For six years, Lou Thesz had been the undisputed National Wrestling Alliance Heavyweight
Champion of the World. He'd carried the mantle with utter distinction, through cities large and small,
and gave the organization a huge amount of credibility. When Thesz was on the bill, you knew you
were seeing the best. Behind closed doors, the members of the NWA were griping. The stability of
having Thesz as the single champion brought many positive aspects, and good money, but some
NWA members wanted to bolster their cash intake by having a more colorful heavyweight champion.
With guys like Verne Gagne and Buddy Rogers on the pro circuit, the possibilities for making a
successful change were readily available. It would break the monotony and create a major buzz
throughout the industry.
There were power plays in motion, however, that disallowed a straight-forward title switch to either
Gagne or Rogers. For one, Thesz had reason to dislike both men. The 1953 controversy over the
United States Heavyweight Title caused many ill feelings between Thesz, Sam Muchnick, Gagne,
and Chicago booker Fred Kohler. It always seemed natural that Gagne was going succeed Thesz
as the NWA champion, but it didn't happen in 1953, 1955, or ever. And Thesz's animosity toward
Rogers was preventing the "Nature Boy" from being the next champ, plain and simple.
As a measure of pacification for those in the NWA who desired a change on the heavyweight level,
Muchnick and Thesz agreed to a plan that would split the title into two pieces, providing for duel
champions on the circuit, and then allow for a series of high-profile matches that would eventually
unify the title in the end. Reportedly, this agreement was made in February 1955 at St. Louis by the
NWA Heavyweight Committee.
The other half of the ploy was someone Thesz respected, a football star with name recognition, and
a former amateur wrestler, Leo "The Lion" Nomellini. Nomellini was a current NFL star with the San
Francisco 49ers, and had drawn huge numbers as a professional wrestler against Thesz in the Bay
Area. The leaders of the NWA decided that Nomellini was going to be a strong enough candidate
for the sensitive operation because of his pro-football status, wrestling ability, and popularity, and
San Francisco was chosen as the host location.
The NWA wanted to do several things. It was very important that Thesz maintain his credibility as a
touring champion, but at the same time, allowing some leeway that would give Nomellini room to also
claim the championship. Thus, the actual match between the two wrestlers had to end perfectly, and
then follow up media had to immediately circulate the controversy and hype both men as claimants.
Each of the participants, managers, bookers, and promoters had jobs to do to sell the story. The
NWA, Thesz, and Nomellini all signed off on the idea, and the scheme went ahead as planned.
Also, it should be noted, that the modern day schematic for a title vs. title unification match and the
probable success it would bring to the gate, was realized in 1952 when Thesz met Baron Michele
Leone in Los Angeles. The sport's first $100,000 show was the result of that masterful promotion.
NWA leaders hoped this would bring similar success.
On March 22, 1955 in San Francisco's Cow Palace, Nomellini beat Thesz by disqualification in the
third fall of an even match before over 12,000 fans (gate of $41,000). In the ring, Nomellini was
proclaimed the new champion, backed by the California Athletic Commission. The NWA immediately
issued press statements, saying that the championship could not change hands by disqualification.
So on one hand, the NWA was announcing that Thesz was the rightful champion, but since Nomellini
had officially won the match, and had "support" from the California Commission, he was also entitled
to claim the heavyweight crown.
On March 23, 1955, Muchnick began booking both Thesz and Nomellini as championship claimants
on the NWA circuit. The added responsibility of making the schedule for Nomellini gave Muchnick
two percent of the 12 1/2 percent Leo earned wherever he wrestled. Another two percent went to
Nomellini's manager, Joe Malcewicz. After another 1 1/2 went to expenses, Nomellini kept 7 percent.
These facts were kept hidden from the general wrestling public.
Wrestling in Texas, Central States, and Upper Midwest, Nomellini was doing exactly what was asked
of him, and the tension of having two rival champions was being pushed by the proper media
channels. Incidentally, though, NWA members weren't eager to book Nomellini as a championship
claimant. Add that to the lackadaisical fan response to the entire arrangement, the
double-champion scheme was falling flat.
On July 15, 1955 in St. Louis, Thesz beat Nomellini in a quiet affair that gave Thesz back his
undisputed status. The massive payoff that organizers execpted never came. In NWA Bulletin #10
dated July 19, 1955, Sam Muchnick announced that Thesz went over Nomellini, and had erased
"any taint that might have been connected to the heavyweight title as recognized by the NWA."
Of course, the NWA created the "taint," and had this scheme been successful, it would've been one
of the most remarkable events in Alliance history. Instead, it was a dark spot, almost completely
written out of the NWA's story, and forgotten.
Research by Tim Hornbaker
December 6, 2010
|Lou Thesz vs. Leo Nomellini, San Francisco, 1955