt in similar fashion. Even today, with our deathmatches and Blackpool Combat Clubs running rampant, something like this stands out as especially grotesque.
If the match ended right there with that spot, it might be one of the greatest matches of all time. Instead, we get a bit of a denouement afterwards. The finishing stretch isn’t devoid of its qualities. We get an honest-to-goodness false finish with Verne kicking out of Schmidt’s backbreaker finisher, only for Schmidt to get himself disqualified by toe kicking Verne in the ribs.
Would I have preferred a clean finish that sees our hero conquer the heel in decisive fashion? Sure. But even here there’s value and craft to be found. The climactic kick that ends things is a direct callback to Schmidt doing the same in the first fall and draws a warning from the referee. In his rage from Verne kicking out of the backbreaker, Schmidt loses control and the match as well. It’s not the perfect ending, but one that still has lessons to share.
Back to the Past
I honestly can not recommend this match enough. It’s one of my favorite matches from the Chicago Film Archive, and one that highlights what I’ve always believed to be true about professional wrestling. At its core, once we move past all the exterior trappings, the physicality of the medium is timeless. Even without Russ Davis’ endlessly charming one-man commentary on this match, the action plays out with absolute clarity. There’s no confusion about who the heel and who the face is, every moment is imbued with struggle and consequence, one spot builds off the last all the way up to the finish. It’s pro wrestling done right, as effective in 1952 as it might be in 2022. In the end, great wrestling looks the same regardless of era. It’s quick and explosive, gritty and violent.
There’s so much of it left to find. You’ll never run out of options, I promise. So stay curious, keep digging.
Who knows what’s on the other side of the next click?